Big changes are happening at Oak Farm Montessori School in Avilla, Indiana. For the past five years I’ve had the privilege of working with Oak Farm both as a professional and a parent. Before my first visit to Oak Farm in 2014 to give suggestions on how to manage the natural resources at the school, I knew very little about Montessori education. From that very first experience, I was very impressed by the role environmental stewardship and direct contact with the natural world had in the curriculum and experiences of kids at Oak Farm. Now, after having children at Oak Farm for the past five years, I’ve seen firsthand these principles put into effect. From daily walks outside with toddlers to high school students helping to plan the restoration activities around campus, all age levels are engaged with the environment at Oak Farm.
Environmental stewardship is an important part of Montessori education. “The land is where our roots are.” said Dr. Maria Montessori, the founder of Montessori education in the early 1900s. “The children must be taught to feel and live in harmony with the Earth.” In order to help facilitate this vision, Blue Heron Ministries was asked to create a natural recourse management plan for Oak Farm. The campus has been expanding quickly in recent years, acquiring additional property and building many new buildings as the school has expanded to serve infants through high school students. Today the campus is around 100 acres in size, with roughly half of that area being devoted to natural areas and wild spaces. At least six unique natural communities exist on the campus today and include: mesic prairie, oak woodland, emergent marsh, shrub wetland, forested wetland, and old field. One goal of the management plan is to create or restore the habitats on campus to include at least ten unique habitat types that are appropriate for the local site conditions. This will allow students at Oak Farm to experience a wide variety of the natural communities that once dominated northeast Indiana.
The current status of northeast Indiana’s most threatened and degraded habitats was one important factor when deciding what natural communities to create or restore on Oak Farm’s campus. Creating and restoring threatened habitats not only teaches people about the habitats themselves, but also creates habitats most in need of habitat restoration and recreation. In the early 1800s, just prior to the EuroAmerican settlement of Indiana, it is estimated that 18 to 20 million acres of forested land existed in Indiana. Today, that number has dropped to 4.9 million acres of forest, just 25% of the original acres. Less than 1,500 of those acres are old growth or undisturbed forest. There is no estimate on how many acres of savanna existed around the area in the 1800s, but oak savannas were certainly present and intermixed throughout the area. They would have occupied sites next to prairies or in places frequently burned by Native Americans. Today, no historic examples of these habitats exist in northern Indiana. Of the roughly two million original acres of prairie in Indiana, only 1,000 acres of undisturbed prairie are left. Finally, of the roughly 1 million acres of wetland in Indiana, only 134,046 acres are left.
The name Oak Farm Montessori School is a beautiful way to frame how Montessori education balances human needs and human responsibility. The name carries with it a rich meaning, full of history and nuance. It speaks of a history of place, a philosophy of education, the inter-dependency of people with the environment, and a hope for the future, just to name a few. There are oak trees today on the campus of Oak Farm because Native American peoples once frequented the area and burned it often, living in balance with natural processes while benefiting from them. EuroAmerican settlers then developed and farmed the land, living in the way they were taught and thought best. Today, the campus is being actively restored in many areas, helping to repair the broken relationships between different parts of the environment and between people and the environment. A farm still functions on the campus, allowing students to interact with and care for animals and plants that provide for human needs. This is the perfect setting to prepare students for the future; to work through the problems that our past and current lifestyles have brought about and come up with solutions. Our world needs this right now more than ever and I’m given hope for the future when I see what is happening at Oak Farm Montessori School and other places like it. I leave you with this quote from Dr. Maria Montessori. May it leave you inspired, as it has me, to help others learn from the trees, forests, prairies, and all God’s good creation.
“There is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all the life to be found around them, in a real forest. Something emanates from those trees which speaks to the soul, something no book, no museum is capable of giving.” – Dr. Maria Montessori.