Tag Archive for: Montessori Method

Play vs. Work: A Wrong Alternative

PART 1 of 3 on Montessori and Play

Recently, I’ve read several articles in which articulate, well-informed commentators caution parents against emphasizing academics for preschool children, and which advocate “developmentally appropriate play-based preschools” as a better alternative.

Here are some quotes I read this year which illustrate this concern:

A parent recently asked my advice about choosing a preschool for her son. I responded with my belief that the purpose of preschool is socialization, and that a developmental ‘learn through play’ program is best.

Janet Lansbury

There must be a vision for preschool classrooms as engaging, interactive environments, full of open-ended opportunities for play as learning, and focused on early childhood learning guidelines that address the whole child’s learning and development, not just on early academics.

Laurel Bongiorno, writing in the Huffington Post

I’m sure you’ll receive many enthusiastic endorsements of Montessori preschools from satisfied parents, but my son’s play-based preschool was overwhelmingly wonderful and completely perfect for us. I think the Montessori brand name appeals to anxious parents who want to start the academic rat race at age 3. I say save your money, and let your child play while s/he’s young.

Parent response on Berkley Parents Net

These quotes, written by intelligent individuals who obviously understand and care deeply about children’s well-being, are premised on the idea that there is a necessary trade-off between joyful play on the one hand, and rigorous academic learning on the other. On this trade-off view, parents must choose between fun and academics—between a child-led realm from which serious academic learning is mostly absent, or an adult-dominated preschool environment that strongly resembles the failed traditional school model most children enter when they turn six.

montessori preschool childcare daycare

The subsequent argument these commentators make against Montessori education is that it represents the “academic” side of the choice between academics vs. fun, and that play-based preschools are superior because they represent the “fun” side.

But is there in fact such a necessary trade-off between academics and childhood play?

Does a parent have to choose between learning and fun?

We don’t think so. In our view, the learning vs. fun trade-off is a false alternative, and in practice the most profoundly joyous childhood environment is precisely the one which best satisfies a child’s cognitive needs.

Children by nature are curious about the world. They are capable of an astounding amount of early learning when given the freedom to explore to their heart’s content, particularly in an environment of carefully prepared engaging, meaningful explorative activities. In such a setting, learning so-called academic skills, such as handwriting or arithmetic, is experienced as a playful, enjoyable activity. The pleasure and deep satisfaction of such concentrated engagement is natural and to-be-expected because it is consistent with the actual needs of the child. Psychologically, the satisfaction derived is exactly the satisfaction that comes from play. As Maria Montessori put it, “play is the child’s work.”

A child’s early years represent an irreplaceable period in his life—a period that biologically serves the purpose of helping him become familiar with the world around him, and capable of purposeful action in pursuit of the things that matter to him. In this time period, certain skills are learned effortlessly that, if delayed to the elementary years, unfortunately become more of struggle for many children (such as building a long attention span, developing refined fine motor control, acquiring neat handwriting, learning to read, and mastering foundational arithmetic skills). The acquisition of these life skills is not an imposition on the child—to the contrary, his whole being is oriented towards acquiring precisely such skills.

But the fact that there’s a developmental benefit to an activity does not mean an activity is not experienced as fun, fulfilling, exciting. Just as the fact that an adult’s need to work does not mean that one’s job must be drudgery, so too a child’s need to grow does not mean growth must be listless. Many adults—indeed, the most fulfilled adults—approach their work as an exciting, satisfying activity, and do not “live for the weekends”. In a Montessori classroom, we don’t assume that activities that have long-term utility must be empty of joy.

Many educators struggle with this apparent chasm between joyfulness, and academic rigor and structure. Progressive educators, following Dewey, usually err on the side of making learning “fun”, even if it means sacrificing a sequenced, comprehensive, rigorous curriculum. Traditional educators, in contrast, excel at defining what academic skills and content a child is to master, but often rely heavily on extrinsic motivators, like grades, class parties or the threat of a trip to the principal’s office, to entice children to do the dreary drilling needed to achieve their goals.

Montessorians need not accept this false alternative. Our vision is not learning vs. enjoyment, but an integrated, joyous learning. Dr. Montessori’s unique method of allowing the child freedom to choose in a carefully prepared environment is the revolution that enables parents to have their cake and eat it, too—to ensure their child will stay curious, joyful and intrinsically motivated to learn, and at the same time master challenging and advanced academic skills and content, from preschool onward.

Let’s spread the word: If this is possible, why would anyone settle for less?

This blog post was originally featured on the Maria Montessori website.

How to lay the foundations of literacy in preschool

private montessori school

What differentiates a child that learns to read joyfully, becomes a voracious reader and succeeds academically, from one that struggles to read at grade level, and falls behind?

Decades of research provide a clear answer: for a child to become a reader, he needs three things (1) instruction in phonics, (2) a systematic way of building a store of "background knowledge" to help him make sense of what he reads, and (3) an early start to reading, definitely during his first six years before he enters Kindergarten.

Our preschool program at LePort provides your preschooler with all of these. We start pre-reading skills in our toddler program, and throughout make learning to read enjoyable for your child, so he will become a capable, eager reader by the time he graduates from the 3rd year in preschool/primary (the equivalent of traditional Kindergarten.)

private montessori school

What makes the Montessori approach to learning to read and write so effective? And why and how is it different from the way literacy is approached in other preschools and elementary schools? Here are five key highlights of what we do at LePort:

  1. Teach "phonemic awareness" early and playfully. Research tells us that one fundamental difference between children who learn to read easily and those who don’t is that "the former can discern individual words in sentences and sounds within those words. … The ability to discern sound seems to reflect some basic difference in neurological wiring." The good news is that these critical phonemic awareness skills can be taught. At LePort, toddlers play "sound games", where the teacher guides them to isolate the "d" sound at the beginning of "dog." Slightly older preschool students pick out an object from a tray based on its beginning sound. And preschool children as young as 3 or 3 ½ year old learn to associate these sounds with the corresponding letters, as they say the sounds while they look at and trace "Sandpaper Letters." (This sound-focused approach is in sharp contrast to most preschool programs, which teach letter names, a la the ABC song, which do not help children learn to read!)
  2. Break skills down into a careful sequence of steps. A key success factor for teaching preschool children is to make the process of learning rewarding. In our preschool classrooms, children have many opportunities to learn component skills of writing and reading through activities they enjoy. They learn to control a pencil as they create artwork by coloring in geometric shapes with the "Metal Insets." They sit down on the floor and "build words" using the "Moveable Alphabet." They take a box of small objects, and engage in independent reading, by decoding little labels and placing them next to a fan, a cup or a dog as they work with the "Phonetic Objects Box." No worksheets here, no boring drills, no rewards or punishments; just joyous, child-chosen, purposeful learning!
  3. Teach writing first, then watch for the "explosion into reading." Writing is putting symbols together to form words, and it is a more natural process than reading, more akin to speaking, where we put sounds together to make words. That’s why, in Montessori preschool, students build words with small moveable letters, before they read. Then, usually between age 4 and 5, comes a moment of beauty, when the child discovers he can make sense of the black scribbles on paper: he "explodes into reading", in a joyful, natural discovery of his own capabilities.
  4. Immerse children in a language-rich environment. Study after study show that a strong vocabulary at age 3 or 4 is a predictor of reading success later on: "The three-year-old test subjects who had the highest rates of vocabulary growth turned into third graders with the strongest language skills and highest reading comprehension." That’s why language development is everywhere in our classrooms: teachers read aloud to students daily, and students learn vocabulary in carefully structured "three period lessons" all over the classrooms, from colors to shapes, from naming dimensions, to learning the names of animals for toddlers, and the names for the parts of animals later on.
  5. Guide children carefully from decoding to reading for meaning. English is a complex language: the 26 letters of the alphabet are used to represent 44 different sounds, which can be spelled with over 70 phonograms, or multi-letter combinations, such as "ck" or "oo" or "igh." Because of this complexity, children need explicit instruction in deciphering the "advanced code", as well as appealing, yet deliberately controlled reading materials that allow them to enjoy reading as they gain practice. That’s why our Montessori program offers many ways of practicing reading "phonogram words". It’s also why we have recently invested tens of thousands of dollars in designing and implementing an outstanding reading program called Books to Remember to all of our primary classrooms, going much beyond what even other high-quality Montessori programs offer.

Does it work? Here’s what one LePort preschool parent says:

Every day at preschool is a learning process: my children are never bored. Early on, my daughter came home all excited about the sandpaper letters – and I didn’t even know what they were. But now, with the help of the sandpaper letters, my daughter writes in beautiful cursive: she writes all the birthday and thank you cards for the family, and she’s just 6 years old!

This summer, before my daughter started in 1st grade, she was reading the Wizard of Oz by herself. She would stumble over some of the big words, of course – but she read the whole book! And it’s not just that she reads, and how advanced she reads: it’s the way she reads, her clear pronunciation, the expressiveness of her reading: it’s almost perfect. And I think a lot of it is due to the Montessori Method: they learn the letter sounds, not the letter names. At first, I was concerned that she didn’t know that "A" is called "Aye"- but when they start reading, it really makes sense to just do the phonetic sounds. It’s hard to believe: my daughter is reading real books, fluently and with expression – and she just turned 6 in April!

Preschool Parent

The most exciting part of this, of course, is that it is also possible for your child.

Why Choose a Montessori Preschool

montessori preschool irvine huntington beach

What if you could send your child to a preschool that follows methods which align with the latest, cutting-edge insights from neuroscience, and which have been proven for over 100 years, in thousands of preschools?

Such a combination is possible, and accessible to your child!

Authentic Montessori preschools, like LePort, educate your child in a carefully prepared environment, under the guidance of teachers trained to diligently follow the approach first developed by Dr. Maria Montessori over 100 years ago, based on her careful field study of how preschool children actually learn. Now, a century later, modern science is validating at a brain-cell level and in large-scale studies what Dr. Montessori observed as a field scientist over a century ago.

montessori preschool irvine huntington beach

Unfortunately, Montessori is not widely known today, despite the compelling evidence that it works wonders for young children, and despite the fact that many famous people, such as Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, credit their Montessori education with helping them become the innovative, successful people they are.

Trevor Eissler, a jet pilot turned Montessori advocate and author of the book  Montessori Madness! A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education, describes how he discovered Montessori:

It just so happened that during the several months that my wife and I were discussing [preschool] options, a new friend of ours asked my wife if we had considered the Montessori school her daughter attended. We had not. Did we know anything about Montessori she asked? We did not. Had we heard of Montessori? Nope.

Trevor Eissler

You may be in a similar position, and we recommend the same next step Mr. Eissler took: come and observe in a Montessori preschool classroom. A Montessori preschool education is so revolutionary that you have to see it to believe it. Recalls Mr. Eissler:

I remember setting foot in that Montessori classroom. I sat down on a chair–a very, very small chair–near the door. I had just stepped into someone’s living room. Or was it a science laboratory? Or maybe an office building? I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly was different at first, but this was unlike any classroom I had ever seen. It felt different, too. Peaceful. Purposeful.

Trevor Eissler

montessori preschool irvine huntington beach

Mr. Eissler’s book is an excellent introduction to the Montessori Method of preschool education. He gives a tour of all the aspects that make Montessori unique. In the end, when asked why he chose Montessori, he boils it down to a simple paragraph:

Inside a Montessori classroom, children are laying a foundation for a lifetime of self-fulfillment. They learn to choose a project, work on it to completion, and reap the internal rewards that come with newfound knowledge and a job well done. They are not doing work for the good of a political system, a nation state, or a parent; nor to increase the gross domestic product, compete with the Chinese, or get a good report card. The children are learning to control the entire creative, planning, productive and evaluative processes from start to finish. They are learning to be fulfillment junkies. […]

The snowball effect of self-fulfillment is a gift that keeps on giving. Children in Montessori schools experience this process repeatedly every day. The design of the educational method strengthens the natural bond between positive feelings and learning.

Trevor Eissler

Interested in learning more about Montessori preschool? Here are a few easy steps you can take:

montessori preschool irvine huntington beach

We hope you are intrigued, and we look forward to answering your questions, and to hopefully welcoming your family to our Montessori preschool.

A Surprisingly Non-Academic Approach to Strong Academics


When parents tour our Montessori schools, we often hear questions about academics: when will my child read? How do you teach math? Will your program get my child ready for Kindergarten? In this competitive world, parents of toddlers are rightfully concerned with future academic success. And research supports this concern: children who start elementary school poorly prepared have a hard time catching up and diagnoses like ADHD have grown exponentially, even in the youngest students.

But does this mean you need to subject your toddler to programs like preschool prep or Baby Einstein, and enroll your preschooler in Kumon or similar preschool academics programs?

We think the questions and concerns about early academics are legitimate: a child’s experiences in his formative toddler and preschool years can have a significant impact on his future academic and life success. Poor preparation can, in fact, leave children behind, making it harder for them to achieve their full potential.

Montessori preschools do an exceptional job preparing children for academic success. Montessori children start their elementary career ready to flourish: most learn to read in our age 3-6 classroom, and solve arithmetic problems into the thousands. But the important point is how. Montessori children do not learn by drill-and-kill memorizing of flash cards, or repeatedly watching academic videos, or completing endless worksheets. 

Montessori schools approach academics in a surprisingly non-academic way, laying strong foundations for self-motivated, successful learning as early as in the toddler program. Much of what we do is what Maria Montessori called indirect preparation: toddlers and younger preschool students engage joyfully in activities that impart a wide range of prerequisite skill which then, down the road at age 5 or 6, enable an almost explosive growth in academic achievement. Here are some examples of this indirect preparation for academics:

  • The ability to concentrate. ADHD diagnoses have grown by over 5% per year in the past years; about 12% of all boys ages 5-17 have at some point in time been diagnosed with ADHD, which can severely impact a child’s ability to function in life and in school. While there is no consensus on what causes the disorder, ADHD symptoms include an inability to sustain focus on a task for extended periods of time. Treatment often includes programs that help children learn better executive function skills. Learning to concentrate on an activity, to immerse oneself fully in a chosen task, is one of the most important goals for a child who enters a Montessori preschool or toddler class.   In Dr. Montessori’s words, “The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy.” When your child joins the Montessori toddler program, we offer him activities that appeal to him, and then give him the freedom to work with a chosen activity for as long as he likes. In this environment, even 18-month old children regularly focus for 10, 15, even 20 minutes on one task. As your child progresses through the Montessori preschool sequence of activities, he’ll tackle increasingly more challenging, longer tasks. It’s not at all unusual for a 5-year-old Montessori child to spend an entire 3-hour work period engaged in one chosen task, such as tracing, coloring and labeling a map of Africa, for example.

  • Developing executive function skills. A recent article in the New York Times explored the question of what really drives life success. One surprising discovery: being able to set goals, to self-motivate, to make mistakes, learn from them, and persevere in the face of challenges may well be more important than scores on academics or intelligence tests. Unfortunately, those are skills rarely taught, not in school and not in most preschool programs. Montessori is different. As early as the toddler program, Montessori children choose their own activities. However, there’s usually only on of each activity, so children learn to patiently wait their turn (no adult-enforced sharing happens in Montessori classrooms.) Children are free to make mistakes—indeed, Montessori encourages us to “become friendly with error.” Further, it’s usually the activity itself that shows them their mistake—water spills, a porcelain plate breaks, a tower doesn’t stand—and the children learn to pay attention to mistakes and learn from them (as against avoiding them for fear of being criticized by a teacher.) And as tasks get longer and more challenging, students learn to keep at it, often working on the same projects for several days at a time, not because a teacher instructed them to, but because they chose to do so. This internal discipline is precisely what life success requires, and what Montessori teaches so beautifully!

  • The discipline that we are looking for is active. We do not believe that one is disciplined only when he is artificially made as silent as a mute and as motionless as a paralytic. Such a one is not disciplined but annihilated. We claim that an individual is disciplined when he is the master of himself and when he can, as a consequence, control himself when he must follow a rule of life. Dr. Maria Montessori, in The Discovery of the Child


  • Strong motor skills. Handwriting is an important skill a child needs to master to succeed in elementary school and beyond. Children who cannot write well often under-achieve against their potential. Motor skills (and several other skills, such as visual-perceptual skills) are supremely important in learning to write. Montessori toddler and preschool purposefully develops these foundational gross and fine motor skills. Scrubbing a table or cleaning the blackboard strengthens shoulder and arm muscles. Peeling an egg, scooping beans, pouring water from a small pitcher, making orange juice, squeezing a sponge: these all strengthen wrist muscles and control. A series of activities, from the Knobbed Cylinders to the Metal Insets, from pinning activities to puzzle maps, help children strengthen their fingers and develop a proper pincer grip for later pencil use. 

  • Oral language skills. A strong vocabulary and elaborate language is an important predictor of future success in literacy tasks. The Montessori toddler program builds these skills systematically. Children learn much vocabulary with matching object/card sets. Our highly educated Montessori teachers consistently use elaborate (age-appropriate) language. They may say things like “Sarah, I notice your pants are wet. They must feel very damp and uncomfortable on your skin. Shall we go and find you some dry, cozy pants to change into?” rather than “Oh, you had an accident. Time to change!” Of course, we read many stories, sing songs, and discuss daily events with each other. We also introduce toddlers beginning phonemic awareness skills: a teacher may hold up small objects, like a cat, a pan, and a mop, and have children identify the beginning sounds.

  • infant-daycare-preschool-irvine-huntington-beach

  • Earned self-confidence. In today’s age, many people talk about fostering children’s self-esteem. All too often, that means lavishing praise upon toddlers for every action they take. Unfortunately, research has shown that empty praise not only fails to foster real self-confidence, it in fact can inculcate an anti-effort mindset. In Montessori, we don’t play this game. We are convinced that self-confidence must be earned by real personal achievements, resulting from sustained effort. That’s why we present lessons step-by-step, and set our students up to explore, practice, and earn mastery. When they do succeed, we don’t offer empty praise. Instead, we help them appreciate their real-world achievement by offering up what Montessori calls a point of interest: “Notice how when you put the cup down slowly, without making a sound, the water stayed in it”, or “See how straight the mat stands in the basket when you roll it tightly?” When this is repeated frequently, over a child’s years in the Montessori toddler, preschool and elementary school programs, children learn that with effort, they can master tasks. They come to enjoy the struggle to master tasks, and don’t fear the natural failures that are part of the learning process.

    Self-esteem doesn’t contribute much to success. But success contributes mightily to self-esteem. Kids have to “do” something, and do it well, to get a self-esteem boost. Madeline Levine, PhD, in Teach Your Children Well

    Just imagine your child, at the end of his third year in Montessori preschool: he’ll be able to look around the class and all the materials in it. He’ll know that when he first entered the class, all these activities were strange, challenging, and maybe even a bit intimidating. But now, as a 6-year-old, he knows he has mastered them. Can you see the earned pride in his eyes—and the confidence that this real achievement will give him as he enters elementary school?


What’s the big deal with independence in Montessori preschool?


Montessori preschool and toddler programs place much more emphasis on helping children become independent than other programs do.  Why is that?  Does it really matter whether a 2-year-old can put on his own jacket, or whether a 5-year-old can peel a carrot or tie his shoelaces?

When parents first see the snack routine in one of our Montessori toddler environments—setting the table, serving themselves and each other, and cleaning up after themselves—they are stunned.  Often, parents are concerned that their own 18-month-old won’t ever be able to fit into this group of toddlers who seem so mature and capable!

What is it about a Montessori preschool and toddler environment that enables young children to competently do for themselves things that much older children still can’t do in other settings?

According to Dr. Montessori, educating young children is educating them for independence:


If teaching is to be effective with young children, it must assist them to advance on the way to independence.  It must initiate them into those kinds of activities which they can perform themselves and which keep them from being a burden to others because of their inabilities.  We must help them to learn how to walk without assistance, to run, to go up and down stairs, to pick up fallen objects, to dress and undress, to wash themselves, to express their needs in a way that is clearly understood, and to attempt to satisfy their desires through their own efforts.  All this is part of an education for independence.

Dr. Maria Montessori

Toddlers are naturally eager to learn these things.  “Do it myself” might well be the refrain for the toddler years!

Unfortunately, our day-to-day lives often make for less than ideal circumstances to help our children achieve the independence they crave.  Our homes are not optimized around a little person with his height of less than 3 feet:  Objects are hard to reach, too heavy, or too big for little hands to use.  Our days are not set up to move at his speed:  We rarely just happen to have 10 spare minutes to wait while our 2-year-old puts on his jacket!

Yet enabling a toddler to become more independent has huge benefits, both near-term and longer-term.

Power struggles decrease when a child feels more in control.  Temper tantrums are less frequent when a toddler is busy doing things for himself rather than resisting his parent’s efforts to do things for him!

A child who feels capable because he can act in the world, without needing to rely on Mom or Dad for every little thing, is a child who is developing self-confidence.  Writes psychologist Madeline Levine: “Self-esteem doesn’t contribute much to success.  But success contributes mightily to self-esteem.  Kids have to “do” something, and do it well, to get a self-esteem boost.”


Children who start to contribute to the home’s smooth functioning in little ways reap many long-term benefits. A great recent article in Wired Magazine points out many of these benefits, and offers a great quote to the educational benefits of involving children in real daily tasks:

So many educational tasks put before our children serve no purpose other than to instruct.  But when learning is connected to something truly purposeful, it can’t help but kindle motivation.  Children feel honored to be included in real work that includes real challenges.  If we pay attention, we see that’s just what they pretend to do when they play. Article in Wired Magazine

So if independence is vitally important, how do we go about fostering it?

Let’s start by quoting some hard-hitting words from Dr. Montessori:

We wait upon our children; and to serve them in this way is not less fatal than to do something that would tend to suffocate their own useful, spontaneous activities.

We believe that children are like puppets.  We wash them and feed them as if they were dolls.  We never stop to think that a child who does not act does not know how to act, but he should act, and nature has given him all the means for learning how to act.  Our primary duty toward him is to assist him to perform useful acts.  A mother who feeds her child without taking the least effort to teach him how to hold a spoon or to find his mouth, or who, when she is herself eating, does not at least invite him to watch how it is done, is not a good mother.  She offends her son’s human dignity by treating him as a puppet, whereas he is by nature a man that has been entrusted to her care.  Everyone knows that it requires much more time and patience to teach a child how to eat, wash, and clothe himself than it does to feed, bathe and clothes him by oneself.The one who does the former is an educator; the latter performs the lower office of a servant. Dr. Maria Montessori

A goal in our classroom is to act as an educator, in the sense that Dr. Montessori describes above, as someone who guides your child toward independence.  How do we approach this responsibility?

Here are four key principles that help us as we guide our students to independence. These principles hold true in the Montessori preschool and toddler environments, and you can apply them at home, too:


    • Prepare the environment.  The Montessori preschool and toddler classrooms are optimally prepared to support children’s independence.  All furniture is child sized, as are tools, from small plates to low toilets, from miniature brooms to toddler-sized screwdrivers.  The classroom is entirely organized around the child’s day:  Shelves are filled with materials carefully selected for toddlers or preschoolers to handle successfully, on their own.  We even have dedicated activities to teach specific skills: color-coded trays with pouring activities that start with beans and progress to rice and then water; dressing frames to teach buttoning, zipping and so on; a multi-step set of materials to teach the skills needed to wash a table (sponging, folding cloths, pouring water…).Obviously, this is not an environment you can easily replicate at home!  But there are steps you can take to make your home more supportive of your toddler’s independence.  Here are some starter ideas:


    • Give your child access in the kitchen.  Arrange plates and silverware for him on a low open shelf, or in a drawer.  Provide a step stool so he can reach the counter to work with you, or place a small table and chair in the kitchen for him to work at.
    • Organize the family room so he can participate.  Toddlers don’t deal well with clutter.  It’s best to offer low shelves with only a few toys out at a time and a place for each item.  That way, he can put his things away, and find them, when he needs them.
    • Set up his room and bathroom to support his growing independence in dressing and washing up.  Look for a high step stool that will enable our child to access the sink.  In his room, display a few (3-4 at most) sets of clothing on a low shelf or in shallow baskets.  Make there’s a clothes hamper for him to place dirty clothes in at the end of the day.
  • Teach individual skills, step-by-step.  Remember those toddlers conducting their own snack routine?  They didn’t learn all that in a day!  In a Montessori classroom, we build skills slowly, one simple step at a time.  This ensures children can succeed, which not only makes them happy, but also keeps them motivated to learn more.  So for the snack routine, we break it down into very small steps (e.g. placing the plates on the table, setting a napkin at each place, scooping one spoonful of raisins, etc.), each to be mastered one at a time, and teach each step separately.A similar, slow approach can help your child gain independent at home and feel like he’s contributing.

    Pick easy things first, and pick things your child wants to do.  They don’t need to be the most obvious things, either:  In our family, one of the first contributions my son made was to help make coffee; he loved scooping the beans into the grinder!  Over time, we added other steps: opening the difficult closure of the coffee bean container, then closing it.   Placing the cover on the grinder (tricky – it only goes on one way, and has to be totally vertical!) Getting the filter paper out of the cupboard, and carefully folding it so it fits in the filter cone.  He can’t quite make the coffee by himself yet (the full can of water is still too heavy for him to pour), but he sure feels like he’s making me coffee, and it’s become a treasured part of our morning routine!


    Here are some skills your toddler might well be ready for:

    • Setting his place at the table.  You can make him a placemat with outlines of plate, spoon, fork and cup.  Or you can show him one thing at a time.
    • Feeding himself.  Start with finger foods, then introduce spoon and fork.  Allow ample time for your 2-year-old to feed himself—and resist the urge to take over!
    • Drinking out of a small glass or cup, not a sippy cup or other closed cup.
    • Carrying dirty dishes into the kitchen.  An older toddler can scrape his plate into the trash can, and perhaps even place it in the dishwasher with some coaching.
    • Putting on his clothes, especially underwear, pants and skirts.  Even jackets are a possibility, with the Montessori flip (see a video here!)
    • Taking off his clothes (with the exception of tight-fitting t-shirts, which can be a struggle for a while.)
    • Putting dirty laundry in a hamper after undressing.
    • Hanging up a jacket on a peg or even a small hanger.
    • Taking off his shoes and placing them in a designated spot (a basket or low shelf)
    • Washing hands with soap and water and drying them independently.
  • Slow down.  One of the benefits of the Montessori preschool and toddler environment is the abundance of time.  We are careful to preserve an unhurried day for our students, so that we can go at a toddler’s pace.  Teachers plan for snack time to take up to 45 minutes. It’s perfectly all right if it takes 10 minutes to get everything ready, and 15 minutes to clean everything up: that slowness is when learning happens!At home, you won’t always have the time to slow down for your child.  But it helps to think through your day to see if you can make time with those tasks where you’ll encourage your child’s independence. If weekdays are just too crazy (we understand!), then set aside an hour or two on the weekend.  Spend time together in the kitchen, for example, to jointly prepare a meal.
  • Embrace error.  When toddlers and preschoolers learn, it can get messy.  Things can and will get broken; liquids will spill; food will land on the floor.  In Montessori preschool, we view all of this as a natural part of learning, not as mistakes.  Cleanup is therefore a part of every activity, not something separate from it.  For example, when we work with water, there’s always a sponge or cloth handy to wipe up spills.Dr. Montessori called this being friendly with error, and it’s a valuable idea to keep in mind as you help your child become more independent at home.  Buy cheap plates that you won’t be mind seeing broken, for example.  I’ll never forget how I had repeatedly asked my daughter to open our trashcan slowly, as it would fall down hard if opened too energetically.  It didn’t sink in, until the cover one day fell down right onto one of her ceramic plates and broke it. Sure, there were tears and a mess to clean up.  But after that experience, my daughter rarely forgot to handle our temperamental trashcan with care!

Independence is a big deal in Montessori preschool for many reasons, a number of which we haven’t even mentioned in this post (indirect preparation for other tasks, motor skill development, problem solving capabilities: the list is long.  Feel free to ask us for more details any time!).

At a very fundamental level, though, the motivation for independence is clear.  As Dr. Montessori says, “These words reveal the child’s inner needs: ‘Help me to do it alone.’”

Five differences that enable Montessori elementary students to thrive

I remember setting foot in that Montessori classroom. I sat down on a chair … near the door. I had just stepped into someone’s living room. Or was it a science laboratory? Or maybe an office building. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was different at first, but this was unlike any classroom I had ever seen. It felt different too. Peaceful. Purposeful.

Montessori elementary classrooms are fundamentally different from traditional elementary school rooms. In fact, they are so different that it can be hard to understand how they work, and why they are so great at helping children thrive.

While it would be easy to write volumes about this topic (and some have: read Paula Polk Lillard’s book, Montessori Today, if you want a detailed description of the Montessori elementary classroom), here are five key differences, and how they matter to your child’s success.

montessori preschool palos verdesTeachers are guides, not lecturers. They individualize instruction to keep each child optimally challenged. In traditional elementary education, much instruction happens at an all-class level; students generally move through the same curriculum at the same pace. This is more true now then ever, as mandatory standardized testing forces teachers to ensure that all students meet common minimum standards. This approach by definition fails to optimally challenge most of the students, most of the time: a child who is advanced in a subject will be bored; one who is behind will quickly become anxious and concerned about his shortcomings. Montessori is different. Most instruction happens in small groups: teachers observe students and bring together children who are ready for a particular lesson. After a lesson, each child has time to practice a skill or further explore an area, either alone or with freely chosen partners. Writes Lillard: “Because the children are in a period when they have immense energy and curiosity, the secret to maintaining their interest is to keep them challenged.”In a Montessori classroom, an advanced student will be challenged to perform at his best: it’s not unusual for a 3rd grade Montessori student to tackle what would typically be considered 5th grade math, for example. At the same time, a child who struggles can get the extra support he needs, without suffering the negative effect on his self-esteem that comes from needing remedial work in a traditional elementary school setting.

montessori preschool palos verdesChildren have choices, there’s no one-size-fits all curriculum. Students are encouraged to be curious; they are engaged and love learning. When do you do your best work: when someone makes you do a task, or when you freely choose it? Autonomy is a huge factor in motivation, and Montessori elementary enables children to have a say in their learning. Of course, each child has to learn certain skills; mastering arithmetic isn’t optional. But instead of forcing each child to complete the same worksheet, the Montessori elementary classroom ensures repetition by offering a variety of materials for practicing a given skill: multiplication practice includes work with the Bead Chains, the Stamp Game, the Checkerboard, the Large Bead Frame, and the Flat Bead Frame. When we take our students on field trips, the people we encounter, from museum guides to park rangers, regularly comment that our students are the most curious and engaged group of children they have seen. This is a common refrain for Montessori elementary schools: the children love learning, because they have a chance to be actively engaged in the process.

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The classroom is full of materials instead of textbooks and worksheets. Children learn to solve problems and think, instead of repeat memorized jargon. Much traditional elementary school work is unfortunately focused on work with textbooks and worksheets. While there is nothing wrong with books (we love free reading time!), you will not find traditional textbooks and worksheets in the Montessori elementary class. Dr. Montessori viewed the early elementary years as a critical stage in the mind’s development, when the concrete thinking of the preschool years matures into abstract thinking. During the Primary years, children explored many materials, such as the Trinomial Cube or the Golden Beads, primarily for the sensorial interest. Now, in elementary, children use materials to understand how the world works. They are interested in the why and the how of things; they’ve become “reasoning explorers of the abstract”, in Lillard’s vivid description. The materials in Montessori are not mere instructional aids:  Just like in Primary, much of their learning happens as the children use the materials to explore topics from grammar to division, from the fundamental needs of man, to the role of water in erosion. With the materials, learning is focused on the world; children acquire a mindset of thinking about things and figuring them out, rather than memorizing words or processes on an adult’s say-so.

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The day has two 2 – 3 hour work periods, instead of a schedule where activities are constantly changed. Protecting children from interruptions when productively engaged is key to their development of concentration and interest in their work. Dr. Montessori commented that traditional schools have broken up the day in many short time periods, in an attempt to hold the children’s interest, and that they have failed miserably, as children remain mentally fatigued despite the alleged benefit of variety. In contrast, writes Montessori, Montessori schools have proven that children need a cycle of work for which they are mentally prepared; such intelligent work with interest is not fatiguing and they should not be cut off from it by a call to play. Interest is not immediately born, and if when it has been created, the work is withdrawn, it is like depriving a whetted appetite of the food that will satisfy it.
This is why there is no morning recess in your child’s class, and why we don’t provide you with an hour-by-hour schedule. It’s one of the often-overlooked benefits for Montessori elementary students: author Paula Polk Lillard notes upon observing in a Montessori elementary class that the children “have time to think. That is what impresses me most, I realize. These children are thinking.”

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Children learn with and from each other, in a mixed-age environment.  Instead of competing with each other, they grow into a community, and practice all-important social skills every day.  In traditional education, the emphasis in preschool is on “socializing” the child, and children are expected to do much together in groups. Come elementary schools, class time is largely focused on individual work, in strictly same-age classrooms, and social interactions are limited to recess and lunch.This approach—focus on group activities in preschool, and individual activities in elementary school—is fundamentally wrong, according to Montessori. Young children in preschool, left to their own devices, often choose to do things by themselves, and much activity in a Montessori Primary class is in fact individual work. As children near the end of Primary, they often start to work together in pairs. In fact, becoming interested in and able to work with a peer is one indication that a child is ready to move up to elementary!In Montessori elementary, children interact with each other, across age groups, all day. You’ll often see 2-4 children working together on projects, negotiating roles and learning social skills in a safe, supervised setting as they choose co-workers and figure out that they can work with a range of companions, not just with their closest friends.

A Montessori elementary classroom is very different from traditional schooling. These five highlights are just a start to understanding this unique learning environment. We encourage you to explore more: Read up on how we teach each of the subjects on our web site. Pick up Paula Polk Lillard’s book. And, most importantly, make time to observe in your child’s Montessori elementary classroom!

Transitioning to Montessori: The Prepared Environment (Part 5 of 5)

Every fall, children transition to our Montessori programs from other preschools or elementary schools. What can parents do to help with this transition? In this series of blog posts, we lay out a few Montessori principles that apply at the later preschool and early elementary school level. Our focus is on children who transition into Montessori during their kindergarten through 2nd grade years, but many of the ideas suggested here are helpful for preschool children, too.

“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.”

“The environment itself will teach the child, if every error he makes is manifest to him, without the intervention of a parent or teacher, who should remain a quiet observer of all that happens.”

–Dr. Maria Montessori

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A Montessori elementary classroom looks very different from traditional elementary school. Visit, and you’ll see children working alone or in small groups all around the room. They sit at small tables or work on mats: not a desk in sight. The teacher wanders between them, sitting with a child here and there for a few minutes, or bringing five children together around her desk now for a 10 minute small group lesson.

Parents often ask how the individualization of Montessori works: how can a teacher tailor his lessons to each child? How can there be order, when each child works on something different? How can children master the same fundamentals, if they have so much choice?

A key element to solving this apparent puzzle is what we call the prepared environment. Dr. Montessori observed that young children learn more from interacting with materials, then from listening to the words of teachers. That’s why the activity in a Montessori elementary classroom centers not on lectures and assignments, but on short lessons on how to use the activities spread out around the classroom on low shelves. These activities, plus the set of definite classroom rules that are essential to making freedom within limits work, are an essential part of the prepared environment.

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In his Montessori elementary school class, a child receives lessons on how to use different materials. Once a material has been shown to him, he is free to use it to master the skills embodied in the material. A 2nd grader, for example, may receive a lesson setting up a multiplication problem on the Montessori checkerboard. Thereafter, he can spend many productive hours practicing this new skill, self-checking his results without adult intervention, as the problem cards have solutions on their back. The children understand and accept that they are free to practice and explore any material in which they’ve been given a lesson—and the teacher performs the ongoing responsibility of nurturing them towards materials that optimally engage and challenge them. The whole system works beautifully—if you don’t believe it, you can get a glimpse of it here!

In preparation for your child’s entry into Montessori  elementary school this fall, you can implement some aspects of the prepared environment in your home. This will make it easier for him to feel at home, once he comes back to school in September. It will also enable him to share his experiences with you during the school year: while there is very little homework assigned in a Montessori lower elementary class, it’s not unusual for our enthusiastic students to want to share their work at home anyway!

  • Set up a work area in your home. Invest in a few low bookshelves (Ikea works just fine), a child-sized table (not a desk), some child-sized chairs, and a few work rugs. Equip them with materials your child can work with – a set of high-quality colored and regular pencils, pencil sharpeners, scissors, glue, blank and story writing paper. Put your child’s books on the shelves so he can access them. You may also want to put other activities your child enjoys there – such as puzzles, arts & crafts activities or building materials.  Finally, provide him with a place to put his completed work, such as a drawer or a file folder he can easily access.
  • Provide guidance on how to work in this space. In a Montessori environment, each child is only permitted to have one activity out at a time. He takes it from the shelf and carries it to his work space (table or rug on the floor.) Once he is done, he replaces it on the shelf, and tidies up his work space (sweeping pencil droppings, carefully rolling up the rug and replacing it in his bin.) He can then choose something else to explore. You can establish similar rules at your home, and guide your child to complete the process. A nice side benefit: there will be less clean-up needed at the end of each day!
  • Give him time and space to explore. Often, we over-schedule our children, taking them from one activity to another. 5- and 7-year-olds, just as younger children, benefit from some unstructured time. Now that you have set up his work space, you may suggest some ideas to get him started (see the follow the child post for details), then let him run with it!

The prepared environment in a Montessori elementary classroom is essential to helping a group of 20+ individual children work productively. Once your child is settled into his routine this fall, we invite you to come and observe him. We bet you’ll be surprised at what you see!

Read more in our Transitioning to Montessori blog series:

Transitioning to Montessori: The Follow the Child Principle (Part 4 of 5)

Every fall, children transition to our Montessori programs from other preschools or elementary schools. What can parents do to help with this transition? In this series of blog posts, we lay out a few Montessori principles that apply at the later preschool and early elementary school level. Our focus is on children who transition into Montessori during their kindergarten through 2nd grade years, but many of the ideas suggested here are helpful for preschool children, too.

“It is true that we cannot make a genius. We can only give to each child the chance to fulfill his potential.”

“Free choice is one of the highest of all the mental processes.”

“The prize and punishments are incentives are incentives toward unnatural or forced effort, and, therefore we certainly cannot speak of the natural development of the child in connection with them.”

“It is not in human nature for all men to tread the same path of development, as animals do of a single species.”
— Dr. Maria Montessori

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Visit many academically rigorous elementary school programs, and you’ll see ice cream party charts on the walls, treasure chests in the corner, and behavior points tallies next to the white board. Ask a teacher at such a school how she motivates a child, and these extrinsic rewards figure highly in her plan, as do punishments, such as loss of recess, notices to parents, poor grades, and visits to the principal’s office. To an observer, it may seem like rewards and punishments are indispensible to getting children engaged in learning.

Yet watch these same children—who, at school, have to be corralled into attention—outside of school, and you may find them focused intently on reading a book they have chosen for themselves, successfully playing a video game that even you can’t figure out, engrossed in making cookies with mom in the kitchen, or practicing for hours with their soccer ball.

If children can and will focus and work hard outside of school, without extrinsic motivators, why can’t they be similarly engaged at school?

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Our answer, it may not surprise you, is that they can!

In Montessori elementary school, we motivate children by their natural interest, not by stickers and rewards. We trust that they want to learn, if only we capture their attention by providing them with the right “points of interest” and offering work they find engaging.

We recognize that children are individuals. What motivates one may be dull for another; while one 6-year-old may be working on forming words, another one may be ready for writing stories; one child may need a quiet space to work alone, whereas another one thrives by working through math problems with a friend.

We aspire to help each child achieve the highest potential, and in fact, our academics are accelerated when compared to traditional elementary school (think 1st graders who write multi-story sentences in cursive; 2nd graders who do arithmetic into the millions!) What is different at our school is how each child meets these demanding academic standards. Rather than a one size fits all process, each finds his or her own path to success.

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For example, a Montessori elementary school teacher who observes a boy’s interest in cars may give such a boy a very different writing assignment than another one who happens to be fascinated by the tide pool animals he saw on a recent trip to the beach. The universal need to practice writing is true for every child—but there is no similar need for every child needs to complete the same standardized work sheets!

We call this the follow the child principle—help each child maximize his or her potential by first understanding his or her needs. As teachers, it is one of our most important responsibilities to observe each child, to get to know her as an individual, and to tailor our teaching to her interests, strengths, and weaknesses.

As your child prepares for the start of Montessori kindergarten or elementary this fall, you may want to try following his interests. As a parent, you’re probably doing a lot of this already (after all, you know your child!), but paying conscious attention to guiding your child by respecting and nurturing his uniqueness can pay huge dividends.

  • If you want to work on academics with your child over the summer, please don’t rely on workbooks. Instead, think about what your child loves, and tailor academic activities around that. Does he love art and animals, and can do some writing? Get him a digital camera (or let him borrow yours), and some story writing paper. Then set out to explore some of your local animal habitats and zoos. Armed with the camera and notebook, he’ll have plenty to write about on his return! We bet he’ll do more writing, more willingly, then if you had asked him to complete worksheets! Similar ideas can apply to math: engage your numbers-minded daughter in some cooking: have her figure out how to double or half a recipe; have her help you total up a rough estimate of the cost of the items in your shopping cart. For more ideas on supporting scientific exploration, read Encourage the Scientist in Your Preschooler.
  • Have your child make more meaningful choices, and own the process of learning. Let your child choose some of the outings you take. And then put him in charge of more of the process: what do we need to pack for the pool? (He packs. No towel? He’ll remember next time!) How do we get there? (A map reading lesson!) Have her pick the books she’d like to borrow from the library (you can have some discussions afterwards on which ones she liked and disliked, and how to make better choices next time.)
  • Go out and explore the world together! Much motivation to learn comes from “teachable moments”, and being out and about together on little adventures during summer time can offer plenty of these. Visit the tide pools (then read about them, research animals online, get books about ocean animals, write down the things you learn.) Do some theme-based reading: the Magic Tree House series provides a great jumping-off point for exploring different times and places. For example, if your son gets fascinated by the knights of the middle ages, follow his lead: Street Through Time is a great, child-friendly history book to explore. Then head out to Medieval Times to experience an (admittedly over-the-top) take on a medieval feast.

Following the child­—getting to know each child as an individual and allowing that individuality to guide his learning—is a great principle for tailoring instruction in such a way that ensures that every’s child potential is actualized. It’s a great way to get children to enthusiastically tackle tough work assignments, and to help them rise to their potential.

Read more in our Transitioning to Montessori blog series:


Transitioning to Montessori: Motor Skills and Indirect Preparation (Part 3 of 5)

Every fall, children transition to our Montessori programs from other preschools or elementary schools. What can parents do to help with this transition? In this series of blog posts, we lay out a few Montessori principles that apply at the later preschool and early elementary school level. Our focus is on children who transition into Montessori during their kindergarten through 2nd grade years, but many of the ideas suggested here are helpful for preschool children, too.

“Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of his mind comes through his movements.”

“Since it is through movement that the will realizes itself, we should assist a child in his attempts to put his will into act.”

— Dr. Maria Montessori

In a Montessori preschool program, we emphasize motor development as an essential component of education. The hand is the tool of the mind, said Dr. Montessori, so any activity that is to hold the child’s attention has to be one where his whole personality, mind and body, are engaged harmoniously. The child has a need to integrate thought with action, observation with movement, mind with body.

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Montessori preschool children have many opportunities to work on activities that make this integration possible. Indeed, the entire Montessori preschool class abounds with examples of “hand-mind” engagement—activities so deeply satisfying to students that they will do them quietly, focused, for up to an hour at a time.

Observe in a Montessori preschool class, and you may find a 3-year-old pouring water from one container to another for 20 minutes, or a 4-year-old carefully using the metal insets to create art work, or a 5-year-old writing elaborate stories with the moveable alphabet. The environment is a vista of different children engaged in different explorations, acquiring knowledge by acting purposefully in their environment.

These children are accomplishing something very important. They are extending their attention span. They are refining their gross and fine motor skills. They are following logical sequences of events. They are problem solving. This inner cognitive growth occurs in leaps and bounds because it is connected with the child’s need to move and engage in self-generated action. The opportunity to repeatedly use the mind to guide the hand is what prepares them to jump in and fully explore the exciting materials in the Montessori elementary classroom.

For children who join Montessori for kindergarten or elementary school, parents can help by providing similar mind-body integrated activities at home.

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  • Get your child involved in kitchen activities. Dicing vegetables fosters motor control and can easily take 20-30 minutes. Peeling eggs strengthen muscles. Scooping flour and measuring sugar to just a level table spoon require concentration and motor control. Now is a good time, too, to teach children how to make their own school lunches!
  • Provide him with crafts activities that help with fine motor skills. Mandela drawing tools or stencils can replicate some of the skills practiced with Metal Insets in a Montessori primary class. Stringing small beads can help with the three-finger grip and concentration skills. Tracing and coloring in figures (like animals in this book) are also wonderful activities, as are crafts tasks that require a child to use scissors carefully or glue small pieces of paper or other things to make art work.
  • Get outside and work on gross motor skills. Learning to ride a bike without training wheels fosters both self-confidence and balance (a balance bike is a great tool – read more here.) Find a balance beam. Join a gymnastics or dance class. Throw balls with each other. These may not sound like academic activities, but children who can’t confidently control their bodies are at a clear disadvantage in class!

These mind-body activities, rather than a focus on academic work, is a better use of the summer months leading up to your child’s start in the Montessori kindergarten or elementary class!

Read more in our Transitioning to Montessori blog series:

Transitioning to Montessori: Freedom within Limits (Part 2 of 5)

Every fall, children transition to our Montessori kindergarten or elementary program from other preschools or elementary schools. What can parents do to help with this transition? In this series of blog posts, we lay out a few Montessori principles that apply at the later preschool and early elementary school level. Our focus is on children who transition into Montessori during their kindergarten through 2nd grade years, but many of the ideas suggested here are helpful for preschool children, too.

“Respect all reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and try to understand them.”

“To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.”

— Dr. Maria Montessori

In a traditional elementary school, much activity is adult-led. There’s a schedule of subjects (40 minutes of writing, then 30 minutes of math, followed by 15 minutes of recess/snack, and 30 minutes of quiet reading time, and so on.) The teacher leads a lesson, often for the whole class or a sub-group of children. Children have little say on what they work on, where they work and when they work on certain things.

In contrast, in a Montessori preschool/kindergarten or elementary school, children have what we call freedom within limits. We like to give children space to work things out on their own, with the teacher acting as their guide, rather than telling them what to do.

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Throughout the day in the Montessori preschool, kindergarten or elementary schools, there are uninterrupted work periods of 2-3 hours each. During this time, the children receive individual or small-group lessons. But lessons typically take only 10-20 minutes each. Much of the time is not tightly scheduled by adults. Rather, it is an opportunity for a child to choose certain activities (guided, of course, by the teacher, who has observed the child and tailored his curriculum to his needs.) A child may choose to start with the challenging math problem while she’s fresh in the morning. Another one may ease into the day by doing some independent reading.

As long as children are engaged in purposeful activities, the teacher will not actively interrupt. Instead, he may step back and observe the child, and only get involved when an activity is complete, for example, to sit down with a child and provide guidance on a piece of writing. (In contrast to traditional elementary schools, where teachers do a lot of correcting of work, in Montessori, children often have access to control cards and eagerly correct their own work.)

This type of freedom, however, is not an unlimited free-for-all. It is the result of careful preparation, and of a profound invisible structure provided by the teacher and the materials. A child earns independence over time. For instance, a new child may be asked to check in with a teacher several time throughout the day, or be given a detailed daily work plan. A child who has a hard time focusing on work when seated next to a friend may be redirected to a separate table to work on alone. An experienced 3rd grader, on the other hand, may have whole days where he works largely independently, or may have the freedom to pursue joint projects with a classroom friend. Purposeful, self-managed work becomes the ideal to which all of the children aspire.

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Most students who come to Montessori kindergarten or elementary school from a play-based preschool or traditional elementary school program aren’t used to this level of freedom. We recognize that there’s some adjustment needed for such students, and so we slowly build up their capabilities so they can take on more responsibility.

As a parent, you can help by simultaneously ceding control at home, and handing more responsibility to your child.

For example, if you find yourself managing her morning routine, urging her to get dressed or to have breakfast or to brush teeth, you may want to consider transitioning that responsibility to your child. Do so in a careful, slow, step-by-step process, so she experience success:

  • Sit down and talk. Let her know that you trust her to become more independent, and that you’ll work with her.
  • Make a plan and write it down. Identify the tasks your child will do on her own (get dressed, make the bed, fix breakfast, prepare her lunch.) Make sure she can do the tasks (see the post on independence), and coach her where needed. Then create a routine chart together, listing each key step (add photos for younger children who still struggle with reading.)
  • Hand over responsibility. Put the chart somewhere accessible. Instead of reminding your child to do a task (‘it’s time to brush your teeth now’), point her to the task (‘we’re done with breakfast. What’s next on your chart?’)
  • Discuss progress. Rather than having the child get in trouble if she doesn’t meet expectations, ask her what went wrong? Does she not want to do it on her own anymore? Is there some other task she’d rather try first? Make it clear to your child that you are there to support her pursuit of independence—but also that you will hold her to her own commitments.

Other easy areas for handing over control could be getting ready for an outing (e.g., packing the things needed to go to the pool), or getting ready for bed.

Entrusting your child with more responsibility at home will help ease the transition into the freedom within limits environment of Montessori kindergarten and elementary school. And as a nice side benefit, it may also allow you to nag less and have more fun with your child!

Transitioning to Montessori: Independence (Part 1 of 5)

Every fall, children transition to our Montessori programs from other preschools or elementary schools. What can parents do to help with this transition? In this series of blog posts, we lay out a few Montessori principles that apply at the later preschool and early elementary school level. Our focus is on children who transition into Montessori during their kindergarten through 2nd grade years, but many of the ideas suggested here are helpful for preschool children, too.

“Little children, from the moment they are weaned, are making their way toward independence”

“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”

— Dr. Maria Montessori

If your child will be transitioning into a Montessori school late into the preschool/kindergarten program, or straight into Montessori elementary school, it is helpful for you as a parent to understand what your child would have experienced had he been in the program in earlier years.

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The goal of the Montessori preschool experience is to help children help themselves. “All by myself” is and ought to be the theme of a toddler’s life, and in the right environment, this motivation to be independent becomes the basis of tremendous learning. Montessori preschools, by satisfying the child’s need to be independent, help him acquire skills of daily living in a careful, step-by-step sequence that sets them up for success and earned self-esteem.

It starts with something as simple as enabling toddlers to manage their own snack routine. They start out by learning to lay out a napkin and a small cup. Before long, they are able to set the full table, serve themselves by scooping raisins and pouring water, and clean up the table, put away dishes and sweep up crumbs. Rather than being a passive recipient of snacks, a child learns to satisfy his own needs.

Preschool children in Montessori have the opportunity to do many tasks that other children are not entrusted with until much later. For example, they peel and cut fruits and vegetables, using real knives. They prepare and serve snack to their peers. They cut and arrange flowers and are in charge of taking care of classroom plants and pets.

As these preschoolers become more capable, they relish taking on more responsibility. At school, they take ownership of cleaning up classroom shelves, without being asked, and also teach these same skills and habits to younger friends. At home, they may be entrusted with preparing their own lunches, or being real contributors to family chores.

If a child transitions to Montessori as a 5-, 6- or 7-year-old (i.e., late in preschool or early in elementary school), he may not have had these same experiences. And, maybe more importantly, his parents may not have received coaching on how to foster this type of independence at home.

The best solution, if your child is in this situation, is to start now! Think about what things you may be doing for your child that he could do alone, if you made some slight adjustments to your routines and gave him some extra initial support.

Here are a few ideas to support independence for kindergarten age or early elementary school children (useful whether or not you enroll them in Montessori for elementary school!)

  • In the kitchen.
    1. Provide your child with a low shelf or drawer with his own utensils, so he can set his table. Make this a daily responsibility.
    2. Set up healthy food choices on low shelves in the pantry and refrigerator: jars with cereal, a basket of fruit, cut-up veggies in a bowl, a small pitcher with milk or juice. Invite your child to help himself to a healthy snack when he is hungry!
    3. Invite your child to help you with food prep. For Small Hands carries a great selection of child-sized implements, from vegetable peelers to cutting boards and aprons. 5- or 6-year-olds can do a lot of food prep, from peeling apples to cutting carrots, from measuring out flour to flipping pancakes!
    4. Enable your child to clean up after himself. Set up a child-sized broom & dust bin, a small bucket, a scrubber and a sponge, and ask your child to clean up around the table after eating.
  • In the bedroom, bathroom and laundry room.
    1. Ensure your child’s closet is child-friendly. Make sure he can access all his clothes easily. Limit choices to those appropriate for the season and day-to-day activities (put away special occasion clothes, unless you are ok if your child wears them every day!)
    2. Organize things so your child can do his own laundry. Get a two-compartment hamper for easy clothes sorting. Show your child how to manage the washer (including pre-treating stains!) Show him how to fold & put away laundry.

montessori preschool

In his Montessori elementary classroom, your child will have an increasing amount of responsibility. He’ll have the opportunity to keep his own work organized, take care of classroom plants and pets, and help keep the general classroom organized. He’ll learn how to be in charge of his own academic activities, planning out his daily and weekly tasks, and taking the initiative to reach out to teachers and friends for help when he needs it.

Giving your child more independence at home will help get him ready for this new environment of freedom within limits (more on that in the next blog post here.)

Read more in our Transitioning to Montessori blog series:

The Montessori Preschool Difference, In A Nutshell

“What is Montessori? How does it differ from other preschool approaches, such as day care centers or play-based and developmental preschools?”

I often get this question from parents I meet, both at LePort events and when I am with my two Montessori preschool-aged children at local playgrounds. I love this question, and it usually leads me to start talking about the many differences and wondrous benefits of Montessori preschool.

Unfortunately, not everybody has the time for an hour-long explanation. So to make sure I could answer quickly, I distilled my answers to the 3+3 of Montessori preschool, the three obvious differences in how a preschool classroom is run, and the three top benefits a Montessori education offers to children.

Since the parents I shared this with found it illuminating, I thought I’d post it online, so other parents looking into preschool options can benefit from it too.


montessori preschool

Multi-age, family like communities.
Most play-based programs segregate children by age into the 3’s, 4’s, Pre-K and so on. Montessori preschools instead group 3- to 6-year-olds into one class. A child stays with the same teacher for three years. This builds a strong, family-like community, with lasting relationships between child and teacher, and friendships between children of different ages. Young children look up to and learn from older ones; while the 5- and 6-year-olds gain confidence as they become classroom leaders and mentors for their younger peers.

montessori preschoolUninterrupted 3-hour “work periods.”
Most preschools follow tight, adult-led schedules, with a new group activity every 30-45 minutes. In contrast, authentic Montessori preschools offer long, uninterrupted work periods that allow children to fully engage in tasks that they have chosen for themselves, under the careful, individual guidance of their teacher. Montessori children thus have repeated opportunities to get really engrossed in their activities, and experience regular states of concentrated focus. Visit a good Montessori preschool, and you may see a 3-year-old spending 30 minutes carefully arranging color tablets in a rainbow pattern, or a 4-year-old tracing, coloring and labeling a map of the world. As adults, we can’t focus when we know we’ll be interrupted soon; neither can children. Unstructured, child-led time is key in building concentration skills at the foundation of all learning!

A carefully sequenced, activity-based curriculum that engages hand and mind.
While most play-based preschools have the same type of toys you already have at home—think legos, dress-up corners, coloring pages, trains and blocks—Montessori preschools offer something different to montessori preschoolyour child. Displayed beautifully on low shelves, you’ll find dozens of scientifically designed learning materials: a Pink Tower, Color Tablets, pouring activities, a Movable Alphabet, math materials that teach the decimal system and arithmetic into the thousands, and so much more. Each activity has been selected because children at hundreds of Montessori preschools chose it freely, repeatedly. Each one teaches multiple skills and enables the preschool child to problem solve, to use his hands and all his senses, to repeat an activity and achieve mastery.
By progressing at his own pace through these activities, a Montessori preschool child joyfully refines his gross
and fine motor skills, and, ultimately, progresses to reading, writing and arithmetic into the thousands, all
while in preschool.


montessori preschool

Independence, self-confidence and a growth mindset.
Montessori children acquire a level of physical and intellectual independence rarely seen in other preschool environments. From day one they learn to take care of their own needs (dressing themselves, preparing snack) and their environment (cleaning up after lunch, taking care of classroom plants and animals.) This daily experience of being trusted with real responsibility for meaningful tasks—and rising to the occasion by successfully meeting that responsibility—results in children who have the earned self confidence that comes from actual mastery (against shaky self-esteem based on empty praise by others.) And because we acknowledge that mistakes are necessary for learning, because we greet spilled water or a broken glass with a calm, constructive attitude, children discover that it’s ok to make mistakes, and that we can and should learn from them. Our preschoolers acquire a growth mindset, a fundament attitude about the world that is invaluable
to a joyful, successful life.

montessori preschoolJoyful acquisition of reading, writing and arithmetic in preschool.While many preschools pride themselves in their “pre-reading” or “pre-math” curriculum, Montessori preschool children actually learn to write, read and do arithmetic into the thousands, while in preschool. They do so joyfully, with activities they choose, such as drawing pictures and writing stories about them, or participating in a small group addition exercise with the Golden Bead materials. The work Montessori 6-year-olds do is astounding: look at our work samples, or click here to see the type of book a typical 3rd year Montessori preschool student can read independently.

Executive function skills, from attention span to graceful social interactions.
Recent research shows that executive function skills (self control, organization, time management) are more highly correlated with school and life success than even IQ. Montessori preschool purposefully montessori preschooldevelops these skills. When a child has to wait for a material another child is working with, or when he stands calmly to observe a friend at work, he practices impulse control. By executing multi-step processes, such as table washing, and by always completing a full cycle of work—from taking a material from a shelf, to doing the activity and replacing it in its proper spot—the preschooler learns organization and problem solving. Grace and courtesy lessons and a daily emphasis on respecting the rights of friends and teachers foster a benevolent environment where pro-social skills emerge naturally.

Will my child thrive in Montessori preschool?

A Montessori preschool class is a place of beauty: 24 preschool-aged children, each engaged in meaningful activity, forming a community of individuals.  Look around and you’ll discover faces in deep concentration, or smiling delightedly at a task well done, or conversing warmly with friends. Here a boy reads in a quiet voice to a younger classmate; there, a girl stands respectfully, hands behind her back, observing a lesson the Montessori preschool teacher gives to a slightly older student. In the back of the class, an older boy is showing a friend how to scrub a table, carefully demonstrating the use of the scrubber, the sponge, showing the proper way to pour water from a big pitcher into a bucket.

“Wow”, the visiting mother thinks to herself, as she observes the Montessori preschool environment. And, reflecting on her daily life with her own preschool-aged child: “My child couldn’t possibly do this!”

Are the children you see in a Montessori school special? Do they have super-parents who have somehow helped them mature more quickly than other children? Or can any child attain this level of independence?

Dr. Montessori believed that children need a certain type of environment to thrive, one that enables them to be self-sufficient. Children need to be offered specific types of activity that engage hand and mind and lend themselves to be perfected by repeated practice. Writes Dr. Montessori: “The essential thing is for the task to arouse such an interest that it engages the child’s whole personality.”

Decades of practice in Montessori preschools around the world clearly demonstrate that preschool children can do much more than we normally give them credit for. They can act mature beyond their age, focusing intently on a task for long stretches, helping each other kindly, following their teacher’s guidance eagerly, and displaying a wonderful benevolence toward each other. They can enjoy the profound pleasure and self-esteem of work well done.

As Montessori educators, we are convinced that the prepared environment is the key piece of the developmental puzzle.  Children need a carefully –designed learning environment for their cognitive and personal growth as much as they need nutritious, regular meals for their physical growth. As Dr. Montessori put it:

Children need to work at an interesting occupation: they should not be helped unnecessarily, nor interrupted, once they have begun to do something intelligent. Sweetness, severity, medicine do not help if the child is mentally hungry. If a man is starving for lack of food, we do not call him a fool, nor give him a beating, nor do we appeal to his better feelings. He needs a meal, and nothing else will do. The same thing applies here. Neither kindness nor severity will solve the problem. Man is an intelligent being, and needs mental food almost more than physical food.

All of this probably sounds rather abstract, and you may not be not sure if it would actually be a good fit for your child. So what should you do? Should you take a leap of faith and just enroll your child in a Montessori preschool?

Choosing a preschool is a big decision. If you find the Montessori philosophy compelling, but aren’t fully convinced, use this summer as an opportunity to learn more. Let your child try out Montessori by enrolling him in preschool summer camp.

Montessori preschool summer camp is a great way to test the waters. It allows your child to attend a toddler or preschool Montessori program for a few weeks. And at a good Montessori school, it ensures that your child’s first taste of preschool is positive:

  • Expert preschool teachers. In an established Montessori summer program, experienced Montessori preschool teachers lead camp classes. They understand children, and have much more training than a typical summer camp counselor.
  • A real Montessori preschool community. Many of the children attending Montessori summer camp are students who also attend during the school year program. This means that summer camp classes have a great mix of ages and backgrounds. Seasoned Montessori preschool peers delight in helping new summer camp students get settled into class!
  • A normal Montessori preschool day. Summer camp is Montessori preschool: summer camp children have the opportunity to freely explore the Montessori materials, with extended work periods in the morning and afternoon. By enrolling her in summer camp for several weeks, you enable your toddler or preschool child to adjust to the Montessori preschool routine, and you may be surprised how much she can develop in a month or two!
  • Added summer camp activities. To make summer special for children, we apply Montessori preschool principles to typical camp activities. Bi-weekly themed projects enable students to explore the world with all their senses, as they discover the wonders of rainforests, learn about the desert environment and relate to these themes with arts and crafts activities especially developed for summer camp. “Montessori in Motion”, LePort’s unique summer program, offers bi-weekly sports activities: camp students learn the vocabulary and key skills for kickball and soccer, baseball and square dancing. It’s like attending a summer sports camp without having to leave!
  • Summer camp water play, in-house field trips and pizza Fridays. A visit from reptilian friends, a bubble show, a full aquarium of marine creatures coming to class: summer camp in-house field trips add safe, educational fun. Splash Fridays: children + water—need we say more?!

If you decide you like Montessori summer camp, and want to stay for the school year program, your child will have a leg up. He’ll return to a familiar Montessori preschool environment. If he isn’t fully toilet trained yet, a summer camp experience in the Montessori toddler room may just be what he needs to become fully toilet independent and ready for the Montessori preschool class.

And, importantly, summer camp enables you to see your child at school, to observe how he adjusts, and to get a feel for the Montessori preschool community your family may later join full time.

What do you have to lose? Just give it a try: you can download the summer camp applications and a detailed summer camp calendar right here!

Heike Larson

*Please note that summer camp enrollment does not guarantee immediate enrollment for the fall school year program. Many LePort preschool campuses have waitlists for fall enrollment. If you are considering enrolling your child for preschool, please inquire with the campus you are interested in about future program availability.

Focusing on Focus

montessori preschool huntington beach

As parents, we know that children are not automatically able to focus. When a toddler loses interest in a toy, she stops paying attention. She can’t just will herself to keep going.

So how is it that a child eventually acquires the mental stamina necessary to master skills such as reading? How is it that in later years, a high schooler is able to resist the temptation to check her Facebook account and keep at a demanding essay?

montessori preschool huntington beach

In his recent article, “Learning How to Focus on Focus”, the Wall Street Journal’s Jonah Lehrer suggests that it’s the child’s capacity to engaged in focused attention that marks the difference. The key, says Lehrer, is “what psychologists call “executive function,” a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to exert control over our thoughts and impulses.”

“Executive function” refers to the skills underlying a person’s ability to choose to sustain attention on a particular task, despite distractions. Strong executive function is highly correlated with many desirable behaviors, not just an ability to study and succeed in school:

Children who could better regulate their impulses and attention were four times less likely to have a criminal record, three times less likely to be addicted to drugs and half as likely to become single parents. In many instances, the ability to utilize executive control was more predictive of adult outcomes than either IQ scores or socioeconomic status.

Research suggests that executive functioning is a learned skill, and that a child’s school environment and curriculum content can make a huge difference. Dr. Adele Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, has catalogued a list of activities that develop executive functioning. Dr. Diamond also notes that certain educational approaches, such as Montessori, consistently increase the capacity for executive function in children. Yet, notes Lehrer in his article, “despite this impressive evidence, most schools do virtually nothing to develop executive function.”

montessori preschool huntington beach

While “developing executive function” isn’t how we would have coined what we do at LePort, one of the reasons we champion the Montessori approach is that it teaches children how to focus. In Montessori, children are placed in a carefully prepared environment and then encouraged to choose from an array of fascinating activities. Montessori materials are specially designed to encourage extended engagement, so they can enable a child to build mental stamina. And extended, two to three hour long “work periods” give a child the luxury of time to persist with an activity much longer than a typical, adult-let preschool schedule of 30 minutes this, 30 minutes that would ever allow. It’s no surprise that the result is that our students acquire an enhanced capacity for executive functioning.

montessori preschool huntington beach

When you see Montessori children engaged with the materials in their classrooms, intently focused on building up the Pink Tower, or tying bows on a Dressing Frame, or coloring in complex geometric shapes with the Metal Insets, they are getting a “two-fer”: they are learning about volume, practicing self-care and pencil control, while they are also building up that foundational skill of concentration.

As Mr. Lehrer writes in the article, “it’s not enough to drill kids in arithmetic and hope they develop delayed gratification by accident. We need to teach the skills of executive function directly and creatively.”

In Montessori, it’s never either arithmetic or executive function. The beauty of Montessori is doing both at the same time.

Silence: An Unexpected Montessori Benefit

When parents first visit a well-run Montessori school, they often comment on how quiet the classrooms are compared to many other environments where groups of preschoolers come together. It’s true: our classrooms are quiet—not quiet in the sense of totally silent, but quiet in a busy, active, yet very civilized way. Read more

Creative Play and Montessori Principles

Several recent articles in major newspapers discussed the demise of creativity in kids, and linked it to a lack of “unstructured, messy play.” For example, The New York Times reports:

For several years, studies and statistics have been mounting that suggest the culture of play in the United States is vanishing. Children spend far too much time in front of a screen, educators and parents lament — 7 hours 38 minutes a day on average, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year. And only one in five children live within walking distance (a half-mile) of a park or playground, according to a 2010 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control, making them even less inclined to frolic outdoors.

Behind the numbers is adult behavior as well as children’s: Parents furiously tapping on their BlackBerrys in the living room, too stressed by work demands to tolerate noisy games in the background. Weekends consumed by soccer, lacrosse and other sports leagues, all organized and directed by parents. The full slate of lessons (chess, tae kwon do, Chinese, you name it) and homework beginning in the earliest grades.

We’d agree with many of the issues these articles highlight, such as the deplorable amount of time US kids spend in front of TVs and computer screens each day, or the creativity-stifling impact of teaching that focuses on improving standardized, multiple-choice test scores.

At the same time, we don’t agree with the view of creative development underlying these articles. They pieces intermix valid criticisms of forced parental structure or too much computer time with a lot of talk about encouraging messiness, putting up with chaos, clutter and uncertainty, and fostering the child’s imagination by letting fantasy run wild. The implicit assumption, which we dispute, is that creativity is borne out of disorder and impulsivity. Polemics against too much forced structure are important and valuable. But more important is the answer to the question of why play is so important to children, of how, fundamentally, creativity comes about—and what the connection is to a child’s intellectual development.

Notice that descriptors such as “clutter” and “noisiness” evoke a picture of an environment quite different from a Montessori classroom, which seems to suggest that the structure of Montessori—the sequential materials, the orderliness, the purposefulness, the calm—are in some way undercutting a child’s creative development.  If this were true, then why are Montessori educated children renowned for their curiosity, their creative problem solving, their ability to think outside of the box? Put differently, does a Montessori education stifle imagination and rob children of the essential play of childhood, as these articles suggest?

In our view, nothing could be further from the truth. The superficial messiness of play, the focus on imagination and chaos, obscures a more fundamental difference between play and many other activities. The New York Times authors get close to this essential attribute when they discuss a need for “unstructured, child-led and child-created” activities, such as building a fort out of sofa cushions, making up elaborate pretend stories to act out, or drawing creative pictures, and contrast them with adult-led, pre-structured pursuits, such as organized soccer leagues, step-by-step adult-led crafts sessions, or foreign language classes.

In our view, what is really missing from many children’s experiences is not a license to engage in impulsivity per se, but rather an environment which enables children to independently choose to develop and pursue their own interests, and which equips them with the skills and knowledge to do so competently and successfully. Let’s look at these three elements in turn: choice, pursuit of interests, and knowledge and skills.

First, to engage in creativity, a person’s mind has to be voluntarily engaged in an activity. Whether it is drawing a painting, writing an article, or solving a challenging puzzle, a mind works best when it wants to do something, not for external rewards (stickers, grades, trophies, praise), but for the satisfaction of the activity itself. When children play, they by definition do so by their own choice: no-one forces a child to pretend to sail off to adventures on the living room sofa, and no stars are handed out for arriving at the pretend destination.

Second, creative people actively pursue a goal. While you can passively default to sitting in front of the TV, you cannot passively play, or passively achieve any worthwhile goal in life, whether it is building friendships, achieving success in a career, or mastering a hobby. Play is goal-directed activity, even though it might appear unstructured from the outside. It also typically involves problem-solving in the broadest sense. When 3-year-olds builds a sofa-cushion fort, they have to figure out how to place the cushions, where to get that sheet they need for the roof, how to gain an adults’ help if they can’t get up to the shelf where the sheet is hiding. It’s their goal—and they solve whatever problems arise in their pursuit of that goal.

Third, creative people have to have skills and knowledge to actually achieve their ends. No matter how inspired a writer may be, how creative his story idea may sound, he needs to have mastered grammar, acquired a strong vocabulary, and have learned the personal skills, such as organization and time management, which will enable him to successfully pursue such a long-range, challenging goal. Especially in today’s advanced civilization, ignorance makes creativity impossible. Worthwhile achievements of any type require a plan, and the ability to execute on it. Play, at its best, is skill and knowledge building, in a wide variety of forms. The toddler who stacks Legos is working on fine motor skills; the 4-year-olds who pretend-play at shopping are practicing language skills and daily processes they’ll need to master to become successful adults. Even video games derive a lot of their appeal from building skills—albeit often very limited skills only applicable in the video game’s own world.

Montessori education fully embraces these three principles. In Montessori classrooms, children have 2-3 hour periods of unstructured work time, each morning and afternoon. Each child chooses what activity to take from the shelves and work with. He actively engages with the material, he keeps at it until he masters it. It is his choice, his goal, his effort that will bring him the satisfaction of mastering a new material. Every activity offered to children in a Montessori classroom is carefully designed to help the child develop a critical skill, whether it is learning to pour without spilling, or learning the letter sounds. In fact, Dr. Montessori was convinced that a child has to know about reality first, before he can be truly creative, so she created a well-rounded collection of materials, one that gives children a balanced exposure to the basic elements of the world and human knowledge. This balanced education ranges from basic life skills to simple arts activities; from training the senses to observe carefully, to categorizing observations systematically so they can be easily retrieved later; from math and language, to geography, science and music. Dr. Montessori saw this rounded education as the foundation from which an individual can develop true creativity, in the sense of doing new things with real materials and ideas. Every item in the Montessori classroom is carefully chosen to give each child the “keys” to the world that may serve to spark his interest in discovery and creativity.

Montessori students, from the earliest age, learn that they are in charge—they choose, they pursue, they build skills and learn how to use their time and resources effectively. (And, by the way, they also learn to clean up their own messes, and acquire the habits of mental and physical order that are, in fact, another prerequisite of real creativity!) By daily experience, they become active explorers who enjoy tackling and mastering new challenges, rather than passive consumers reluctant to move off the couch, or to open any book beyond required homework.

The crucial difference is that Montessori education develops the capacity for creative effort, rather than mere impulsivity. It is this, the ability to apply oneself joyously to the task of pursuing or creating something personally meaningful, that is the hallmark of creativity. This is why the child who is allowed to uncritically “do what he wants,” without developing a capacity for discipline in pursuing what he really wants, inevitably ends up passive. Buy your child a new toy every time he gets bored, without giving him the opportunity to use his mind to find something interesting to do with the toys he has, and the result will be that he simply becomes less willing to do the work of escaping his own boredom.

So if your children want to build castles in the yard and have a princess picnic with a friend, or engage in messy arts projects, as Montessorians we say that by all means you should encourage them to do so. We just encourage you to keep in mind that creativity is the ability to apply effort in uniquely interesting ways. And because of this, we hold that a pro-effort, child-led classroom environment such as is found in a well-run Montessori school, helps rather than hinders the development of creativity. And as the icing on the cake, it will also help your youngsters learn to clean up the messes they make in their daily play!

– Heike Larson