The Wild Curriculum

This article was written for the winter issue of The Canadian Montessori Teachers Quarterly. For those not conversant with Montessori philosophy, I draw a parallel between its structural holism from pre-school to university and the complex adaptive systems of nature. Montessori can be misinterpreted and abused, but its form is antithetical to the industrial schooling model so prevalent today.

The Wild Curriculum

The land is where our roots are. The children must be taught to feel and live in harmony with the earth. - Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952)

The World Wildlife Fund’s recent announcement that 52% of the earth’s wild animals have disappeared in the last 40 years must give us pause. Although the methods for the study have been contested, biologists agree that planetary biodiversity is declining at a fearsome rate. The culprits are habitat loss, unsustainable hunting and fishing practices, and climate change. What can we do?

As Montessorians, we are fortunate to work in a structure that is based on natural, adaptive systems, promotes freedom with responsibility, diversity, interdependence, inclusivity, and peace. We are not struggling against a factory model that is endemic to a plethora of global problems. However, if Maria Montessori were alive today, what would she have to say? I suspect that she would urge us to nudge the boundaries of our experience and our consciousness and “go out” … go farther out … so the children are able to nurture that innate appreciation and empathy for wild systems that is their birthright.

What is the nature of nature? ~ The logic of the elegant wild? ~ The auto-telic impulse that engenders evolution, sustainability, future? What resonates at the fertile interface of education and survival?

We can create a beautiful, prepared environment for our students and yet, if we don’t include cross-species interaction, the feel of the land, a commitment to places that are not manicured and managed, our children will lose a sense of the encompassing earth. They will become increasingly domesticated, tamed, programmed. And perhaps that is why our wilderness, and its magnificent creatures are dying. On the continuum of human experience, is childhood also becoming an endangered species?

I was lucky enough to go to the Hershey Farm School a few years ago for N.A.M.T.A.’s Orientation to Adolescent Studies. The faculty mentioned that in the beginning, children suffered a period of withdrawal from the glut of ‘stuff’ that is integral to most contemporary western lives. Sometimes a month would pass in which students were restless for, and craving cell phones, games, screens, quick fixes with addiction-like symptoms … And then, with the immersion into working with the land in projects that ranged from pond management, to building simulated historical structures, to milking cows and archaeological explorations, a peace descended. A healing took place, perhaps from the ravages of “nature deficit disorder” that Richard Louv describes in his book “The Last Child in the Woods.”[1]

If we don’t take time to make space for children in the wild, we are creating a vacuum in the psyche of humanity. The answer is not primarily found in ‘book knowledge’, but in visceral, sensorial experiences of being human within the family of earth. For this shift to happen, small changes are enough. Take time to watch the clouds; to plant a garden; to devote a shelf to natural forms; to sketch outside; to go for walks; to create relationships with secret urban wildernesses; to move like animals; to observe the natural world.

Janine Benyus, the author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, sites “quieting”[2] as a first step to ‘emergent learning’ or learning that arises from a spontaneous collaboration of place, circumstance, and community engaging the whole child and resulting in the growth of collective consciousness. Marion Woodman and V.S. Ramachandra have written eloquently on the power of art to ‘recover essence and amplify it’[3] thereby establishing a physiological and psychological link that builds not only meaning, but also identity.[4] Montessori realized that thematic learning and the elegance of a spiral curriculum that builds complexity around a simple core was akin to living structures of mind and matter. Ours is a wild curriculum, in the best sense of the word; Where knowledge waits patiently in a rich undergrowth of potential; Where surprise, freedom, and response are delicately honed through choice, collaboration, and nurture; Where the human spirit may work in harmony with, and within its 4-billion-year-old mentor.

What do we do? Find the wild within, feel the silence, engage in quieting, honour the small creatures and the large that help define us, allow the children to lead us into a future that sings, snarls, chirps, ambles, crawls, and flies. Replace wants with needs, replace fear with hope and passive with active.

There are many ways forward, from the pedestrian - changing where to shop and what (or if) to buy, to saving rainwater and composting, to political action, to partnering with a holistic farm, to adopting a few acres of rainforest, but perhaps it is that silent interface between self and world that is the most potent threshold for change. As educators, may we become artful at finding that place where our myriad internal selves can fuse with the extended self of world to create a diversity of wills that nourishes the mirroring biodiversity of future.

Children are our ecologists, and we are their conduits. In promoting moments of relationship with the natural world, and facilitating its language we are on the way…

“We love the forest because it is alive, and when we are in it, we feel alive.” J - aged12

[1]Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. New York: Algonquin Books, 2005.

[2] Janine Benyus, “Four Steps to a Biomimetic Future,” Biomimicry. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002, 97.

[3] V.S. Ramachandra, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Imposter Poodles to Purple Numbers. Pi Press, 2004, Chapter 3.

[4] Marion Woodman. Psychological Transformation: Studies in Jungian Psychology by Jungian Analysts. Inner City Books, 1985.