Friday, January 25, 2013

Natural Elements in the Classroom

Both the Reggio Approach and the Montessori Method (two models of education that I very much support and admire) emphasize the use of natural materials in the classroom. Now I cannot speak much for Montessori because my background is in Reggio, but I imagine the reasons for this emphasis are quite similar. What does this mean exactly, natural elements in the classroom? Well, rather than using plastic tables and workbenches, there are wooden ones. Instead of storing materials in brightly colored plastic bins, you will find glass jars, metal tins, and wicker baskets lining the wooden shelves and tables in these kinds of classrooms. Rather than plastic cars and blocks you would find metal and wooden ones in children's hands. In place of those crinkly plastic floor activity mats, artist's smocks, and costume masks, cloth ones are used. Do you notice a pattern here? Plastic is as artificial a material as one can find and while there are plenty of affordable toys and play materials available, their more natural counterparts offer so many more benefits (not to mention that plastic is often the uglier choice). You might think that beauty is pretty low on the priority list when designing and filling a classroom, and that kids do not notice such things, but the Reggio Approach takes aesthetics quite seriously (both Reggio and Montessori come from Italy after all, where art and beauty are ingrained in the culture) and with good reason.

We have all seen those classrooms with white vinyl flooring, awful fluorescent overhead lighting, and plastic primary colors all over the place. I would never use these elements to decorate my own living or workspace, so why would I want to subject my children and students to such an unappealing work/play environment? When given the choice, why choose tacky over artful? In the Reggio Approach, as in the Montessori Method, every aspect of and material in the classroom environment is chosen thoughtfully and purposefully.

Not only do natural materials create a more visually appealing space, but they serve the purpose of fostering a connection to the natural world, which is especially important in more urban schools where exposure to nature is often quite limited. So not only do you want to switch out your plastics, but also offer actual items from nature as play materials, like pine cones, leaves, dried flower, tree slices, etc. for creative play and exploration. The more time children spend around these materials, the more comfortable they are with them and come to prefer them over the unsustainable, non-environmentally-friendly plastics. Basic values are being built and shaped here, however subtle they might be. We need our next generation of students to have a deeper connection to and appreciation for the natural world so that they will help preserve it rather than continue to destroy it the way past and present generations (often unintentionally) have. Using natural materials is a way to bring these kinds of ideas into awareness without the annoying lectures and posters and other stuff that gets labeled as “liberal propaganda.”

In addition to the benefits of using more natural materials already discussed, many of these items can be made by hand, thus saving a bunch of cash to be used for field trips, better quality food, paying an extra part-time teacher, or just getting the bills taken care of. I especially recommend making many of these items (check out my DIY Classroom board on Pinterest for project ideas) with or around your kids because not only does it show them how things are made, but it inspires them to get more creative and innovative, opening up new uses for the materials available to them.

By building things with kids, they learn many self-reliance skills, safety and math skills, problem solving and critical thinking skills that inspire them to embark on projects of their own. These are the skills you get to model when doing such projects in the classroom and at home that are simply not feasible when working with plastics. Most plastic toys cannot be made at home by the average person and cannot be repaired when broken, so they perpetuate the throw-away culture and remove children from understanding the process of how things are made and fixed. It is from understanding and experience that respect for materials and the natural world are born, not to mention the respect your kids will have for you (and themselves) when they see what you (and they) are capable of.

*If you want more examples and ideas of natural materials in the classroom, and/or are curious where these images came from, check out my corresponding Pinterest page. All of these images were found through basic Google searches and scanning classroom ideas on Pinterest. I do not take credit for these pictures, I am merely a researcher sharing what I have found.

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