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Help! What if I don’t have a ‘green thumb?’

Dear Ask a Montessorian, I’m a newly trained lower elementary guide and am excited about many aspects of the curriculum and the school I’m serving. They have beautiful outdoor spaces and I want to give the students experiences in gardening, but I have absolutely no experience, and frankly don’t know where to start!  My training has touched on the outdoor environment, but can you recommend some tips or activities for a guide that doesn’t have a ‘green thumb?

Great question!  We all know all teachers have full plates, and Montessori guides even more so in certain respects, so the key to a successful elementary outdoor environment is integration. The outdoor environment and learning should be seamlessly woven across the curricula of the classrooms (and ideally, the school). Equally important as teaching reading and math, is keeping alive the children’s senses of wonder and connection with their natural world. Of course, in theory, as Montessorians, we know this, but in the thick of everyday classroom routines, it isn’t always so easy to keep nature-connection at the top of the to-do list – especially when a guide isn’t quite confident in their own ‘green thumb’ capabilities. That is okay! Be honest with the children and celebrate that fact –  make learning together part of the process!

The number one way I recommend for a tentatively green thumb teacher to integrate more nature across curricula is with nature journaling. Nature journaling is great because it doesn’t matter if the classroom outdoor environment consists of a window, a single flower pot on a balcony, or a full learning farm. The journal offers children the opportunity to hone observation skills, track patterns in nature, and to creatively connect with their local natural world and when looking at curricula integration, the journal is tops. Writing (creative and research), handwriting, measuring, basic math operations, functional and economic geography, botany, zoology, and of course art are all areas to be explored and expressed within the act of nature journaling. Nature has been an inspiration to humans throughout history and nature journaling has been practiced by some of humankind’s greatest thinkers, artists, naturalists, and scientists, including Dr. Montessori herself! The nature journal is a place to document observations, information, and then assimilate discoveries in a creative, yet scientific, way and is where many generate inspiration for their life work. And remember, the adults in the environment should journal too!

Through journaling, patterns and observations discovered in nature that may have otherwise gone unnoticed or overlooked can be tracked. This type of pattern work enhances students’ ecological intelligence and connections to the natural world, while cultivating the skill of focused observation. The nature journal is also a wonderful anecdotal record keeping tool. Teachers can track observation, drawing, and writing skills, as well as pattern thinking once the children become more adept at documenting their discoveries. It is a natural cross curricular learning tool that seamlessly integrates across all Montessori curricula.

In addition to regular daily or weekly time to journal in the outdoor environment: nature journals are a great way to focus high energy levels generated from outdoor excitement; always bring the nature journals on outings to natural areas or to museums for these locations provide inspiration and often exhibit the patterns witnessed in the school outdoor environment; and try taking the journals to urban plazas to have children discover and document the unexpected nature found there.

Upon returning to school, have students share a favorite sketch or thought from their journal regarding the day’s activity. Sharing is a great way to recap, assimilate the experience, and assess the child’s learning. Then, embark on developmentally appropriate cultural research projects that identify and elaborate on what has been discovered in these locations and compare them to what is known about the schoolyard environment. This makes the journal a springboard for biological and historical research that integrates directly into the botany, biology, and geography curricula threads, while inherently tying across reading, writing, handwriting, and even math if measurements were taken of discoveries. (Adults journaling should also share.)

Any unidentified natural object discovered on an outing, or in the schoolyard, can be carefully drawn in the journal and be brought back to the indoor classroom for further research that often ends up involving the entire class in a new discovery. The findings can then be prepared and presented at sharing/show & tell time, to other classes, at a parent event, or in a common area as a display. I once had a student who, for our monthly sharing time, would create the most wonderful posters telling the stories of her nature discoveries and outings from trips to pick apples to small backyard nature discoveries and at home research work. Her mother did a wonderful job of encouraging, facilitating, and interconnecting the school based nature work with family life experiences and then creating engaged outlets for her child’s assimilation of nature experience. This is how those really deep and memorable connection s are made, the ones that foster adults who love their natural world enough to work to protect it.

For those schools incorporating technology initiatives, nature journals can prove to be beneficial tools that bring a softer side to technology in the Montessori environment. Try this: create a nature walk through a nearby park, wooded area, or the schoolyard’s perimeter using digital cameras to take photographs of flora, fauna, and their habitats. Back in the classroom, have the students research the anatomy, needs, desired habitats, habits, and historical cultural significance of their discoveries. Then, write accounts documenting the important facts and create poems or drawings expressing the natural items and the experience.

Use this documentation to create a local field guide style pamphlet using a design program or a blog in a photo essay format that features their natural history research, photography, and creative interpretations of local flora and fauna. Update the blog monthly or seasonally and visit the areas being documented regularly over the course of the year and let the children’s discoveries inspire their learning throughout the year.

A Few Activity Resources:

Why Nature Journal?

Language Integration activity (tangible and intangible nouns): Wonder Wednesday 75: Wonder Seek and Find

Art based Botany & Zoology: Wonder Wednesday 71: Draw a Damsel Fly

Kelly Johnson
Kelly Johnson (BFA, MA, AMS 6-9) is an artist, author, Montessorian, and children’s garden guide in Neptune Beach, Florida. Through her books, blog, Wonder Wednesday activities, articles, in-person workshops, consultations, nature journaling eCourses, and nature inspired art and lifestyle accessories, Kelly inspires children and adults to creatively connect with their natural worlds. Connect with Kelly on Instagram at @wingswormsandwonder and follow her blog at wingswormsandwonder.com for more Montessori and Nature inspired fun.