How to Create a Montessori Garden Classroom
To set up a Montessori outdoor garden environment, first you need to include some rubber mats, and milk crates to place them in (rolled up). Crates can now be found at places like Stacks and Stacks, the Closet Store, and Target. As for the rubber mats, use car mats--the kind that are used to put on the floor by the front car seat to keep the carpet protected. I think they make them in clear plastic, now.
For outdoor furniture use child-size wooden picnic tables or wood benches and a long table (wood furniture is more expensive but it lasts longer and can withstand the wind). You can also get picnic tables in plastic include used ones. I don't recommend small, child-size plastic chairs as then blow over too easily and collect water on the seats.
Use plastic storage boxes for your materials and activities, instead of trays, and keep the lids on when not in use!
Consider having an elevated area, like a deck, for children who want to sit on the ground and work.
Consider having an outdoor cabinet or shed for putting activities in for the children to access. And a chalkboard.
Prepare for all types of weather:
- Make a shady area for hot weather, have a sun umbrella, some sun hats, and sunscreen.
- For rain and wet weather have rain boots, raincoat, rain pants available
- and towels for wiping.
- Allow for jumping in puddles, or show children how to walk around them--recommended.
Prepare for mishaps:
- First aid kit for falls and scraped knees
- Ice packs for bumps
- Ointment for bee stings
- A bell for calling all the children together when there is an injury
Access to water:
- Child goes indoors for water
- Water is accessible outdoors from a hose, a bucket, a jug, or an ice chest
- Talk about the importance of conserving water
Establish ground rules:
- Child needs to walk when doing garden/outdoor activities.
- They can run at playtime.
- Consider having a separate area for balls, bikes, and running games.
Compost: A compost is a great addition to your outdoor classroom. However, it will attract rats and skunks: you have to dig several feet below the ground for the mesh/wire siding so rodents can't dig under it; and you have to keep the lid/top securely attached to the compost. If you use a store bought compost, make sure the lid is secured so rodents can't get into it. Children can dig and turn the compost, water it, and of course place leftovers in it, but no meat or dairy. Cover up the leftovers in the compost with soil. Child will need garden gloves and boots.
Plants and trees: Children will naturally want to pick flowers and leaves. However, make it a rule that children need to learn the name of the plant/flower/tree, first!
Teach also the plants/herbs that are edible, non-edible, and poisonous. To do this, write the name of the plant/tree and hang it or place it on a stick in the ground. If the plant is edible (like a cherry tree or mint) the name should be written in black. If not edible, write the name in red. You can use round plastic lids from food containers and write the name on the inside; or glue on cut-out letters. Attach to the plant with string.
Caring for the outdoor classroom: Garden activities to include outside: watering plants, weeding, gathering leaves, and raking.
Other outdoor activities could include washing windows and sweeping. You will need child-size garden gloves, a place to keep them when not in use, and have them easily accessible for the child (we hung ours on hooks in a shed). The left and right hand gloves can be marked with permanent marker (r for right in red, l for left in green).
Also, a large bucket (or better yet a tub) needs to be available for weeds and leaves to be placed in.
Child-size garden tools can be hung on hooks or placed on a low shelf. Only have one child do garden work at a time, for a while. Mishaps can happen and you need to watch the child carefully! The other child can watch or do another activity.
Weeding begins with lessons on what a weed looks like, the name, and most importantly, what is not a weed. Go around the yard, for example, hunting for weeds. A weed can also be pulled previously and examined by the children.
Give a lesson on weeding: go get the mat, unroll it, and place it near some weeds. Then, get the garden tool you use for weeding and place it on the mat, next the gloves (many lessons might be needed to help the child learn how to put gloves on!). Put the gloves on, pick up the tool, and dig around the weed, put it down, pull the weed, carry it to the tub, return, and do another weed.
When done, everything needs to be put away, mat last. Then the hands can be washed. At our school we have them wash the tool, but it is more an extension than a necessity to clean the tools.
Now the child has a turn.
Do the same for gathering dead leaves around plants but use a basket or bucket just for that activity only. When basket is full, throw the leaves in the tub.
Same for raking but show child how to hold rake down, never up, or it gets put away. Rake dead leaves in a pile, place in yet a different basket or bucket just for raking, and so forth. When rake is not in use during the activity, it gets placed down flat and points down, for safety.
Other outdoor activities:
- Observe critters with binoculars, insect houses, and magnifying glass: birds, worms, butterflies, ants, spiders, ladybugs.
- Grow a vegetable garden.
- Cook and bake in the sandbox with sand toy works: use dishpans with pots/pans/mixing bowls and wooden spoons in each of them. The child puts the work away when they are finished.
Play stove: Have a play stove available with two small pots and a small metal spooning. Put some large pasta or beans inside the pots for scooping. This makes the stove a practical life spooning work.
The younger children love this work! They can pretend to make soup, boil eggs, etc., as long as they do the work correctly: they don't throw the pasta or beans, they don't bang the lids or pots together, or mix them with another work because who would notice such a breech? the other children!
- Art activities are a great addition to your outdoor environment.
- Consider having wet sponges available for wiping messes.
- A mural can be created by placing large paper on a fence, a wall, a long table, or around a tree trunk.
- Other outdoor art projects: leaf rubbings, flower arranging, nature collage, rock painting, sidewalk chalk and scrubbing it clean.
Here are a few resources!
- Ready, Set, Go Green: Eco-Friendly Activities for School and Home K-1 (also books for older age groups).
- Let It Rot: The Gardener's Guide to Composting.
- Help the Environment Book Set/Series by Charlotte Guillain, ages 4 to 6 (at MontessoriServices.com)
- Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning: Using the Outdoors as an Instructional Tool, K-8
- Sharing Nature with Children, 20th Anniversary Edition
- Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder
- For older kids (8 and up): The Nature Connection: An Outdoor Workbook for Kids, Families, and Classrooms
Montessori (and other) blogs:
- The Montessori Schoolyard
- School Gardens...blog: CBC News article on the benefits of learning outdoors
- Discovery Days and Montessori Moments blog: Wet, Water, Work
- The Work Plan blog: Scrubbing Table
- "Edible Garden" part one
- Community Montessori Garden Classroom
- Sevierville Primary's Outdoor Classroom (non-Montessori) "No child left inside" ; )
- Outdoor activities for kids (non-Montessori news clip)
You may also be interested in my Montessori and homeschool programs for birth to nine-year-olds at Montessori for the Earth.