Time was running out. My husband and I had to make a decision: Should we keep our three-year-old daughter, Abby, in daycare, or enroll her in a preschool? My sister had received an extraordinary education at a Montessori school from 1974 through 1980; however, I wasn't sure it would be right for my daughter. Perhaps visiting a classroom would help us decide.
We brought Abby to an open house at Providence Montessori, in Lexington, Kentucky. Like the interior of a home, the classroom was warm, inviting, and comfortable. Desks in rows of five were absent. Instead, small tables and chairs were neatly arranged near work trays that rested on low shelves. I gazed at the bright posters and Van Gogh prints, then peeked outside at the snow-dusted benches and birdfeeders. Even though I was impressed with the beauty and the meticulous organization, I wondered if Montessori would be right for us. Would my daughter be prepared for high school, college, and life?
Before visiting the classroom, I had bought two books: Lesley Britton's Montessori: Play and Learn and Cam Gordon's Together With Montessori. I learned that Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in a place called Chiaravalle, Italy. Rather than following her parents' wishes to become a teacher, she graduated as the first woman physician in Italy. Her interest, however, lay in working with special-needs children. Because she had also trained as an anthropologist, she was able to study and to work with these children in hopes of finding a way to educate them. Through her observations she developed a successful method, which was introduced to classrooms of more typical students. Montessori became convinced that children develop in three-year intervals.
In keeping with her theories, most Montessori schools offer Primary (ages 3-6) and Elementary (ages 6-9 and 9-12). Each class usually consists of 25 to 30 children taught by two or three teachers. The Primary curriculum includes practical life exercises such as pouring, washing, and sweeping. In addition, mathematics, language, geography, science, music, and art are taught. In Elementary, the same subjects are taught, but in more depth and with more individualized lessons. Children in Elementary learn zoology and botany, go on more field trips, and listen to guest speakers.
Through my reading, I discovered some secrets of the Montessori Method. Maria Montessori believed that the classroom should be furnished with child-sized tables and chairs. The work should be placed at levels accessible to children. In addition, teachers should encourage a child to repeat an activity until it is perfected. Montessori believed that intellectual capacity increased when children learned through sensory exploration. For example, in the teaching of geography, on some world globes the shapes of the continents are made of sandpaper. Items to be studied are sometimes placed in cloth bags to give the children practice in identifying objects through their sense of touch. Reading books helped me partially understand Maria Montessori's principles, but observing the classroom let me see them in action. This was a special place--a child-friendly environment. Every square foot of the classroom offered educational choices.
My husband and I liked the classroom, but what about Abby? At first, she shyly clung to my leg. Then, she slowly disengaged and walked over to a shelf. She lifted a puzzle, placed it on a table, and plopped on a chair to piece it together. When--four puzzles later--it was time to leave, we had to pry her away. Abby's reaction, and positive feedback from friends who have chosen Montessori, made our decision easy.
We enrolled her in Providence for the fall. Eight months later, we noticed that Abby had made huge progress in verbal, dexterity, math, and social skills. Her accomplishments were so impressive that I made arrangements to observe her class and see how she learned. On a brisk April day, Abby and I walked, hand in hand, to her classroom. She and other children laid their jackets on the floor, placed hangers inside, and zipped or buttoned their coats. After they'd hung up their jackets, they quietly found a project. What independence! Half an hour later, pupils and teachers gathered in a circle on the floor. Abby wasn't sure she wanted me to stay for Group Time, but as the class sang the cheery "Good Day" song, she pulled a chair up for me and sat pressed against my shins. The teacher proceeded with a science lesson on the ocean, illustrated with pictures of fish, sharks, and coral. As part of the lesson, the teacher demonstrated a matching game of shells. Afterward, she dropped the shells into a sack of bright red velvet, which would be available to the children after Group Time. Ah-ha! Sensory exploration. Group Time ended with the tinkling of a bell that the teacher rang softly as she closed her eyes. The children closed their eyes, and did not open them until she rang the bell again. She then handed the bell to a child. He got up to leave the group, placing the bell in the lap of another child, until the group dissolved.
Gentle hands and quiet voices. The children proceeded to find "work." Like strands of necklaces, rows of brightly colored stringed beads, for arithmetic, dangled on the wall. Math and spelling games tempted from the shelves. A majority of the children were interested in tackling the geography sand-paper puzzles, while others dispensed water from eye-droppers or spooned rainbow-colored beads into a cup. Abby chose to punch out the outline of a cardinal from a sheet of construction paper with a corncob pick. Such work helps children in dexterity skills. Next, she informed me that she was ready to "stamp." She placed the punching items back on their shelf and gathered an ink pad, a bird stamp, and ten strips of stapled paper, numbered 1-10. She proceeded to stamp as many images of birds as corresponded to the number marked on the paper. What a great counting idea! After she had completed this "work," Abby grabbed a four-lined illustrated poem that had been clipped to a board. She slipped a piece of tracing paper on top and outlined each letter with a pencil. In ten minutes, poem and drawing had been transferred to her paper. She added the finishing touches: a splash of color from felt-tip markers and her signature across the bottom. So, this is how she's learning to write. On to more work. Abby experimented with spelling puzzles, math beads, and spooning colored beads into bowls. A full morning for her--for everyone. I was impressed that children direct themselves, choosing when to work and when to take breaks. If they want a snack, they serve themselves in the kitchen area. They pour their own drinks and, if they spill, clean up with sponges. New "work" replaces old on a rotating schedule. The classroom offers countless choices. Children can practice work, paint on an easel, or go outside to draw pictures with chalk. All the time I observed, the children remained quiet, busy and absorbed.
I drove home thinking that Montessori was like a greenhouse. The parents supply the seed; the teachers provide the nourishment for growth. My visit to the classroom helped me understand how Abby plays at home. She likes to arrange her dolls in a circle and play school. Today, she taught her "class" about the ocean, just as she had learned in school. "I'm the teacher. Now, children, it's Group Time," she says. She shows her dolls the collection of seashells that she gathered on our family vacation. If they have questions, her "students" must raise a quiet hand (it's my job to lift their limp arms), and must repeat what she has taught them (again, I assist). One night at bedtime, Abby propped her chin inside her palms, staring off. "Are you all right?" I asked. "I was just thinking about Montessori," she whispered. I patted her to sleep and thought about her school.
The secrets of the Montessori Method can be easily revealed through reading, but better understood with a classroom visit. A Montessori school is a place where tranquility, creativity, discovery, freedom, independence, and love overflow, a place with quiet voices and gentle hands. We've planted the seed. We'll love it and watch it grow.
Randi Lynn Mrvos homeschools her daughter during the summer and writes for parenting, writers', and children's magazines. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky with her daughter, Abby, and her husband, who serves on the board at Providence Montessori School.
This article first appeared in Mothering Magazine, Issue 118, May/June 2003 We thank both Mothering Magazine and Randi Mrvos for allowing us to share it with you.