Freedom Within Limits

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“To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.”  -Maria Montessori

One of the more common misconceptions about Montessori education is that we let the children run free to do what they please all the time.  It is true that we let our students make choices for themselves, not just about their work but about their preferences and even care of their own bodies, but those choices are made within carefully crafted parameters.  To give a child (or any human) choice is to give them empowerment.  To give them choice within boundaries will assist them in becoming the adult they are meant to be.

Why give choice?

When we give children the ability to make their own choices, we are letting them know we trust their decisions.  If children know the adults in their lives trust them, they will begin to trust themselves.  When a person has confidence in their own abilities, their thoughts and energy can be put into new ideas and making progress.

Decision making is a skill that must be learned just like anything else.  From the most basic everyday tasks to major life events, we all need to make choices in our lives.  When we create an environment that allows children to practice this skill and be successful, they are given an opportunity to become successful as they grow older.

Giving choice is also a means of showing respect.  We respect that children should have a say in what they want.  While as adults our role is to keep children safe and guide them, we do not have all the answers nor do we understand what is always best for each child.  Giving kids a say shows them that we honor their autonomy.  

Why place limitations?

While we believe it’s important to give children choices, too many choices can feel overwhelming and be counter-productive.  Placing some limitations keeps their decision-making process safe and manageable.  Children actually want us to define limits for them as boundaries give them a sense of structure that is critical for their development.

Think about the last time you went to a typical grocery store.  Just deciding on a box of cereal can seem like huge task!  There are so many choices, and while it feels good to have options, there can definitely be too much of a good thing.

Another benefit of placing limitations on choices is that we can create a scenario in which any choice made will achieve the desired results.  If we want children to practice a specific skill, we can give two or three options that will allow them to do so.  If we want them to complete a certain task or meet a goal, we can envision different paths that will lead to the same destination and let them decide which they would like to take.

What does this look like in the classroom?

When it comes to academic work, Montessori children get to make choices about which work they will focus on, where they sit, who they sit with, and in what order they do things.  They move about their mornings with a sense of purpose, because they get to call the shots in regards to their own education.  In a structure like this, school doesn’t feel so much like a place where you go to receive knowledge that’s being given to you; it’s a place where you go to explore, learn authentically, and immerse yourself in work that’s important to you.

With all those choices, it’s important for teachers to create an environment that sets kids up for success.  Montessori guides only give children lessons on materials they are ready for.  They only put materials on the shelves that the children as a group are ready for.  The materials they do put out are so beautiful and interesting that the children cannot help but want to choose them.  

Even when it comes to taking care of themselves, we want children to be in charge.  We create structures that allow them to eat when they are hungry, use the restroom when they feel the need, and to rest or move their bodies as they see fit.  Most Montessori classrooms have a snack table that children can sit at whenever there is a seat available (limiting this to two chairs is one way guides make snack socializing manageable).  Children don’t need to ask permission to use the restroom; we make sure they have access to a toilet that they can use at any time.  The furniture in our classrooms are arranged in such a way so as to encourage safe avenues to body movement, individual seating, group seating, floor seating, or table and chair options.  As adults we need variation and choice to be productive and we recognize that children do as well. 

Our job as Montessori educators is to create the conditions for children to independently make decisions that will help them grow and develop.  We want them to explore who they are, to learn about each other, and to gain basic academic skills.  We want to cultivate inquisitiveness, leadership skills, and a sense of humble independence.  All of these goals can be met through careful planning of a classroom environment that facilitates choice within limits. 

What might this look like in the home?  

It can help to observe in your child’s classroom to get ideas.  If you are just getting started with offering choice at home, it can help to focus on just a few areas in the beginning.  Food, clothing, and entertainment are good places to start.

While we do not advocate making separate meals for everyone in your home (this can quickly lead to picky eating habits), kids can have some say in mealtime choices.  Find ways you are willing to be a little flexible and ask their opinion.  Perhaps they can choose some fruits or vegetables at the grocery store, or help decide what gets packed into their lunches.  If you have several dinners planned for the week, your child could help decide which one to have on a particular night and then help you prepare it.  When it comes time to eat, let your child practice serving themselves, while reminding them about the importance of not wasting food and only taking as much as we expect to eat. 

Getting dressed for the day is great time to practice decision making.  This tends to be one area that requires the most intentional release of control from us as parents, as young children tend to have quite the eccentric tastes when it comes to personal style!  Keeping weather and activities of the day in mind, set some guidelines and let your child pick out their own clothes.  Some Montessori experts recommend only putting desirable options in the child’s drawers.  If this isn’t feasible, even young children can follow simple directions such as, “Please choose something with short sleeves and long pants.”  Expect combinations you would never choose for yourself and remember that this is an important step in their development and self-expression.  How we dress is one way we present ourselves to the world and letting your child make these choices tells them you trust that they know who they are.

When it comes to having fun, children love to give input.  If you read stories at bedtime, your child could select whatever number of books you decide, or they could choose from a pre-selected few that you give them.  If you let your child watch television, give them a pool of shows that you feel are appropriate to choose from.  If you want to get them outside, ask them if they would rather go to the playground or ride their bike.  The key is to consider your true objective, then present multiple ways to achieve that goal.  

We hope that this post has been helpful, and we would love to hear how you implement choice at home!

Math Fact Memorization: Montessori & Current Research

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When someone starts talking about memorization of math facts, people tend to have strong opinions.  We all had a variety of experiences as children ourselves, and those experiences coupled with notions of best practices in education can cause for heated debates.  In today’s post we would like to share the results of recent research on the topic.  At first glance, the results may seem at odds with Montessori theory, but upon further examination this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Read on to find out why our materials and methods can provide children with exactly what this “new” information suggests they need.

The Findings

This summer Paul L. Morgan, Ph.D. published an interesting article for Psychology Today.  Morgan works at Penn State as a professor in the education department as well as Director of the Center for Educational Disparities Research.  He and several colleagues (George Farkas and Steve Maczuga) conducted research to investigate instructional practices and their effects on student achievement.  Their specific focus was on first grade classrooms in math.  

The researchers observed a variety of students and classrooms and determined that the only teaching method that had a positive effect on student achievement was teacher-directed instruction, as opposed to student-centered.  [This is the part where those of us who adore Montessori will audibly gasp, but keep reading!]

Morgan, Farkas, and Maczuga define teacher-directed as the following: “Teachers initially demonstrate specific procedures for solving problems, and then provide students with repeated opportunities (e.g., worksheets, routine practice and drills) to independently practice these procedures. Teacher-directed practices should help students increase their procedural fluency in applying explicitly taught and repeatedly practiced sets of procedures to solve mathematics problems, which should result in more effective use of higher order thinking and problem-solving skills.”

What Do Montessori Teachers Do?

According to the researchers’ definition of teacher-directed learning, this is exactly the approach that is taken in regards to students learning their basic math facts in Montessori classrooms.  Our initial reaction is simply a result of semantics and misconceptions.  Do Montessori teachers utilize worksheets and drills?  Well, not exactly, but we still meet the definition in other ways.

One of the most common misconceptions about Montessori education is that the children are let to do whatever they want all the time.  Some people think that choice is the driving force (it is, at least in part) and the students run amok.  Anyone who has spent any time learning about Montessori or observing in a classroom knows the opposite to be true.  Montessori is really all about choice within limits.  Teachers create an environment rich with materials that call to the children, and while they do have lots of decision-making opportunities, they are only provided with options that will lead them to meet desired outcomes.  The same is true for math fact instruction and practice.  

Let’s get down to the facts: in Montessori classrooms, the teachers provide direct fact memorization instruction.  At the lower elementary level in particular, one will find shelves stocked with materials that were designed to aid the process of math fact memorization.  Typically a teacher will give a child a lesson on a material to explain how it is to be used, and then detail their expectations to the child.  Children are generally going to be practicing and recording their facts on a daily basis.  Montessorians believe that while understanding the concept of why we manipulate numbers and having a visual representation helps children in the long run, we agree that when it comes down to it those basic facts really need to be memorized with an emphasis on speed and accuracy.  This is one of the reasons our children are able to solve larger complex operations problems at a younger age than children in many traditional settings.

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Bead Cabinet

Taking a closer look at specific materials, how they are used, and their intended outcomes may help to refine these points.

  • The bead chains/bead cabinet: Children begin using this material as early as 3 years old.  While the initial purpose is for children to learn to count, during the elementary years that skip counting translates into speedy memorization of multiplication tables.  The transition tends to be fairly smooth, as they’ve already been practicing for years!  Bonus: the same material will help them understand squares and cubes just a little further down the road in their school career.

  • Addition and subtraction strip boards: While a student initially uses these materials to explore the concept of adding and subtracting, they quickly notice patterns and build speed as they gain confidence.  These materials are typically introduced at age 5 or 6.

  • Multiplication and division bead boards: Like the strip boards, these are initially used by students to gain a basic understanding of the concept.  As they master individual facts, they naturally start to create shortcuts for themselves and a trained Montessori teacher will observe that they are ready to move on to more challenging materials.

  • Finger boards: Created for each of the four operations, these materials are essentially wooden versions of the classic fact charts.  Children are slow to fill them in the beginning, but after repeated practice they build speed and accuracy.  Control charts are readily available for immediate feedback, ensuring that even when a child is practicing independently they will be able to know whether they are answering correctly or not.

  • Blackline masters: Montessori teachers have blackline masters, which are essentially paper copies of the finger boards, that are available for children.  Children are expected to complete the material and then record the information on the paper version, thus providing another layer of repetition.  

Room for Improvement?

If there is one area that many math teachers (Montessori and otherwise) could stand to improve upon when it comes to math facts, it would be taking the time to target math fact instruction.  Making sure our students are practicing daily, quickly, and accurately is critical, but might we also help them practice smarter?

Sitting down with each individual child to gather a quick assessment periodically can make a huge difference in progress.  While gathering data in this fashion is time-consuming, we may find it well worth the effort.  Teachers can sit with a child and quickly run through a chart of facts, asking the child for answers orally.  Highlight the facts the child can answer quickly and confidently, leaving the others blank.  Teachers make a copy of this sheet so that the student can keep it to reference.  When it’s time to practice math facts, children can focus on the ones they haven’t yet memorized, rather than eating up time going over the facts they’ve already mastered.

If you are interested in reading more about Dr. Morgan’s work, follow the links to his article and the research findings:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/children-who-struggle/201808/should-us-students-do-more-math-practice-and-drilling

http://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/rbtfl/J2BxFXoAWRPSo/full

Book List: Inspiring Independent Thinkers

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As parents and educators, we want the best for our children.  We want them to be happy, to feel the joy of learning, and to live rich lives.  Many of us value creativity and innovation, and we admire the great thinkers throughout history.  This often leads us to wonder how we might instill similar values in our own children.  How do we cultivate independent thought?  One way to start is by teaching them about people who have changed the world for the better.  Read on for a list of books you might enjoy together. (Click on the book image to go to the book’s page on Amazon)

 

Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives, by Gene Barretta

Thomas Edison was arguably one of the influential inventors of modern times.  Often credited with inventing a refined, marketable version of the incandescent light bulb, he also worked to create batteries, movie cameras, and record players.  This book is geared toward elementary children but could be enjoyed by both younger and older students as well.

 

Darwin and Evolution for Kids, by Kristan Lawson

This multifaceted book covers biographical information related to Darwin beginning with his childhood, but also touches on a variety of content areas including botany, geography, history, and genetics.  This book gives information while also detailing 21 fun explorative activities for kids. 

 

Leonardo da Vinci: A Nonfiction Companion to Magic Tree House Merlin Mission #10: Monday with a Mad Genius, by Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce, illustrated by Sal Murdocca (fact tracker series)

The Magic Tree House series is wildly popular with older primary and elementary aged students.  While the original series has elements of history blended with fantasy, the fact tracker series is completely nonfiction.  For extra fun, pair this book with Monday with a Mad Genius!  Learn all about the fascinating man that was Leonardo da Vinci.

 

William Shakespeare & the Globe, by Aliki

Beloved author and illustrator Aliki brings us a book to learn about one of the world’s most famous playwrights.  Recommended for children in kindergarten through elementary, this book details the life of Shakespeare through the building of the modern Globe.  This gorgeous book will entertain kids and the adults who read with them.

 

Abe Lincoln: The Boy Who Loved Books, by Kay Winters, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

It’s not often that biographies take the time to revel in the childhood of a famous figure.  This book does just that, giving kids a chance to relate to one of the greatest political figures in the history of our nation.  Parents will love that Abe loved books!  The books he read shaped him into the courageous man he became and led him to make decisions that would prove to change the course of history.

 

Who Was Gandhi? by Dana Meachen Rau, illustrated by Jerry Hoare

Long after his death, Gandhi remains a symbol of peace around the world.  Children will learn about his fight against discrimination and attempts to dismantle India’s caste system.  This book is part of a large series of popular biographies for kids, so if your family likes Who Was Gandhi? know that there are plenty more to explore!

 

Marie Curie (Little People, Big Dreams), by Isabel Sanchez Vegara, illustrated by Frau Isa

Available in hardcover and board book versions, this book appeals to toddlers as much as it does to second graders.  Charming illustrations accompany simple yet informative sentences, with the aim to inspire youngsters to break boundaries and follow their dreams.

 

Nelson Mandela, by Kadir Nelson

Kadir Nelson’s book has received the Coretta Scott King Honor award.  It tells the story of an inspired boy who worked his whole life to create a more just and equitable world for all people.  This is a tale that clearly illustrates the difference one person can make.  We may have to work hard and endure sacrifices, but Mandela persevered and stood firm in his convictions, leaving the world a better place.

 

What’s Your Angle, Pythagoras? by Julie Ellis, illustrated by Phyllis Hornung

Is your child enamored with math, geometry, and solving problems?  This cute book might be just the one for them.  Join young Pythagoras as he considers different ways to solve real problems, and how math can be applied to help the process along.

 

The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin, by Cheryl Harness

Not many people can be expert candle makers, printers, and political activists simultaneously.  Introduce your child to the marvelous Ben Franklin with this factual book that is perfect for kids in grades 2-5.

 

What other famous independent thinkers should be on this list?  Happy reading!

What’s in a Pumpkin?

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Halloween is right around the corner…

If your family celebrates this holiday, your child is likely thinking about costumes and candy, while you’re probably thinking of ways to keep the evening fun without a total sugar overload.  Whether or not you participate in Halloween, pumpkins are a fun symbol this time of year.  This nostalgic squash can be found everywhere in October, and there are so many fun ways to use them with your children.  Read on for inspiration...

Visiting a Farm

If you have a local farm that grows and sells pumpkins, you are in luck!  Not only is a trip to the local pumpkin patch a traditional autumn activity, it provides kids with an opportunity to learn about the source of pumpkins.  Instead of thinking we just buy them from a store, they will have exposure to the very place that plants the seeds and grows them.  This will offer them a sense of connection and an appreciation for the people and plants involved in the process.  

Life Cycle Learning

While it may be too late to grow your own pumpkin patch, there’s still plenty of time to teach our kids about the life cycle of a pumpkin.  You could have a formal discussion about it, or just ask questions informally while you pick pumpkins, while you carve jack-o-lanterns, or during any other pumpkin activity.  Some ideas:

  • Where do pumpkins come from?

  • How do pumpkins reproduce/make more of themselves?

  • Where do the seeds come from?

  • What color are pumpkin flowers?

  • How do pumpkins grow?

  • What do they/plants need to grow?

  • How long does it take a pumpkin to grow? 

  • What happens when a pumpkin’s life cycle ends?

Check out this free pumpkin life cycle printable booklet if you’re looking for something to make together at home: https://teachingmama.org/pumpkin-life-cycle-booklet-free-printable/

Cooking Up Some Fun

Round up the kids and head to the kitchen!  Cooking with children is fun, gives them a way to contribute to the family, and teaches them valuable life skills that they will hold onto forever.  (Plus you can always sneak some math in!)  Whatever your own personal culinary skill level is, there are options for everyone.

Want to keep it simple?  Hang onto those seeds and roast them for a delicious (and super healthy) snack.  These tiny treats are full of magnesium, fiber, protein, and lots of other beneficial nutrients.  And they couldn’t be easier to make.  Try this recipe for crisp, flavorful seeds - https://www.tasteofhome.com/article/roast-pumpkin-seeds/

Are you a baker?  Skip the canned puree and try your hand at this pumpkin pie from scratch -https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/nancy-fuller/from-scratch-pumpkin-pie-2251073

If your family loves cheesy pasta, this pumpkin and tortellini dish will be a hit - https://www.rd.com/food/recipes-cooking/vegetable-recipes-cheese-tortellini-with-pumpkin-ricotta/

Looking for a recipe that’s way outside the box?  Try pickled pumpkin! https://www.rd.com/food/pumpkin-pickles-recipe/

Sing a Song

“Five Little Pumpkins” is a classic song written by Raffi Cavoukian and Kenneth David Whiteley.  It’s short, sweet, and simple for little ones to memorize.  Below are the lyrics and a link to hear Raffi’s version of the song:

Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate

The first one said, “Oh my, it’s getting late.”

The second one said, “There are witches in the air.”

The third one said, “But we don’t care.”

The fourth one said, “Let’s run and run and run.”

The fifth one said, “I’m ready for some fun!”

Ooooo went the wind and out went the light

And the five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVJFF6jfAgY

Squeeze in Some Skills

Did you know that in many Montessori classrooms it’s common to have a large stump that children are able to hammer nails into?  This is great practice for motor skills and coordination, but did you know you can put a seasonal spin on it?  Use a large pumpkin, a hammer, and either nails or golf tees to let your 3-6 year old have some fun.  The nails can be taken out and used over and over again, much to the delight of little ones.

For older children, estimation and measurement are skills that can be naturally practiced while enjoying pumpkins.  You might estimate the weight of a pumpkin or how many seeds are inside, then have fun finding out.  More measurement activities could include determining the height, width, or circumference.  Parents can develop real-life math skills by creating oral word problems on the spot.  If there are four people in your family, each person wants to carve a pumpkin, and they cost $6 each, how much will you spend?  And will your child even realize they’re doing multiplication?  Spoiler: as a Montessori child, they probably will realize it, and they will probably love the opportunity to have fun with numbers!

Hopefully we’ve given you plenty of pumpkin inspiration after reading this post!  Before we end, we’ll leave you with a joke that will make the kids chuckle…

Q-What do you call a pretty pumpkin?

A-Gourd-geous!

Montessori and Nature

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“When children come into contact with nature, they reveal their strength.” - Maria Montessori

We all know spending time outdoors is good for our kids, but what did Maria Montessori have to say about it?  What can we do as parents to support our children’s development in the natural world, and what responsibilities do our schools have in regards to this critical work?

Traditional Methods that Fall Short

What do we think of when we imagine educating our children about nature?  Perhaps a small collection of shells on a windowsill, planting flowers in the spring, or pushing a toddler in a stroller through a park come to mind.  While all of these activities have a place and can be enriching in their own way, they fall short of giving children authentic natural experiences.  As adults, we have developed habits that keep our interactions with the natural world at a distance.  We don’t appreciate being stuck out in the rain, or even the sun for that matter.  We find ways to carefully shelter ourselves away from the elements so that we may be safe and comfortable.  We likely developed this perspective while we were still children ourselves, at the urging of adults who didn’t want us to jump in puddles or ruin our best clothes.  Might we step back and reevaluate our own relationship with the natural world?

A collection of shells is lovely, but a child will have internal context if they have actually visited the seashore and collected the shells themselves.  As adults, we love flowers, but children react more strongly to plants they can interact with: think a vegetable garden or even just a tomato plant in a pot.  Taking our children for a stroll in the park is important but let us give them a bit of freedom so they may move at their own pace and on their own feet.  Let them explore and stop to notice the things we so quickly pass by.

Have you ever had a moment - it might have been somewhere on a lake or at the ocean, in the mountains or in the middle of a desert - when an intense, almost indescribable, feeling settled over you?  You noticed that something deep within yourself felt connected to the earth and everything on it.  You probably felt alive and at peace at the same time.  Some of us are lucky enough to have had many of these moments, others, only a few times.  Children have the ability to feel this so much more than we do.  The world is still so fresh and new to them, and natural experiences can have a lasting impact.  

As Dr. Montessori so eloquently stated, “Only poets and little children can feel the fascination of a tiny rivulet of water flowing over pebbles.”  Even when we make efforts to take our children on a walk in the woods, it’s easy for us as adults to focus on the walk or the destination.  Children are fortunate in that they live in the moment.  They see a caterpillar and it calls to their desire to observe.  A small fragment of a fallen leaf is a tiny window into a world they are still discovering.  Children’s wonder and curiosity has much to teach us, if only we can remember to slow down and follow their lead.

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A Burgeoning Movement

While many people have always valued a strong connection to nature, it’s likely fair to say that most of us have experienced at least some level of disconnect.  In recent years, however, more and more people seem to be looking for ways to rebuild those connections.  We participate in community supported agriculture, hobby farms, and keep chickens in our backyards.  We vacation in national parks, participate in hiking challenges, and take up kayaking.  

We know that something is missing, and while we don’t always articulate it, we are searching for our way back to nature.  

Could it be that our children have the ability to both inspire and teach us the way?  If we let them slow down and notice the little things - the insects, the toads, the way the sunlight reflects off a shiny rock - maybe we can learn to slow down and notice them, too.  If we start by considering how we would like our children to eat as healthy as possible, maybe it might lead us to visiting farms or growing our own food (with our kids, of course!) 

Practical Ideas

Montessori suggests that it is not the act of going out into a garden that leaves an impression upon a child, but the whole approach of ‘living naturally’.  From Japanese ‘forest bathing’ to Norwegian ‘friluftsliv’, cultures around the world have known the importance of our connection to nature for centuries.  Scientists echo these ideas, reaffirming the notion that spending time outdoors and surrounded by elements of the natural world is good for us.

So what can we do to apply this knowledge?

Montessori classrooms work to apply natural living on a daily basis.  Nature is frequently brought into the classroom in the form of live plants and animals that the children help care for.  Even the materials themselves are made of natural materials; plastic is avoided whenever possible.  Ideally, a classroom has access to the outdoors so that children may come and go as the space calls to them (and as is appropriate). 

As parents, the easiest way to let our children live more natural lives is to lead by example.  We can find ways to enjoy the outdoors on a regular basis, in all seasons.  Explore the parks, trails, nature preserves, and bodies of water near your home.  It can be fun to take up new hobbies together as a family, or to find other like-minded families that you can team up with.  Whether you like adventure, taking it easy, or something in between, there are outdoor activities that will put you back in touch with the world around you.

Already love the outdoors?  Find ways to make what you love accessible to your kids.  Ready to head out for the first time (or the first time in a long time)?  Here’s one great resource to get you started: https://www.alltrails.com  

Enjoy, and let us know about your adventures!

The Keys to Handwriting Success

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This is not a news flash:
Handwriting instruction is disappearing in schools across the United States.

You’ve probably already heard this sad revelation, and while it’s certainly not true for all schools, more and more are eschewing handwriting instruction to make more time for other, standards-based skills.  The result is a generation of children who are not gaining a sense of how important it is to be able to write beautifully and they are simply not learning cursive – period.  

If this makes you cringe, here’s the good news: people are noticing and speaking up, and some schools are finding ways to fit handwriting back into the schedule.  Even better news?  Montessori schools never dropped it in the first place.  Read on to learn more about how this 100+ year-old educational approach guides children in the art of writing beautifully.

Indirect Preparation

If you walk into a Montessori toddler or primary classroom, you will see very young children working with materials that develop fine motor skills.  While fine motor proficiency can serve children in a wide variety of ways, Montessori intentionally created materials that strengthen the hand as indirect preparation for handwriting.

Each time a three-year-old lifts a knobbed cylinder they are developing proper pincer grip.  This same action is repeated in many other materials.  The child may be working to joyfully refine a sensorial skill, but at the very same time their tiny fingers are slowly working their way toward being able to hold a pencil correctly.

Many Montessori materials are designed to be used working from left to right in order to prepare the child to move in that direction while writing.  Even the materials themselves are organized in a left to right fashion on the shelves.

Manipulating a Pencil

Long before they are ready to write a story (or even a word!), Montessori children begin learning how to carefully manipulate a pencil.  The metal insets are a beautiful material that were designed specifically to prepare the hand for writing.  While the shapes in the material are reminiscent of a geometry lesson, that is not the primary intention.  What’s meant to be the focus is the teaching of a variety of handwriting skills, including pencil grip, applying appropriate pressure, moving the pencil left to right, and further strengthening the muscles of the hand to build stamina.

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Early Letter Formation

Montessori primary classrooms are equipped with a special material that helps children learn how to form letters.  The sandpaper letters are wooden tiles with letters made out of a sand-textured surface.  The children use their fingers to trace the shape of each letter, and later use the tiles as a reference while learning to write for the first time.  

Another option for children to practice letter formation is to use their finger and ‘draw’ the letters in a small tray of sand.  Both sand writing and using the sandpaper letters appeals to the sensorial nature of the primary child, making these activities fun.  

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Cursive or Print?

By the time a Montessori student is 4 or 5 years old they begin writing joyfully because they are well prepared.  Montessori schools typically focus on teaching children to write in cursive, even in the primary classroom.  We have found that there are many benefits to emphasizing this style over manuscript/print writing.

Learning to write in cursive has many advantages:

  • It’s nearly impossible to reverse letters in cursive.

  • Cursive writers can read print, but the reverse is not always true.

  • The ligatures in cursive may help early readers see groups of letters (oa, ing, th, and so on).

  • The flow of cursive words allows the writer to focus on the ideas of the writing rather than the formation of individual letters in isolation.

A Continuation

When children enter a Montessori elementary program, their teacher will emphasize the mastery of cursive writing and take the time to review any letters or skill gaps they may have.  From here on, children practice constantly.  They have notebooks they are expected to record their daily work in, and that work is expected to be written beautifully and neatly.  Not only that, but the children themselves take great pride in the beauty of their own writing.

As time goes on, students do eventually learn skills such as keyboarding.  Fortunately, they have been given a foundation that emphasizes the power of neat handwriting.  In our fast-paced, shortcut-filled world, it’s nice to think that our children will grow up to enjoy sitting down to craft a thoughtful letter, using a pen, some paper, and their own hand.