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A piece of Her-story: Maria Montessori's study

 
In 2017 I took a pedagogical pilgrimage from the International Montessori Congress in Prague to the site of the original Casa dei Bambini in Rome and then to...
 

Amsterdam:

 

Home of canals, tulips, bicycles, pancakes...
and Maria Montessori's study.


On a long street called Koninginneweg, at number 161, sits Maria Montessori's final place of residence. It was her home until her passing in 1952 and now houses her legacy as the setting for AMI's ('Association Montessori Internationale') headquarters and a planned Montessori Museum. 
 
 
I was accompanied on my Montessori mission by my husband, and Montessori Child co-owner, Andrew. It all felt so blissful that it almost became a little surreal as the two of us strolled from our hotel through the beautiful Vondelpark towards Maria's house!
 
  
As Google Maps informed me that we were nearing our destination we couldn't help but notice the aesthetic beauty and affluence of the area. Upmarket boutique stores, artisan cafes and large residences lined the streets.
   
 
I was immediately struck by the stark contrast between the neighbourhood here, at Maria Montessori's final home, and that of San Lorenzo in Rome where she opened her first Casa dei Bambini. 
 
Here are a few photos of the streetscape directly surrounding the Casa where Maria started her life's work:
 
 
And here is the tree-lined Amsterdam avenue and the stunning four-storey home where she spent her final years:
 
 
It's certainly quite a change in socio-economic atmosphere, but I don't think it represents a contradiction. Maria didn't sell out or forget her roots. In the final years of her life she was advocating just as passionately for social justice and peace, and in fact she capitalised on the platform provided by her 'success' as a way to reach influential audiences to campaign for equity, opportunity and tolerance. The main reason that Maria was able to live in such an elegant home is that her son, Mario, had by that stage married into the wealthy Pierson family and they became, in a way, patrons of the Montessori mission. That personal connection and professional collaboration lives on today, most notably through the Montessori-Pierson publishing company which publishes and distributes Dr Montessori's books as well as collections of her personal writings.
 
So yes Dr Montessori's physical surroundings changed but her values remained constant. Whether in the so-called 'slums' of Rome or the upper-class suburbs of Amsterdam she was committed to championing the needs and rights of all children.

  

Dr Maria Montessori, orating. 
31st August, 1870 - 6th May 1952
Pictured here in 1949, age 79, during the period she lived in Amsterdam.

Maria Montessori passed away in Noordwijk, Amsterdam, while on a family weekend retreat.

 

The incredible woman pictured above used to come home to this doorstep...
 

 

What was once her home and office is now a beacon of Montessori history (or should that be, ‘herstory’, since many of the artefacts reinforce what a robust, powerful and persuasive woman she was).

Speaking of passionate women, allow me to introduce you to our guide through Maria Montessori's former home.

Nina Monfils is an AMI staff member, responsible for Office Management and curation of the Maria Montessori House. 

Nina showed a remarkable dedication to her craft and an authentic, unbridled emotional investment in the work she does. I had been a little nervous before my visit, worrying that my enthusiasm would come across as naive or cloying. I had worried that I might, as my niece would put it, start "fan-girling" like a tween at a One Direction concert. It was, after all, the home of one of my heroes, I didn't know if I could keep my composure and yet I thought that someone who works every day in that environment might find it 'silly' for me to get over-excited. I need not have worried. Nina might be accustomed to being in this house, but she's not desensitised to it. My enthusiasm was matched and raised by hers. The way she guided me through the home, stopping here and there to share anecdotes and insights, made it clear that she feels as privileged as I did to walk through these hallowed halls. 

Nina was as generous with her time as she was gracious in her hospitality. I truly believe Maria would be proud to have Nina as the caretaker of her home. I can't think of a better custodian to help preserve and share the legacy that Maria left behind. Nina embodies many of the qualities that made Maria herself such an influential figure. She balances respect and reverence for history with a strong sense of forethought for the future. Maria took inspiration from her predecessors, such as Seguin and Itard, and then considered the context around her to develop her own ideas and create the best possible experiences for children. Nina is similarly eager to appreciate the work that AMI has achieved already but is willing to then look at the current climate, including technological and social advances, in order to determine what the next steps should be. Nina, and her peers at AMI, are eager to keep the Montessori movement in motion rather than letting it stagnate. They are seeking creative ways to utilise the Maria Montessori House to , whether by rejuvenating it as an interactive museum with multimedia content or injecting the garden with the energy of culture and creativity by making it a space for a collective hub of artists and authors. My simplistic summaries probably don't do justice to the vision of what could come to be in the Maria Montessori House, but suffice it to say - 'watch this space'! In the meantime, let's get back to what is already present...

Maria's watchful eye glances out across the back garden. It is easy to imagine the woman herself sitting in this space, basking in the glory of nature as a means to restore her energy or collect her thoughts. 
 
 
  
Andrew looks slightly more cheerful than Maria in the photo below - perhaps because a woman such as herself would have had no time for 'selfies' when there was so much work to be done! Years ago I was fortunate enough to meet Phyllis Wallbank, a student and close personal friend of Maria herself. Phyllis told me that Maria was irked by the celebrity status she eventually attracted and often lamented "I point at the child and they look at my finger" (she was, perhaps, either knowingly or unknowingly paraphrasing the expression "When a wise man points at the moon the imbecile examines the finger").
  
 
A step inside from the garden takes you to the library that archives the texts written by, and relevant to, Maria. This is a newer modification, as the space was originally used by a concierge to help service the adjoining kitchen. 

 

I am an unashamed bibliophile (or 'book nerd'!) so it was like heaven for me to stand in this room, surrounded by words. It is hard to comprehend the volume of wisdom, insight and information printed on the pages sitting upon these shelves.  

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
It was fascinating to see some of the aged, original texts that sat on the shelves but towards the end of my tour I invested in some of the newer titles that have recently been released by the Montessori-Piersen company. To stand in Maria's library combining two of my great loves - Montessori and books - was surely one of the most unique and memorable highlights of my European adventures. 
  
  
We departed the library and began to head up the steep, narrow stairs. We paused at the landing for Nina to point out one of the interesting - and humanising - features of Maria's home; an elevator. It is now being used as a storage cupboard but Nina explained that Maria used it for its original function as she was an elderly woman by the time she entered this home, living here in her 70s and into her early 80s. And she was, of course, human. Sometimes it is tempting to forget that she was mortal. Her discoveries were so profound, her influence so immeasurable, that it is all too easy to deify her. Recognising her humanity, her innate 'normality' as just another person, does not undermine her achievements. In fact it is quite the opposite - appreciating that she was a mortal woman, not some sort of educational goddess, makes her achievements seem all the more remarkable. She had the same basic cognitive and physical equipment as we all do, and look how much she did with it. Surely that is a call to action like no other. 
   
  
We left the elevator storage unit behind and turned to face the passageway to Maria Montessori's study. My heart was beating quite fast at this point. It's my adult Disneyland, and I was about to reach the summit of Space Mountain!
  
 
As we walked along the hallway a quick glance to the left reminded me of one of the building's modern purposes as the headquarters of AMI and teacher-training space. Montessori materials were on display on the way to meeting and training rooms. 
  
 
And then we had reached the end of the hall, with the door to Maria's study just to the left, and a collection of her prized possessions before me. 
 
 

Here we found Maria's own library - the collection of books that she kept close to hand when working and writing. I'm not sure if most tourists in Amsterdam get their photos taken in front of a cupboard of books, but this image is now one of my favourites from the trip.
 

 
The wall opposite the books was adorned with a copy of a portrait* of Maria in her graduation garments. And only a glance away - the robes themselves!
  
 
 
I had to restrain myself from trying to pose in such a way that it looked like my head was coming out of the robes as though I was wearing them! 
 
Feeling giddy already from my brush with the books and glance at the graduation garb, it was time to fulfil even more of my Montessori dreams by actually stepping foot inside Maria's personal study...
 
Let's go through and take a look around...
  
 
And here is where my "fan-girling" came to fruition! As a reference point for my excitement, imagine a young woman standing in Paul McCartney's living room at the height of Beatlemania. Here I was, standing where my idol stood. I could practically feel her presence in the room, each piece of furniture or token object imbued with her being. 
I felt most drawn towards her desk - the place she sat whilst preparing her lectures or speeches, where she penned letters to family and friends but also to influential world leaders. Where she opened the incoming letters that expressed admiration or invited her to speak at public forums, political events, congresses and conferences.
 
 
As I contemplated the great works that had taken place in this exact spot I found myself on the verge of placing Maria on a pedestal - treating her as that 'goddess' - until I spotted an unexpected and humanising detail...her ashtray! Nina informed me that Maria was quite a heavy smoker and that it was not unusual for her to sit at the desk smoking as she composed her correspondence. This little idiosyncrasy, this oh-so-very human habit, reminded me again that Maria occupied the same realm that we all do. (And Andrew, who still smokes despite my gentle encouragement to quit, took great delight in announcing that perhaps I couldn't complain anymore since he's in such good company! I appreciated his attempt at "if it was good enough for a world-changing, genius doctor..." logic but I'd still prefer if he and Maria didn't share this hobby!)

  

 

And so I imagined Maria at her desk, building the image partly from pictures I've seen of her posing mid-prose...

   

Maria Montessori - 1913 - age 33
 
 And then I took a deep breath and a seat...behind her desk. Yes. I sat at Maria Montessori's desk. Just for a moment and with a deep sense of reverence, I sat in the place of this woman who I admire so much. It was surreal and special and I'm so grateful that I had that opportunity. 
 
Me - 2017 - age 30

  

Nina informed me that much of the furniture in Maria's study had been relocated from her former home in India. She spent 7 years living in India after a brief trip to the country for a training course turned into an unexpectedly long stay when the outbreak of World War II saw her interned as an 'enemy alien' by the British colonial government. She was unable to leave India until the war was over, at which point she was free to return to Europe. While her extended time in India may have been unplanned, and outside of her control, she showed her typical strength and resilience by using that period to continue her collaborations with her son Mario on developing the adolescent curriculum and to publish further texts. It seems appropriate, then, that the furniture she acquired during her time as an 'enemy alien' is surrounded by portraits, photographs and plaques that prove how wrong the British government were to view her as a threat rather than the champion of peace and civil rights that she truly was.

  

  
 One of the photographs on the wall looked strikingly familiar, and I remembered that it's an image I've seen many times. As my eyes lingered on the photo I am sure that Nina did identify the particular event for me but unfortunately my memory betrays me and my little notebook (in which I was eagerly recording Nina's pearls of wisdom!) offers no insight. I have done some research since returning home and based on this I believe it is likely that the image depicts Dr Montessori's address at the UNESCO conference in Florence as the date of the image, 1950, corresponds with that gathering of world leaders. Regardless of the exact event it is evidence not only of Maria's influence on the world stage but also her vitality and passion even in her final years of life. This photograph was taken two years before her passing, when she was already 80 years of age. It is also important to remember that this was in 1950, and Maria was born in 1870, and as such the average life expectancy, and the social expectations of senior citizens, was much lower than it is today. I therefore see Maria not only as a pioneer in the field of children's rights but also an advocate for the rights, dignity and capacity of our elders. With that in mind, I have no doubt that she would have been immensely proud to see the way that her work is now being applied to the context of aged care. This adaption is occurring world-wide but here in Australia there is particular momentum due to the vision of 'Montessori Australia' who have opened a branch called Montessori Ageing Support Services (MASS). This is a topic that is close to my heart as my Nanna, who sadly concluded her beautiful life several years ago, spent her final years in an aged care facility due to the high dependency care needs that are an inevitable aspect of Alzheimer's. I wrote about Nanna, and how she taught me deeper empathy for my elders, in my blog post 'Dignity and Dementia are not mutually exclusive'. 
 
A photograph from the same event:
1950 - 2 years before her passing

The photo above certainly only illustrates Maria's presence on the world stage, and her position as a role model to keep living your life no matter your age, but there is one final element that captured my attention and my heart. If you look closely at the photograph (and it is much more striking in the particular image on her wall, which has a wider perspective of the crowd) you will notice that sitting behind Dr Montessori are rows and rows of men. There are a few female faces dotted throughout the audience but the predominant presence is undoubtedly male. Dr Montessori stood before a sea of (somewhat stony faced!) men and with courage, confidence and conviction she delivered her message. This was at a time where the audience in this image was a fairly accurate depiction of the balance of power in society as a whole and particularly in fields of power such as politics. She therefore deserves a place not only as a pedagogical pioneer but also as somewhat of a feminist icon. 
 
Her credentials as a game-changing, ground-breaking feminist were on display again as I looked to my right at another wall of her study. Here I saw a cabinet filled with medals of achievement and gifts from respected dignitaries. Framing this case are a series of parchments that represent Maria's various degrees and qualifications. Sitting front and centre, directly above the cabinet, is the one that most proudly waves the feminist flag... 
  
  
Here is Maria Montessori's degree from the University of Rome which certified her as a doctor of medicine in 1896. It might be hard to tell from here but there's something very unique about it. Let's take a closer look...
   

Here is Nina's finger drawing our eye to the one subtle but significant detail that made Maria's parchment different from the one received by every other member of her graduating class...

  
Even when I zoom right in you can barely see the distinction (which is why I feel so honoured to have been able to see it in person) but if you look just to the left of Maria Montessori's name you can see the word 'Signor' (Italian for 'mister') as part of the standard template printed onto the certificate. And then, squeezed in almost imperceptibly between the printed word 'Signor' and the hand-written name 'Maria Montessori' is a hastily added 'a'. A single letter that meant so much as it transformed 'Signor' - mister - to 'Signora' - madam. 
 
Maria Montessori was the first female doctor in Italy. The university had never before needed a 'Signora' option - the default was 'Signor' because that was all they'd ever needed. She literally broke that mould. 
   

During this post I have repeatedly returned to the theme of remembering Maria as a real human, not as a divine deity. Let us now think of her as a human woman. She was the lone human woman in her medical school (which she attended against her father's wishes and after attending an all-boys' school in her earlier years so that she could focus on science and engineering instead of deportment and home economics). An element of the medical degree involved dissecting human cadavers and apparently Maria was made to perform this work in the morgue alone at night as it was deemed inappropriate for her to be in the presence of the male students while they examined naked bodies. It seems those gentlemen were intelligent and possessed enough to perform autopsies yet somehow far too sensitive to and weak-willed to stomach the idea of doing so with a lady present. This was just one example of the discrimination and isolation that Maria experienced as a result of her gender. Nobody deserves to be ostracised from their peers simply because of what is in their pants and yet that was her daily reality for many years. I can't even begin how that would have felt to her. There were powerful patriarchal forces attempting to push her down, but she continued to rally and rise above it. She held her head high and persevered. As a woman I know I owe an enormous debt to Maria Montessori, and to my other female predecessors, who set the very first stones when paving the way towards gender equality. I expect access to education, employment and equality in my life today but I can only reach these opportunities because I stand on the shoulders of giants. 
 
Interestingly, Maria's brush with gender stereotypes in medical school has an interesting counterpart just a few steps away amongst another series of framed certificates...
 
 Here we find a photograph of Maria and her only child, Mario. Mario was not raised by Maria in her early years but they reconnected early in his adolescence and forged an intense bond that saw him become a close confidant, collaborator and champion of the Montessori movement. Beside the photograph is Mario's certificate from completing the Montessori teacher training course. 
 
  
 In the seventh line of the main body of text you might notice a little black mark halfway through the sentence. This was the attempt to cover up the letter 's' to hastily alter the word 'she' to the word 'he'. Mario was, like his mother, a groundbreaker and (somewhat ironically!) the standardised certificate for Montessori Training had to be altered to fit a person who decided to think outside the box. 
For both Maria and Mario it was a single letter that represented a seismic shift in dismantling gender stereotypes. From 'signor' to 'signora' Dr Montessori showed that women could be doctors, and from 'she' to 'he' Mario proved that men could be teachers. Together they were living evidence that all people have the potential to embrace the life path that they choose. 
    
 
Given Maria's achievements as a feminist pioneer, an innovative educator, a passionate peace keeper, an advocate for human rights and a persuasive orator it is no wonder that she was highly 'decorated'. Her cabinet contained an impressive array of medals, ribbons, awards and gifts that acknowledged her remarkable contributions to society. 
  
 
 As I peered through the glass I caught sight of a piece of insignia that had only recently become familiar to me - the French Legion of Honour. This accolade is the highest French order of merit and shortly before my trip to Maria's study it had been bestowed upon my 94 year old Grandad, Jack Davis, in recognition of his valour during WWII (you can watch him becoming very emotional about the honour in a video here). I was delighted to see that my Grandad is in such good company, with Maria herself being an undoubtedly worthy recipient of this prestigious acknowledgement. 
   

My granddad, Jack Davis.
 
And then, turning away from her cabinet, I discovered that I was back where I had started, facing Maria's desk. My journey around this little room filled with tremendous treasures had come to an end. All that was left to do was to sign the guest-book, joining the list of names of other Montessori wanderers who had made the pilgrimage to this place. 
  
 
And so I took a final moment to breath in all that I had absorbed and observed in this study. A sense of Maria as a real person, yet an appreciation that now ran deeper than ever of just how extraordinary she was. These four walls, and the collection within, made her feel somehow simultaneously saintly yet simply human as her letter from the Pope sat mere metres away from her ashtray. This treasure trove could have easily put her on a pedestal and yet it also shared her humanity, warts and all, in a way that makes me more grateful than ever. You see, she was not the Patron Saint of Education, endowed with a mystical ability to understand children or a predestined fate to transform the world. She was a human woman who put her heart, soul, intellect and inextinguishable energies into her work until that 'work' became a mission. She found her purpose in life and she effortfully strove towards it, guided always by a moral compass that kept her heading towards what was right not what was easy. This energy, this attitude, this vision is as admirable in isolation as her achievements are in totality. You do not need to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize (as Maria was - thrice!) for your determination, passion and purpose to make a difference in the world. Mahatma Gandhi, who visited the Montessori schools in Rome in 1931, once said that you must "be the change you wish to see in the world". This is precisely what Maria did. This courage and conviction, this passion and perseverance, reminds me of another remarkable woman in my life - my Montessori mum Barbara. This is not the time or place for me to list all of mum's accomplishments (she deserves better than to be a mere footnote in this post!) but suffice it to say that I know her more intimately and thoroughly than any other human on this Earth and I can say without reservation that she embodies all of the remarkable characteristics that Maria displayed. Mum is a ground-breaker, an innovator, an advocate, and an endlessly generous soul who works tirelessly to improve the lives of others (both professionally and personally). It is people like my mum who carry on Maria's legacy not only by implementing her teaching method but also by emulating her vision and values.
How honoured I was to visit Maria's study - how blessed I am to come home to my mum. 
       
 
  
Before we could leave the study Andrew stepped out from behind the camera to stand beside me as I eagerly clutched the two new books that I had purchased from Nina as a memento of my Montessori moment here in Amsterdam.
  
  
And then it was time to say farewell and step outside... 
 
   
I walked away from the Maria Montessori House - the headquarters of the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) - not only with my books but with a question on my mind:
 
How can we continue to contribute to this collective Montessori mission?
 
This has two meanings for me...
 
One is in a specific sense; How can Montessorians around the world help to support the project of developing Maria Montessori's former home into a formal museum?
One way is by donating to AMI's fundraising efforts - learn more here.
Another contribution you can make is by voting with your feet - by visiting the site as it is you are able to reinforce what an important Montessori monument it truly is, which can help to make its development a priority within an organisation that is juggling lots of goals and projects.

The other meaning is in a broader sense; How can each and every person who has been positively impacted by Montessori help to ensure that this opportunity is afforded to others?
If Montessori has inspired, guided, influenced or empowered you - whether as a child, a teacher, a carer, a parent or a family member - then why not help to pay it forward?
 
I'm so proud that I have the opportunity to spread Montessori magic in my own classroom and through this platform here at Montessori Child.
 
I am also immensely grateful that I've had a chance to introduce my husband, Andrew, to the Montessori philosophy. He has embraced the principles of this unique approach and I have seen him incorporate many of these ideas into his own life and his interactions with the children we know. If we have a child of our own one day then I have no doubt that his parenting journey will be supported by his knowledge of Montessori. I'm so grateful that he was with me for the Congress and for our Montessori journey around Europe. I am incredibly blessed to have a life partner who thoroughly supports and embraces my passions...and who has the patience not only to spend several hours watching me meticulously examine every inch of a single room but also to then (several months later) cook a delicious dinner for me tonight while I sit at the kitchen table for another few hours documenting that experience! 
  
  
 If your own journey ever takes you all the way to Amsterdam, and you too would like to step foot inside the former home of Dr Maria Montessori, you can find the address below along with a link to AMI's page that explains how you can contact them to make an appointment.
  
Happy travels!
Koninginneweg 161, 1075 CN Amsterdam, The Netherlands
 
*For more information about the portrait please read page 8 of this amazing and highly in-depth tour of her study. It also contains some amazing explanations of specific objects and details hidden within her study (some of which I've mentioned here, others I was unaware of). 

Classroom tour: The Gower School, London

Wherever I go in the world I love to take the time to visit Montessori classrooms. My recent trip to Europe offered Montessori experiences in every destination we visited – we started with the International Congress in Prague, then moved on to the home of the original Casa dei Bambini in Rome before visiting Maria Montessori’s study in Amsterdam. Our next port was London and this provided the perfect opportunity to seek out a school tour. There are many Montessori environments operating in London but I decided to approach a school that was renowned not only within the Montessori community but had also been validated by the recognition of the ‘non-Montessori’ school standards. The Gower School certainly fit that criteria, as it is a setting accredited by the Montessori Evaluation and Accreditation Board and rated as ‘Outstanding and Excellent’ in every category of their Independent Schools Association report. I was aware, however, that the timing of my trip happened to coincide with school holidays in the UK. So I contacted The Gower School hopeful that I might be able to visit but aware that the timing might have been a hurdle. Imagine my delight when I received a warm and welcoming response from Jacqui Tsang, Head of Nursery, who assured me that although the school would be running their ‘holiday program’ during my visit she would still be more than happy to take me on a tour. And so it was that on the 11th of August, 2017, I hopped on a bus to Islington to visit The Gower School.

I should say - I'm a better teacher than photographer so my images probably won't completely do justice to this wonderful school, but I hope they offer you an insight into the beautiful environments that have been developed at The Gower School. You won't see children in these images, as we did not wish to infringe upon their privacy, but I am sure you will appreciate these aesthetically amazing spaces!

Andrew came along but when a cafe caught his eye he decided that he might indulge in some brunch rather than join me in the classroom!

 

The Gower School was founded in 2000 by Emma Gowers (hence the name). At that time it catered to an inaugural class of just 4 children in a converted church (the building we'll 'walk through' in a moment). Interest in the school grew as news of its quality spread and today The Gower School stretches across 2 campuses for 0-6 year olds as well as a primary school. Throughout my tour I tried to take note of the features that have made The Gower School so successful. Certainly the authentic passion of its founder seems to have been the driving force behind its overall level of quality. I didn't have the opportunity to meet Emma but Jacqui spoke incredibly highly of her. Emma's presence and vision could be felt despite her physical absence on the day I was there. The classrooms even feature little touches of Emma's personal influence, such as the French names for the classrooms (and the fact that French lessons are offered to children) which nod at Emma’s own cultural heritage. Having such a dedicated and visionary leader is certainly vital for a school's success and longevity (which certainly resonates with me, as I know our own centres owe so much to the guiding light offered by my Montessori mum Barbara!) but there are many other ingredients that result in the level of excellence that The Gower School has achieved. One huge element is the fact that most of the teachers have a long-standing relationship with the school - and therefore with each other. Their loyalty shows and there is an easy-going energy and palpable sense of collegiality between them. Having long-serving teachers also means that these 'architects of the environment' really know the physical spaces and have learned how to get the most out of the layout and features of each room. This is such an important, yet often overlooked, aspect of a high-quality and functional setting. Knowing your space, and understanding how to use it, is incredibly powerful since we know that the environment itself is highly influential. It is the child’s “third teacher” (the first being the child himself or herself, the second being the adult guide). There is a strong sense of community within and around the school. They build connections to the locale through visits to the park across the road and support of the local parents through special classes such as infant massage and Gymboree that are offered not only to enrolled families but to any interested parents. These are the intangible features that stood out to be as instrumental in making the school what it is. There were, of course, many other qualities that were plainly evident right before my eyes and these are what I'll share with you now as we take our photo tour! Welcome to The Gower School, come on in...

The first classroom I visited was a 3-6 room. Keep in mind that by this point I'd already been away from my own 3-6 room for nearly 3 weeks (my longest absence in 12 years!) so as soon as I stepped inside I felt like I was taking a gulp of cool water after wandering through the hot desert! I had this absolute sense of 'coming home' even though I'd never been in this specific space before in my life. 

The children were investigating some special projects during that period as an addition to their ordinary Montessori program. They had just finished exploring the theme of fashion to coincide with fashion week and were now looking at influential artists and art styles. My favourite, since it was so quintessentially 'London', were the series of little 'Banksys'!

Anyone who has visited London will know that space is extremely hard to find. It is a crowded place that is not built for claustrophobics! I was surprised to learn that the UK doesn't have any specific requirements about the amount of outdoor space necessary for a preschool or school. This is in stark contrast to Australia where our early childhood regulations require a minimum of 7 square metres of outdoor space per child. This is hard enough to find in Australia (particularly in the areas that demand for care is highest) so I can understand why these expectations would be unrealistic in a place like London. Nonetheless The Gower School have made exceptional use of the outdoor space that they do have. It is a comfortable area that has been cleverly segmented to offer a range of physical experiences, from an area for sports through to a more natural space for gardening and sensory exploration. They also make use of the local landscape by regularly visiting the oval just across the road.

After enjoying the sunshine outdoors we moved to one of the light-filled toddler classrooms on the upper level of the building. 

I immediately noticed that it was furnished with the same Community Playthings series that we feature in our own toddler rooms at Rosemont House Montessori back in Adelaide! I guess great minds think alike!
I loved that these classrooms looked out not only onto the school's own outdoor area but also took in an aspect of the neighbouring houses. There is no denying the close proximity to these residences so it seemed appropriate that the school had so openly embraced this connection. 

As Jacqui guided me through the different classrooms I noticed a consistency in the pedagogical values and aesthetic inclinations, but subtle touches gave each space had its own unique 'identity'. 

This particular room must be set up by the "Jess" of The Gower School as it had a particular emphasis on precision. Ohhhh the sense of order! So satisfying and appealing!

Jacqui informed me that the quaint wash stations were specially designed and handmade for the school. 

As you may have noticed by now, the layout of each room is quite different. This is the inevitable result of moving into an existing building and adapting its spaces to become classrooms. This is the case back home in my own centre, Jescott Montessori, and so I am well acquainted with the double edged sword of trying to transform an existing space. It certainly offers a lot of opportunity but it can also be a little frustrating when you have to react to what you have rather than being able to design your absolute ideal. That being said, I love those occasional moments of frustration because they are the mother of creativity and ingenuity! Some of my favourite features of Jescott are those that developed to overcome the limitations of our space and I could see similar inventive solutions at The Gower School. 
Then it was time to cross the road!

The Gower School became so popular that its original building just couldn't house all the eager children, but fortunately a redevelopment just across the road provided the perfect opportunity for this community to grow. The original campus was originally a church building and each classroom has been cleverly and creatively designed to fit within that existing space, whereas the second space has been purpose built to the exact specifications of The Gower School. The two settings act as living proof that both of these styles are equally valid. There is not a 'better' campus - they are both beautiful, inviting and lovingly prepared and have their own charms. 

This library space was simply beautiful. The pops of colour created a fun atmosphere but the cool tone of the lighting kept it feeling calm and cosy. 

I love that the 'Care of the Self' curriculum extends to each child having their own toothbrush in the bathroom! I also appreciate the subtle but powerful touches of inclusiveness, such as the multilingual labelling (as shown on the bathroom cubicle). The specific languages that feature are not randomly chosen - they're selected according to the cultural make up of the school community. 

The 3-6 classroom in the newer campus occupied a large, open layout but the teachers have cleverly delineated various areas using the furnishings and materials. 

When I saw this sun and globe at the circle in anticipation for an upcoming birthday celebration my heart sang (my voice nearly did too - there's a song that accompanies the birthday ceremony!) This is one of the traditions that is undeniably "Montessori" - something that has evolved within our own "culture" and spread around the world to link us. 

This was one of many 'Montessori universalities' that I noticed during the day. There are countless others that instantaneously connect us - from the presence of a Pink Tower to the shared challenge of trying to explain to 'non-Montessori' school inspectors why our young children are using real glasses instead of plastic cups! There is no doubt in my mind that Montessori has become a ‘cultural group’. It is a shared experience, a set of customs and beliefs, that binds the members of a ‘tribe’ whose members can be found across all corners of the globe.

This is something that particularly resonates with me because I don’t really identify as belonging to many other cultural groups. I am not part of any specific religious group and my ethnic heritage doesn’t offer much in the way of overtly identifiable traits or traditions (apart from a Yorkshire Pudding and an understanding that 'put wood in't'oil' means 'shut the door'!) So being part of the Montessori community is an incredibly important aspect of my overall personal identity and my understanding of my place in the world. It's not everything that I am, but it is a big part of me and Montessori has had a huge influence in my life. Connecting with other people who share my experiences, and seeing other environments that feel like home to me, has quite a spiritual impact on me. If I landed on an unknown planet, where not a single thing around me felt familiar, the alien lifeforms would only have to approach me with a pink cube in their hands for me to instantly feel secure in their presence! "These", I would think, "are my people." 

Glowing with my sense of belonging to this global community we wandered into the last classroom of the tour, another toddler area.

I'd seen all the classrooms but my tour wasn't over. Jacqui had mentioned earlier in the day that the school had been taking inspiration from the 'Forest School' movement that encourages deep engagement with nature, experience with risk-taking and lots of unstructured and unhurried time in the great outdoors. The Gower School is fortunate enough to be situated just a short stroll from a stunning field which the children regularly visit. That morning they were busy cooking up a feast in a fire pit so we decided to go and join them. Along the way we collected my infinitely patient husband who, by then, had finished two brunches and a coffee before soaking up some Vitamin D while he waited for me.  

It was the perfect weather for a day in the park - blue skies and sunshine as far as the eye could see.

The children were gathered together just a few metres away from the fire, with some of them arranging the ingredients of their meals ready to add it to the fire and others already hungrily devouring their cooked food. 

A short distance from the fire was an enchanted forest (okay, it was some trees and grass but the day was so full of Montessori magic that it felt like a little enchanted forest to me!) The teachers had adeptly balanced safety with opportunity (or, in Montessori terms, offered 'freedom within limits) by using blue ropes to identify a safe zone for the children to play in. Within that space the children could explore freely and spontaneously, but they knew to remain within the limits so that they were still close enough to be seen and supported by the adults.

The children were welcome to exercise their own creativity and follow their instincts when exploring the space, but the teachers also provided some provocations. A range of materials were provided that the children could utilise and adapt to inform or support their natural explorations. 

After enjoying the sunshine and smokey barbecue for a while I realised that I had taken up a lot of Jacqui's time. I know how precious that time is when you have a school to run but she never for a moment made me feel hurried during our morning together. It felt invigorating to connect with Jacqui -  our words tumbled out and weaved together as we discovered how many aspects of our daily lives were identical despite occurring on opposite sides of the world. Jacqui's love of her work, and her loyalty to the school that has become her professional home, were inspirational. I wish I had a slightly more flattering photo to commemorate that new connection but the flawlessly sunny day resulted in a slightly awkward squint for me in this picture! The smile on my face tells the story though, as it was such a blissful way for me to spend one of my days in London. I couldn't agree more with the sign that sits above us in this photo - The Gower School is certainly outstanding in every area!

To learn more about The Gower School (or to enquire about enrolments if you're lucky enough to live nearby!) please visit their website:

https://www.thegowerschool.co.uk

International Montessori Congress: Prague, 2017

The place...

Before I went to Prague it was described to me as, "Something out of a Disney movie!" It certainly lived up to that reputation - it is such a beautiful place that it feels like you're visiting a fairytale from a bygone era. 

There's such a sense of whimsy within the town that you could almost float away if not for being anchored by the weight of so many years worth of history around you.

   

Our personal favourite features were the awe-inspiring architecture and the food: delicious, cheap (by Australian standards), and served in huge portions (even by Andrew's standards!).

 
 
  



The people...

There were almost 2000 attendees at the Congress from 70 different countries around the world. That is a truly remarkable turnout!

There is certainly something indescribable about congregating with your ‘tribe’ – connecting with individuals who reflect an incredible array of diversity and yet share core values and a common mission inspired by Montessori.

For me, however, the three most important people in Prague were the ones who are in my life every day: my husband, Andrew, my ‘Montessori mum’, Barbara and my niece, Emily.

These are three of the people I love most in all the world and it was a privilege to have them beside me for this experience. To learn with them and laugh with them in equal measure!    

 
  

 

The presentations...

There were so many keynotes and breakouts, with such a rich array of information and inspiration, that it would be impossible for me to try to condense it all into a blog post. What I will do is pick out the few that had the most impact for me as an individual. If you'd like a broader glimpse of the Congress as a whole I highly recommend viewing the Gallery on the official Montessori Congress 2017 website and perusing the Programme so that you can research individual speakers. 

Dr Steven Hughes 

The first time I saw Dr Steven Hughes was nearly a decade ago, on his first Australian tour. I remember scribbling furiously in my notebook to try to keep up with him as he eloquently articulated interconnections between what Dr Montessori observed and what modern neuroscience has confirmed. I have seen Dr Hughes many times, in many locations, since that day and it is clear that he remains as fascinated and passionate as ever by the way that the Montessori method links with what we now know about brain development. 

Dr Hughes hosted the Congress alongside Elina Rautasalo. Elina is a well-known figure in the Montessori world, having served as the chair of the Montessori Society AMI in the UK, and 

Dr Hughes is committed to disseminating the 'Montessori message' to a broader audience and with that in mind he has generously made many of his lectures publicly available in video form. So microwave the popcorn, grab yourself a fresh notebook and visit his Vimeo site!

 

Alyssa Conklin-Moore

My favourite break out session was held by Alyssa as she took us Exploring Parker Palmer’s ‘five habits of the heart’ to enliven our role as Montessorians. 

Alyssa's reputation clearly preceded her, with so many attendees turning out for her presentation that people began sitting on the floor, sharing chairs, crouching directly in front of Alyssa's lectern and standing in the doorway (and spilling down the hallway!)

    

Alyssa's presentation explored how Parker Palmer's 'Five Habits of the Heart' relates to what Montessorians sometimes call, 'the spiritual preparation of the adult'. To be a Montessori adult - to observe with genuine interest, to analyse with openness and curiosity, to engage with mindful presence, to nurture with care and empower with trust - requires enormous emotional output. It takes courage, wisdom and energy to become, and to remain, the kind of person who can flourish within the high expectations of a Montessori environment. The Five Habits of the Heart provided striking food for thought about practices that are not only sustainable but refuelling for adults (and children) who wish to give to the world without sacrificing their own well-being and balance. I highly recommend visiting the 'Centre for Courage Renewal' site to learn more about these Five Habits

Following the presentation we were able to chat to Alyssa directly to thank her for having a special impact on our own Montessori journey. Several years ago we attended a workshop that Alyssa conducted regarding Montessori education for infants and toddlers. At that point we were providing only 'preschool' programs for 3 to 6 year old children but we were just starting to explore the idea of extending our environments to younger explorers. At that point we had read books, consulted with mentors and investigated sites from around the country but we still couldn't quite picture exactly what the Montessori toddler environment would look and feel like on a day-to-day basis. We weren't willing to move forward until we were sure that we could truly offer toddlers an authentic, nurturing Montessori experience. Alyssa was the person who finally made that seem possible for us. We found her to be incredibly knowledgeable and experienced, with such a genuine emotional investment in her work and a deep intellectual appreciation for the psychological and developmental complexity of very young children. Perhaps most importantly for us, her 'head in the sky, feet on the ground' approach seamlessly blended the lofty visions and values of Montessori with a realistic and accessible answers about putting that into practice. It was wonderful to finally have the opportunity to thank Alyssa for giving us the final push we needed to develop 'Montessori From the Start' - our unique toddler environment at Rosemont House Montessori. 

Scilla Elworthy

Scilla Elworthy took my breath away during her keynote speech, and it seems she also took my words away because I feel like I don't even know where to start when trying to explain why she had such an impact on me. 

Perhaps it was her mesmerising blend of quiet conviction and unapologetic strength. Her stage presence was unlike anyone I've ever seen before. She did not demand attention, but she commanded the room. I felt absolutely riveted by her. She seemed so perfectly centred, projecting such a sense of unity between her spiritual, intellectual and physical presence. 

I feel I would have been captivated by Dr Elworthy even if she had just been describing what she'd had for dinner last night, but in addition to her compelling aura she was also delivering an immensely powerful message. Dr Elworthy has seen the very worst of humanity, from war and famine to mutilation and manipulation, and yet she has not only hope but vision. She is a "peace builder" - a person committed to taking action on the quest for cultivating a better world. 

On a personal level, perhaps the reason I was so deeply struck by Dr Scilla Elworthy was because she had chosen to present the topic Empowering the adolescent as an agent of social reform and I happened to be accompanied by the adolescent who has been such a change-agent in my life. Emily might be half my age but she is one of my greatest role models. She is wise, insightful, empathic, strong, forgiving, and fun. She makes me laugh more than anyone else in the world but she also inspires me to think deeply about small details and big issues. I have never known anyone else quite like her and every day I am grateful that she is part of my world. She makes me want to be the best version of myself and it is such a privilege that I am able to watch as she becomes her own 'best self' as well. 

Dr Scilla Elworthy delivered a powerful message to adolescents in general, but it meant so much to be to sit beside Emily as she internalised that inspiration. 

Dr Elworthy's advice to adolescents was simply put yet deeply powerful. She encouraged Emily and her peers to ask themselves three questions...

  1. What are you passionate about?
  2. What are you good at?
  3. How can you marry the two?

The seemingly simple act of marrying emotions to skills empowers adolescents to feel psychologically capable of achieving change. It also provokes them to create their own roadmap of how they will achieve it. 

Please do yourself (and the world) a favour and set aside 15 minutes to watch one of Dr Elworthy's TED Talks. Those 15 minutes may very well change your life - and then you may very well change our world.

 

 

 The play time...

No Congress or conference would be complete without the presence of vendors showcasing their tantalising treasures! Montessori has been part of my life for as long as I can remember and I see the materials every day, yet I am still just as awe-struck as ever by the beauty and appeal of these pedagogical jewels. Perusing the displays is a feast for the eyes - and the hands! Even as an adult I could not help but reach out to touch, feel, handle, explore. No wonder children find these materials so irresistible and deeply engaging!

  

The Congress organisers were generous and wise enough to ensure that they weren't just 'preaching to the converted' by showcasing Montessori to those who are already part of the movement. Instead the Congress provided ample opportunities for the general public to learn more about the philosophy through a series of workshops and to explore Montessori materials at the 'Family Market'. I was proud to see so many families and educators exploring the rich world of Montessori. 

    

I have no doubt that the Congress will act as a catalyst for positive change for all of those who visited - whether by refuelling the energy of committed Montessorians or by introducing a new element into the lives of those who explored Montessori for the first time at the public events. 

The Congress was only the beginning of our Montessori Adventure - there is so much more to share. 

Next in the blog series...

The Transparent Classroom

Still to come...
The site of the first Casa dei Bambini
Maria Montessori's Study
Classroom Tour: Gower Montessori, London

What's he all about? Alfie!

 

Alfie Kohn - author, public speaker, education advocate and critic of the ‘status quo’ - recently visited Adelaide during his first ever Australian tour.

I played a small role in helping to coordinate this visit and, as such, I was fortunate enough to spend some additional time with Alfie before and after his public presentation.

Since then I have found myself inundated with questions along the lines of, “So what is he really like?”

I’ve found myself both unwilling and unable to answer this question despite my enthusiasm for Alfie as an author and as a person. After letting this percolate for a little while I have been able to identify a few reasons for my hesitation.

Firstly, I only spent a weekend with him so I couldn’t come close to answering the question of who he really is even if I wanted to. 

Secondly, it turns out that I don’t want to try to posit a response because the answer to the question “who is Alfie Kohn?” is not my story to share – it’s his! Alfie is extraordinarily generous in offering so much of himself through his writing and public speaking that I feel it would be somehow ungrateful of me to try to supersede this. It is also my impression that Alfie would not appreciate someone treating an encounter with him as some sort of commodity.

Those of you who were fortunate enough to see Alfie speak will know that his onstage dynamic is confident and spirited.

This is balanced by the fact that, off-stage, he is also humble and private. He seems grounded by a self-assured certainty and yet he is never more than a second away from bouncing with an irrepressible energy. As I mentioned above, Alfie is willing to share a great deal of himself - his insight, his intellect, his experiences – and yet he is unafraid to assert his boundaries. Alfie embraces his role as a public advocate but makes it clear that he is not public property. When Alfie does embrace the 'celebrity' aspect of his work it is not to stroke his own ego but simply as a means to a practical end. He references his appearances on Oprah not to brag but as a tactical shorthand to prove the validity of his message to a certain type of audience. 

Is all of this a cause, or perhaps an effect, of the message Alfie espouses? A man focused on intrinsic motivation is surely likely to feel that following his own instincts, rather than bowing to societal pressure, is nothing but natural.


I don't feel comfortable undermining Alfie's right to control the degree to which he presents himself to the world. Yet I also appreciate what an incredibly privileged position I was in to spend time with someone who is admired by so many. I know how excited I was to have that opportunity and so I understand why many others are interested. I can't reveal 'who he is', but I can share what is mine by relating a little of my own personal experience...

I enjoyed a whirlwind 48 hours talking politics and parenting, comedy and coriander, dietary needs and dating. I spent a blissful afternoon strolling with a new friend through the Adelaide Botanic Gardens and I remember little of the fauna but much of the laughter. I consistently felt challenged when I was with Alfie. Certainly not in a confrontational sense but because the questions he posed were like grease for the cogs of my mind. I found him to be an intellectually stimulating conversationalist because he did not only offer his own perspective but used a style of probing (that is deliciously close to Socratic irony) to invite me to deeply reflect on my own position. If, once there, I found that my opinions were based primarily on suppositions then Alfie gently coaxed me towards developing a more deliberate and actualised outlook.  

So that's how felt when I was with Alfie, but perhaps you’re still curious about his quirks – interested in knowing about the man behind the words, driven by the same odd fascination the hustles our collective gaze towards candid snaps of make-up-free “celebs”. But these human traits are not mine to share, they are his. I feel privileged that he shared them with me and I will repay this trust by keeping them between us. If your thirst for more 'Alfie' must be quenched then you can read his blog. It is a place where, empowered by choice and control, Alfie has subtly seasoned his pedagogical profile by making public some of his personal and political inclinations.  

The last and most valuable insight that I want to share, to answer the question that would be on the forefront of many minds, is this; 

Yes, Alfie means what he says.

He walks the walk.

He lives and breathes the message.

He is absolutely authentic.

 

If you’ve read Alfie’s books then you’ve already heard his voice. There is very little distinction in tone, content or delivery from page to stage to dinner table. From his pedagogical principles to his wry sense of humour, it’s all right there in print. Alfie himself is standing before you – not even hiding “between the lines” but prominently embedded into them. His personality is the thread that weaves the words into such stunning and persuasive passages. 

 

*          *          *

 

They say “don’t meet your heroes”, but I’m so glad that I did. Partly because it’s always nice to make friends with such an authentic, intelligent, unique individual and partly because without Alfie I might never have discovered the magic that is Harold and Maude!

Christmas carolling the Aussie way!

 

Many traditional Christmas carols sing of snowy fields and chestnuts roasting over open fires...which is hardly reflective of an Australian Christmas! 

So I've put together a quick collection of songs and books that are a little more reflective of the reality of a down under Christmas!

Please note, we don't actually stock these books or CDs, I simply want to share some of my personal favourites because I've seen how much joy they bring to the children in my preschool and I'd love to spread that happy spirit with more Aussie children! 

 

MUSIC:

Wiggly, Wiggly Christmas Album, The Wiggles
This album is full of the absolute children's Christmas classics, such as Rudolph and Jingle Bells, but with Australian accents singing! Can't go past The Wiggles as an example of the Aussie larrakin spirit so they're the perfect band to 'Wish you a Merry Christmas' or with whom to sing 'Feliz Navidad'!

 

Happy Christmas To You, Peter Combe
A lovely and original Christmas carol that is perfectly appropriate for the Australian setting. When we sing this song it is accompanied by the sign language gestures for 'happy Christmas to you' - a beautiful combination of communication and coordination!

 

Christmas Where the Gum Trees Grow, Greg Doolan
The catchy chorus plays in my head every day as I drive down streets decorated with the purple hue of Jacaranda..."Christmas where the gum trees grow, there is no frost and there is no snow, Christmas in Australia's hot, cold and frosty is what it's not, When the bloom of the Jacaranda tree is here, Christmas time is near!"

 

Aussie Christmas with Bucko & Champs album
This is full of cheeky and hilarious "Aussie" songs, from 'We Wish you a Ripper Christmas' to '12 Days of Aussie Christmas' (in which "five golden rings" are replaced with "TO-TAL FIRE BAN!") There are also some slower and sweeter songs, such as 'Everywhere it's Christmas', that really celebrate the family element of an Australian Christmas. 

  

This segues us nicely to the topic of Books:

 

Several of the 'Bucko & Champs' songs are also available as books, including... 

We Wish you a Ripper Christmas! Colin Buchanan

Deck the Shed with Bits of Wattle, Colin Buchanan

  

I also love...

Aussie Night Before Christmas, Yvonne Morrison
A beautiful adaptation of the classic!

 

 

 

 

The Australian Twelve Days of Christmas, Heath Mackenzie
This is the version I prefer to use with preschool children (rather than the Bucko & Champs adaptation) partly because it's easier to follow and more age-appropriate but also because it focuses on Australian animals! It's always fun to get back to our starting point of a "kookaburra up a gum tree" but the children are always most passionate about singing..."
FIVE KAN-GA-ROOoooOOOOS!"

 

There are so many other beautiful options out there but these are the ones I wholeheartedly recommend! I do believe it's important for Australian children to build an understanding of, and appreciation for, their own unique cultural context and it's great when we can take global traditions but give them a local twist. It's equally important to be aware of and respectful towards other cultures, so there's no need to hide the traditional carols or stories - instead it's a great jumping off point to talk about diversity and to consider geographical concepts such as explaining why it is winter in one hemisphere while it's summer in the other!

 

 

 

Sweet Baby Peas… plant it, grow it, eat it!

  
We are delighted to welcome Ruth Barker as a guest blogger!

Ruth Barker, aka 'The Little Kids Specialist', is an Author, Columnist, Presenter, Montessori Guide and Play Specialist for Toddlers and Pre-schoolers.  You can find her here: http://www.toddlereducationservices.com.au/

  

Sweet Baby Peas… plant it, grow it, eat it!

The very best place for toddlers to learn is in the garden - it's a place for building strong bodies, engaging sensory experiences that feed the mind, it’s a place for learning language and to investigate the world around them in a super natural way.  It’s a place where experiences ensure that little children get everything they need to develop their little brains – it’s the best place to learn by doing, it’s the best place for developing life-long skills!

He does it with his hands, by experience, first in play and then through work - the hands (of the child) are the instrument of man’s intelligence”
Dr. Maria Montessori.

It’s a sustainable place, a place to teach vital environmental messages in a sub-conscious way.  The toddler does not have the language or cognitive development to understand abstract messages, but they learn from what they see!  If we want a better world – it starts with the kids!

“If we want to change the world -  put the toddler in the garden!  From the moment they can walk -  show it to them – name it for them, model skills to them and then give them the tools to plant it, grow it and eat it for themselves!  
Ruth Barker – The Little Kid Specialist.

 

Plant it!

It can be daunting for a parent!  Very daunting indeed!  A want of giving children the very best – alongside the challenges of income and time that sometimes impede!  But the garden dare not be costly – and dare not take too much time! 

Here’s the top tips:

. start with a small plot – for example the lovely plots from Urban Food Garden

. start with simple plants that are easy to grow – that have small growth times for the children to see changes and life-cycles quickly!

. seeds not seedling – show them lifecycles!

. allow toddlers to attend to jobs and water themselves (with supervision) as often as they like! 

 

Here’s the top seven:

. silverbeet

. cucumber or zucchini

. snow pea

. carrot

. tomato

. sunflower

Planting one of each of the top seven is a great start (zone and weather permitting of course!).  These give toddlers so many vital lessons in life, language and science!  Such a rich vocabulary and experience from just seven plants!   Think of the different elements each provides – the silverbeet is a leaf, the snow pea is a pod with seeds, the carrot grows under the ground, the tomato is a fruit and has seeds and the sunflower…. Is just beautiful.  It’s the best first flower there is!

 

Grow it!

Here’s the top tips:

. children need to see the processes before the products – show them how to prepare the soil, plant the seed, water the seed, mulch the seedling, weed the garden and use compost!

. show them the processes one by one over time – little minds don’t’ need to be bombarded – nor do they have the attention span – children innately put the processes together themselves as they grow!

. be enthusiastic!

. name, name, name – everything!

. give toddlers their own tools – that fit into their hands – just for them!

 

. failure is a normal – it’s a part of the process – but more importantly – it’s a part of life – it teaches children to be resilient from the start!

. and please - never punish – it’s meant to be fun!

 

Eat it!

It’s the super fun bit!  Show the toddler how to prepare their food!  Let them be involved!  There’s a myriad of things to do with just seven plants!

Here’s the top tips:

. collect from the plot – make it fun with a super-sized basket for one silverbeet leaf!  

. make it an adventure – sing!  “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, we’re going on a big adventure – let’s go let’s go let’s go… come and have some fun!”

. provide simple cooking lessons – teach little ones how to peel, chop, slice, grate

. cook real food and let the toddler do all that they can!

. the process is always more important than the product!

. be enthusiastic!

. name, name, name everything!

. give toddlers their own tools – that fit into their hands – just for them!

 

And then...

. chop the silverbeet

. grate the zucchini

. coil the cucumbers

. shell the peas

. peel the carrots

. roast the tomatoes and peel off the skin

. dry the sunflowers and pick out the seeds

. make a fried rice

. make a frittata

. make some carrot, zucchini or cucumber sticks

. make tomato soup

… and don’t forget the sunflower seed bread!

 

All the children’s tools in this blog are available at http://www.littlekidsthings.com.au/ or http://www.montessorichild.com.au/

 

Ruth Barker, The Little Kids Specialist is an Author, Columnist, Presenter, Montessori Guide and Play Specialist for Toddlers and Pre-schoolers.  You can find her here: http://www.toddlereducationservices.com.au/

This article was originally written for Urban Food Garden, NSW, and is reprinted here with permission from the author. 

7 Weird Ways Adults Misunderstand Montessori (A reply)


Ten Lessons that Montessori will NOT teach (Part 3)

Read Part 1 and Part 2

  

10. Montessori education will not teach your child that;

  

"How you feel, what you like, and what interests you is not nearly as important as what an adult wants you like and do.”

 

What Montessori does instead...

Montessori educators do not arbitrarily decide what an individual child or a whole group should learn about or when to do it each day. We do not say (through words or actions) “I have collected some model dinosaurs and because I spent so much time preparing it I want everyone in the class to sit and listen to me because I am very important and knowledgeable about dinosaurs”. That would not be an inspiring, personally engaging and joyful way for each child to learn and we think that children deserve those qualities in a classroom for as long as possible.

 

If we try to force a lesson before a child is ready then that child learns a much more sinister lesson than what we had in mind. Let’s consider writing – if we try to force pencil to paper when a child has absolutely no interest in writing, or lacks the physical control for it, then they learn:

“writing is hard and boring – so I’ll only do it when an adult forces me to”.

 

Instead of imposing tasks we inspire discovery. We prepare the classroom environment by carefully creating and displaying engaging, interesting, developmentally appropriate activities. Then we let each child choose the tasks that he or she finds appealing and interesting. From our observations of these choices we know what other tasks a child might be interested in or ready for if we present it to them.

 

For instance if a 3 year old child is choosing to sit and flip through books every day then we know they might be ready for some lessons in the phonetic alphabet so that they can name the letters and begin to word build and, later, to read. If a child is going through a period of choosing lots of work involving water – such as pouring liquid between vessels or washing the dishes – then we use this as our inspiration to present lessons from the Cultural curriculum in the scientific concepts of density and the states of water (liquid, solid, gas). To revisit the dinosaur example used above, the Montessori way of presenting this concept is to have some of the materials, or a small dinosaur activity, presented on the shelf. If a child chooses it, or several children have shown particular interest in it, then the teacher knows that the time is right for those individuals to be invited to a more elaborate lesson on the characteristics of dinosaur classes. Yet as those children examine the dinosaurs another child is still a few metres away washing dishes, while another draws and another counts.

 

This is one of the reasons why we have very few ‘whole group times’ during a session – it is just simply extremely unlikely that every single child in the group will actually be interested in the same thing at the same time to the same extent. Therefore it is more valuable for each child to be taught as an individual, or with a small group of similarly interested peers.


It is also important to remember that learning something new is both easier and more meaningful if it occurs when an individual is ready and interested. It may take a year to teach something to a child who is not yet ready or interested but that same lesson could have been taught in a week (with far less stress for both the child and the adult) if the adult had been patient enough to wait for the child’s interest and readiness.

 

This is why we respect and trust each child as a unique, capable individual.

 

 
“We must await this spontaneous investigation of the surroundings…this voluntary explosion of the exploring spirit. The children experience a joy at each fresh discovery. They are conscious of a sense of dignity and satisfaction which encourages them to seek for new sensations from their environment and to make themselves spontaneous observers.”
-Dr Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method

Ten Lessons that Montessori will NOT teach (Part 2)

If you missed Part 1 please read it here...
 

6. Montessori will not teach your child that;

 

"You are not good enough, smart enough or quick enough.”

 
What Montessori does instead...

Montessori educators and parents are aware that children are incredibly perceptive to the subtle implications of adult behaviour. If we spend too much time trying to present a lesson on number recognition to a child who just clearly does not recognise the numbers yet then that child will most likely learn the lesson “I’m bad at numbers” long before learning the lesson “that symbol represents number 4”.

 

This is why we do not push or rush children to learn something which is not yet of interest to them. We trust that each child will be ready and we value the work they are doing to prepare themselves for other areas of life in the meantime.

 

7. Montessori will not teach your child that;

 

"The most important thing in life is being 'smart' academically"

 

What Montessori does instead...

Montessori schools resist the huge amount of pressure from people who believe that “high standards” equates directly or exclusively to high levels of “academic achievement” in narrow areas such as literacy and maths. We absolutely value these areas as a part of our curriculum, and many children adore embracing the lessons we offer in these fields, but they are simply that - an equal part of the curriculum – not the most valuable and certainly not the only elements. If we find that a child does not have a natural love of letters then we will still offer lessons and learning opportunities in this area but we will also respect that child’s other interests and talents. We won’t make any child feel inadequate by continually pushing them to ‘achieve’ at something which is uninteresting or overwhelmingly challenging to them.

 

Some people argue that at some point in life a child will have to be ‘pushed’ to achieve in areas that he or she finds difficult. However it is hard to justify why this should be true of a child who has only been alive for a few years. Remember when your child was born and could barely move their head? Only a few years later they are walking, talking, interacting, understanding, exploring and participating in a world which is brand new in so many ways. We should be incredibly proud and awestruck at how much our children know and do! We should not be disappointed that they are not, for example, writing yet because to a child that immediately sends a message that “most of the things that matter to you, and that you are proud of, are meaningless to me because I just want you to be good at academics”.

 

That is why the Montessori Curriculum does not consist of only 2 topics – Maths and Literacy – but instead consists of 5 – Practical Life, Sensorial, Maths, Literacy and Culture. So each child will have a rich, diverse learning experience at Montessori – and will have opportunities to learn everything from how to mop the floor (Practical Life – care for the environment) to why a candle will burn out if it is covered by a glass (Culture – science).

 

8. Montessori will not teach your child that;

 

"There is a ‘child world’ with one set of admirable traits and expectations and an ‘adult world’ where all of those things change.”

 

What Montessori does instead...

Montessori education will always aim to “prepare the child for life” so the lessons we are teaching, and the personal qualities we are promoting, are important throughout life not just in ‘childhood’. Many schools, and traditional thinkers, demand that children sit still, be quiet and listen to the teacher for the majority of the lesson, work hard or behave primarily to achieve grades or other rewards, learn about what the teacher decides, do so at the same time as all peers and follow the a set timetable. If you equate these lessons to the personality traits they are teaching (forgetting the age of the individuals involved) then you might end up describing each individual as: inactive, passive, focused on material gain, lacking initiative, a follower. Do those characteristics feature on a list of traits you would like your child to possess in life? Or would your list look more like this: active, joyful, expressive, enthusiastic about learning and achieving regardless of gain or notoriety, a creative thinker, independent. We cannot expect a person to suddenly possess admirable traits as an adult if we teach them the opposite throughout their childhood.

 

This is why we encourage independence, decision making, exploration, lateral thinking, problem solving, self-correction, self-expression and learning for the pure enjoyment of the process. We hope that these traits will stay with a child for life.

 

 9. Montessori will not teach your child that

 

"You are better than some of the children in the class and worse than others. You should change yourself until an adult says you are better than all the other children.”

 

What Montessori does instead...

The Montessori method avoids any and all measures that would imply that message. You might have read that and thought “That is ridiculous - who would ever say that to a child in any context?!” Yet what do you think a ‘star chart’ on the classroom wall says to children?
Let’s say Tom has 6 stars, Jane has 8 and Peter has 2. Tom is better than Peter but worse than Jane. Regardless of what he is doing now he might feel he should change it until he is better than Jane. Jane is better than Peter and Tom so she has to be careful not to make any mistakes or help anyone else to achieve because if she does her sense of self – ‘being the best’ – might be taken away from her. Peter is worse than Jane and Tom, perhaps the worst in the class. He is such a long way from the top that it seems impossible to ever get there so he doesn’t bother trying. It is likely that he needs the most help and encouragement but what he feels is public shame, resentment towards the teacher who vividly reminds him of his ‘flaws’, jealousy towards his peers and a sense of hopelessness about himself.

 

Perhaps you see that scenario as an exaggeration. Perhaps you have children who love rewards systems like star charts (although if you do then it is a likely assumption that your child is “Jane” in that scenario – and if so you might like to consider that unseen anxiety that might be brewing about staying at the top). Perhaps you use them in your home. If you do then we are not here to judge that, or make you change it, but we are here to offer your child a Montessori environment where they are entirely free and protected from judgement, competition and comparisons.

 

This is why each child is seen as an individual with their own unique timeline and why we never compare the children. It is also why our classroom walls are free from rankings, ratings, or display boards that imply that some art or work is better than others.


Read the conclusion - Part 3 of the Ten Lessons - here!

Ten Lessons that Montessori will NOT teach (Part 1)

Montessori does offer many amazing benefits to children, but sometimes I think that the most valuable part of Montessori is what it doesn't do. The art of Montessori often lies in the subtle or the unseen, in the hundreds of little conscious decisions we make every day that are barely noticeable to observers but make a huge difference to the child. Often these decisions are about excluding a certain element from our environment - such as rewards and punishments. These omissions are not oversights; they are a deliberate attempt to avoid the hidden pitfalls or unintended consequences of these practices. 

As you read about what Montessori will do for the child you might find yourself thinking that it sounds exactly like your own experiences, even though you work in a different system of education or don't send your children to Montessori. If you work in a non-Montessori environment with similar values and practices to those that I describe here as 'Montessori', or if your child attends a setting like that, please feel free to mentally replace the word 'Montessori' with a phrase that fits your circumstances, such as 'Our centre will not...' or 'Good quality early childhood environments will not...' or 'Respectful parents/educators will not...' or 'Child-led learning will not...".

With that in mind, this is my list of lessons that Montessori education will NOT teach a child.
  

 

  1. Montessori will not teach your child that;

“Learning is a chore you do because you have to when someone makes you.”

 

What Montessori does instead...

The Montessori method allows children to retain their natural sense of joy about discovery and exploration. It does not squash this by imposing pressure, judgement or expectations as these external forces can erode or oppose their natural, spontaneous, joyful interest.

 

This is why we do not make children follow an arbitrary, predetermined timetable. This is why we do not intervene to enforce, or change, the subject simply because a parent, or ‘society’ (schools, the Government, adult peers), wants the child to be interested in something more ‘tangible’, more ‘academic’ or more ‘impressive’.

 

 

  1. Montessori will not teach your child that;

“You are only good or valuable if an adult tells you that you are with words or rewards.”

 

What Montessori does instead...

Montessori education helps children to build self-confidence, instead of an addiction to praise, by encouraging them to independently attempt, practice and eventually succeed at tasks. We do not try to manipulate actions or measure their worth by intermittently supplying praise or rewards. Instead we let each child reflect on their own achievements, focus on the sense of pleasure and pride that is within them and find personal satisfaction without adult approval. 

 

This is why we do not say “good job”, but instead say “how do you feel about your work?” or “do you feel proud?”. It is also why we do not give out stickers or other rewards – the joy of learning and achievement is enough reward for a child who has not yet been taught to be reliant on material prizes.

 

 

  1. Montessori will not teach your child that;

“You are a naughty person if you make a mistake.”

 

What Montessori does instead...

Montessori educators (and parents) will never judge a child at this age for taking a wrong turn along the road to self-discipline. The children in our classroom have only been on the Earth for a few short years so it is unreasonable for us to expect them to have already built an unwavering grasp of the many complex, and sometimes subtle or varying, social expectations of our world. Therefore we will never label a child as naughty (either explicitly with that word or implicitly through public shaming such as “Thinking Chairs” or “Naughty Mats”) but will instead see a moment of impulsive or unsafe behaviour as a prime opportunity to teach a Practical Life lesson in Grace and Courtesy.

 

This is why we do not tell a child that they, or their behaviour, is “naughty” and why we correct other children if they describe it that way. This is also why we choose to teach and redirect children, rather than scold and punish them, when they make mistakes.

 

 

4. Montessori will not teach your child that;

"It is only worth being nice if an adult is watching to reward you for it.”

 
What Montessori does instead...

Montessori environments avoid external rewards and punishments, instead focusing on helping each child to develop a sense of social responsibility and self-control through positive interactions and purposeful activity. We allow children the liberty to be thoughtful and polite because they want to be, for its natural pleasure, not because they are seeking praise or a reward.

 

This is why we spend a great deal of time and energy helping each individual child to build a sense of community and responsibility and to learn the skills of physical control to put these intentions into practice.

 

5. Montessori will not teach your child that;

"You are not competent or capable of performing even the most basic tasks.”

 

What Montessori does instead...

The emphasis on supporting the development of independence allows Montessori education to avoid the trap that catches many parents, and teachers, who (despite their loving intentions) implicitly tell children every single day “there is no way that you will be capable of doing this on your own and I don’t have the time or interest in waiting for you to try so I will have to do it for you”. These exact words are unlikely to ever leave the adult’s mouth but something along these lines most certainly reaches the child’s mind. When a child begins at Montessori it takes us quite some time to ‘wean’ a child off of their solid belief that they need an adult to do almost everything. A common example is lunchboxes – almost every child on their first day will ask a teacher to open their lunchbox. Our response is to say “I’m happy to help if you need, could you show me what to do?”. More often than not the child goes to demonstrate – still expecting that we will have to jump in after they show us where the latch is – and find to their surprise and delight that their hands have just opened the lid!

 

Some parents do not have the time to demonstrate, or wait for your child to attempt tasks independently, every single time it needs to be done. However at Montessori we do have this time and so we hope that you respect us for giving your child uninterrupted time for these tasks instead of creating more ‘rush’ in our day by adding unnecessary ‘set times’ or ‘finishing times’ or ‘mandatory group gatherings’ to the routine. Your child might spend 10 minutes of their day just slipping their foot in and out of their shoe trying to perfect the technique but that child learns the important lesson - “I am capable, I am dexterous, I am independent and that means I will be able to succeed at other challenges that I try and practice!”.

 

This is why a Montessori teacher will always answer the child’s unspoken plea of “help me to do it myself”.

 


Read Part 2 here...

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