Visiting Ross Montessori's Natural Playground 5

Wild & Cultivated For Experiential, Imaginative Play

With its verdant hoop house, shaggy berms, and dramatic climbing net, Carbondale’s newest landmark, the Ross Montessori Elementary School playground, stirs the curious soul.

With the last stage of their new landscape in place, Ross students, staff and volunteers have created holding space for immersive, experiential learning: a “natural playground.” A significant component of this is a living, dynamic, evolving landscape—not just mowed grass and a mulched playground. With intensively edible landscaping, a hoop house, vegetable gardens and an outdoor classroom, the Ross stomping grounds provide a setting for hands-on botany, art, biology, math, science, and reading for both Ross students and children attending summer camp.

How did all this come to be?

While still at their former compound of trailers in an industrial zone, Ross conducted a visioning process among students.

Teaching Coach Mandi Franze jokes, “We couldn’t give them the petting zoo, the trampoline or the swimming pool they wanted, but we were able to incorporate the parkour (obstacle course) area, a tall climbing structure. But I think it was the adults on the committee that wanted the natural play area. Because kids don’t really have experience with that, they don’t even know that they want that. We used the Montessori philosophy of getting children out in real nature.”

The play equipment is engineered of hardwood Robinia, versus steel. Resonant textures of wood, stone, and bark lead to simple designs encouraging bodily exploration. Surrounding the play pieces are berms the children requested. One has a tunnel to crawl through and a bonafide sledding hill. As trees mature, children will be able to pick pears from the deck of the slide.

In an informal play space, wild grasses, and clovers sprawl around logs, boulders and stone pathways as freely as the children do. A chokecherry forest, sweet, wild currant berries and pollinator flowers give rise to exploration, smelling, and tasting.

“This summer, with the camp, there were always children searching for something to eat. I was like ‘Why are they so calm and quiet over there? What are they doing? Why aren’t they running around?’” marvels Franz. “It was because they were really searching for things they could eat, and be really excited about it.”

As parents find time to pitch in, this informal patch will have a willow fort to amp up the pretend worlds of the little ones. They’ll also build a grape arbor with bench seating within. Dripping in fruit and flowers, the arbor will provide sanctuary, not only to kids, but to wildlife: hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and to be honest, probably deer and raccoons once they discover the grapes.

Beyond the arbor is a loose-parts area, circumscribed in humongous logs, with cottonwood tree trunk tables and seats. Children will be able to build their own forts with collected tree branches and found materials. Buckets, ropes, wheels, rocks, you name it—a collection of crazy parts will spur creative play.

The outdoor classroom brings the “amphitheater” feel students and teachers requested. Gorgeous beams of Farmers stone create tier seating, with softening grasses and wildflowers. This autumn, a firewood wall, Andy Goldsbury-style, create a sound barrier from the road, and include several insectaries. All is encompassed by an orchard and pollinator garden, including many native species, to invite creatures, including birds, which further “wilding” of gardens through seed dispersal! Bird poop spreads species in patterns that Nature presents, beyond the hand of mankind.

The vegetable garden and hoop house are the highlight of Ross’s playground.

Explains Franz, “Maria Montessori believed children should learn through real life. How will they learn best here? By actually observing things that are growing. When they understand the life cycle of a plant, then they are ready to learn about the life cycles of animals, which leads directly into human biology and human life cycles, for example, flower pollen and reproduction, and humans and reproduction.”

Planting vegetables and tending the garden was the foundation of the inaugural Montessori Magic Summer Camp. Ross Reading Specialist Carmen Montgomery developed the camp’s programming.

“Montessori teachers and assistant teachers started mornings with age-appropriate lessons focused on botany and biology. Younger children studied the anatomy of butterflies and bees. Older children studied insects, specific plants, pollinators, and learned about native plants,” says Montgomery.

Each day of camp was dense with activity. “Kids love to get dirty!” laughs Franz. Gung-ho campers watered, weeded, planted vegetables.

“They helped care for trees by arranging them in their deer-proof fences and watering them. It happened naturally that they learned a great deal about all of our plants and trees by doing this work,” says Montgomery.

As the Ross gardens are new and raw, with still-forming yet incomplete cycles, Montgomery shares that, “children went out into the community to various places with gardens and nature: the community gardens, the farmers market, True Nature’s gardens, and the RVR River Trail.”

Camp field trips were designed to weave the ecological web further, experientially: the fish hatchery, Mount Sopris, and Cozy Point.

“Montessori was the original experiential learning.” Franz points out. “Maria developed this system of education more than 100 years ago. It was all about exploration and the children leading the way.” In Montessori, experiential learning goes beyond academics and into forming the “whole person.” As do the metaphors and symbols within this playground. Ross’s Friendship Bench is a symbol of what the children learn stewarding nature. Just as children learn to nurture life, “we teach direct lessons on social graces and being courteous to other people,” says Franz.

When a child is having an off day, or can’t find their friends, they’re invited to hang out on the Friendship Bench. Surrounded by wild grasses, flowers and shade, it’s welcoming and central to the playground. When the kids catch someone sitting alone on the Friendship Bench, they know to reach out.

Ross Montessori’s Director of Development and Enrollment Tricia Williams is the force of nature behind this highly visible and noteworthy project. With its untraditional appearance, community curiosity is piqued.

“People expect it to perfect the minute it’s in there. It has to be ready and done 100 percent!” she chuckles. “It’s a work in progress and we want it to be wild. It’s a part of it. I don’t think it will ever really be finished. It will always be evolving. Always be something new and exciting to bring into it.”

Wild and woolly it is, and people love it.

“It’s been really fun to see the community embrace it.” Williams says. With her constant presence, Williams has noticed visits from many playground regulars who don’t attend Ross, and she enjoys that fully. “There’s a family that comes here from New Castle because they go to church at the Orchard. This is their routine now. They bring a little picnic lunch and sit at the table and the kids play. I’m so proud of what the committee put together because it has been embraced by the whole community.”