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Author Archive | Cara Gregory
By Judi Bertelli
Most young children today attend some form of pre-school before entering Kindergarten. What makes a Montessori program unique?
Maria Montessori was a pioneer in the field of early childhood education. She advocated for using child-sized chairs and tables, mixed age grouping, peer teaching, an organized and well maintained classroom environment, hands-on learning, intrinsic motivation, allowing children choices, and teaching self-help skills to allow for independence. These concepts are now considered best practices in early childhood education.
MIXED AGE GROUPING
Mixed age grouping is one of the most obvious differences between a Montessori program and a traditional approach. The age span for a Montessori pre-school classroom is 3-6. There are materials in the class that are appropriate for children entering at age 3 and lessons that go beyond a typical Kindergarten curriculum for those who are ready for more advanced work. The needs of children with delays as well as children with advanced skills can be met as the children are allowed to progress as their own pace. Teachers use age as a guide line, but lessons are presented to students based on their readiness. The teacher knows that that child is ready for that particular work when a new lesson is presented. Children can move as quickly as they are able through the curriculum or take as long as needed to master a skill before being expected to move on.
Younger children can learn by watching what an older child is doing. Younger children are motivated to master their skills so they can eventually do the work they see the older children doing. Some parents of Kindergarten age children fear that their child will be bored if they stay in the Montessori 3-6 class as a Kindergartner – that they’ve already mastered all there is to offer in that class. In keeping with the Montessori philosophy of following the child and presenting learning opportunities based on readiness and not age, Kindergarten children thrive as the oldest children in the class. There are numerous lessons in all the curriculum areas that are challenging for the older children as they progress from concrete to abstract thinking. Mixed ages allows for a lot of peer teaching. Older children often help a younger one with their work. Not only do the older children excel academically, they develop a positive self-esteem and their self-confidence soars as they become the class leaders and role models.
THE PREPARED ENVIRONMENT
The “prepared environment” in a Montessori classroom is a priority. Some pre-school classrooms are visually over stimulating and cluttered. The walls in a Montessori school are not covered with posters and lessons are rotated throughout the year to provide variety without over-crowding the shelves. Lessons are organized on the shelves in sequence from left to right in order of difficulty. Part of presenting a new lesson is making sure the child knows how to put the material away so that it is ready for the next person and where it belongs on the shelf. Therefore they always know where to find their work. Care for and respect for their classroom is part of the curriculum; children learn to carry one thing at a time using two hands, to walk around a classmate’s work space, push in their chairs, clean up spills, etc.
A Montessori classroom is child-centered vs. teacher centered. Children of different ages are working at different levels so they aren’t all doing the same thing at the same time based on a teacher’s lesson plan. They spend most of their day working with self-chosen lessons. Once a child has had a lesson he can choose that work on his own. Children have uninterrupted work cycles so they can spend as much time as they want on the work they choose. Children aren’t moved as a group from center to center based on a time clock.
Children can see and correct their own mistakes using the built in “control of error”. For example, when working with 0-9 counting, there are exactly 45 objects in the lesson so at the end, if there are objects left after counting out 9 or not enough to reach 9, the child knows to go back and see where he miscounted. Children learn by repetition. Continued use of the materials allow the children to master concepts and skills using hands-on manipulatives. They aren’t just memorizing information that they may or may not understand.
Most of the day the children are working on their own or in small groups, freely moving around the classroom and conversing with classmates. However, it is important for them to also learn to be part of a larger group. There are times throughout the day when the class comes together and the children are expected to pay attention to story time, enjoy music or a group lesson while sitting quietly. Group times are kept short and age appropriate, respecting the fact that this is difficult for some youngsters.
There is freedom but within limits. Children are self-directed but are expected to abide by basic ground rules for proper school behavior and safety. They learn respect for each other, respect for their classroom and the environment, good manners, putting away their work and cleaning up after themselves, walking indoors, taking direction from an adult to name a few. To develop good work habits and tenacity, children are expected to finish what they start. One of our goals is to help children develop intrinsic motivation vs. behaving or completing work for an external reward such as a sticker.
Dr. Montessori coined the phrase “absorbent mind” to describe how effortlessly and joyfully young children learn when placed in a calm, stimulating, age-appropriate environment. Montessori teachers are trained to recognize the tremendous potential of young children and to expose them to a wide variety of learning experiences across the curriculum areas to prepare them for first grade and beyond.
By Judi Bertelli
As a teacher in a Montessori 3-6 year old class and later as an administrator, I have personally witnessed the benefits children reap when given the opportunity to remain in the 3-6 year old class for their Kindergarten year. Many parents fear that their child will be at a disadvantage being one of the oldest in the class – that mixed age grouping is only beneficial for the younger children in the group. In reality, there are benefits for both the youngest and the oldest.
The 5 year olds have probably been in the same class for one or two years prior to their Kindergarten year. There is no need to spend time at the beginning of the year assessing the Kindergarteners to determine where they are academically.
They are the “seniors”. In addition to where they are academically, they know the routine, the classroom ground rules, the layout of the classroom, where each lesson belongs on the shelves, playground rules, their own teachers and probably most of the school staff. They become the classroom leaders when they stay for their 3rd year as a Kindergartener. They are able to help a new child who is having difficulty separating, be the one to assist a younger child who is struggling with a lesson, help straighten the classroom at the end of the day, clean up a spill, or comfort a crying child. They develop leadership skills that will remain with them for a lifetime.
At circle time they are the ones who know the days of the week and the months of the year when reviewing the calendar each day. They can demonstrate how to roll a rug, walk around a rug, push in a chair, carry a lesson with two hands, wash their hands, raise their hands and sit properly in a group. The Kindergarteners are the role models and mentors and have a unique opportunity to contribute in that capacity. As role models, mentors and helpers, their self-esteem and self-confidence soar. This is particularly beneficial if a child is the youngest in the family, or an only child, as it allows them to be the oldest for part of their day.
There are many opportunities throughout the school year for the older children to help younger children. This solidifies their own learning; you can be confident that you really know and understand something if you can teach it to someone else.
In addition to the social/emotional benefits, the children who stay for Kindergarten make great gains academically. In keeping with the Montessori philosophy, children progress at their own pace and have lessons presented to them based on their readiness, not on their age. To accommodate children who are ready for challenges that go beyond a typical Kindergarten curriculum, the classroom includes advanced lessons that may be considered first grade level work.
In language, if a child has mastered phonics as a four year old, they will likely be emergent readers in Kindergarten. They can learn to read at their own pace, neither held up as they wait for others to catch up nor pressured to keep up with a more advanced classmate. In addition to continuing to improve their reading skills, children can start to learn about verbs, nouns, articles, etc. Punctuation, capitalization, handwriting, creative writing, reading comprehension can all be introduced when a child is ready.
In math, a child may have learned addition using the golden bead material (units, tens, hundreds, and thousands) as a four year old, putting small numbers together to make one large number. The concept of addition is taught first so they understand numbers and number operations – it is not just memorizing math facts. Once they have mastered addition, they use the golden beads to learn to exchange 10 units for one ten bar, ten 10 bars for 100 and ten 100 squares for 1000. All this is taught using hands-on, concrete math materials that lead towards abstraction so they can eventually understand what it means to say 3+4=7. When a child is ready, he can go back to the concrete golden beads to learn concepts of multiplication, subtraction and even division.
Beyond math and language, they can delve more deeply into geography, science and art. The 5 year olds still love the practical life area so lessons are available to challenge them. For example, instead of practicing their pouring skills using cups and glasses, they can pour into test tubes.
Children who leave a Montessori program to enter a traditional Kindergarten program are often more advanced than their peers. The same may be true if they leave a Montessori program after Kindergarten to go into first grade. However, the discrepancy in readiness in Kindergarten is generally greater than in first grade. While most children now have some pre-school experience, some don’t or they come from a day-care vs. a school setting so there tends to be a wide range of school readiness in Kindergarten ranging from children who are still learning their letters and 0-9 numbers to children who are reading and understand math concepts. Children catch up in Kindergarten so by the time they enter first grade their skills are more aligned with their peers, leaving less of a readiness range in first grade vs. Kindergarten.
Montessori Kindergarten provides an enriched academic program that goes beyond what one might expect in Kindergarten. Perhaps more importantly, the Kindergarten children become leaders, mentors and role models so they enter first grade with self-confidence and a love of learning.
Parents often wonder ‘What is Montessori?’ ‘How is a Montessori school different from a traditional school?’. There are many aspects of the Montessori approach and philosophy that make it unique. Over the next several months, we will try to answer questions we hear most often from parents with examples from our teachers and classrooms at Discovery. Through this, we hope you’ll gain a more in depth understanding of this great approach to education and understand why we all love it so much! Let’s start with the classroom itself through this article written by Judi Bertelli.
COMPONENTS OF THE MONTESSORI CLASSROOM
Maria Montessori referred to the classroom as a “prepared environment”. Teachers spend many hours setting up their classroom and continue throughout the school year to evaluate the classroom environment. The Montessori approach includes classrooms that allow for independence, movement, children learning at their own pace, intellectual and social development, self-correction, peer teaching, exploration, self-discipline and freedom. When creating the prepared environment the following six components are considered.
In keeping with the Montessori approach, the classroom is child-centered vs. teacher-centered. Within the confines of the daily routine children have many opportunities to make choices: when to have snack, what lessons to work with, whether to work alone or with a friend, whether to work on the floor or at a table. Children learn by repetition so they are encouraged to repeat a lesson and they can choose how long they want to work on a lesson before moving on to another.
STRUCTURE AND ORDER
Young children need routine and order in their lives. To develop mental and intellectual order, their physical environment must be calm, organized and free of chaos. A new lesson includes showing the child how to put the lesson away so that it is ready for the next person and where it belongs on the shelf. Materials are arranged on the shelves in order of difficulty moving from left-to-right. Classroom changes are kept to a minimum and are carefully planned so as not to disrupt the children’s sense of order and need for routine.
REALITY AND NATURE
Maria Montessori believed that children should experience nature and not be confined to an indoor classroom, therefore live plants and animals should be included in the classroom. Shells, rocks, leaves, nests, etc. can be on display and available for examination. Many of the materials are made out of wood. The furniture is child-sized and children use small spoons, scoops, pitchers, whisks, mops, brooms, etc. so they can do their work with ease and minimal frustration. The outdoor environment can be an extension of the classroom, therefore allowing exploration and discovery as well as gross motor development.
BEAUTY AND ATMOSPHERE
Children spend many hours in their classroom, thus it should be a place of beauty and harmony. The didactic materials are attractive, well designed and complete with no broken or missing pieces. The vast variety of lessons are arranged on orderly shelves with each lesson belonging in a specific place. Beautiful art can be displayed on uncluttered walls so as not to be over-stimulating.
Using controlled body movements and “inside voices”, children are free to move within the classroom and interact with their classmates. Social skills are not innate; they are learned through adult modeling and being part of a community. Good manners, compassion and empathy are modeled and encouraged. The Montessori approach encourages peer teaching which develops naturally due to mixed-age grouping and children learning at their own pace.
Freedom of choice should not be misconstrued as complete freedom – it is freedom within limits. Classroom ground rules are established to allow for a safe classroom. Children learn proper social decorum and learn to respect the adults, their classmates and the materials. While most of the work time is spent in individual work, there are times when the class joins together as a group for stories, transitions, music and other activities. This gives children an opportunity to learn how to behave and attend in a group setting.
INTELLECTUAL AND PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT
Freedom, structure and order, exposure to nature and beauty in a safe harmonious environment allows for intellectual development. Children are given new lessons and challenges based on their readiness. Age is a guideline but not used to restrict opportunities nor to have age based expectations. The varied curriculum includes lessons in each of the following areas; practical life (sometimes referred to as everyday living), sensorial, language, math, science, geography and culture, art and music. Lessons are presented from simple to complex, from concrete to abstract so children understand concepts and are not just memorizing information.
Fine motor skills are developed primarily in the practical life area – the outdoor playground allows for gross motor skill development.
“The first aim of the prepared environment is, as far as it is possible, to render the growing child independent of the adult”. Maria Montessori – The Secret of Childhood 1996
The practical life section of the Montessori classroom is a popular and busy area. The purpose of this part of the curriculum is to allow children to learn and practice skills needed to become independent and to function as a contributing member of their family and society, thus it is sometimes referred to as “everyday living”. Every authentic Montessori classroom world-wide includes practical life lessons. They vary according to the skills children need to learn specific to their culture and environment.
Young children want to do things for themselves. We encourage and expect independence; therefore the curriculum includes opportunities for children to practice skills such as sponging, pouring, sweeping, buttoning, etc. Young children can easily manage the child-sized pitchers, bowls, and utensils. Control of movement is a goal so the skills are demonstrated modeling slow and precise movement which the child then practices until mastered. When one skill is mastered, such as dry pouring beans or rice, they are ready for the next challenge – a water pouring lesson may be next. Skills are at first isolated and then can be combined for more complex activities. For example, a child will practice using a sponge and pouring water and then can combine those skills to learn how to wash a table. Spills are OK – they learn how to sweep and mop too!
Practical life work is not just for the younger children. Older children can learn to polish silver, pour through funnels, tie, use tools etc. The Elementary Montessori curriculum includes age appropriate practical life lessons to help children become capable and responsible adults.
This area is called “practical life” because the children are learning skills that are useful in their world. They want to become independent and to contribute to their family. Adults do a disservice when they do things for children that they are capable of doing themselves. Young children can help with simple household chores such as dusting, making their beds, feeding pets, setting and clearing the table, dressing themselves, etc. They can help with cooking, gardening and yard work. They can and should carry their own lunch boxes, water bottles and other items into school and be responsible for collecting their belongings at the end of the day.
Practical life lessons also help develop fine-motor skills, concentration, attention span and attention to detail. This area includes lessons in grace and courtesy as well. Learning how to greet visitors, meet new people, good manners, how to comfort a classmate, respect for one another and for the environment are some of the social skills children learn and practice. All the children enjoy the lessons in practical life, from the youngest who are dry pouring to the oldest children who are learning how to use a hammer. Water work can be very soothing for those needing something calming to focus on. It’s a busy place that the children never outgrow.
The lessons in the Sensorial area are designed to help children explore and learn using their senses. A variety of materials are available to investigate height, length, depth, color, shape and size. Children discover and explore using all five senses. There are sound cylinders, rough and smooth boards, tasting jars, smelling jars and color tablets. These lessons allow the child to explore qualities of objects, and compare and contrast building his own intellect through his senses.
The materials isolate the concept they are designed to teach. For example, the color tablets are all the same size and shape – the only variation between them is the color. The shapes in the geometry cabinet are all the same color and size – the only variation is the shape.
Initially, the child learns how to use each lesson and is then left to practice and experiment independently. Children discover similarities and differences without the teacher pointing them out. Eventually they learn the language related to their experience (color names, comparatives and superlatives, shapes, etc.). They can then relate what they have learned in the classroom to the world around them as they build their vocabulary, allowing them to name things and understand concepts.
A child’s imagination develops at about age six. Using the Sensorial materials, the child gains a foundation of facts with which to imagine and create.
A child’s language development begins in infancy, long before he joins our program. Our role is to provide a language rich environment and age-appropriate materials that will allow that development to continue and flourish.
Our youngest children in the Iris class are just starting to say individual words. Teachers speaking slowly and clearly assist that development. Teachers use correct terms for vocabulary, read stories, use sign language, sing songs, and enjoy finger-play. Some children in our youngest class start to recognize and respond to their name and may start to follow one or two step directions. They may be putting a few words together by the time they move up to the next class level.
At around age 2 most children start speaking in short sentences and have a functional language. Teachers in the toddler program continue to model clear spoken language. Children are encouraged to verbalize their needs. Naming actual objects or pictures of objects helps to increase vocabulary. Children build visual discrimination skills through matching objects and pictures and by learning to recognize colors and shapes. Learning to listen is part of language development. Reading to the children, engaging them in conversation and giving them short verbal directions to follow enhance listening skills.
The pre-reading lessons in the older toddler class and in the 3-6 classes include more visual discrimination practice. Matching, sorting, classifying, patterning, and go-together cards are used. Rhyming and opposites will be introduced. Vocabulary work is done not only in the language area, but also in the sensorial, science, cultural and geography lessons. Pre-writing work is done with lessons that help children learn the proper way to hold a pencil. Pencil control and fine-motor skills are practiced. Preparation for writing includes sandpaper letters that the children can feel and trace.
Our language curriculum in the 3-6 program is phonic based. Children learn letter sounds starting with lower case letters. Once they know 10 or more sounds, they are introduced to a word building lesson called the movable alphabet. They learn that putting sounds together creates a word. Children are often ready for word building before they are able to write so the movable alphabet allows them to “write” without paper and pencil. It isn’t long before they start sounding out 3 letter words. They match words to objects or pictures, increasing their understanding that a word has meaning. In keeping with the Montessori philosophy of allowing children to progress at their own pace, lessons are presented according to a child’s interest and readiness. When ready, a child will progress to reading short sentences, sight words, and may start reading emergent reading books.
Both receptive language skills and expressive language skills are important milestones. As the children get older, they will be given opportunities to follow 3 or 4 step verbal directions. Sustaining attention in a group, answering questions with an appropriate response and staying on topic while carrying on a conversation will be expected. They can listen to longer books and start to retell a story. Older children can be asked to predict an outcome or next event in a story.
Vocabulary and expressive language skills increase as children are allowed to converse and interact with adults and peers throughout the day. Show-n-tell is a great way to help children become comfortable speaking in front of a group. Creative writing can start by “writing” stories with the movable alphabet or dictating to a teacher. Using phonetic spelling, some children start writing stories themselves and illustrating them as well.
Even after a young child learns to read, it remains important that they continue to be read to daily. At around age 4 or 5, you can start reading chapter books that may take several days to finish. Ask your child what happened previously in the story before continuing from one day to the next. Choose books that don’t have a lot of illustrations, allowing children to create their own images as they listen to the narrative. Include poetry, fiction and non-fiction on your child’s bookshelf. Have multi-cultural books and books that include characters in non-traditional gender roles, for example a male nurse or a female fire fighter. Biographies of famous people are popular with young children.
Be prepared to read the same story numerous times – children love the repetition. Change the wording in a sentence or the ending of a story to add a new challenge as the child listens for those “mistakes”.
“We have to let children experience the beauty of arithmetic… it is always something to discover and to perceive by the hand before being understood by the mind.”—Philip D. O’Brien, from the introduction to Psychoarithmetic by Maria Montessori
Math concepts are made fun and simple in the Montessori curriculum so that math is an exciting discovery, not a subject to be learned. Using manipulatives, the math lessons begin with a very concrete experience that later leads to abstraction.
Many young children learn to count at an early age but without the understanding of what numbers mean. As our students count they also practice one-to-one correspondence, learning that a number represents a quantity. They then use the sandpaper numbers to learn numeric symbols, 0-9, and finally they combine quantity and symbol. We have a lesson dedicated to teaching the concept of “0”; the children place the correct number of spindles into a box labeled 0-9 and then discover that the “0” section remains empty because “0 means nothing.” Children experience the concept of odd and even by using numbers and counters. All the counters under the even numbers have a partner; the last counter under the odd numbers is left without a partner.
Once 0-9 are mastered, they move on to the teens and the tens. The teens board combines the 10 bar with the 1 bead to make “11”, the 10 bar with the 2 bead to make “12” etc. The tens board puts two 10 bars together to make “20”, three ten bars combine to make “30” etc. Adding units, they make “34” or “67” or “92”……… Repetition with these boards leads to an understanding of teens and tens. Using the 100 board, they learn number recognition and number sequencing. Skip counting is fun using the linear chains to count by 2s, 3s, 4s, etc.
Older children start building big numbers with the “golden beads” that teach the decimal system. They can feel the weight difference as they carry a tray across the room that includes 1000 cubes and 100 squares vs. units and tens. Using the decimal system cards, they discover that a “1” has no zeros, “10” has one zero, “100” has two zeros and “1000” has three zeros.
The concepts of addition, multiplication, subtraction and division are learned, again using hands-on manipulatives. Once the concepts are understood, the math facts are practiced with a variety of lessons. The older children learn money, time and measurement.
The math curriculum in the 3-6 class builds the foundation for later learning and takes the fear of math out of the equation. Math isn’t taught – it is joyfully discovered. The Montessori Services website has a great article about Montessori math.
If you’re anything like me, you are ready to tackle the “Holiday Shopping” item on your to-do list. I’ve seen lists before like “Kid tested, Mother approved” and think we could add another dimension to that: “Kid tested, PRESCHOOL-LEVEL durable, AND mother approved”. Working with preschool-aged children for more than a decade, we have learned a lot about both the durability of toys as well as the “play value” that they offer. When we select toys for our school or our personal children we are looking for something that is:
1. Appropriate for the child’s developmental stage of play, and
2. Builds social opportunities and learning opportunities.
In addition, I think that one of the most important considerations when selecting a toy is how interesting or fun that toy would be for me or whoever the child’s play partners might be. Play should be fun, after all, and the more invested we are as play partners, the more engaging it will be for our children! Here are some of my favorite toys for children 1-6 years old:
For one year olds: Stuffed animals with personal voice recordings. This cute stuffed animal allows you to record short messages, songs or stories. Wouldn’t it be nice if something like this would entertain your little one for a few minutes before they called to you to come get them in the morning?
I don’t know what you guys have figured out, but when my kids were babies we started using bath time as a partial replacement to outside time on really cold winter days. So for me, bath toys were invaluable! Here are two that my kids really loved:
When my son was little, he loved anything that could be taken apart and put together a different way. Throw in a power tool and it was even better! Here are a couple of toys that are great for a child around 2 years old:
Here’s one which is great for home – or in the car:
For children a little older, these toys are great on both an imaginative and design level and helpful to increase fine motor abilities.
My favorite toy company is Plan Toys. Their toys are made from sustainable materials and manufacturing, are attractive and durable, have great “play value” for children of every age. For children who are a little older (3-6 years old) they have all of the favorites but without the limiting scripts that were already written for them like the more commercialized versions. We’ve found these toys to be more supportive of imaginative and flexible play. Here are 3 that are big hits at our school:
For outside and gross motor play, here are some of our favorites:
I hope this list helps in some way. It goes without saying that way more important than the toy is our time and attention. Wishing you all the opportunity to connect with the kids that you love this holiday season, and Happy Playing!!
Last week students at Discovery Montessori School celebrated International Peace Day. We participated in an art installation project “Pinwheels for Peace” and all of our students made their own pinwheel to plant in our garden. While making their pinwheels, children shared their thoughts about peace and what that means and included some keywords on their pinwheels. It was really sweet, but way more impressive than the events on International Peace Day is what happens each and every day in our classrooms.
I have to admit. I was skeptical. I had seen the Peace Corners in Montessori classrooms and heard about the Peace Curriculum from the pros. But, could a group of 15 or more preschoolers really ever be described as peaceful? How was that possible!? (says the mom of only one preschool-aged child) Fast forward a few months and I am now one of Montessori’s biggest fans. Routinely I go up and down the halls of our school to check in with teachers, and I am not kidding when I tell you that I cannot tell which classes are inside until I get to the doors (which are always open) and look inside. It’s worth repeating. The classrooms are so calm and quiet that you can’t even tell there are children inside unless you are close enough to see them!
So, how does it happen? Is there magic in the essential oils? Are children in a Montessori school just naturally more Zen than others?
From what I have learned, there are several important factors working together to create and foster this kind of peaceful and productive learning environment. Montessori classrooms are known for being “prepared environments”. An incredible amount of time and thought goes into setting up the classroom in a way that allows children to work without a lot of help from their teachers and to follow their own interests.
Additionally, Montessori teachers lead by example. The old adage “do as I say not as I do” does not apply in Montessori classrooms. Teachers make a real effort to ensure that they are modeling the behavior that they want to see and speaking to the children in a way that they want for them to speak to each other. They are masters at this and I assure you it isn’t always easy!
Perhaps the most important example of how Montessori classrooms achieve a peaceful atmosphere is that it is a priority for the teachers, and often families who choose this approach for their children. Teaching kindness and positive social skills are a common thread that weave in and out of all aspects of the day from greetings, to collaborating to conflict resolution. For me as a parent this is invaluable. I feel like there is no better time to support and develop good social skills than when children are really young. Our culture is a busy one. Technology has allowed us to be available to almost anyone, anytime, anywhere. Often I fear this results in us not being present or fully-available to the people right in front of us, and they are the most important. Developing these skills takes practice just like any others and it seems like our kids may not have as many opportunities as we did when we were growing up. Also, by creating a peaceful classroom we create a more productive classroom and one that facilitates concentration and learning. We all learn best when we are relaxed and feel safe and secure. We learn better when we are not being bombarded with noise and too much busyness. It’s a rare win –win!