A Parent’s View
The first time I walked into a Silver Spruce Montessori classroom was when I was taking a tour of the school to determine if I wanted to send my eldest daughter there for preschool. I was blown away by what I saw. I saw busy children thoroughly and actively engaged, as young as 3 doing their work on their little, white rugs and on low tables. All the furniture in the classroom was made to fit the children's size. The shelves were neatly filled with different intriguing manipulatives that the children could easily reach. I would later learn that these were called Montessori “learning materials”. The children purposefully and lovingly called these materials "work". The children's faces seemed lit up and they appeared inspired by what they were working on. The teachers were not easily seen at first but then I spotted them sitting on the floor, blending right in with all of the children. I thought surely that as soon as the teacher was out of sight, the children would be running around or throwing paper airplanes and up to some kind of mischief at the first chance they got! On the contrary, these children were enjoying their “work” and fully engrossed.
The school was an historic colonial with sunlight pouring into each room. The back yard was a wonderland for children to truly be in nature complete with a secret flower garden, vegetables, and even goats! Inside there were several spacious rooms that the children could move around freely in, rather than just one small classroom with the teacher at the front. The space felt more like an extremely tidy and lovely home rather than a "school". As I looked around, there were plenty of places the children could "hide" to get out of doing work, yet here they were working diligently with a sense of peace, pride, and deep concentration. Then it struck me: ACTUAL learning was occurring.
My Journey to Educate Myself
It didn’t take me long to realize that this was the school I wanted to send my two daughters to for preschool. However it wasn't until my eldest daughter was about to enter her Kindergarten year at Silver Spruce that I began to really educate myself on the Montessori method. I wanted to be sure that continuing a Montessori education through her Elementary years was absolutely the best choice for us. I was thrilled with her education at Silver Spruce thus far, but truth be told I didn't have a clue as to HOW the method worked. I began to dive deep into books.
As a parent this is my journey to share with you on some of the things I discovered and why I feel Montessori offers the best possible learning methods out there for any style learner and why we have become such avid believers in the brilliance of the Montessori Method.
Mixed Age Group
The first thing that usually strikes questions and interest in the visiting parent to a Montessori classroom is the mixed age groupings. The classes are designed to be a three-year cycle, containing children from ages 2.9 years through age 6.
At first I wondered would the older child benefit from this? The answer is YES. The older children become empowered by mentoring the younger children, the best way to solidify that which you have learned, is to teach! The younger children become inspired by their older peers to learn more. There is constant interaction, problem solving, child-to-child teaching, and socialization happening in the classroom.
Choice, Independence and the Prepared Environment
It is hard to talk about the brilliance of Maria Montessori's method without comparing it to traditional schooling. One of the biggest differences between traditional schooling and Montessori is the amount of freedom of choice, movement, and carefully tailored learning that is given to each child. The child in a carefully prepared Montessori environment is empowered to make his or her own choices. The secret, which I would later learn, is the carefully teacher-prepared environment and presentations which show the child how to use each material in the correct way, when the time is right.
Surely, I thought, all this freedom could only lead to chaos and not learning, but when you give a child freedom in a carefully prepared environment, with the skillful guidance from the teacher, the child can't really make a bad choice. The teacher is more of a guide helping to steer the children instead of constantly correcting. It takes a masterful teacher who is tuned in to the different learning styles and readiness of each student to know when he is prime for a new “presentation”.
They call this readiness for new material the “sensitive period”. Maria Montessori believed that there is a window of opportunity when a child is ready to learn a certain material or lesson. The teacher knows when this is and presents new “work” to the child who then has this new option of work to choose from. Montessori provides children with appropriate amounts of control over their own learning. This fosters the confidence they will need to take on the world.
An analogy that helps me understand how this works is the following: If you have bowls of chips and candy on tables at home, it becomes very difficult for the child to make good choices in that kind of environment. However, if you have bowls of fresh fruit, carrot sticks, etc. in the home, the child can't really make a wrong choice. You aren't telling the child he has to eat his veggies or else. You are simply providing only the appropriate choices for what will make him his best possible healthiest self!
Exploration and the Importance of Instant Feedback
In Montessori what most people call "mistakes" is simply called "feedback". Albert Einstein made thousands of "mistakes" for every brilliant discovery he made. When we explore and investigate deeply, which is what true learning is, errors will occur and they MUST occur in order to arrive to successful discoveries. In today's world, discovery and exploration are such instrumental aspects that facilitate innovation. To my husband and I THIS single realization was the factor that helped us understand that Silver Spruce Montessori School, in their purist Montessori methods, was the place we wanted to send our two daughters to for as long as we could for their education.
Perhaps you have seen this material in the classroom. Not only is the preschool-aged child learning about ordering, sizes, and shapes, but also she is gaining strength in her fine motor skills and developing deep concentration. The little knobs on the ends of the cylinders make the child's hand grasp them like you would grasp a pencil. The strength gained by this material and many others like it, facilitate an easy transition to writing. This material also gives the child the lesson of spatial awareness. Importantly, when the child makes a "mistake", she is left with a cylinder that doesn't fit so there is instant feedback from the material. Montessori materials are very carefully designed to have a control of error built into them. The child keeps trying until the pieces all fit. Her exploration leads to confidence and pride. Because she did it on her own, her confidence grows. She moves on with pride. This kind of instant feedback is critical for exploration to unfold which leads to true understanding.
Montessori materials are never treated like toys. They are handled with great pride and the child learns quickly in the first few weeks of school during the "normalizing" period how to handle them in a specific way to fulfill it's purpose. The child freely moves about the classroom and picks her work, but each work has a certain way in which it is handled. She takes out a little, white rug and unrolls it. Then carefully the child takes her work out from the shelves and places it on her personal rug, used as her work space. As she becomes ready, more materials are presented to the child to choose from by the teacher throughout the year.
As a parent I am continually amazed by how FEARLESS, INNOVATIVE, INSPIRED, and HUNGRY for knowledge my children are, and I know that this is a DIRECT result of the Montessori method and lifestyle.
Multi-sensoral Way of Learning
As stated before, at first when my older daughter started going to Silver Spruce for preschool, I still had no clue exactly how the method worked. What I could see as evidence was the transformation that was occurring. Not only was she surpassing any of my expectations of what I thought a child at her "grade" level should know, but I also noticed that suddenly at home she was always busy learning or orchestrating some GRAND project with her sister! Her LOVE of learning was lit like a spark that hits embers, just waiting to ignite! I was thrilled. I couldn't believe how quickly she started reading and understanding letters and words.
The sandpaper letters found in a Montessori classroom are a great example of one of the many materials that go beyond relying on sight only for learning. The children trace these rough sand letters with their fingers, so they remember them not just on a visual and auditory level but also on a muscle-memory and touch based sensory level. The movable alphabet provides yet another way that the child can actually touch the alphabet with their hands, manipulate it, and create words by sounding them out.
Trusting the Method
One thing that took me getting used to was that I had to trust the method before I knew enough about it! The children aren't always “apparently” working with letters or numbers as parents often are eager for these milestones to occur. However in Montessori things are not always as they appear to be! Every lesson is rich in meaning. In the very early days of her preschooling I would ask my daughter, "What did you do at school today?" Sometimes she would say, "Table washing work." My immediate reaction was, "Come again?" I thought, "Okay, so I am sending my child to a private preschool to wash tables?!"
In this particular example, this important "practical life" table washing "work" that my child was taking so much pride in is actually chock-full of secret lessons. The child doesn't just wash a table. There is a certain way for the child to wash the table. The child starts at the top, left-hand corner and moves to her right, slowly creating rows of wipes from left to right and from up to down. This is teaching her how to read! In a way this a very zen wax-on, wax-off type of learning! I urge you to ask questions to your child’s Montessori teacher when you are faced with one of these confusing moments where you are not clear on why your child is learning something. You will be amazed at the many levels of learning that are happening here. One thing I have learned is that NOTHING is without purpose in the Montessori way.
On other levels this particular work gives the child meaning in the community of her peers and educators since she is contributing to the tidiness of her classroom- which is an entire education in and of itself called "character education" in the Montessori way. Not only that but it also was helping her build deep concentration. Much of the "work" that the children do in the younger years, help foster deep concentration and strength in their fine motor skills. You can see in the older years how effective this is by how long Montessori children are able to stay focused on one task. They could spend hours doing long division!
Come and See for Yourselves
There are so many reasons why my husband and I have fallen head over heels for Silver Spruce Montessori School. A Montessori Education inspires a love of learning in the child and ignites that innovative spark in the child that will be lit for a lifetime. My husband and I are thrilled that we have discovered Silver Spruce Montessori School. Come and enjoy a personal tour. See for yourselves the Montessori children in action. I hope that this has been helpful in guiding you through the method of Montessori education and some of the terms and language used to describe elements of the method. Whether you are a current parent or a perspective parent, my goal was to help bridge a deeper level of understanding for everything that goes on in the classroom through a parent’s eyes. Thank you for reading my journey, and good luck on your own incredible journey.
-Lara Wahl, Silver Spruce Montessori Parent