Montessori Basics: What is ‘Practical Life’?

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As Montessorians we believe education is more than just academics.  We aim to nurture not only the intellect, but the development of the whole child in an effort to prepare them for all aspects of life.     

Practical life in Montessori begins early; you will find these activities intentionally woven into both toddler and primary classrooms, and beyond.  The activities themselves are intended to give children practice so that they may work toward being independent in everyday living.  Read on to get an understanding of what this looks like in the classroom, and what parents might do to continue this important work at home.

Care of the Environment

Children are not only capable of caring for their environment; they enjoy the process, especially when they are very young.  In Montessori classrooms children are given lesson on how to clean up spills, care for pets and plants, wash dishes, fold napkins, and clean tables.  Each of these lessons is given slowly and methodically, with the adult modeling the correct way to complete each activity.  Children are given tools that are sized to work for them, and these tools are placed within reach of the child so that they may access them independently.

This work can be easily continued at home.  Take the time to model household activities for your child, keeping in mind you will likely need to model the same activity multiple times.  There are a variety of child-sized tools available for purchase, but those are not necessary to accomplish the goal.  For example, if you would like to teach your child how to clean floors, this great set is available, or one could simply use a rag and a spray bottle.  Small dustpan and brush sets are easy to find, too, and will be used for years to come.  Designate a small corner of your home to store these items.  A small bin or basket is helpful, or perhaps low hooks on the wall.

By teaching children how to care for their environment, they gain confidence and independence in their ability to function as a contributing member of the family (or classroom!).

Control of Movement

In most Montessori primary classrooms observers will find a line taped on the floor.  This is placed there as an opportunity for the students to hone their gross motor skills.  Children are meant to walk slowly and with purpose, keeping their feet on the line and balancing as they go.  Sometimes the addition of a bell can add challenge to the activity, with a child walking carefully so as not to allow the bell to ring as they move.  

Similar activities can be done almost anywhere at home.  Children naturally gravitate toward walking and balancing on logs, curbs, or anything else they come across.  The challenge for many of us as adults can be to notice the importance of this activity in the moment, to slow down, and to allow for the child to immerse themselves in the experience.  While it’s not always possible to stop and do this, your child will feel immense pride and accomplishment if they have the opportunity to slow down and just walk.

Montessori teachers also provide lots of fine motor experiences for children.  In their classrooms, there are opportunities for pouring (rice, beans, water, etc.), transferring things from one container to another, and using a variety of implements to do so.  Wondering how this might look at home?  Try letting your child help out in the kitchen.  There is no shortage of scooping, measuring, and using of tools that require concentration and fine motor development.  

Care of the Person

One excellent marker of indepence is how well we are able to care for ourselves.  In Montessori schools children are taught from an early age how to do simple things, such as put on and remove their shoes and coat by themselves.  They are expected to do this daily and they take great pride in doing so.  At home parents can start by allowing children to choose their own clothing (within weather-appropriate parameters) and to dress themselves.  Clothing can be kept on low shelves and in low drawers so that the child may access it easily.

One fun element of this area of practical life is food preparation.  Children are given lessons on how they might prepare a simple snack.  This might include chopping of fruits and vegetables, spreading things like hummus or cream cheese, stirring ingredients together, or any other number of simple skills.  All materials and food are left on a table for the children to access throughout the morning so that they may try the activity for themselves.  Food preparation is a fun and natural activity to repeat in the home.

Grace and Courtesy

Grace and courtesy refers to how we might teach children to be respectful and polite to others.  Much of this work centers on adults modeling the correct vocabulary and movements associated with being polite and courteous in our society.  We teach children to say “please”, “thank you”, “you’re welcome”, and “excuse me”.  We encourage them to hold doors for each other, to offer food to one another, and to check in with anyone who is feeling hurt or upset.  

Grace and courtesy is also about helping children develop empathy.  We are social beings who need to live together peacefully if we are to accomplish anything.  Montessori believed that children are the key to peace among humanity.  This important work begins with simple practical life lessons, and continues throughout childhood and beyond.

A Book List for Parents

Each month we share a book list.  Typically it aims to give parents a list of books to share with their children based on a particular theme.  This month we take a short break from children’s books to provide parents with a list of their own.

Whether you are looking for original titles written by Montessori herself, modern parent-friendly guides, or other books that may be of interest to Montessori parents, this list is for you. (Click on the book's image for purchasing information.)

The Montessori Toddler by Simone Davies

This new and very popular title was recently published via a Kickstarter fund.  Written by an experienced and certified Montessori teacher, it details ways parents can support the unique (and constant!) needs of toddlers.  It shares how Montessori’s ideas can be applied by parents with children ages 1-3 in the home.

 

Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius by Angeline Stoll Lillard

This book is the ultimate guide for anyone who is discovering Montessori or is interested in gaining a modern scientific perspective of the approach.  Lillard, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, was awarded the Cognitive Development Society’s book award for this title.  In an easy-to-read format, she aligns Montessori’s original ideas with current research findings.    

 

How to Raise an Amazing Child the Montessori Way by Tim Seldin

This book was written for parents of children from birth to six years of age.  Now on its second edition, How to Raise an Amazing Child the Montessori Way has helped many families by describing Montessori’s basic ideas and giving clear, helpful examples of what you can do at home to support your child’s development.  Readers will gain information about a wide range of topics like brain development, gentle discipline strategies, and how to foster independence - with plenty of specific strategies.

 

Montessori Madness! A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education by Trevor Eissler

This much-loved and easy to read book is another great introduction to Montessori.  Written by the parent of Montessori children it weaves the stories of one family’s journey into the teaching of Montessori’s hallmarks, including the sensitive periods, the prepared environment, and freedom of choice.

 

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

This is not a Montessori book, but will appeal to Montessori parents nonetheless.  Louv writes about how time spent in nature directly relates to child development.  He argues that many of the physical and emotional issues faced by children today are a direct result of our decreased contact with the outdoors.  Louv was the 2008 recipient of the Audubon Medal; you can learn more about his work at http://richardlouv.com/

 

Interested in reading some of Montessori’s original works?  Check out these titles:

What You Should Know About Your Child by Maria Montessori

Writing directly to parents, Dr. Maria Montessori published this book in an effort to teach parents what she had learned about both physical and mental development of young children.  Many of Montessori’s works in their original form can be hard to find on sites like Amazon; NAMTA (the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association) has a website that is a great resource for parents and educators.

 

The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori

Montessori considered the period of birth to six years of age to be the most significant developmental period in a child’s life.  This book illustrates those developments and how we might prepare an environment conducive to aiding the child on this journey.  

 

The Secret of Childhood by Maria Montessori

This book is another great summary of Montessori’s work and ideas.  It is based on the concept that children desire to learn, that as adults our role is to recognize their potential, and what we can do do facilitate their growth.  While traditional education encourages teachers to be the center of a classroom, Montessori education focuses on the child.  Children are given the freedom to make their own work choices, while the adults are there to serve as support and guides.

 

To Educate the Human Potential by Maria Montessori 

This book was written to explain how the Montessori method applies to children older than six years.  The elementary curriculum is very different from the primary curriculum.  This is intentional and out of respect for the child’s development.  Children at the elementary level are very social, have wonderful imaginations, and experience a deep craving to learn about the world and universe.  In this book Montessori outlines how we might prepare an environment that serves older children and their unique developmental needs.

Five Reasons Why You Should Share Why You Chose Montessori

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You made the decision to enroll your child (or children) in a Montessori school and you couldn’t be happier.  You see the benefits, you relish in the joy your child has for learning, and you know you made the right choice.  But for whatever reason, you may hesitate to share this with other parents.  Why do families hesitate to actively advocate for Montessori?  Here are five reasons to reconsider:

1. It’s Not a Competition

Sometimes parents might feel that if they advocate for Montessori, it’s akin to bashing other methods of education.  The truth is, it doesn’t need to feel that way.  There are many great approaches to education and Montessori is just one of them.  While Montessorians feel that the method works for most children it’s only fair to acknowledge that other methods can work, too.  

Singing praises for Montessori doesn’t mean putting down other methods.  It just means you are sharing what you love about an approach to education that many teachers and parents have seen work for children.  

When we learn about Montessori it is natural to make comparisons to traditional or conventional models.  When talking to other parents about why you chose Montessori, don’t feel pressured to share those comparisons.  It’s okay to just emphasize what Montessori is, rather than what conventional methods are not.  As other people learn more about Montessori, they will likely draw the same conclusions you did during your own discovery.

2. Your Story is Valuable

People love to hear first-hand accounts.  We tend to value the actual experiences of people we know and trust over advertising.  Your opinions and what you have to say about your child’s experience with Montessori means much more than you might realize.

Consider this: if you are about to make an important decision, do you consult the internet, a pamphlet, a billboard, or your family and friends?  While there are many great sources to gather information, we all place the most value in the experiences of the people we care about.

When you choose to share your families’ personal Montessori story, you are sharing information that others will listen to.  You are telling people about a school experience that has made a positive impact in your child’s life.

3. Other Families are Looking for Alternatives 

While some people are more vocal than others, many families are not content with their child’s current school.  Whether a school emphasizes high-stakes testing, loads children down with hours of homework, or simply has not found a way to individualize instruction, there are plenty of parents who are actively looking for an alternative.  Even if they are not actively searching, it can give parents hope when they hear about an option that serves as a solution to many current challenges in education.

There are certainly many great schools out there, and some of those use conventional or traditional methods.  Even so, not every family may be happy with the approach for their child.  Parents of high-achieving children may notice their son or daughter becoming bored or disliking school as a result of not being challenged enough.  Parents of children who need extra support may notice the pace and structure of conventional schools leaving their child behind.  Sometimes parents will begin to question to importance of frequent standardized testing that many conventional school utilize.  Regardless of the reason, rest assured that there are many families who wish there were a better setting for their child.

4. We Need to Debunk the Stereotypes

Sometimes people dismiss Montessori as soon as they hear the name.  There are plenty of unfortunate stereotypes that hound Montessori education.  Many of these originate in complete misunderstanding of the method’s principles, although it is easy to see where the ideas might come from if one has not actually visited a Montessori school to observe in person.

People may ask you why Montessori students get to do whatever they want.  They may insist that children need structure to feel safe and to be successful.  As the parent of a Montessori child, you have the unique position of being able to set the record straight, authentically.  You know that Montessori agreed that structure is important for children, but she saw the value in choice as well.  The key is to give children choice within limits, thus providing boundaries while also giving the empowering opportunity for children to learn how to trust their own judgement.  It’s a lot like how, as parents, we often give our children two choices: both will satisfy our own goals but the child is left with some say in the decision.

A lot of people have concerns regarding a child’s eventual transition from a Montessori school to a conventional middle school, high school, or even college.  They worry that the safe bubble a Montessori community can provide will fail to prepare them for ‘the real world’.  On the contrary, Montessori tends to prepare children better for ‘the real world’ than many other methods of education, and its graduations go on to be beacons of innovation, kindness, and contributors to their communities.  Montessori classrooms teach children to work independently and cooperatively, and not just with children their own age.  Montessori guides children to cultivate their own independence, as well as time management skills and internal motivation.  

There are plenty of other Montessori myths out there, including that it is religious-based, not academically challenging enough, or too expensive.  Your personal experiences and knowledge might serve as a way to educate others on the way a Montessori school really operates.

5. It’s Worked for Over 100 Years

It helps to remember that Montessori is not a new approach.  Dr. Maria Montessori developed her methods over a hundred years ago.  They are based on scientific observation and a deep understanding of child development.  Montessori is not a fad, but an approach to education that, while not in line with conventional methods, has certainly stood the test of time.  What’s more - Montessori is spreading in the United States with new schools opening every year.  Montessori is considered an alternative approach by many, and while it is still not widely understood by most Americans, its popularity is increasing.  

As a Montessori parent, your voice is important.  If you love the opportunities your child has had, why not share the love?  You might just make a difference in the life of another child and their family.

Montessori and the Exceptional Child

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Any parent considering Montessori for their child is sure to have lots of questions.  Perhaps one of the most prominent is: “Is this the best setting for my child?”  Parents of exceptional children have specific learning needs to consider.  Montessori schools can be an excellent option for many kids.  This blog post details some of the ways in which the approach meets the child where they are, but is not meant to be an exhaustive list.  

General Points to Keep In Mind

Montessori teachers are trained to differentiate learning for each individual child.  Children work at their own pace.  Many families find that accommodations listed on IEP or 504 documents are an easy fit in a Montessori classroom, or they may already be a natural part of the daily structure - for all students.

Learning Disabilities

All children learn at their own pace.  When a child has trouble processing information in some way, they need teachers who will work with their strengths and support them where they need it most.  

One of the benefits of the multi-age classroom (as is found in Montessori schools) is that a child never has to feel left behind.  With a wider range of ages and abilities, your child will never feel the pressure of sticking with the group.  A single student can enjoy advanced math work and also get targeted lessons in reading if that’s where they need more support.  Chances are, they’ll have a classmate to work alongside who will be doing the same thing.

As a bonus, most Montessori materials are self-correcting, so a child knows immediately if they’ve made a mistake without teacher intervention.  This allows them the chance to work through their problems and find solutions independently.

Most lessons are given individually in the primary level, and either individually or in small groups at the elementary level, so your child is guaranteed to receive the personalized instruction they need to feel successful.

Attention Difficulties

Most children who have trouble with focus and attention just have a different style of learning.  Many children need to incorporate movement breaks into their day.  Some need guided structure.  Both of these opportunities are available to all children in Montessori classrooms.

Physical and movement breaks are inherent in Montessori schools.  When a child has the freedom to work independently, they get to decide when they complete a work and are ready to move onto the next.  This gives them a chance to listen to what their bodies need, and respond accordingly.  Many Montessori classes have in-room gross motor opportunities, or direct access to the outdoors.  

As children get older and academic expectations increase, Montessori teachers give kids tools and strategies to manage their time and work.  Many children rely on a work plan to give them direction throughout the work cycle while also allowing for a measure of free choice.  This way, kids feel empowered through their own decision-making while also feeling the comfort of a basic structure.  

Various seating options are helpful for children with attention and focus issues as well, especially as a child gets older.  Sometimes input from nearby peers can be distracting, and having the option to sit independently for at least a portion of the work period is a great solution for many children.  This is another area in which children in Montessori classrooms are able to figure out their own learning needs, and adjust their day accordingly.

Sensory Needs

There are a wide variety of sensory needs in children.  One important factor to consider is that sensory development starts in very young children.  Maria Montessori recognized this over 100 years ago, and worked to create a series of materials that helps children refine this development.  One entire portion of the primary (ages 3-6) curriculum is called the ‘sensorial’ area.  Children use materials that help them refine their use of the five senses: tactile, visual, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory.

Some children have other types of sensory needs.  Students with proprioceptive needs will appreciate the ability to move around their classroom frequently, use different types of seating, and practice walking on a line as part of Montessori’s control of movement lessons.

For children with vestibular needs, Montessori’s walking the line activity will also be helpful.  Many Montessori classrooms incorporate yoga, and while all the poses are helpful for kids, inversion poses are particularly helpful for children who crave certain types of sensory input.

Accelerated Learners

Some children tend to understand concepts at a faster-than-typical rate.  For these children, it is critical to find work that inspires them while also keeping it age-appropriate.  When Montessori teachers are trained, they learn about curriculum that goes several typical years beyond the level they plan to teach.  They always have lessons ready for accelerated learners.  This helps keep kids engaged and happy.  Having a wide range of materials available is yet another benefit of the multi-age classroom.

Confidence is Key!

When children are made to feel successful at school, they feel good about themselves.  While Montessori education doesn’t provide kids with external rewards, it sets kids up to learn and achieve their goals while respecting who they are as individuals.  Gaining the confidence in themselves as learners is one of the greatest gifts we can give a child, and it sets them up for a lifetime love of learning, regardless of how they navigate that process.

Montessori Basics: The Benefits of Multi-Age Grouping

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One hallmark of a Montessori education is the use of multi-age classrooms.  Infants and toddlers may be together or separate, with a toddler classroom serving children 18 months to three years.  Primary classrooms are for children ages 3-6, with preschool and kindergarten-aged children together.  The elementary years serve children ages 6-12; some schools separate into lower (6-9) and upper (9-12) elementary, while many split elementary into two groups.  Even Montessori middle- and high-school students learn in multi-age classrooms.

While Montessori is not the only type of education that utilizes this approach, it’s not what most people are used to.  What are the benefits of structuring a classroom this way?  Read on to learn more...

Learning at an Individual Pace

Children in multi-age classrooms tend to have a little more flexibility when it comes to mastering skills within a specific timeframe.  We know that learning is not linear, and that learners have periods of significant growth, plateaus, and even the occasional regression.  In multi-age classrooms, children are typically able to work at their own pace without the added pressure of keeping up with the whole group, or even being held back by the whole group.  

When children in a classroom range in ages, everyone has someone they can work with, regardless of their skill level.  Children don’t feel left behind if they struggle with a concept, and they also don’t feel bored by repetition of something they have already mastered.  Teachers who teach in multi-age classrooms typically have deep knowledge for a range of developmental abilities, leaving them well-equipped to differentiate instruction for each individual child.

Building Stronger Relationships

Traditionally children move from one class to the next each year.  This means not only a new set of academic expectations, different routines, and different classroom structures, but a different teacher.  

In multi-age classrooms teachers have a longer period of time to get to know a student and their family, and vice versa.  When teachers really get to know a student, they are able to tailor instruction in regards to both content and delivery.  They know how to hook a specific child onto a topic or into a lesson.  They know what kind of environment a child needs to feel successful.

Parents have an opportunity to get to know teachers better this way, too.  If your child has the same teacher for two or three years, the lines of communication are strengthened.  Parents get to know the teacher’s style and expectations.  The home to school connection becomes more seamless, and the biggest beneficiary is the child.

Mentors and Leaders

When a child spends multiple years in the same class they are afforded two very special opportunities.  

Children who are new to the class are fortunate enough to be surrounded by helpful peer mentors.  Children often learn best from one another, and they seek to do so naturally.  First and second year students watch as the older children enjoy advanced, challenging work, and this inspires them.  They look to the older children for guidance, and the older children are happy to provide it.  

After a year or two in the same room, students have a chance to practice leadership skills.  In Montessori classrooms, the older children are often seen giving lessons, helping to clean up spills, or reaching out a comforting hand to their younger friends.

The best part is kids make the transition from observer to leader in their own time.  It doesn’t happen for all children at the same time, but when it does it’s pretty magical to observe.  

Mirroring Real-Life

There is no other area in life in which people are split into groups with others who are exactly their chronological age.  Whether in the family, the workforce or elsewhere, people ultimately need to coexist with people older and younger than themselves.  Doing so makes for a more enriching environment, replete with a variety of ideas and skills.  

Why not start the experience with young children in school?

Moving On

While staying in the same class for multiple school years has many benefits, a child will eventually transition into a new class.  While this can feel bittersweet (for everyone involved!) children are typically ready when it is time.

The Montessori approach is always considering what is most supportive of children depending on their development.  When formulating how to divide children into groupings, Maria Montessori relied on her ideas about the Planes of Development.  There are very distinctive growth milestones children tend to reach at about age 3, another set around age 6, and yet another at age 12.  The groupings in our schools are intentional, and they give kids a chance to feel comfortable in their community, while also preparing them to soar forward when the time is right.

Earth Day Reflections: 3 Ways to Go Green as a Family

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April 22 is Earth Day!  This is a great chance for parents and their children to talk about how we can care for our planet.  What it really boils down to is recognizing connections.  In our disposable, consumable culture, it can be easy to forget where things come from and what we might do differently to lighten our step on the planet.  Here are some fun and educational ideas to try together…

1. Say Goodbye to Paper Towels

This one is way easier than it might seem.  Paper towels and napkins have been used in American households for generations, but opting for more permanent replacements is super simple.  Instead of tearing off a new sheet, using and it once, and throwing it away, consider some other options.

Cloth napkins are not only more earth-friendly, but they feel nicer to use.  It may seem like a small thing, but selecting and using cloth napkins for meals is a way to infuse everyday life with something a little more special.  Plus, it’s nice to have a collection on hand as many Montessori schools ask for cloth napkins to be packed in children’s lunch bags.

Are you crafty?  Making your own napkins is one of the simplest sewing projects out there.  Find some DIY directions - click here

Pressed for time?  You can buy cloth napkins almost anywhere.  Stores like Marshalls or Homegoods often have designer options for $5 for a package of 4.  Online shoppers will love the selection on Etsy or even Amazon.

To involve your kids, bring them to the fabric store to help pick patterns or have them pick out pre-made options that appeal to them, too.  If you do decide to sew your own, older children can pitch in (and would likely love the opportunity!)

As for paper towels’ other main use of cleanup duty?  Old t-shirts make the best rags.  When you’re getting ready to donate old clothing, pull out items that are stained or torn.  Cut the items into large rectangles and store them in a small bucket under your kitchen sink.

2. Start a Garden

The ultimate way to connect kids to their food is to have them help grown their own.  If you have the space and time, building a raised bed is fairly simple.  Even if you have a tiny apartment in a city, container gardening can work on even the smallest fire escape.  Montessori students study botany starting at the primary level, so you will delight in seeing their excitement while they make connections.

Planning is half the fun.  Sit together as a family and look through a seed catalogue or pile in the car and visit a local nursery.  Figure out what everyone wants to grow and then give it a try.  As a bonus, gardening gets everyone outside enjoying the fresh air and sunshine together.

Growing your own food means eating your own food.  Not only is freshly picked produce higher in vitamins, but it tends to taste so much better that what we normally find at the grocery store.  There may be a natural migration from the garden to the kitchen, as toddlers and teenagers alike will want to participate in making something yummy with the fruits of their labor.

The possibilities with gardening are endless.  It’s definitely a learning experience in the beginning, but in no time you’ll be thinking about composting, companion planting, saving seeds, and planning for next year.

3. Speaking of Composting…

If you’re ready to jump even deeper into going green, composting is a fun next step.  There are many ways to compost, but one of the most fun to do with children is vermicomposting.  Special bins are used to house worms that can eat and transform your produce scraps and shredded paper.  

Sound too complicated?  Smelly?  Slimy?  Expensive?

It’s pretty simple to set up, even easier to maintain, and really not gross at all.  An added perk: the resulting compost will make those plants in your garden grow like crazy!  While there certainly are really nice (and expensive) worms bins out there, there are definitely more cost effective ways to try it out.

Some options include the popular Can O Worms or the slightly sturdier Worm Factory. Making your own can cost as little as $20.  Click here for directions

Red wigglers are the best worms to use for vermicomposting.  You may be able to source some locally, but if not Carolina Biological is a great option for mail-order worms.

To get started you should have a spray bottle of water (to keep worms and bedding moist) and some old newspapers on hand.  To prevent unpleasant odors, it’s a good idea to have balance what goes into the worm bin, including a mix of kitchen scraps and shredded paper.  It’s also a good idea to avoid feeding worms animal by products, so keep meat and dairy out.  For the most part, redworms don’t care for onions, although some do so it doesn’t hurt to try.  Follow these simple steps and you will be surprised at the complete lack of odor coming from your bin.

Worm bins can even be kept indoors, with basements being an ideal location for many families (although they stay just about anywhere room-temperature).  

On rare occasions, you may notice some fruit flies in or around your bin.  To make a simple fruit fly trap, use a disposable plastic cup, such as a yogurt cup.  Fill ⅛ way full with water and add a drop or two of dish soap.  Some people like to add a little apple cider vinegar as well.  Cover the top of the cup with a small piece of plastic wrap, secure with a rubber band, and poke a few holes.  Leave the trap sitting inside the top layer of your bin and the problem.

Vermicomposting is a special learning experience for children and adults alike.  Worms teach us about decomposition and ecosystems.  Watching the worms work will give kids a new appreciation for these small creatures, and instill a sense of the interconnectedness of everything on Earth.

Happy Earth Day!