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.



The Sweetness of the Shepherd

My atria are set up for combined levels at the school. This means that the “little school” room is set up as a Level 1 and Level 2 combined atrium and that the “big school” room is set up for Level 2 and Level 3 to share. Occasionally, I worry, because I see the older children return over and over to works created for the younger. I question whether the child is really exploring something new in the younger work or simply trying to escape from engaging in real work. Here, I am often saved in the midst of my anxiety, by the words of those giants who came before me: Maria Montessori, Sofia Cavalletti, and Gianna Gobbi.

When seeing an older child return over and over to the work with the sheepfold, the Good Shepherd, and the sheep, I have learned to follow Montessori’s admonition to “wait observe”. Watching closely the child’s work, it is often simple to see that the child truly IS involved in the scriptures of John 10 or Luke 15 in a deep and meaningful way, and when I need verification for myself that their work reveals that the Word abides in the child, I can always turn to the children’s work journals.

Earlier this week, two third grade girls spent the entire atrium time working over and over with the Shepherd and the sheep. Their movements were careful and meaningful, their voices soft. Watching them, I saw frequent long pauses where the two of them simply sat in contentment by the work, gazing into the heart of the sheepfold or caressing the shepherd figure with their eyes. Occasionally, one would reach out to stroke or pat one of the sheep.

Later, after they left the room, I sat to read through the group’s work journals in order to make notes for myself for their next visit to the atrium. Here I found in the journals of these two girls their growing relationship with Christ.

One girl concentrated on the idea of the Good Shepherd himself, his sacrifice, his Eucharistic presence, and his abiding love:

“I think that the sheep are the people and the good shepherd loves them so much he will sacrifice himself for us. I think that is very sweet. Jesus will lead us to food and he will love us forever. I think that he was very nice for giving the bread and the wine to us. I will always remember him.”

So much to see in this one short paragraph! Here is sacrifice presented not as suffering but as a gift of love, as an act which brings forth sweetness. Here is a response of anamnesis to Christ’s request to “remember” him in the bread and wine of Eucharist. Here is the knowledge that Christ calls us to himself and gives us all himself in the consecrated bread. Here the child responds to the call of Christ.

The other child’s writings revealed the growth of moral ethos as response to the parable of the Found Sheep.

“The lost sheep makes me think about God, because he is so gentle, like a sheep, and he is so soft hearted. This makes me understand God more, because it helps me be gentle, to not get mad and just leave, but to stay and be careing (sic). I think this is the sweetest work I know.”

Lived out before me were Sofia and Gianna’s observations that the parables of the Good Shepherd and the Found Sheep grew within the children throughout their time in the atrium.

When reading the children’s journals and observing their work, I couldn’t help but remember that wonderful passage from Sofia’s Religious Potential of the Child:

“Once begun, the relationship with the Good Shepherd never ceases; the parable will grow slowly with the child, revealing its other aspects and satisfying the needs of the older child, adolescent, and adult. We allude only to the fact that the child after six years of age begins to realize that the parable of the “found sheep” reveals that the Shepherd’s protective love is a love that is forgiving as well; His love is really unfailing, it is inexhaustible even when confronted with wrong behavior. The older child, who in pre-adolescence is oriented toward heroic ideals, will see in the Shepherd who “walks ahead of his sheep” the person who shows us the path, one that is not without difficulties but that has as its aim the “superabundant” life of the risen Lord. The development is from the love that protects, to the love that forgives, to the imitatio Christi. The parable fulfills in a specific way the exigencies peculiar to the three levels of development Maria Montessori spoke of: early childhood, sensitive period for protection; later childhood, moral sensitive period; adolescence, sensitive period for heroism (Sofia Cavalletti,  The Religious Potential of the Child, 75).

Thank you Maria, Sofia, Gianna, Kieran, and Gracie: your sweetness gentles my heart and leads me in his path.