When Toby was two years old, he had already picked out his future school and his teacher. He wanted to go to Hollis Montessori and learn with Ms. Anjali, like his older sister, Natalie. A year later, however, when his first day rolled around, his parents were apprehensive. As the youngest of four kids, Toby was the perpetual baby of the family, and he was still getting down the basics of life. In their eyes, he didn’t seem ready for a “real” school: he was still learning to use the potty! Never mind that he didn’t exhibit any of Natalie’s love for academic learning. Proceeding cautiously, Christina and Lukas enrolled Toby anyway, figuring that they would just “see how it goes,” but the first year only seemed to confirm their fears.
“Every night at dinner he would ask if we wanted to hear about his day, and every night he would say [he spent the day] apple cutting and orange juicing,” Christina related. By contrast, Toby’s sister, Natalie (who had started Montessori at age four and a half) had spent her first year bringing home papers of metal insets and numbers. Instead of a Friday Folder stuffed with work like his sister, most days Toby would arrive home with a baggie of apples. Toby’s single-minded focus on food prep, for the whole year, only served to fortify Christina’s original concerns. Toby wasn’t ready for a real school.
Toby’s teacher, Ms. Carla, however, was delighted with his progress. “Carla was certain she could see something we couldn’t,” Christina recalled. At every parent-teacher conference, she said, Carla told her, “don’t worry, it’s part of the process, he’s going to be an amazing five year old. Just wait.” And so, they waited, and worried, and waited some more, while Toby kept slicing apples right up to the end of the year.
With trepidation, Christina pulled up to school on Toby’s first day of his second year, steeling herself for another baggie of apple slices. Instead, Toby handed her a metal inset. By the end of the week, he had brought home two metal insets, and a map followed the next week. Two months into the new school year, they have two books of metal insets and some maps, and Toby is practicing his numbers and letter sounds. “Mama,” he told Christina, “I didn’t have time to do apple cutting today. I was so busy with other things.”
Nearly a century ago, when Maria Montessori observed her young students at her school, she noticed the deep concentration and pride the children took in mastering practical life skills, such as cutting apples, polishing shoes, and washing dishes. The children could spend hours, day after day, working on the same task. “Every time children emerged from such an experience,” Dr. Montessori wrote, “they were like individuals who had rested. They were filled with life and resembled those who have experienced great joy.” The sense of purpose and pride that comes from completing a practical life task is matched by the intrinsic reward that comes with a job well done. As Ms. Carla puts it, a child can say “I dusted that shelf, and now it looks great!” or he can enjoy a yummy treat after preparing a snack.
Beyond boosting pride and fostering independence, Dr. Montessori realized that lessons focusing on these practical life tasks could serve to reinforce skills that the children would need in their later, more “academic,” studies. For example, as the teacher introduces a new lesson, she deliberately names each action and each material they are using: “this is a cutting board, an apple slicer, a sponge,” and so on. In this way, the child builds a large vocabulary bank, which, studies show, serves them well when learning to read later. In June 2014, President Obama cited some of this research in announcing an initiative aimed at increasing preschoolers’ exposure to words, in part by encouraging parents to narrate their toddlers’ day, much as the Montessori guide uses precise language when labeling the components of each lesson. Back in 1978, Dee Norman Lloyd found that literacy levels in third grade could, in turn, predict the difference between high school dropouts and graduates. The vocabulary learned during the practical life lessons build the foundation for later successes.
In addition to laying the academic groundwork, the practical life lessons reinforce other lifelong skills, such as the refinement of coordinated movement (think strengthening the hand muscles while manipulating the apple slicer) or learning manners and courtesy, as a child waits her turn to fill the water pitcher at the sink.
In fact, it is these later skills that drew Christina and Lukas to a Montessori education in the first place. “The importance of the well-rounded education and the well-rounded child is lacking [in most mainstream schools] today,” Christina asserts. With two older children in traditional schools, she is well placed to notice the difference. Traditional schools, even nursery schools, give precedence to academic subjects, like learning letters and numbers, and treat practical life skills as secondary, a form of play and an outlet that allow children time to recharge their brains for when their “real” work begins. These schools often miss the academic opportunities that even young children’s natural interests can provide.
That’s why Christina and Lukas chose HMS. To a parent steeped in the world of traditional schooling, Montessori is a “huge, steep learning curve,” Christina says. Toby, however, never doubted it was the perfect place for him. Whether it is slicing apples, tracing metal insets, or making maps, his evolving interests confirm that this is the right school for him.