Losing our Grip


Last week we posted the following article (Losing our Grip on our facebook page. The article discussed the increasing number of children in kindergarten without the fine motor skills needed to manipulate scissors, hold pencils, etc. The New York Times reported in February that public schools in New York City saw a 30 percent increase in the number of students referred to occupational therapy, with the number jumping 20 percent in three years in Chicago and 30 percent over five years in Los Angeles.

Why is this?  The article points to three causes:

  1. Our culture has increased pressure on parents to involve young children in organized activities. More organized activities does not equal more body awareness. There is less time for free play and opportunities for children to manipulate their environments to understand spatial concepts. As we Montessorians know, young children learn by doing, not by being told what to do.
  2. Parental Fear. Some parents are afraid to let their children engage in physical play or use tools such as scissors. Today’s children spend less time outside, where they have more opportunities to explore how their bodies move through space, learn balance and figure out how to handle tools and toys in relation to one another. Playgrounds have changed tremendously over the years. The equipment that supported sensory integration, such as merry go rounds and monkey bars, are no longer present. 
  3. Technology. The “educational” tablet has replaced the activities which support fine motor skills such as playdoh and coloring. 

Montessori Children’s House classrooms offer ample opportunities for fine and gross motor development. With the absence of technology in our programs, the children are free to work towards developing their hands and bodies and in turn their minds for the academic work to come. Many people are surprised to learn that fine motor skills are a robust predictor of academic achievement. Read more about that here.



A line of students filed out of the big metal door. You could hardly see our faces under our brightly colored raincoats. Boots squeaked and thudded. Rain pants rustled. Inside the door, the line was straight and organized, but as soon as we stepped outside, we were wild — children of the Earth.

Recess had begun.

A newly formed river of mud and rain in the woods. A slippery fallen tree acts as a bridge, or a castle, or a throne. Leaf crowns. Tiny rocks, twigs, and the sand pile make a tiny fortress. A moat is carved out of the dark brown mulch much to the chagrin of our teachers, and the rain quickly fills it in. Wet bark peeled off a dead tree, rocks, leaves, twigs, acorns, pine cones, a feather from home, and we built a fairy house. Capture the flag goes on in all weather. The wetness is an added challenge, an extra bit of fun. We liked to show off our grit.

We slipped and slid across the soaked playground. Our heels rubbed raw in our boots, but we didn’t care. Fingernails quickly filled with dirt and sand and wet bits of bark, but we didn’t care. Mud splashed in our faces and we wiped it away with muddier hands, but we didn’t care. Our fingers and noses were numb with the wet chill, but we didn’t care. Despite the “waterproof” rain gear we were wearing, we were soaked through, but we didn’t care.

We did care though, when the teachers began to call us inside. When the little bark castles had to be left for tomorrow — who knew if they would keep from collapsing without us watching over them? When the imaginary kingdom by the new river in the woods had to be abandoned for another day. When the capture the flag game had to end before anyone had scored. When the leaf crowns had to be taken off. Then we cared.

Up until two years ago, I attended a Montessori school. This meant I spent a lot of time outside. In elementary, we had recess every day, whether it was snowing or raining or sleeting. We had lessons out in the woods and took trips to the beaches and mountains. Unless the temperature was way below freezing or it was thundering and lightning, we were out in it.

Curiosity, love, and concern for the natural world has been a part of who I am from a very young age. Now that I am older, I read the biology textbooks, watch the powerpoints on ecology, take my dog for a walk after school every day, and I understand a little more of what is happening out there in the world. I get it. And I love getting it. Learning about life and nature gives me a sense of fulfillment that no other subject in school does. I compost and recycle at home. I am President of the Green Group at my high school, and I am happy to say that the school now recycles! When I’m out with my dog I'll pick up trash from the side of the road. I hike mountains with my dad, even in the snow. I love being outside.

Recess, but also every lesson and trip we took in the outdoors while I was in Montessori, was a very meaningful experience for me. It made me the person I am today. It instilled in me a curiosity and a passion that otherwise might not exist and for which I am very grateful. I’m seventeen years old now, but I will never stop playing outside. I will never stop loving the earth and I will never stop fighting for it. I will never stop asking questions and never stop wondering how the earth works. I will never stop — because of recess. Because of log kingdoms, leaf crowns, little sand fortresses, and muddy games of capture the flag.

-Alexandra Campbell, HMS '14


From the Mouths of Babes: Our Top 10

Language is essential to humanity, but it is something we often take for granted.  It allows us to communicate our thoughts and emotions and lays the foundation for reading and writing.  It sets apart entire cultures.  

Anyone who has children of their own, or those of us who work with children know the great capacity of their ability to listen and to speak. Maria Montessori, who had her own gift for words said, "At the base of every language is the great register of the sounds of the language - the child. The child is, as it were, a machine made by nature for this task. The child hears the sounds exactly.  That is in itself marvelous....The child has no preparation either, yet nature has given him this immeasurable gift which is that of registering and fixing these sounds in exact measure.  The adult prepares the intelligent part, the child takes it up, fixes it, keeps it." (Creative Development in the Child)

Sometimes we marvel at their words, and sometimes we wish we had been more careful speaking around their little ears.  Either way, children certainly have their own unique way of communicating. In that light, here is the top 10 list of gems we have compiled "from the mouths of babes":

  1. "I know the biggest number in the world.  It's five thousand, two hundred, fifty-three hundred thousand twenty-seven."
  2. Child approaching Guide with a tangled necklace halfway around his head, "Can you help me with this?  It won't fit.  My head grew too much."
  3. Child:  Today is my daddy's birthday!
    Guide: Well tell your daddy happy birthday for me!
    Child:  Ok.  He's turning um, 90, well, I think 91 today.
  4. "We have to have our heads checked to make sure no lace is in our hair." (child referring to a lice check)
  5. "I saw a mommy worm and then I went away and came back and it gave birth to three baby worms!"
  6. "My mom said I can't choose that work."
  7. Child:  "My dad has a job."
    Guide: "What does he do in his job?"
    Child:  "He rides his bicycle all over the place and sells pieces of plastic."
  8. After an informative discussion on spitting and germs, a child excitedly waved her hand to share a comment:  "Well one time when I was a little baby, I stuck my hand all the way down my throat and threw up all over my bed."
  9. "My grandma sleeps ALLLLLLLLLL day.  Until the afternoon!"
  10. Guide (asking a child if he is available for a presentation):  "Are you free?"
    Child:  "No!  I'm 4!"


-Becky (Children's House Guide)

Connections that Stick

Source: Harvard Center of the Developing Child

Source: Harvard Center of the Developing Child

When we hold our babies for the first time we look into their little faces and think of all the potential they posses. It’s an amazing feeling. Some parents also think about what a great responsibility it is to help them become the best person they can be. It may seem like a daunting task, but it isn’t. We just need to understand how to guide them. At birth, their brains are ready to learn all that we have to teach them. 

Every experience that a young child has helps them to learn. Physiologically, these experiences help build the necessary connections between cells in the brain.  Things children experience through the senses make the strongest connections. The child needs to have an experience and then the language that accompanies that experience. It’s this process that also helps make a connection between the cells, and when a child has the same experience over and over again, the connection gets stronger and stronger. Research shows that a child needs at least ten repetitions to make a connection.

During the first year of life, the brain is the most active and these connections are being made more than any other time in the child’s life. Every sight, sound, smell, touch or taste is a possible connection. If the baby continues to have an experience the connection will get stronger. If the baby does not have the experience again, the connection will likely die away. The phrase “use it or lose it” is very true.

Young children go through periods of time when they are most open to receiving certain information. These are called “sensitive periods” or “windows of opportunity.” During these times the child is drawn to learning a particular skill and will learn it easily without very much “teaching” on the adult’s part. First, we must know what sensitive periods the child goes through and at what time in their lives, and then we must provide the child with the tools he needs to learn during that period. The sensitive period for language lasts for the first six years of life, so it’s important for us to provide the child with rich experiences full of opportunities for listening and practicing during this time. From ages three to six the child is in a sensitive period for learning manners and social skills. We must provide the child with social experiences and opportunities to practice those skills. When we miss a sensitive period, the skill may still be learned later, but it will be more difficult. 

During the early years, until six years old, if you look at a brain scan you will see what looks like an electrical storm. Connections are being made everywhere in the brain. Every experience is a potential connection. If you look at a brain scan of an early elementary child there are many, many connections. The connections are already made and the child is working on strengthening useful connections and paring down the connections they don’t need. They are organizing the information they will need in their lives and their own culture. Later, if they have had a forgotten something in the past and come back to learn it again, it will not be as hard because the brain will recognize it as a past experience or skill. For example, if a young child learned a second language, but then never used it and forgot it, as an adult it would not be as hard to learn it again as it would be for an adult who had never learned or heard that language as a young child.

It is important to give a child what they need according to their stage of development. To give our child the optimal environment for learning, we must always be learning and creating an enriching environment. And we must research and look for schools with teachers and administration who understand brain development in the child and support the child accordingly.


For more information on the developing brain, the following books are an excellent resource:

What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, by Lise Elliot

The Absorbent Mind, by Maria Montessori

Source: Harvard Center of the Developing Child

Source: Harvard Center of the Developing Child