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Monday, November 12, 2012

Inside Outside

"The land is where our roots are.  
The children must be taught to feel and live 
in harmony with the earth."
Maria Montessori

Isabel has been engaged in this creation of sticks down in the forest since her first week with us a month ago. It's a castle, a hiding place, a fort, a work of art, and it is largely her project, although she allows other kids to add to it occasionally.  (I've had to protect it a bit from destruction!)  It is balanced, intricate, and utterly natural. Watching her, a new Chickadee child engaged in our outside environment for the first time, has inspired me to reflect again on the profound importance of the children spending time outside, daily, in this natural landscape.

Richard Louv has brought this issue of children and nature to the forefront of our cultural consciousness in recent years.  His book Last Child in the Woods has had a major impact, at least on thinking parents, researchers, and alternative schools, if not on mainstream education.   "Natural playscapes" is a buzzword now.  In Louv's words: "A widening circle of researchers believes that the loss of natural habitat, or the disconnection from nature even when it is available, has enormous implications for human health and child development.  They say the quality of exposure to nature affects our health at an almost cellular level." 

So I am reflecting on these children in our woods, and it's Isabel and her sticks, and Rex connecting with a tree, and Lucas discovering the mushrooms, and Brady and Charlotte raking - and it's the beauty of the fall in general - and it's all of these together - that I want to share with you. Most of you do not have the freedom to spend your days in nature.  But this is what you have made possible for your children.  When looking out our big back window this week, in the midst of whatever part of his or her day, this view is what has beckoned your children.  This is what has filled their eyes. 
For this precious, transient season, we have had the beauty of leaves from our Japanese maple, with leaf pressing and leaf raking and leaf piling and kids jumping and wheelbarrow pushing to the chicken yard. It's so fun, and so impermanent.  We sing several autumn songs these days, and one favorite has this refrain: "Days of in between, see the changing scene, autumn time is all around."     Its melody, in a minor key, has a magical hold on the children, and they sing it well. Perhaps it helps confirm with music these inexpressible moments of connection with nature.

Meanwhile, out the front window, "I'm back!"  Our Anna's hummingbird returned a few weeks ago.  I am quite convinced that it's the same single or pair who were with us all last winter and spring, and who then migrated elsewhere for summer.  Now he and/or she stops at the feeder on the front porch many times a day, up close and personal for the kids.    
Someone is always calling out, "There's the hummingbird!"  
And behind the hummingbird has been this last, amazing, and somewhat aberrant cosmos, which burst into bloom long after all the other cosmos were finished.  Our last flowers of 2012 for sure.

Of course, the rains came back, and so did the mushrooms.  Once again, I am resolving to take a mushroom-identification class, or at least get a good book, because I don't know them at all, and when I google these specimens, it's overwhelming.  First we had what we call "fairy mushrooms," little delicate white ones, all over the forest. Then a few patches of this very large and sturdy species developed, and they are still appearing.  Simultaneously, a delicate dancer of a mushroom showed up right in our path.  These didn't last long, though we tried to protect them with a tent of sticks. There's only so much we can do....

And of course the trees.  Our beautiful blessed trees.  Rex was just hanging out close to this Douglas fir a few days ago, experiencing it, looking closely at its bark. He leaned up against the trunk and so I encouraged him to turn his head up, to follow the trees with his eyes all the way as far as he could see.  My camera couldn't do the sight justice, but I tried, and you get the idea.  All Rex could say was, "Wow."  It was a beautiful, peaceful moment.

"There is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all the life to be found around them in a real forest."  These are Maria Montessori's words, written so many years ago.  She seems to me to have been standing in a direct line which connects William Wordsworth to John Muir to Richard Louv, with herself speaking with such prescience for the child in nature.   IN nature, with flowers and mushrooms and trees and birds and all the inexpressible, amazing manifestations of the one Life that animates us all.


Grace and Courtesy

“What is social life if not the solving of social problems, 

behaving properly and pursuing aims acceptable to all?                     

Maria Montessori

"Grace and Courtesy" is the traditional Montessori term for our modeling, and the children's consequent learning and mastering, all the aspects and details needed to live and work together every day in relative peace and harmony.  It involves an extended process of development for your children, piece by piece, over time. They are primed to learn, because social interaction is such a core part of our humanity.  So every year in the fall we pay special attention to very specific lessons in many different areas of our interdependent relationships in this children's house.  Our goal is for each child to feel comfortable, respected, and secure in his or her interactions with others, and for each child to support other children in feeling the same way.

These lessons in grace and courtesy are broken down into categories.   First must come caring for oneself - how to get a drink of water, how to hang a coat, how to put on a jacket independently, how to handle inside-out sleeves, how to wash hands, how to use a tissue and dispose of it, how to cough into one's elbow, and so on.  Each of these basic activities is presented as a lesson, and then another slightly different lesson, and then practice, and daily life unfolding, and help from one another.  For instance, did you know we ask the kids to use the little loops in their jackets to hang them up?  This is helpful for two reasons:  the jacket hangs more securely, and it doesn't hang so low, so as not to obscure our view of the boots.  Of course, every coat doesn't have that handy loop, and that's on our list as a sewing project.  But most of the kids are doing it now.  And most of the kids are mastering most of these other basic skills.

The next category of Grace and Courtesy is caring for our environment - how to clean up a spill using a sponge, how to dust, how to fold our simple laundry, how to sweep using a table crumber,  how to sweep using a broom, and ah, how to sweep cooperatively with another person....

Noah and Charlotte really worked at this sweeping last week, practicing how to make a little pile and then use a dustpan.  Let's just say, it was not an effort without some argument, some small power struggle; I stayed very close by. They'll have many chances to practice some more.

Each of these activities gets specific attention from us, and each needs focused practice by the child.  None of it just comes naturally.  We can't expect a child to know by osmosis how to sweep, or how to clean a table.  Just learning to rinse and squeeze a sponge effectively takes time.   "Oh look, your table is all wet.  Let me remind you how to squeeze out that sponge better.  Do you know where the green cloth is for drying tables?  That's what you should do next....."  Many such mini-lessons happen every single day.

Then there is the whole area of learning to engage in their shared and separate work with respect and cooperation.  A whole series of lessons is included here:  how to use the work rugs, how to walk around rugs, how to put away an activity ready for the next child, how to let one another do their work without interfering or interrupting, and so on.

Here you see Julian, happily using the "ferrous/non-ferrous" magnet sorting work.  Notice how Brady was watching him with his hands behind his back?  There's a whole set of grace and courtesy lessons embedded here.  First, Brady asked, "Julian, can I watch you work?"  He remembered to do this on his own - he's been here more than a year now, and he understands how important this is.  Julian could have said yes or no.  If he said no, Brady would have walked away.    But he said yes, so Brady put his hands behind his back; this helps him remember not to touch or interfere with Julian.  He watched for a while, and then moved on.  Julian kept going.  And think of it - as he played with the magnet, Julian also experienced Brady modeling that respect, which then became part of his own developing awareness of others.

Finally, and so important, we address the interpersonal courtesies which inform and shape our social relationships.  How to greet one another, how to say "excuse me"or "thank you," how to ask a teacher for help, how to ask for a hug, how to offer a snack to a friend, how to listen to one another in group, how to share a conversation....

Collin has done the banana serving many times now - he thrives with the independence of preparing the banana for serving, and he loves walking around offering pieces to his friends.  He is learning to ask politely and not just shove the plate into another child's field of vision.  This is huge for him, to ask,  "Would you like a piece of banana?"  And then in response he hopefully hears, "yes, thank you Collin."  Finally, he completes the cycle by washing his dishes, getting it all ready for the next person.

Learning how to care for one another in such concrete and specific ways, how to interact in a respectful manner, how to co-create a peaceful classroom, is probably the most critical life skill the children are learning here. Grace and courtesy.  Together they are creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts - a daily experience of a warm, loving, safe, and kind learning community.  And with support, that learning will stay with them, as a part of their being, from here on into adulthood.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Down Under

This image is perfect for us here at Chickadee this summer, as we explore Australia.  It came through my Facebook feed a few weeks ago, so of course I saved it.  It's an image that resonates deeply within our collective human memory, our shared story. The Aborigines have lived for 40,000+ years on their home continent, far longer than any other existing people on earth.  We cannot even imagine it.

The words of this aboriginal proverb is meaningful on many levels too.  Actually, Erin and I live this mission as Montessorians, it could be our mantra: "Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love ....."   And all of us as parents, all of us as children of the earth, have much to learn from this ancient perspective.  So I had to share it with you....

And so we've been "down under" during these weeks of summer.   It's been an ebb and flow of exploration, in the midst of many other joys of the season.   We've had a whole set of biome materials about Australia - I borrowed them from Harmony Montessori, my old school.  Supported by our previous learning about biomes, it didn't take the older ones long to develop an image of the continent, using this puzzle map - orange is the outback desert, yellow the grasslands, green are the temperate forests on the eastern and northern sides, dark green the tropical forests in the north.

Many weeks ago we painted this big map, and then the kids began coloring and tracing animals from the different biomes to tape up on it.  And marsupials!  So many marsupials.  I began writing down a list, one by one, as we came across these animals in our books and stories. These are the ones we have listed so far:  wallaby, bandicoot, marsupial mole, bilby, wombat, quoll, dinnart, numbat, Tasmanian devil, cuscus, wallaroo, tree kangaroo, ningaui, quokka, pandemelon, bettong, sugar glider.....  Amazing.  We will surely add more in the next two weeks.

This Australian theme has been especially blessed by Trevor's mom Amy, who grew up there (I'd forgotten this when I chose it).   Her family saved all their childhood books, and she has many other Australian artifacts.  It's been a treasure trove for us.  She brought in at least 20 books - many must now be out of print - all kinds of books about Australian animals and imaginary stories for children - engaging, unique, and vivid.  So enriching, such a blessing for us.  Thank you Amy!

It was my June visit to the Seattle Art Museum that led me to choose Australia for this summer, after viewing their current, absolutely stunning contemporary aboriginal art exhibit.  So it's been a time for dot painting, and for story telling using symbols from ancient aboriginal rock painting.  The children drew and made up their story as they went, then each child told it to us and we wrote it down.

They are hard to see in this photo.   Ava's is on the middle left:  "A person was gathering some food plants, and then she walked until she came to another person with a shield and a spear.  They walked on until they came to the waterhole where they sat under the sun.  Then it rained."  Or Morgan's on the bottom right, "A girl was sitting by a water hole when she saw a possum walking and an emu running.  She decided to follow the emu, and she caught up with it by the river, and it began to rain.  Then the sun dried up the rain."

The children have painted these same symbols - think of it, images many thousands of years old - on their T-shirts.  This has been a focused, one-on-one project for each child, with Erin helping just as little or much as is needed.

The T-shirt will be one small keepsake from the summer.  Another keepsake are their art projects. And then there are the ephemeral or inexpressible memories that will live in your children in ways we cannot know - music and stories,  ideas and knowledge, about another amazing part of our shared planet.

Echidna, trilling frog, and koala,
     Blue argus butterfly, kookaburra, and tree kangaroo,
         Sugar glider and crimson rosella.
              We are all connected.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Picking peas and planting beans

"The things he sees are not just remembered; 
they form a part of his soul."
Maria Montessori

Look how high Morgan is reaching to pick peas that are over her head!  It's been a "pea season" in our raised beds, that's for sure.  Our cool, wet spring was perfect, so that now, from June into July, the children have been out there picking and munching on sugar peas and snow peas every single day.  We planted five different varieties, and I got a little carried away - it's been hard to find room to plant other veggies, our beds have been so full, our peas so abundant!

Going backwards in time to four months earlier, here is our first digging day in early March, at the very end of the winter. Such joy everyone felt, to get out there with shovels in the sunshine!  Winter wasn't quite over, and two weeks later we even had a surprise late snow on the Spring Equinox.  We had already planted our first seeds.    I lined all the kids up along the edge where the wire trellis is, put seeds in their little hands, and they each pushed the seeds into the soil.

Do the children remember planting those seeds?  Can they describe the cycle that unfolded, from their digging in the ground to little round peas in their hands to the sweet crunch in their mouths?  Yes and no.  Each round of growing a garden, each vegetable or flower becomes part of a child's developing perception of reality.  It's a profound yet unconscious process, as the children begin to recognize their intimate link with the earth that feeds them.

But to make the process more concrete, to get into the science of a sprouting seed and create a more conscious learning experience, we need to slow it down.  We used beans, the best teaching seed of all.  

A few weeks ago we gathered in a group and started our classic experiments.   We placed some seeds on a tray between wet paper towels, settled some more on the inside edge of a jar filled with paper towels, and put both on our little nature table.  In the next day or two, we planted the same beans in trays and pots outside.

Over the next two weeks we got to observe the sprouting seeds up close and personal.  The first sprout, the roots reaching down, the stem reaching - and reaching - for the light.  Every day we witnessed the changes.  Using a great set of wooden puzzles, made by my friend Jake of Early School Materials up in Lafayette,  as companions to the actual sprouting seeds, we introduced vocabulary like seed coat, primary root, and cotyledon.

Last week, on the day of this photo, the sprouting experiment reached its peak. We gathered outside, laid out all the puzzles, the jar and the tray, and the beans planted in soil.  We compared the seeds growing in the pots to the ones that had been inside.  What do plants need?  Sunlight!  Soil!  Warmth!  Water!  Are the seeds in the jar "happy," do they have what they need?  No.  Were they a great teacher for us?  Yes!

This week we started to take out the pea plants, one section at a time.  The kids are carrying the luxurious vines to our compost bin, which is another great natural life cycle.  Today or tomorrow we will put out the bean plants which are bursting out of their seed-starting pots.  We'll sing our bean-planting song a few more times.  And soon the peas will be a sweet memory, until next spring comes around.

And that brings us back around to the Maria Montessori quote which began this blog:
"The things he sees are not just remembered; they become a part of his soul."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How many senses do we have?

"The senses, being explorers of the world, 
open the way to knowledge."
Maria Montessori

We typically think of ourselves as having five senses - sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.  Through these senses the world outside of ourselves is mediated into our brain, and then into our awareness and experience.   It's impossible for us to remember as adults, what it was like to be babies perceiving such a complex and ever-changing world for the first time, learning about it, sense impression by sense impression.  The first sounds, the first music - the first sight of a face, the first sight of a tree - the first touch of mother, the first hurt - the first sweet smell, the first ......  You get the idea.  So many first experiences, and this process which begins in infancy continues on through early childhood.  It's truly amazing neurologically.

In this area of sensory education Maria Montessori once again excelled.    She carefully examined the five senses and thought about how to help the children clarify, order, and deepen their experiences.  She developed an array of materials which work with one sense at a time - what we call the "sensorial materials," the two shelves right in the middle of our room.  She also further refined the work into nine areas by adding more specific senses:  the chromatic or color sense, the thermic or sense of temperature, the baric or sense of weight, and the stereognostic, which is the tactile or muscular sense.

The many sensorial materials and the different ways they can be used are at the heart of our work with children.  In these first  photos, you can see Konrad working with the sequencing of colors, from darkest to lightest shade.  No other sense is involved, it is pure color awareness.
Megan was matching the sound cylinders, again a single-sense experience, simply hearing.  Trevor was using the colored cylinders to build towers - his sight, touch, and  stereognistic senses were involved.  Terra was using only her tactile sense to sort and replace the knobbed cylinders (after several younger years of experience with eyes open).

In the last ten years, psychologists and therapists have delineated even more categories which are valuable additions to our understanding of the complexities of sensory development.  Proprioception is the sense of our body's and limbs' position in space.  The vestibular sense is the information from the inner ear, one's sense of position in the world, how head and body move through space. These muscular senses develop at very different rates in different children, and in recent years a whole specialty of sensory integration support has developed among physical therapists.    So these three-year-olds in their spontaneous shared yoga pose?  They are exercising their sense of balance - or our new word, proprioception!

In recent weeks we've had the tasting work out.  It is another carefully isolated activity, exposing the children to sweet, salty, sour, and bitter in a pure form.  In classic Montessori there are two sets of dropper bottles, for matching, but for myself, I decided years ago that it was too tedious to match each taste.  So it is purely experiential, and so much fun to observe how each child handles the experience.

Ava has been most equanimous, willing to taste the "pleasant" and "unpleasant" equally, every time she does it.  The others, not so much! There's no mistaking which taste Lucas was experiencing here - ah the uniqueness of bitter.  I always tell them that the bitter taste is made from plants that are good for their bodies (it's actually "Swedish Bitters" from New Seasons, diluted.) Funny how Erin and I find that the sweet dropper bottle becomes empty faster than the others do!

So here are your children at Chickadee, absorbing and ordering their impressions about the world, step by step, using every single sense separately and together.  This development continues over their months and years of primary Montessori, and this work has a tremendous cumulative effect, in building sensitivity, intelligence, and awareness.  It's not something they will be able to tell you - "Mom, I was working with my tactile sense today."   At most, you might hear, "I love the tasting work," or, "I built the tallest tower."   But you can know that every sensorial activity has multiple benefits, and you can remember that, in Montessori's words,  "A child is by his nature an avid explorer of his surroundings, because he has not yet had the time or the means of knowing them precisely."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Outside on a sunny spring day

“Let the children be free; encourage them;  let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and, when the grass of the meadows is damp with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet . . .”   Maria Montessori

On our recent, gloriously warm and sunny Monday, I kept the camera at hand for half an hour while we were outside.  Here is just a bit of what I saw....

Our new overhead bars have seen a constant flow of children discovering what they can do -  hanging, crawling across the top, learning to drop, taking turns and giving each other a little space.  The kids will definitely be getting stronger arms!  We are all thrilled about this reclaimed and wonderful addition to our outside, and so grateful for your generous work party, and especially to Cara's dad Craig, who put a lot of time into making it a free-standing piece of equipment.  
We also added a small "rock-climbing wall" to the side of the stump.  Here I witnessed another flow of kids going up and down.  Before now, access to this magnificent stump was limited to the children who could scramble up on their own - I almost never lifted them up.  And with lots of use over these 18 months,  the first natural handholds had broken off.  

Pretty soon, Cara and Zoë headed for the chicken pen.  Cara picked up three hens one after another  - Blue Star in this photo, then Blackberry and Silver Water.  She is one of our dedicated "chicken whisperers," and goes in there often.  It's so nice when it's not so muddy!   Zoë is just getting to know the girls, and watched Cara with admiration.  She checks for eggs every day.  Soon she will be picking them up too.

Meanwhile, Leo and Brady saw me digging out the old straw in the corner of the pen (it makes great, rich mulch and compost material, and right now I am trying to do a bucket or two every day). They said, "Let us do it!" and ran for shovels.  They were seriously digging and filling that wheelbarrow ... until they found a most amazing worm.  It must have been at least 10 inches long, maybe a foot when it was moving.   

Then I found June Marie, who, inspired by the sunshine, had remembered an experiment we did last spring and went to get the magnifying glass, all on her own.  I found her squatting down with a dry leaf, trying to get it to smoke!  She didn't remember how to really focus the sunlight through the lens, so I showed her, and we watched a tiny curl of smoke wisp its way upward. And yes, I asked her to be sure I was with her when she tried it again.
Now the energy had shifted out to the front yard, and I found three kids just chatting and snuggling on the grass, and another two on the picnic blanket - pure joy.  The morning play time closed with a most wonderful outside picnic.  Today, just two days later, it's back to mud boots.