The Atrium and Nature: Sorting through the Sorting Materials

The mother and child peeked into the atrium as I was tidying away the materials left from the kindergarten group that had just left. Peering up over her glasses, the four year old bounced up on her toes, making the large bow on her red hair tremble and slip further sideways.

“Miss Kay, I want to show my mom the book,” she whispered.

“Of course,” I replied. The little girl grabbed her mother’s hand and tugged her towards the windows at the back of the room to the nature table. There on a square of soft felt rested the magnifying glass, an amethyst geode, a chunk of citrine, and a pyrite sun still embeded in its slate. Next to the specimans lay a pictorial guide to rocks and minerals.

Eagerly the small child opened the book, located the images which matched the objects on the table, then picking up the magnifying glass and chattering excitedly about the minerals, she urged her mother to examine the specimans with her.

Later, as the mother and daughter left the room, the mother thanked me.

“She just loves the objects in your room,” she said. “For the last three weeks, all I’ve heard about is “The Book.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I’ve promised we will find one for her. We’ve had to start collecting all kinds of rocks on every one of our walks; thank you for helping her really see the world around her.”

I was very grateful for her appreciation. I’m often self-conscious about my tendency toward natural history collections. A spring time walk with my husband will often bring us both home with hands full of objects I’ve picked up from the sidewalks and grass lawns of our neighborhood. At conferences I’m known to spend my breaks scanning the exterior surroundings for seed pods or lichens. Long after a colleague and I took an accreditation visit together to a distant school, he still teases me for the handfuls of bur oak acorns I celebrated finding there.

sorting eggsYet they do not see what I see in my atrium every day. I’ve had students look at the perfect cones of beatiful blue robins’ eggs and become angry because “the candy has already been eaten” from them; been afraid to touch the selenite roses because “rocks are dirty”; ask how I painted the stripes on the sea urchin tests.

I’ll never forget the day a child asked what the maple wings were which I’d found on my walk the night before. When I showed him how it spun and spiraled down after being tossed in the air, the contagion of excitement in the room was such that we had to leave the atrium and go outside to spend the rest of the class with every child throwing the seeds upward and running to catch them as they floated, spinning earthward. Imagine growing up surrounded by such a simple thing — a maple wing — and never knowing that it was designed to fly! Imagine not knowing that a robin’s egg contained a baby bird, not Easter candy, or that sea urchin tests come in a glorious diversity of colored stripes dependent upon the unique species into which their Maker made them.

sorting shellsA primary goal of Montessori education and of the children’s work in a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium is the orientation of the child to the reality in which they live. Such orientation to the beauty and generosity of the creation around them is the goal of the nature table in a Montessori room. A nature table — by providing a changing variety of natural objects in a space in which children are encouraged to examine them and in which children are given time to enter into meditative contemplation of them — assists children in falling in love with exploration of the natural world. It also invites the children into wonder over the creation as a great treasure given them by the Creator, to see the history of the kingdom of God as a history of God creating gifts for those whom God loves.

More than at any time in history, our children need these introductions to the created order. In 2005 Richard Louv first published his book, The Last Child in the Woods, and coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to diagnose a generation of children who are growing up without unstructured experiences in the natural environment. Louv argued that the human cost of “alienation from nature” was measured in “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses”. In 2011 Great Britain’s National Trust published a Natural Childhood report which suggests that “UK children are losing contact with nature at a ‘dramatic’ rate and their health and education are suffering.”

The Natural Childhood study and Louv’s book identify consequences of alienating children from nature. Impaired abilities to learn from experience, under-developed traits of compassion and stewardship, obesity, decreased mental health and happiness are just a few of the results of nature deficit highlighted.

Exposure to nature however can rapidly reverse all of these. Studies have shown that ADHD symptoms improve when children are exposed to natural environments and that obesity drops and joy increases in children who are encouraged to enjoy unstructured, outdoor activities. In the Natural Childhood study, a surprising discovery was that children reported that their happiness depended more upon having things to do outside than in having more technological devices.

Are our schools meeting these needs of the children for nature? I recently spoke with a friend at another school who had searched her teacher’s workroom for natural materials to include in her Level 1 atrium sorting work. Common to all pre-school classrooms now, sorting works were introduced in Maria Montessori’s Casa dei Bambini. Comprised of a series of objects — say acorns, walnuts, and chestnuts clustered in a bowl — the work develops a child’s ability to observe and categorize objects by their characteristics. Because my friend, like me, liked to change the objects in the sorting work on a regular basis to invite interest and promote wonder, she had searched the workroom for something new to add to the work in the atrium.

She had searched to no avail. Oh, yes, she shared, if she had wanted to incorporate fluffy pompoms in varying sizes or colors or rubber erasers shaped like bunnies, eggs, or snowmen, such bits and pieces would have been plentiful. But she was searching for materials that would draw the children into wonder about the world around them, natural items which might inspire a response of love and stewardship for the abundant gifts of the creation. Plastics, Asian rubber toys, and colorful mass produced craft items abounded in the workroom, but nary a natural object was to be found.

Her futile search of the workroom revealed how nearly our contemporary environments often alienate our children from the created order around them. At home and at school we too often immerse our children with man-made objects in order to entertain them, and we find that this creates within them a craving for ever more, ever newer toys which lose value almost at the moment of their possession. By doing so we end up divorcing them from the reality of the world in which they live, depriving them of the joy of existing within endless abundance. This deprivation deviates a child’s natural development, his vital exigency for exploration, and, in addition to the consequences mentioned above, forces a child’s mind to find pleasure in fantasy rather than satisfaction in imagination.

What is the difference? Fantasy views the creation as incomplete and seeks to fill it with creatures which never existed. Imagination in comparison draws the child into wonder at the endless abundance of a creation so filled with miracles that the child encountering it is pulled ever deeper into its exploration. Or as Stephen Moss, the author of the Natural Childhood report, has said, “This is about changing the way children grow up and see the world. The natural world doesn’t come with an instruction leaflet, so it teaches you to use your creative imagination.”

So what are some readily accessible, natural materials for the sorting work in our atria? Our everyday environment presents a diversity and abundance of natural objects readily available for us.

The grocery store is a treasure house of sensory experiences from nature: whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, anise stars, and nutmegs are examples found on just one aisle. sorting seedsOn nature walks in my urban neighborhood I have picked up acorns of different species of oaks; cones from junipers, pines, and cedars; seeds balls of sycamore and poplar trees; the halves of robin, cardinal, sparrow and other bird eggs; a diversity of feathers; autumn leaves from oaks, maples, and Chinese pistache trees;and buds of hollyhocks, roses, and daisies from my own garden. A trip to San Francisco allowed me to bring back a tupperware container filled with eucalyptus nuts and their heady fragrance. On vacations by the sea my beach walks have yielded sea shells of endless diversity, shark’s teeth in sizes from less than a millimeter to as large as my palm, miniscule sand dollars, bits of coral, and even tiny horseshoe crab exoskeletons. My local farmers’ market brings a rainbow of organic heirloom seeds in varying sizes and shapes (care should be taken to ensure that seeds provided in a sorting work are non-toxic and free of pesticides and herbicides). Trips to science museums and mineral galleries have unearthed simple fossils such as orthoceras, ammonites, coprolites, and Green River formation fish as well as beautiful points of amethyst, citrine, flourite, and specimans of copper, pyrite, turquoise, optical calcite, selenite balls, and others minerals too numerous to mention. For all of these mineral specimans, I have sought untumbled and unpolished stones so that children can hold the natural material in their hands and see it unchanged from the state in which it was created.

sorting crystalsWhen presented with such objects, even in so simple a material as a sorting work, the world opens up to the child, and his attention is now gained by the abundant diversity of nature around him. Time seems to stop for the child who becomes fascinated by the light reflected back from the heart of a quartz crystal, who becomes wrapt in contemplation of the iridescence of a donkey’s ear abalone, who abandons himself to the scent of a cinnamon stick or wand of lavendar.

sorting conesAwakened interests in natural history can be extended by providing larger specimans of the natural materials at a “museum table” complete with a magnifying glass or microscope for children to use in their explorations of the materials’ appearances and properties. Older children who have become adept at reading can return to these same materials again if provided with simple printed guides to minerals or shells which allow the child to identify and categorize these objects using more sophisticated elements of classification.

Does this emphasis on natural materials belong within a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium? Absolutely.  Much can be said about the place of natural objects from the creation in the spiritual and moral formation of children, and a future post will explore the relationship between wonder, enjoyment, prayer, and the moral response of stewardship.



A Valediction to Lost Camp

It came.  Just two miles from my bedroom window, five irrigation wells brought their angry drone, like creditors seeking payment, to my sleepless ears.

It was the solitude of the ranch which had given me the balance to find my way graciously through troubled times.  In the solitude — the very emptiness of passion and sound — I had found the gentleness with which to love even tiresome acquaintances.  But then to east and west this solitude had disappeared.

How odd it is to think that even twenty-five miles from the nearest town, peace could be ruptured by the encroachment of humanity.

Leaving the bedroom those fifteen years ago to pace sleeplessly the kitchen floor, I was driven back to my living room — a den in the oldest, animal sense of the world — to find the emptiness of space that my soul craved.  Outside the east kitchen window, the brilliant white strobe of a distant cell tower — erected two years before to bring us closer communication with other humans — made humanity a disturbing, rather than a comforting, presence.

I am no hater of mankind.  I am in fact a sociable being, gregarious by nature, drawn to conversation and community gatherings.  But I am also a lover of solitude, and like good companionship, emptiness is necessary for the well-being of my soul.

Once the eastern horizon had been a velvety blankness, washed-in broadly with opaque strokes of dusky watercolors.  Before that darkness one sensed rather than saw the hills swell along the draw, and the silver tolling of each star rang a clear sanctus beautiful to my ears.  Each winter, Orion had risen from those unseen hills to stalk antelope across our serene pastures.  But that night the celestial hunter was wounded by the slash of light that pierced his shoulder, his hip, as he struggled to rise from the swelling ground.

I remain saddened by the memory of that intrusion, the javelin of white that pierced the heavens, the searing light which falsly revealed a seeming reality of flat landscape in constant repetition.

I had found that only in the silent, dim places could we sense our proper place amongst humanity, could we sense in the cosmos a being older than time can measure.  So many other nights, standing upon the still earth there alone with only the stars for light, I could feel in my calves the throb left in the ground from footsteps of ceremonial dances there thousands of years ago, could feel the rumble of wagon wheels rolling across some distant edge of those grasslands, could know beneath it all a deep voice which spoke only to my heart and said “I AM”.  I had discovered that only in such a place, a place empty of humanity, could we gain a true perspective of our place within the scope of human existence and hear the words of the voice of God.

The silent, empty places are disappearing, and I feared that night fifteen years ago that that lovely, desolate, Lost Camp of mine would slip past me and my children to someone who did not hear its silent voice.

One would have thought that owning twelve sections of land around you would provide adequate insulation from the erosion of the modern world.  A truth we have to learn is that we are never the true owners of our own horizons.

A Montessori Adult Practical Life Lab


In 2008 and 2009, the National Association hosted two weeklong workshops in the Montessori basis of CGS.  The first was focused on the role of the adult, the second, which was held in Nashville, on the nature of the child.  I was only able to attend the second one, but this workshop caused a paradigm shift for me and changed the entire way I live in the atria with the children.

In addition to panel presentations led by catechists and Montessori experts, challenging and informational readings, and group discussions, the second workshop also included a three hour experience in an Adult Practical Life Lab.  Designed and set up by Sherri Mock of Houston and Marilee Quinn of Kansas, the lab was comprised of two areas: a children’s area set up as a Montessori practical life, art, and nomenclature space and an adult area with hands-on activities meant to deepen our understanding of Montessori methodology.  We were individually greeted at the door to this space by Marilee and told that this room had been set up just for us as a gift and that we were invited to explore either as a child or as an adult. We could go back and forth between the areas within as we wanted.  If we had any questions, we could quietly find Marilee or Sherri (who was seated in her “directress chair” at the other end of the room), either of whom would be waiting to assist us.

For two hours (a typical Montessori class period) we explored.  Next to each material in the children’s area was an 8 ½ x 11 sheet mounted on colored construction paper; this sheet had a photo of the restored work and step by step instructions on how to do the work.  Spooning, pouring, polishing, sculpting, making baptism booklets, walking the line, all sorts of activities were available to us.  One of the points lifted up was the need to provide a complete cycle of work for the child, so, for instance, once I had polished a silver snuffer, I learned that I needed to wash out the buffing cloth in a clothes washing area, hang the cloth to dry, and then replenish the cloth etc myself from a supply area provided for the children.  This was deeply satisfying!  Although most of us started by moving rapidly from one work to another, trying to see them all, within about 20 minutes, most folks had settled to a single work and had entered into deep concentration (flow?), almost as though entering into centering prayer.

In the adult area, Sherri had provided sequencing exercises which assisted us in learning to analyze the order in which pouring or polishing or spooning or nomenclature exercises should be introduced to the child.  With regards to polishing exercises, for instance, glass polishing came first because of its solid, soap tablet; it was followed in succession by silver polishing which used a pudding like polish, wood polishing with its liquid polish, and finally brass polishing with its toxic liquid.  Nomenclature exercises on the other hand began with first naming concrete objects (objects of the altar), then linking two-dimensional pictures of the objects with the objects, succeeded by linking written labels with the objects and then linking labels with the pictures, before finally moving on to three part and two part tray works leading the child to reading and writing the names of the objects independently on his own.   Another areas sequenced pouring activities beginning with wrist development using dry pouring with small carafes filled with large objects such as popcorn, to carafes with small objects such as fine pasta or rice, and only then introducing dry pouring with pitchers which requires both wrist and finger coordination.  An entire sequence of development from equal dry pouring with beans in carafes to a full preparation of the Eucharistic cruets with wine and water was outlined.  I don’t know why this was so earth shattering; it’s so obvious once you see it.  But I suddenly realized that an entire foundation for child development, allowing me to support a child’s success and joy with our liturgical pouring works, had been missing in my atria.

In addition, Sherri had provided hands-on materials which allowed us to explore the developmental needs of the 3- 6 aged child, to identify the characteristics of an environment which support normalization or which raise obstacles to normalization, to learn to recognize spontaneous concentration, and many other foundational elements of Montessori methodology.

A Catechesis of the Good Shepherd formation for adults wishing to work with children ages 3-6 always includes group discussions and presentations on Montessori methodology: “Who is the 3-6 Child?,” “What is the Role of the Adult?,” the “Theory of Practical Life,” etc.  Since becoming a Level 1 formation leader, I have always followed these morning discussions with an afternoon adult lab for the level one formation participants like the one which Sherri and Marilee provided for me in Nashville.

At first the formation participants are impatient (“What does this have to do with my spiritual formation?,” you can hear them think), before something captures them, and they sink into contemplation of a work.  Once they have been called into concentration on any one work, the entire atmosphere of the room changes to an experience of deep peace.  As one participant said this last week here in Amarillo, “I wondered what pouring beans had to do with the Bible study I had been promised.  But everything for the rest of the week built up from that moment.  By the end of the week I knew that the preparation of the chalice rested on that child pouring the beans repeatedly for days and knowing the deep satisfaction and independence gained from that experience.”

I should say that I normally leave a couple of works in the lab incomplete on purpose, perhaps missing a tool of the work or the instructions for it or including the instructions but not providing any of the materials for a work.  This allows the participants to experience the insecurity of a child being faced with a work which he does not know how to use, or finding a work he wants to do but not having the materials with which to do it.  I do this for a sneaky purpose as will be discussed below.

After the participants have worked in the lab for two hours I quietly and privately invite each individual to take a break (bathroom, drinking fountain, etc) and ask them to come back in ten minutes.  Then, like Sherri and Marilee, I remove the chairs from the work tables and form a circle with them for a group debriefing session.

When the participants come back into the room, many are upset!  “I still wanted to work,” I’ve heard adults cry!  So we talk about that.  Based on this experience, what can we hypothesize about what it is that the child wants upon entering our atrium?  To immediately sit in a circle and listen to an adult talk at them or to get to their work?  This starts the ball rolling in a discussion about the rhythms of an atrium period, about the need for each material offered in the room to be complete, about how having someone hover over her shoulder inhibited the work of an individual participant, about the role of adult, about fostering the independence of the child, etc.  This lasts for about 45 minutes and allows participants to deepen from their own experience the ideas of Montessori methodology that were hitherto only intellectual notes left within their minds from the morning’s discussions.  What were simply abstract facts learned are now concrete experiences felt.  It is, I think, quite powerful.

One caveat: I find that the adult exercises which lay out the model of Montessori’s thoughts about the normalization of the child can bring up powerful emotions in some participants.  On rare occasions, a person who was abused as a child simply becomes overwhelmed by emotions when confronted with Montessori’s ideas abut normalization and has to leave the room.  Likewise, occasionally, a parent projects upon herself or himself guilt for not allowing freedom of development for his or her own children.  I am now prepared for these experiences, but I did not expect them when I first started including this lab.

I sincerely hope that the National Association of CGS hosts additional Montessori Essentials workshops in the future.  The work of the adults and children in the atrium all benefit from our better understanding of the Montessori foundations upon which Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi created their scriptural and Biblical works which so nourish the children in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

The Song of the Shepherd

As a child growing up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just a little west and down from Donner Pass, I loved to escape into the forest with an apple, a book, and a sketch pad in my knapsack. I would head to my secret place, a circle of pines so undisturbed that the cushion of pine needles was several feet thick and silence was the music of the day. Scooping up the needles to form a mattress and pillow, I would lie back and become still, and in that stillness and quiet I encountered God.

The nimbus of light on the tips of the pines, the warm colors of the fallen needles which framed the wild tiger lily that grew at the edge of the clearing, the clarity of the luminous sky above: the visual sumptuousness of the space melded with the glory of its silence. I think I can trace my love of art, of poetry, of music back to the richness of that quiet clearing. In the silence of the forest and in the books I read there — the Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, and others — I grew to a deeper relationship with God. Yet when we moved away in sixth grade, my memories of that place and my conscious knowledge of God faded into the background.

I had always planned to be a doctor like my grandfather, but God’s plans for me were quite different. Originally a molecular biochemistry and biophysics major in college, I found my decision to become a physician suddenly turned upside down when I attended a history of art lecture with a friend. Something in the art pierced my heart, and although I struggled to maintain my interest in my science career, I found myself inexplicably drawn to attend more and more lectures in art history. What I then thought was the call of artistic beauty, later in life I came to realize was a response to the call implicit in the Biblical subject matter of the art. Yahweh calls each of us in different ways and reached my heart through slides of nativities and resurrections in university lecture halls.

Changing majors I traveled to Cambridge, England to pursue my graduate degree. It can be no accident that the midway point between my college rooms and the university library was King’s College Chapel. One evening I stumbled through its doors to escape rain pouring down from darkening skies and encountered again the silent music pouring down like grace from heaven. Like my circle of pines before, the Gothic stone forest at King’s College became the place of stillness in which I heard again the voice of God.

Determined to be the first woman director of the National Gallery of Art, I pursued a career in the museum field. God, however, pursued me and pulled me kicking and screaming to a small museum in the fields of the Texas panhandle. There I not only met the love of my life, my husband P.J., but I began a life of desert asceticism in which all but the most important things in life faded away. As a rancher’s wife living forty miles over unpaved roads from the nearest grocery store or Laundromat, I was given an abundance of time to read, be in silence, and think. It was during this desert sojourn that I expressed concern to our small town vicar that our church lacked a Sunday school program for my toddler son.

Before a week had passed, my vicar had sent me to Amarillo to attend a new Christian formation program for adults wishing to work with young children. Although I was a cradle Episcopalian who had attended church with my parents throughout childhood, I had always approached church as mainly a social obligation. Seen through this social lens the formation was stripped of meaning and was only mildly interesting until one day, the day upon which we were presented with the passion narratives. One of the formation leaders, who was both a priest and a catechist, gave a lecture on the origins of the last supper in the Passover traditions of the Jewish people, and somewhere in the midst of that lecture, I was shocked with the revelation, “Well, if this is true . . .” From that moment on, nothing has ever been the same.

I found within the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd both a way of life and a meaning for so many of the facets of my individual being. My love of art was expressed through the making of the materials for the children or the creation of cloths of honor to hang behind our atrium prayer table. My love of stories and storytelling found a purpose in the communication of the scriptures. The majesty of the silence found validation in the catechesis’ premise that the adult sits with the children before the mystery of God rather than serving as a lecturer. My love of music swells the songs with which we greet each mystery and celebration within the atrium. All my gifts could be gathered in one place through one program to be laid before the one God with children who constantly teach me ever more about the divine spirit.

Within three years — that number of divine perfection, I had left my professional job as a strategic development consultant for non-profits, and I found myself pulled into the unending canon of catechesis, first as a volunteer in my churches and then as a teacher in our local Episcopal school. Although I chose to step away from medicine and then later from executive positions which would have seemed to many to offer more in pay and privilege than I make as a catechist, I am richer that I ever dreamed I could be.

Yet still I hunger. I still feel a call to know more and serve more fully the God who whispers my name.  So I sit with the children, observing them, and capturing through my writing more verses of the song sung to them by the shepherd, in order to know better the composer and chief artist of the silent music, and in order to be able to bring back to the children who grace my life a deeper relationship with God than I know how to offer at present.