Nature Play the Montessori Way

Guest writer and Montessori educator: Alexis Tharp Beatty

What do you think of when you hear the word Montessori? Beautifully prepared environments with perfectly chosen natural materials? Children buzzing about in a classroom participating in various practical life or sensory activities?

Do you think of outdoors, nature, or children playing in the mud? Probably not, though if you read the works of Dr. Maria Montessori you would know the value she found in nature. She states, “When children come into contact with nature, they reveal their strength.” Not only is Maria Montessori a well-known name in early childhood education, but she was also a scientist who was ahead of her time.

Science today is consistently proving the efficacy of the Montessori method. Nature play encourages healthy child development and enhances pre-literacy skills, language development, physical development, and sensory development.Pre-Literacy and Nature

While most people would not expect nature to play an important role in literacy skills, research has shown that it does. Visual discrimination is the ability to identify differences in visual images. Visual discrimination is used in reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, and science. Different stimuli in nature promote the strengthening of visual discrimination, such as the lines of a tree, the natural colors, the shapes of the clouds, etc. Some outdoor activities that you can do to promote visual discrimination are:

  • Practice drawing letters, shapes, or numbers in different materials, such as dirt or sand.
  • Invite your child to find similarities and differences between objects outside.
  • Lay with your child in the grass and look for stars at night.
  • Play hide-and-seek games with objects or toys outside.
  • Sort rocks, sticks, leaves, etc.

Language Development and Nature

Maria Montessori states “There is no description, nor image in any book capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all the life to be found around them in a real forest.” What better way to teach a child about a tree then to show them a real tree. To let them in examine it, touch it, listen to the wind blow through its leaves. There is so much language that can be used outside, and allowing a child to really experience those words is irreplaceable. Some activities you can do to promote language development outdoors are:

  • Read a book outside (especially a book about nature).
  • Describe what you see and feel outside (even for infants).
  • Talk about the sensation of the wind, the warmth of the Sun, etc.
  • Play I-spy outside.

Physical Development and Nature

Physical development is the physical and biological change that occurs between birth and adolescence. There are 2 types of development, gross motor, which includes large body movements, and fine motor, which are more precise movements usually involving the hands. There are so many opportunities for gross motor development outside, including running, jumping, climbing, raking leaves, shoveling snow, throwing, and so much more. There are also plenty of opportunities for fine motor outside, including picking flowers/weeds, outdoor painting, picking stones, building tiny houses with seeds, sticks, pebbles, etc. It is also important for children to take risks. It helps them build confidence, learn their boundaries, and learn the consequences of going beyond their limits.

Sensory Development and Nature

As infants grow, every action that they repeat helps their nervous system to develop new nerve cells and neural networks. The excessive amount of time that infants and children spend indoors and doing structured activities creates a sensorimotor deficit. They don’t spend as much time outdoors, and they don’t spend as much time bored, or with a lack of entertainment. Infants spend less time on the floor and more in bouncy seats or exosaucers and their nervous systems aren’t building the connections they need.

The more connections that are made, the easier it is for children to process all of the signals that their senses are bringing in.

When discussing the sensory system, there are two other senses that must be taken into account, the proprioceptive and vestibular senses. Proprioception is the sense of knowing where your body is in space. The vestibular sense is your sense of balance. One of the reasons that our sensory system thrives outside is because of all of the rich natural sensory experiences. The lighting is natural, not artificial. The colors, sounds, and smells are less abrupt. There are so many different textures for them to feel. The breeze lets them know where their body is in space. While sensory experiences can be recreated indoors (you’ve heard of sensory bins I’m sure) they just can’t compare to the experiences outside. Some outdoor activities to promote sensory development and integration are:

  • Playing in sand, including filling containers to carry for heavy work.
  • Balancing on tree branches or stumps.
  • Gardening (and growing their own food encourages healthy eating choices).
  • Building a hula hoop tunnel.
  • Exploring the woods and finding different natural objects.I would encourage everyone to go outside in all weather because there are so many tremendous benefits. More time outside means happier and healthier kids, science says so. If the rain or cold scare you, remember there is a lot of gear for those seasons to keep outside enjoyable.

As Ranulph Fiennes says “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”

Even if you can only go outside for a few minutes, do it! Even if you don’t have a forest near you to explore, go to a park. Even if you don’t know what to do, just go outside! Children are much more likely to keep themselves busy outside, than inside. For healthy child development, get outside!

A very sincere thank you to Alexis for writing this beautiful article on the benefits of nature for our children’s education and well-being. I follow her parenting journey and I am so incredibly inspired by her approach to raising her daughters. She meets the challenges of parenting with patience, compassion, and a certain grace that I find so admirable. My daughter attended Montessori school for a period of time and I can say from experience, it was the most beneficial decision we made for her growth and it taught her to follow her curiosity. Montessori also taught me to encourage my children’s natural curiosity and support their organic learning process. I find that children are naturally drawn to the outdoors where they can run, play, learn, be loud, and be free! 


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