Montessori Society AMI (UK)
From time to time, we read in the press stories about a general lack of discipline and a high truancy rate in traditional schools. Yet this same phenomenon does not seem to apply to Montessori schools. Even if we look further a field to the United States, where the Montessori philosophy is applied through to the adolescence level more frequently, there are still none of the negative stories we see so much of in traditional schools. What is different about Montessori schools that seems to make children want to learn and enables them to be able to focus on their learning without encountering any issues about discipline?
Children in Montessori Schools love school. This is because it meets with their developmental needs and the curriculum is child-centred rather than adult-led. Montessori Schools provide the child with the opportunity to work in an environment that is meticulously prepared for their needs. This unique characteristic of Montessori schools goes a long way in ensuring that the problem of discipline does not arise.
If a school is providing what you need then surely you would want to go there? An important aspect of this environment is the mixed age group, the freedom of choice that the children are given and the developmentally-designed materials. These things all come together to work with the individual not just in the Children’s House but at the primary and secondary level as well.
It is hard to come by one Montessori child who does not love school. This is because Montessori schools see education as an aid to life, not as a means to getting a job or passing exams.
Montessori also has a unique approach to discipline in that the children are helped to develop self-discipline through their own engagement. This is in contrast to traditional schools where discipline is applied externally with the result that the discipline of the class is only as good as the teacher’s ability to maintain it and often when the teacher leaves the room chaos will break out. If children have not been helped to develop self-discipline during their formative years the job of a traditional teacher can become very difficult.
My daughter has just turned 4 years old and has attended a Montessori school since she was 2 ½. She has not yet been introduced to the sand paper letters and I am concerned that she will fall behind her peers. I have other friends at traditional schools where their children are learning how to read and write at a much earlier age. The teacher assures me not to worry, but how can I not? How do I know when my child is ready to start learning to read and write?
One of the core Montessori principles is the concept of indirect preparation. Essentially, in the classroom, this means helping your daughter indirectly to prepare for what is next to come. Let’s take for example the simple activity of singing. By singing simple but exquisitely worded songs, poems and rhymes, we are introducing her to new language that she can use later on when she comes, for example, to writing a story for example. Sound games like I Spy and naming games and reading books aloud and verbal stories as well as work with the sensorial materials such as the geometry cabinet and sound boxes, all in their own way give her the necessary tools. More specifically, these games give her practice with the sounds of the letters, extends her vocabulary, gives examples of sentence and story structures, and help with the sensorial discrimination of shape and sound, which all come together to help her to decipher the letters, words and phrases she will meet later on. Indirect preparation in a Montessori classroom forms the solid grounding necessary for future learning.
Her interest in words, which was nurtured by songs, stories and naming games, will set off a desire to learn the letters that make up the words. Her ease with identifying the letters is helped by the Sensorial materials which give her practice in discriminating different shapes and sounds. Her ability to blend sounds together, helped in turn by the sound games and enriched vocabulary, will help her find the meaning of the sounds as she says them. When she is ready for writing and reading, it will be a joyful experience that will truly last a lifetime because she has been prepared for it.
I am aware that screen based entertainment is not good for young children, but my children do watch television occasionally (if anything to give me a bit of a break!). I have noticed however that they do learn a lot from the documentaries they watch. My son has learnt the names of different types of animals from the programmes and I have heard from others that children have also learnt different languages from watching television. Can watching television really be that detrimental to their minds?
Children have absorbent minds, and they will undoubtedly learn things from watching television. As they take in their environment, so the sights and sounds they are exposed to will become part of them as they grow and develop. The concern here is what television takes away from the child. Due to the innate one-way communication flow of television, the state of the child in front of the television is trance-like, not a concentrated one.
By watching television, the child actually loses his capacity for attention because of the constant bombardment of different and changing images on the screen, which assumes that the person watching has a short attention span. It is also worth thinking about what kind of activities your child is missing out on in the meantime. Purposeful activity is the key to developing concentration in young children, and through the exercise of showing and encouraging repetition, we as parents can nurture this incredible potential. An awareness of the negatives of screen-based entertainment cannot be forgotten, and if there are times when all else fails and we switch on the TV, we need at least to maintain a realistic picture of the consequences of our actions.
I understand that the Montessori Approach does not advocate the age old method of ‘rocking’ a child to sleep. Where does this thought originate from and what alternatives should be used?
From the moment a child is born, he is able to fall asleep and awake by himself. Naturally, it takes time for him to get accustomed to the hours of night and day because he has not experienced night and day in the womb. The secret is to allow the child to be awake when it is light and asleep when it is dark - so don’t be tempted to darken the room during the day to imitate night and induce sleep unnaturally. With patience, he will develop his own cycle and he will start to follow the rhythm of sunset and sunrise before long. Employing a low bed will allow him to crawl into bed when he is tired, and crawl out, when he is refreshed from his sleep. He is soon then able to regulate his own sleep pattern. The capabilities of the child under three are often underestimated. However if the environment is carefully prepared and the incredible power nature has given him is respected, the flourishing of his potentialities will be witnessed.
The idea originates from Montessori’s writings on independence, ‘The child needs to do things by himself from the beginning of life, from the moment he is capable of doing things...By helping the child to do things by himself you are helping the independence of the child.’ (What You Should Know About Your Child) Rocking a child to sleep implies a dependence on the adult that really does not need to exist. What ‘alternatives’ should be used? The question assumes that the child needs our help. At times (when he is ill or out of sorts), he may need our presence or our voice; in essence, the reassurance found in closeness, but any further ‘help’ offered to the child can only be viewed as an obstacle to his natural development.
I understand that the EYFS legislation sets learning goals for as young as 22 months and the ability to use a mouse and keyboard by 40 months. My Children’s Montessori nursery does not even own a computer for the children to use. Does this mean that my children will be at a disadvantage when it comes to using computer technology?
This is one of the areas where Montessori practice does indeed differ from that suggested by the EYFS. The thinking for this is based on sound developmental principles that have been a part of our practice for one hundred years but are now being backed up by current research. Of particular relevance here is the fact that the child needs to be engaged in real activities, what Montessori called ‘purposeful activities’ because these are the kind of activities that engage his mind and help him to adapt to the life around him.
For example when the child is allowed to wash up his plate and utensils after his lunch he will learn that if he puts too much washing up liquid in the bowl it is impossible to get rid of the bubbles. He will learn how hard he has to rub to get all the Marmite off the plate and in doing so he will start to be able to control his hands for a real task - he is being prepared to take part in the life going on around him. Now it might be said that when we show the child how to use a computer mouse we are also preparing him to take part in the life going on around him, certainly there are plenty of computers in his life. But there is a crucial difference here - when the child uses a mouse to make a tower appear on the screen he is not seeing the real consequence of his movement - when we tap our fingers this does not really build a tower. The signals being transmitted between the child’s mind and hand are confusing for the young developing brain. At this age the child is making synaptic connections in his brain. These are made in response to the repeated activities that he carries out with his hands.
The idea that tapping his fingers performs such a complex task as building a tower is not helpful to the strengthening of the bond between hand and mind. There is no doubt that children will find the use of computers ‘fun’ and the many toddler programmes that flood daily onto the market are of great appeal to both adults and children - especially when they are accompanied by claims that they will help children to get ‘an early start on learning’ but this is not a good enough reason to allow our children to be exposed to something that is harming their development. World renowned Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman tells us that ‘computer use too early has long term detrimental effects on children’s maths and reading. Early exposure may have long-lasting adverse effects on educational achievement’. He goes on to say that ‘we should keep computers and televisions out of the classrooms and especially not in nurseries at a younger age’.
So then how will these children learn to use computers? There is no doubt that this is a skill they will need in the future. It may seem complacent to say this - but there is plenty of time for them to acquire these skills. If we look at today’s teenagers do we have any doubt that they can use computer technology? Yet did they have a mouse in their hands before they could ride a bike? Children can be taught these skills easily when the time is right - when they have the kind of mind that understands easily what it means to use a computer and what it is used for - and its not to build the Pink Tower!
I have heard people say that Montessori may be all right for girls but is not suitable for little boys who have so much excess energy and need to be able to run around. How is this excess energy catered for in a Montessori environment that focuses on the development of concentration?
It is true that one of the main aims of the Montessori approach is to help the child find engagement so that he can bring his actions under the control of his mind. This is essential for all children regardless of their sex. However children cannot be be forced to concentrate. The route to concentration is through activity - children are not able to concentrate simply because an adult tells them to.
Any activity that helps the children take control of their bodies must be done by helping them to use their bodies and so the children are offered activities that require them to do this - to scrub a table, to clean the windows or balance on a line for example. The control that the child gains in this way feeds into all of his physical activity and as a consequence he finds that playing sport and climbing trees all become a fulfilling experience for him.
Furthermore because choice is an essential part of the Montessori approach the child is never compelled to sit at a table and concentrate and if at any one moment his choice is to dig up the weeds in the garden or clean everyone’s Wellington boots then he is perfectly welcome to do so - there are plenty of activities that help soak up those boys excess energy!
My child is five and has been in a Montessori Children’s House since she was just over two. I have seen her blossom into a little girl with purpose and I am amazed on a daily basis by the way she thinks. I would really like this experience to continue for her and I am considering Montessori Primary for her but I have one concern: with so much choice what will happen if she simply decides that she doesn’t want to do some core subject like maths for example - could she reach eleven without gaining the essentials skills that she requires?
You are right choice is still an essential element of the Montessori primary environment because we all learn more when we can choose what we want to know about. However, the primary aged child is not the same as the child under six. The young child has the kind of mind that simply soaks up information and his main task is to develop the parts of his personality, that is to acquire facility in his mother tongue, to gain control over his body and to learn about the world in which he lives so that he can learn how to live in his community, he does not decide what he wants to learn he learns it by simply living.
The older child, on the other hand, has a mind that can reason about what he learns - he can choose to study dinosaurs or amphibians because he finds them interesting. So for this child we can set objectives and he can understand that it is important that he tries to achieve these things. In Montessori Primary he will be given some things that he has to do every week - and these will mainly be maths and language activities. The difference between this and the traditional system is that the objectives are set according to his individual needs and also he can decide when he does them. The only thing he cannot do is decide not to do them, he is expected to take responsibility for his learning.
For the rest of the time he can follow whatever interests him and his projects and research will be based on this. Stimulus for his imagination is given through the ‘great stories’ and his exploration is always inter-disciplinary because the stories help to weave together subjects such as history, geography and science - so that a child who is interested in animals might find himself embroiled in an investigation of habitat which inevitably takes him into physical geography and an investigation of size which takes him into maths - and of course all of this is written so he is also doing language work without even knowing it.
If you would like to know more about the Montessori Primary programme you can purchase the NAMTA publication ‘What is Montessori Elementary?’ from the Montessori Society bookshop.
In the process of looking for a nursery school for my child I have visited a number of different types of nursery school. I have been struck by the atmosphere I find in the Montessori Schools. I can imagine how the order of the environment might encourage the natural development of the child and how it caters for independence. I am interested to know if the same attention is given to the preparation of the outside environment or is there a more ‘free play’ approach outside?
We read a lot these days about the importance of nature in children’s lives and psychologists have described the phenomenon of ‘nature deficit disorder’. Interestingly enough Montessori also emphasized how important it is for children to be exposed to nature. For this reason she advocated that the outside environment should be planned with the same care as the inside environment. She suggested that there should be an inside environment, an inside-outside environment and an outside environment.
The inside-outside environment should be a sheltered area where the children could start to venture outside and could take some of their activities with them. The outside environment should have some different areas. A cultivated garden area where the children could plant and tend to vegetables, fruit and flowers and a more wild area where they could just experience the sheer joy of discovery of the natural world.
There should be lots for the children to do outside and these activities should be offered to them in the same way as they are inside. They should be arranged in an orderly way so that everything is clear for the child to see and choose and they should be shown how to do these things in exactly the same way as they would be shown how to scrub a table or build the Pink Tower inside.
I quite agree with the Montessori viewpoint that children under six do not need to learn how to use computers but I understand that the EYFS says that children must have access to computers. My child’s Montessori nursery refuses to have computers in the classroom for children of this age. Are they in contravention of government rules?
The EYFS states that children should ‘find out about and learn how to use appropriate information technology such as computers and programmable toys that support their learning.’ This has been misinterpreted to mean that it is compulsory to have computers in the classroom at this age. However, this is a myth.
The EYFS says that children should have the chance to play and find out about everyday technology through their natural curiosity. This might be through exploring how a light switch works, for example, but ultimately it is up to those who are actually working directly with the children, which activities they choose to encourage and which toys or facilities they provide.
© Montessori Society AMI (UK)