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Leading Principles of the Montessori Approach, part I

28 Sep

Whew, blogging while getting the Elementary certification is a little like birthing a child while cooking a seven-course meal (or something like that…).  At any rate, I wanted to share these great principles that can help you make the right decision for your child or your students during your Montessori journey.  They’ll be posted in four parts for ease of reading.  I hope you enjoy them!


When faced with an uncertain situation in the classroom, it is always advisable to go “back to the basics”.  What follows are reference points/yardsticks that will allow us to make decisions that are aligned with the Montessori approach and are in the best interest of the child’s development.

The True Purpose of the Materials
Dr. Montessori’s focus was not the teaching of subjects; she was intrigued by the child’s development and how he learns.  Therefore, the subject area should never become more important than the children.  She offered materials as a means of development, not as an end in themselves.

We should not offer a material – be it table washing or the stamp game – with the goal of getting the child to learn how to wash tables or to obtain the right result for an addition.  We should guide children towards materials that will provide them with the developmental opportunities they require at that precise time.   We can know what their needs are by observing them and educating ourselves regarding the different sensitivities children exhibit at different stages (that’s a post for another day).

A child who washes a table will be refining his movements and developing the ability to follow a sequence of steps, regardless of how clean he leaves the table.  Similarly, a child who works with the stamp game will come to understand the fundamental concepts of arithmetic operations, regardless of whether he gets the correct answer every time or is able to add in his head.

The characteristics of the materials must be such that they prepare the child for something in the future (indirect preparation), while allowing him to reach awareness in the present (direct preparation).  Only the adult can develop an idea of what happens in the future; the child is not conscious of the preparation that is going on while he works.

Reaching Abstraction
The repetitive use of the Montessori materials is what allows the child to reach abstractions.  Dr. Montessori deemed a material valid and useful if it was able to hold the child’s concentration and if it permitted him to pass from the material to the mental world (from the concrete to the abstract).

It’s important to remember that abstractions take time.  The child must use materials that will allow him to reach abstraction by himself on his own timetable; this is the real meaning of freedom, growth, and self-construction.  When a child reaches abstraction depends on the individual, but if it is to be meaningful it will be based on individual experiences and not on someone else’s knowledge.


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 (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!

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)…

Working with Montessori Materials

13 May

I love surfing the web to see what kinds of creative activities Montessori homeschooling moms come up with.  As a teacher, burdened with a limited budget and endless administrative duties, I sometimes have challenges keeping the Practical Life area interesting – especially towards the end of the year.  The range of activities you can come up with is only limited by your imagination and bank account, and yet it’s crucial to remember some of the tenets that make Montessori so effective.


When the activity is first introduced, is the name of the activity given to the child? Proper vocabulary is crucial at a young age, and the little ones love discovering the names of everything around them.  Is the child shown how to carry the material and then allowed to do so by himself? Letting the child take the material lets him know that you trust him with that work (and also allows you to gauge if the tray is too big, the bowls too heavy, etc.).  When adult and child sit down, does the child know to wait his turn? Most young children will want to start touching the materials right away.  Letting the child know that it will be your turn first and then he can have a turn instills not only the concept of turn-taking, but more importantly, the ability to delay gratification and use the sense of sight to absorb information.  Are your movements slow and precise, and do you use the least amount of words possible? “Economy of movement” is very important because the child’s brain is absorbing each gesture; limiting the number of words you use allows the child’s brain to focus on the movements, instead of becoming distracted by words.

Are you showing proper clean-up? We want the child to be successful and independent all the way through the activity, so it’s important to show how to put the material away, either right after the presentation or when it’s obvious the child has finished exploring.  Does the activity have a clear purpose, or is it just busy work? Practical Life materials should live up to their name and allow the child to develop practical skills, such as independence, care for the environment, and coordination.  A couple of busy work activities (such as beading) never killed anyone, but try to develop purposeful materials that meet the developmental and intellectual needs of your child.  Ask yourself: Is this a skill my child can use to fend for himself in the future?


When you finish presenting the material, do you allow your child to work by himself? Hovering near the child is something that most of us are guilty of.  It’s fascinating to see how the child explores, and it’s normal to want to evaluate how much information he was able to pick up from our presentation.  However, keep in mind that if the child feels judged or tested, he will not be able to focus on the purpose of the material.  He will begin to perform and will expect praise.  Is he allowed to work uninterrupted for as long as he wants? Once the child begins to work, the teacher should become invisible.  Resist the urge to help (unless the child specifically demands your assistance), and don’t interrupt him with praise or suggestions.  Even something as innocent as taking a picture can cause the child to lose concentration. 

Is he being successful? The child can be working with the material in a way that is different from what you showed him, and that’s perfectly fine.  However, sometimes he’ll meet an obstacle and need help.  Observe the child from a distance (while you pretend to be busy with something else).  If he’s struggling mightily and looks frustrated, he is obviously not concentrating and not feeling successful.  At this point, you can quietly approach and ask if he needs help (or let him know ahead of time that he can come to you for help).  Once you get the green light, ask the child to pinpoint the specific part of the activity he needs help with, give the least assistance to get him back on track (with minimum talking and maximum economy of movement), and once again step aside.

Will the clean-up be overwhelming? When young children are working with materials that involve water (such as pouring from a pitcher to a glass), sometimes more water makes it onto the floor than into the glass.  If the child is unaware of the growing spill, he will continue getting water and pouring.  It is therefore essential to interrupt the activity before the clean-up becomes overwhelming for him.  A good time to do so is when the child is standing up to get more water (never interrupt while he’s working with concentration).  At that point, you can provide a lesson on how to sponge up a spill, and let the child know that when he’s cleaned up the water he may return to his work.  Apart from creating awareness, this serves as a natural consequence: If you spill water, you have to clean it up, so it’s best to be careful!


When the child finishes working with the material, is there a specific spot for him to put it away? Young children thrive on order and like knowing that there’s a place for everything.  Does he know he can work with the material whenever he wants? The child might want to repeat the activity later if he feels he hasn’t mastered it, so it’s essential that he be able to have access to it.  Is there a new activity that takes the newly-learned skill to the next level? Children’s brains develop by taking the skills they know and applying them to progressively more challenging activities.  If your child stops using a material, it’s probably a sign that he’s gotten what he needed out of that work and is ready for a more advanced skill set.  Make sure that the materials you make both relate to the ones he’s mastered and offer a new level of challenge.

The joy of Montessori are not just in the materials, but in presenting them at the right time, in the right way, and allowing free exploration.  Following these tenets will allow your child to maximize his learning experience.  Have fun!

Great Expectations

19 Mar

Nowadays, we treat children in a way we normally reserve for guests and quadriplegics.    We make their beds, cook their food, set their spot at the table, clean up their toys, spoon-feed them, wipe their bottoms, scrub their necks, and put on their shoes!!!  The reason parents do this is because they love their children and want to give them all the comforts of life.  But what message are we really sending?  How do the children interpret our actions?

Wow, mom thinks I’m not capable of pulling some bedsheets, fixing myself a sandwich, carrying a plate and fork, cleaning up my toys, bringing a fork to my mouth, wiping my bottom, scrubbing my neck, and sticking my feet into shoes.  If mom, who is all-knowing and perfect (you KNOW they see you this way), thinks I can’t do these things, then she MUST be right!

Years later, we’re frustrated because our children are “lazy” and “unmotivated”.  Funny, they weren’t born that way!

Take a few minutes to read this most charming post about a five-year old girl whose home environment mirrors her Montessori school environment.  While you’re reading, consider that this is a normal child with busy modern parents.  It’s not too late to raise the bar for your children!!!  Not only will they become more responsible, involved, and self-reliant, but you’ll have enough free time to go get a mani/pedi (or at least another cup of coffee).  Enjoy!

Why Montessori Schools Don’t Hand Out Bumper Stickers to Their Students

13 Feb

Don’t get it?  Read this…