“There is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all of the life to be found around them in a real forest.”
— Maria Montessori
Living in Riyadh, the largest city of Saudi Arabia, was not an exciting experience for me until I trained as a Montessori teacher. Then I fell in love with both nature and children.
Every morning my students and I take a nature walk. We walk through the garden or a green passage very quietly, trying to catch the sound of a bird, a crunchy yellow leaf, crawling ants , whispering bugs and windy weather. Children are naturally attracted to every natural stimulus and often react in the most scientific way.
Sometimes we carry a bag to collect specimens. Once we are back in the classroom, they take out their tiny discoveries and lay them on the floor. We sort, count, match and pattern. We ask: Is it a plant? Is it living or non-living? What do we know about this object? What do we want to know?
We explore the desert, too. I am always amazed to see how children interact with the desert in the same way that others are excited by woodlands.
Young people here love to sit in barren desert areas during the summer nights. Some of them come from farms. They know many facts about horses, but they have a special love for camels which can be found at the outskirts of the cities and towns and sometimes on the main highways. And yet, even with this background, children have much to learn in nature.
As my children become more nature-observant we search for specific types of leaves, rocks, ants or grasses. We press the plant specimens in a leaf/flower press (or between wax paper and some heavy books) and make booklets out of our collections. And we do not always have to collect things. Sometimes we just go on a nature walk to observe and discuss the weather, the seasons, the things we see. I explain to the children that if we always collect things from nature when we go out walking, then those things would not be there for us and others to enjoy and observe next time.
This is a difficult concept to get across to small children, but it is one that should be introduced.
When we visit nearby sand dunes, my students talk about the wind which blows the sand, its speed in relation to the sand that it blows away. And when they sit on the dunes or walk they discover the texture of sand, its weight and its impact on the human body. One child asked me, “Miss Erum, I felt tired walking in the dunes. Why do I never feel the same feeling when I am walking in a garden?” He realized that landscape matters. He experienced first hand the connection of topography to the lives of humans. This is real learning which can never happen in the classroom.A few months ago, we went to the old city of Dirriyah, which is trying to preserve its deeply rooted culture and its landscape. As we were discussing the historical background of this place, some of the children wandered off.
“Look at this stem, it’s so dry,” one of the children shouted to us. Another said, “These plants haven’t received any water for months!” A five-year old called out, “The color is so dull. The plants lose their brightness when they need water.” One of the children still with me asked, “Miss Erum, can we bring our bottles and water the plants out there?” “Wait! “ said a very concerned boy. “Our house is far away. Please don’t use the water.” These children made these connections, on their own, while discovering the desert eco-system.
As that small group discussed the desert plants, another group climbed rocks. They experienced balance, coordination of gross motor skills and control of fine motor skills. They used eye-hand coordination, predicted height, found the perfect grasping positions, discovered the relation between man and nature. Upon reaching the top, the children viewed the whole landscape with binoculars. A sense of achievement was in their eyes. Then they took out a magnifying glass. “I see a spider!” said one. Everyone gathered there to look. They counted the number of legs, inspected its body parts and eyes, and studied how it walked.
None of this can be taught through lectures or books.
A book of botany or zoology has the power to stimulate the already curious human mind but nature has the power to change this curiosity into discovery.
In nature, I see the child’s immense concentration. In nature, a teacher does not need to build their attention spans or speed up their curiosity or raise their concentration level. All of these ways of being are already there, in their souls.