By Heather Gray
A few weeks into the new school year, we had a Parent Education Night at Walnut Farm. The focus of the evening was “Cultivating a Montessori Mindset at Home” and teachers and parents gathered and brainstormed with about how to meaningfully set up the home in a way that is in line with the Montessori Philosophy. The teachers set up example shelves and shared some tactics and activities that bridge the experiences children have at school with their lives at home. It was a worthwhile way to spend an evening!
In preparation for our time together, I was reminded that the connection between home and school is integral to Montessori in general, and this value goes all the way back to the first Montessori school; notions of home are vitally important to the Montessori Classroom.
The first Montessori School was established in Italy in 1907. It was in a very low-income district of Rome, and served children ages 3-6. It was called Casa dei Bambini which, translated from the Italian means “Children’s House.” You may have heard us refer to the Primary Program at Walnut Farm as the “Children’s House,” and many Montessori Schools around the world refer to themselves in the same manner. It was given this name because the environment was created very specifically with the children in mind; rather than a classroom centered around the teacher, the education was child-focused. The concept of “child-centered” was revolutionary at the time; child-sized furniture and materials suited to the size of the child’s hand had to be designed specifically for the classroom. Montessori recognized, for example, that in order for a child to be independent, she had to be able to move a chair for herself rather than being dependent upon an adult to do it for her. The Children’s House was a place where a child could gain a sense of control over her own education, and take responsibility for her own environment. Shelves low enough so that children can access them easily, and furniture that is lightweight and child-sized and child-sized dishes and other materials are staples of Montessori classrooms. Now an entire industry has been established that make these things available to us in our lives today.
Many elements of a Montessori Classroom have roots in the home environment. For example, children have the freedom of movement, as they do in their homes. In The Spirit of Childhood, Montessori stated, “Movement, or physical activity, is thus an essential factor in intellectual growth, which depends upon the impressions received from outside. Through movement we come in contact with external reality, and it is through these contacts that we eventually acquire even abstract ideas.” Montessori recognized that in order for the brain to function at its highest level, children need to be able to move.
Practical Life activities are also fundamental to the curriculum. These works give children practical opportunities to practice many of the activities of everyday home life. Children practice pouring solids and then liquids from one vessel into another. They practice carefully spooning materials from one bowl into the next. All the while, the activity goes from top to bottom, left to right, just as we practice when we read. A child who meticulously goes through the steps of table washing in the 3-6 classroom is also developing confidence, coordination, concentration, independence, and order while they make the wooden surface shine. A child puts on an apron and stands at a table with a cutting board, sponge, and apple corer; she experiences the joy of preparing food for herself. A student sprays the glass to the door of the outdoor classroom with a cleaning solution and carefully pulls the squeegee across the surface, again from left to right, top to bottom, until it gleams. In the outdoor classroom itself, children work with real gardening tools, wheelbarrows, water barrels and watering cans to help maintain our beautiful gardens. Children set the tables, fold napkins, do their own dishes, do the laundry, and generally maintain the classroom together. With the exception of a weekend cleaning crew, Walnut Farm does not even employ a school janitor, and our ability to do this is largely due to the fact that the teachers and children conscientiously care for the environment together. Practical life is also an essential component in creating a sense of community. Maria Montessori explains in The Discovery of the Child, “Through practical life exercises of this sort the children develop a true ‘social feeling,’ for they are working in the environment of the community in which they live” (5, pg. 97).
The design of the classroom community is another beautiful example of the congruent nature of Montessori environments and the home. Classrooms are multi-age, so that younger and older children are in the same classrooms together. Children also remain with their teachers for three years at a time as they grown through the separate planes of development. These core aspects of the Montessori philosophy are very familial in nature. Children are encouraged and begin to think about their peers as family. They even refer to one another as brothers and sisters, and the relationships they form are long-lasting. Having been in this field for many years, I can personally attest to the close, lasting bonds that are created by both teachers and children who attend Montessori schools; they stay close over time and have meaningful relationships into adulthood. This probably isn’t the main reason Montessori designed the classroom in this way, however. Montessori was a scientist and recognized that children go through evident stages of development. She placed children together in multi-aged groupings in accordance with the planes of development. Multi-age classrooms allow children to work more fluently at their own pace. With higher level materials on hand and some children modeling higher level work, students are more apt to work past the prescribed curriculum. Older children have the opportunity to learn through the important task of teaching younger children, and younger children learn from their older classmates. There is a sense of stewardship and trust that develops over time; it is unparalleled in traditional classrooms with single-aged groupings where children (and teachers) tend to stay together for only one year. In a Montessori classroom, children tend to know one another for their whole lives; they grow up together in a meaningful way. It is not uncommon for me to hear about children referring to one another as “brothers and sisters…” it’s just the natural way of things in a Montessori classroom.
This fundamental quality of “family” tends to extend beyond the classroom, as well. The families in a Montessori school tend to get to know one another over time, and develop bonds of shared stewardship for the children, classroom and school community. There is a ripple effect of the family that travels from the individual child to friendships, classes, school and out into the cosmos. There is a sense that the classroom, school, and earth are our homes, and that it is our responsibility to take good care of this remarkable home we all share.