The Montessori philosophy is all about the individual child. Developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, it dates back to 1907 but is a prevalent option across the country today and here in our area. The American Montessori Society states that the following components are necessary to a Montessori program: multi-age classrooms; a choice of activity from a set of options; uninterrupted work time; specialized materials all within easy reach of the child; and trained teachers who let children learn by working with those materials rather than by direct instruction. But there’s more to it than just giving students the freedom to pursue their own interests.
A Montessori Day
“Montessori is very cyclical,” says Kate Pinckert, Director of Marketing and Development at The Children’s Meeting House. “Everything builds on everything else.” Even in ways that aren’t always obvious. For example, children ages 3 – 4 might spend time polishing bells in the morning, which is actually a pre-writing exercise. They’re taught a specific way to complete the task, which helps strengthen their fingers and prepares them for holding pens and pencils. In the afternoon, children focus on academics, choosing materials from a selection of themed areas, including art, geography, science and math. They pursue their chosen subject for as long as they like, but ideally for about two-and-a-half to three hours, so they can really dive in and explore.
How do you get a 3-year-old to focus on anything for that long? Giving him the choice is sometimes enough — his interest alone and the freedom to explore that interest with no distractions or time limits is recipe for in-depth study. And at The Children’s Meeting House, which is located on an eight-acre property and surrounded by another 300 undeveloped acres, nature’s constantly integrated into activities, making subjects like science all the more appealing.
That doesn’t mean Montessori students are left to their own devices. “We refer to it as freedom within a framework,” says Pinckert. It’s this idea of building on knowledge that informs Montesssori’s approach and allows children to progress on their own schedule. And because children are learning through their own experiences with the provided materials, they can explore them in ways that make sense to them, making Montessori an educational method that fits most types of learners, including children with special needs. Pinckert points out that because a Montessori education is about the individual, they’re able to honor IEPs and meet each child’s needs.
What Makes Montessori Unique
A Montessori education’s very child-centric, according to Lauren Guip, Montessori Toddler Teacher at Summit Country Day School. Along with a sense of pride and independence in being able to make their own decisions about their work, little ones also receive important lessons in what it means to be part of a community.
“Montessori recognizes that preschool children are very social by nature,” says Guip, “and we don’t want to squelch that.” In an environment where children are free to choose their own materials, they must learn to share and take turns. “It’s their first experience where kids learn they aren’t the center of the universe, and that’s really good for them.”
Guip explains that learning your role in a community, and respecting others by doing things like putting away your materials for the next child to use, are all a part of teaching kindness and empathy, social skills that kids will need in the future.
How Children are Evaluated
Because Montessori’s about nurturing the desire to learn for learning’s sake, grades and standardized test aren’t really part of the plan (although some programs may choose to use them). Students are still evaluated, however, and teachers use a variety of methods to track their progress, including portfolios of work, family conferences and intense observation.
“We observe, observe and observe some more,” says Cali Herzog of the Montessori Center Room, explaining that teachers’ notes are all compiled into a Google document for each child. Those notes help teachers figure out if a child might need a little extra help, and what peaks his curiosity. For example, if a teacher notices that a child’s spending a lot of time with art, but seems to be neglecting science and math, she will perhaps guide him to other areas of the classroom with a simple, “I’d love to show you this over here when you’re done.”
“The teacher’s role is to get a child excited about all areas,” says Herzog.
Two moms’ experiences with Montessori
Six-year-old Haley became a Montessori student at Summit Country Day School this past fall. Her mom, Kristin Baker, says Haley brings home much of what she learns in school. A trademark of a Montessori classroom is that children must put away their materials when they are finished using them, and Baker finds that has led Haley to be “more intentional” when cleaning up after herself at home.
Angie Garber, whose children have attended or are currently attending Montessori Center Room agrees. “You can really see that responsibility when they come home,” she says. “There are no arguments about homework, they want to get their ‘accomplishments’ done.” She adds that what really stands out for her is the confidence students gain from being able to independently discover new things and solve their own problems.
Having taught first grade herself for several years, Baker also believes that Montessori methods have helped her daughter understand more sophisticated concepts. A typical example includes the Celebration of Life activity, in which a birthday child brings in pictures from each year of her life with a caption or short story to accompany them. A candle is placed in the center of a circle of labels, one for each month of the year, so that the candle represents the sun. The birthday child stands next to the month in which she was born, and passes a globe around the candle, once for each year of her life, while the teacher explains to the class what she was doing during each of those years. Ultimately, the students are learning about the passing of time.
Overall, Baker is impressed with the kind of knowledge Haley demonstrates, and with the teachers who meet students on their own levels, but then challenge them to do more. “It’s been inspiring to watch her,” she says.
Making the Change
While there are options to continue a Montessori education throughout a child’s entire academic career, most children find themselves transitioning into a more traditional classroom environment at some point.
The good news is that children are flexible, especially with a little help from grown-ups. Teachers at Montessori Center Room prepare children leaving for a more traditional environment with lots of questions and talk about what they think their new school, teacher and classmates will be like.
Says Angie Garber, mother of past and present Montessori Center Room students, “I think all parts of Montessori speak to a child, and give him the tools to thrive in any school setting.”
Likewise, Montessori students at Summit Country Day School moving on to the elementary grades receive preparation on what they can expect from their new classrooms. And Pinckert has found that students leaving The Children’s Meeting House are not only prepared, but are often ahead of their peers in that they are more motivated to question teachers, use fellow students as resources, and seek out information. “They’re very adaptable at that age,” she says.
The Cincinnati Montessori Society (cincinnatimontessorisociety.org) offers additional information on the Montessori philosophy, including links to Greater Cincinnati’s.
The North American Montessori Teachers’ Association’s website (montessori-namta.org) has a special section for parents, including an Introductory Book List for those new to Montessori education.
The American Montessori Society (amshq.org) has a searchable database of Montessori schools, and further learning materials for both parents and teachers.