Choosing the right preschool for your child isn’t easy, especially given the varied approaches each school has to early childhood education. Wyckoff mom Kendra Grompone investigated several preschools before deciding to send her then three-and-a-half-year-old son to a Montessori school in Wayne. “This was his first exposure to school having never been to daycare or preschool before,” Grompone says. “When I visited the Montessori school, I liked what I saw going on in the classroom. The philosophy doesn’t place a ceiling on what children can learn based on their age or any pre-conceived labels. Instead, there is no limit on what a child can learn. Their learning is also self-driven by their own interests and not a set curriculum.”
WHAT IS MONTESSORI?
Italian doctor and educator Maria Montessori developed this educational philosophy in the early 1900s based on her observations of how children learn. Dr. Montessori described a child’s mind between the time of birth and age six as “absorbent,” with a tremendous ability to soak up all kinds of information. Although Montessori-based programs are available for kids through high school, many parents choose them for their younger children precisely because of the emphasis on the early years.
Lina Masri has been a Montessori teacher for more than 15 years and recently founded the Mindful Montessori School in Old Tappan. “What drew me to Montessori was how organized and calm the classroom is even though children are doing different activities at different levels at the same time,” says the Ridgewood mother of three. “The children learn to work independently. They keep busy and they stay motivated by being able to go at their own pace.” Another characteristic of a Montessori education is a classroom with kids of mixed ages, so younger students learn naturally from older ones—and vice versa.
“Having mixed ages learning together in the same classroom creates a small, collaborative community,” Grompone says. “It gives younger children the chance to learn from the older children. And older children gain confidence and self-esteem through being able to guide younger or new students in skills that they have mastered from reading to putting on a coat.”
THE MONTESSORI CLASSROOM
Montessori schools implement their teachings in slightly different ways, but the basic elements include:
• A mixed-age group of students
• Freedom for kids to choose their own activities from the five Montessori “work areas” (see below)
• Learning from tangible objects, interactive activities and hands-on exploration rather than from a teacher-driven lesson
• Uninterrupted blocks of work time
• A cooperative, calm environment with an emphasis on community
• A curriculum individually tailored to each child Each of the five general work areas in a Montessori classroom includes toys, books, household items and other things kids can play with and explore on their own:
• The “practical life area” is where kids play house and learn a variety of basic-but-crucial skills, like food prep (using play food and the real thing), pouring, sweeping and getting dressed—teaching them coordination, concentration and order. Getting the hang of those simple skills helps children navigate their day and become more confident and independent.
• The “sensorial area” is geared toward developing the five senses. Kids examine objects of various colors, shapes, sizes, smells and tastes to figure out what they are and how they work.
• The “mathematics area” teaches them how to count, recognize numbers, add, subtract, multiply and divide. Kids often play counting games, like pretending to be at a store or a bank, to apply what they’ve learned.
• The “language area” fosters a child’s natural interest in reading through story time, reciting the alphabet and letter sounds, writing, listening and reading comprehension exercises, among other activities.
• The “cultural area” is where kids learn about science, nature, wildlife, astronomy and geography (and sometimes they even pick up a foreign language), giving them perspective on the world around them.
Unlike traditional schools, Montessori classrooms do not follow the same schedule each day (such as math at 9 am followed by reading at 10 am and then recess.) Instead, children are given the opportunity to learn at their own pace, choosing what they want to do on a given day.
Some parents might be concerned that their child will gravitate toward only one station and not learn the essential skills taught in the others. But teachers observe the children in the classroom and make sure that they learn all the skills they need to be successful when they move to grade school. Although there isn’t a set curriculum, there are rules and a routine, so children know what to expect. “The children learn grace and courtesy lessons,” says Masri. “They know there are high expectations on them to follow the classroom rules such as cleaning up an area when they have completed their work.”
Having children simultaneously working on different activities in the same classroom might sound chaotic but Masri says the opposite is true. “In a traditional classroom, children can get bored and act out because they are not being challenged,” Masri explains. “But at Montessori, children have the freedom to choose what they are learning that day and whether they want to work alone or in a group. The classroom is calm because the children are excited and busy.”
Grompone understands why parents might have reservations about a Montessori education. Although it’s an old concept, the Montessori philosophy of allowing children to learn at their own pace may seem a little unconventional. “Before I went to see the school, I was skeptical,” Grompone says. “I had preconceived ideas of what a preschool program should include. I thought that kids needed structure, worksheets, to sit at desks, etc. and worried that ‘nontraditional instruction’ wouldn’t be right for my son. But once I saw the children in the classroom, I completely bought into the philosophy. I sent my two younger sons to Montessori preschool as well. All of my children are now in public schools and thriving due to the foundation they received at Montessori.”
Randi Mazzella is a freelance parenting writer and mother of three.