By Ashley Keneller
The Montessori approach to elementary school can be quite different from the traditional model that many of us grew up with. The children do not have their own assigned desks. They are free to choose their own work and partners. They exercise their needs to negotiate, bargain, and to set rules that they think are fair. They are encouraged to they call their teachers by their first names. The list could go on and on.
Somewhere among the long list of ways in which our classrooms are different from the traditional model is that we want the children to seek out learning opportunities in every place that they go. While the children do spend most of their time in the classroom at school, we want them to know that their whole world is truly a classroom, and that their opportunities for learning are vast and unending. Through their experiences in a Montessori environment, the children come to understand that they can learn new and exciting things in a garden, a forest, a library, a grocery store, an art museum, a bakery, a veterinary office — the possibilities are truly infinite.
In order to support their research work and unique interests, the children plan and budget for different outings, called “Going Outs”, in which they are able to connect with experts and to get memorable hands-on experiences in settings that they want to explore.
Not only do the children get to feed their curiosity on these Going Outs, but perhaps more importantly, they get to exercise and practice their independence. As the children get older and enter the elementary years, they are able to do a lot of things for themselves — maybe they are able to pack their school bags, to dress themselves, or to make their own lunches. Through the off-campus experiences, children are able to show themselves and their community that they can make a phone call, plan for money that they will need, and speak confidently and intelligently with a new person. Going Outs can be a real source of both fun and pride as the children build their skills in navigating the world.
Hands down, the most exciting off-campus experiences of all are the overnight adventures that they children take. Unlike more traditional schools, we offer these experiences at a very young age; children as young as six years old are invited to spend two nights away from home, sleeping in cabins and sleeping bags, learning about the natural world, and eating camp food.
Although some of our newest parents and children can see this outing as too big of a challenge, it is so good for the children to take the plunge and go to camp with their class.
One way in which the camp experience is so valuable is that it gives the children an opportunity to form strong and lasting bonds with their communities. The younger children look to their older peers and their teachers for comfort, encouragement, and kindness when they are feeling frightened or homesick. I have listened in on numerous conversations with children who share strategies or experiences that worked for them when they missed their families in previous years.
I remember a specific Zoo Snooze trip (a one-night trip where we get to stay overnight at the Oregon Zoo — so fun!) in which a 6 year-old boy was feeling nervous about spending the night away from his home and family. During the entire nighttime tour of the zoo facility, he did not let go of my hand once. He really wanted to sleep next to my mat, until an older boy came over to us.
The older boy, an 8 year-old, asked if he could sleep next to the six-year old, because he thought that the younger boy might be frightened and that he could help. The six year-old agreed, although he was nervous. The older boy was talking and joking with his younger classmate, making him forget his fears. Later on, as the last children finally dozed off, I noticed that these two had fallen asleep holding hands. It was so great to witness a student supporting his classmate during a moment of need. The two remained close friends for the rest of their time at West Hills.
Independence from the (often unnecessary) help of adults is also a great component of overnight camp experiences for the children. While spending time at an overnight camp, the children are required to dress themselves, pack their bags, make their lunches, to brush their teeth, and to prepare their backpacks with the supplies that they will need for the day. At many camps, the children are asked to serve meals, or to clean up the cafeteria. They are asked to try unfamiliar foods. In short, they spend a few days being part of a team, rather than being the star of the show.
While we know that the children in our community are capable and competent, it is often difficult for the adults at home to stop themselves from completing tasks for the children, overly correcting behaviors or habits, or over-praising them for meeting expectations. When the children are at camp, their level of independence swells, as does their sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. True self-esteem, after all, is the result of meeting a challenge and overcoming it — it is the knowledge that you can do hard things, and it cannot be achieved through the praise of others. It comes from within.
Perhaps my favorite story from one of our overnight experiences happened a few years ago, when a child in the class was having a very hard time during the first few hours at camp. He was nearly inconsolable, and we debated about calling his parents to come pick him up. After lots of deliberation, we decided that we would give it until the next morning. He came around, and he ended up having a fabulous time, learning all kinds of new things — going on hikes to learn about the geology of the area, and even overcoming a fear of heights to climb a rock wall!
On the bus ride home, he decided to write down everything that he had learned at camp: songs, facts about animals, native folk tales, and all of the hilarious jokes that his cabin mates had made. He told me that now he was ready to travel all over the world, and to eat all kinds of interesting foods. He fell asleep on the bus writing about his time at camp. One year later he was the boy who comforted a younger child at the Zoo Snooze.