Many of us recognise that play is a fundamental right for children. We understand its importance in brain development and building social skills. No one would dream of preventing a child from playing. Yet our understanding of the importance of nature in helping a child to develop and thrive, is much less clear. I would argue that access to nature is a fundamental human need and we should not underestimate its power. It contributes to and shapes the way we feel, listen, observe, think and how we interact with each other. For children, it must be a fundamental part of every day: accessed simply and consistently.
“There must be provision for the child to have contact with nature, to understand and appreciate the order, the harmony and the beauty in nature… so that the child may better understand and participate in the marvellous things which civilisation creates.”
Maria Montessori The Secret of Childhood.
In today’s world, access to nature is often relegated to an ‘added-extra’, a ‘one-off’ and/or ‘optional add-on’ to help entertain children. In my view, this is dangerous. Being outdoors, ideally surrounded by plants, trees and earth, needs to be as vital a part of a child’s day as play. There are critical ways in which being in nature soothes and stimulates a growing brain and body. And for adults, we need to understand that the challenges facing our environment (biodiversity loss, climate crises and more) are intertwined with the challenges facing people in their personal lives and in maintaining mental well-being.
Current research in environmental psychology is revealing the importance of hands-on and consistent contact with nature from birth. In Montessori thinking, we have always championed access to a ‘prepared environment’ and we aim to give children support to choose freely, to find their own way with ‘heart’ (motivation and purpose). Gardens can be a wonderful way to provide children (particularly in an urban environment) with this kind of space and the many
benefits of nature.
“Study Nature, love Nature, stay close to Nature. It will never fail you.”
Frank Lloyd Wright
This wisdom goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We know that monks in the Middle Ages would use gardening to introduce a new arrival to the monastery, seeing it as a place to draw out a person’s inner strength and calm, as well as helping the individual to start to ask questions and find answers surrounded by and within nature itself.
More recently, I have personally seen the huge benefits of giving families access to our recently transformed garden spaces. One of the most moving moments at my community garden project was when a father and his four-year old son, who were finding it difficult to talk to each other, found that being in the garden, working together, gave them time and space just to be. This helped them start a new conversation that was in a place of healing and growth. I am constantly reminded of the power of getting your hands dirty, touching the earth, and reconnecting with a deep human urge to create life and sow seeds for the future.
“Isn’t that a bit like life? Although we need someone to sort out the weeds, afterwards, constantly it seems.
This beautiful world is a complicated world.”
Steve Divall – St Helen’s Church.
My work has increasingly become focused on how to creatively help parents and children access nature as a way of (re-)connecting to themselves and to each other, but also focusing on ways to create fun, long-lasting memories together. I have developed a step-by-step process to aid this which is called F.L.O.W. and is guided by a simple acronym:
● Feel: Learn to notice our body and its sensations, intuitions and understand the
information our brain is receiving from our senses
● Listen: Learn to listen proactively, deeply to what others are saying and hear the sounds
of nature around you
● Observe: Hold back from judgement, by waiting and watching to uncover options and
opportunities and to overcome obstacles
● Wonder: think and reflect on those observations – building wisdom using knowledge
Guided by Montessori principles, Growth Mindset tools as well as other child-centered approaches, the F.L.O.W. approach aims to be a helpful guide with evidenced based & effective tools available for the people I work with to follow so they can move Forward and obtain Long-Lasting, Outstanding & Worthwhile results. They are able to discover their unique ways of learning and communicating as a family, as an educator or an individual.
Gardens are often a perfect place to use this technique and F.L.O.W. has been critical to my work in establishing edible teaching gardens in London – working with people of all ages, with schools, local community and organisations (Growing Space Project). Aside from the numerous benefits of touching, hearing and feeling nature, gardens also provide rich opportunities to ask questions about nature and life. Children, in particular, make beautiful discoveries about nature (understanding plants, insects and more), learn how to work together and better relate to each other.
All in all, we can not underestimate the power of nature to help us in innumerable ways. If we are not lucky enough to live in rural environments with nature on our doorstep, it is vital that we find ways (through community gardens and more) to bring nature into our lives, and particularly those of our children. F.L.O.W. is one of the ways I do this, and I’ve found it a powerful tool to help others make nature a vital part of their lives, but there are many other ways to ensure
children are given their right to nature. It is the responsibility of us all to make sure that right is protected.
“A walk in nature walks the soul back home”