Archive | May, 2010

One-Size-Fits-All Schooling, Executive Functions, and the Beauty of a Montessori Classroom

31 May

Although I had already listened online to a similar version of Dr. Hughes first talk, “Enriched Environments, Activity-Based Learning, and Higher Order Cognitive Functions”, I was struck by the societal aspects he brought up.

He began by illustrating the large amount of brain geography that is dedicated to the hands, and contrasting this with how our current system of education is structured.  As Sir Ken Robinson points out in his humorous TED talk, it seems that the end goal of our educational model is to produce university professors.  However, while not every child is destined to become an academic, every child has an ability they are spectacularly good at.  Unfortunately, children whose talent does not align with our society’s current interpretation of intelligence will be denied access to privileged educational opportunities; these are only available to those who can successfully acquire and demonstrate knowledge in one particular way (through rote memorization and test-taking).

Dr. Hughes presented a study that compared the cognitive development of monozygotic (identical) and dizygotic (fraternal) twins.  While the former developed at more or less the same pace, the mental growth spurts of the latter were completely unrelated.  We can therefore conclude that simultaneously educating groups of very different children using a single curriculum and pace DOES NOT WORK.

The most interesting part of the talk had to do with executive functions, which are the skills developed in the pre-frontal cortex that allow us to orchestrate our thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals.  In other words, these are the brain functions that allow you to plan, make decisions, trouble-shoot, overcome strong habitual responses and resist temptations.  They help you be “good at doing things” – they make you effective in this world.

Executive functions develop through self-guided learning, self-structured play experiences, and self-regulated language (all three of which children get very little of at traditional schools).  Sadly, executive functions cannot grow in an unhealthy physical and emotional environment, where exposure to hands-on and self-guided developmental opportunities is lacking.

Dr. Hughes then showed us a slide of a stunningly beautiful Montessori classroom.  He pointed out the qualities in our classrooms – beauty, peace, respect – and argued that these should be essential components of any environment.  He then told us that the lovely classroom we had seen was from a school that catered to children of low-income, at-risk families.  “What would the world look like if every child was educated in that environment,” Dr. Hughes asked.


Saturday’s Here!!!

29 May

In just a couple of hours I’m heading out to listen to Dr. Hughes speak!!!  The topics are:

– ”Enriched Environments, Activity Based Learning, and Higher Order Cognitive Functions: The Neurological Case for Montessori Education”

– “Referral, Assessment and Treatment of School-Aged Children”

Needless to say, I’m totally excited and will post tomorrow on the talks.  Have a great Saturday!!!

Nature Week part 3: Spider Web Wonders

26 May

Age: 3+

Vocabulary: arachnid, spinneret, weave, web, cephalothorax, abdomen, venom

Materials: Paper and pencils (for coloring); cellophane tape and clear double-stick tape of the same width; large sheet of dark-colored paper.

Before you start: Create an orb web on the dark paper.  Use the cellophane tape for the “spokes” and the double-stick tape for the spiral.


1. Ask children if they’ve ever seen a spider.  How did they know it was a spider?  What did it look like?  What was it doing?  Was it on or near a web?  Encourage children to draw a picture of a spider based on their current knowledge.

2. Take the children outside and look for spiders and webs.  Encourage them to share their observations and ideas about spiders.

3. Read a book about spiders and allow the children to look at pictures of spiders.

4. Discuss the function of a spider web – to catch prey.  Ask children why they think that a spider’s prey gets caught in the web, but the spider does not.

5. Show the children the web made out of tape.  Allow them to take turns “tiptoeing” their fingers across the web like a spider.  What do they notice?  (Not all strands are sticky.  Spiders may avoid the sticky strands.)  Now have a child “fly” into the web with an open palm.  What happens this time?  (They get stuck.  Prey doesn’t tiptoe and hits many sticky strands.)  Many spiders also have special bristles on their feet.  Scientists think the bristles may help them break free from the sticky parts of the web.

Alternate activity for older children: Create a spider refuge

1. Choose a spider web or an area where you have seen a spider.  To help protect the area, create a sign that says “Spider Refuge” so that others will know to be careful.  Quietly observe the spider and collect information about it.  What is the area around the web like?  What color is the spider?  What does it do?  What does it eat?  Use the information to create a book about spiders to share with others.

Extension: Picking Up Vibrations

Spiders use vibrations to sense whether they have caught prey in their web.  Tie a piece of string or yarn between two chairs and stretch it taut.  Have one child (the spider) lightly touch the string with closed eyes.  Have another child (the prey) pluck the string gently, then with more force.  When  can the spider detect the prey?  Let children take turns being the prey and the spider.

Music: “Little Spider Weaves a Web” (to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle”) — Because if I have to sing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” one more time, I’m going to barf!!!

Little spider weaves a web

With some dry and sticky threads

Here comes a fly buzzing by.

Into her web, watch it fly.

Wiggle wiggle, it’s stuck tight.

Spider has her meal tonight.

Snack: Spider Crackers

Spread a round cracker thickly with cream cheese or other spread.  Place another cracker on top, creating a sandwich.  Tuck pretzel sticks into the cream cheese edge to make 8 legs.  Use a small amount of spread to attach 8 sunflower seed eyes and another larger round cracker for the abdomen.  Tasty treat!!!

Nature Week part 2: First Impressions

23 May

Age: 3+

Vocabulary: first impression, undecided, feeling, fear, reaction

Classroom/Outdoor activity:

1. Mark off three sections of the classroom: one showing a picture of a happy child, one showing a picture of a scared child, one showing a picture of an indifferent child.  Talk about these feelings with the children.

2. Hold up a photograph of an animal, ask the children to say its name, and invite the children to go to the feeling that animal inspires in them.  Once there, they can sit on the floor and make the face that corresponds to how the animal feels.

3. Encourage children to fully discuss their feelings regarding the animal.  Why do they feel as they do?  What do they already know about this animal, and what would they like to find out?  Record their responses and use them as a guide for future animal themes.

3. Invite children back to a central gathering place and repeat with as many animals as their attention span allows.  Choose a mixture of easy-to-spot animals (dog/cat/ladybug) and more exotic animals found in the zoo (lion/gorilla/camel).

4. Over the next few days, take time to find answers to their questions about the animals.  Provide books, share pictures, tell stories, and bring “animal ambassadors” into the classroom (make sure to release any wild creatures like spiders or snails ceremoniously after a few hours).

5. After the children have learned about the animals they were curious about, take a walk around the neighborhood to see if they can spot those animals.  When they see an animal they felt scared or undecided about, encourage them to observe it without touching or bothering it.  Provide a nature notebook for each child and encourage them to record what they observed.  Ask: How did it make you feel?  Take a trip to the zoo and repeat the activity with the exotic animals they learned about.  Encourage them to share their new discoveries with friends and family.

Art: Animal/feeling collages

-Provide a variety of magazines, scissors, paper and glue.  Invite children to cut out pictures of people expressing different emotions.  How do children think each person is feeling?  Why do they think so?  Allow children to cut out pictures of animals.  Encourage them to arrange and glue down the pictures of people and animals in a way that makes sense to them.  Allow them to explain their collages.

Music: Choose fun songs about animals the children might be scared of.  For example: “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”, “The Rhino Song“, or “The Lion song” (get up and dance to the Lion Song!!).  NOTE: I would not show YouTube videos of songs to children younger than 5, but it’s a good resource to find songs and lyrics (just my opinion…)

Snack: Use prepared bread stick dough to create snakes, spiders, worms, or other misunderstood creatures.  Decorate the dough with raisins, nuts and seeds.  Bake with the children, and while they eat you can discuss why they are so important for the ecosystem and why they are misunderstood.

Nature Week Part 1: M-ant-essori (I couldn’t resist)

22 May

This is part one of Nature Week!  There are many activities that can stem from each concept I will blog about, so feel free to post your own ideas in the comments section as inspiration for other teachers and Montessori moms!

Age: 4+ years (Can be done by one child or a group)

What child isn’t buggy about bugs?  Go outside with your child, discover the world of ants (or other common insects), and use the tiny creatures as a springboard for science, art, language, math, and music!

First, educate yourself and your child about ant facts.  You can go online to find child-friendly ant information or check out a book from the library.  Children aren’t afraid of “big words”, so you shouldn’t be either!  Use the correct terminology and include it in the context of your activity so your child gains a hands-on understanding of her new vocabulary.  Here are some words to consider for the following activities: colony, antennae, thorax, abdomen, harvest, exoskeleton, pupa, hypothesis, conclusion.

Activity: Ant Buffet

Items needed: magnifying lenses, paper plates divided into fourths with a marker, potential ant food items (ripe fruit, bread, cheese, dead leaves, grass, meat, sugar, salt, etc.),

1. Ask the child which foods the ants are most likely to be attracted to, and why she thinks this is the case.  Incorporate the term “hypothesis” by telling her: “What you think will happen is your hypothesis.  Now you’re going to test your hypothesis.”  Let her place her four food selections (about a tablespoon is enough) on the four sections of the plate.  (If working with several children, they can each make their own selections and have different assortments on their plates).

2. Go outside and conduct an “ant hunt”.  Great places to look are cracks in the sidewalk, under rocks, or near water sources.  Show your child how to roll logs or rocks towards you so that any inhabitants (spiders, centipedes, etc.) will crawl away from you.  Talk about not harming any animals.

3. Place the plate nearby and wait.  While the ants find the food, you can talk about what you learned from the book/online resources.  What do ant bodies look like?  How do they move and communicate?  How does their behavior change when they find food?  Observe the ants as they arrive for the food, help your child count how many visit each type of food, and help her record her results.  The easiest way to do this is to write the name of each of the four foods on a paper, and make a check-mark next to that food for each ant that visits it.

Note: It’s OK if your child doesn’t do this perfectly.  The purpose of this project is to help develop observation skills and introduce the Scientific Method.

4. Restore the habitat and clean up when you’re done!!!

5. If you wish, you can help your child graph the results by writing the four foods at the bottom of a page and pasting an ant picture above each food for each ant that visited it (older children will love this).  Discuss your child’s findings with her.  Was the hypothesis correct?  What does the graph tell her?  Talk about how scientists sometimes have to test their hypothesis several times to confirm their conclusions, and sometimes have to refine their testing methods.


Art: Make thumbprint ants by using a stamp pad or washable markers.  Allow your child to experiment with the size of her fingers to see which are best for making a realistic head, thorax and abdomen.  Show her how to add eyes, legs and antennae.  Talk about the ant’s body parts and what they’re used for.  She can also make an anthill on her paper by “painting” with glue and sprinkling sand over it.  Talk about what the ants in her painting are doing.  NOTE: This is art, so there is no “right” or “wrong” way of doing it.  Allow the child to create based on her impressions of the insect she studied.


– Sing “The Ants Go Marching…” (You can find several other options for lyrics on YouTube and iTunes, but the one I linked is my favorite version because it shows the movements associated with the verses.  My students LOVE doing this song marching around the ellipse and crouching down during the “down to the ground” part.  It’s a great way to wear them out!!)

– Sing “Head, Thorax, Abdomen” to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”

Language:  For older children (6+), pose open-ended questions that encourage them to use their imagination.  Writing topics might include: “If I were as small as an ant…”, “If I had six legs…”, and “If I were waiting inside a pupa, I would think about…”.

Snack time:  Make “ants on a log” by spreading cream cheese on a celery or carrot stick and putting a row of raisin “ants” on top.

Chumiles (ant larvae), a tasty Mexican delicacy!! (I'm serious!)


– Talk about cultures that eat ants and ant larvae, and show them pictures of these foods.  Discuss how foods that might seem strange to us are common-place and even delicacies in other countries (and vice-versa).
– Discuss how some cultures use ants for medicinal purposes (sutures, anti-inflammatory medicine, etc.)

Stuff to buy (if you’re so inclined):

– Insect eye kaleidoscopes allow children to see the world as an insect would (found in science stores)

– Ant farms are a great way to study the hierarchy and team work of an ant colony (just be careful it doesn’t open up in your living room or classroom!)

As always, when working with animals it’s imperative to discuss and model ethical treatment of all creatures and their environment.  Be kind to ants, they play a crucial role in our ecosystem!!!

It’s Nature Week at M.M.!!!

21 May

I just came back from a very cool course called “Growing Up Wild”.  It was a full-day program designed to promote nature education specifically for children from ages 3-7.  I don’t normally post activities on my blog, because who can compete with bloggers who have so much more creativity, time, and energy than I do? 🙂  However, this course provided so many great ideas, that it would be a shame not to share them (especially now that Summer is right around the corner and the kids are going to be spending more time outdoors.  They are going to be spending more time outdoors, riiiiight???)

Tune in tomorrow morning, when I’ll start Nature Week, with one fun activity for the home or classroom every day!

The “Babies” Review Everyone Should Read

15 May

Here’s everything I felt about the movie but didn’t have the words to say…