Metamorphosis Elementary School Of Monticello Inc

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Gift of Nature Keeps On Giving

This year we will be working on an outdoor classroom for our children with help from people who represent the Macon and Piatt Soil and Water Conservation Districts. We are excited because this outdoor space will serve a dual function. One goal is to solve the drainage problem on our playground that results in the return of Lake Metamorphosis every time it rains. The other, of course, will be to add a beautiful little stream/wetland to our outdoor environment. 

“The land is where our roots are. The children must be taught to feel and live in harmony with the Earth.”

At Metamorphosis Montessori School we are extremely fortunate to be in a location where we have enough property for good size organic gardens plus an Illinois native prairie. The children maintain these spaces year round, and these natural areas attract an array of wildlife for the children to observe. We also have a barnyard at Metamorphosis where we keep chickens. Our children complete daily and weekly chores with our hens which include feeding, watering, scrubbing food and water bowls, freshening the nest boxes with pine shavings, collecting eggs, and their favorite chore - holding and petting these spoiled chickens. I say spoiled because the children love to treat them with loads of dried meal worms which are quite expensive. 


Over the years we have enjoyed other animal husbandry projects that involved goats, sheep, and even a miniature horse. Our city council recently decided to change our local animal ordinance, so we no longer enjoy those larger animals. 

 This young boy spent many hours in the chicken run conducting a study which he devised himself. He was deciding which breeds dig the most.

He also produced sketches of each hen.

The italicized quotes that follow are from the following book written a number of years ago and published in the UK. Others have followed with these ideas, but I believe that Roger Hart says it concisely and frankly. 

“I believe that an important aspect of pre-adolescent children’s relationship to the natural world is that they are innately curious about it and struggle to understand their relationship to it as part of their desire to understand the meaning of life. It is this existential kind of urge which I think is at the root of children’s deep interest in animals. We need to find ways of building upon the empathy that children often feel with animals, and extending it to a larger interest in, and concern for, the total environment; to cultivate what Rachel Carson called the ‘sense of wonder’."

Directly behind our school is a little creek, where I basically lived as a child. I played in and explored the creek from morning until dark when my mother insisted I come in. I'm delighted that in addition to our new outdoor classroom, we will be monitoring the water quality of the creek in conjunction with Prairie Rivers Network.

"We cannot rely entirely upon an environmental education that reduces the complexity of ecosystems in an analytic way and presents it in texts or films (or even in single field trips), and then expect children mentally to reconstruct this beautiful complexity."

As I've considered all of this I have thought about schools in urban areas who may not have the access to spaces to convert into outdoor classrooms for their children. But, I believe, there are a number of ways to introduce the natural world to children - anywhere, anytime. In fact Dr. Montessori made this clear to her own trainees when they complained that there was "nothing to do" outdoors. If you have read Dr. Montessori's notes you might remember that she gathered a group of children, marched outside and took a seat on the ground with the delighted little ones, keeping them entertained for over an hour just examining the natural world within a few feet that surrounded them. 

"We should feed children’s natural desire to contact nature’s diversity with free access to an area of limited size over an extended period of time, for it is only by intimately knowing the wonder of nature’s complexity in a particular place that one can fully appreciate the immense beauty of the planet as a whole. It is ironic that the electronic media are enabling children to have greater understanding of the earth and of global environmental issues at a time when the geographic mobility of many children in the North and in urban areas of the South is becoming more constricted due to parents’ fears, and they have little everyday, spontaneous contact with the natural world."

“Anyone who has seen children stoning crabs on a beach or burning cigarettes into frogs know that contact with nature alone is not sufficient for a child to develop understanding of, and a caring relationship for, the natural world.”

Parents and teachers can do much the same thing with young children. I always encourage parents to take slow, child-paced walks with their children. Let the children examine the things they see walking around their yard, or around their block or neighborhood. They can take a collection bag and pick up small finds for a nature table in their home. Another aspect of these walks that I feel is especially beneficial for children is that the adult can point out where various neighbors live, teach their child the art of introductions as they meet people, and familiarize the child with street names and buildings. The walks may be in a small community or a large town - it doesn't matter. The child is moving her/his body and in doing so, developing both motor and cognitive abilities. If one has access to wilder areas and parks that's wonderful, but perhaps no richer than the ritual of simple neighborhood walks.

This is an example of a picture speaking a thousand words. We met this gentleman on one of our walks in our neighborhood. We greeted him and he shook each child's hand and asked each name. He has been gone for years now, but I will always remember how meaningful his exchange was with this group of young children.

"The role of adults is also crucial. Opportunity for a rich diversity of direct experiences with the natural world alongside adults who are informed and caring about the natural world is ideal. Without this, children will be left to construct meaning from a confusing and contradictory array of secondary sources. We need to find ways for children to observe, imitate, talk with , and walk alongside adults who actively demonstrate knowledge of, and caring for, the environment."

Collecting mussel species with our naturalist friend

Designate a table or some inexpensive shelving for nature finds. Help the child to identify and label the finds. Read this book to children and they will want to read it again and again.

Then start collecting. Let them find most of the things--just a few at a time so that they will care about these special objects. But beware, if you want to help too much, and buy them a collection of their favorite objects such as rocks, fossils, etc., you will take away the wonder and joy that they feel when they find the things for themselves.

Provide young children with the real experiences of immersing themselves in the natural world. Then read non-fiction, beautifully illustrated or photographed books. 

A few examples that my children have collected over the years. To verify that you need not go to the country to find amazing pieces of nature, take a child and sit down in a spot landscaped with river rock. (Most fast food places, banks, grocery stores, etc.) A five-year old boy handed me a rock once that he noticed pulled apart, and fit back together. The rock revealed a perfect trilobite specimen, both positive and negative aspects preserved. I took that fossil to a geologist who told me that scientists look a lifetime for specimens like that. Children are exemplary observers and hunters. 

In classrooms educators can set up a complete and sequential natural history area for children of all ages. My own Montessori environment is set up this way, and I promise that this does not have to be expensive. Free aquariums are easy to find and make great habitats for a variety of creatures. Here is how I have arranged a natural history shelf for my students...


Living and non-living are introduced with both objects and photo cards that I have made. Even children as old as six are not always sure about what living things are.

I have then arranged all objects from left to right in the order they appeared on the planet. A living representation of classes is featured on the top, with corresponding materials below. 


Some examples include slugs, snails, earthworms, Darkling beetle larvae, mealworms, an array of insects, crickets, (love mantids!) and spiders in jars and small tanks. Most of these little creatures survive with a piece of apple or potato, or a handful of wheatgerm. These also serve as "food animals" for our predatory animals.





These baby snappers hatched on our playground. Too late to hibernate and survive so they are overwintering with us. We will release in May. We saved five.

Under turtle tank children find numerous reptile activities. They love the snake skin in the jar.


Our finch, Soybean, is very well-loved. We have enjoyed him for many, many years.

Very young children can begin to develop empathy when responsible for the care and feeding of an animal. This young boy noticed that the bird's water was dirty and told me so. I just watched as he managed the process of rinsing, re-filling, and placing the waterer in place. Spills? Of course. More practice with task-completion and all of the movements he needs to perform to develop optimally.



We have enjoyed many types of mammals over our 33 years at Metamorphosis, but have learned that one pinky mouse is the best way to go. No fighting-no breeding. 

We have just one rule at our school: We respect the environment. And in the environment are people, animals, plants, and materials. The children are given liberty without license. We observe with our hands behind our backs. 


I looked up from taking notes and noticed a 4 year-old observing quietly. Soon a young child joined and followed suit.

“The things he sees are not just remembered; they form a part of his soul.”
 ~Dr. Maria Montessori

"I would therefore initiate teachers into the observation of the most simple forms of living things, which all those aids which science gives; I would make them microscopists; I would give them a knowledge of the cultivation of plants and train them to observe their physiology; I would direct their observation to insects, and would make them study the general laws of biology. And I would not have them concerned with theory alone, but would encourage them to work independently in laboratories and in the bosom of free Nature."
- from The Advanced Montessori Method

I encourage all Montessori educators, teachers, parents, and all adults who are involved in guiding children to develop a deep curiosity and reverence for our natural world, so that you may breathe that love into the children in your care. If we model loving ways with the children and the creatures in our care, the children will develop affection for all living things. This is how we change the world. Montessori School by Montessori School. Child by child.