Creativity and Cultivation of the Cosmic Task
Creativity — and being a creative thinker — is elusive and inherent all at once. As humans, we all have immense potential for creativity across all fields of life and learning — from art to science, to social and educational contributions, and beyond. Though few of us will ever be Creative in the ways of Einstein, Maya Angelou, Yayoi Kusama, or Maria Montessori (and that is okay), we all deserve the benefits of being creative in our day to day lives.1
Isn’t the Montessori Method already creative? Yes, of course, the method inherently supports creative cognition. Why would developing stronger foundations for creative cognition be important then? It is too easy to forget to make space for the fluid transitions that creative cognition requires. Are the mechanics or doctors who think outside the box to solve complex problems with cars or human bodies, or the physicists who envisioned the Hadron Collider, based on particle theories any less creative than the eccentric author, award-winning composer, or genre-defining visual artist? Of course not, because each of these tasks and many more like them across fields require immense amounts of interdisciplinary creative cognition. Fortunately, as Montessori teachers and families, we are already on this cross-curricular learning path; we just need a few more supplies for our journey!
As the adults guiding children in Montessori’s education of peace, how do we help cultivate these tools and skills for abundant creative cognition in developing brains? (And in ourselves, for that matter?) We accentuate the bountiful interdisciplinary opportunities presented to us by Maria Montessori herself in Cosmic Education! Maria Montessori grasped the importance of creative cognition skills for the 6-12-yearold child and highlighted them in her instruction of guiding the child toward their Cosmic Task. Our children live in a global culture and face solving immense climate challenges. For this task, creativity/Creativity and ecological intelligence go hand in hand to build a healthy, biodiverse future. Developing strong creative cognition skills and ecological intelligence are keys to preparing children for their world, which we aim to be one living in harmony with planet Earth.
“Just this should be the task of history: to reveal this other aspect of the life of man, to illustrate his cosmic task, to throw light on the action he unconsciously performs on the planet where he spends the brief years of his life.” Maria Montessori (1973, p. 22)
It’s easy to get tangled in jargon – Montessori, academic, scientific, or otherwise. Establishing a common language facilitates effective communication.
Cosmic Task – In essence, Maria Montessori held this as an individual human’s contribution to the universe. This is a lifelong evolving quest. Ages 6-12 is not the time to answer these questions 1. Who am I? (as an individual and a species), 2. Where do I come from, and 3. Why am I here? The 2nd plane is the time to prepare the soil and plant the seeds of these questions. It is time to introduce this lifelong journey of discovery, get the children comfortable with these questions, and stock their tool belts for the Cosmic Task quest.
Cosmic Education – This is the vehicle intended and crafted to prepare the children in their search for their Cosmic Tasks. It is the soil for planting the seeds of the Cosmic Task. Cosmic Education is the philosophy, and the Cultural Curriculum subjects are the method.
Creativity aka Creative Cognition – This includes imagination, innovation, and generating new ways of thinking about things in every area of life. Creativity is a series of whole-brain processes, habits, and cognitive behaviors that span across every subject area — from art to math to practical life. Creativity is the personal process of discovering questions and finding solutions that make everyday life more vivid, enjoyable, and rewarding.
Ecological Intelligence (Eco-Intelligence) – This applies social and emotional intelligence abilities to an understanding of systems thinking. It melds a long-term outlook, embracing empathy for all life. It’s living and acting in a balance of head and heart (or science & sentiment, as the historic Nature-Study advocates said). Systems Thinking – A holistic approach to life and learning focused on the interdisciplinary nature of systems — aka a cohesive group of interrelated and interdependent parts which can be natural or human-made. A systems approach helps young people understand the complexity of the world around them and encourages them to think in terms of relationships, connectedness, and context.
Ecological Literacy (Ecoliteracy) – This is the process of fostering inspiring education that genuinely prepares young people for life’s challenges by developing strength, hope, resiliency, and systems-thinking through meaningful connections with the natural world.
Cosmic Education helps children of the second developmental plane begin to understand themselves as human beings by using embedded systems-thinking skills to visualize the web of relationships within their universe, and how they fit into that web. Therefore, the Cosmic Curriculum uses an approach that builds ecological intelligence and creativity naturally.
Cosmic Education is like a collection of nesting dolls, or a series of concentric circles, with the child at the center (Duffy, 2002). As children develop, they mature in a non-linear way, looping back and forward through learning and development. They build new skills on the foundation of the Montessori environment’s materials, curriculum, and supportive human community. Students apply their understanding of these nested systems to relationships within themselves (their inner dialogues), their families, classroom, school, community, and wider natural and human ecosystems.
“…for all are linked and have their place in the universe.”
Maria Montessori (1991, p. 14)
Practically integrated within a conceptual framework of wonder-sparking stories, Cosmic Education constantly relates all parts of the elementary Cultural Curriculum back to the universal whole. It uses the whole to better understand the parts, because our personal lives, and our personal Cosmic Tasks, are all parts of the holistic evolution of the universe. Our educational system of using the entire awe-striking universe as a context for multiple subjects of study helps avoid any pitfalls of students gathering isolated fragments of knowledge and random facts with no way of relating them. Through cosmic education, it becomes clear how the Montessori Method is inherently systems-based and ecologically literate.
Montessori instructs us to guide the students into an area of study by stimulating their imagination and interest. In Elementary, we do this in a beautiful way — through the Great Lesson stories and lots of hands on experimental work. Montessori’s normalization process is actually the same as the process for building creativity. So it seems fair to surmise that if the process of normalization is considered by Montessori to be the “most important single result of our whole work” (Montessori, 1991), then so is helping the child become a creative thinker (Zener, 1994)! We emphasize the value of normalization, and the journey toward the Cosmic Task, by helping the children embrace a love of lifelong learning. In common culture, it’s often assumed that learning stops once a person leaves school, but research shows in the most creative and joyful people, that is the farthest thing from the truth (Kaufman, 2013, p. 264). And a lifelong love of learning is part of what a Montessori education aims to instill! Having a secure tool box of creative systems-based cognitive skills helps young humans effectively navigate both the calm and stormy seas of both childhood and adult life.
Humans can discover, and evolve, their Cosmic Tasks at any point in their lives. As elementary guides and parents, our commitment to the 6-12-year-old child is to prepare the soil and plant the seeds. But how do we prepare the soil and nurture the seeds in the creative, self-constructive process of Normalization and Cosmic Task seeking? We accomplish this work by enhancing the aspects of Creative Cognition and Ecological Intelligence already within the Cosmic Curriculum!
Cultivating Creative Cognition
There are two stages of the creative process; both are equally important:
Generation – In this stage, we use divergent thinking. New ideas are produced, and originality is sought.
This type of thinking is observed in children when they daydream and in free play. It is process-oriented.
Selection – In this stage, we use convergent thinking. The new ideas are worked out and if they hold up, are manifested into valuable contributions to self (or to society as adults). This type of thinking is observed in children when they are deeply engaged in purposeful work. It is productoriented as there is an end goal of completion (Kaufman, 2015, p.xxv).
This shifting between thinking styles happens so naturally it often goes unnoticed, but if we train ourselves to notice it in our students, creative learning opportunities abound.
In our classrooms and home-school rooms, we must encourage fluid transitioning between the Generation and Selection stages of creative cognition by curating an environment that fosters: Academic risk-taking, originality, autonomy of how to create, time for reflection and inner exploration. It’s easy to say, but how do we further curate an environment that encourages fluid, creative thinking in our students and ourselves? The freedom comes from within the structure, of course!
Create specific boundaries of space and time for focused work – Boundaries of space and time manifest in how: our work cycles and curriculum areas are geared to convergent thinking, our peace areas and reading/daydream nooks are conducive for divergent thinking, we offer outdoor classrooms and free play/ recess time in all weather, we prevent overscheduling by defending blocks of openended free time, and as guides and role models our own valuing and modeling making space for personal reflection time. This can be particularly tricky in the homeschool environment but even more critical than in a school classroom.
Cultivate nurturing community-focused environments – This seems like a given in Montessori education; still, it isn’t always the norm in modern society, so we continually work to manifest community by diminishing competition in all areas, increasing grace and courtesy, and collaborative practical life opportunities, and of course, conducting classroom our management and parental discipline in an authoritative (not authoritarian) nurturing manner.
Model a love of one’s work and learning – Do your best to approach each day with a sense of wonder and value preparation of the self. We all know the importance of teacher preparation in Maria Montessori’s eyes, so make the time for it however that looks for you. The “vibe” of the adults in the home and school environments sets the tone and energy for the children.
Montessori stressed the preparation of the teacher’s spirit as a vital part of the method. She said, “A teacher must be consecrated to the bettering of humanity… the teacher must be dedicated to the fire of the inner life of the child” ( 2014, p.56). She likened her guides to the Vestals of Ancient Rome, whose task was to keep alive the sacred fire and see it never went out. Equating those fires to the fire of the child’s interest, She said, “This is our mission, to keep alive this fire in the child.” As parents and teachers, we are bestowed with this important task (Montessori, 2017 v. 2, p. 308). Self-care and personal preparation are just as key as arranging a room or presenting a lesson. Taking care of you is taking care of the children too!
Curate a spirit of nonconformity – Explore how even things that are the “same” are different and that the differentness is what is most interesting — “Same same, but different” as the saying goes. Celebrate all the differences! The Timelines of Life and Humans, Botany, and Zoology lessons are great for this. For example, when presenting these threads, explore how the Zoology lessons clearly show how the animal kingdoms are the same but also different.
Encourage curiosity – Hone your own, and then model curious observation to the children. Make space for your creative hobbies outside of school preparation and share stories about them with the children. Nature journaling, gardening, “Wonder & Wander” walks, and of course the Great Lessons are awesome examples for engaging curiosity. We all know from experience, if our wonder is sparked on a subject, the students and children will likely be too. Share your wonder and in turn, be inspired by their endless supply!
Initiate ease with ambiguity – This one can be tough for adults and for children still with a foot in the sensitive period for order. Practice becoming okay with not knowing. Model comfort in not having to have all the answers, as well as confidence in an ability to discover solutions. Having the socio-emotional tools to stay easeful while feeling uncertain or uncomfortable builds resilience. Grace and courtesy is super for practicing and modeling ease with ambiguity. Appropriately dramatically emphasize when you don’t know the answer to a question, or if you feel uneasy about something, and then verbalize your thought process on how you feel about that and how you could go about finding the solution (Kaufman, 2015, p. xxxii).
“When you are being creative, there is no such thing as a mistake.”
John Cleese (2020, p. 48)
In my personal experience as both a teacher, an artist/author, and an aunt to thirteen children, I believe the most pivotal structure to developing creativity is the boundary of space and time. We live in a culture of distraction and over-scheduling, where a person’s value is often equated and quantified with their level of busyness and productivity. This hectic lifestyle erodes our empathy and compassion. The time of both children and adults is taken up with passive consumption (and consuming culture is never as rewarding as producing it) (Csikszentmihalyi, 2013, p.342). Creative thinking requires incubation time… divergent thinking time…and this happens during blocks of free time — for children and adults (Montessori, 1973, p. 56; Cleese, 2020, p. 49-50). Value this free time and protect it fiercely; always remembering doing “nothing” is incredibly valuable. So just stare out the window for a bit; your brain needs divergent thinking creative incubation time!
“The greatest killer of creativity is interruption.”
John Cleese (2020, p.46)
Consider the old saying, “sleep on it.” Have you ever been working with a problem or challenge and slept on it, (or stepped away from it for a while) and then, Voila! The solution comes to you out of the blue. That is creative incubation at work. How does it happen? Both quantitative and qualitative research proves time and again that inspiration favors the prepared mind…and is associated with having a greater well-being and purpose in life (Kaufman, 2015, p. 2325; Csikszentmihalyi, 2013, p. 83).
Let’s explore further. Suppose you are trying to figure something out:
First, you laid the groundwork by gathering the data on the problem. You research and discover the landscape surrounding your problem — that’s the Selection stage, convergent thinking.
Then, you stepped away to do other things, shifting the problem to the back burner of your mind. That’s when divergent thinking gets to work behind the scenes in your brain while you go about other aspects of your daily life — that’s the generation stage.
Later that day or week, a solution idea popped into your conscious mind while you were say…folding laundry.
Once you had the solution idea to your problem, your brain excitedly switched back to the convergent thinking (selection stage) to work out the practical logistics of implementing the steps needed to achieve the goal and solve the issue.
Inspiration and effort are a positive reinforcing feedback loop (Kaufman, 2015, p. 24), and we the adults must schedule firm boundaries of time and space for focused work as we curate an environment that encourages creative thinking.
“…you can teach people how to create circumstances in which they will become creative…”
John Cleese (2020, p.6)
Practical applications for cultivating creative cognition in Elementary Environments:
Beauty in the environment – Everything about the prepared environment, and presenting a Montessori lesson, is a work of art and beauty. In the Montessori homeschool environment, this goes for the entire home. Value beauty in your home, classroom, and in yourself. Add tokens of beauty as reminders of Montessori’s urging of the guide being the most important aspect of the prepared environment (Zener, 1994, p.26). What self care rituals prepare you to feel calm, creative, and confident from the inside out?
Assign screen free, unscheduled free-play time as “homework” – Children’s enormous capacity for creativity emerges in free play, but they just don’t get as many opportunities for deeply engaged free play as they developmentally need. Assign this “homework” to the children and yourself! Then, allot time to share experiences and discoveries made. Designated sharing and assimilation time supports and models the value of open-ended divergent thinking mind-wandering free time experiences (Kaufman, 2015, p 3-13, 2013, p 138-140; Goleman, 2013, p. 245).
Encourage daydream and discussion class times – Allot a daydream chair near a window (with a timer) for children to take a brain break. Use it yourself to model how to sit and “be” just gazing quietly out the window watching the clouds roll by for a bit. Mealtime tables are also great open discussion areas. At school, assign monthly rotating lunch seats and suggest interesting discussion topics based on student interests that you’ve observed, thereby offering students opportunities to practice conversing with a variety of classmates — particularly ones they don’t know as well. Plus, designating lunch as a specified social time block is excellent for curbing excessive socializing during the work cycle. Remind chatty students that they can continue that conversation at lunch or recess, and morning is the time for focused work. At home mealtimes, present topics of conversation that get children considering and articulating their thoughts (think like Model UN and debate team skills and discussions). (Kaufman, 2015, p. 30-34).
Allot “Wonder and Wander” time, at least once a week – This is a time where the hands or feet are engaged in an easy task, but the brain can wander. It’s mindfulness and mind-wandering at the same time. Perhaps the class goes for a walking meditation around the schoolyard during the school day — call it “Thinker Walking” like Thoreau did. This is basically the Walking on the Line lesson, just outdoors and no line, so the children will understand the process. Walking in nature physiologically changes the brain, as proven in the studies on Shirin Yoku, Japanese Forest Bathing. (Abookire, 2020) Have a school garden? Try “Open Garden Time” with invitations to join in basic maintenance tasks like weed pulling, watering, compost turning, and nature journaling. Practical Life is, of course, excellent for this, so keep those little hands busy washing dishes, folding laundry, and involved in all manner of home-economic skills. Keep peace corners fresh and ready with natural sensorial elements, and consider designating a floor table as an always available “Doodle Desk” where children can draw out their daydreams. Perhaps feature headphones and a record player to listen to a short audio story or song record as a unique type of timer (Kaufman, 2015, p. 4142).
Schedule Weekly “Relaxation Time” – Do gentle stretching and guided deep relaxation or mindfulness meditation. “Mindfulness” is a buzzword for the process of actively observing what’s around us. An observational awareness practice creates a platform in the child’s mind to weigh their thoughts, feelings, and impulses before acting on them. The essence of Cognitive Control is growing the capacity for holding attention where we want it — and that is something we all need more of in this age of digital distraction! Call the time whatever you like: “Mindfulness Minutes,” “Sensory Observations,” “Tune-In Time,” “Head and Heart Stretching.” Mindfulness and relaxation are critical tools for increasing cognitive control, socio-emotional intelligence, and divergent thinking skills throughout life. (Kaufman, 2015, p. 9-121; Csikszentmihalyi, 2013, p 353-354; Goleman and Senge P.,, 2014, p. 15-23).
Plan a “Free Cycle” – Schedule an afternoon work period once a month where the students can work on any (non-digital) project they like. They can work with a material they haven’t been able to get to in the regular work cycle; they can write a story, read a book, stare out the window, garden, do practical life work, anything. You can even offer a table of various open-ended art supplies. This is not a child horse around, nor a make-up lesson / guided instruction time. Let them “be bored” and, in turn, gift them the opportunity to figure out how to get “un-bored” on their own. This space is for encouraging convergent and divergent fluidity. It’s a time for them to experience the joy of exploration in an academic environment (Cleese, 2020, p.49).
These six themes allot free, yet structured, blocks of time for exploration, discovery, concentration, daydreaming, mindwandering, and actualization of ideas. In practice, they also cultivate wonder, awe, and curiosity. Each of the listed skills contributes to brain plasticity and is necessary for developing the skill of fluid transitioning between generation and selection thinking states. This fluid transitioning is a trait of highly creative humans and it actually supports long-term academic learning outcomes (Kaufman, 2015, p. 85-86; 2013, p. 249-251).
Research shows creative students are not favored by teachers because unconventional students are more of a challenge to teach. (Kaufman, 2015, p.175)
How does that research finding sit with you? If I had a nickel for every time “creative” was used as a passive insult to describe me, I’d have a nice little savings account! What about you? Have you been disdainfully labeled creative, or used the label in that way?
As a child, I learned quickly that my creative thinking was something to hide from some of my peers and especially adults, so I conformed and obeyed on the outside to meet imposed expectations. I “played the game.” By the time I was a teenager I wasn’t going to play that game, and I set my creative ways free — regardless of what anyone else thought about it. It wasn’t the easy path at home or school by any means, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Even coming to the classroom with my personal experience, I am still guilty of being impatient with a “creative” student, and favoring “pleaser” type behavior. I know firsthand that as a teacher with an overflowing plate, compliant behavior is just more efficient for achieving academic requirements and expectations.
But life isn’t efficient, and children are process-oriented, not product-oriented. Keep in mind, when redirecting a child for the 10th time in an hour, or praising the pleaser sibling — most children deep down are natural non-conformists regardless of how they may outwardly express themselves. Children’s drive to think creatively is one of the keys to them discovering their Cosmic task (Kaufman, 2015, p.172-174). Don’t misunderstand, this does not mean the children rule the roost or that rude, disordered and disruptive, or inappropriate behavior is tolerated as “creative.” Set clear expectations, firm limits, and consistent (appropriate) consequences. Then, allow questioning and creativity to appropriately flourish within these limits — and it will. Constraints are shown to actually increase creativity (May, 1975).
Children who are encouraged to question are more likely to develop creative outlooks and initiative. And however trying the questioning may be when we just need to get something accomplished, encouraging questioning is imperative to developing the first half of creative problem-solving. Questioning and problem finding is proactive, while problem-solving alone is the reactive second half of the equation — but together they become the essence of creative thinking across subjects and life (Csikszentmihalyi, 2013, p. 328, 365-368).
How does embellishing the cosmic curriculum with creativity building lead to Ecological literacy?
“Story comes first — then study…inspire the children to further study…[in] the Cosmic approach to education, each story is a nesting doll placed within the context of a more universal setting, a concentric circle of narrowing in toward the child.” (Duffy, 2002, p. 32, 34, 36)
Facilitating Normalization and Cosmic Task journeys through creative extensions to existing Cultural Curriculum lessons partially supports our greater Montessorian purpose of “preparing the child for their world.” Learning how to find and solve the 21st century’s complex problems, from the physical repercussions of the climate crisis to navigating an increasingly virtual landscape, requires a strong skill set of creative qualities that can be applied to the systems in which these problems arise. This is where using creative cognition to develop Ecological Intelligence enters (Goleman, 2012, p 2; Kaufman, 2015, p. xxxii).
Unfortunately, there are no inherent neural systems in the human brain dedicated to understanding distant larger systems occurring within the Universe (yet). Our human brains have only evolved enough to make us alert to immediate systems — like a rustling in the bushes to save ourselves from being eaten by a lion. Evolutionary biology has yet to adapt us to easily alert to events that we aren’t experiencing first hand — like dangers outside of our immediate physical environments. (Hence issues surrounding climate crisis denial.)
What does Montessori mean by “Normalization”
The Four Characteristics of Normalization are still very important in 6-12 age children:
Love of Work
These characteristics allow children to express themselves, find inner interests, and experience happiness (Montessori , 2017, v. 2, p.303). Montessori instructs us to guide the students into an area of study by stimulating their imagination & interest. “To create in him admiration and wonder” AND to keep our own interests sparked as well! (Montessori, 1991; 2017, v. 2, p. 300). Montessori’s Normalization process is actually the same as the process for building creativity. So it seems fair to surmise that if the process of normalization is considered by Montessori to be the “most important single result of our whole work” (Zener, 1994), then so is helping the child become a creative thinker! The homeschool environment is fantastic for emphasizing the value of normalization, and the journey toward the Cosmic Task, because it so intentionally empowers children to embrace a love of lifelong learning.
Harvard Psychologist Howard Gardner’s eighth of his Multiple Intelligences, the Naturalist Intelligence, is as close as we humans get to excelling in systems thinking, and he advises that the sensitive period for the naturalist intelligence is childhood, especially early childhood, so that works in the favor of our students — for ourselves, we have to work extra hard (Goleman, 2012, p. 5, 2014, p 35; Checkley, 1997, p. 8)! The systems-aware neural pathways and thinking processes must be taught, built, and strengthened through practice.
Fortunately the Cosmic Curriculum’s Cultural subjects do just that! Just like the six year Cosmic Curriculum cycle, when carried out together over time, practices of ecoliteracy manifest a whole greater than the sum of their parts. Educators who cultivate practices of engaged ecoliteracy have the capacity to help create and sustain healthier relationships between people and planet. This equitable peace promoting education is the name of the Montessori game!
“Without an understanding of who we are and how we got here, it is impossible to understand what our task in the universe is.” (Duffy, 2012, p.35)
Practices of ecological literacy which build ecological intelligence and how they relate to Cosmic Education
Developing empathy for all forms of life – This boils down to cultivating compassion. It is the essence of peace education. As Montessori said, “establishing lasting peace is the work of education” (1972, p.viii), and without environmental peace, we will never have global social peace (Montessori, 1972). By helping children recognize the common needs that all life forms on Earth share, we shift our perspectives about who we are relative to other species and life forms to a more authentic outlook where humans are members, not rulers, of the natural world (Goleman 2014, p. 26-36). How? Nurture inclusive classrooms by emphasizing lessons showcasing the roles that plants and animals play in sustaining the web of life in the botany, biology, and history curricula.
Embracing sustainability as a community practice – This means running the home, classroom, and wider school cultures within the context of community. It’s considering our actions systematically and behaving with high regard for the longterm common good, not just immediate individual interest. This is a great focus for helping nurture impulse control in our instantly gratified culture (Goleman, 2013, p 59-89; Kaufman, 2015, p. 133-136). How? When teaching the Great Lessons and threads like Fundamental Human Needs, Timelines of Humans, and Economic and Political Geography, engage in discussions on ways we could change how we go about daily routines in order to reduce the negative impacts on people, non-human beings, and the planet (Montessori, 1973, p. 12-13). These concepts are particularly great to get into with upper elementary age students who could focus research projects on diverse community perspectives, networks of relationships, and resiliency by examining how communities provisions themselves (Goleman, 2014, p. 37-41).
Making the invisible visible – Out of sight, out of mind. It’s so easy in modern life to not see the far-reaching implications of most of our actions. Take garbage, for example. The can goes out on the curb, and it “disappears,” right? Tidy disengaged blinders shield us from the far-reaching implications of garbage disposal — from environmental racism to micro-plastics in the ocean. The ability to systems think is important for making the invisible visible, to stay aware so we can develop ways of living that are both modern and also life-affirming for Planet Earth (Goleman, 2012, p. 14-15). How? Field trips are awesome for this. Take field trips to the recycling center, to the wastewater treatment plant, to the electric company, to local farms, food banks, and animal shelters. Build relationships with local NPOs and discover what kind of support they actually need (not what we may think they need). Have students develop an appropriate project that supports a need. Take virtual field trips abroad with organizations like Rainforest Alliance or Heifer International. Get involved with a TerraCycle program. Cultivate meaningful pen pal relationships with children of different global cultures through Montessori organizations or other programs.
Anticipating unintended consequences – Creativity really plays the lead in this one. It’s both problem-finding and solving. It aids in developing children’s skills for Risk/Benefit Analysis via impulse control using two strategies: 1. The precautionary principle – When an activity threatens to have a damaging impact, precautionary actions should be taken. 2. Systems Thinking perspective – When analyzing issues, shift from reducing a problem into parts to instead exploring the connections and relationships among the components. It’s seeing the forest, the trees, and all life housed within (Goleman, 2012, p. 15-16). How? Try mind-mapping and reinforcing positive feedback loops. Literally, draw out big problems on big paper or chalkboards. Make mind maps of a problem and its parts — whether it’s ongoing disagreements between students or the wider issues on kids’ minds. Seeing a problem and its possible causes, effects, and solutions laid out visually, helps children learn to systems-think. It also encourages the discovery of the intended and unintended consequences that small changes make to a system’s parts. Visual illustrations of potential consequences more concretely show how all changes affect a larger system, for better, worse, or both. Within the maps, be sure to include images of reinforcing feedback loops (negative and positive) to help illustrate ongoing causes and effects (Goleman, 2014, p. 48-49).
For example, currently, anticipating unintended consequences could be done in developmentally appropriate ways with systemic environmental racism or the pandemic. More generally, explore broad causes like recycling or endangered animals. Locally, explore issues specific to children’s nearby nature experiences and interests. Remember, when it comes to presenting environmental issues, always consider the age of the students and remember David Sobel’s wise words, “No tragedies before 4th grade! We must let them love nature before we ask them to save it.” (1996, p. 4)
When dealing with greater and abstract social issues, use Grace and Courtesy lessons to play out scenarios where unintended consequences are discovered by thinking through a feedback loop. Help the children connect their feelings with names and take advantage of the impulse control growth spurt in 5-8-year-old brains by practicing emotional self-awareness. This naming helps children begin to predict how their emotional responses will affect the system they are in (Goleman, 2014, p. 15, 23, 35; Focus, 2013, p. 76-78). Use mindfulness practices to boost the attention networks of the brain that say “No” to impulse and “Yes” to cognitive control and focus. A fun way to practice delayed gratification and stopping on cue is with freeze dance games. Add the Finnish habit of Sisu to Grace and Courtesy lessons to bring awareness to the children’s inherent strength and developing resiliency (Goleman, 2014, p. 18; Kaufman, 2015, 27, 154, 2013, p. 133-144).
Understanding how nature sustains life – Foster an understanding of Earth’s web of life by consistently reinforcing that we are all members of this diverse web of relationships. Whenever applicable, relate topics back to the bigger Cosmic view of life on Planet Earth. We must teach the children (and remind ourselves), through the Cosmic Curriculum lessons of community engagement, how members of a healthy ecosystem do not abuse resources that the entire ecosystem needs to survive and how when they do, collapse happens (as is learned in the Timelines when species and civilizations went extinct). Once internalized, the students can apply their understanding of systems to their daily life and relationships (Goleman, 2014, p. 15, 23, 35, 2012, p. 16). How? Our existing Zoology, Botany, Functional Geography, and History curricula support this learning perfectly! The Timelines, Long Black Line, Tectonic Plates, and other time-based lessons are perfect vehicles for magnifying systems thinking skills. Simply look to nature to teach and learn systems thinking. Nature is always around (even in the most dense cities there is a houseplant, a tomato in the fridge, or simply the sky above). Nature is infinitely engaging and embodies “the wild.” The natural world provides opportunities for convergent and divergent thinking, mindfulness, flow, creativity, the cultivation of wonder, and the opportunity to assimilate experiences through savoring and creative expression. These lessons show that each part of Earth’s human, plant, and animal cultures support and sustain each other. And when one is disturbed or suffers, all are impacted. Ecological intelligence is a collective practice of a way of living that fulfills the present human needs while supporting nature’s ability to sustain life on Earth into the future.
These practices of socially and emotionally engaged ecological intelligence also cultivate curiosity, wonder, and interest in what things are like and how they work. They encourage a question finding and answering attitude, trial and error experimentation, the confidence to make mistakes, and inspiration to generate new ideas and solutions — all of which we now know are also great for creativity building! Creativity and ecological intelligence lead to the ever coveted ability to detect and map the patterns and order that lie hidden within the natural world. That is Cosmic Education!
Teaching for ecoliteracy involves the guides, family, homeschool/classroom, and, ideally, a child’s wider community. Our Montessori elementary Cultural Curriculum is inherently ecologically intelligent — we just need to encourage creative ecoliterate conversations while we present the Cultural lessons, offer the traditional follow-up work, and include a few creativity and nature community-focused extension experiences. Creativity and Ecoliteracy are embedded in what we do as Montessorians. We only need to support and magnify these inherent aspects of our Method and Environments. This systematic long view is at the heart of Cosmic Education.
We may not reach every child with every aspect of Cosmic Education, present every element of Ecological Intelligence, or inspire widespread creativity, with a C or c. Classroom guides will likely never see most of these seeds they plant even sprout. But that is okay. We embrace our task to nourish the soil, so those seeds will sprout, at their own pace. When we assume the honor to cultivate and teach the Cosmic Curriculum – with creative cognition and ecological intelligence at the fronts of our minds, we are truly Cosmic Educators. We are fulfilling Montessori’s ambition to prepare the child for their Comic Task and in the process, we are working for world peace. Here and now, this is our Cosmic Task.
“We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.”
Maria Montessori ()(1991, p. 6)
|1 Notice the difference in the referencing of Creative (capital C) and creative (lowercase c). With a capital C, Creative refers to those whose contributions to society have shifted cultural paradigms. With a lower case c, creative describes the everyday acts and thought processes that contribute to personal discovery and daily life applications. Both types of creativity involve crossing the boundaries of domains. These definitions of creativity and ways of being both creative and Creative are presented by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his classic book on the process: Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention.|
Kelly Johnson (BFA, MA, AMS 6-9, she/her) seeks to guide humans of all ages to reconnect with their natural world. An artist, author, nature journaling guide, Montessorian, and children’s garden facilitator, Kelly brings a lifetime of artistic expression, academic exploration, and hands-on gardening experience to each of her endeavors. Visit @wingswormsandwonder & wingswormsandwonder.com, for Kelly’s books, blog, workshops, nature journaling courses, and outdoor learning integration consultations!
Further reading on building Creative Cognition and Ecological Intelligence
Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide. John Cleese Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind. Scott Barry Kauffman and Carolyn Gregoire The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education. Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge Ecoliterate: How Educators are Cultivating Emotional, Social and Ecological Intelligence. Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennet, Zenobia Barlow Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. David Sobel Smart By Nature: Schooling for Sustainability. Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow
Integral Yoga Walking Meditation for Kids https://integralyogamagazine.org/walking-meditation-for-kids/
Guided Deep Relaxation Video: https://www.wingswormsandwonder.com/wonder-wed-91-deep-relaxation/
Guided Nature Inspired Yoga Class Video: https://www.wingswormsandwonder.com/wonder-wed-99-nature-inspiredyoga/
Tapping in to Creative Flow: https://www.wingswormsandwonder.com/5-steps-to-creative-flow/
Sensory Observation: https://www.wingswormsandwonder.com/observation/
Mindfulness Drawing & Doodling: https://www.wingswormsandwonder.com/drawing-mindfully-fun-exercise/
Teaching Feedback Loops for Ecological Intelligence: https://www.wingswormsandwonder.com/feedback-loops-life-nature/
Abookire, S. (2020, May 29). Can forest therapy enhance health and well-being? Harvard Health Publishing, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-foresttherapy-enhance-health-and-well-being-2020052919948
Checkley, K. (1997). The first seven…and the eight. Educational Leadership 55(1) 8.
Cleese, J. (2020). Creativity: A short and cheerful guide. Crown Publishing.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013) Creativity: The psychology of discovery and invention. Harper Perennial.
Duffy, M. and Duffy, D. (2002) Children of the universe: cosmic education in the Montessori elementary classroom. Parent Child Press.
Goleman, D. Bennett, L., and Barlow, Z. (2012) Eco literate: How educators are cultivating emotional, social, and ecological intelligence. Jossey-Bass Books.
Goleman, D. (2013) Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. Harper Collins.
Goleman, D. & Senge, P. (2014) The triplefocus: A new approach to education. Key Step Media.
Kaufman, SB. (2013) Ungifted: Intelligence redefined. Perseus.
Kaufman, S B and Gregoire, C. (2015) Wired to create: Discover the 10 things great artists, writers and innovators do differently. Vermillion.
May, R. (1975) The courage to create. Essay 6. Bantam
Montessori, M. (1972) Education and peace. Kalakshetra Press.
Montessori, M. (1973) From childhood to adolescence. Kalakshetra Press.
Montessori, M. (1991) To educate the human potential. Kalakshetra Press.
Montessori, M. (1994) The child in the family. Kalakshetra Press.
Montessori, M. (2017) Creative development in the child: The Montessori approach, Vol. 1. Kalakshetra Press.
Montessori, M. (2017) Creative development in the child: The Montessori approach, Vol. 2. Kalakshetra Press.
Montessori, M. Nature, cosmos and history. Montessori talks to parents: The child in nature. The North American Montessori Teachers’ Association Journal, 2(2).
Zener, R S,. (1994) Montessori talks to parents: Nurturing the creative personality. The North American Montessori Teachers’ Association Journal, 2(3).
Sobel, D. (1996) Beyond ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education. Orion Society.