Taking Inspiration from Nature: A Montessori Classroom Tour of wBees Forest School
Many families that I work with ask how to incorporate nature into their homes and their family life. It isn't always easy or practical to get outside after a long day. Most people value nature and outdoor space...but how to make it work for the average family? I spoke with Lanny of wBees Forest School and she has some ideas! I have been following wBees on Instagram for a while and I love the simplicity of the space and the way that natural elements have been seamlessly incorporated. It feels like such a calm space in the middle of a very busy city (Brooklyn, NY). I have taken so much inspiration from this classroom and the tenacity of parents banning together for their children, hopefully you will as well!
1. Tell me a bit about yourself and your program...
My name is Lanny and I was a public school educator in NYC for 8 years and then worked for a charter school in San Francisco for 3 years before returning back to NYC to start my family. When my eldest daughter was turning 2 years old, I looked for preschool programs that were part time with an emphasis on nature and a richness in the arts and play. I didn't find anything that resonated with me so a few moms and I decided to start our own cooperative that fall. We introduced the idea to our community of families and unwittingly ended up starting a little school with 24 families, 4 classrooms that included my own living room, 2 other living rooms, and a church basement. We hired 3 teachers and had an amazing year of learning with a sweet cooperative where parents rotated as teacher assistants. The following year, I felt a strong urge to have my city kid immersed in nature so we became wBees Forest School where we were strictly an outdoor learning community that would jump on city busses to get to local green spaces and community gardens. Each year since then, the program has morphed and changed into a co-working classroom where parents stay on-site in a separate co-working room while the children have their own Montessori-inspired classroom. This fall, we opened up our first proper licensed Montessori preschool and it has been amazing to think of the journey of our school from a living room to now having a program with 3 classrooms!
2. When did you first learn about Montessori?
I was introduced to Montessori in a two-prong experience where my eldest was enrolled in a local Montessori program in Brooklyn for her 4's year and that same year, a local Montessorian mother reached out to me with interest in enrolling her son in wBees but also wanted to try to return to the classroom in some small way. Together, we started a small and beautiful Montessori Bridge program where young toddlers and their moms would attend a class together throughout the fall and then bridge to a drop-off program in the spring. I got to act as a teacher assistant in the Bridge program throughout most of the school year and I saw how very young children can build so much order and concentration as well as independence through the prepared environment. I saw the affinity for practical life works and how care of the environment works allowed children to become stewards of their own classroom. That same year, I saw my eldest daughter blossom into a confident and curious young person which really affirmed my belief that the Montessori approach can bring out the best in each and every child.
3. Nature is a main focus of your program. Why is it so important to expose children to nature?
Living in Brooklyn, NY, we have to truly carve out the space and time to connect to nature. Children naturally run, play, and open up when they are out of doors and creating as many opportunities as possible for nature is a worthy endeavor. We believe that fostering a connection to nature helps children understand their place in the world.
Every winter, we have a chick-hatching program that comes to us from a farm in New Jersey called "Rent-a-Coop." They bring us a coop with two baby chicks and an incubator with 7 incubated eggs. We get to candle the eggs to see the chicks growing and developing the children learn to care for the chicks by holding them carefully. Our classes use this opportunity as a platform to learn about other bigger concepts such as farm life for our Seedlings (toddler) class or the difference between birds and mammals in our Sprouts (primary) class. We had a very successful hatching this year with 12 out of 14 eggs hatching but sometimes a wee one doesn't make it and that's ok too. It's part of learning about the life cycle in our world.
In the spring, we've had tadpoles grow into frogs, larva grow into ladybugs for release and caterpillars to butterflies. All of these experiences help children connect to the wider world that we live in which is a big part of our philosophy and mission.
4. How can families bring that focus of nature into their home lives?
Living in Brooklyn, we need to enhance the magic within the small bit of nature around us. We encourage families to embrace the beauty in all different seasons and go to their local parks. Exposing children to free play in green spaces, opposed to only playgrounds, connects them to nature in a tangible way and is an invitation for exploration and creative play.
At home, just like in the Montessori classroom, families can provide opportunities for children to take care of their house plants, observe them and notice their uniqueness.
Cooking is another beautiful way to connect with nature, after all food is nature! Vegetables and fruits are colorful, beautiful and delicious!
5. How have you created a Prepared Environment in your space?
Our classroom environment is designed to encourage independence and create a space of order and beauty. The classroom design offers individual, small and larger table work options, as well as plenty of mat work space. We have a ‘cozy-area’ with some soft cushions, lounge chair, a bookshelf and a small shelf with soothing sensorial objects. The ‘cozy-area’ is right next to a window and is decorated with plants and a fish tank. This is a space where children can come for some quiet time, to rest, look at a book or simply sit and be.
All of the Montessori curriculum areas are sorted by shelves. Practical Life works are on blue trays and Art works on red trays, this helps children remember where works go and creates visual order.
The routines and expectations of the classroom are supported by the prepared environment, meaning that children can follow daily procedures independently by having all they need accessible. They know where to find and can reach: towels, water sources, sweepers, their own clothes, blankets and sheets, food and of course all materials.
6. How can parents create a Prepared Environment at home?
Children, even toddlers, are capable of performing so many skills independently. In the home parents can have a low drawer with some clothes options for children to choose from in the morning.
Having a step stool provides children the opportunity to reach the kitchen counter where they can help prep a meal or snack. With a step stool they can reach the sink to independently wash their hands, face and teeth.
In my house I also have a small low cabinet available for them with a cup, bowl, plate, utensils and towels for spills. This way my son can set his own table spot when we are having dinner and he is also able to get a cup and water from the fridge whenever he is thirsty. Yes, he sometimes spills some water and luckily he knows where to find towels and the hamper. He loves offering water to our guests!
Parents can also offer children an “okay” space for them to be messy, explore and work. Setting up a space for them where things can be accessible to them and they can feel free to explore, play and work. Setting simple and few rules for the space will help children know the limits.
7. What words of wisdom do you have for families that are interested in Montessori?
Get informed, read books, look at blogs and put things into practice! You will be surprised with what your child is capable of doing. I also always recommend for parents to go and observe a Montessori classroom so they can have a better idea of the what it’s about.
8. Tell me about the other parts of your program
At wBees Forest School we include and celebrate play. Each classroom has a play kitchen, doll house or farm, and a block area. We also have sensory bins which we switch out frequently, we often use natural materials such as rocks, dirt, leaves, water and of course little objects and tools for them to explore and play with. Through play, children learn to navigate social situations and the richness of language.
9. Anything else you’d like to add...
If you are finding it challenging to find a school that resonates with your life and philosophy of how you wish to raise your own children, find like-minded individuals and build the program of your dreams. Dream big for your little ones!