Take one step into Children’s Meeting House and you’re transported to a learning sanctuary, complete with peaceful fountains and lush plants in every corner. The Montessori school, which seeks to educate the “whole child” (socially, emotionally, educationally), breaks the mold of lessons learned within the confines of four walls—embracing the vastness of nature as a critical classroom. Gone are the days of merely reading about three-pointed leaves or composting in a textbook; at CMH, students live it.
“The nature component has always been a focus for our school,” CMH Director Casey Reed says. Thanks to their own seven acres of thick woods, lush fields, meadows, ponds and streams, plus access to hundreds more from the neighboring Grailville, students learn that nature is a priority. CMH is a WILD School Site, designated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to use its grounds to educate students about wildlife and the environment. Observing real life, in true Montessori tradition, cultivates a love of investigation and curiosity for the students.
“CMH and the nature experience are more than a feeling … and hard to describe in words,” Casey says. “When visitors come to our campus and see our children and teachers in action—especially outdoors—they just want to be a part of it. We have beautiful indoor classrooms—and an incredible outdoor one, too.”
It’s this enthusiasm that has led CMH to employ full-time naturalist Veronica Brennan (and proudly claims her as the only eco-conscious Montessori instructor in the tristate). Passionate about teaching all-things nature, Veronica grew up spending her days outdoors. The daughter of a naturalist, she knew that breathing in fresh air, hearing the crunch of leaves beneath her feet, and birdwatching for Ohio’s beauties—among other aspects of naturalism—were her calling.
“It’s always come very easy for me to be in nature,” Veronica says. “I had a storehouse of knowledge, growing up taking family walks and sitting around campfires in the backyard. But, being a naturalist isn’t so much about the names of things—my goal is to teach children to look a little deeper and appreciate what’s around them. I tried being a traditional teacher ... and I spent my days looking out the window.”
On a daily basis, Veronica spends time with children in their classroom settings, as well as engaging with them for a weekly dose of outdoor classroom exploration. The seasonally based education ranges from watching for winter birds to vegetable gardening in the spring.
“Studies recently have shown that children who are out in nature are healthier, are better problem-solvers and have less behavior issues,” Veronica says. “Exposure to nature is much more important developmentally than people originally thought—it’s a necessity.”
CMH’s program allows students ages 3 to 12 to acquire an understanding of nature based on where they are developmentally: three-year-olds hone their observation skills via their senses—absorbing sights, sounds and smells; six-year-olds ask questions about why things are the way they are in the woods; 10-year-olds identify their place and responsibility, fostering a sense of stewardship and caretaking.
“Making a child comfortable in nature is all that matters to me. And it starts with modeling. I’ll get down in the mud if I have to. Exposure to nature is what it’s all about.”
And it doesn’t stop there. The impact the nature program has on the community, as well as alumni and CMH families, is undeniable. Each year, many participate in the annual winter bird count, or sit beneath the stars (thanks to a portable indoor planetarium) during family astronomy nights.
From botany to biology, filling bird feeders to growing lettuce in mini-greenhouses, interacting with the environment and returning the favor are second nature for students at CMH.
“If you grow something and appreciate it, you’ll want to be a part of it more,” Veronica says. “If you teach a child from a young age about being eco-friendly and living a sustainable life, it’s going to be in their hearts. You’re simply feeding it and helping it to grow. Nature is where we come from—without it, we are not here.”
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