Montessori and Outdoors


I often wonder what our classroom looks like through the eyes of an observer. To watch the children work with fresh, naive eyes, to listen to the symphony of a classroom of children at work. 

I can hear a pinnacle of noise and movement, the din of chairs and footsteps. Perhaps it’s like the business of a beehive. Busy little children, whose movements and voices at the peak of concentration and interest hum along. Movement and outdoors are integral to the Montessori environment, as natural as the path of a bee from the flower to the hive. 

The traditional definition of school outdoors, recess, is such a small piece of movement for Montessori classrooms. Yes, children have playtime, and we think of the playground as just as necessary as our classroom. But the movement, good physical work, occurs naturally in the Montessori classroom. Dr. Montessori herself designed classrooms to allow for as much freedom of movement as possible, saying, “movement, or physical activity, is thus an essential factor in intellectual growth... Through movement we come in contact with external reality, and through these contacts, we eventually acquire even abstract ideas” (The Secret of Childhood).

In thinking back to our school-age years, many of us picture a traditional school setting. We think of desks: sitting to learn, asking permission to stand, still and silent to receive knowledge from the teacher. In a Montessori environment, children get up as they please: walking to peruse shelves, sweeping, scrubbing tables, and gathering materials for an art project. In our class, in addition to the freedom to flow through the classroom, we have directed movement activities: a sit-and-spin for proprioceptive stimulation, light medicine balls to roll for heavy work, and an ab roller for crawling to foster core strength, and walking on the line activities. Older children learn verbs by acting them out: skip, jump, and spin! Younger children go on hunts for as many triangles as they can in the environment. Before we even get outside, our indoor activities run the gamut of gross motor skills. Imagine being so active before the bell rings for recess!

But let’s move outside, to our adjoining outdoor space. Where possible, Montessori classrooms have both indoor and outdoor workspaces. Our classroom has a side yard with a pergola, flower beds, and 6 small, child-sized picnic tables. The side yard door is open each day, weather permitting. Children choose when and where they work with each material. As in our classroom, space for seating is dictated by the environment, not a teacher. “Is there space to work outside?” instead of “it’s your turn to work outside” or “you may work outside on Mondays only.” Children enjoy bird watching, gardening, scrubbing, cloud identification, and even art outside. This week at my school, the weather was lovely. While I was giving a six-year-old a lesson on dissecting and labeling the parts of a flower outside, a three-year-old was making bubbles with an egg beater at the table next to us. Past her, a child from the class next door was raking the rocks, and on the far side of him, in the class at the end of the hall, children were blowing paint with straws. It was a beautiful sight to take in.

Visitors to Montessori classrooms see beautiful outdoor environments, but they might not fully understand what that means for the child. An open door means nature is always part of our curriculum. Nature is an invitation for calm, thus an opportunity to self-regulate. Nature is an invitation to science: rocks offer a lesson in fossils, geology, and an insight into Earth’s history. Finding a fossil in the pea gravel is more exciting than finding a four-leaf clover in our class. 

But let’s move even farther outside, to the playground, where we think of the “real” outdoors happening at school. In our outside spaces, we see soccer games, foursquare, and many variations of tag, whose rules pass from child to child, almost like a virus, as though understanding of the game passes with a glance and a touch. We hear children learning the words to London Bridge, redefining the rules of freeze tag (zombie or shark freeze tag, anyone?). We see children, encouraged by friends’ cheers, crossing the monkey bars for the first time.  

It seems typical for a playground. So why do we consider that “work”?

Sports and free play have very different meanings depending on one’s perspective. To an adult, sports are about the accuracy of skill, and the rules are immutable. Recess is just play, free from rules to be enjoyable. As adults, fun must be both organized and, contrarily, the opposite of work. 

But imagine how different the world of play is when perceived by the child. When is the last time you found an open space and organized a spontaneous game of freeze tag: see who wants to play, lay down the rules, enforce the fuels, deem a winner, start all over again. It seems silly to even think about, but organizing a game is delightful work to a child.

We consider a child-led game of tag, or soccer, or “soccer tag,” both work and free play. Free play promotes personal and social development when children advocate for establishing rules or changing the rules. By allowing children to set the rules and boundaries of their own games, free from the judgment of adults, children learn about the implicit rules of society. They create experiences that will guide them on how to interact with and understand their peers, laying a foundation for later in life. Movement and free play foster much more than what we see through the adult lens.

We tell our children that the playground is just as important as work time because IT IS. It’s learning to problem solve with others. It’s being bold and creative. It’s critical thinking. It’s risk taking. It’s exhilarating. 

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