Book List: Inspiring Independent Thinkers


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!

Montessori Basics: Freedom Within Limits


“Freedom within limits” is a phrase often used by Montessorians.  What do they mean and what does that look like?  Read on to find out...

The Myth: Montessori schools let children do whatever they want.  The children just play all day and the teachers don’t really teach.  It’s complete chaos.

These types of statements are typically made by people who don’t really know a whole lot about Montessori and haven’t spent time in the schools.  Montessori is very different from traditional and conventional education methods, so it’s natural to draw those assumptions based on limited information.  People who are familiar with the philosophy tend to have a very different take.

The Environment

Preparation of the environment is one of the most important things a Montessori teacher can focus on.  We believe that it is possible to create an environment full of materials that entice children to learn.  These materials are organized very carefully on wooden shelves so that children may access them independently.  As the needs of the children evolve, the offerings on the shelves evolve, too.  

In short, we think about the desired learning outcomes and create an environment that will allow children to achieve them with a certain level of independence.  We want them to satisfy their own learning curiosities and feel empowered by their own education.  We give lessons and we stand back and watch the children practice.

Care of Self

At a very young age children begin to feel a desire to do things for themselves.  Isn’t that what we all want for them?  Sometimes out of habit, and sometimes when we are in a hurry, it can be easy to jump in and do things for our children.  If we are careful to build in the time and structures that allow for independent self-care, it is amazing to see what kids are capable of.

This begins in the toddler class when they are learning to use the toilet independently.  In primary classrooms we actively teach children how to prepare their own snacks, and even encourage them to listen to their bodies’ needs and have a snack when they decide they need it, not when we decide it’s snack time.  Whenever possible, we don’t have our students ask for permission to use the restroom.  We trust them to take care of themselves when they need to.

Have you ever thought about your own attention span?  When we focus on challenging work for long periods of time we need to stop and take breaks occasionally.  This is healthy and makes us more productive in the long run.  We trust children to do the same, but we are right there to guide them back on track whenever they might need a reminder.

Work and Learning

It is true that Montessori children are free to choose their own work.  We want them to learn to follow their interests but we also want to give them opportunities to learn time management skills and responsibility in an authentic way.  While toddlers and primary aged children have lots of choice, older children are expected to follow a general academic framework.  While an elementary teacher is giving small group lessons, the rest of the class is working independently.  Some children might have a written work plan, others might have internalized the need to cover the major academic areas, and still others may need more direct teacher guidance.  Our goal is to meet regularly with each child to check in with their work and have a conversation about how that independence is going.  Children may choose the order in which they do their work, where they sit, and who they work with, but they know that ultimately it’s their responsibility to get it all done.

Parents often ask, “What if my child wants to avoid a particular work?”  This happens with many kids, as we all have things we like and things we don’t!  Montessori teachers give children strategies to address the avoidance.  When a child is younger, we may find a way to tie a personal interest into the work (for example, dinosaur counters in math).  Older children are open to learning work ethic strategies.  We may gently say, “I notice you’ve been avoiding grammar.  Sometimes we save the things that are hard or that we don’t enjoy so much for last, but completing that work first is helpful.  Why don’t you try that today and see how it feels?”  Acknowledging the struggles we all face and providing helpful feedback gives kids the support they need to grow as learners.  

Social Growth

One of the great things about Montessori classrooms is the flexibility we have in regards to time and structure.  Because we don’t ask children to sit at desks (we allow them to make their own seating choices and their own work buddy choices) they are free to have more authentic social interactions.  Kids under six often engage in what we call ‘parallel play’.  That is, they tend to be more apt to work individually beside their friends.  These younger children receive lots of lessons in grace and courtesy and their teachers are nearby to help guide them through any challenging social situations.

Once the elementary years begin, children become very social people.  This is a time in which they are learning all about friendships and how to interact socially with their peers.  They often delight in these interactions, but sometimes they are confronted with conflict.  Montessori teachers have the time to specifically teach conflict resolutions skills and peer mediation.  We are able to sit with children and guide them through the process in such a way that children feel heard, respected, and empowered with the skills necessary to resolve their problems independently in the future.

A Gradual Release

It’s important to remember that while Montessori schools do place great value in the development of independence we recognize it’s not something that happens overnight.  Luckily, when teachers work with children for a three year cycle, they become so tuned in to each child’s needs and progress that their learning experience is truly tailored to the individual.  

We don’t simply expect children to be independent and make great choices right away.  We slowly foster and encourage those values over time.  While paying close attention to each developmental phase and each student’s needs, we can intervene only when necessary.

We all appreciate being able to make our own choices when it comes to ourselves, our work, and our friendships.  Montessori just makes this possible for kids, too.

Independence and the Montessori Child

Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.
— Maria Montessori

You may already know that Montessori educators value and encourage independence in even their youngest students.  Why is it so important?  We believe that nurturing this valuable character trait is both empowering and necessary.  

Benefits of Cultivating Independence

In short, giving a child the gift of independence lets them know we value them and know they’re capable.  Children can grow up feeling empowered and safe in their abilities to make sound choices.  When we trust them, they learn to trust themselves, ultimately becoming happy and productive members of their communities.

Of course, this looks different at different ages.  Children birth to age six want to do things by themselves, while elementary aged children want to think for themselves.  Adolescents seek both physical and social independence while they tread the waters between childhood and adulthood.  It’s important to remind ourselves of these developmental stages, both as teachers and parents.

What Independence Means at School

In the earliest years at school, children focus on what we refer to as practical life skills.  This may include learning to prepare simple snacks, putting on their own shoes or coats, or caring for classroom plants and animals.  Children are given endless opportunities to practice these skills.

Another facet of independence at a Montessori school involves choice within limits.  Children are able to decide what work they are interested in.  Teachers carefully prepare the classroom environment so that all choices are safe and desirable, but within those boundaries the child is free to explore.

As children get older (the elementary years and beyond), they must meet certain academic expectations.  Teachers use a variety of tools to help students work independently while still meeting their goals, including work plans and time management strategies.  Research becomes of great interest at this time, and children are given ample opportunity to deeply explore topics they choose.

How Parents Can Support This Work at Home

How can families continue the cultivation of independence in the home?  It all starts with a shift in the way we view our children’s capabilities.  They are often able to do much more than we realize, and with a little bit of modeling they tend to eagerly accept a challenge.  After all, our children want to do what we do, and if we give them the proper tools and support, they can begin practicing.

The chart below highlights some of the possibilities.  Think of this as an inspiring guide that highlights what children of various ages are typically capable of.  Giving our children tasks such as these builds their confidence while helping them learn how to be contributing members of a community - in this case, their family.

Looking Forward

One of the easiest ways to encourage independence in our children is to be more aware in the moment.  Though it can be a challenge to slow down and let them move at their pace (like when they insist on zipping up their own coat while we’re rushing out the door to get to work), it’s going to benefit them in the long run.  Building a little extra time into our schedules can help!  Some little changes we can make to embed this value into our days:

  • Send your child to put their shoes on 10 minutes before you’d like to leave.
  • Leave child-friendly cleaning supplies within reach.
  • Put pre-portioned or easy-to-prepare snacks on low shelves.
  • Turn spills and messes into opportunities.
  • Let your child (eek!) pick out their own clothes. For younger children especially, some weather appropriate guidance is just fine.  Enjoy the creative fashion statements that ensue.

Montessori reminds us that supporting independence is a conquest that does not end, though it most definitely evolves.

Independence is not a static condition; it is a continuous conquest, and in order to reach not only freedom, but also strength, and the perfecting on one’s powers, it is necessary to follow this path of unremitting toil.
— Maria Montessori

11 Ways to Foster Independence

Developing Skills, Grit and Resiliency through Trial, Trust and Failure. 

After reading and agreeing with popular articles explaining how losing is good for kids, that grit is essential for success and that a 4th R resiliency  has been added to child-rearing, it seemed like the next logical, large scale conversation might be:

  • How do we allow failures to occur naturally in our child’s life?
  • What will it look like to foster independence?
  • Can my child handle what comes along?
  • What can I do to encourage and show trust in my child?

Failures occur naturally when we allow our children to take a more active role in their own lives by providing them with ample opportunities to choose. Young children, with not much life experience, are bound to choose to play with a favorite toy instead of getting their snack or lunch ready for school, resulting in a hungry belly at snack time. The result is a learning experience that provides good information for the following day and a chance to develop resiliency as they experience a minor failure.

Here are 11 Ways to Put Trying, Failing and Recovery into the Everyday

  1. Send the kids outside.

    Often, we send the kids outside when we’ve decided we’ve had enough. Enough screen time, enough rough-housing, or enough whining because they are “bored.” Instead of using outside time as a reaction to enough of something, get creative and spin it. Show the children how you used to make teeter-totters out of scrap wood. Or better yet, leave a pile of wood, nails and a hammer and see what happens. If your child is younger, allow for time to play in a puddle, pile of leaves or muddy zone. There are countless ideas out there.

  2. Ask the kids.

    Consider asking your children to identify one thing they have never done, then encourage and enable them to try. The end result is not the goal. The process is! Give it a try, simply ask, “What is one thing you have never done but would like to try?” Then plan how and when, and simply be there without commentary, as they give it a go.

  3. Start small.

    After we ask, we have to allow our kids to make toast, knowing it will lead to making eggs and pancakes one day. We have to slow down and say, try it. Even if as Lenore Skenazy says, “Maybe these tasks seem small, even silly, but in a culture that has created mountains of fear around every childhood experience, these kids (who are encouraged to try) have started their climb. Pretty soon, they’ll be ready to fly.”

  4. Share stories.

    When we look to other people, to our own childhood stories and success stories from other children, it becomes easier to put it all in perspective. For example, Ringo Starr, a surviving Beatle, was chronically ill as a child and never finished school, in fact he spent many years in the hospital. It keeps things in perspective to think one of the most famous, beloved drummers in history discovered his own talent while tapping sticks to pass the time in his hospital stay. This certainly wasn’t a picture perfect- mom- and-dad-will-make-it-happen-route and he turned out pretty successful on his own, don’t you think?
  5. Encourage other parents.

    Parents talk. Parents want what is best for their children. Avoid showing off what your child can do, but rather encourage other parents to discover for themselves that their children CAN handle more than they think.

  6. Identify your fears.

    After your child has chosen a task, it’s helpful to write down the fears you have. Once you do this, you can plan for how you will respond if your worst fears actually come true. (Example: If I let my child pack her bag, she will forget her boots. I am afraid the school with think I am a bad parent. Plan: I will send a note saying I am encouraging my child and if she forgets her boots, we will work on ways to remember them at home.)

  7. Get the facts.

    After writing down your fears, get the facts. If you’re afraid of the bigger, “what- ifs” like abduction, find out the real stats and then plan accordingly. See Protecting the Gift by Gavin de Becker. Bottom line: instead of putting the axe on an idea altogether, find another way to create the same experience through alternative planning and enabling.

  8. Let go.

    Here’s where we, as moms and dads, have some work to do on ourselves as we develop the habit of letting go. We can try to control the outcomes and direction of our children while they are young, but as our children get closer and closer to leaving the nest, it is imperative that they learn and practice staying afloat and recovering in the wake of mistakes and mishaps. If we impede their progress neither of you will be prepared for what the real world will deliver from 18-years to 80-years-old.

  9. Practice, practice, practice.

    In order for kids to experience and garner meaning and develop resiliency from the lumps and bumps, the ups and downs, the oopsies and flops that go hand-in-hand with all learning, kids will need oodles of practice time. And as parents, we have our own job to practice stepping out of the way and trusting our children. No parent I know is likely to wake up one day saying, “Alrighty kiddo- this time you’re on your own.” Likewise most kids won’t wake up one day saying, “No problem, I didn’t make the team or I forgot my lunch, I’ve got this,” without some practice. Baby steps and practice are good for everyone in the family.

  10. Keep track.

    When parents keep track of the efforts and outcomes, it becomes very clear that over time, these “simple” tasks add up. They also keep motivation high and evidence in hand that yes, children do benefit from us backing off and staying quiet (grab the duct tape) and showing our kids that we have faith in their abilities to tackle new things and overcome failures.

  11. Celebrate!

    If your second-grader made eggs for the first time (after four failed attempts with shells in the scramble), he’s a rockstar because he’s taking on more responsibility and he did it. He made it through the failures, as minimal or as grand, as they may seem to us. This is progress! Have a big breakfast and make it a celebration.

As children grow and mature, parents can foster independence by allowing children to make choices, learn from them, make necessary course corrections, experience failure and success and develop the resiliency they require to tackle any of life’s challenges and obstacles. As the Buddhist Quote says, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” 

By Vicki Hoefle (Guest Blogger) 

Join me for a lively workshop on Monday, October 6th, 7-9pm,
right here at Hollis Montessori School. Details & Directions

Vicki Hoefle Creator, Parenting on Track (TM) Author,  Duct Tape Parenting

Vicki Hoefle
Creator, Parenting on Track (TM)
Author, Duct Tape Parenting