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Ultrasounds and “Following the Child”

16 Sep

Child development begins at conception, as does our responsibility to protect it and remove any obstacles that will hinder its progress.  Here are my thoughts on ultrasound and child development…

Has the Bread Become Our Master?

15 Aug

An old Iranian proverb says: “Eat your bread in such a way that the bread does not become your master.”  In modern times, we’d be wise to say the same thing about our relationship with technology.

If you were born between the 1940’s and the 1970’s, you’ve experienced first-hand how important technology is for getting ahead in the workforce.  Those in our generation who obtained the necessary technology training to keep up with industry trends have been able to move ahead in the workforce, while others who were stumped by computers have been left behind.  We stand in awe of tech wizards who do with computers what most of us could only dream of (I should know, my husband is one of those brainiacs), and society rewards them handsomely for their abilities.

Not surprisingly, we believe that the secret to our children’s success lies in early exposure to technology.  After all, if we’d been born with a laptop in our hands, we wouldn’t have had to undergo the scary technology learning curve most of us experienced in high school, college, or worse: on the job!  I still remember being in my first year of college (1994) and opening a web browser for the first time.  I had no idea what to do or what to type after arriving at mtv.com (the only website I could think of!).  I also remember working in the corporate world with people only a few years older than me who had no clue how to use basic office technology.  “I’m about to get fired” was written all over their angst-ridden faces as they cringed before the monitor.  Relate those experiences to the current day, when four-year-olds are giving their parents lessons on how to use an iPhone, and it becomes clear why parents are so eager to encourage their pre-schoolers’ impressive computer skills!

However, we are doing young children a terrible disservice by exposing them to computers at an early age (even those computers with so-called educational software).  We are stealing from our children the short window of opportunity for developing CRUCIAL neurological and intellectual skills that ONLY come through real-world experiences.

Am I afraid of technology?  That’s like asking if I’m afraid of tools.  Both are marvelous inventions when used correctly!  Computers are a tool, and like every tool, they should be handled responsibly and used for the right purposes.  An electric drill is a very useful tool for hanging a painting, but it can have dire consequences if used incorrectly.  So can computers.

Here are (a few of) the facts:

  • Computers rob children of outdoor playtime.  Playing outdoors greatly benefits their physical health, encourages socialization, and develops problem-solving skills (read on to find out why computer software fails to provide truly useful problem-solving opportunities).  Physical activity also increases oxygen supply and balances chemical secretions in the brain.  Children with balanced brain chemistry are more capable of dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression, and show an increased ability to learn and retain information.
  • Computers take time away from experiences with real-world items (be it toys, art supplies, or a basket full of laundry).  These physical experiences provide the child with important clues about how the world REALLY works (i.e. gravity, cause & effect, self-control), drive him to find out more, and allow him to control of his environment.  Computer programs decide what the child is going to learn; they don’t provide useful multi-sensory feedback (e.g. banging your finger with a hammer in real life is a lot more educational than the same experience in the virtual world); and they breed a passive learner who is dependent on machines to provide experiences and solutions.  Additionally, if a child is stumped on a computer problem, he can shut down the machine and walk away with no consequences.  Not so when he has to figure out how to load the dishwasher so all the plates will fit and the door will close!
  • Computers rob children of valuable child-adult interactions.  In a very large study, researchers found that interactions between children and adults were the primary determinants of children’s intelligence, academic success, and emotional stability. What did these interactions look like?  They were “relaxed explorations guided primarily by the child and supported by helpful and emotionally responsive but not overly intrusive adults.” (Healy, Failure to Connect)  Can computers be “helpful and emotionally responsive”?  No, but you sure can!
  • Computers discourage the type of problem-solving scenarios that create lasting intellectual growth.  When a child is stuck on a problem in real life, a subtle suggestion or question from an adult can be just what he needs to solve the problem himself.  Even the most sophisticated computer programs cannot do this, so children who work with computers learn that the only way to find out the right answer is by waiting for the computer to show them (if they’re patient and interested enough to wait that long).  Gone are the feelings of satisfaction and triumph that come from solving a problem, and gone too is the embodiment of that new knowledge through the experience of figuring it out.
  • Computers don’t provide clear “if-then” experiences, thereby impairing a child’s ability to judge situations.  Psychologists now know that children need physical experiences that they themselves can control (e.g. if I do x this way, then y will happen – What happens if I do x differently?).  This phenomenon is especially important between the ages of three and four, when the brain takes a giant leap in causal reasoning.  And this is exactly when many parents choose to introduce computers to their children – computers that are ripe with software that provides confusing and unnatural cause-effect relationships.  Not surprisingly, elementary and junior high school teachers report a growing number of older students who struggle with applying “if-then” concepts to math, science, and social relations.  Even my husband, who teaches at the college level, has noticed this growing trend among his undergraduate students.
  • Computers confuse children about what is fact and what is fiction.  While young children have a hard time telling the difference between fantasy and reality, by age seven most can tell the two concepts apart.  However, studies have shown that the more screen time children are exposed to when they’re young, the more they struggle with correctly identifying something as fact or fiction as they get older.

In summary: The tech geniuses and titans of industry of today did not achieve their success by sitting in front of a computer at age four.  Their impressive creative and entrepreneurial abilities come from the real-life experiences they had as young children.

Let a pile of laundry be your children’s software and the sandbox be their Silicon Valley.  Allow them to care for a real mouse and “byte” into carrots and radishes straight from the garden.  Invite them to connect with the world and behold the true genius that’s just waiting to burst out.

*******

For a fascinating look at how computers affect our children, as well as a more in-depth explanation of the specific points discussed here, refer to the wonderful book “Failure To Connect” by Dr. Jane Healy.  If you don’t have time to read the entire book, at least check out Chapter Seven – Cybertots: Technology and the Preschool Child.  Get a free preview through Google Books!

The Force of Dr. Montessori’s Thought

28 Jul

During the past few weeks, I’ve received a couple of invitations to check out an online store that creates Montessori-based applications for the iPad.  On their blog, the product makers (two AMI-trained individuals who obviously skipped all the theory lectures) claim to wholeheartedly support Montessori education.  They paint themselves as champions of children, on a mission to “expose a new generation to the force of [Dr. Montessori’s] thought”.

Their only mission, as far as I can tell, is to make money by using the Montessori name, all the while tricking parents into thinking their children are obtaining a quality educational experience, and robbing children of the opportunity to fulfill their potential through real-world encounters.  Making money?  Perfectly fine.  Conning parents and denying children the opportunity to interact with the real world?  NOT FINE.

Join me as I dissect and respond to the very blog post that claims their intentions are pure (sections in green are taken from their blog):

“We are trying to introduce new families to the Montessori approach to early childhood education. We hope to highlight the importance of Montessori by exposing a new generation to the force of her thought.”

Unless the applications you’re selling come with a full download of The Absorbent Mind and an opportunity to observe in a Montessori classroom, I highly doubt that the families that purchase the products will be ‘exposed to the force of Dr. Montessori’s thought‘ (although I give you points for poetic prowess).  They will only be exposed to the force of mass marketing and the convenience of appliances-as-babysitters, and will once again be falsely reassured by money-grubbing sell-0uts that a video game is a great substitute for actual, physical learning experiences.

“We have carefully and thoughtfully translated the Montessori materials into iPhone and iPad applications. They are adherent to the Montessori philosophy of education. These applications are kinesthetic and proprioceptive, and incite the audio, visual, and tactile senses of the child. They also address the vestibular sense of balance. Additionally, positive feedback systems are delicately put into place, and control of error offers the child an authentic Montessori experience.”

The only way a material can adhere to the Montessori philosophy of education is if it is a REAL material that can be touched, carried, weighed, dropped, stacked, taken off a shelf, explored, and carefully put away.  And who are you trying to fool with your big words, anyway?  These applications are anything BUT kinesthetic and proprioceptive!  They don’t require the child to lift a red rod and gauge its length, or walk between tables and around rugs without bumping into anything.

Perhaps most tragic, in my view, is your claim to ‘incite the audio, visual, and tactile senses of the child’ (it’s auditory, not audio, by the way).  How can you rob children of their RIGHT to have real physical experiences, which are so crucial for the appropriate development of the brain?

Let me quote Dr. Joseph Chilton Pierce, whose theories are based on Montessori’s discoveries: “The more extensive and complete the child’s interaction with the content of the world out there, the more extensive the resulting structure of knowledge within…  In our anxieties, we fail to allow the child a continual interaction with the phenomena of this earth on a full-dimensional level (which means with all five of his/her body senses); and at the same time, we rush the child into contact with phenomena not appropriate to his/her stage of biological development.”  Can this statement more clearly describe the cognitive devastation your products are supporting?!

Now, let’s talk about your so-called ‘control of error’ (which is how the child is able to check his own work with the real Montessori materials and learn from his mistakes).  In the Red Rods (a Montessori material and one of the apps that you sell), the control of error is in the child’s ability to discriminate the differences in length.  But did you know that in order for the child to truly develop this ability and apply his new knowledge in more abstract ways, he has to actually carry the rods and feel their difference in length?

Dr. Montessori, in The Advanced Montessori Method, explained that the value of the control of error is in its ability to allow the child to compare and judge his work.  However, the simple posing of the problem (in this case, putting the Red Rods in order of length) is not what drives the child.  What brings the child back to the material is the sensation of “acquiring a new power of perception” thanks to the control of error, but perception between the ages of zero to six can ONLY be gained through hands-on exploration of materials that are concrete and physical representations of abstract concepts. This makes the control of error in your apps useless as a true tool of cognitive development.

“If Maria Montessori were alive today, we think that she would be at the Apple store, playing with an iPad, thinking hard about these complicated issues… In our opinion, Maria Montessori would be trying to open up and discover new ways to think about how we learn.”

First of all, nothing ticks me off more than misguided Montessorians who justify their schemes by saying, “If Maria Montessori were alive, she’d agree with me”.  Let’s get this straight: If Maria Montessori were alive today, she might very well be at the Apple store, playing with an iPad; but she would NOT be making iPad applications because she understood how children really learn and develop!  Don’t believe me, read her books!  The materials and the method she created were not designed simply to show the children how to read, write, or sort color tablets… She was helping develop “the human spirit” and change the world by following the needs, interests, and drives of children!

“Education must be reconstructed and based on the law of nature and not on the preconceived notions and prejudices of adult society,” she reminded us tirelessly.   The law of nature has not changed in 100 years, although our willingness to accept and adhere to it has.  We adults think we know what’s best for the children, and we fill their lives with our “anxiety-conditioned view of the world,” as Chilton Pearce says.  We think abstractly, and thus force our children to follow suit.  Any person who claims to believe in and support Montessori must put aside their ego and their delusions of grandeur, take a seat, observe the children, and take their cue from them.  THAT is what Maria Montessori would do.

“Existing Montessori students will return to the classroom with a renewed sense of joy and wonder.”

NO.  THEY.  WON’T.  You people are obviously not experienced guides, or you would know that any Montessori student who has been forced, bribed, praised, or coerced into working with Montessori materials at home after school will hardly ever want to touch the materials in the classroom, because the thrill of free choice, uninterrupted exploration, and intrinsic reward is gone.  Even worse, by exposing Montessori children to the apps, you will have robbed them of the experience of  interacting physically with the actual material.  I can hear the children now: “No, I don’t want to work with the Red Rods.  I already played that game on my computer at home.”  Sadly, our children’s loss is EVERYONE’S loss, including yours.

“A parent summed it up best, ‘I look forward to this app since children 3 or 4 are VERY adept at using their PARENTS’ iPads and iPhones – especially during long car trips and long waits at busy restaurants, doctor’s clinics, and in airports and on airplanes…all of which we have experienced in the past weeks. Our iPad has been engaging, educational, and fun.’ “

Uh, whatever happened to keeping your children entertained the old-fashioned way: by interacting with them???  For long car trips, sing songs and play I Spy.  Waiting at a restaurant?  Tell a good story or bring a couple of books.  At a doctor’s clinic?  Bust out a shoelace and play Cat’s Cradle.  For airplanes, nothing beats a coloring book or paper dolls!  Good grief, parents… You complain you don’t get enough time with your children, and when you have the opportunity to interact with them, you plug them into a computer!

“As many of you can imagine, comments have ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other.”

Gee, I wonder what true Montessorians – men and women who have selflessly dedicated their LIVES to fighting for the developmental rights of children – think about all this?  Spend one day – heck, even one hour – in a Montessori classroom, and you’ll understand why we’re fighting so arduously against the computerization of Montessori.

“In our estimations, the relevance of Montessori no longer rests with Montessori. It rests with us.”

No, it doesn’t.  It rests with the children.  Respect their rights, observe their needs, and go make your money at the expense of a less vulnerable social group.  If you truly want to be relevant in the lives of children, then maybe YOU should spend a little more time being ‘exposed to the force of Dr. Montessori’s thought’.

**********************

“To stimulate life,–leaving it then free to develop, to unfold,–herein lies the first task of the educator. In such a delicate task, a great art must suggest the moment, and limit the intervention, in order that we shall arouse no perturbation, cause no deviation, but rather that we shall help the soul which is coming into the fullness of life, and which shall live from its own forces.”

— Maria Montessori

Beyond Flattery: Imitation as a Learning Tool

29 Jun

My wedding photographer called out: “OK, now a shot of the bride with the flower girls.”  Three-year-old Danika and five-year-old Allison ran towards me and stood by my side.  I squatted down as best I could in my dress to join them at their height, and they immediately squatted down next to me.  Everyone watching the photo shoot laughed, but we were witnessing something more than plain cuteness.  The girls’ behavior illustrated a driving force in how humans learn: imitation.

The ability to copy behavior is visible from the first months of life.  Studies show that newborns imitate facial gestures; a 9-month old child can replicate a simple action he observed 24 hours earlier; toddlers use observation and imitation skills to learn precise use of tools; an 18-month-old can figure out when to imitate someone and when the person’s actions were a mistake and not worth replicating.

Through observation, Dr. Montessori came to understand the child’s drive to learn through imitation, and created a learning environment that catered to it.  The most well-known method of observation/imitation in the Montessori classroom is the presentation, where the adult shows the child how to use a material and then invites the child to engage in the activity.  However, upon careful observation in the classroom environment, you’ll discover imitation being used as a learning tool in other ways.  Work in progress is displayed on rugs and tables for all to see, and each child is allowed to spend as much time as he wants watching his peers working (as long as he doesn’t interrupt).  Older students can give presentations to younger ones, showing them not only how to use a material, but also how to interact with peers in positive ways.  Social skills also grow exponentially through observation and imitation, as children and teachers role-play Grace & Courtesy lessons.  Finally, the “explosions” in writing that are common in Montessori classrooms are due in large part to the drive to imitate, since one child’s discovery of his nascent abilities encourages others to follow suit.

Imitation is a double-edged sword, as any guide can tell you after a few months in the classroom.  Want to know why children are running in the classroom?  Watch how fast you’re walking.  Want to know why children are talking to each other in bossy tones?  Listen to your own way of speaking.  Want to know why children are not treating the materials with respect?  Observe  your own careless movements during presentations.  Want to know why the children are not pushing in their chairs?  Take a look at the teacher’s stool you left out-of-place.

Parents of children who are old enough to “make good choices” (not toddlers, mind you) often ask:

Why doesn’t my child show any interest in books?  Do you read on your own in front of your child, or are you plugged into your computer?

Why does my child get up from the dining table several times during a meal?  Do you sit down to enjoy the meal or are you constantly getting up to answer the phone, update Twitter, etc.?

Why does my child speak to me in a rude tone?  Do you use polite words and tones when interacting with others (including your spouse, child, co-workers and employees)?

Knowing what you now know about the power and importance of imitation, consider the traditional school setting.  How many opportunities for observation and imitation do children get during a school day, if they’re made to sit still and listen to a teacher who is spouting facts?  Maybe they are able to imitate the “good” students who can sit without moving and raise their hand before answering, but not much else.  And as any traditional school teacher can tell you, the first thing that bored and unengaged children will imitate is the negative behavior of “the problem child” in the classroom.  Is it any wonder that our children are growing up with very few clues on how to interact positively with peers, solve problems, and collaborate effectively?

“What is social life if not the solving of social problems, behaving properly and pursuing aims acceptable to all?  [It is not] sitting side by side and hearing someone else talk…”

— Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Practical Ideas for a Positive Summer

25 Jun

Here are some great – if somewhat obvious – ideas from a Montessori teacher for keeping your kids engaged in the learning process during the Summer (and year-round, in my opinion)…

http://www.middletowntranscript.com/lifestyle/family/x1609336607/Keep-your-children-learning-all-summer

Parenting: A Spectator Sport?

24 Jun

You probably knew that several decades ago swaddling babies was common practice.  But did you know that parents strapped babies’ legs to prevent them from growing crooked?  Can you imagine that the ligament under a child’s tongue was split to ensure he would eventually speak?  Babies wore snug caps, not as protection from the sun, but to prevent the ears from protruding.  And did you know that if you were trying to be a good mother 100 years ago, you were expected to pinch and stroke your baby’s nose to ensure it grew long and sharp?

We now know that none of these practices are necessary, and many are harmful.  We know too that if we let Nature run its course, our babies will grow up with straight legs, the ability to speak, and ears and noses that respond to genes and not to forceful coaxing.  Nature, the powerful energy that created a baby inside a mother’s womb for nine months, continues to guide the child’s development once he comes in contact with the outside world.

Parents who are aware of this will gladly echo Maria Montessori’s words in The Advanced Montessori Method: “What a relief to say: ‘Nature will think of that.  I will leave my baby free, and watch him grow in beauty; I will be a quiescent spectator of the miracle.'”

While we’ve made great leaps in the understanding of a child’s physical development, we still feel the need to swaddle, strap, dissect and stroke his intellectual and emotional needs.  We walk around carrying this fictitious burden, and we forget that Nature is asking us – begging us – to trust her ageless wisdom.

If given freedom, children will learn because they are driven to do so, just as they are driven to grow.  I can’t convince you of that, nobody can.  I can only invite you to step back and watch Nature at work.  Remove yourself from your child’s path for thirty minutes and be a “spectator of the miracle”.

Woe to us, when we believe ourselves responsible for matters that do not concern us, and delude ourselves with the idea that we are perfecting things that will perfect themselves quite independently of us!

— Maria Montessori, The Advanced Montessori Method

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.

SPIDER WEB EXPERIENCE

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!!!