Encouraging the Scientist in Your Preschooler

If you follow the discussions about education reform and improvement, you will have heard much about the deplorable performance of U.S. students in the STEM fields—Science, Technology, Engineering & Math—at the high school and college level. Effort to improve this performance usually centers on tougher standards and more testing, often for middle school and up.

We think that’s the wrong approach. The scientist in each child is born (or not born) in preschool.

In a Montessori classroom, the Sensorial Exercises are designed to foster an interest in the natural world. Here, during the formative years of their lives, children develop many key attributes of the successful scientist:

  • Observing carefully, with all senses. In contrast to computer screens, which are two-dimensional and primarily visual, the sensorial activities heighten observation skills by training all of a child’s senses. Children listen to differences in sound made by shaking cylinders to match, or tones in the scale made by the Montessori Musical Bells. Blindfolded, they match wooden tablets by their weight; other tablets by their heat conductivity or roughness of texture. They match taste and smell bottles; they arrange rods by lengths and cubes by volume. They put together complex, three-dimensional puzzles by using multiple sense modalities in conjunction.  Why does this matter? In addition to the fact that many professions, from cooks to research scientists, need finely-tuned senses, deliberate, sequenced observational training helps children become active observers of their environment. And of course, the world is a much more enjoyable place when we have the tools to notice and appreciate the beauty around us!
  • Categorizing things by their attributes. One of the key skills possessed by a scientific mind is the ability to ascertain similarities and differences, and to group things accordingly. In the Sensorial area of the Montessori preschool classroom, children learn precisely this skill. They identify attributes—length, width, height, color in wide gradations, taste, texture and so on. They acquire the vocabulary to accurately capture and describe what they see (mauve, magenta, crimson—instead of just "reddish"). They learn to sort and arrange things by their characteristics.
  • Developing a scientific vocabulary. Dr. Montessori observed that preschool-age children operate with an "absorbent mind", that is, they can learn big words in an effortless way, just by being exposed to them:

    We have to conclude that scientific words are best taught to children between the ages of three and six; not in a mechanical way, of course, but in conjunction with the objects concerned, or in the course of their explorations, so that their vocabulary keeps pace with their experiences. For example, we show the actual parts of a leaf or flower, or point out the geographical units (cape, bay, island, etc.), on the globe. (The Absorbent Mind, p. 175)

    As part of the sensorial exercises, we expose children to a range of scientific vocabulary: they are introduced to the names of different forms of leafs (palmate, acicular) as they trace and match them; they identify land and water forms (peninsula, archipelago) as they work with water and clay to make these features in miniature; they make maps of the world, and learn the names of countries and states; they learn the names of two-dimensional geometric shapes and three-dimensional geometric solids (triangular pyramid, rectangular prism). The primary value here is not even the specific terms that the child retains, but the fact that she develops an inner norm for what it feels like to use vocabulary to heighten and capture one’s observations. Language itself becomes a precision tool to classify and categorize the world one perceives, rather than just a series of vague impressions.

The preschool-aged child, given his proclivity for observation and retention, is naturally inclined to develop a passion for science. So whether your child attends a Montessori school or not, there’s a lot you can do at that age to support your child’s budding scientist within:

  • Spend at least half a day outside, exploring nature, on as many weekends as you can. In California, we are blessed with amazing nature, and a warm climate that enables us to be outside year-round. By taking your child out to explore the great outdoors, you naturally foster her interest in scientific inquiry. Whether she’s a toddler going on a short walk in a local park, picking up pine cones, rocks and flowers, or a five-year-old exploring the tide pools, unhurried outdoor experiences with you as a companion, engender an underlying fascination with the observable, natural world. The goal is not to make these instructional events: you’re not there to teach her about science so much as to let her use all her senses, let her explore at her pace, let her become enamored with the world around her, and curious about what makes it work. For ten fun things to do outdoors in OC, click here; this blog about OC parks is also full of great ideas; I refer to it often when I visit OC with my children.
  • Express enthusiasm for technology as well as nature. While it’s particularly important to explore nature, we sometimes forget that for our children, everything is new and unfamiliar, whether natural or man-made. If your toddler is drawn to the garbage truck every time it passes, or really likes the shininess of a railing’s metallic surface, or notices every time an airplane passes overhead, treat these moments as instances of scientific exploration. An early fascination with technological innovation is a common characteristic of great scientists.
  • Point out and name what you observe in the world about you. Just like we give children words in the classroom—for leaf shapes, for rocks, for land and water forms—you can provide much vocabulary in response to your child’s gaze and interests. Don’t worry if you don’t know all the scientific terms yourself: often, it’s helpful to just describe what you see—the bright red color of a maple leaf in autumn; the warmth of the sun on your skin; the fact that the sand is wet on the beach where the high tide covered it. If you can, and if your child is interested, do provide short explanations, of course—and use questions you can’t answer as a jumping-off point for joint research at home!
  • Ask and answer questions about how things work. Recently, I was getting ready to go out to a park with my six-year-old daughter, when she, out of the blue, hit me with this series of questions: "Mama, there are some things in life that I don’t quite understand. Why does the light turn on up on the ceiling, when I flick the switch in the wall? Were there always bananas—and if not, where did they come from? What pushes the water up in a straw when I drink? How come the water in the toilet stops by itself after I flush?" Welcome questions like this—and do your best to answer them. We took off the top of the toilet tank, and watched what happened. I didn’t know the vocabulary for all the parts either—but you can always look it up! "Let’s find out together" are great words to use often!
  • Include good, well-illustrated non-fiction books in your home library, and re-read them often. Picture books are a great way to introduce the fascinating world around us to young children. You can create many tie-ins to your excursions, for example, reading about constellations or moon phases as you spend time outside on a winter evening, or about marine creatures before you visit tide pools.  Books are also a great way to bring new vocabulary terms to life: make reading interactive, as you name the things you see on the pages, and, on the second or third read, ask your child to find animals or plants or tools on the pages.  Click here for a convenient Amazon list of some of our favorite non-fiction picture books for ages three to nine.

The preschool years are a wonderful time for making shared memories with your child. Going out into the world together, slowing down, noticing the sights, smells, sounds around us are wonderful ways to enrich your child’s preschool education—and to enjoy these precious years, when your child is so immensely curious, so aware and still so excited to be together with you.

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Holiday Gifts They’ll Love


The holidays are a great opportunity to come together as a family. In many families, they also are a time to express our appreciation with thoughtful gifts that align with our values, and that put big smiles on the faces of our precious children.

Unfortunately, among the many highly promoted toys that are commercially available this season, it may be difficult to find ones that foster the skills and attitudes at the core of your child’s Montessori education. If you are interested in finding gifts that help you support your child’s education at home, read on to discover gift ideas that your child will both love and learn from, and that, importantly, you will enjoy, not regret buying.


  1. Get into the kitchen and out into the garden.  Most children love to hang out in the kitchen and “help”. They love to garden along with us, or take a turn at handling tools. Commercially available toys allow children to pretend to do these things, often using cheap plastic replica hammers, pots, rakes, and pizza slices. Why not give them the real thing, and let them apply their Montessori-acquired skills toward doing the real job? For Small Hands is a great online store that offers real, high-quality tools sized for young children to handle comfortably. You’ll find everything from child-sized brooms and aprons to hand-drills, from gardening gloves to child-safe vegetable choppers.

  2. Game time! Needless to say, this doesn’t mean video games or games on TV… The holidays are perfect for starting a tradition of turning that TV off and instead playing games together as a family. Children as young as age three can play board games, such as Hi Ho Cherry O, the Ladybug Game or Sequence for Kids. Memory games—with wide ranges of pictures, from construction equipment to life on earth and more challenging I Spy versions—can be turned into "matching games" for 2-year-olds; with practice, some 4- or 5-year-olds will love to beat Mom and Dad at memory! Simple card games, such as Uno or Go Fish, can also be fun, especially if you start by playing them with the cards laid out openly, so you can help younger players. And older children may enjoy more challenging games: Shut the Box was a favorite at this year’s Game Day at LePort.

  3. Pretend play. Every child should have plenty of time for unstructured free play. Pretending to take on grown-up roles, working together to make up far-flung journeys, or acting out day-to-day situations is lots of fun. Children are creative, and can make a lot from a little, so you don’t have to buy much. Consider largely unstructured items, which inspire and not limit creativity, things like a play cape, a doctor kit or even a working stethoscope, some huge card board blocks, a child’s tent structure, and your little ones may be off to hours of play, especially if you also make sofa cushions, chairs, blankets and tables available to them!


  4. Let’s draw and do crafts together. With your child’s growing attention span and improving fine motor skills, he’ll soon delight in having quality and fun materials to be creative with. If you have the space, a two-sided easel can be great for the youngest ones to draw on a big, toddler-suitable surface, especially if you can offer nice chalk or poster paint. (Don’t forget the artist smock!) For older children, invest in drawing pads and high-quality colored pencils. If you want to help your budding artist to both learn to draw more things, and practice reproducing shapes (a key skill in writing), you may find one of the "How to Draw" series a great way to spend some quality time together. The step-by-step instructions for drawing animals, flowers, people or monsters are super-simple; 3-year-olds will delight in coloring the figures you draw for them, while older children will be excited to try their hand at tracing or copying the figures. Klutz books and activity kits also are a great source for creative inspiration, and so easy that even those of us who don’t think we are very good at crafty things can have fun with our children!

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  6. Head outside and play! Every child should have a collection of balls: even infants can enjoy easy-to-clutch open balls to throw around outside. Or try having fun with bubbles: this bubble wand is just amazing, and sure to be a hit, whether in your yard, or at the park. Finally, we keep coming back to balance bikes, which we wrote about in a prior blog post. These make great holiday gifts for children as young as age 2, and are a great way to get ready quickly for riding real bikes for older preschoolers.

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  8. Design and build. Unstructured building materials, from Lego Duplos to Citiblocs, from Magna Tiles to Zoob building sets, from Wedgits to wooden pattern blocks and the classic Tinker Toys, all foster creativity and offer lots of play value for the money.

  9. It’s story time. No surprise here: we think books are a must-have gift for your child whenever there’s a joyous occasion. If you haven’t seen our new 2012 list of favorite books yet, just click here to download these recommendations for preschoolers to lower elementary children now.

We hope you find some interesting new ideas in this list for your family, and that whatever gifts you choose add joy to your holidays and for the year to come.

Happy Holidays!

P.S. Do you have favorites you think other parents might enjoy? Please share them in the comments below, so we can add them to next year’s list.

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 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.

Toilet Learning, not Potty Training


Potty training: Just mention this word, and many parents of toddler cringe. Numerous books have been written about the subject–including variations on potty training for boys and potty training for girls–and parents and educators hotly debate the right time and approach for children to transition out of diapers and learn to use the toilet.

At LePort, we apply Montessori principles to this important childhood task: toilet learning is an integral part of our Montessori toddler program, and, of course, included in the program at no additional charge. (We say toilet learning, not potty training, for a reason–read on, and you’ll find out why!)

    • Toilet learning is a natural part of a child’s developing independence skill set. Being able to use the toilet without help by an adult is an important milestone to a child’s independence. In a Montessori toddler class, it’s just one natural step in all the other work on independence your child will engage in. In fact, many of the independence skills we teach him – hanging up his coat, putting on socks and shoes, learning to button and to close zippers, proper hand washing techniques – are skills that will make it much easier for him to successfully use the toilet by himself.huntington-beach-preschool-daycare
    • A respectful focus on learning, not training. Much advice on “potty training” includes relying on rewards (stickers etc.) and punishments. These extrinsic incentives, in our view, are detrimental to any learning process, including learning how to use the toilet independently. In the Montessori toddler classrooms, your child will instead encounter the toilet as a natural part of growing up. He’ll see older peers using potty chairs or low, child-sized toilets. He’ll be invited to try sitting on the toilet, as a natural part of changing his diaper. The child’s wish to imitate his older peers, his burgeoning desire to be master of his own needs, and his interest in a consistent routine are our best allies here. And, of course, our 1:6 (or in limited cases 1:7) ratio up to age 3 enables us to spend more time teaching than in other programs, where the ratio of staff to children sometimes changes to 1:12 at age two, long before most children have completed the toilet learning process!


    • An early start to learning. In a Montessori infant or toddler daycare setting, toilet learning starts early. When we diaper babies in our infant daycare rooms, we do so in the bathroom, to begin associating elimination processes with the appropriate location. We invite them to help: to lift up their legs, to climb up on the low changing table, to pull open diaper tabs. Once a child is able to stand up steadily, we start changing his diaper while he is standing up. We also invite him to sit on the potty, sometimes for children just barely over a year old. We never force a child to sit on the toilet or otherwise rush the process of toilet learning– but often, they become interested in these activities the same way they become interested in other things older children or adults do!
    • An encouraging follow-the-child approach. Montessori teachers are careful observers, introducing activities to children whom they judge to be developmentally ready. The same is true for toilet learning: while we encourage participation in the process from day one, our teachers watch for signs of readiness to start a more intensive, “official” toilet learning phase. Readiness, in this context, does not mean a child who declares, “I want to use the toilet and wear diapers” (although some 2-year-olds have been known to say just that!) “Potty training” readiness means a child who has mastered prerequisite skills (e.g., who has a dry diaper for longer periods between changes, who can pull his own pants down and back up) and who shows an interest in becoming more independent and/or in using the toilet (observing other children, asking questions, being interested in flushing, talking about bodily functions.) Once we identify a child as ready, we begin to work together with you, the parents, and switch from diapers to cotton underpants.


  • A joint school-parent effort. In order to help your child be successful at toilet learning, we work closely with you to identify the right time, and to put in place a consistent approach at home and in the school. For example, once your child starts, we want him to be in cotton underpants (no pull-ups!) for all his waking hours, at school and at home. Since some “wet events” early in the process are unavoidable, we work with you to start the process at a time when you can dedicate your attention to it at home, too. We provide detailed, written tips that we encourage you to follow, from the language to use (e.g., saying “Let’s use the toilet now that you are awake”, rather than asking “Would you like to use the toilet”, which invites a reflexive no from many toddlers!), to advice on clothing to wear, and common mistakes to avoid in the process. Every year, we also host one or several Parent Info Evening dedicated to potty training, where you can get your questions answered by your child’s teachers.

We have found that toilet learning the Montessori way is often much easier than parents expect when they first approach the “potty training” process. When parents and school work closely together, a child can easily complete toilet learning well before the age of three, the time the child transitions to the primary classroom, which requires him to be fully independent in the use of the toilet.

Books Children Love – LePort 2012 Suggested Books


Colder 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.

This is our third 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.


Books with shorter text and generally simpler vocabulary, perfect for younger primary children. Some of these books are also accessible for older toddlers.

Gentle Giant Octopus—by Karen Wallace
This title in the Read and Wonder series follows a mother octopus on her journey to find a place to lay her eggs. Written in simple language and beautifully illustrated, this book will introduce a strange and different creature to a child’s life.

The Lotus Seed—by Sherry Garland
Ba, a young Vietnamese girl, witnesses the fall of the Vietnamese empire, and picks a lotus seed as a memory. Many years later, after Ba emigrates to the US, her grandson loses the treasured seed! Still, a happy ending awaits…

Little Elephant’s Trunk—by Hazel Lincoln
Follow a young elephant in his native African savannah as he discovers the many uses of his initially annoying trunk.

Apples to Oregon—by Deborah Hopkinson
How did apple trees come to the west? This silly story follows a farmer and his family on their adventures as they move with a wagon full of little trees across the entire US. Fun reading, esp. when taking a road trip across the country!

Library Lion—by Michelle Knudsen
There are rules we must obey. But are there reasons to occasionally violate rules, even in the library? What if a lion comes to the library, and is the only one to help the librarian in distress?

Christmas in the Big Woods—based on the book by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This series is a sweet picture book adaptation of the famous Little House books. It’s a good introduction to life in America in the 1800’s, and a great first step toward reading the Little House chapter books series with your child later on.

Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin—by Lloyd Moss
This short, rhyming book cheerfully introduces the instruments of a classical orchestra, in a way even the youngest children can enjoy.

Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site—by Sherri Duskey Rinker
Sure to please all truck-obsessed boys (and girls), this beautifully illustrated story in rhyme follows the diggers, dump trucks and cranes as they finish up their fun work and settle down for the night.

Niccolini’s Song—by Chuck Wilcoxen
A night watchman at a rail yard discovers the power of his lullabies to help the trains sleep. When a strong wind wakes the town’s children, the trains help him in return. Great good night book for all train lovers!

Madeline—by Ludwig Bemelmans
This first book in the classic series, a Caldecott Honor book in 1940, takes children on an exploration of Paris, along with the spunky Madeline and her eleven friends.

These books have more advanced vocabulary, longer texts and more involved content.

A Street Through Time—by Anne Millard
In a series of fourteen intriguing illustrations, the award-winning A Street Through Time tells the story of human history by exploring a street as it evolves from 10,000 BCE to the present day. This book can be fascinating for 3-year-olds to use as an “I Spy” book – and children can come back to it in elementary to support their study of history and fundamental needs of man.

Pilgrim Catby Carol Antoinette Peacock
This picture books tells the story of the first Thanksgiving from the perspective of a young Pilgrim girl and the stray cat she adopts on her long, arduous journey to the new world.

The Gardener—by Sarah Stewart
Set during the Great Depression, this book follows a young country girl sent to live with her uncle in a time of need. It’s told through the letters the girl writes back to her family—a great opportunity to encourage older primary and lower elementary students to embark on letter writing on their own!

Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot—by Margot Theis Raven
During the Russian blockade of Berlin, the children were close to starving, and candy was an unheard luxury. Then an American pilot flying one of the “raisin bombers” begins to shower chocolate bars on the waiting children. This retelling of a true story follows the relationship between one little girl and her Chocolate Pilot, from their letters during the blockade, to their reunion decades later.

Story of the Orchestra—by Robert Levine
This book-CD combo is a very accessible way to introduce older preschoolers and elementary children to the instruments of a classical orchestra. Load the CD onto your mp3 player, to make it easy to play a specific track as you browse through this book with your child!

Snowflake Bentley—by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
As winter comes, this is a great story of science to share. A young farm boy in Vermont falls in love with snowflakes, and pursues his passion to become a world-renown expert and snowflake photographer.

Because I Could Not Stop My Bike—by Karen Jo Shapiro
This collection of funny parodies of famous poems will delight children and adults alike. The poems explore day-to-day topics – such as a dawdling daughter, a messy room, and macaroni and cheese – all in whimsical rhyme. Great read-aloud!

Emma’s Rug—by Allen Say
A young girl is an inspired artist, drawing beautifully. But what happens when her mother accidentally washes her inspiration rug?

These are books that 1st – 3rd graders can tackle on their own. Some are also good read-alouds to introduce younger children to chapter books.

A Dog on Barkham Street—by Mary Stolz
Edward is desperate for a dog of his own—and also desperate to be rid of the neighborhood bully.  This is a much-beloved story with a satisfying ending.

Caddie Woodlawn—by Carol Ryrie Brink
Growing up in Wisconsin during the American Civil War, Caddie gets into all kinds of adventures with her brothers, befriends the local Indians, and would rather run free outside than learn to bake and sew indoors.

A Lion to Guard Us—by Clyde Robert Bulla
What’s it like for three siblings to travel across the Atlantic by themselves in search of their father, in 1609?  Clyde Bulla has a talent for communicating engaging stories with simple narratives – perfect for the beginner reader.

The Sword in the Tree—by Clyde Robert Bulla
This is another straightforward Bulla story, set during the time of King Arthur’s England.  This is a page-turner whether you’re 7 or 47!

Thimble Summer—by Elizabeth Enright
This book is written with warmth and simplicity that is reminiscent of simpler times.  After 9-year-old Garnet Linden discovers a silver thimble, things start to happen:  the local draught finally ends, an orphan boy comes to live with her family, and her pig wins a ribbon at the county fair.

Mimmy and Sophie All Around the Town—by Miriam Cohen
Mimmy and Sophie are two sisters who are always there for each other as they find treasure, play in mud puddles, or otherwise explore their neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, during the Great Depression.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—by L. Frank Baum
A classic of American literature, this imaginative tale is accessible to a strong young elementary reader.  Join Dorothy and Toto as they make their way to the Emerald City in the land called Oz.

Socksby Beverly Cleary
Socks is one happy cat until his owners, the nice young Bricker couple, bring home their new baby.   Beverly Cleary at her best!

The Family Under the Bridge—by Natalie Savage Carlson
This is an unusual story about a crabby homeless man in Paris who acquires a ready-made family when three young children befriend him.

Follow My Leader—by James B. Garfield
After Jimmy is blinded by an accident with a firecracker, he has to relearn all the things he used to know.  With the help of a therapist, he learns to read Braille and to use a cane.  Then he’s given the chance to have a guide dog.  Learning to work with Leader is not easy, but Jimmy tries harder than he ever has before.




Selecting Early Readers For Your Child

As a parent of a new reader (my daughter is 5½ and will start the 3rd year of Primary this fall), I recently browsed the “early reader” shelves of my local bookstore. As much as I love bookstores—and browsing Amazon after the children are asleep—this particular excursion was not a pleasant experience.

Too many of the early readers available are plainly not suited for children who are just starting to read!

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In Montessori Primary, children usually learn to read phonetically quite early. They become proficient at sounding out phonetic words, that is, words that can be decoded using the basic sounds individual letters make. They also learn 2-3 dozen puzzle words or sight words (such as the, was, one, they, to, do, he),words that appear frequently and can’t be decoded.

Following this work, students are introduced to English phonograms: those tricky letter combinations (such as <ch>, <ir>, and <aw>) that make English such a challenging language to read and write.  There are more than 40 phonograms in English! 

This is a big task for a new reader.  It can take many months for a child to master enough phonograms to give her the fluency to tackle regular books.  Within the Montessori prepared environment, a child has a variety of materials that help her to practice phonograms.

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But where does that leave parents—who naturally want to provide their child with things to read outside of school?

If you turn to the commercially available early readers, such as the Ready-to-Read series or the I-Can-Read series, you’ll find that your Montessori emergent reader will struggle.  Why? 

These books define themselves as “early readers”, not by introducing a carefully sequenced progression of phonetic skills, but by using short sentences, 1- or 2-syllable words, and big print. The biggest problem is that a child cannot sound out many words in these books using basic letter sounds—and the phonograms that they do use are so frequent and mixed, that your Montessori child will flounder.  (The idea behind these books is that children are supposed to learn to recognize words by sight through repetition.  This sets a dangerous example to a young child that reading means memorizing whole words.)    

Here are a few random example sentences, with the non-decodable letter combinations highlighted:

“Class, don’t forget!”, Ms. Glass says. “Tomorrow is…” “Pajama Day” we shout in unison. (That’s a fancy word for all together.) –from Fancy Nancy: Pajama Day, a Level 1 I-Can-Read book.

He could ride him in a circle without knocking over the chair or the dresser. from The Horse in Harry’s Room, a Level 1 I-Can-Read book

It was almost school picture day at Robin Hill School. “There will be many empty spaces in our picture,” said Mrs. Connor. “Look at the Tooth Chart.”—from A Tooth Story, Ready-to-Read, Level 1

Ironically, almost every one of these highlighted sounds are standard English phonograms.  They are predictable letter-sound patterns that should become a central part of a child’s arsenal of decoding skills—if they’re presented to him in a sequential manner that provides sufficient repetition and review. 

But don’t despair: there is an alternative available: Flyleaf Publishing’s Decodable Literature Library. These books, written by former Montessori teacher Laura Appleton-Smith, are a treasure of decodable literature for Montessori preschool students who are becoming fluent readers.  That’s why we’ve invested in a full set of these books for each of our Montessori Primary and Lower Elementary classrooms.

Flyleaf Publishing’s books outshine the alternatives. It’s the one series we have found that enables our students to read independently and joyfully, and to acquire fluency and phonogram knowledge in the process. Here are just a few reasons why this series is the best early reader library that we have found in years of perusing offerings:

  • A focus on offering decodable text.  Reading Series 1 is over 95% phonetically decodable!
  • A careful progression through phonograms, providing lots of practice along the way.  Take a look at this excerpt from Frank the Fish Gets His Wish, with the phonogram highlighted:

Frank would sit in his pink shell and wish his wish, “I wish that I had a pal to swim with; to splash and swish and jump with. I would swim the rest of my swims in a dish if I just had a pal to be with.”

What’s more, Ms. Smith is a master at introducing many words with these phonograms, without sacrificing the quality of the prose!

  • A slow build on length and complexity of stories.  Children move gradually from short, simple sentences to longer sentences with more on the page, and more complex stories to follow. 
  • Great, engaging, fun stories. While many early readers are contrived constructions that are of low interest, this series offers wonderful stories children can relate to, and which are fun to discuss with our young readers.
  • Elaborate, beautiful language. In place of the choppy, repetitive sentences found in other early readers, these books have interesting vocabulary. This list of words is just a random selection from Pearl Learns a Lesson, the book focused on the /ûr/ sound and its different spellings: flabbergasted, hurled, alert, respect, blurted, disturb, smirked, fungus, damsel, goblet, velvet, perplexed, dismissed, lavender, yearned…
  • Beautiful illustrations. While many early readers’ illustrations are cartoonish, these books feature beautiful art that wonderfully complements the story, bringing it alive and supplying context clues to help readers make sense of the stories they read.

If your child is enrolled in LePort’s Montessori program, once he or she reaches the stage of reading the Flyleaf series, you’ll notice that she’ll bring them home to read with you as part of our 3rd year Primary and early Lower Elementary programs. (If you aren’t a LePort family (yet!), you may want to search out these books for your emergent reader; they are sold directly from Flyleaf Publishing via their web site.)

We hope you enjoy listening to your child—and rejoicing in her achievement—as she reads to you from this special 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 ( 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

Balance Bikes and Montessori

It never ceases to amaze us how joyfully Montessori preschool children learn advanced skills, and at such early ages. In our preschool classes, we often see 4-year-olds writing in cursive, 5-year-olds reading chapter books, and 6-year-old doing arithmetic into the thousands.

We know the reason: a prepared environment. When a preschool child is able to explore and experience materials designed to meet his particular capacities, he learns naturally and easily.

There’s no reason these same Montessori principles cannot be extended to the home environment. As parents, we can be on the lookout for materials that help our preschool-aged children learn other skills just as joyfully and early as they do in their preschool classroom.

A great example is bike riding. When my daughter was 3 ½ years old, she was able to ride a bike without training wheels. This is not because she has innately superior motor skills, but because she had the right materials. Instead of relying on training wheels to have her first biking experience, she learned with a balance bike (also called a running bike or striding bike, or pedal-less bike.)

A balance bike is a very small frame bicycle without pedals and without training wheels. A child as young as age two can sit on the saddle, and push off with his feet to move forward. Initially, children may just walk slowly, standing over the saddle, but as they gain confidence, they sit down, pushing faster and faster. Ultimately, they gain enough speed to lift up their feet and coast along, balancing on the bike. They breeze down hills, leaning into curves. They use the handbrake to slow themselves down, and put their feet up on foot pegs whizzing down hills. They learn all the skills for riding a bike (other than pedaling), effortlessly and playfully.

Balance bikes make learning to ride a bike effortless and fun, the same way Montessori preschool does for other skills:

  • Isolating the challenge. In Montessori preschool, we separate out component skills and teach them separately, in a way that makes learning each skill motivating. For example, the Metal Insets allow preschoolers to practice pencil control with an activity the child enjoys. Similarly, the balance bike isolates the challenge of learning to balance a bike, and makes it easy to master, in a step-by-step progression.
  • Establishing correct habits, from the get-go. Undoing bad habits is hard work, unnecessary hard work. That’s why Montessori preschoolers learn key skills correctly from the beginning, whether it is holding a pitcher correctly when pouring, completing a work cycle by returning the activity to the proper place on the shelf, or learning to write in cursive in preschool. Learning to bike with training wheels teaches bad habits: children learn to expect the bike to stay upright when not moving, as the training wheels allow the bike to do that. But real bikes actually require movement to stay upright! So when you take the training wheels away from a 5-year-old, he has to unlearn the bad habit of stopping with his feet on the pedals. That’s in part why it is often a struggle to get children to give up their training wheels!
  • Making learning fun: the “follow the child” approach. We all learn best when the learning process itself is fun. We like to try things independently, figure them out by ourselves, without constant corrections by well-meaning teachers. That’s why, in Montessori preschool, materials are designed so that they draw the children in, with a “control of error” built into the materials. The same is true with a balance bike: riding these little bikes is lots of fun for the children, and they can slowly, on their own, progress from just walking with the bike, to running with it, to ultimately lifting up their feet for longer and longer periods. No adult coaching or intervention is needed: the child is in charge, and he basically teaches himself the skill of balancing, in a fun, effortless, self-correcting way.
  • Learning skills during sensitive periods. In Montessori, we believe that children have specific sensitive periods, during which learning happens naturally and effortlessly. For instance, we see every day that learning beautiful handwriting is much easier done at ages 4-5, then in 3rd grade. The same is true for learning to ride a bike: with a balance bike, learning to balance on a bike is as natural for a 3-year-old as learning to walk; as many parents witness, learning to ride a bike later on can be much more of a struggle!

This summer, when you think about fun activities with your preschool aged child (for the time she’s not at Montessori summer camp!), consider buying her a balance bike. Take her to the park, and let her go. Watch, and see her skills develop: it’s great fun for the children, and so wonderful as a mother or father to see them proudly and confidently applying their growing skills in the park and on family bike rides!

(There’s a great video here of a 4 ½ year old boy learning to ride a balance bike, showing him progressing over 2 ½ weeks from walking to really riding!)