Captured Moments

We have a few labels put out in our garden to help children identify some of the plants growing in the outer environment.

Little wooden strips painted and mounted on wooden stakes, thrust into the ground. But like most things these labels have come to have many uses.

In the past few months, we have had 3 children from the primary environment discover reading through them! A stroll in the garden, has witnessed them sound out each letter on the label and discover that they can read!

A couple of days ago, a child pulled out a label from the earth. Upon being requested to place it back, he obliged but only after he sounded each letter and realised that the label said, ‘pumpkin’!

He had discovered reading!

You can imagine his delight. After that hand in hand with an adult he went to every label and read it, his grin getting broader and broader.

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Working with children it is all about ‘teachable’ moments and sometimes they are hard to miss!

We sat down on the ground, still damp after a recent spell of rains, and with a stick I carefully wrote out a word. He read it, though ‘devoured’ is more like how it was taken. The next thing we knew we were surrounded by a group of children, all wanting a ‘word’ for themselves!

There were several beginning readers, as well as children who had not yet discovered reading for themselves. Each one got a word. The readers read the words for the non-readers, while the latter carefully observed, as their friends de-coded the squiggles in the mud. Over and over again, the children shouted in excitement, “I want to read” , “Give me a word”,  “Write ‘nutella’ for me” and it went on and on!

While carefully drawing the words on the damp ground, I thought of Sylvia Ashton Warner, an educator who worked with Maori children and often took them to the river side to give them words in the sand! (you can download her book titled ‘teacher’, here)

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Now this has become a game that we sometimes play when outdoors and the children have dubbed it, ‘word, word’. 🙂

So how does this happen? How do children ‘discover’ reading, rather than being ‘taught’ reading?

Any note on reading cannot begin without a mention of the child’s sensitivity to language between birth to 6 years. A child passes through special times in her life when she easily incorporates a particular ability into her schema if allowed to practice it exhaustively during this time. Montessori called the unique sensitivities of young children ‘sensitive periods’. Her understanding of sensitive periods has now been confirmed by modern science and even popular culture, with Time magazine calling it ‘windows of opportunity’. The child ages birth to six years old passes through three significant sensitive periods; those for order, movement and language.

Reading in the Montessori method, is a synthesis of many individual strands that a child ties together for herself.

The path to reading looks something like this:

All through their time in the primary Montessori environment, children are given the tools to build a rich and precise vocabulary. The environment itself is one in which a love for language should be in the ‘air’. Good quality poetry and books should be read to the children and made available in the reading corner. A love and respect for books should be modelled by the adults.

Children imbibe the left to right orientation required for reading, through engagement with the exercises of practical life. As they spoon grain from one container to another, pour water from a jug into wee glasses and cups, prepare their places to make dough or flower arrangements, they not only gain in independence but in effect are working on the left to right orientation required for reading. The step-by-step procedure in a presentation, helps children indirectly gain the ability to sequence. Again, another pre-requisite for reading. They are also gaining the ability to concentrate.

Through their work with the sensorial materials, they gain the ability to compare and contrast their sensorial impressions. They hone their visual discrimination skills, required to discriminate between the shapes of letters for reading.

Then there are the ‘sound games’ or ‘oral phonetic analysis’. A simple game played with the youngest children where they practice recognising individual sounds in a word. They are able to pick out beginning sounds, ending sounds, middle sounds and finally sequence all the individual sounds in a word. Through these games, they discover that words are made of individual sounds and enjoy picking out sounds in the words that they encounter in their daily lives.

Children are introduced to the sandpaper letters where they trace the letters over and over again. Through this they connect the squiggle to the sound it represents. They associate sound with symbol. Indirectly they are building a motor memory of the symbol for writing, which will come later.

And then there is the moveable alphabet. A child builds words with cut outs of the letters of the alphabet. They carefully sound out the individual sounds of the word they wish to build and then identify the corresponding symbol and place them in sequence on their mat. Can they read what they have built at this time? No, not yet, but this too is an important step towards reading which is yet to come.

With exposure to all of this, by and large most children, tie these different strands together and voila! you have reading – reading, as a point of arrival!

Reading ‘discovered’ rather than ‘taught’ is a joyful process and the child can truly say, “I have taught myself to read!”

“It is the adult who makes learning to read and write difficult when he or she approaches the two as subjects to be conquered, rather than discoveries to be made.” ~ Maria Montessori

Gathering Leaves

It’s the season for the ‘jungee badam’ tree to shed it’s leaves, once again.

This is the time when we gather the beautiful fallen leaves – red, brown, ochre, burnt orange and russet and string them into all manner of curiosities.

There are pouches secretly carrying a tiny rock and seed or hair wreaths encircling happy heads. Bracelets are fashioned and among the more adventurous – belts, crowns and collars!

Pouches, belts, bracelets and wreaths .... ... hair wreaths ...... crowns

... belt ...

v - wreath

... more belts ...

v collar

Gathering Leaves

~ Robert Frost

Spades take up leaves

No better than spoons,

And bags full of leaves

Are light as balloons.

I make a great noise

Of rustling all day

Like rabbit and deer

Running away.

But the mountains I raise

Elude my embrace,

Flowing into my arms

And into my face.

How Does Our Garden Grow? – Part Three

Here is the long overdue update on our gardening endeavours at school.

It has now been a couple of months from when we planted our veggies and some flowers and it’s been a mixed bag of results.

Our raised boxes are doing well. Even though they had to be moved a few weeks ago, the plants have re-cooperated and are lush and green.

In fact we have already had a harvest of string beans. The children cooked them with fresh dill and radish leaves from the garden. The harvest was not big enough to feed the entire school so we added some store bought carrots. The result was a tasty treat of buttery-garlicky bean and carrot salad! The fact that it was from our garden made the salad all the more delicious.

harvesting dill

harvesting dill

A week ago we were able to harvest enough dill to send some home with the elementary children as well!

Dill to take home ...

Dill to take home …

... all packed and labelled

… all packed and labelled

The gourds, yam, sunflowers, morning glory, pumpkin and other plants look happy and healthy.

Under the Teepee

Under the Teepee

The news is not so good with the keyhole gardening patch of the children though!

ALL the seeds that had germinated died due to heavy rains. We put up a canopy above the patch to provide some protection but it came too late. The only plants to survive were the turmeric and lemon grass. Now, we are going to have to start the planting  all over again!

Fortunately, the failed experiment with the keyhole garden patch of the elementary children hasn’t really dampened their enthusiasm.

Instead they have become a little more interested in ‘how’ a plant is looking; are the leaves yellowing, is the soil too wet, is the stem bent? Maybe the timely harvest of the beans helped.

mulching the keyhole garden

mulching the keyhole garden

It has been interesting to observe the children’s responses to the garden over the last couple of months.

Many children have become better observers of what is growing around them. A new bud, a flower that has just bloomed or a tiny fruit that is appearing now catches their attention. They have seen day after day the bean flower’s ovary slowly elongate into a fruit. The first purple bud of the morning glory drew much attention. Funnily the big, bright yellow sunflower growing right next to the sandpit where most of the children play, went unnoticed!!!

sunflower

Today a child guided me by the hand to show me a new ‘chilli’ that she spied growing. It was in fact the tender shoot of yam, all curled up,  just emerging from the soil. This was enough to spark off a walk through the outdoor environment. A group of us walking about and noticing more keenly all that grew around us … the massive banana flower, the young and shiny new leaves, the little dot of a chilli just emerging …

“…what most develops a feeling of nature is the cultivation of the living things, because they by their natural development give back far more than they receive, and show something like infinity in their beauty and variety.”

~ Dr. Maria Montessori

How Does Our Garden Grow? – Part Two

To continue the documentation of our garden experiments at school, here are the sketches of our plans that were designed by our wonderful parent volunteer. She shared them with us yesterday and in turn I am sharing them with you. I want to mention here, that these plans might change as we start implementing them, just like the plans for presentations we make for ourselves in the classroom.

RAISED BEDS ALONG THE KITCHEN PASSAGE

Kitchen Passage

Kitchen Passage

List of plants in the raised beds in the kitchen passage:

Box 1:

Corn – 2 varieties (Rainbow Corn and 1 other); Bhindi (Okra) – Sri Lankan; Brinjal – 2 varieties ( Apple Green Brinjal and ‘Hiltalu Brinjal’); Capsicum – Prima Bella

Box 2:

Tumeric; Drumstick; Sunflowers; Marigold; Chilli – 2 varieties ( Cayenne and 1 other); Garlic; Tomatoes – 2 varieties ( Round and Cherry)

Box 3:

Beans; Celery; Cosmos; Radish; Cauliflower

SEMI-CIRCULAR RAISED BED NEXT TO THE WATER MOTOR ENCLOSURE

Next to the water motor enclosure

Next to the water motor enclosure

Here we have Dill, Onions, Beetroot and Cabbage

AROUND THE COCONUT TREES

Around the coconut trees

Around the coconut trees

Coconut tree one (or the tree with the parrot)

This tree has a pre-existing boundary ledge in concrete going around it in a square, which means we have little choice but to stick with the square shape.

Here will be ‘maggay’ cucumber; nutmeg; lime and ginger

Coconut tree two ( or the tree with the sandalwood!)

This tree had no pre-existing boundary in concrete so a ‘yin yang’ design was made.

Much to my delight, when we rented the school space there was a sandalwood tree growing next to the coconut tree. It was just a sapling but now has taken firm root and is growing well. This is a much sought after plant in India, and is used widely in religious ceremonies. The tree further reached mythical proportions in popular culture thanks to Veerappan, a notorious dacoit who poached sandalwood and evaded the governments of 3 states for 20 years! Thefts of even the smallest sandalwood trees are quite common.

We plan to plant some sponge gourd as well. Loofahs are made out it’s fruit when dried. You find these loofahs in most cities in India, often times with seeds still in them!

Stinging nettles! – The nettle plant found us rather than the other way around. So, they have a bad name and yes, the plant at school is a little toxic but they are also loved by some caterpillars, butterflies and moths and us at school! The children are fascinated by their red cherry-like fruit and their leaves that sprout thorns along their mid-ribs. The nettle definitely stays.

Additionally we will plant lettuce and carrots.

CHILDRENS GARDENING PATCH OUTSIDE THE ELEMENTARY ENVIRONMENT

Children's Gardening Patch

Children’s Gardening Patch

This area is just below a splendid rain tree with a sprawling canopy, which means that it probably does not receive enough sun to grow vegetables and flowers. But herbs and leafy greens should work well here.

Yesterday we laid out a keyhole design. The herbs and greens that should do well in this area are listed below. Being the first round of planting, we have done the planning without the children, keeping the soil, sun, water conditions in mind. By the time the second round of planting comes around, having tended the plants and observed the space, the children will be able to participate in the planning stage as well.

Basil; Rosemary; Lemon Grass; Parsley; Sage; Chakramuni; Red Amaranth; Spinach; Corriander; Thyme; Oregano; Fenugreek; Mustard; Golli Soppu; Green Amaranth; Mint and in the centre – Cosmos.

To better understand what will grow and won’t in this area we will plant some veggies in pots and place them around the patch. If they don’t do well then we can always move them to a sunnier spot.

Here are the proposed veggies for the pots. When the children come from their summer break, we will plan which veggies to plant together:

Tomato; Lettuce; Capsicum; Beans; Brinjal

“When we understand that man is the  only animal who must create meaning, who must open a wedge into neutral nature,  we already understand the essence of love. Love is the problem of an animal who  must find life, create a dialogue with nature in order to experience his own  being.”  ~ Ernest Becker

How Does Our Garden Grow? – Part One

Each time I heard about the food forests that were planted, the townships that had metamorphosed into edible landscapes and the wonderful things people were growing on their tiny terraces, I felt intrigued. I also felt ignorant. My experiments with gardening were limited and at best, free form. I had done some planting with the children in previous years but not as a sustained effort.

I knew that we really ought to be gardening with the children… growing veggies, herbs and other plants. Through this contact children would be inspired to observe and understand the interconnectedness of all things; to experience the power of nature and her cycles. Even with my most cursory readings on the topic of permaculture, I could see the connection between permaculture, cosmic education and education for peace that we strive to follow in Montessori schools. BUT I felt inadequate to guide the children. I hesitated and failed to follow the enthusiasm and fascination children display in natural processes. This was a big, gaping missing piece at school.

Thanks to committed and passionate parent volunteers who have taken on the job of preparing our outdoor environment the missing piece has been found and put into place. They have opened up new ways for us to look at things – educating and guiding us.

I have only just started learning about different aspects to permaculture and am excited with this door that has been opened.

This is my attempt to document our learning and our plans.

A week ago we made three raised beds along a passage wall outside our kitchen.

First bags of cocoa peat, compost, soil and rolls of cardboard and tarpaulin were brought in.

compost

Wood from our woodworking room was converted into frames for our raised beds. Additionally, discarded coconut shells were purchased from the neighbourhood coconut-water seller to make even more raised beds. The first time we saw this was during a school visit to Vanastree where they also used the coconut husks to make steps around the farm!

To make the raised beds we first lined the concrete on which the beds were to sit with tarpaulin, then inside the wooden frame sat a layer of corrugated cardboard and in went the rich soil, compost and cocoa peat.

3 beds

All that was left to do was the sowing.

sowing

We planted all manner of treasure – 2 varieties of chillies, brinjals and tomatoes, lemon basil, turmeric, sunflowers, maize, marigolds, capsicum and drumstick, using companion plants as much as possible.

packets of seeds

On top went a light layer of mulch.

mulch layer

It was such a happy experience for us.

Already the corn, capsicum, tomatoes and chillies have germinated.

Corn

Corn

In the meanwhile  we have found that the soil in the gardening patch for the children is seriously depleted. It lacks aeration and has too much of clay. We have done a ‘double dig’ and planted leguminous seeds to do their magic. Observing the soil and how things are going, the patch is going to need some more time and care to get things going. Eventually we plan to have a ‘keyhole’ design utilising the edge effect.

Most of our hanging baskets are no more filled with just ornamental plants. They have been converted to herb baskets, holding plants like ‘Jalla Bhrami’, Mint, Thyme, ‘Ajwain’ or Bishop’s Weed, interspersed with a few ornamental flowers.

Around the coconut trees we have planted gourds which should climb up toward the sun.

And then there are other features planned:

water body in the front garden made using a recycled child’s bathing tub. Hopefully it will demonstrate an aquatic eco system and bring in the frogs and birds. I have been promised some papyrus cuttings from a friend which should do nicely in it. (The children are going to be thrilled with the papyrus. Not only because of their fascination with all things ‘Ancient Egyptian’ but also because it has a triangular stem!)

A spot for our cacti and succulent garden. This is will grow slowly, getting filled over time.

A tiny tepee in the back garden, sitting close to our banana plant. Creeping and entwining through it will be a bean plant.

In phase two we will look at recharge wells to replenish ground water.

Some of the plans may work and others may not. It’ll be interesting to see what happens and why and then think about what we should do next.

Watch this space for more updates of our experiments at school.

“How often is the soul of man–especially that of the child–deprived because one does not put him in contact with nature” – Dr. Maria Montessori  (from Childhood to Adolescence)

Cloud Watching

the conductor - front cover - laetita devernay

Things have been winding down.

Sitting under the shade of the coconut trees in our back garden at school, we bite into thick juicy slices of watermelon while we listen to the frantic call of the Koel.

It’s the begnning of summer and the end of yet another academic year.

One afternoon past time that we do during this time of year is cloud watching. And if the skies are clear, then observing the beautiful lace-like patterns that branches and leaves make against a clear sky.

This has become an Earth School tradition.

Those who want to partake of this activity quietly lie down next to each other on the mat and look up, while the others continue with their free play. Right above us is every object and beast that we can imagine. The clouds are a fish that turn into a teapot that becomes an old mans face!

It’s funny how traditions start. We are only 3 years old and already we have a few traditions that everyone at school looks forward to…

A trek to the same forest reserve on children’s day, which is celebrated on 14 November in all schools in India.

Giving to others during christmas time and decorating our christmas tree together – one ornament at a time.

This year, we started celebrating world poetry day and the quiet enthusiasm it has generated makes me believe it is something that the children are going to ask for again and again.

And of course, watermelon eating and cloud watching towards the end of the academic year.

Each school year there are always some children who will not return when all of us get back after the summer break. Afternoons like these give all of us the time to just stay in the present, enjoy each others company and welcome the changing seasons.

I feel that the recurring nature of these ‘traditions’ provide the children with markers to grapple with the abstract concept of time through the year plus a sense of community and security.

Personally, I don’t think you can spend an afternoon better than cloud watching!

Theory of Loose Parts In Action

As a follow up to my post on the theory of loose parts and the natural playscape, I thought I’d share some of the goings-on during playtime.

Free play at school has been becoming more and more creative and inventive of late. What’s more, we have noticed increased co-operation and fewer fights between the children.

Here’s what the children have been up to:

They have been gathering fallen flowers, leaves, sour clover, cast-away bamboo from their wood working, broken pots and anything else they can forage to make their own ‘shop’.

Everything can be bought for a few rocks and they are most generous with granting discounts!

The shop is open!
Hard at work – the pile of rocks in the corner is the ‘money’ they have collected for their wares
Hurry! Just a few items left
Beware the money safe – all the rocks are under the pots. If you try to get to it you will topple the precariously balanced sticks on top and leave a tell tale sign!

Meanwhile, the sandpit is coming alive with other wonders. A found bottle, bamboo sticks, left over bricks from our amphitheatre and a few broken pots is all it takes!

a plastic bottle, 2 tyres and sand become a truck
… and there exists an internal structure as well – bamboo sticks hidden in the sand are the pipes of the engine!
… but what does one do with all these bricks?
…. why, build a house ofcourse!
… and the wolf ? Well, he can huff and he can puff but he can’t bring this house down …

“In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.” ~ Simon Nicholson