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 I 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!
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!
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 ofcheeky 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!
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.
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:
. cucumber or zucchini
. snow pea
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!
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!
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!
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.
A recent article on Kidspot gave the author a platform to share “7 Weird Things My Kid Does at Montessori Kindy”. The tone of the piece is a little confusing…and the title is definitely provocative (perhaps a very clever piece of clickbait!) The social media reactions of many Montessori educators and parents suggest that they are interpreting the article as mocking complaints about silly practices…yet the author’s child has been in Montessori for two years so presumably she is a fan of the approach. I can therefore only assume that the article is meant to be ‘tongue-in-cheek’; a harmless bit of fun-poking, the way you would gently and lovingly tease your best friend for their cute quirks. The trouble is, it perhaps doesn’t completely succeed in communicating the ‘harmless’, ‘gentle’ or ‘loving’ parts and, as a result, many of the commenters are taking it literally as a very straight-faced criticism of Montessori. I don't think the author herself genuinely misunderstands Montessori (I think she just has a good sense of humour!) but I do believe that her article is (however unintentionally) reinforcing many misconceptions about it for her readers.
So I decided to write a reply in the hope that it might help to explain why Montessori children do these "weird" things...and to show that they are actually wonderfully weird!
Before we get into the explanations of the individual points raised by Kidspot…let’s just start by saying that there are more than 22,000 Montessori schools around the world in more than 110 different countries. So making the blanket statement that a particular practice happens “In Montessori” is seriously underestimating the diversity of this approach! The specifics of Montessori are contextualized according to the culture in which it is applied. There are fundamental principles and practices that might be seen as ‘universal’ in Montessori, but these are expressed differently or given varying weight according to the context. For instance, every Montessori centre would have a way of welcoming children, because it’s a universal principle that we want our children to feel like valued members of a community, but only some Montessori environments would choose ‘handshakes’ as the specific expression of this idea. I’ll be writing from the perspective of my own Montessori experiences but my environment is not a carbon copy of the other Montessori classrooms around the world!
7 Weird Ways Adults Misunderstand Montessori.
1. They assume that hand-shakes are automatically ‘business like’.
The Kidspot article suggests that Montessori classrooms make children “line up like little businessmen and businesswomen” for a handshake at the start of the day. Let’s start by considering why handshakes are so common in business (at least in Australian culture). It is because handshakes achieve two goals simultaneously; they initiate a connection and they show respect. So from that perspective there is a similarity between the business world and the Montessori world because we are also using handshakes to invite a connection and to show respect.
A handshake is unique because it establishes some physical contact without imposing artificial or unwanted intimacy. Some children prefer to greet their Montessori teachers with a hug. Some. Not all of them. So it would be inappropriate for Montessori teachers to use a hug as a ‘standard’ greeting. A handshake is a nice balance – it offers a gentle touch but it respects personal space. If a child wants to move from the handshake to the hug (as so many of them do!) then this is warmly welcomed!
The handshake is also special because it is an individual greeting. When you wave at someone it is quite a broad gesture – you could be waving to a whole group simultaneously. Approaching a child to offer a handshake says, “I am here for you.” It is very personal (but, again, without being intrusive) and makes a child feel seen, known and welcomed as an individual.
It is important to remember, though, that a handshake at Montessori is not ‘formal’. In that sense there is nothing ‘business-like’ about it. The children don’t somberly provide a quick shake of the wrist while mumbling something about shifting the 2pm meeting back to 3. The handshakes are warm and friendly. They are the catalyst for eye-contact, a catch up chat and – more often than not – a chance for the child to express his or her own unique personality. Each child I know shakes hands differently, though there are some common themes that seem to crop up time and time again. Some of my personal favourites include ‘The Tango’ – where a child connects to your hand and then begins to dance and twirl – the ‘Fold In’ – where a child starts from the handshake and then folds into your arms for a cuddle – the ‘Arm Breaker’ – where a child uses all their muscles and energy to shake your hand as vigorously as possible - and ‘The Tigger’ – when a child bounces enthusiastically on the other end of the shake.
Adults all around the world have their own customs for greeting one another. Whether it’s a respectful bow, a kiss on each cheek or a warm embrace it is simply a particular culture’s way of saying “You matter to me and I’m happy to see you”. That’s what a handshake means in the culture of a Montessori community.
2. They assume that wearing a plastic bag filled with your own faeces would somehow be more ‘comfortable’ than learning to use the toilet.
Okay, that sentence might need some explaining! The Kidspot article states that Montessori centres make children “swap nappies for thick terry toweling underpants that feel gross when they’re dirty. The reasoning is that the more uncomfortable they are, the quicker they will learn to use the potty.” There are several things that trouble me about that. The first is that not all Montessori environments enforce this as a rule, so it’s misleading to make such a blanket statement. In my own Montessori environment, for instance, we make suggestions to parents and offer support with toilet learning but we don’t tell parents how to parent and we don’t undermine their choices by doing the exact opposite in the classroom. So we don’t have “thick terry toweling underpants” for our children unless that is what their parents send them in.
I do know of Montessori environments that use these and the Kidspot author is half-right in that they do feel different to nappies. Their purpose, though, is not to feel “gross”. Firstly, I’d argue that wearing fabric underpants is a lot more comfortable than wearing a piece of padded plastic (particularly because the underpants actually allow you to walk effectively rather than encouraging that bow-legged look that so many thick plastic nappies create!) Secondly, it is not that the soiled underpants feel “gross”, it is that the child feels something! Nappies are designed to ‘draw the moisture away’ so it is often difficult for a child (or an adult!) to even notice when they are wet. Nappies are also so heavy and bulky by their very nature that even bowel movements don’t get much of a reaction as a child has become desensitized to the feeling of bulk around their bottoms. So a child in a plastic nappy has very little connection to their own body signals. They therefore have little motivation to want to change the nappy (how many parents or carers have had to chase a child around while their nappy sags but they refuse to stop for a change!), and may show even less awareness of why they would want to start using the toilet. On the other hand, a child using the Montessori-style underpants will definitely feel it when the underpants are wet or soiled. This sensation gives the child a signal, helps put them in tune with their body, and gives an innate motivation to want to change into fresh clothes and to want to try using the toilet next time. It’s not about torturing or tricking children with “grossness”, it’s about allowing them to be in tune with their own body.
What the article definitely gets right is that we use the phrase toilet learning but we “don’t call it training, they’re not pets”. I’m usually a bit more diplomatic than this when I explain it to people. If I know someone well enough then I might jokingly point out that you train dogs, you don’t train people. But mostly I stick to explaining that we call it “toilet learning” because that is exactly what the child is doing – learning to use the toilet. Imagine how weird it would sound if we referred to “walking training” when we encouraged a child as they took their first steps, or “numbers training” as we happily helped a child to count. Children learn at an incredible rate and volume. They have to make sense of the world around them and they acquire so many new skills in their first few years. Recognising their body signals, and using the toilet, are concepts and skills to learn, not tricks to be trained for.
3. They think there’s something strange about letting children experience freedom of movement.
The Kidspot article references ‘floor beds’, which certainly are widely used in Montessori environments. A floor bed isn’t just “sleeping on the floor”, it’s a beautifully prepared and comfortable sleeping area that is low enough for a child to get on and off independently. Sometimes there’s a low bed frame, others choose to just use mattresses. It depends on the context. The binding principle is simply that children are able to choose when to be in bed and when to be awake. Something that we, as adults, take for granted. If you’ve ever been stuck in bed – perhaps when recovering from surgery, when your mind is alert but you’re not allowed to move around – you’ll know that it feels pretty awful. This is why, in Montessori environments, we don’t leave children ‘stuck’ in confined spaces like cribs or cots.
The author indicates that they’ve taken to using the floor bed at home (which, again, suggests to me that she must actually love Montessori and intended the article to be taken ironically). She goes on to state that her child still stays immobile in the bed and perhaps hasn’t noticed that there are no longer bars. I definitely hope this part is a joke because it would make me very sad to think that her child was actually so paralysed by learned dependence. I’ve never known a child who would do that – most are actually overly enthusiastic about getting in-and-out-and-in-and-out-and-in-and-out of the floor bed if they’ve transitioned to it from a cot. To understand why, let’s think about that word that is used to describe the confines of a cot; “bars”. If you were “behind bars” for a year or two then wouldn’t you celebrate when you were granted your freedom? Floor beds provide children with freedom and autonomy. They deliver the message, “We trust you to learn what your own body needs and to be in charge of your movements.” There are definitely challenges with using a floor bed, it’s not an absolutely perfect or smooth system, but there are also challenges with cots – most notably the excessive crying from a child who is wide awake but rendered completely stuck! A floor bed allows a child the dignity and liberty of moving from the sleeping space to move safely around their special environment.
4. They automatically think of cleaning as a ‘chore’.
In our adult lives the cleaning is usually an obstacle in the way of what we really want to do. Perhaps this is why the Kidspot article makes it seem bizarre that children would ever want to do it. We have to do the dishes when all we really want to do is relax…but we want to relax because we spent all day at work.
It’s different for a child. They look at cleaning as something fun to do when it’s a choice that they are free to make. This is because cleaning is, undeniably (and whether we like it or not!), a big part of adult life. Children see adults cleaning, tidying, working, mending. And they want to be like us! Children are driven by an innate and unquenchable desire to imitate the adults in their culture. This is how they become social beings and actualized individuals, it is how they develop a sense of belonging and a feeling of identity. We think it’s ‘cute’ when children play doctors or dress up in mummy’s shoes…so why is it so strange that they would also want to wash the windows like mummy does on the weekend or cook the dinner like daddy? Children love the ‘Practical Life’ work in a Montessori classroom, including the cleaning. I have seen children race to be the first to the vacuum cleaner, beg to be the one to mop the floors every day for the week and spontaneously engage in countless repetitions of cleaning the same table over and over and over (even when it was already ‘clean’ after the first attempt!) All the while they are building physical dexterity and coordination, strengthening their ability to follow sequences of steps in a complex task and learning practical skills that they will use throughout their life. But they don’t think about any of that. They just know it’s fun to make bubbles on the table or use the special squeegee on the windows!
5. They think that a child’s community should be completely separate from the adult’s community.
“Parents are also put to work” the article claims…before immediately contradicting this by pointing out that “mums and dads are asked to sign up”. So the easy answer would be ‘if you don’t like it, don’t do it’ but let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume that the author is generous enough to want to help but maybe doesn’t quite understand why it’s so important. This practice is definitely not unique to Montessori, it’s pretty commonplace for schools to have various parent committees or working bees. It benefits everyone if a school has a sense of community and if parents and educators work in partnership. Volunteering for a parent group at a Montessori school isn’t just about “wiping down pencil cases” (as the article suggests), it’s about getting to know other parents who might be sharing your experiences. It’s about being physically on the school premises so you feel that you truly belong there, so you’re not just a visitor in a foreign land. Spending time helping the school also says to your child, “I care about this place – your environment is important to me.” This is a really comforting message and helps children feel safe and secure within their school environment. It shows the child that there is a relationship between ‘home’ and ‘school’, that they are not two disconnected environments in conflict with one another but two harmonious partners both contributing to that child’s life.
Supporting your school community is also great role-modelling for your child. We talk about wanting children to be generous and to care for others, so we need to show them what this looks like. Donating your time, energy and expertise helps to show your child that this is a part of your family values. That will make things a lot easier when you’re eventually asking your child to donate their time, energy and expertise to tasks that will benefit your home or family.
As the article itself says, “Say it with me – COMMUNITY!”…except I am saying that with sincerity not sarcasm!
6. They assume that children must be loud, chaotic and crazy in order to have fun.
The Kidspot article describes Montessori classrooms as “eerily quiet”. My Montessori classroom is certainly a bit “quieter” than the average early learning environments but guess what – that’s just what happens when children are engaged! There’s no “eerie” about it because it’s completely natural – something that the children are doing, not something we are doing to them. When they’re encountering experiences that are developmentally appropriate, stimulating, interesting, inspiring and enlightening they don’t need to run in circles shouting at the top of their lungs! They’re having too much fun to want to do that. We don’t force children to ‘be quiet’, we just offer them a range of different opportunities and some of these inspire quiet focus, while others provoke meaningful discussion and collaboration, but very few instigate random loud noise for its own sake.
In my own classroom it’s rare that I’d ever describe the room as “very quiet”. It’s more like a spectrum between “productive hum” and “peacefully calm”. The productive hum is still not a crazy clatter of cackling, but it’s the ambient noise of happy chatting, joyful giggles, and materials being moved and manipulated as children learn through play. The peacefully calm moments (moments, not days!) are the times when it just so happens that the majority of children are engaged with experiences that just don’t require too much noise. It’s not a monastery, it’s a classroom, so there will always be some speech and sound but what we don’t experience is sensory overload.
The assumption that all kids want to be loud and crazy also completely ignores the fact that humans experience a wide range of personality types and traits. We’re happy to understand that there are lots of quiet, introverted adults who prefer a night in with Netflix to a bustling party…so where do we think those adults come from? Is every child in the world automatically a boisterous extrovert and then on their 18th birthday 50% of them have a complete personality transformation and become more reserved? I certainly know that many children are very grateful for an environment that respects their quieter dispositions because they’ve told me! I can’t count the number of different children who have made comments about their other ‘non-Montessori’ environments like “It’s too loud at childcare”, “All the kids shout at swimming”, “I get scared of all the noise at Wiggly Worms”, “I have to put my hands over my ears at kindy”. I’m sure many of the children in those environments love the noise, but not all of them do and so I’m really proud to create a more peaceful sanctuary for those who prefer it that way (I’m one of them!)
7. They think manners are just delivered to a child one night by the Manners Fairy.
The Kidspot article correctly explains that “In the world of Montessori there is a big emphasis on being a nice person.” This is certainly true…and I can’t really think of a single way that this should be a complaint! We value values so much that we have a whole curriculum area devoted to them – it’s called “Grace and Courtesy”. Helping children develop social graces and courteous manners is as important to us as helping them to learn to count or name colours. Humans are social creatures. Every single day of our lives we will engage in social interactions. So learning how to engage in these interactions politely and effectively is quite simply one of the most important skills a person can ever acquire.
The trouble with the article is that it then gets oddly specific, going on to allege that being nice “means taking a moment to sing this song before you eat lunch:
"We love our bread
We love our butter
But most of all we love each other"
Now I enjoyed watching Madeline as much as the next person, but I don’t know of any Montessori classes that consist entirely of 12 little girls in two straight lines. So perhaps some Montessori classrooms are incorporating rhyming references to Madeline but I’ve never heard of it and it certainly doesn’t happen in mine! If it does happen elsewhere, though, I certainly don’t mind. It’s a bit twee for my personal tastes, but I’m not a member of every Montessori classroom community in the world – just my own! So I’m welcome to have a personal influence on the dynamics and traditions of my own community, but I’m not welcome to impose my preferences on other communities. Culture isn’t just something that happens at a national level, it’s something that develops in localities, neighbourhoods, families and classrooms. In Montessori we simply recognize that the classroom community is the child’s first experience with a social culture outside of the home, so we work hard to make it a pleasant and positive one. Yes this sometimes involves cute little traditions, and mealtimes are the perfect opportunity for this because it’s a time when the whole group comes together. At my own preschool we don’t say “Grace” before we start eating but we do have a tradition of enjoying soft relaxation music while we eat to create a beautiful atmosphere. At one of our sister centres they light candles that flicker gently in the middle of the table during the meal, mimicking the atmosphere of a lovely restaurant.
Children don’t just wake up one day halfway to adulthood and say, “I’m suddenly old enough to appreciate beauty, to show respect for others and to use manners.” They are capable of all of these things in the earliest years of their life. We trust our children, we see the very best in them, and so yes we ask them to be courteous to each other because we know that they not only want to do this but that they are very capable of it. Sometimes this consists of communal traditions, like saying grace, at other times it is just about learning how to politely approach a new person to say “Excuse me” and introduce yourself. We’re not waiting for the Manners Fairy to arrive, we’re using Montessori Magic to help children develop and express what is innately a part of their human experience.
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.”
"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.
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.
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’.
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.
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”.
Disclaimer: This was written several years before being posted. The date of this entry therefore does not correspond with the date of this experience. My niece would kill me if I publicly suggested that she was playing with dolls yesterday!
Yesterday we went to the shops with the intent of buying you a DVD of your current favourite movie (“Pitch Perfect” – I’m really grateful that you’ve picked a favourite movie that I enjoy so much too!). On the way through the maze of products we happened to pass the toy section on the way to the DVDs. As we did I saw you double-take at an aisle containing some dolls that used to capture your heart and imagination in the same way that Pitch Perfect does now! Before you were watching college students singing pop songs while love blossoms you were playing imaginary games with dress-up dolls.
You’ve liked a lot of dolls in your lifetime – even briefly (and to my deep discomfort!) those horrible Bratz dolls that were inexplicably popular for a while! I’ll never forget the excitement on your face when you unwrapped a box of Lalaloopsy Dolls one mini-Christmas; I had imported them from overseas for you so you could have one that you’d fallen in love with in an online catalogue that wasn’t yet released in Australia. Then one day you found a doll that seemed to bridge the gap a little bit between your young innocent world of dolls and the ‘cooler’ world that you were heading towards. These dolls referenced classic horror figures – ‘Claudine Wolf’ the werewolf and ‘Laguna Blue’ the lake monster were your favourites!
It has been a while though – quite a long while – since you’ve played with your collection of Monster High dolls even in the privacy of your own room, let alone sought out the latest releases out in public. Yet your attention seemed caught and it was as though you were being dragged into the gravitational pull of nostalgia! So we stopped and looked, with you all the while trying to justify and rationalise. Casually assuring me “oh I’m so over these but I’m just a bit curious about what new ones have come out since I used to play with them”. Yes, of course, you used to play with them so so long ago back in the distant past of your long-forgotten youth! We checked a few out and chatted, then you spotted a set where you could ‘make your own’ Monster High dolls. Little limbs and accessories were carefully arranged in plastic case providing the opportunity to pick and mix to create a unique monstrous model. You spent quite a while looking at this. You even spontaneously announced, “You know, I’m almost tempted to get this, just because it’d be interesting to have a go at making one”. Yes, of course, not to play with, just for a bit of an interesting sociological experiment! I waited for you to ask me if we could buy the set. You seemed quite taken with it, and you’re usually pretty confident about making the request (but, to your credit, you’re equally understanding when I have to say no!). You didn’t ask. You examined it, and turned the box back and forth, and eventually put it back on the shelf so I asked “are you ready to head to the DVD section?”
When we got there we found that the DVD lacked special features, but was still at an especially high price! So I mentioned that maybe we should wait for a special edition to be released and buy it at that point. I thought you’d disagree and say we should just buy it now anyway. You didn’t disagree. You immediately agreed, no argument, no questions asked! As we walked back the way we came I saw your face and read your expression. I asked “You’re planning to ask me for something else aren’t you? You figure that since we didn’t spend that money on the DVD we could spend it on something else instead?”. You laughed, caught out, and admitted that was the plan! I reassured you that I only managed to guess it because that’s exactly what I would have done! I love those moments where I just look at you and see a mini-me (but the new and improved version!). It’s true that I also love the times when I see the inimitably unique “Emily” aspects of you, I don’t need to inject myself into all that is good about you because you have so much that you have created just for yourself, but it is a privilege that I am able to share so many traits with you. We giggled for a minute about our similarities, and you mentioned that your mum had pointed out that you’re “turning into Jecky”. Then you got back to the point and, again with that oh-so-casual tone, mentioned “I was thinking of maybe just grabbing that Monster High set, you know, just to check it out.”. The set was actually a bit more expensive than the DVD – I’d clocked the price when you first picked it up from the shelf – but I wasn’t going to say anything. In that moment, with you so painfully self-aware of the cognitive dissonance of simultaneously wanting to revisit your childhood while striving to grow up, I would never have tried to push you towards one or the other.
To be honest, it was lovely to see you having a moment of regression! You are so grown up in so many ways and I appreciate when you can let your guard down and just be little. This is why I still piggy-back you around, or pick you up in what you call a “Princess carry”, despite the fact that both leave me almost hobbling! I know that one day soon you won’t ask anymore, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to rush the arrival of that day. Every time you’re still willing to ask to be my little girl in a Princess carry I’m going to make sure I let you! Otherwise I will have only myself to blame when you’re “too cool” for it and I’m sad about it! So this was the same; I knew all I had to do was mention the price and it would have been just enough to knock you towards the self-conscious denial of your continued interest in dolls. So I kept quiet and we bought the doll.
When we got home I watched you play. I observed as you picked out the pieces and built your dolls. You needed my help to figure out how to attach the little wolf-like ears on one. I felt lucky to sit beside you playing dolls; it’s been a while since we’ve done that and I don’t know when we will again. You seemed calm and happy with the doll in your hand. The night before you had stayed up til 4am with your mates posting selfie photos on Instagram like a true teen (although you’re still, technically, a “tween”). Today your legs curled up under you as you braided the hair of your doll, just like the little girl of yesteryear.
You don’t have to choose Em. You don’t have to be one or the other – grown up or innocent, coolly cynical or sweetly optimistic, self-consciously mature or naively free. For a period of time in the next few years you might think you have to choose, and you might decide to hide certain aspects from your peers, but one day you will realise that balance and dichotomy make you richer. I believe you will become an adult who will always still be silly, funny, free and open of heart and mind.
I love you for who you were, who you are and who you will become. Yesterday, today, every day and always.
I am in a long-term love affair with the printed word. I love filling my bookshelves but my paper filled friends never seem to stay there for long and books pepper every surface of my house. They’re on my coffee table, my desk, my bedside table, on the couch.
When parents come to me to ask where they should start learning about Montessori I tend to point them towards books rather than websites (yes I realise it’s ironic that I run a website about Montessori and that I’m writing in a blog right now!)There are some incredible Montessori blogs and websites out there and they provide an enormous wealth of information and inspiration. I simply believe, however, that books are the perfect place to begin and that they are necessary for developing an authentic, informed view of Montessori. I believe that if you only ever read books you could be absolutely confident that you had a genuine understanding of Montessori, whereas I don’t think you could feel the same if you only ever visited websites. You can, of course, combine both but I suggest starting with books because if you happen to visit a misleading website first then it can be hard to ‘unlearn’ what you find there.
There are a few reasons why printed books can be more informative than online sources...
1. Books tend to be a more reliable source (with a more consistent message across titles). Anyone can put their opinions on the internet. There is no real quality control online because it is an essentially self-published medium. I could write “The Montessori method requires all children to wear a uniform featuring a purple piglet standing under an umbrella” and publish it online if I wanted to (I just did!) It isn’t true, of course, but if someone Googled “Montessori uniform” it might pop up as a result. Very few people go through the necessary steps to identify whether or not an online source is reputable and the reason for that is that it is time-consuming. Looking up an author’s credentials takes time and energy that many people (especially busy parents) just don’t have to spare. That’s the beauty of published books: the publisher did that work for you! Somebody else has already taken the time to read the manuscript, research the author and objectively edit the work. When you read a book you can, therefore, have an increased sense of confidence that it is coming from a reputable source. This is why, for instance, you will find a lot of contradictory information in Montessori websites but you will find that almost all Montessori books have a consistent message. The web entries may have been written by a person with no Montessori qualifications whatsoever whereas there is greater scrutiny on the manuscript of a Montessori book and on the person who wrote it.
2. The human eyes, and mind, are likely to absorb and recall printed words more easily than digital ones. Perhaps this will change over time but, at present, it seems that people are more likely to thoroughly read, remember and comprehend words that are printed compared to those that appear digitally. Ferris Jabr, in Scientific American, explained that “evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way” (2013). Furthermore,eye-tracking technology has discovered that most people “read” screens in an F-shaped pattern that means a great deal of information may be overlooked entirely (without us consciously realising it).
3. Books offer a concrete experience that we can absorb with our senses and keep over time. There is something powerful about the tangible nature of books. We can physically hold them in our hands and enjoy the emotional and physical sensation of engaging with the words. When I read a book I underline phrases that strike me, I put post its on pages that inspire me, I crack the spine so that my favourite section appears naturally when I randomly open the cover. I get to know the book in a way that I can’t do with a website. I don’t feel connected to my screen in the same way that I do with a book (even though I spend long periods every day on my iPad and/or laptop!) I feel good about books and I enjoy returning to them. When you’re looking at Montessori sources you are trying to build a relationship with this new way of thinking about children. Anything that helps you to feel physically and emotionally connected to it on a long term basis is a good thing. This is why I suggest that parents or educators invest in books that they can call their own rather than just being visitors to an external, digital source.
So with those book-benefits in mind, I recommend the following texts for learning about Montessori.
I have broken these up into different subsections so you can focus on your own unique needs:
-Where to start (books for beginners)
-Straight to the source (Maria's own words)
-Activity ideas (if you want to set up environments and activities)
-To convince a sceptic (if you're trying to help a friend, relative or colleague to understand your passion for Montessori)
-Supplementary books in line with Montessori (if you want to learn about education and parenting from a perspective that isn't "officially" Montessori but is still harmonious with the principles).
Where to start:
If you're brand new to Montessori, and you're looking for books that are comprehensive without being overwhelming, these are the titles for you.
The Montessori Way: An Education for Life
Tim Seldin & Paul Epstein
The Montessori Way manages to walk the line of being deep and comprehensive while still clear and accessible. Even the formatting of the book seems to have been selected for this purpose; rather than a thick ‘novel’ style bookit is a large ‘coffee table’ style size filled with text and colour illustrations that make you feel a bit like you’re reading a magazine (albeit a very enlightening one!)
The Montessori Way covers all of the fundamental Montessori concepts and provides insights into the real world of Montessori classrooms. Whether you read it in one sitting, or come back to chapters over time, you will be left with a much greater sense of understanding about this holistic method of education.
How to Raise an Amazing Child
I have heard more positive feedback from parents about this book than any other. Like “The Montessori Way: An Education for Life” it has a format that is designed to appeal to parents. How to Raise an Amazing Child (apparently the author isn’t too keen on that title but the publishers liked it!) is an inviting, modern format filled with colourful photographs and easy-to-read text. It mixes key philosophical points with really practical activity ideas. This is probably the best book for parents who are brand new to Montessori because reading it will give you a sense of “I get it” AND “I can do this!”
Understanding Montessori: A Guide for Parents
This book, unlike the Tim Seldin titles, is more of a straightforward ‘novel’ style text. It breaks down the details of the Montessori philosophy and practices, dividing it into sections so that complex concepts seem comprehensible. It is a fairly comprehensive guide and reading it will leave you feeling much more informed. It demystifies many of the keywords and phrases you might have heard from Montessori educators so it is empowering in the sense that it starts to translate this special language of Montessori.
Straight to the source: Books by Dr Maria Montessori
Many of Maria’s works are published, from full length books to collections of lectures, and it can be hard to know where to start. Reading Maria’s own words can be enlightening but can also be overwhelming. On the one hand it is, undeniably, valuable to go directly to the source. Who better to explain Maria’s intentions and observations than Maria herself?! On the other hand, many of her words are a century old. They were written (or spoken and transcribed) in Italian in the early 1900s and have been translated into English and preserved across the decades. It is inescapable that some of her words will, therefore, feel outdated and sometimes this can blur the message. Furthermore, Maria’s personal style of writing is so passionate that it can border on a sense of spiritual transcendence. Some people find this uplifting, others find it a little off-putting. It is therefore vital that Maria’s words are read in context of the time, language and personality of their author!
The Secret of Childhood
My own much-loved copy!
I used to joke that this was my “bible” of Montessori (the Gospel according to Maria!). This is partly because of the incredibly reverent tone of her words but also because my copy even had those tissue-thin pages that the Bible often has. This is the book that really captures the emotion of Montessori. Maria’s sense of awe is palpable; she not only respects the child but is amazed by the child! This passion is contagious and as you read the words you find yourself transported to this state of wonder.
The Montessori Method
My oft-revisited and extensively annotated copy!
This is the book that I have probably revisited the most in my career and it is the source of the majority of the most famous Montessori quotes. Almost every page provides a phrase or sentence that just so perfectly encapsulates the principles, practices and values of Montessori. It is a very focused book, with a clear message to deliver, and I personally find that it is a perfect valance of philosophy and application.
Dr Montessori’s Own Handbook
This one is an interesting read because it offers insight into Montessori’s own classrooms at a very direct level. It contains pictures and explanations of the environment and materials with an extremely practical focus on the methodology of presenting lessons. I also enjoy it because it identifies the evolution of what we now call “The Montessori Method”. Although the vast majority of principles, materials and practices have remained relatively unchanged there are a few details in the Handbook that Maria slightly adjusted later in her career.
Many Montessori books do a wonderful job of exploring the philosophy but provide little ‘practical’ advice, particularly for parents. If your aim is mainly to find ideas for activities, with a bit of philosophy there as an explanation, then there are some books made just for you!
Teach Me to do it Myself
This book is essentially a straight “activity guide”. Only the first few pages are dedicated to the history and principles of Montessori, the rest is filled with clear directions for setting up Montessori activities. It is divided into sections so that you can focus on learning new practical life lessons, sensorial experiences, language or number games and scientific concepts. The book is aimed primarily at the ‘early childhood’ years of 3 to 6 year olds. It is ideal for parents (or educators) who either know the philosophy already and just want some activity inspiration or for those who might not feel ready to explore the complexities of the philosophy but do want to provide supportive, developmentally engaging experiences for their child(ren).
Child’s Play: Montessori games and activities for your baby and toddler
Child’s Play follows a similar format to Teach Me to do it Myself but this time focuses on activities for 0 to 3 year old children. It provides a clear, easy to understand layout with a few pages dedicated to each activity. It explains the materials you need, the presentation, the purpose and gives tips and tricks for ‘following the child’ by adapting or expanding on the experience. Both Child’s Play and Teach Me to do it Myself suggest activities that can be done with very little specialised ‘equipment’. They do not require you to purchase Montessori classroom materials (like Pink Towers or Number Rods) but instead focus on activities you can either create from found objects at home, or in nature, or with commonly available resources that you can purchase at affordable prices.
Montessori Play and Learn: A parent’s guide to purposeful play from two to six.
I’ll start by saying - you have to overlook the dated clothing in the photos! This book was published in the early 90s and it shows in some of the images (think little girls in Peter Pan collars and big scrunchies and boys in flannelette shirts under denim overalls!) Interestingly enough some of these fashions are now cool again in that ironic retro ‘hipster’ way but it can be slightly distracting (even off-putting) when your first glance at the book. But this is an instance where you literally shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The photos are dated but the information is timeless! It is an incredibly valuable resource with a balance of theory and practice intertwined in an extremely accessible way!
Aid to Life
Created through collaboration of various Montessori organisations
Aid to Life is actually a website, and all the information is available online, but they also have printed copies of booklets and posters (and DVDs) containing their ideas. I tend to suggest that parents actually invest in these printed versions - partly because I believe it is easier to absorb the information in that physical form but also because purchasing the copies helps to invest in the project! The proceeds can aid the development of further resources which can, in turn, aid the development of your child!
To convince a sceptic:
I personally believe it is usually ideal to offer people an invitation towards Montessori and then allow them to walk the path themselves. Being too ardent with convincing can actually make people defensive or lead them to believe that Montessori is some sort of cult trying to convert them! Sometimes, however, it feels necessary to be a little more intentional and persistent with your attempts to express the method to someone who is a little doubtful. For instance, if one parent is dedicated to using Montessori practices, but the other parent knows little about it or has concerns based on incorrect preconceptions, then it is useful to try to create a greater sense of partnership. Similarly, if you are a Montessori educator or Montessori inspired parent then you will have some people in your life whose opinions are of great value to you. If your close friends or family members don’t “get” Montessori, or don’t seem to respect the choices you’re making, then you might feel that you want to lead them towards an understanding of what you’re doing and why it is valuable. These books can help with that goal!
A persuasive and charismatic book written by a Montessori dad who fell in love with the method! It’s subtitle is “A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education” and that’s exactly what it offers. Trevor argues that Montessori is the answer to improving the public and private schooling system (he is based in the United States but the themes are universal) and he explains exactly why the method is so powerful. I have found that this book is particularly well-received by fathers because they can relate to the author’s voice.
To get a glimpse at the power and passion of Montessori Madness watch this 321 FastDraw video based on Trevor’s work:
Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius
This book is literally and metaphorically weighty. It is heavy and dense both in terms of its physical characteristics and its content. Both of these factors make it perfect for someone who is really serious about presenting the case for Montessori. It relies not on rhetoric but on evidence to demonstrate Montessori’s value. Furthermore it takes a century-old method and places it in a very modern context and finds that it is still ahead of its time! It is the perfect riposte to sceptics who say “Montessori is all theory, there’s no real evidence that it works” or “Montessori is no longer relevant”. (There is also a DVD of the same title available, as illustrated above).
In harmony with Montessori (but not officially Montessori)
There are many books that fit in perfectly with the principles of Montessori without actually using the “M word” or aligning themselves with the pedagogy. These can be extremely valuable resources, especially for parents.
Anything by Alfie Kohn
This is not even my full collection of Alfie Kohn books - several are on loan to friends or to parents from my preschool!
Alfie is one of my favourite authors and has written many books that confirm the Montessori perspective on promoting intrinsic motivation over extrinsic manipulation. Alfie himself does not suggest any relationship between his work and Montessori principles but that is what makes them so powerful to me. He has arrived at these conclusions independently, not out of a loyalty to Montessori but based on the evidence and research that he has assessed. It is very reassuring and affirming to have Montessori’s work validated by reputable independent sources. All of his books are eye-opening if you have the time to read them all but if you’re short on time I personally recommend starting with the following (in order):
1. Unconditional Parenting
2. Punished by Rewards
3. No Contest
4. The Homework Myth
All his books are available from www.alfiekohn.org, along with many free and shorter articles that cover similar topics.
The Parenting 5 Series
I should declare an interest here because, unlike the rest of the books on this list, I sell these books and I also know the author personally. The Parenting 5 series is one of the newest kids on the block in terms of Montessori inspired work and it is also one of the most accessible. They have been written with busy parents and educators in mind so they get straight to the point and provide extremely practical, down-to-earth advice. They are like compact ‘how-to’ guides with each book in the series focusing on a different aspect of child development. They are designed to empower parents not only with information but with the tools to implement their newfound inspiration.
The Positive Discipline series
Jane Nelsen (and co-authors)
Montessori inspired parents often find that “discipline” is one of the hardest elements to understand and implement. Dr Montessori wrote extensively about subjects like freedom, self-discipline and self-correction but these lofty goals can feel a bit out-of-touch for parents who are just looking for practical advice. Parents often lament “I know I’m not meant to use rewards or punishments but what do I actually do when…” The Positive Discipline series offers answers on a very practical and detailed level. Their principles are extremely harmonious with Montessori but they are extrapolated to support you in almost any scenario you can possibly imagine.
My favourite aspect of the Positive Discipline series is that there are a range of books that focus on very specific situations and contexts. The series began with simply “Positive Discipline” but now you can access titles such as:
Positive Discipline the First Three Years
Positive Discipline for Preschoolers
Positive Discipline for Children with Special Needs
Positive Discipline for Teenagers
Positive Discipline for Childcare Providers
There’s even “Pup Parenting” for those of us raising fur-children!
The books are authored by Jane Nelsen but she partners with co-authors for each book in order to ensure that the most expert voices are heard. All books in the series are available from www.positivediscipline.com
WHERE TO BUY:
Firstly - you don’t have to buy all these books. You could start from the top, look only to the sections that interest you (such as ‘Activity Ideas’), you could buy one from each section for a more comprehensive collection or you could decide to start building your own Montessori inspired library! You have to make the decision for yourself because this is your learning journey. You make your own road by walking so you need to choose how to proceed from here. If you decide you want to purchase one, some or all then keep reading!
My instinct is to say “Montessori Books” (www.montessoribooks.com.au) because this is an Australian source operated by the Montessori Australia Foundation (MAF). MAF supports Montessori schools and parents as well as advocating for the recognition and advancement of the Montessori movement in Australia. Purchasing through Montessori Books helps to provide much needed revenue for MAF - they do so much and everything we can do to financially invest in their work helps to return support to the Montessori community. Sadly, however, Montessori Books has been offline for at least the last 9 months and I have no idea when it will become available again! I have my fingers firmly crossed that the “website redesign” (currently announced on the screen when you visit their URL) will be complete soon. I do recommend that you try checking Montessori Books first when you are making a purchase - just because they were offline as I was writing this does not mean they will be offline when you are reading it!
If Montessori Books is not available then the North American Teacher’s Association (NAMTA) has a web store on their website (http://www.montessori-namta.org/) Buying through NAMTA again allows you to know that your dollars are investing in supporting the Montessori movement.
You can, of course, buy most of the books from large multi-national retailers like Amazon. In fact they are often cheapest there. However I stop short of personally “recommending” Amazon (and the like) because big isn’t always better and when something is “cheap” it often means there are hidden costs. Cut price books have an economic impact on the author, the publishers and the smaller retailers who don’t have the buying power to compete with behemoths like Amazon. I started this post by mentioning that I love books and I therefore want their existence to continue. If I want the privilege of being able to hold a physical copy of a published book then I have to support the work that went into it by paying a price that reflects that effort. I also love Montessori and so I choose to try to support the movement by utilising retailers that feed some of the proceeds back into the Montessori community. It is up to each consumer to decide where to invest their money but I empower you to make informed choices and to think of it as exactly that; an “investment”, not just “spending”. Every dollar you ‘spend’ is actually an investment in something - whether it’s an investment in encouraging an author to take the time to write their next amazing book or an investment in the profit margins of giant companies that utilise tax loopholes to offer low prices while maintaining huge revenue streams and pushing ‘little guys’ out of business.
Some ideas and tips to help you scaffold your child’s experiences with developmentally appropriate clothing!
The following ideas are based on my observations of the activities, experiences and conversations of hundreds of preschool age children, in a wide variety of clothing. They are also based on my knowledge of principles of Montessori and Pikler.
Tip 1: Clothing should be functional for the context.
It can be tempting, with so many "cute" outfits available, to dress children more for aesthetics than functionality. This often leads to children wearing impractical clothing that looks great but gets in the way of their daily experiences. An easy, fundamental tip is to think about the context for those clothes, not just their appearance. We do this instinctively as adults - we have outfits we wear to work that are completely different to what we'd wear to a party or what we'd wear to the gym. We know we'd look completely insane if we turned up at yoga wearing a minidress and high heels...yet so often we send our children to preschool wearing what should be "dress up" clothes in a context where they will actually be more physically active than an adult in a yoga class!
Perfect for a wedding day... perfect for everyday!
Dress your child in clothes that respect the context of play!
Tip 2: Clothing shouldallow freedom of movement.
A lot of children’s clothing accidentally restricts movement, even if it “fits” properly. This can happen in many ways - from a girl’s skirt getting in her way when she tries to climb over the climbing frame through to a pair of jeans being too tight to allow a child to cross his/her legs. For babies there are other considerations - for instance, some fabrics are too “slippery” and prevent a baby from crawling, standing or stepping safely along smooth surfaces.
Dress your child in clothes that promote movement!
Tip 3: Clothing should encourage engagement
The purpose of childhood is to engage in exploration and experimentation. You might wonder what clothes have to do with this, but the truth is that certain outfits discourage engagement because the adults feels protective of the clothing! This tends to happen if the clothes were expensive or if they are “special” outfits. There are certainly times and places where special outfits might be appropriate, but they are not ideal on a day-to-day basis. For “normal” days don’t dress your child in anything so fancy or expensive that you would prevent activity to preserve the outfit! If you don’t feel comfortable with the outfit getting messy, dirty, wet, painted etc then it’s not really an appropriate outfit for early childhood. Every now and again I get a child at pre-school (usually girls, though boys have done it too) who announce that they “can’t” paint, or go in the sandpit, or play with the water trough or do some baking because “I can’t get messy”. Sometimes the child will elaborate by explaining “mummy/daddy says I can’t get my clothes dirty” but often the child has already internalised the anxiety enough to present it as their own concern rather than being able to identify that it is something they’ve absorbed from mum/dad.
Dress your child in clothes that welcome the splashes and smudges of childhood!
Tip 4: Clothing should counteract the weather
One of the most striking sentences I’ve ever heard at a Montessori conference is “There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes” I’m often surprised by how precious we can be about weather. It starts to drizzle and we run inside, despite the fact that most of us enjoy the luxurious sensation of a shower. It starts getting warm outside and we rush in to crank up the air conditioner - even making it so cold inside that we’d turn on the heater if that was the ambient temperature rather than our artificial one! Children deserve to view natural weather patterns as safe and enjoyable. They deserve to feel the beauty of a gentle summer rain, to cavort in the sun and create in the snow (if you’re lucky enough to get it where you live, or be able to travel to find it!). Clothes are our ally in making all types of weather “good”. If it’s cold outside, dress your child in lots of layers all the way up to a thick jacket. If it’s raining then provide a waterproof outer layer.
Dress your child in clothes that balance out the weather rather than avoiding the weather altogether!
Tip 5: Clothing should respect the sense of touch
Children arrive in the world with a set of tools for exploration; the senses. Your child uses these senses to absorb information and experiences. The sensory input that a child receives helps to form his or her understanding of the world around them. Perhaps the most active tool in the first years is the sense of touch. So it makes sense to offer as much positive and pleasurable input as possible! When you choose clothing for your child take a moment to feel it, not just look at it. Feel the texture of the fabric, run your hand along the inside to check if there are any ‘scratchy’ elements or rough stitching. Find clothing that feels beautiful without being distracting. This will help your child to feel good physically but also emotionally, as many children are frustrated or upset by uncomfortable fabrics but lack the ability to articulate what is bothering them. I’ve had many occasions where a mysteriously miserable toddler suddenly turns into a bundle of joy after we change their clothing!
Dress your child in clothes that feel beautiful.
Tip 6: Clothing should minimise distraction
Your child has a lot to take in. They are brand new arrivals on a fascinating planet filled with wonders and marvels. Adults don’t have to do much to “inspire” a child’s curiosity, because they are innately eager to explore and the world is naturally amazing, but we are responsible for removing obstacles that might hinder a child’s discoveries. This includes clothing! Your child’s clothing shouldn’t distract him or her from exploring the world. Unfortunately some clothing does present a distraction. This can be through tactile input - a scratchy tag that keeps bothering the sensitive skin on the back of a child’s neck. It could also be through the other senses - like a bracelet that keeps jingling. Sometimes it’s simply because there are so many removable elements of the outfit - scarves, hair clips, beanies, belts, headbands etc - and a child is distracted by the constant stress of trying to keep track of them (and the anxiety when pieces inevitably get misplaced).
Dress your child in clothes that don’t distract from the work of discovery!
Here are few age-specific tips:
Allow bare feet. Many ‘onesies’ and other baby clothing covers the feet. This can be cute, and might seem cosy, but a baby’s feet and toes are quite sensitive. The baby can use his or her feet to take in sensory input but the toes and soles are also used in the development of balance and movement.
Covered feet might not ‘feel’ the solid connection to the floor as easily and smooth fabric on the feet might cause a hub to slip instead of grip when she tries to craw, stand or step.
Make dressing a partnership. When you help your baby to get dressed try to remember that you are partnering with a human, not playing with a doll.
Make sure that your interactions make it clear that you are doing this with your baby, not to your baby. Use your voice to explain each step of the process before it happens - this helps your baby start to participate actively in the process as well as helping to promote language development. For instance, you might say “we need to put your shirt on next. Hold out your arm and I’ll help put your sleeve on.” Say this slowly and pause to let your child absorb your words and react. You’ll be surprised by how engaged even the youngest babies can be in this process!
Liberate skin! The largest organ in the human body is our skin. Every inch of it is covered in nerve endings and receptors that take in information. Sadly, most of those inches are also covered in clothing every day!
Accessorise in moderation (and in context). Accessories (as explained above) can cause distraction to children and this is particularly true for babies. A baby who is left with a bib around his/her neck all day will likely find that it dangles in front of their eyes each time they bend forward towards something. This can distract their attention from that original goal. Similarly, hair accessories on baby girls might be useful for announcing gender but they can also be distracting for the wearer and her peers.
The baby girl herself might constantly be clutching at it, trying to pull it off (or pull it into her mouth!). I have seen quite a few instances of baby girls and their mothers locked in a silent battle over headbands, with the girl pulling it off or askew and the mother replacing it…only for the baby to move it and the mum to replace it…and so on! Even worse is that a headband can be a very appealing distraction for other babies! If a baby girl is attending a social setting - such as a playgroup or childcare - then headbands can actually become dangerous as other babies might (quite innocently) be enticed to reach out and grab it. This can cause distress for the wearer at best and physical injury at worst (as the grabbing baby’s lack of coordination might mean a fingernail ends up in an eye before the headband is actually caught).
Start to offer choices. Toddlers love having the opportunity to show that they are capable, autonomous individuals. They are starting to become liberated from the shackles of dependency and oh boy do they like to assert that newfound freedom. This is one of the most amazing, wonderful and admirable elements of ‘toddlerhood’ but it is also a source of conflict between adults and children if the child has to look for their own ways to demand independence. An adult can offer productive, meaningful and helpful ways for a toddler to express his/her voice. When it comes to clothing this means offering limited choices within limits. Two options are ideal for a two year old - “this one or that one?” - and the adult should preselect those items so that both are equally appropriate. At this stage it is ideal for a parent to place two outfits out - on the bed or hung in a toddler sized wardrobe - so that the toddler can choose between them.
Promote independence. A toddler will be starting to demand independence but the physical development doesn’t always keep up with that social impulse. To scaffold a toddler’s attempts at being “big” (eg. “I do it, I’m a big girl”) try to provide clothing that matches their level of motor coordination. A loose jacket with a couple of big buttons at the front gives a toddler a better chance at independent success than a tight jacket with ten tiny buttons.
Submit to the senses. A toddler is just starting to be able to understand and voice a lot of the sensory input they are experiencing and that is an exciting revelation for them! Where a baby might have cried because of a scratchy hat, now a toddler realises he/she can just rip it off, shout “NO!” and run away from it (while mum/dad/teacher chases behind!). The toddler’s senses are strong, and getting sharper with every day, and they are now more connected to the mind - and mouth - than before. So we need to respect this influence when choosing clothing options. If a toddler always rips his/her hat off then it may be fruitless to just repeatedly insist that it is worn, because the hat might genuinely be causing sensory input that is distressing or distracting. This can be solved proactively - by having toddlers go shopping with you and trying things on in the store - and retrospectively - by trying a few choices until one is found that suits the senses.
Self-sustaining shoes. This is another area where independence can blossom, both in terms of choice and management. A parent can offer a child the choice between two pairs of (appropriate!) shoes - “The red sandals or the green ones today?” Ideally these shoes should be fasted in a way that the toddler can manage independently, such as velcro straps. Furthermore, the shoes should respect the toddler’s activity level. Toddlers are busy and fast - and sometimes their intent moves faster than their coordination can manage. It is therefore vital that a toddler’s footwear is supportive and stable. A pair of Crocs or thongs do not offer much support and can slip off very easily right in the middle of a run/climb/jump, whereas sneakers or strapped sandals protect the foot while promoting movement.
Expanding choices. Preschoolers can handle more options in their choices and more steps in their instructions. At this age a child can go to a wardrobe and choose between a few options in multiple stages - “Please go pick a shirt, some pants, some underpants and some socks”. The adult still needs to be the architect of these choices behind the scenes - for instance swapping clothing choices according to the weather so that on a warm day there are only t-shirts, shorts and thin socks available in the child’s range of choices. I recommend having a small wardrobe for a toddler or preschooler to access independently and periodically (perhaps weekly) filling it with appropriate choices. The majority of the child’s clothes can be stored elsewhere, such as a regular sized wardrobe, but the small wardrobe is the ‘independent choice’ area. Freedom within limits!
Increasing independence. Preschool children are developing increasingly refined motor coordination, so it is time to start providing challenges in the way that clothing fastens! It is time for ‘trickier’ options such as smaller buttons, buckles on pants and tighter clothing. Provide demonstrations (with exaggeratedly slow movements) to show your child how each fastener works and allow plenty of time for him/her to master the art!
Fancier footwear. Again we can embrace the increased coordination of preschoolers by starting to offer shoes with buckles and laces. Yes these fasteners are challenging, but they are also possible. Most preschool age children are absolutely capable of tying their shoes if they have enough time and support to learn the movements involved.
Clothing during the toilet-learning period:
When your child is in the midst of learning how to use the toilet there are a few clothing tips that might minimise obstacles…
Keep it loose: Loose clothing is easier to get off quickly when a child suddenly realises he/she needs the toilet. Track pants with an elasticated waist can be pulled down in a matter of seconds, whereas a pair of tight jeans or leggings take more negotiating (and often end up wet before they are removed).
Keep it short: When it comes to t-shirts, dresses or skirts it is easier for a child to manage with shorter lengths. In relation to shirts this is because a long shirt can sometimes hang so low that the front covers the penis when a boy stands at a toilet or the back accidentally tucks under the bottom when a boy/girl sits down to urinate. In either case the bottom of the shirt ends up wet and the child can feel discouraged. This is similar for dresses and skirts for girls; if the skirt is particularly long then it’s tricky for a little girl to ‘hike’ it up enough to keep it out of the way. This reduces the independence that she can exercise when getting ready to sit on the toilet.
Keep it off: If you’re at home, or in a safe environment with close friends or family, then why not let your child boycott pants (or all clothes!) entirely! This prevents the first two hassles mentioned above as well as giving your child a lovely sensory experience. It also reduces the hassle of having to clean piles of ‘wet’ clothes if your child has accidents* along the way.
*Please note: A thick pair of underpants is usually enough to catch the first few ‘drips’ if the flow starts before the toilet is reached (or to ‘catch’ anything that slips out the back!) so your floors should be relatively safe (but you know your child’s body and you know your flooring - so if your child is prone to loose bowel motions and your carpet is expensive then maybe the pants-free option isn’t for you!)