Tag Archive for: Parenting Advice

How to help your four-year-old transition into Montessori

BP Transitions - 02Some parents who discover Montessori when their child is four years old are concerned about joining the mixed-age primary room mid-stream. “Will my child be playing catch-up? Some of the other four-year-olds are already reading ”, you might wonder. “I’ve just learned about Montessori, and I see how wonderful this environment could be for my child. She’s already four, though. Did we miss the boat?”

The short answer: Four is not too late! We’ve seen many four-year-olds blossom in our schools, just taking off in their personal development after joining our classrooms, and your child can, too.

BP Transitions - 03It is true that younger is better when it comes to joining a Montessori program. Starting as a toddler or a young three-year-old gives children the best opportunity to benefit from the enriched, carefully prepared classroom environment. As Montessori educators, we understand that the time between birth and age six is the most critical in a human being’s development. During this stage of growth, children go through rapid changes and develop the most important aspects of their personality and intellect.

Dr. Maria Montessori discovered that much of this change occurs through active experiences children have with their environment — at home, outside, or at school. Children between the ages of three and six go through what Dr. Montessori called “sensitive periods,” periods where they are naturally primed to absorb skills and knowledge in a wide range of areas. During these sensitive periods children can, for example, effortlessly acquire language skills (including learning to write and read), develop what is now called “executive function skills”(such as sustaining concentration, learning self-control, and strengthen their working memory), learn to interact graciously with others, and refine all their senses.

BP Transitions - 04While some of these sensitive periods begin at birth, four-year-old children are still in the midst of this amazing time. We regularly see four-year-olds join our class and become drawn to the materials on our shelves; they quickly begin “working” and become acclimated to their new environment. With the right support at home and at school, you’ll be surprised by how much joy both you and your child will get from his Montessori experience!

How to help your four-year-old transition joyfully into the Montessori environment

1. Enroll your child for five full days per week

By the time your child reaches four and is no longer napping, she is ready to attend school for five full days per week. A child who attends school for five days each week has the greatest opportunity for consistent spontaneous learning and will feel safe and relaxed in the classroom. The full day schedule (8:30 am to 3:00 pm) also allows the child to have more time to work through the materials during the morning and afternoon work cycles, and to receive many lessons from her teacher.

BP Transitions - 05This consistent time is especially important for your four-year-old who is new to Montessori. Dr. Montessori observed that many issues that children struggle with, from temper tantrums to uncoordinated movement, from disobedience to physical aggression, disappeared when children are allowed freedom in an environment suited to their needs. Often, a child would find some activity that spoke to him, become immersed in it, and repeat it over and over again. Once a child connected to an engaging activity, he became happier, more curious to explore more learning materials in class, and even became kinder and more benevolent to his peers.

For an older child, this process may take some time; he may need to wander, try different activities, and observe his peers, before he discovers something that would like to work with.  By enrolling your child for five full days, you can give him that luxury of time, and help him get the most out of his two Montessori primary years.

2. Be open to keeping your child in Montessori through the 3rd year of Primary

BP Transitions - 09The third year in Montessori Primary (the equivalent of traditional kindergarten) is the year when much of the foundational skill development solidifies, and many children suddenly experience huge growth spurts in writing, reading, math and  overall confidence.

Since your child would be joining during the second year of Montessori Primary, it is even more important for him to get to experience the third year.  From age four to five, he’ll be working hard on many foundational skills, from fine motor control to concentration, from learning to observe carefully to mastering multi-step processes. If you keep him in Montessori for only one year, he’ll never get to experience the astounding mastery he will attain from his hard work.  He’ll likely be just at the cusp of reading, just about ready to tackle the fun advanced math materials, and eager to move from being the rookie to becoming a classroom leader.

Parents are often amazed at what they see  during the kindergarten year. Please do consider giving your child this experience! While we do not, of course, require you to sign on for two years now, we do want to caution you against viewing Montessori as a one-year, pre-k experience aimed at getting your child ready for traditional kindergarten. That’s not how Montessori works, and we wouldn’t want you to sign on with wrong expectations!

3. Learn about Montessori

BP Transitions - 07The best way to help your child thrive in a Montessori environment is to better understand Montessori yourself. We make this easy for you: When your child joins our program, you’ll receive eight short, one-page handouts explaining key aspects of Montessori, and suggesting simple ways you can align what you do at home with what your child experiences at school. Throughout the school year, we offer Parent Education Events, where we discuss a wide range of topics: from how to support independence to learning math in preschool. Our blog also offers plenty of helpful articles. Your child’s teacher is also a great resource: Our trained head teachers are available via email or in person after school to answer all kinds of Montessori-related questions you may have and to help you understand how you can best support your child.

4. Support independence at home

“Never help the child do something that he thinks he can do for himself” — this is one of Dr. Montessori’s most famous quotes! Our classrooms and activities are set up so your four-year-old child will quickly learn to take care of his own needs such as getting dressed without help, pouring his own drink, and preparing snacks. Children love this new-found independence, and you can help your child feel just as empowered at home. Here is a blog post that describes some simple changes you can make to support your child’s budding independence at home.

5. Don’t compare your child with other children in the classroom

BP Transitions - 06One of the beauties of Montessori is the profound respect for the individuality we give each child. Montessori teachers do not compare their students with each other. We know that your four-year-old may need some time to get used to his new school, and that it would not help at all to compare him to other four-year-olds who had started before him.  Each Montessori teacher allows her students to develop at their own pace, and she trusts that the Montessori classroom will enable her students to reach their individual potential at their own unique pace.

We encourage you to take the same long-term perspective: Be patient and do not rush your child. Don’t put performance pressure on her by comparing her, even subtly, to the other children in the class. Yes, it can be hard to see other four-year-olds reading, while your new Montessori child may be preparing snack or working with the color tablets instead. Just know that by stepping back and letting her discover and explore her surroundings, you are enabling her to do very important foundational work. Once she’s ready, she may just surprise you with how quickly she “explodes” into writing and reading!

6. Do not introduce other academics at home

With today’s competitive environment, it’s easy to feel that your four-year-old needs to learn her letters or start to work on addition facts. Some parents become anxious and to want to accelerate their child’s learning by providing extra academics. Often, well-meaning, conscientious parents buy workbooks for their children to complete or enroll their preschoolers in structured academic programs, such as Kumon. We strongly advise against this!

Trust that your child’s teacher is introducing your child to academic skills that are developmentally appropriate for her. Support what your child is doing at school and do not introduce other academics at home that are contrary to what your child is learning at school. Enrolling in Kumon, making children complete worksheets, teaching letter names, writing letters and counting on fingers will only confuse your child! If you want to do more to foster literacy, this blog post provides some Montessori-consistent ideas you can follow at home.

7. Read, read, read at home

BP Transitions - 08If you want to support your child’s academic development, the best way to do this is to read with your child. Read a lot! Read a variety of books, discuss what you read, ask her questions about what you’ve read, follow along with your finger under text as you read, and explain vocabulary. That way, when she does finally master her letter sounds, she’ll be able to move along much faster. You can read more about how to apply Montessori ideas to reading here, find suggestions for setting up an environment that fosters literacy here, and view our thoughts on selecting books (and actual book lists), in this blog post.

We hope these points helped you understand how giving your child a Montessori education is a true gift that will last her a lifetime, and that with your enthusiastic support, your four-year-old will thrive in her new Montessori environment.

Books Children Love – LePort 2013 Suggested Books for Toddlers, Preschoolers and Elementary Children


Colder, shorter days are upon us, and the outdoors are not quite as welcoming. But as the dark comes early, so does the opportunity to cuddle up with our children in a favorite spot and explore the timeless treasure of great books.

At LePort, we are big believers in the power of literature. Beautiful, inspiring literary works help children become voracious readers who look to books for enjoyment as well as education. Whether it’s a 3-year-old enraptured as a teacher reads to her, a 5-year-old reading to a younger child, or a group of 8-year-olds engaged in animated discussion about a read-aloud character, we love seeing our students discover the joys that await them in the pages of a good book.

As a parent, you can help your child discover the joys of reading. In looking for that perfect gift this holiday season, we offer up the list below of favorite books, from simple picture books for toddlers and younger preschool children, to more elaborate stories for older primary students, and beginning chapter books that elementary students can read by themselves, or that you can read to your five-year-old.

This is our fourth holiday book list, and we plan to make it a yearly tradition! You can help us by sharing your favorite books for this age group in the comments; maybe you’ll see them in next year’s list.

P.S. If you aren’t yet sold on reading out loud daily to your child, or want an even broader range of book recommendations, check out reading advocate Jim Trelease’s web site. He has free excerpts from his Read-Aloud Handbook with helpful advice, and lots of ammunition on why reading aloud is so important.

Click sections below to view books.

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While we will continue to recommend only products we personally use with our own children or in our classrooms, LePort is piloting an affiliate program with Amazon.com. Items placed in your Amazon cart directly from the above links earn LePort Schools a commission of up to 8%, which we donate to our Support LePort scholarship fund. We hope to offer a similar program from other vendors in the future. To learn about other ways you can contribute – or how to apply for a scholarship for your child – please click here. Together, we can spread Knowledge for Life to children across America.

For more book ideas from our 2012 holiday book list, click here.

Applying Montessori Ideas When Reading With Your Child

Part four of four of our reading aloud blog post series

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While the "why" of reading aloud to children is discussed everywhere, the equally important "how"often receives short shrift. That’s unfortunate, because as valuable as it is to know why reading together is important, it is getting better at reading with your child that will actually ensure that the experience is mutually joyous, and help you build it into your routine.

Here are some Montessori-inspired ideas to implement as you read with your child:

  1. Embrace and celebrate repetitive reading. Most preschoolers love to read the same books, over and over again, just like they go back to favorite activities in their Montessori classrooms. This need for repetition is a wonderful opportunity for learning during read-alouds: it is often when we read a story the 5th or 10th time that children begin to use its words, or remember its moral lessons. And it’s only during the preschool, picture book years that we have this audience eager to read the same book over and over again! Make the most of these few years by reading books at different levels:
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    • Read for the story during the first take. Get caught up in it, and read through with limited stops, maybe just to explain a key term here and there, and to answer a brief comprehension question. Talk about the story afterwards.
    • Become progressively more interactive on subsequent reads. Stop to give short definitions of vocabulary terms ("An dwelling is a house, a place someone lives. Our dwelling has green walls, and a big garden around it.") Point out interesting things in the illustrations. Talk about why the events happen, how the people in the story feel, how the setting compares to the world your children live in. There are some good articles out there detailing how to implement interactive reading, but the general principle is to guide your children to be interactive explorers of the books they read!
  3. Integrate ideas across books and into your child’s real-world experience. When we study literature in the upper grades at LePort, we explicitly highlight the ways in which books are guides for better living: we discuss the moral lessons books offer, and help children draw on literary experiences to illuminate the choices they make in their own lives. While we’d not suggest quite such an abstract approach for preschoolers, there are many ways you can connect the reading you do to your children lives, even at age 3 or 5:
    • Consciously use a book’s vocabulary in your daily conversations. ("I’m exasperated right now, Max, because your crayons are all over the floor!") Repeating and using the vocabulary from books will reinforce the learning, and help your child comprehend the new words and use them actively in speaking and writing.  It also develops an implicit awareness in your child that the language in a book can be extended to life as such.
    • Highlight how your child’s experiences relate to those of characters and settings in books. ("You found a creative solution here, instead of giving up, just like Sadie did in Sadie and the Snowman!" "I know this flu shot hurts, but it’s better than the prospect of sending you away for months, like Marvin’s parents had to do in the book we read.") Engage in real-world activities that relate to the books you read: go to a park to look for butterflies after reading Where Butterflies Grow; bake bread after reading Sunbread; re-read Hello Oceanbefore a trip to the beach.
    • Make connections for your child between different books. Highlight similarities and differences, and tie them to your child’s experience.  ("See, the family in When I Was Young in the Mountains has to heat their house with a wooden stove, just like Laura’s family did in The Little House on the Prairie! We don’t need to cut wood today, or light a fire, or clean a messy stove; we have gas furnaces that work at the flick of a switch.")

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  4. Let your child choose books. While you need to do the initial selection, especially for those books you buy and expect to read over and over again, let your child choose from the books you selected. It’s fun to discover which books your child likes—and a great starting point for conversation about values and choices we make: why is this book a favorite? Why doesn’t he like that one? Once they are older, let children pick library books, even those you may not love: it helps to have an occasional not-so-exciting book to highlight the special joy we get from better ones!
  5. Provide firm guidance around reading behavior. In our house, my son loves books, and he’s a born story-teller. Often, he’ll take the first opportunity during reading time to launch off into a story of his own. Sometimes, when it’s just the two of us, I’ll follow his lead, and reading morphs into 20 minutes of my 4-year-old spinning his own yarns. At other times, when we read with his sister or visiting friends, he has learned that he needs to raise his hand or put it on my arm to let me know he has something to say when we get to a stopping point in the book. Making reading interactive does not mean anything goes: interrupting constantly, talking with dolls, or running around usually means the reading stops, until the children choose to pay attention again. It’s the same "freedom within limits" approach your child experiences in our Montessori classrooms, and it can work just as well at home!
  6. Never tie rewards or punishments to reading. While there are many programs that offer incentives for children to read (free Pizza, anyone?), we recommend never tying reading to any rewards or punishments. Don’t reward reading; don’t offer reading as a reward; don’t withhold reading as a punishment. Extrinsic rewards or punishments debase the activity they are tied to, and reading is just too important an experience to risk!

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If you can make reading something you and your children treasure, infuse it with meaning by selecting great books, and make it a pleasant, interactive experience, you’ll do something amazing: you’ll lay the foundation for a love of reading in your child—and create a storehouse of wonderful, shared memories.

Selecting Read-Aloud Books, the Montessori Way

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Part three of four of our reading aloud blog post series

Great books are essential if reading with your child is to be a joyful, replenishing experience, a highlight of the day.

When I first set out to find books for my two children, I quickly discovered that choosing outstanding children’s books is a challenging task. Our local library has an extensive picture book collection. I headed there, and asked a few of the librarians for advice. One handed me a somewhat helpful trifold booklet of 25 favorite books; another one suggested some well-known classics (The Hungry Caterpillar, Goodnight Moon, The Big Red Barn.) It was a start, but few of the books really got me excited, and much of what was suggested just didn’t seem right for my vision of reading.

Over the past five years, as my children have grown older, I’ve discovered many good resources, approached Montessori-inspired friend and LePort teachers for ideas, and built a library for our family that we treasure, filled with picture books all of us love to re-read many times, along with an ever-growing list of books we put on hold and pick up at the library.

If you want some guidance on selecting books that are in line with your child’s Montessori education, books that you might enjoy reading as well, here are some principles to keep in mind on your library trips:

  • Find books that "are real or could be real" for your younger reader. To a toddler or young preschool child, the real world is full of mysteries. A three-year old is fascinated by how different animals live, how things work, what the world looks like, why people act the way they do. Because young children do not yet have a clear conception of the difference between reality and fantasy, they are best served by books that either are about real things (non-fiction books) or stories that could be real (events that could actually happen, even if they are fictional). So when you select books for children younger than 5 or 6 years old, make sure you pick a preponderance of books about the real world. If you choose to share some occasional fantastic stories (of which there are some great ones, e.g. of the type that includes talking, anthropomorphized animals), make sure you help your child to understand what is real, and what is just pretend. ("Do animals talk? No, they don’t: this book is a fantasy book.")
  • Read up to your child, not down. Toddlers and preschoolers are in what Montessori calls the sensitive period for language: like little sponges, they absorb effortlessly the language around them. Preschool children can readily learn big vocabulary words, when the words are introduced in an accessible way. By selecting books with appealing and appropriately complex language models, you greatly aid your child’s language acquisition. Many children’s books unfortunately use very short, choppy language, and are overly simplistic. My rule of thumb is to buy up, not down: I’ve always picked books that had bigger words, longer sentences, more elaborate constructions, than most people would think appropriate for a 2- or 4-year old. In most cases, my children were engaged—and I was surprised and delighted to hear them pick up and use the language of the books. ("East sky purples, sun is coming", my then 3-year-old daughter echoed after Bats on the Beach. "Mama, we don’t need to dread this knight: he’s extinct, like the dinosaurs", explained my 3-year-old son as we read Cowardly Clyde.)
  • Search for beauty and don’t settle for less. In Montessori, we surround our students with beauty, from the clean lines of our natural wood furniture, to the delicate porcelain bowls in the Practical Life area, to the art work hung at child’s height in class. Let the same sense of beauty be your guide as you choose books: look for illustrations that are realistic and detailed, not cartoonish and simplified. For a 2- or 3-year old, much of the learning from picture books comes from the pictures. Real art illustrations or beautiful photography will add to your enjoyment of the books you read, and, over time, will elevate your child’s taste, too. We’ve put together a collage of favorite picture book pages here, so you can get a feeling for how visually pleasing these carefully chosen books can be.
  • Broaden your horizon. While I select individual books based on their unique appeal, over the years I also strive to expose my children to the world via books. We read about different settings (cities, beaches, forests, mountains, space, the US, China, Japan…), times (pre-history, ancient times, the past century, today), different beings (animals, plants, human beings in different societies and of different ages), different types of stories (historical fiction, non-fiction, poetry). These virtual journeys around the world give us a lot to talk about—and, without an explicit effort on their part, provide children with a wonderful bounty of vocabulary and background knowledge they will draw on later in their lives.
  • Make sure you enjoy the books you buy. I saved the best for last: when you preview a book in the store, via Amazon or in the library, make sure it appeals to you! If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t like reading it over and over again. I’ve made the mistake to buy books I didn’t like (usually books that violated one of the first three points above!), and found myself reluctant to read them. And, yes, I’ve even hidden away some of these books, to avoid feeling reluctant when my children bring them to me to read!

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Following these guidelines, I’ve put together two starter book lists, one for toddlers and younger preschoolers, and one for older preschoolers and younger elementary children. These books are personal favorites in our family, collected over time and based on recommendations of many knowledgeable teachers and parents: they are books we treasure and couldn’t imagine not having read to our children. 


LePort Blog: A Prepared Reading Environment

Part two of four of our reading aloud blog post series

Just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand if it is to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things. Aristotle

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In Montessori classroom, much of the magic happens because children act within a carefully prepared environment. Activities are displayed beautifully, always in their proper spots, always ready to use. The children’s time and space to explore is respected for several hours each day. The Montessori guide is an expert at observing, and only stepping in when she finds a child ready for a new lesson, or in need of someone to make a point of interest with a material.

The Montessori prepared environment makes it possible for three- or four-year-olds to enter a classroom, take off their outside clothes, choose an activity and work with focus. It’s an environment that instills a lot of good habits: respecting other’s space, developing a pro-work attitude, using inside voices and walking, not running, in the classroom. If you’ve seen your super-active, noisy, goofy 4-year-old enter his Montessori classroom and be transformed into a serenely joyous, responsible, focused Montessori child, you’ve experienced the power of the prepared environment at work!

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In the book The Power of Habits, Charle Duhigg explains that much of what we do happens on auto-pilot: we receive a cue (entering the classroom), which triggers a routine (calming down and picking an activity from a shelf and working on it), which in turn leads to a reward (the feeling of accomplishment of having mastered a new skill.) To instill any habit, Duhigg argues, we need to put in place a cue-routine-reward system that supports the change we want to make in our life. The prepared environment, in Montessori, functions as such a system, and supports what we call the childhood choice to learn. Duhigg’s idea of a cue-routine-reward framework is something we can also apply at home to enable our children to develop good habits.

Take, for instance, reading aloud. As we discussed elsewhere, reading can and should be a joyous, daily experience shared by a parent and a child—but for it to be so, certain conditions must be met. If you are already experiencing your own Bed Time Book Club, congratulations! If not, read on for some ideas on how to prepare your home environment to facilitate a habit of reading together.


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    • Create cues for reading. Cues can be certain times of day: right after you come home from picking up from school, first thing in the morning before getting out of bed, right before bed at night. Cues can also be certain areas of the house that invite reading: you can place a book basket by the sofa, out books on the nightstand next to your bed, or upon a low shelf or magazine rack next to your child’s bed. Finally, cues can be certain other activities: why not put a few books in the car, and make it a habit for one parent to read, while the other is driving? Or place a book in your purse—as a reminder to take it out and read when you are waiting anywhere with your children! (iPads and Kindles are great for this: just make sure you always have a book to read to your children at the top of your favorites section—another cue to think about reading, whenever you turn on your device!)


    • Make it a routine. Your toddler or preschooler is your best ally here: 2- or 4-year-old children love consistency, so if you want to instill the habit of reading, start by making reading at certain times and places an expected, recurring event. In our house, we always read at bedtime—and there is no way our children would ever let us get away without doing it: even when we come home late from a trip, or an evening out, we still have to read at least for a few minutes, or risk the major drama that is a preschooler whose favorite routine has been interrupted!

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  • Ensure reading is a rewarding experience. By this, we emphatically don’t mean offer rewards: research shows that extrinsic rewards, such as stickers, sweets or even praise, devalue the activities associated with them. Instead, make the reading itself a time you and your children treasure. Cuddle up somewhere comfortable. Have the books close by, so you don’t need to walk to another room to get them. Shut off all electronic distractors, from phones to TV. Be fully present—and really engage in the wonderful worlds you encounter together in the books you read. Importantly, the pleasure of reading needs to be felt by both the children and by you, the parent: the goal is to make you crave reading time just as much as your children do, so you won’t want to miss it, ever! For me, no matter how tumultuous a busy evening is, no matter how many limits my 4-year-old tested that night, reading has become a healing factor: when we cuddle up with our books, we feel a comforting bond, a calm and connection that brings us back together as a family at the end of every day.

A reading habit is a powerful habit to instill in our children—and a rewarding way to feel connected to them, every day.  Do you have a favorite way of fostering reading with your children? Please share with us in the comments!

LePort Blog: Reading for Happiness

Part one of four of our reading aloud blog post series

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Much has been said about the benefits of reading with your child. Reading together regularly helps your child develop basic literacy skills, such as the left-right progression of words and the connection of print to the spoken word; it enriches his vocabulary; it offers her the background knowledge essential to understanding written content, once the progress beyond decoding simple books. Perhaps most importantly, by reading with your child you model the practice of turning to books for information and entertainment, rather than defaulting to TV and video games. Children who acquire a habit of reading for fun consistently show higher academic achievement, both in school and in college.

All these are valid reasons for reading with a child. And they are certainly true: in our classrooms, we can readily tell which children have a strong literacy environment at home. They are the ones who listen attentively when we read aloud, the ones who ask the best questions, draw the most creative pictures, and can’t wait for both silent reading time and the opportunity to write their own stories.

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As a parent, however, these concrete educational benefits are not why I read to my two children every day.

I read with my children because sharing great books brings joy to us. We devour books because reading is a personal value, because I love doing it, and because sharing this value with my children, and seeing the pleasure they derive, is a highlight of every day.

My children, in turn, can’t wait to cuddle up next to me with a good book. They are excited when we go on our bi-weekly library trips, which usually end with us sitting amidst a pile of book when we get home, forgetting all about making dinner or cleaning up the family room, losing ourselves in story after story. When I come home from work, they often greet me excitedly holding up an Amazon package that arrived in the mail, eager to open it and discover a new favorite book.

In Montessori, we distinguish between the direct and the indirect lessons a child learns from an activity. The direct lesson—tying laces, preparing and serving snack, creating art with the Metal Insets—is often what interests and motivates the child. The indirect lesson—finger dexterity, following multi-step processes, impulse control, pencil grip—are inherent in the design of the activity, and a key pedagogical reason for offering it to the child. Yet they usually hold no motivational value to the child.

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A 4-year-old does not draw dozens of Metal Inset in order to improve his pencil grip, so that he’s ready for handwriting later on. No, he is drawn to the Metal Insets because of the pleasure of working with it, and the pride he takes in seeing the picture he has created. The power of a Montessori environment is that a child’s direct, inner motivation and joy is what fuels the motor driving his development forward.

Similarly, when we read with our sons and daughters, our direct motivation should not, and cannot, be the academic benefits that result, no matter how important and real they are. To the extent we view read aloud as a mere educational tool, a “should do” rather than a “want to”, we’ll find it hard to fit it into our busy days, where another “to do” is the last thing we need. We’ll feel guilty if we don’t read, because we know its good for our children, but it just won’t happen as often as it “should”. When we do squeeze reading in, we are tempted to make it a lesson. Our children will notice, balk at being made a means to an end (even if the end happens to be their own future), and resist engaging fully.

If, instead, we manage to make reading a want, something both we and our children crave, if favorite picture books become, as one dad reminisces, “evocative of some of life’s best things — wet hair, clean pajamas, the end of working days”, then reading with our children will not be yet another imposition on our time, but instead a treasured moment we will protect jealously.

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At LePort we believe that education and parenting is all about facilitating a child’s quest for his personal happiness. For us, this means not just helping a child become a successful, fulfilled adult many years down the road, but just as importantly, making childhood and the process of learning a joyous experience. At the deepest level, we reject any dichotomy between these two profound needs.

If you find it challenging to fit reading into your daily routine, if you’d like to read more, but can’t seem to find the time, if reading seems like a “should do” rather than a “want to” at the end of a busy day, I’d encourage you to reframe your purpose: think less about how reading will help your child succeed in the future, and focus instead on how fun it will be to share a story with your child today in the here and now. Approach reading a book with the same attitude that you would approach going out for ice cream or throwing a football or playing a board game—not a necessary means to a future end, but a treasured and cherished end in itself.

Happy reading!

Supporting Your Child’s Budding Independence at Home


We just bought a small table and chairs for Sophie’s play room. At the end of the day, I went to the room and I was so surprised and laughed so hard.

Erin I.

I heard some moving around upstairs this morning. I went to check on Hailey and she had gotten out of bed and was brushing her teeth all by herself. She put the cap back on the toothpaste and put her toothbrush back after she was done. (This is not the norm in my house). Hailey started in the toddler program and has been at Le Port for 2 years now. It’s great to see the progress she’s made.

Lori P.

At lunch today, I took the suggestion from the Tuesday folder and put the girls’ dishes and cups in a basket on a low shelf in the kitchen. I already had some cloths stored on a low shelf with tablecloths, and the girls have a small table in the kitchen to eat at. Audrey (3 1/2) set the table for herself and her sister (17 months) and then both of them sat and ate. After they were both done, she cleared the plates and utensils and cups and put them in the sink and then, most stunningly to me, took a cloth and wiped off the table before pushing in all of the chairs. She was so enthusiastic to be able to do it all herself, and smiled broadly when all was clean. Thank you so much for instilling such awesome skills in my little one.

Reba N.

When toddlers and young preschoolers start in Montessori, parents are often amazed at the sudden spurt in independence and skill their children display.

If your child is starting in a Montessori toddler or preschool program, and you want to witness this incredible development in your own child, it helps if you are able to prepare your home environment in ways that support your child’s new skills and desire to be independent.

Here are some ideas to consider:

    1. Provide simple storage spots for belongings right inside the front door.  A small rug to place shoes or a basket to put them into and some hooks to hang jackets are a great start.  This can help your child get out of the house and back in more independently, and maybe prevent some meltdowns!  A little stool to sit on helps, as well.

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    1. Make your kitchen accessible to your child.  Find a low shelf or drawer to store cups, placemats, and utensils within your child’s reach.  Buy glass cups and inexpensive ceramic plates (IKEA is great!) that you don’t mind getting broken.  Invite your child to set his own place at the table.  A bigger step stool, or a learning tower can be a great help to little people who want to join you in the fun cooking activities at counter height.  And, of course, when it comes time to sit down and eat, encourage your child to feed himself:  Even young toddlers can eat finger-foods on their own, and start using a spoon; this is what they do in their Montessori classrooms, too.

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    1. Organize and simplify the play area.  Fewer toys, displayed on open shelves, are preferable over lots of toys in boxes that the children can’t see.

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    1. Small chairs and tables facilitate independent snack time and organized playtime.  Provide some buckets, sponges, rags, and child-sized brooms, and your child can even clean up after himself.

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    1. Facilitate getting dressed independently.  Low open shelves, low racks, a mirror and a bench with brush or comb can enable even 2- or 3-year-olds to begin to dress independently, especially if you pre-select an outfit the night before, or lay out two simple choices for a younger child.

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    1. Consider a floor or other low bed.  Some Montessori parents never have cribs; instead, they baby-proof an entire room and let even infants sleep on a floor bed.  While this may not work for every parent, a low bed or a twin mattress on the floor can be a great step up after a crib, instead of a toddler bed.

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    1. Make books accessible and create cozy reading areas.  The more that books are all over your house, the easier it is for your child to grab a book instead of asking for your iPhone or the TV when you are not available to play.

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To see growth in your child’s independence, it’s not necessary to reorganize your entire house (who has the time and energy for that?!).  Just pick one or two ideas and make little changes over time.  You might think your child is too young to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities for independence—but once she starts school, you might be just as surprised and thrilled as the LePort Montessori parents who wrote the Facebook posts above!

Thanks to Bernadette, a LePort parent of three children, ages infant to preschool, for inviting us into her house to take many of these beautiful pictures!

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.’”

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.

montessori preschool

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.

montessori preschool

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:

Summer Travel: Should you “app” it? – Part 2

There is an ongoing debate on how much technology-based engagement is appropriate for very young children. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time prior to age 2, for example.) Whatever the answer, the extra time with our children we have during summer travels is an opportunity to be cherished. A healthy dose of skepticism towards technology-based entertainment is, we believe, appropriate.

That said, something that is undesirable in excess is not necessarily undesirable in moderation. There may be times when an electronic device is a useful and perfectly appropriate way to entertain your child (think 10 hour international airplane flights!) Many of us adults rightly love our iPhones, Androids, Kindles etc.: technology, used correctly, can be a great tool.

So what’s the best way to use portable electronics with children? What guidance can we as Montessori educators provide for parents who want children to use these gadgets the right way?

Use gadgets purposefully and responsibly.

  • Beware of obsessive use. While it’s ok for a child to occasionally enjoy screen time, make sure that your child doesn’t become obsessed with your iPhone. One warning sign: if the child regularly prefers time with the gadget, over real-world experiences with you, you likely need to cut back on screen time.
  • Use technology as an enabler. There are great tools out there, from wonderful videos that explain the world (the show “How It’s Made” is one of our favorites!), to great tools (dictionary.com or a similar application should be on all parent’s smartphones!) Plus, not all content on the device has to be games or video: fill your device with chapter books that are great to read aloud, audio books, and music.
  • Don’t overestimate educational value. Games can be fun for children, and keep them busy. Just don’t overestimate how much learning goes on between a preschooler and a gadget: focus on the fun, and take any educational value as a bonus. That way, you won’t be tempted to give too much screen time, because it’s so educational!

montessori preschool

Select the apps you use carefully, with eyes wide open.

Technology has wonderful potential: It can provide a built-in control of error, enabling children to independently learn from their mistakes. It can combine audio and visual inputs, helping children, for example, to identify letter sounds, or to spell from dictation. It can individualize, for example by repeating letters or spelling areas that children struggle with.

Unfortunately, many educational apps and games are made by programmers, not educators. As a result, many apps have questionable pedagogical approaches. You as a parent need to be aware of these shortfalls. Be on the lookout for a few common errors, and you’ll be able to more easily weed through the huge number of apps out there to select the better ones for your Montessori child.

      • Beware of sticker shock. No, not in the sense of prices, but in the sense of sticker-like artificial phrase. Mindless cheers (“You’re awesome!” after every move!) or smiley faces are not a good source of motivation. Research repeatedly shows that internally motivated learning is much better than activity motivated by rewards. Good apps are inherently motivating, as the player progresses through levels and completes challenges. They should not require, on top of the challenge, constant clapping, cheering and stickers. Unfortunately, while many games aimed at adults recognize this, most apps for children fall into the fake-praise trap.
      • Avoid the clutter. Think Montessori classroom: simple, zen-like games that focus attention on the learning objective are much better than those that are full of clutter. Why do numbers have to swim in an aquarium, anyway?
      • Don’t go for boring stuff. Many apps are nothing by glorified flash cards. Flash cards don’t work in real life. Why would they work on a gadget? (No big danger here, though: your child will just not be interested, and the only damage will be to your pocket book!)
      • Beware of any “learn to read” app. Most are full of pedagogical errors and potential conflicts with your child’s Montessori experience. Here are just a few of the most common problems, which afflict almost every single reading app I have tried:


        1. Using letter names. In Montessori, we teach letter sounds, not names, because only letter sounds matter in learning to read. What does this mean: “kayayetee”? Can’t figure it out? It’s “CAT”, spelled using letter names. You can’t read that? Neither can your child! Yet most apps that teach letters use letter names. You’ll see a yak, a cow and wasp appear on the screen, and the child is ask to touch the animal that starts with “why” or with “double you.”
        2. Mispronouncing letter sounds and applying phonics wrong. Many applications that do try to teach phonics mispronounce sounds, saying “kuh” for the letter “k”, instead of just using the initial consonant sound. Other apps introduce phonograms incorrectly: for instance, they might show the word “pool”, and spell it out with the short letter sounds p, o, o, l, then say “pool”, without ever introducing the idea that “oo” has its own sound.  Confusing, not helpful!
        3. Using print, not cursive. Almost all apps use print letters, and often capital print letters. That’s not horrible if they are aimed at reading, but less helpful if they are focused on writing activities, such as tracing letters to learn their shape.
        4. Focusing on “sight words”, rather than decoding. Many apps follow the public school approach of teaching children to look at words as a whole to guess their meaning from their total shape, rather than sounding words out to make meaning. Memorizing decodable words or guessing at words is not a good habit for young readers to get into.

montessori preschool

So with all of these caveats, are there any apps that a thoughtful Montessori parent can use? I’m no expert on the app world, and as with anything parents buy for their kids, there is an element of personal preference. But after reviewing dozens of apps for my 3- and 5-year-old children, here are some that are better than the rest (although many still suffer from some of the issues outlined above):

      • Kids Finger Painter. This is a free-form painting app, and about as creative as you can get with a gadget. Kids select different colors and brush width, then create art work on the screen. They can even save the artwork when done!
      • My First Tangrams. This is a simple geometry app, best played on a larger screen, which simulates physical tangrams, where children arrange simple geometric shapes to make more complex figures.
      • Bugs and Buttons. This is an app with an adult game feel (high quality animations, nice background music), with several games that teach different skills (sorting things, making patterns, counting, fine motor control.) Very well made and not at all annoying!
      • Montessorium apps. Created by Montessori parents, these apps try to bring Montessori sandpaper letters, number rods and puzzle maps to the iPad/iPhone space. Quite well done, these apps are simple, use phonics, no cheering, and include materials familiar to your Montessori child.
      • SoundSeeker. This app is basically a sound game “I spy”, where children drag pictures to the letter that stands for their beginning sound. It uses letter sounds, but unfortunately has a heavy dose of cheering and sticker charts.
      • Montessori Crosswords. Nice app that simulates word building with the moveable alphabet. Offers a cursive option, works with letter sounds and correct phonograms. Has lots of options that go well with Montessori: for example, you can focus on specific sounds or phonograms to have your child practice.
      • PhotoTouch SightWords. This app simulates the 2nd period of a three-period puzzle word lesson. The child hears a word, sees between 3-10 different words on the screen, and has to touch the correct word. You can customize the difficulty from preschool – 3rd grade level, and even create your own items and lists (helpful for practicing phonograms, for example.)
      • CardDroid Math. This is a simple math facts practice app for Android devices. Nothing fancy, just math problems that children can do and self-check their work. Fully customizable problem sets: start with simple addition up to 10, and end with double-digit multiplication. You can even set a time limit, and challenge the (older) child try to improve against himself in math facts speed.
      • MontessoriTech apps. I haven’t had the chance to try these apps yet (they require an iPad, and I don’t own one), but from the description and screen shots, these sound like great apps for older primary and younger elementary students. They include the Stamp Game, compound words, and math facts with Montessori beads.

Have you found any apps that meet the criteria we discuss here? We’d love to hear about them in the comments, or just post them on our Facebook page, in response to the link to this blog post there.

Heike Larson

Summer Travel: Should you “app” it? – Part 1

Summer time, for many of us, means travel time! From day trips to the local beach, to weekends at Grandma’s house, to long vacations in different parts of the world, summer is an opportunity to get out there and explore.

But travel time also means being stuck in a car, train or airplane for hours on end. For families with preschool-age children, it’s hard to know what to do to pass the time in these situations.

Out come the iPad, Kindle, Android phone or another hand-held electronic device: what easier way to keep your child occupied? And if you just invest in the right educational software, so your preschooler can learn her letters while you can focus on driving or enjoy a summer book for yourself, then doing so is totally guilt-free. Right?

Well, maybe.

montessori preschool

There’s no question that electronic devices work very well in keeping preschool children occupied: videos and games do hold their attention. They do buy you quiet as you wait for a plane, or drive a car on longer trips. But are they really providing value? Are they the best use of the precious vacation time you get to spend with your preschool child—and are they optimizing your child’s vacation experience?

As Montessorians, we believe that its critical for a preschooler to view the world “out there”, the real world of people and places and objects, as a wondrous opportunity for discovery. This attitude is achieved through engagement with a caring adult who illuminates all the things to be encountered and explored.  So while we as parents may occasionally call upon select apps for help (more on good and bad choices in this blog post), our view is that we should also prioritize the value of finding ways to share experiences that are unique to the trip, or that we’re otherwise unlikely to share with our children.

By thinking ahead, we can plan for many fun (and educational) experiences, most of which don’t require us to add time to our travel. Here are just a few ideas as you prepare your preschooler’s “travel environment”:

  • Give a lesson on simplified map reading. Many Montessori preschool children have worked with maps in the classroom. While they can’t read normal maps, you can easily sketch a map on a piece of paper. Draw in a few highlights: a tunnel, a refinery along the way, a big farm, some mountains, an airport, a planned lunch stop. Ask your child to find these places for you as you drive. Label highways, and you can practice numbers.
  • Explore the world you travel through. Identify some unique features you’ll encounter, whether outside the train window or in your car. Provide your child with the language: “See that lake over there?”, “look, there’s an oil derrick”, “see this farm? They are growing oranges!” Especially on car trips, there is much to see. On one recent trip, we noticed lots of trucks loaded with tomatoes, and had an impromptu discussion about farming, the many things tomatoes are used for, and transportation.
  • People watch together. Airports are great for this: watch the people with your child. Discuss where they might be going, and why we think that. Notice people in different moods, and discuss their feelings: this child is really upset, this couple is in their arms and happy to see each other again, and so on.
  • Read together. For airplanes, bring books instead of video games. Scour the library for topics that might be related to your trip – Hello Ocean makes a great introduction to the beach, for example; About Mountains is a great springboard for discussing on a trip to go hiking. Click here for a suggested summer time reading list with ideas for common summer destinations.
  • Play anywhere games. Some can be educational: ask your child to count white cars, or to add together three raisings plus five raisins before you give them to her as a snack. For ideas on games for any situation, try Fun on the Run, a pocket-sized little book full of easy ideas that require just you, your preschooler and maybe a few things like crayons that you probably have in your purse anyway.
  • Sing songs together. Music Together, a company that organizes very popular preschool music programs, sells two CDs of wonderful sing-aloud songs, called Family Favorites. The best thing? These songs are actually fun to listen to for the adults, too! Or make up your own songs as you go along, to any familiar tune.
  • Read and memorize poems. For slightly older children, a long car ride can be a good opportunity to memorize some poems. Jack Prelutsky has a fun collection of silly rhymes. Ride a Purple Pelican is one of our favorites: it’s a great travel book, as many of the poems relate to places in the US and Canada. The Random House Book of Poetry for Children is a great collection of children’s poems from many authors, a number of which are short enough to commit to memory.
  • Bring simple arts & crafts supplies. Your Montessori child may delight in fun activities like tracing & coloring simple animal shapes (this book is a fun source of ideas), making art with stencils (my 5-year-old loves Mandalas), threading beads (just bring a little tray to keep them together in the plane), or cutting up and gluing together colorful paper mosaics. For Small Hands, a Montessori-oriented online store, has many read-made crafts supplies, a number of which can easily be done at an airport or in a plane.

montessori preschool

So back to the initial question: should you bring your iPad or other device? Our answer is yes, go right ahead. Just make sure to use it sparingly, so that it doesn’t take over the precious hours you can spend engaged with your child. This is your chance to make memories together—it’s worth the extra effort!  

(If you do want to use an electronic device, read on here for our thoughts on how to go about selecting games for your child. And don’t forget that chapter books work well on electronic devices, as do audio books!)

Heike Larson

Observing carefully and speaking clearly

When parents visit a well-run Montessori preschool classroom, they often are amazed to see the preschool teachers engaged in two activities not common in other preschools settings:

  • Observation. A Montessori teacher regularly steps back from interacting with the children to observe. Dr. Montessori likened the teacher’s role to that of a scientist, one who identifies salient facts about each child, strives to understand where that child is in his development, and then, on that observational basis, tailors her lessons to the child’s abilities and interests.
  • One-on-one lessons. While most preschools are primarily group environments, Montessori teachers in the preschool years deliver most of their lessons one-on-one. They tailor what they teach to each child, and to each particular moment in time, observing and responding to the child’s interest at that instant to make learning enjoyable and meaningful.
  • Recent research suggests that these two factors—observing the child and then providing language in response to the child’s interests in the moment, rather than just blanketing the child with verbal input—is the differentiating factor between children who speak early and well and children who lag in their verbal development.

    While prior research had pinpointed the importance of the volume of verbal exposure by contrasting children from language-impoverished families to those of professional parents, Dr. Catherine Tamis-LeMonda of New York University aimed to understand why children of affluent, well-educated parents differed widely in their rate of language development.

    In Dr. Tamis-LeMonda’s study, researchers analyzed how well-to-do New York parents interacted with their babies as they played with common toys and interacted over meals, then followed up over the next year, to track children’s language development.

    Even in this homogeneous group of educated, well-off parents, all of whom provided a rich verbal environment to their children, language abilities diverged significantly by the end of the observation period.

    Here’s how the results of the study are summarized in the book NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman:

    The variable that best explained these gaps was how often a mom rapidly responded to her child’s vocalizations and explorations. The toddlers of high-responders were a whopping six months ahead of toddlers of low-responders.

    Remember, the families in this sample were all well-off, so all children were exposed to robust parent vocabularies. All the infants heard lots of language. How often a mother initiated conversation with her child was not predictive of the language outcomes—what matters was, if the infant initiated, whether the mom responded…

    “I couldn’t believe there was that much of a shift in developmental timing,” Tamis-LeMonda recalled. “The shifts were hugely dramatic.” She points to two probable mechanisms to explain it. First, through this call-and-response pattern, the baby’s brain learns that sounds coming out of his month affect his parents and get their attention—that voicing is important, not meaningless. Second, a child needs to associate an object with a word, so the word has to be heard just as an infant is looking at or grabbing it…

    This variable, how a parent responds to a child’s vocalizations—right in the moment—seems to be the most powerful mechanism in puling a child from babble to fluent speech.

    Other studies have verified this mechanism: careful observation of young children, followed by verbal interactions that build upon the child’s interests, are the most effective way to stimulate language development.

    This is exactly what we do in our Montessori classrooms.

    In a Montessori classroom, teachers observe first, then provide lessons which tie language to specific objects or actions the child finds engaging.

    Take the Pink Tower. In this activity, a teacher will present to the child a series of ten pink, graded cubes, which the child builds into a tower. It’s an activity that our three-year-olds delight in. It allows them to move about the room; to learn to walk gracefully as they carry the individual blocks; to practice fine motor skills as they carefully balance the blocks to build the tower.

    The Pink Tower is a motor-skill activity, usually associated with the development of gross motor skills. But what’s interesting here, when we are concerned with verbal skills, is the way this activity is also an opportunity for language development!

    Here’s how: the teacher may observe a child building the tower. When he is done, she may quietly sit down next to him, and give a lesson on vocabulary related to classifying and comparing things by size. As she points to the tiny one centimeter cube the child has just proudly placed at the top of the tower, she says: “This is the smallest.” Pointing to the biggest one at the bottom, she says: “This is the largest.” Pointing to the block one up from the bottoms: “This one is smaller”, and so on. The child may take apart the tower, and the lesson may continue: “Can you put the smallest one over here?” and “Bring the largest one back to the stand first.” The teacher may complete the cycle by pointing to the tiny cube and ask: “Which one is this?”, to which the child excitedly responds, “It’s the smallest one!” The child thus learns important vocabulary in a moment when his own interests have primed him for such learning.

    This lesson is a perfect example of a teacher observing a child, and offering language that is tied to that individual child’s activity and interest, in the precise moment when the child is fully attentive.

    Contrast this with how language may be taught in a traditional preschool or school setting, where a teacher may collect a group of children to learn about vocabulary related to size. She may use similar graded blocks, and use similar words. She may be engaging, and the children may repeat after her in a chorus. No one would deny that language instruction is happening here. But notice that the learning is adult-initiated and adult-led, and the child’s ability to absorb language is not optimized. Group-based instruction of this type misses the key ingredient of responsiveness, which the research shows is essential in optimally fostering language development.

    Parents are often surprised at how quickly their children’s language skills blossom when they enter a Montessori toddler or preschool classroom. They are astonished that our preschoolers learn to read and write before they enter elementary school.

    We don’t do achieve this rapid verbal skills development by drilling children in group language exercises and forcing them to repeat vocabulary in rote ways. Instead, we do what we’ve now discovered is consistent with the guidelines of the most up-to-date research: we individualize our instruction to each child and the things that fascinate him in the moment.

    It’s all part of the Montessori “follow the child” approach. And as this research shows, it’s also something you can also try at home!

    Heike Larson

    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.

    Healthy eating starts with knowing foods


    private schools irvine

    In a recent segment of ABC’s Food Revolution show, host Jamie Oliver hypothesizes about the poor food choices made by children and adults alike. Oliver holds up common vegetables—tomato, cauliflower, potatoes, eggplant—and asks elementary school-age children to name them.

    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

    Tiger Mom vs. Enjoying Childhood: A Choice you Don’t Have to Make

    A recent article excerpting a chapter of Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has sparked quite a debate on parenting and educational choices.

    Ms. Chua and her supporters argue that it takes an authoritarian approach to parenting to prepare children for successful adulthood in today’s competitive world. For instance, Ms. Chua writes “My Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough.” Read more

    Choose Prevention, Not Treatment

    Two weeks ago, I read the following urgent requests for help on our local parenting resource, Berkley Parents Net’s “Advice Wanted” newsletter:

    Kindergartener’s writing skills not great – repeat?
    … The main issue we’ve had though has been his fine motor skills – particularly his writing. He’s doing ok but definitely in the lower part of the class, in terms of writing skills. … his writing is shaky and messy. When he rushes through it, it just isn’t super clear. He isn’t one to sit quietly—he likes to move through things quickly and I feel that is part of the problem. … I know that there is only more writing to come in first grade and I wonder what I can do to help him through this besides just practicing with him? How do I get him to slow down more and concentrate?

    Nonverbal Learning Disorder
    …  My [3rd grade] son scored exceptionally high for verbal, fine for math and very low for non-verbal [on testing in school.] His handwriting has always been awful, very poor fine motor skills, clumsy and poor gross motor skills, voracious reader, meltdowns at homework. No problem getting social cues or getting sarcasm and humor. I have now read just about EVERYTHING about NLD, especially the oft-repeated line about NLD has the highest suicide rate for all learning disabilities!

    9 year old twin with reading problems
    … one [fraternal twin] is struggling with reading and falling behind. They are in 4th grade, but she is still having trouble recognizing simple words that she has seen and heard many times. Three years ago she went through the public school’s individual evaluation process. They determined her reading skills were developing slowly, but that she did not need special attention. Now we believe she DOES need some help, and we are wondering where to turn.

    Three children, three sets of problems – but, in my view, one common denominator: an inadequate education system that does not properly, sequentially teach the skills children need to succeed in school and in life. While better schooling obviously cannot prevent all problems—some children of course do have real, inborn learning disabilities—I can’t help thinking that with better schooling, we would not see academic learning issues appear with such frequency or in such severity.  I can’t say that for sure, but reading these tragic commentaries left me wishing that more children had the opportunity to experience a Montessori preschool and elementary education, so that more people could evaluate the difference.

    Take the first case, poor handwriting skills, which appear to be in part due to an inability to concentrate on a piece of work for an extended time. The common assumption is that a child should naturally be able to concentrate. But in fact, being able to focus, i.e. to fully engage in a task for an extended period of time, is a learned skill. Not all adults are automatically able to focus on a task, and among those that can, there are radical differences in how well they can do it. Focusing is a skill that children must acquire at an early age, and the extent to which they acquire it depends on the quality of their educational experience. In a Montessori classroom, children get introduced to a wide variety of captivating materials that engage their curiosity, and with which they then practice for 30, 45 or even 60 minutes, during the long, uninterrupted work periods. Such materials are designed to help introduce a child to the process of sustaining attention over time—they are optimal for developing the capacity to focus. Whatever the precise impact such an environment makes, it is a known fact that Montessori students often persist in one task for hours at a time. Just anecdotally, my barely 4-year-old daughter just spent four hours at school a couple of days ago drawing a large map of the world with the outlines of all the continents, then coloring in the continents and oceans and labeling them by cutting out small pieces of paper with their names, and gluing them carefully on the map. Because of her Montessori experience, I am quite confident that she will not have issues concentrating on her handwriting, come Kindergarten…

    The second child’s struggle has to do with deficient motor skills. Again, motor development can be assumed to be automatic, or can be treated as a learned skill. In a Montessori classroom, motor development is something children work on sequentially over time. 3-year-olds begin with simple pouring exercises, which help with hand control and coordination; they may strengthen their pincer grip by transferring small objects from one container to the next. 4-year-olds may string small beads, us droppers to transfer water, or work with the Metal Insets to slowly build the finger and hand control needed to properly hold and control a pencil. Children learn to carry trays with materials, carefully navigating the obstacle course of mats, chairs and children around a Montessori classroom. In the process, they learn to control their bodies, strengthen their gross motor skills, and move purposefully.  While it is true that to greater or lesser extents fine and gross motor skills may just develop naturally, a Montessori preschool ensures that children develop these skills early and fully, before the lack of motor control becomes an issue in elementary school.

    The last child’s struggle with reading is somewhat harder to evaluate. No doubt, there are clear, defined reading problems that are not a result of a child’s educational environment. Still, what makes me suspect that a wrong educational approach may have something to do with this case is the mom’s concern about her daughter not being able to read words she has seen and heard frequently. Too many public schools still use the “whole word” method for teaching reading, where children are expected to memorize whole words on sight, as though English were Chinese, and words were irreducible symbols that had to be recognized whole. Nothing could be farther from the truth: English, as we know, is an alphabetical language, where letters or letter combinations stand for certain sounds. Montessori schools embrace this fact, and teach letters and sounds starting in preschool. With careful, sequential instruction that proceeds from individual letters to multi-letter phonographs such as “oo” and “sh”, and which includes a wide variety of materials, such as the moveable alphabet to build words, and the command cards to act out simple written instructions, our students internalize the sound-letter correspondence. They also learn common sight words as an adjunct to their phonetic development, but the emphasis is on decoding, not memorizing strings of symbols. This is why, by the end of their 3rd year (the Kindergarten equivalent), Montessori students know not only to read a short list of words they have seen many times before, but acquire a systematic approach to reading any word they encounter. The whole written world is thus opened to their exploration.

    My advice to parents, based on my experience working in education and my observations of my own children, is to proactively think about preventing such common problems as low attention span, poor motor skill development, or whole-word/guessing approaches to reading. Prevention works better than treatment. And, even more importantly, children who learn crucial skills naturally in preschool are much more likely to acquire and retain the love of learning that so often atrophies when children struggle unnecessarily in the early elementary grades.

    Heike Larson

    The Power of Play

    I recently came across a not-for-profit group called “Playworks.” This group provides coaches to public schools in underprivileged neighborhoods to help make recess a better experience. Here’s what they write on their website:

    For many elementary school principals, recess is the toughest part of the day. That’s when all the trouble starts—the teasing, fighting, bullying, injuries, referrals and suspensions. This video demonstrates the “before and after” effect when safe, fun playtime is introduced in the schoolyard. A trained Playworks coach teaches and runs games designed to build leadership and foster teamwork. As a result, kids are more physically active, and principals and teachers consistently credit Playworks for transforming not just the playground and but the entire school learning environment.

    Playworks is to be commended for its innovation. While Playworks focuses on underprivileged neighborhoods, the problem they address is present in many elementary and middle schools. When young children who have not yet learned mature interactions are left alone at recess, their worst tendencies come out. Uncorrected, recess can easily degenerate into a dreaded period of bullying, harassment and free-for-all. Many students who transfer to LePort, even those from reputable public elementary schools, comment on similar bad recess experiences. Read more

    Praise Effort, not Smarts

    With the New Year upon us, it is the time for New Years Resolutions. Here’s one that may strike you as odd, but that you may want to consider for your family: praise your children less.

    Odd as it sounds, this is a key insight by researcher Carol Dweck, as reported in the recent book “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children”, by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman.

    While many parents and teachers believe they can strengthen children’s confidence and help them achieve more by praising them for their intelligence and achievements, Dr. Dweck’s team of researchers has discovered that praising smarts can lead to an avoidance of challenges. Read more

    Choosing a School

    Before I started working with LePort, I once had the following encounter with a friend who was getting ready to send her daughter to school. She excitedly told me that her daughter had been admitted to the Kindergarten class of a private school in the Oakland, California area. Curious to hear more, I asked her how she chose the school. She told me, in great detail, about the school’s beautiful classrooms, the artist-in-residence program, the new auditorium, and the emphasis placed on diversity in the classroom.

    I nodded along, impressed. Then I asked her about the curriculum: what her daughter would be taught in Kindergarten and later grades, how the teaching would happen, the content and method of the school, etc. She didn’t know and hadn’t thought to ask about it.

    I often remember this encounter when I think about how difficult it is as a parent to figure out how to choose a school. We as parents aren’t education experts. Because we aren’t always sure what to look for, we sometimes get carried away with positives or negatives we observe in one category (e.g. facilities, the appearance of the school, or extracurriculars). We can forget that there are whole other categories that we aren’t considering or factoring into our decision.

    It would be as though you went house shopping, saw a house with a gorgeous kitchen that just knocked your socks off, then bought it at once on the basis of the kitchen. Only later you might realize that the plumbing needed to be ripped out and replaced, that there weren’t enough bathrooms to suit your needs, and that the layout was inconvenient, so that you wound up not using a good portion of the house.

    If you had catalogued in advance all of the different categories of things you wanted from a house—perhaps made yourself a checklist before visiting—you might not have been so immediately sold. You might have kept investigating and found a house that not only had a gorgeous kitchen, but that met all of your other needs as well.

    It’s the same when shopping for schools. Fancy auditoriums and stimulating extracurriculars are valuable and important, but there are other factors that may be even more important. I now know that one of the most important factors that most people don’t consider is the curriculum.

    The curriculum is what your child will actually be learning, and how (by what teaching method) he will be learning it. The curriculum is the difference between whether your child learns what he needs to learn or not. Parents should reserve a place of honor for curriculum on their checklist when they evaluate a prospective school.

    My guess, though, is that even when parents try to assess a school’s curriculum and teaching methods, they find themselves stumped—hence the need to rely on more visible markers like facilities and extracurriculars. Curriculum is a complex, intangible value that is difficult to evaluate when you visit the school. This is particularly true as it is often communicated in “education lingo”, such as “constructivist math”, “whole language”, or “arts-integrated curriculum”. Having spent some time looking at the websites of other schools, I was surprised at how little information they generally provide on the “what” and “how” of their teaching. (Though most do offer a lot of detail about buildings, athletics and arts programs.)

    To help demystify the intangible of “curriculum” and enable a parent to judge for him or herself, I like to break it down as follows (this is the advice we give to prospective parents at LePort, but it would apply to any parent who is trying to evaluate a prospective school):

    • Does the school have a clearly defined, written curriculum?
    • What core subjects does the school expect all children to succeed at?
      • Language arts—including spelling, vocabulary, writing and grammar as separate courses
      • Literature—with a focus on classics of today and yesterday (as against basal reader collections or adolescent fiction) 
      • History—taught as a chronological story which children experience (as against the disconnected grab-bag typically taught in Social Studies) 
      • Geography—taught as the fascinating study of different cultures 
      • Mathematics—taught with a dual focus on skill practice and conceptual understanding (as against rote facts memorization or “constructive math”)
      • Science—as the exciting discovery of the world, not a memorization of disconnected words and jargon
    • Does the school integrate personal development into each child’s day-to-day experience (as against a dry sermon on virtues)?
    • Does the school offer a wide range of extracurriculars, field trips and special events to build a community and to celebrate life?

    Heike Larson