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The Outdoor Prepared Environment

Even outdoors, you are still the third point of the triangle! When we take the children outdoors, where it seems so easy for them to function, we tend to forget that the magic of the Montessori prepared environment depends as much on the teacher as it does on the materials and the child. Do children really need the same active support, parameters, and supervision in the outdoor prepared environment as they do inside the classroom? In theory, yes; in practice, we sometimes fall short.

Intellectually, we all know the prepared environment doesn’t stop at the classroom door. So, why is it so easy for us teachers to abdicate responsibility when we walk outside? I’ve heard more teachers talking lately about the disappearance of peaceful play on the yard. Some may think today’s children are shorter on tolerance, or that it’s natural for children to interact less peacefully in a more stressful world. Perhaps. And perhaps there is something else going on. Something that has less to do with the children and more to do with us.

Let’s face facts. Every teacher’s time is precious – our responsibilities can be exhausting. Labor laws aside, in the real world there is sometimes no formal space for teachers to take a mental break or check in with each other. We see the children running, jumping, digging, dancing, and singing in the outdoor environment we have prepared for them. It’s easy to persuade ourselves that it’s all right to use outside time to check in with a colleague or for a little personal rejuvenation – what teacher doesn’t need a breath in the middle of the day! We justify this notion by telling ourselves the children are just playing, after all; it’s no big deal. Is that true?

Let’s remember that for many children, free play in the outdoor environment is very big work! Here are just some of the social skills children are developing – with or without you:

  • Negotiating social scenes of all kinds
  • Interacting successfully with others, while creating
    their own games
  • Implementing their own plans, while incorporating
    the ideas of others
  • Determining the difference between reality and fantasy
  • Role-playing in new situations, some that don’t
    make sense to them
  • Experimenting with leadership & being a follower, team-play, etc.

What is it that we are doing or not doing to support the child? That is what makes this a thoroughly Montessori discussion, isn’t it? Certainly, we have a responsibility to support children on the playground; children are entitled to the same level of support outdoors that we offer them without hesitation in the classroom. So how do we accomplish it? Can we provide effective support and still find time for a breather or that critical check-in with each other? Yes, we can. Use the same practices that work perfectly in the classroom, outside the classroom. I know it sounds simplistic – that’s why it’s so easy to miss.

4 Tips for Preparing Yourself

Use the See-Saw Approach to handle oversight and observation simultaneously.

Make sure there are enough adults on the yard to manage the children AND conduct observation. The children’s interactions can go sour when left unattended, yet we could so easily support the children simply by noticing conflicts as they begin, rather than after they have escalated. At one school we called it The See-Saw Approach. While one adult interacts with a child or children, the other adult is literally standing up and scanning the group as a whole. Trade off.

Observe relentlessly to know the child and respond accordingly.

Just like inside the classroom, we need to watch long enough to determine if the children are working productively or if they might need our physical proximity, guidance, or mediation. If we’ve been observing each child, we’ll know how to handle any situation so as to benefit all the children involved.

Children sometimes need a control of error and sometimes just need to know we are there to support them in their choices. A child who is afraid to disagree with another student may find your physical presence is all that’s needed to muster the courage to take the risk. An older student who is refining leadership skills may need you to facilitate appropriate language in guiding a younger classmate.

Sometimes, a peaceful resolution is only an invitation away. I will always remember a time on the playground when two children came stomping over to me, very angry with each other over a disagreement about roles in their game. When I casually asked whether they thought the peace table might be helpful, joy lit up their faces and they skipped off to the peace table hand-in-hand. It literally took them seconds to make peace – a profound reminder to me to take “the path of least interference.”

Have a plan for communicating effectively outdoors.

An easy tendency is for teachers to stay within earshot of each other, potentially leaving areas of the yard without direct supervision. Instead, split the space into quadrants or areas. Develop a rotation plan that keeps teachers moving smoothly and peacefully around the yard in a coordinated way, so you can observe interactions without disturbing the children. Check in with your colleagues briefly as you pass each other on the yard, using subtle, quiet verbal cues. When you’re out of earshot, use effective non-verbal communication to let each other know what you see and hear – a wonderful way to practice sign language! Last (or perhaps first!), take time at your staff meeting to discuss how your specific outside environment is playing out (pun intended) and assess what the individual children, and the group as a whole, require for success.

Be a role model outdoors, too.

Our role as adults, as Montessorians, remains unchanged on either side of the classroom door. Adults provide a valuable example and control of error in social interactions; so many issues revolve around this area of development, especially for the older child. Take the opportunity to set the tone with peaceful language and gentle non-verbal cues. Seek consensus; remember to work as a facilitator rather than an authority figure or decision-maker. When adults extend their regular classroom skills outside, we see the same beautiful, productive, respectful society of children on the yard as we see inside the classroom.

Outside is a Window to the Child Inside.

Outside is an amazing place to gather information about the child. We can see how they walk, talk, invite, decline, engage, withdraw, follow through, conclude their activities, make transitions – the list goes on and on.

When we have a plan, when all the teachers are working together, when we’re out there roaming and roving with the children (and loving every minute), we have the opportunity to notice that crucial bit of information that only outside time could illuminate. Thus we are provided with insights into a child’s individual development and we are guided in assisting them when they need support.

We are Montessorians, after all. What delights us more than seeing a child lead another with nurturing, understanding, and just the right amount of guidance? When two children resolve a situation peacefully, productively, and joyfully, is there any more satisfying affirmation of humanity – or our decision to become involved with Montessori, for that matter?

When we prepare the environment, isn’t it so that we can see children’s true natures, so that we can provide what they need and watch them flourish? Let us serve the child outdoors, then. Two out of three points of the triangle are not enough to create the Montessori prepared environment, indoors or out. When we take the children outside, remember the third point, the dynamic link between the children and the materials – you!

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