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Is Montessori Preschool Worth It For Just 2-3 Years?

This week, a parent asked the following question on Berkley Parents Net, a well-read Bay Area forum:

Hi there,

We are looking for preschools for our daughter, and are wondering about parents’ thoughts on whether sending your child to Montessori for just 2-3 years is worth the cost over other play-based daycares. We can’t afford to do a Montessori school for her whole education–do the two years make a difference?

Thanks for your thoughts!

Parent on Berkley Parents Net

It’s a good question, and one that I bet many parents have.

At age six, my daughter just completed a mid-year move-up from the Montessori preschool class to the Montessori elementary class, after about 3 years in the Montessori program at two different Montessori preschools, and my answer is a qualified yes—if two conditions are met.

  1. Even 2-3 years of Montessori preschool can have a huge impact, especially if you can make it possible for your child to stay through the critical third year of Montessori primary (the equivalent of traditional kindergarten.) Montessori preschool, done well, is a 3-year cycle: a child typically starts at age three, and spends a lot of time learning foundational skills during the next two years. He’ll strengthen his arm, wrist and hand muscles doing activities such as pouring water, washing tables, transferring objects with spoons etc. He’ll develop the skill of concentrating, by building the pink tower, matching sound cylinders, and making maps of the world by tracing puzzle pieces and coloring in the maps. He’ll be introduced to the letters of the alphabet with sound games and by tracing sandpaper letters; he’ll begin to build words with the moveable alphabet, and start to learn about math with number rods, spindles, and the bead materials.

    If he attends right from age three, then by age 5 (i.e. before kindergarten), he’ll typically have learned his letter sounds, will be able to write the letters and sound out simple words.  He’ll have learned the basics of numbers to 100 and beyond. He’ll be able to choose activities independently, complete multi-step processes, focus on a task for an hour or more. He’ll have developed strong social skills: taking turns with materials, sitting attentively at group time, asking for help politely without interrupting, and looking out for his peers, helping younger ones at tasks he has already mastered. All of these will get him more than ready for traditional kindergarten: in fact, many Montessori 5-year-olds have already accomplished most of what is expected of children by the end of Kindergarten! Yet it would be a shame to take him out of Montessori at this point…

    California writing standards – Kindergarten

    Because then, in the third year, the magic happens: with the careful preparation of the prior two years, most Montessori children make a HUGE leap in their capabilities during the third year in the program. Suddenly, they go from sounding out individual letters, to reading 2nd or 3rd grade level books. They go from carefully writing a few words, in still tentative cursive, to writing multi-sentence stories, in handwriting that’s better than that of many 2nd or 3rd graders. And they get math, progressing from concrete materials (like the Golden Beads) to arithmetic into the thousands.

    I’ve just seen it with my daughter: In September, at the beginning of her 3rd year in Montessori primary (the time she’d have entered kindergarten), she read longer, but still phonetically controlled books, like Mr. Sanchez and the Kickball Champ. Now, shortly after she turned six, she’s able to read real books, reading aloud entire shorter books like Amelia Bedelia or Poppleton to us,or alternating pages with me as we read chapter books like The Boxcar Children or In Aunt Lucy’s Kitchen. She writes longer stories, and her handwriting has become much more neat and consistent.

    After three years in the Montessori classroom, she’s not only made great strides in academics; she’s learned that work is fun (the story in the picture is a voluntary, Saturday-morning effort, not required homework); she can focus for hours at a time, a crucial prerequisite for all future schooling. She’s independent in fulfilling her own needs, making her own snacks, helping with cooking at home, taking a shower on her own, and getting herself ready for school and bed with nary any assistance from us. And, maybe most importantly, she’s developed a great self-confidence in her ability as a learner, and an eagerness to mentor and help others (including her little brother, at least most of the time.)

    If our daughter were to go to traditional school for first grade next fall (which she won’t), my main concern would be that she’d be bored, and that she wouldn’t be happy at being told to do things in lockstep with a large group of children. She’d probably resent the mindless worksheet work all too common in many other schools, and the need to do busy-work homework with limited choices. But at least she’d have learned to love learning, she’d have mastered reading, writing and the basics of arithmetic, so that no matter what class she’d enter, or what teacher she’d encounter, the basics would be there, for life.

  2. Make sure that you enroll in a real Montessori preschool. Unfortunately, the name Montessori alone doesn’t mean much: it’s not trade-marked, and anybody can call their preschool Montessori, whether or not they abide by the philosophy. Many preschools, in fact, take some pieces of Montessori, but then mix it up with different ideas, so that some preschools are really mostly play-based preschools, with some Montessori ideas and activities thrown in.

    So what is a parent to do? I didn’t know much about Montessori four years ago, so I picked a “Monte-sorta” preschool for our daughter, and later found I needed to move schools to give her a real Montessori preschool experience all the way through her third year of the three-year Montessori cycle. Now, I have a cheat sheet for you: here are four things to look for in assessing whether a school is a true Montessori preschool.

    • Mixed-age preschool classrooms: ages 3-6 in one class. Much of the Montessori preschool magic depends on a family-like community of mixed ages, where one teacher leads a child through three years of development. So ask each school you consider, before you even tour: do you have mixed-age classes, or do you separate out the kindergarten aged children? Many schools bow to convention and have narrower age ranges (2-3, 3-4, Pre-K, K): those are not authentic Montessori programs.
    • A three-hour, child-led “work period.” Freedom of choice and time for child-led, uninterrupted exploration of the Montessori materials is indispensible for your child to have the full benefit of Montessori. Good schools offer 2 ½ to 3 hours of “work time” in the morning, and 2 hours in the afternoon—time that’s not interrupted by any mandatory group activities, such as circle, snack, or teacher-led arts & crafts. Many so-called Montessori schools instead have at most 90 minutes of work time, and then lots of play-based type group activities.
    • AMI or another year-long, in person Montessori training. Being a Montessori teacher is a challenging calling: the teacher must master hundreds of activities, each of which have special ways of presenting them, all of which need to be taught in a certain order, and only when a child is ready for them. That’s why the best training programs, such as that offered by the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), take a full year of full-time, on-site training under the guidance of master instructors—and why the best Montessori schools then pair up new teachers with a more senior, Master teacher, for at least 6-9 months, to learn the craft. Be wary of teachers who only have a “quickie” training, have learned their craft via a distance, internet learning course, or who are only trained “in house.” While some of these may be wonderful teachers, you can’t assume that; you’ll want to spend a lot of time observing in their class, or ideally have a knowledgeable Montessorian observe in the class to assess whether the teacher able to implement an authentic Montessori preschool program.

    • Teaching cursive handwriting. Most Montessori preschools, even some excellent ones, have bowed to the unfortunate standard of teaching print for handwriting first, then re-training children in 2nd or 3rd grade to write cursive. If you see a preschool that teaches cursive from the start, as intended by Dr. Montessori because it is consistent with a child’s motor development needs, this is a good indication that the school is taking Montessori seriously, and is willing to do what’s right, even if it’s not the easy path. But don’t take the lack of cursive as a death blow: while the first three criteria are must-have items for great Montessori preschools, this last one is just an indicator, and I wouldn’t throw out an otherwise good preschool if it taught print.

The Fundamental Choice

It is the child who makes the man, and no man exists who was not made by the child he once was. Dr. Maria Montessori

Last May, I had the opportunity to observe a kindergarten and first grade class at the local elementary school my then 5-year-old daughter would have attended in fall, if we went the public school route.

The school I observed is about as good as it gets in public education. It’s a “Blue Ribbon”, “California Distinguished” school, with standardized test scores in the top 5% of the state. It has families all over the city vying for spots. The principal, whom I had the pleasure to talk to at length, is a kind man and a good listener; he struck me as the type of educator deeply dedicated to providing the students in his charge with a quality education.

private-school

Generally, public schools are reluctant to allow observations by prospective parents. After I shared that my daughter attended Montessori school, and that I was concerned how she would transition to the public school environment, the principal made an exception to his usual policy and invited me to observe some of his best classes.

I saw a lot in the time I spent in each of two classrooms. The kindergarten students were working on individual letter sounds q, v, and z. The 1st graders were writing 3-4 sentence paragraphs and working with numbers up to 100. The contrast with a Montessori classroom was dramatic. Kindergarten-aged children in a Montessori environment are reading real books and writing multi-sentence stories in cursive, and elementary 1st year students are writing page-long stories, reading chapter books and doing arithmetic into the thousands.

But while the contrast was dramatic, it wasn’t surprising to me. I went in expecting this difference in academic progress. What really took me by surprise was just how deep the difference between the programs went. The traditional classrooms I observed were, in a thousand ways large and small, training students to conform passively to adult rules and expectations—a completely opposite behavioral mindset than the active-minded independence we encourage in Montessori preschool and elementary programs.

Let me share just two small observations among many, one from each class.

First grade: Teachers as guides or as servants? Children as independent actors, or passive observers?

In the first grade class, the children were studying how seeds grow into plants. Each child was asked to observe how a few lima beans and sunflower seeds germinated, and to record their observations in a science journal—a project that you might well find in a Montessori lower elementary classroom.

But here is how the project was implemented in this classroom: the teacher walked around the tables in the room, stopping by each child. She tore off a paper towel, put it on a plate, and sprayed it with water. She then had the child put the lima beans and seeds on the paper towel. After that, the teacher folded the towel, and inserted it into a zip lock bag, upon which the child had written his or her name. Over the entire 15 minutes I observed, the teacher was occupied making these kits for the children, while children were apparently supposed to be working independently on other tasks, but in fact spent much time chatting and mingling without a clear purpose, as the minutes ticked by. The teacher completed the kits of approximately 6 out of the 30 students in the room, suggesting that she was going to be occupied by kit making for well over an hour that afternoon.

private school

As someone familiar with Montessori rooms, I could not believe that the children had such a passive role! This was a class of 6 ½ to 7 ½-year olds, fully capable (one hopes!) of tearing off paper towels, of wetting them by using a sprayer, of counting out beans and seeds and placing them on a towel, and so on. These children could have and should have made these science kits by themselves! Instead, the teacher did it for them. The teacher was in charge, the students, outside observers of their own education.

I couldn’t help but contrast this with how the same experiment would happen in a Montessori classroom. The teacher might take 10 minutes in the morning, collect a group of students ready for this experiment, and give them a brief introduction, describing the purpose of the work and demonstrating how to assemble the experiment. She would then set up a table with all the materials, and invite the children to make their own kit. The children would autonomously make their own bags, taking turns at the table. They would have ownership of their work, and reinforce many practical skills in the process. They would help each other if one got stuck, with the teacher monitoring from afar to ensure that the peer interaction was to mutual benefit. The teacher would gain over an hour to dedicate to her actual job, helping students learn, rather than spending her time in essentially the role of an unwanted nanny or servant, doing things to children perfectly capable, and almost certainly eager, to do them for themselves.

Kindergarten: Respect for intellectual independence, or conformity and obedience?

In the kindergarten class, I arrived during a silent work period. I was pleasantly surprised at first: after all, independent, engaging, self-initiated work is the core means to develop concentration skills in children!

But when I observed more carefully, here’s what I saw: these 6-year-old children were totally silent. Not one word was spoken. They were glued to their desks, upon which were found things like play dough, simple coloring pages and other very basic activities typically undertaken by 3- or 4-year-olds in a Montessori class. Some children were engaged, but many more seemed bored and disengaged.

And then the work period ended. The teacher turned on the light, and started counting, loudly: “Five, four, three, two, one. All eyes on me!” Without giving children time to process her expectations, she immediately started directing her students: “Sara, put that down. Ian, stop. Look at me, now. Come on class, remember our agreement: when I count, you stop working. Let’s try that again. Put your fingers on your noses, all eyes on me!”

I stood, stunned, as I saw these twenty-odd six-year-olds touch their noses, line up, and stare at the teacher. I cringed as they were ordered to clean up, pronto (“you have three minutes to clean up, then please find your spot on the carpet” and “Peter, you are late, pick up your pace.”)

Compare this scene with the work periods I observe regularly in Montessori classrooms. There, children have 2-3 hours of uninterrupted work time, twice a day. During this time, the classroom is calm, but not eerily silent, as children are free to move about, talk in appropriate volumes as they work with friends, and select from a wide range of stimulating activities much more engaging than play dough or coloring pages.

private school

In such a Montessori room, here’s how the work period might end: the Montessori teacher would ring a small bell, and speak gently in a quiet voice, “Children, I invite you to finish up your work and put it away if you are interested in coming together in circle.” After this request, children are free to complete their activity, and to put it away on their terms. A child immersed in an advanced task might continue with it, even as the other children join the circle and the teacher starts reading a book or singing a song. Another child might leave his work out, with his name badge on it, so he can continue and finish it in the next work period.
Consider the difference. In the public school class I visited, the implicit theme is obedience to adult rules. In practice, students learn to conform habitually and unthinkingly to cues and prompts and commands. In a Montessori class, in contrast, the theme is respect for each individual, and the result is that a child develops the ability to responsibly take care of his own work, learning how to act freely while also considering the needs of others.

I cannot be sure how representative my observations are of public schools in general. As a parent, if you’re considering public school, you should definitely make the time to observe the school and classroom your child would be joining. What I know is that this was a highly-rated school, and the two classrooms I observed were chosen by the principal as examples of what a good public school education can look like.

If what I saw is indeed indicative of a pervasive characteristic of public education (and sadly, I suspect it is), then the implication is that in choosing between a public school and an authentic Montessori school, you are making a choice that goes far deeper than just the difference in academics. You are choosing the type of implicit values that will be emphasized to your child: respect vs. obedience, creativity vs. conformity, active-mindedness vs. passivity.

As Dr. Montessori put it, it is the child who makes the man. I’d encourage you, in judging your child’s future classroom, to ask yourself what kind of man or woman you want your son or daughter to become.


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

Why Choose a Montessori Preschool

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

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

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

montessori preschool irvine huntington beach

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

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

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

Trevor Eissler

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

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

Trevor Eissler

montessori preschool irvine huntington beach

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

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

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

Trevor Eissler

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

montessori preschool irvine huntington beach

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

Montessori vs. daycare: what is the difference for your toddler?

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Here’s a difference parents often ask when they come to tour at LePort: What are the main differences between a high-quality Montessori toddler program, and a traditional daycare center?

Our first answer is this: seeing is believing! Come in for a tour at LePort, then compare what you see to your observations at a traditional daycare. If you haven’t toured yet, please contact us to schedule a tour and observation.

When you come in for a tour, or if you reflect on a tour you may have recently gone on at a daycare center, here are some difference to note between Montessori for toddler and daycare:

  • A focus on child-led exploration, vs. adult-set group activities. Typical daycare centers have adult-set schedules in which children are shuffled into a new activity every 20-40 minutes: circle time, followed by art, followed by outside play etc. Typically, the whole group is required to move together from activity to activity, whether they’re engaged in the current activity or not. Instruction happens in a group setting, at a group pace, even if some children move more slowly or more quickly. In contrast, the Montessori toddler program supports a child’s budding independence and his self-discovery. Children have the luxury of time to choose their own activities, and to fully explore them at their own pace. Most instruction is one-on-one: teachers give short 5-minute presentations to individual children, after which they are given an opportunity to continue practicing until they’re satisfied.

  • A calm, orderly environment, vs. a messy, noisy place. Many daycare settings have a high noise level, and some seem proud to announce how messy they are! While there is a time for messes (we love for children to play in the mud, to finger paint, or explore foam), in general, the Montessori toddler environment is surprisingly calm and orderly. Since our goal is to enable children to learn to focus, to engage joyfully in a chosen activity, we need to provide them with an environment where they can do so without constant interruption and distraction!

  • A 1:6 ratio, vs. a 1:12 ratio. Most daycares in California switch to a 1:12 ratio at age 2, to save money. A 1:12 ratio, unfortunately, makes it all but impossible to provide a quality learning experience for toddlers. At age 2, a child can’t yet dress himself independently; he still needs help using the toilet; he isn’t able yet to clean up independently after play. By necessity, a 1:12 ratio means adult have to do these things for the children: there just isn’t the time to teach! In contrast, at LePort Montessori, we maintain a 1:6 ratio (or in limited cases a 1:7 ratio) all the way to age 3. This enables us to actually teach our students: to support them in toilet learning, show them how to dress themselves, and engage them in individual lessons with the many activities on the Montessori shelves.

  • Trained teachers, vs. revolving-door daycare providers. Most childcare staff have minimal training (often, just the 12 Early Childhood Education Units required by law.) Many daycare centers have high staff turnover as poorly trained and poorly paid daycare providers get burned out with the challenge of managing 12 toddlers. In contrast, at LePort Montessori, our lead teachers either join us with a Montessori teaching credential, often from an AMI training program, or complete their training while employed with LePort. The LePort head teacher turn-over is below 10%, a number unheard of in typical daycare settings!
  • Oversight by a Montessori-trained Head of School, vs. administrative management. Each LePort Montessori campus is lead by a Montessori-trained Head of School. This experienced master teacher has the full time job of monitoring all the classes at campus and ensuring consistently high standards. The Head of School regularly observes in all classrooms, provides feedback to teachers to help them improve their practice, and actively works with parents to resolve any student issues. In contrast, most traditional daycare centers are run by administrators, not by educators. (In addition to the Head of School, LePort campuses have one or two additional administrative staff whose job is to meet parent needs and address operational tasks, so that the Head of School can truly focus on maintaining high classroom standards.)

  • A deliberate, educational program, vs. all-day play. We agree that free play is important to children, and encourage parents to provide imaginative play activities at home. At the same time, we know that in the right environment, toddlers are eager to learn through exploration and practice. Toddlers in a Montessori program are surrounded by exciting opportunities to develop their skills: they practice opening and closing containers; they learn to button shirts; they identify objects by touch, sort things by color, transfer items with spoons, learn to pour water, put together puzzles, learn to cut with scissors, sew with laces, string beads, and so much more! The activities we offer in the toddler class provide a welcome change from what children typically find at home. This is in contrast to many daycare settings, where shelves and boxes are full of the same things your child already has at home—Duplo legos, blocks, wooden trains, cars, dolls, dress-up cloths, noisy plastic toys, and the like.
  • Grace and courtesy, vs. group conformity. Many parents want their child to become socialized when they enroll her in a daycare or preschool program. But “socialization” can mean different things in different settings. In a Montessori toddler program, we guide children to develop what we call grace and courtesy. We establish some clear rules that support a peaceful classroom: for instance, children may only take activities from shelves, never from another child. We give children the language they need to express their needs (“I am working with this; you may have it when I am done,” “I don’t like it if you talk loudly,” or “I feel angry because you messed up my work.”) Teachers model benevolent and cooperative behavior, for example, by shaking hands while looking into a child’s eyes as the child comes to class, or demonstrating how we politely offer food to a friend at snack time. The Montessori focus on teaching individual, pro-social skills is different from the group conformity at many daycare programs, where developmentally inappropriate skills, such as sitting still for an extended circle time, or indiscriminate “sharing” of toys may be expected from toddlers, without regard for the actual cognitive and emotional needs of the child.
  • A focus on developing inner discipline, vs. obedience training. In Montessori, the goal is to help children acquire self-discipline: we want children to understand the right course of behavior, and to be internally motivated to behave well. Our teachers don’t expect immediate obedience from toddlers, nor do they offer rewards (praise, stickers etc.) for good behavior, and punishment (time outs, for example) for bad behavior. Instead, we believe that children naturally want to do and be good, and that by setting up the right environment, and modeling kind, respectful behavior, we can guide your child to develop inner discipline. When a child does misbehave, we emphasize positive alternatives. For example, when a child runs in class, we don’t chide him, “No running in class!”; instead, we calmly explain, “We walk in class. Let’s go back and walk to the sink together.” And because we have mixed aged classrooms, older returning students are able to model healthy behavior; younger children benefit from the example of their older peers, and older children benefit from the opportunity to mentor and guide their younger peers.

Does our Montessori approach work? We invite you to come and see for yourself! Most parents are astonished to see how calm, capable, confident and serenely happy the children in our Montessori toddler rooms are. If you doubt that your own rambunctious, active toddler could ever be like that, rest assured that the children you now observe calmly seated eating snack together came to us no different than your child. The Montessori toddler environment really is that different for other daycare settings, and that’s why Montessori children behave differently, too!

The Sensorial Area in Montessori Preschool: Where Young Scientists Are Born

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A preschool child is fascinated by the world around him: eager to explore it, always asking questions, constantly getting his fingers into everything.  As he does so, he acquires a tremendous amount of information – about animals, people, plants, common household objects, etc.  He makes observations at home, in the park, at the store, on vacation.

In the Montessori preschool environment, we help him organize his wealth of information into an orderly store of knowledge.  We guide him to observe carefully and provide him with a systematic way of conceptualizing the world around him.

The Sensorialareaof a Primary (preschool/kindergarten) classroom is where this training happens.  Children work with a range of materials, each of which varies in a single attribute; for example, the length of the Red Rods, the shade of each Color Tablet, the texture of the Fabrics, or the pitch of the Montessori Bells.  In using these materials, children learn to observe carefully and to order, match, or sort objects by their attributes.

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Each Sensorial material presents to the preschool child one special key to the world.  Dr. Montessori conceptualized the idea of keys as a way of introducing significant aspects of this vibrant world we live in to the young child.  Keys serve as jumping-off points for learning more about the world.

Work with the Sensorial materials also broadens a child’s vocabulary.  Once a child has experience with a material, the Montessori teacher introduces the appropriate words to fix the new idea in the child’s mind: “This rod is the longest”, “Feel how smooth this silk is”, or “Listen how these two bells have exactly the same pitch.”

Preschool children spontaneously apply what they learn from the Sensorial materials.  For example, a child who has practiced matching and grading the Color Tablets will naturally begin to notice things about color in his surroundings that he previously didn’t.  It is not uncommon for Montessori preschool teachers to hear a 4-year-old remark things like, “That’s dark blue”, “This green is lighter than that green”, or “This grey matches that grey.”  A child who has explored shapes from the Geometric Cabinet and has learned their names will start to identify shapes in objects around him (“That stop sign is an octagon!”), buildings (“Those windows are squares!”), even food (“The yolk is a circle!”).

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If a child is unsuccessful with a Sensorial material, we do not correct him directly.  Rather, we observe and note any errors, and re-present a lesson from start to finish at another time.  We might offer a point of interest, a detail that is important for the child to grasp in order to get full benefit from a material.  E.g. “Watch how I line up the Red Rods neatly along the edge of the rug as I order them.”  As always, we then invite him to continue working with the material independently.  The preschool child eventually learns to correct himself, as the control of error is often a combination of his own developing discrimination and the materials themselves.  For example, with the Brown Stair, the child will experience visual disharmony if he sees that the stair is out of order.

There are formal games and extensions that are connected with every Sensorial material.  With the Botany Cabinet, for example, the child learns not only to trace and recognize a variety of leaf shapes, but also to connect these to actual leaves he might collect on a nature walk.  Once he is writing, he might enjoy creating booklets about the different kinds of leaves or, more broadly, other parts of a plant.  The Puzzle Maps are a great example of work that extends throughout the Primary (preschool/kindergarten) years.  For instance, initially the child simply learns how to put the United States puzzle pieces back properly in the frame.  By his second year, he learns the names and locations of each state.  By his third year in Primary, he might begin to create his own beautiful map of the United States, carefully tracing and cutting out each state, pasting them accurately on a large poster-sized paper, and proudly labeling each of them.  A child is also welcome to make his own discoveries and variations.  Perhaps he might recognize the similarity between the Pink Tower and Brown Stair, and build them side by side!

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Beyond all of this, the Sensorial materials are significant in that they indirectly prepare the preschool child for later work in language and math.

Early Sensorial work, such as the Cylinder Blocks, indirectly prepares the child for writing and reading.  As he uses his pincer, or three-finger, grip to grasp the knob of each cylinder, he strengthens and prepares his hand for holding a pencil.  Touching rough sandpaper on the Rough and Smooth Boards will feel familiar to him when he traces his first Sandpaper Letter, the key Montessori preschool material for introducing the sounds and letters of our alphabet.  Tracing geometric shapes as well as puzzle map pieces increase his fine motor control and precision of movement.

The Sensorial materials also prepare the child for math work in a variety of ways.  Many Sensorial materials (just a few examples are the Pink Tower, Brown Stair, and Knobless Cylinders) are designed in series of ten, which reflects our base 10 number system.  Several others provide a thorough introduction to geometric shapes, solids, and the unique, constructive properties of triangles.  The Binomial and Trinomial Cubes are three-dimensional puzzles based on the binomial and trinomial equations, respectively.  The Red Rods, of course, are a prerequisite for the red and blue Number Rods, which solidify a child’s grasp of quantity and his ability to count to ten with one-to-one correspondence.

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Through sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound, the Montessori Sensorial materials provide opportunities for the child to classify and clarify the world around him.  If you are a LePort Montessori preschool parent, we invite you to enjoy getting a closer look at these materials and to see them in action during your next Watch Me Work Wednesday visit!


The Dual Purpose of Montessori Preschool Practical Life Activities

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The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy. Dr. Maria Montessori

Students new to Montessori preschool spend much time in the Practical Life area of the classroom, where shelves are filled with activities for dressing, food preparation, sweeping, polishing, and so on.  In a variety of ways, Practical Life activities provide the preschool child with skills for self-care, caring for the classroom environment, and all-around independence.

This independence is a critical aspect of a Montessori preschool education. As Dr. Montessori wrote:

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

A 3-year-old preschooler, with proper instruction, is able to do many things for himself and can start to contribute meaningfully within the classroom or family community, too. It is in the Practical Life area of the Montessori preschool classroom that your child learns these skills – and you can help him by encouraging him to be independent and helpful at home as well:

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  • Preparing food. 3-year-old preschool children love to do real work they see us do. In class, they often prepare snack for friends: peeling and cutting carrots, cutting and serving bananas, preparing apple and cheese trays.

    At home, your preschool child can become a true helper in the kitchen and participate in real cooking activities. Invest in some good tools, like the ones available from For Small Hands, and you’ll be rewarded as your preschooler begins to peel vegetables, measure ingredients, and clean up small messes. By a child’s 3rd year (age 5 – 6) she might be capable of taking over much of the meal prep:   My 5½ year old daughter recently prepared most of a taco dinner for us, cutting tomatoes, helping sauté the chicken, putting condiments into bowls, and setting the table for the family. She even surprised me by heating the tortillas in the oven, taking the oven mitt out of a drawer before she put the baking tray into the oven. I had never taught her that—I didn’t even realize she knew where the oven mitt was stored!  If you welcome your children into the kitchen while you work and narrate what you do and why, you’ll be surprised by how much they pick up, and how eager to participate they become! 

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  • Cleaning up. Washing a table is a favorite Practical Life activity. It involves many steps and materials, and we build up to it slowly, teaching each component skill: students learn to squeeze sponges by transferring water between small containers; they learn to pour water by first pouring beans, then lentils, then rice, then water with small pitchers; they learn how to operate a faucet, making sure to turn off the water when done; they learn to put on an apron; they learn to fold a cloth; they learn to put materials away after completing their work. The table washing activity puts together all these skills:  It’s amazing to see a 3½- or 4-year-old complete this rather complex, multi-step process.

    At home, you can encourage your child to participate in cleanup after a meal—from bringing dishes into the kitchen, scraping food into the trash, and placing them in the dishwasher, to wiping down the table and sweeping up food crumbs from under it.  

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  • Taking care of plants. All of our Montessori preschool classrooms have plants, and taking care of them is a great Practical Life activity. Students learn to dust leaves, cut off and dispose of dead leaves, and water the plants. They also learn how to arrange flowers to help beautify their classrooms!

    Your child can enjoy similar tasks at home by selecting a few small plants at a garden store with you and then being entrusted with their care.  Observe her pride and attentiveness as she thinks to water her plants and keep them healthy.  And, of course, if you have a garden, by all means invest in some child-sized tools so your preschooler can help you. Planting vegetables and fruits and harvesting them is not only a great Practical Life experience, it’s a great opportunity to awaken an interest in science, too.

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  •  Getting dressed and taking care clothes. The Dressing Frames are a set of Practical Life materials that enable children to learn how to manage common fasteners, such as zippers, buttons, snaps, belt buckles and shoelaces. Within his first year in the Montessori preschool class, your child will round out his dressing skill set. He’ll also refine other skills, such as folding cloths, sorting things by color, and placing things into their proper spots on shelves.

    With these skills, your preschool child will soon be ready to take care of much of his daily clothing needs. A 3½ or 4-year-old is usually able to dress himself from head to toe—if he’s given enough time. He’s also able to place dirty clothes in a hamper, even sorting them by lights and darks, and can put folded clothes back into drawers and shelves. Older preschool children can contribute more to the family’s laundry: try teaching your 5-year-old to load the washing machine, measure pour detergent, and get the load started! She’ll also be able to fold many of her own clothes, and hang up dresses and pants on hangers in her closet.

As we wrote elsewhere, 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.”

Helping the child learn to do things for himself, however important, is just one of the goals of Practical Life.  Like all aspects of a Montessori preschool classroom, Practical Life has many learning objectives. Here are a few:

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  • To facilitate a smooth transition to school by providing familiar activities. Practical life is the part of the classroom where new students feel comfortable because they reflect similar activities to what they see at home.  Peeling a banana, pouring water, cutting with scissors, and cleaning spills are all familiar activities the young child finds comfort in.
  • To develop concentration.  Practical Life is usually where a child first connects with a material and immerses himself fully in a chosen, repeated activity.  A child who previously darted around the room, unable to pause long enough to connect with any particular material, might become fascinated with pouring water back and forth or with drying a table.  In doing so he learns to focus his mind for the purpose of mastering a new skill.  This is the start of a child’s attachment to the many Montessori materials, which build in complexity to help build concentration. 
  • To develop fine- and gross-motor skills.  Practical Life tasks are excellent motor skills activities.  Carrying heavy objects such as classroom chairs or buckets of water builds gross motor strength; pouring from a small pitcher or scrubbing a table increases precision of movement; peeling an egg, using a dropper, or picking up dropped beans all strengthen the three fingers needed for writing with a pencil.
  • To develop problem-solving skills.  Like most Montessori materials, Practical Life activities have a built-in control of error:  They enable the child himself to judge whether an activity has been done satisfactorily or not (water has spilled; a button is left without a whole; the loosely rolled rug won’t stand up in the bin).  With positive guidance from his teacher, the child learns to pay attention to these cues and acquires a habit of self-correction.
  • To develop logical work habits.  Practical Life activities progress in complexity and, in doing so, increase a child’s ability to work through a series of steps in a logical way from beginning to end.  This is vital for success with more abstract language or math work later on.

While many parents are eager to see their child progress to academic lessons in the preschool classroom, we hope you’ll see the hidden value in Practical Life, and wholeheartedly support your child as he explores the many fun and educational activities found in this unique part of the Montessori Primary class.

A True Learning Community: the Mixed-Age Montessori Preschool Classroom

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In addition to the unique Montessori materials, one of the first things you notice when you observe a Montessori preschool classroom is the wide range of ages in the class: 3-year-olds work alongside and sometimes with 5- and 6-year olds. Children stay in the same classroom community for a full three years: the traditional kindergarten year is integrated into the 3-year Montessori Primary program.

Often, parents new to Montessori preschool wonder: how will this 3-year-cycle work out for my child? Will my 3-year-old be intimidated by the much larger 6-year-olds? Will my kindergarten-aged child revert back to babyish behavior because she is around younger preschool children? And, maybe most importantly, how can one trained Montessori teacher possibly ensure that 20 or 30 students in her classroom are challenged and engaged, when she has such a wide range of abilities to accommodate?

The Montessori materials are one key factor that enables the 3-year cycle to work. But, in amazing ways, it is the 3-year, mixed-age environment itself that provides an optimal learning environment for all students!

In contrast to most other preschool or school settings, in Montessori preschool, your child will typically stay with the same teacher for three years. This has many benefits:

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  • No annual “getting to know you period.” In most other preschools and elementary schools, a teacher has to get to know a whole new group of 20+ children, each September. She has to assess their academic, motor and social skills. She has to get to know their strengths and weaknesses, discover their temperaments, learn about their home environments, and build relationships, with 20+ children. In contrast, in a Montessori preschool class, only about 1/3 of students are new each September!
  • The teacher can really get to know each child. Because Montessori teachers have each preschooler for about three years, they can get to know this child well:  Is she shy and needs time to warm up? Is he a strong-willed little person who needs very firm limits and immediate consequences? Does she love flowers—or machines?  Does he love to tell and write stories, or would he rather work quietly with puzzles?  Every detail that a Montessori teacher knows about a child is an insight that helps her to tailor the curriculum to that child.  
  • Teachers as partners to parents. Over a three-year period, you can build a relationship with your child’s teacher. This means you have a knowledgeable adult at your service who knows your child really well.  She is also a professional who spends significant amounts of time with many children of your child’s age, and can be a valuable resource if concerns arise regarding learning or behavior. 

And while parents may initially be skeptical of the mixed-age preschool classroom, there are benefits that are not immediately evident:

  • Older children—and their advanced work—inspire the younger ones. Children who are new to a Montessori preschool class often learn much from the older students. A 3-year-old may observe carefully as a 4-year-old works with the Sandpaper Letters, for example—and he will learn a lot in the process. One of our teachers reports being stunned when a little friend of 3½ years knew all the letters on the initial presentation: she had observed her older friend’s lessons and work, and absorbed all that knowledge! Just as importantly, the younger students desperately want to be as capable as the older students they adore. This is a great motivation for them to master the early materials: they know that there is a progression of lessons, and that in order to do the exciting Golden Bead work, for example, they have to first master their numbers to 10!
  • An ability to be the youngest and the oldest child, in turn. Most children have a fixed role in life: the big sister, the little brother, etc. In a Montessori environment, each gets a chance to have all roles: big sisters suddenly are the youngest when they arrive, and are able to find older friends as role models and mentors. Little brothers who complete the three-year-cycle finally get to be the leaders, to be admired by and to mentor their younger peers. This exposure to different roles fosters the astounding kindness and nurturing nature about which parents and others so frequently remark when they observe our classrooms or encounter Montessori children in the world!
  • A benevolent, non-competitive, growth-focused community. In a typical single-age setting, where all children do the same thing at the same time, it’s easy for children to start comparing themselves to others, rather than to focus on getting better themselves. They think, “I can read more than Susi,” instead of “now I can read books with phonograms: I’ve learned a lot since the summer.” In the Montessori preschool class, in contrast, each child works independently, at his level. The result? A benevolent community of young learners, each focused on growing, and none jealous of the others’ achievements nor frustrated by an inability to keep up with more advanced peers.

A tremendous opportunity to develop real confidence and leadership for those children who stay for the entire 3-year-cycle. Click here to read more about the significant non-cognitive benefits earned by those children who stay for the critical 3rd year of the 3-year-cycle.

The hidden benefits of your child’s third year in Montessori preschool

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The third year in Montessori preschool has sometimes been called the cashing in year or the leap year.  It’s the time when students put together all the different skills they have indirectly and directly prepared for throughout their Montessori toddler and preschool years.

Academically, the third year is often a flurry of activity. If you are the parent of a 3rd year student, you may already have noticed some of the interesting new work your child brings home: booklets of math facts practice; Books to Remember books to read to you; sentences cut into little pieces for analysis, and map shapes traced and labeled.

Students also tackle progressively longer tasks: they might spend multiple days creating booklets of different leaf shapes carefully colored and labeled; they might illustrate and author multi-sentence stories, or complete math problems using more abstract materials such as the Small Bead Frame.

In the third year of Primary, a typical Montessori preschool student achieves cognitive growth far above grade level.  He goes from walking to leaping, as a Montessori mother put it.  And yet, as impressive as this academic achievement is, the most important benefits of the third year in Montessori preschool may well lie elsewhere.

Over the past decade, researchers have come to question the role that cognitive skills by themselves play in a child’s success in school and life. While academics matter greatly, some researchers now say that

[w]hat matters most in a child’s development … is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years of life. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us often think of them as character. Wall Street Journal

The third year in Montessori preschool is a time when children mature in their personality traits or character.  It’s the time when students become self-possessed learners, confident in their abilities.  It’s where they emerge as leaders, benevolently sharing their skills with their younger peers.

After two full years, the Montessori preschool class is a familiar environment to these 5-year-olds. They know the daily routines inside and out; their teachers know them well and can readily work with their strengths and encourage them to take on challenges. They are conscious of being the oldest students in the room, having traveled the road from 3-year-old to 5-year-old.

When my daughter had just started her third year in Montessori preschool, I remember asking her what lessons she had gotten in the past week. She looked at me as though I were out of my mind. “Of course, I didn’t get any lesson this past week. Mom, it’s the first week of school, and my teachers are helping our new friends. I don’t need the teachers to tell me what to do. I just walk around class, pick my work, and do it.”

Third year students may indeed start the year by walking around the room, picking work independently but somewhat impulsively. Over time, their teacher works with them on bigger, more ambitious work, sometimes setting multi-day goals, in preparation for the increased independence and responsibility of Montessori Elementary.

But within this Montessori preschool classroom, when a child struggles a bit with these challenging tasks, she can take a step back, look around the classroom, contemplate the activities on the shelves, and observe the work that younger friends do.  She can realize that I know how to do all that!  

No, a 6-year-old does not explicitly think this thought.  But she knows that at some point, for example, it was challenging for her to form a letter, just like it is now for this 4-year-old friend—and that with hard work, she mastered it.  She has come to expect that the tasks she tackles in her Montessori preschool classroom may require persistence and repetition to master.  She knows that she’ll make mistakes—spill water or even break a beautiful ceramic bowl—but that these mistakes are okay, and that we can learn from them, move on, and still have fun in the process.

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During the second week of school this year, one of our Heads of School shared this story:  In one of her larger Montessori preschool classrooms, a 3-year-old girl was working on a Practical Life activity that involved spooning lentils from one bowl into another. Lentils had spilled all over the table, and the little girl looked as though she were about to cry.  A 5-year-old boy who had been watching her from nearby then came to her side and helped her. He showed her how to pick up the spilled lentils.  He showed her how to hold the spoon level when transferring the lentils, moving slowly, just like his teacher had shown him, two years ago. He stayed by the girl’s side, encouraging her in her work. Then, when she was done, he helped her put the activity away, demonstrating how to roll up the little mat and how to put the whole tray with the materials back properly in its spot on the shelf.

3rd year students in Montessori preschool naturally have many opportunities to become classroom leaders, and usually take them on eagerly.  A teacher might ask a 3rd year to help welcome new friends to class or to give lessons to a younger peer.  A 6-year-old might spontaneously read to a few younger preschool classmates, or even be asked by the teacher whether he’d like to read a book to the class at group time.  Younger Montessori preschoolers naturally search out the 3rd years for help: when a teacher is busy with a lesson, it’s just as easy to ask your friend to help you with a tricky word on a command card or to assist you in tying a bow!  And because the 3rd year student is so familiar with his classroom and has learned to value its beauty and order, he’s often the one who takes the initiative to tidy up or water a plant with limp leaves.

While accelerated academics are a great benefit of the third year of the Montessori preschool cycle, realize that your child is acquiring potentially far more powerful assets, whether you call them noncognitive skills, personality traits or character.

Montessori infant care or nanny? How to choose which childcare option is right for you.

Finding the right childcare for your baby is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as the parent of a young infant. Often, the choice is between childcare in your own home—a nanny or an Au Pair—or care in a childcare center or home-based childcare setting. Here is a list of pros and cons, as you consider whether to opt for LePort’s Montessori infant program, or a childcare arrangement with a dedicated provider coming to your home.

Advantages of the LePort program over a nanny or Au Pair:

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  • A trained professional to guide and nurture your child. Most in-home childcare providers have little if any formal training in guiding young children. They may have completed a few courses, and taken CPR training, in the case of younger sitters or Au Pairs. Or in the case of some nannies, they may have had years of on-the-job childcare experience. But few full-time nannies are college graduates, and even fewer have completed a rigorous course of study in child development. LePort’s lead infant teachers, in contrast, are college-educated, intelligent professionals, who have completed a year-long, advanced program in Montessori education for children ages 0 months – 3 years. They have studied child development, practiced working with infants under the careful supervision of experienced AMI teacher-trainers, and have completed teaching internships in a Montessori infant or toddler pogram. And they’ve been evaluated by LePort on a range of criteria, from expressive vocabulary to genuine warmth and caring for children. As a result, our infant teachers are not mere childcare providers: they are trained guides and teachers for babies.
  • An environment that is optimized around a baby. A home is a beautiful place, but unless you are able to set aside an entire room for your baby and equip it with special furniture and a wide range of materials, it remains a space designed primarily around the needs of adults. There will be many things baby can’t touch; many things baby can’t reach; many objects that are hard to child-proof perfectly and still be useful for adult purposes. In contrast, LePort’s Montessori infant environment is designed entirely around the needs of babies. Mirrors go to the floor. Special small stairs with rails invite babies to crawl and climb. Soft floor mats cushion falls. Low shelves abound, and on them are placed materials carefully selected to help babies explore safely with all their senses. Miniature tables and chairs allow children to have a meal together; and even the toilet is baby-sized.

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  • A valid, consistently implemented, transparent approach to child rearing. Most new parents don’t have a well-formulated approach to all the many challenges of raising a newborn. When a nanny or other childcare provider comes in the house, her approach often becomes the de-facto standard for handling the baby. Unfortunately, what the nanny does may not be in line with best practices: for example, few childcare providers understand all the many ways in which an infant’s independence needs to be developed, and do things to the child (feeding, dressing, diapering), rather than helping the child do for himself as soon as he’s capable. Of course, a parent who knows exactly how she wants to bring up her baby, and who has a lot of time, can select and guide a childcare provider (nanny, Au Pair) to follow the right approach. But unless you have that knowledge and the willingness (and time!) to provide this coaching, you may be better off finding a program like LePort, where you understand and agree with the fundamental approach.
  • Socialization & community building. When your child is home alone with a nanny, his opportunities to observe and interact with other children are limited to excursions to the park or an occasional baby class with the nanny or with you. In contrast, in the Montessori infant program, young toddlers learn how to interact with each other in a civilized way. If socialization is one of your goals for your child, a nanny as childcare is probably not the best option.

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  • A reliable childcare solution, independent of one person’s health or family issues. If you work full time, and your nanny calls in sick, you may have to take time off. In contrast, with LePort’s program, we guarantee childcare for your child: when one of our teachers is sick or has to leave on a family emergency, we have floaters on staff, so you don’t need to stay home from work to cover your childcare provider’s absences. Plus, our floaters give your child’s primary childcare provider regular breaks, so she can be cheerful and patient all day long, instead of getting tired by being on duty for 9+ hours without breaks.
  • A guaranteed spot in LePort’s highly sought after preschool program. LePort’s preschool programs are in high demand and usually have long waiting lists. At some of our locations, the only way to get into the preschool program is by starting early. Enroll your baby now for childcare, and you’ll have priority enrollment, for preschool and beyond!
  • Much lower cost than a nanny, for 5 full days of care. LePort’s infant program pricing reflects the quality and care that have gone into the program design, the 1:3 ratio, and the highly qualified teachers who guide our youngest students. Still, for 9+ hours of childcare per day, five days a week, the LePort program is about half to two-third the cost of an experienced nanny or other in-home childcare provider.

When a nanny or Au Pair may be the better childcare solution:

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  • If you work from home and can see your child regularly throughout the day. If you work from home, and have a flexible schedule, a nanny gives you the ability to see your child during the day. Those breastfeeding breaks together, a quick stroll in the neighborhood or the opportunity to read a book together are great daily joys that a childcare center setting just cannot provide.
  • If the lack of a commute is more convenient given your particular situation. For instance, if your home and work are far from one of LePort’s infant program locations, it may just be more convenient to have a childcare provider come to your house, rather than having to drive to our schools to drop-off and pick up your baby every day.
  • If you don’t share LePort’s approach to early childhood education, and want a nanny with a different style of childcare.
  • If you want your child’s primary caregiver to speak a language other than English with your child. (In this case, you may also want to look into LePort’s language immersion programs, which begin at 18 months old.)
  • If you have two children to care for, a nanny may be a significantly cheaper childcare option. This is especially a factor for families with twins—although LePort does offer a sibling discount!

Five differences between LePort’s Montessori infant program and traditional daycare

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 the 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

Although Montessori schools serve a daycare market, we do not think of our Montessori infant program as a type of daycare. The difference is just too significant.

If you visit any mass-market daycare chain, and then spend 20 minutes observing in our Montessori infant rooms, you’ll vividly see and feel the difference between the two. If you can’t make that comparison to daycare yourself right now (or are just struggling to find words to capture the difference you experienced!) here are five things that set the LePort Montessori infant program apart from typical daycare:

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  1. A carefully prepared Montessori home-like environment, not a daycare center. At most daycare centers, plastic materials dominate, from toys to furniture, because they happen to be easy and quick to clean. We want more for your child: our infant environments are beautiful by design. They are open, bright spaces, with high-quality, wooden furniture and comfortable chairs for teachers to snuggle with babies. You’ll see soft floor mats, lots of pillows of different shapes and sizes and soft sheepskins to rest on. There’s art on the walls, at baby’s eye level, and mirrors along the floor. On first sight, this room may look more like your living room than a daycare center. And shouldn’t it? LePort’s Montessori program will be your baby’s home way from home, after all!
  2. Love and respect for each individual child and family. Often, daycare centers feel too regimented: strict sleep schedules, mass-feedings in high chair line-ups, and parents not welcome at school. At LePort, we treasure each baby as a unique individual, and do everything we can to tailor the routine of feeding, active time and nap to his needs. We never confine your child to a high chair; instead, we cuddle with him in comfortable seats with a bottle, until he’s ready and excited to transition him to a low table and chair, where he can participate in eating with his own spoon. And, of course, moms are always welcome to join their child for a mid-day breastfeeding break!
  3. Freedom to explore at their own pace: a follow-the-child approach. Walkers, cribs, play pens: in many daycare settings, children spend much time in these and other containers. At LePort, in contrast, our mission is to liberate your child. We recognize that being encouraged to move is critical for infant development. Soft floor mats in front of mirrors encourage tummy time and self-discovery. Low bars mounted to the wall and soft furniture entice children to pull up. Stairs with low steps, a railing and a slide just call for practice climbing up and down.Because of our individualized approach, each child progresses through the stages of movement—rolling over, crawling, cruising, walking—at his or her own pace. In contrast to most typical daycare centers, we never force 12 infants to conform to a group, not for feeding, not for sleeping and not for anything else. As part of our overall follow-the-child approach, we customize your child’s activities to his or her unique needs. Socialization, in our environment, happens naturally; being with other little people thus is a joyful experience for your baby, rather than something that becomes associated with forced group activities for which babies just aren’t developmentally ready.
  4. Nurturing guidance for growing brains. A baby’s brain grows more during the first two years of life than any other subsequent two-year period. Our trained teachers recognize that education starts at birth, and work to provide an environment that will foster the child’s natural process of exploration. From beautiful, captivating mobiles for babies to observe, to immaculate materials on low shelves demonstrating simple cause-effect relationships, our environment and activities are carefully designed to facilitate and encourage self-initiated learning, exploration, and growth.montessori-shelf-supplies-day-care-huntington-beachThe first two years of life are also a “sensitive period” for order. Babies have a natural need to follow routines, to understand sequences, to know where things in their environment belong. As Montessori educators, we actively support your baby’s need for order: there is a special place for each material, and even children as young as 14 months delight in being able to put things back where they belong on the low, open shelves (something they rarely can do in other daycare settings, which often are cluttered, and have toys stored by staff in boxes or out of babies’ reach.)Our teachers are also masters at stimulating your baby’s language development. As Montessori educators, we know that the “sensitive period” for language acquisition starts at birth. Our teachers provide vocabulary at timely opportunities in response to their emerging interests: we observe and identify what your child focuses on (a blue mobile, a wooden chair, a soft, green, furry ball), and give her the language that goes with her interest. This responsive, individualized approach to fostering language skills has been shown to advance toddlers’ language development by up to an astounding six months!
  5. Highly trained teachers, and a ratio that supports lots of individualized attention. Childcare regulations require a 1:4 ratio of daycare staff to babies. We think that 1:4 is too high a ratio to maintain all day long: four awake, active children is too many for a teacher, even a well trained teacher, to consistently provide the level of individualization we think is optimal. That’s why while we always maintain the 1:4 staffing ratio, we aim to have a 1:3 ratio of awake children to staff for most of the day. In part, this is possible because in our mixed-age (3 months to around 18-24 months) infant rooms, children nap on their own schedule, and typically a few are asleep at any given time. mirror-montessori-infant-childcareRegulations also require daycare staff to have 12 ECUs (early childhood education units.) Often, that’s the extent of the education and training you’ll find at daycare facilities. We again do not think that’s enough! Research shows that the education level and intelligence of your baby’s primary care provider has a huge impact on his intellectual, social and physical development. You know from your experience as a parent that you often need to think on your feet; that parenting is easier if you have a clear idea of your goals, and the approaches to childrearing you want to follow. That’s why each LePort infant room is led by a university-educated teacher who has also completed the rigorous one-year, Assistant to Infancy training at an AMI training center, or an equivalent MACTE-accredited training program. In addition to this training for the lead teacher, most of the other infant teachers in your child’s room are also college graduates—and all of them are intelligent, observant, and nurturing individuals whom we’ve handpicked for our program! Click here to read more about the attributes we look for when hiring your baby’s first teacher.

Your top 6 questions about infant childcare, answered

The decision to leave your baby in someone else’s care is probably about as anxiety-provoking as any decision you’ll have to face as a parent. At LePort we speak with many new parents who struggle with the thought even once they’ve made the choice to enroll. It’s not until their baby is actually settled and happy in the program for a few weeks that the stress fully goes away.

But that said, we’ve also noticed that it really helps to put your concerns in words. Doing your research won’t entirely eliminate the emotions, but it will help to know that you’ve asked a lot of questions and are (intellectually at least) comfortable with the answers.

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In our experience, we’ve found there are a series of recurring questions from parents of young babies. To help you ferret out what matters as you discuss your options, we thought we’d summarize the six top questions about childcare for babies we hear all the time, and provide our answers.

    1. If I put my baby in a childcare environment, will he be safe from physical harm and illnesses? With the right childcare arrangements, the answer is a resounding yes! If you entrust your baby to professionals, and choose a childcare program that is designed explicitly around the needs of babies, your child can be at least as safe there as she is at home.LePort’s Montessori infant program offers an environment that is optimally aligned around the needs of babies. Every piece of furniture has rounded edges. Areas where children pull up (and thus may fall down!) are padded with soft floor mats. There are no small objects in the room that could be choking hazards, nor any loose electrical cords. A 1:3 ratio, with four adults in each room, ensures that babies are carefully supervised all the time (although we may flex to a 1:4 ratio when several children are sleeping at one time). When a primary teacher needs a break, a floater will come in to cover, ensuring uninterrupted coverage.

      Obviously, when a group of babies are together in a childcare setting, minimizing the risk of contagious illnesses is important. That’s why our infant areas are professionally cleaned every day. Teachers and parents must wear covers over shoes to enter (or switch into inside shoes.) Food is kept strictly separated, surfaces are wiped down regularly, and teachers engage in and teach proper hand washing practices.

      That said, you should expect your child to have more common colds in childcare than if she were at home alone. If this is a concern, we encourage you to look into how strengthening her immune system actually has many potential benefits.

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    1. Will my baby feel loved? Or will she miss her mom and dad terribly while at childcare? We’ll be the first to admit it: no one can love your baby the way you do! Your special relationship with your child is irreplaceable.That said, we think our teachers are as good a substitute to your presences as possible. We select our teachers not only on their knowledge and expertise, but also on how much they love being with infants. But, of course, seeing is believing: we invite you to contact us to schedule a tour, so you can see for yourself how our teachers interact and nurture the babies in their care.

      From years of experience, we know that it is often easier to transition a child to childcare early, as a baby, than it is to do so later, during the toddler years. Separation anxiety peaks around 12-18 months. By starting your child in the infant program, you can help her to become familiar with her teacher and new environment prior to that critical phase, making things easier for her and for you.

    2. My work commitments require me to leave my child for up to nine hours a day, five days a week. Can your program accommodate my work schedule, and offer quality care to my baby for that much time? No question about it: working full time, while you have an infant, is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do as a parent. You want to be with your baby as much as possible, and rightly so: strong parent-child attachment early on is one key factor to baby’s health.Many parents, though, manage to juggle full-time work and being a great parent. One key factor to being able to attend to work full-time is finding an optimal childcare environment for your baby. We believe LePort does offer such an environment.

      The reason is that we know how critical these early years are, so emphatically offer not just childcare, but a Montessori educational program right from the beginning. We replicate many of the things a parent can offer at home, but that often get short-shrift in a typical childcare center.

      We invite you to read more about what makes our Montessori infant program unique:

      • Learn about what Montessori for infants means, and how it compares to typical childcare.
      • Research trade-offs between hiring a nanny and enrolling your bay in LePort’s Montessori infant program.
      • Understand how we select our infant teachers.

      With the right program, you can leave your child with confidence. We encourage you to do your research!

    3. My baby has a hard time sleeping. How do you manage naps with so many children in one childcare room? Will he get enough sleep to thrive?We’ve come to believe that parents have this concern in part because of the actual practices of daycare facilities. In many infant program settings, there is a strictly enforced group schedule: all babies eat together, assembly-line style. All babies nap together, at the same time. All babies play together.We do not take this approach at LePort. Instead, we work with you to replicate techniques that work best at home for your child’s sleep patterns, while sharing tips from our experts for optimizing your child’s sleep. Our nap rooms provide a dedicated crib or low floor bed for your child in a peaceful place where noise is minimized and tranquility is heightened. While pacifiers are permitted in younger infant environments, to promote independence and oral health we assist children as quickly as possible to wean from any pacifier use. We also help prevent tooth decay by refraining from placing bottles in cribs, or having children fall asleep while drinking a bottle.

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      We will rock or hold a young infant who needs such comforting to fall asleep, while working with the child and parents to encourage self-regulation in sleep habits. Our goal is for your child to recognize sleep as a peaceful opportunity to self-soothe and rest because he or she is tired, just as a child will eat when hungry. If your child arrives asleep in a car seat, he or she will be gently placed in a crib or on a floor bed. Children will have the opportunity to awaken from sleep naturally, rather than being awakened by an adult.

    4. Don’t babies need lots of one-on-one attention during the first year? Will my baby miss out, if he is one of ten or twelve children in a childcare room? Babies absolutely need a lot of attention. That’s one of the reasons why we maintain a 1:3 ratio in our infant program. (When several children are asleep at once, we may flex to the 1:4 ratio typical in other childcare settings.) Still, three babies can seem like a lot for one teacher to love, nurture and cuddle with all day long.We believe a 1:3 ratio is sufficient to allow one-on-one love and nurturing because our whole environment is set up to support our staff and make individualized attention possible. Here are a few things you may want to consider as you decide whether a 1:3 ratio is something you can be comfortable with:

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      • Our individualized program means not all children have the same needs at the same time. Your child’s primary care provider in many cases will not be feeding three children at once. One of her babies may be asleep, while another one is happily playing with one of our many fun activities, leaving her free to focus on your child.
      • Children benefit from some independence, even as babies. Many parents of multiple children will tell you that child #2 has a longer attention span and is more independent. Why? Because she’s never gotten used to having an adult with her, entertaining her every minute of her waking life! Babies actually benefit from the opportunity to explore their environment, to touch things, and to observe, without being actively stimulated by an adult 24/7.
      • Older infants often engage in parallel play with peers. While being left to their own devices at home can leave babies bored, in our rooms, there is so much to look at: other infants playing, care-takers feeding children, older babies crawling around. And once baby can sit up, she’ll often be happy playing alongside another little person: it’s socialization in action!
      • Additional help is always available. We have a trained Head of School, an administrative team, and “floater” teachers onsite who can be called upon for support any time there are needed.

      “It is necessary for the teacher to guide the child without letting him feel her presence too much, so that she may always be ready to supply the desired help, but may never be the obstacle between the child and his experience.”–Dr. Maria Montessori

 

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  1. I’m breastfeeding. How can I keep that up when my baby is in childcare? We support breastfeeding moms to continue breastfeeding as long as is right for you and your baby:
    • Moms are encouraged to bring expressed breast milk to school. We’ll store your milk in our refrigerator, and happily feed it to your child while you are at work.
    • We will adjust your baby’s feeding schedule to support your breastfeeding. Please let us know when you’ll be picking your baby up: that way, we can make sure he’s not just been fed a bottle when you come and are ready to nurse!
    • Moms are always welcome to nurse baby onsite. Our infant rooms all provide comfortable nursing chairs. If you work close by, please feel free to visit during a break, and nurse your baby mid-day.

A sneak-peak into the nido, your baby’s home away from home


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

Your baby’s most common waking activity is exploring the wondrous world around him. In this exploration he uses all his senses—touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and above all, seeing. That’s why we take such care to create the ideal home away from home. In this newsletter, we share some features of this environment, and invite you to learn more about the LePort Montessori infant program.

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Babies are visual beings. A child’s environment should a tranquil, beautiful place, full of natural, appealing materials. If you visit, you’ll notice that our infant rooms seem more like a comfortable home than a typical daycare center! Nowhere at LePort will you find noisy plastic toys or flashing TV screens.


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One of the major goals of a baby’s first year is mobility.  Through exploration, children learn to roll over, crawl, pull themselves up, and eventually walk.  Our infant environments encourage such movement: mirrors make tummy time fun; pull-up bars over soft floors just call for children to stand up, over an over again; stairs invite climbing. We believe infants need to be free to move, and that containers such as jumpers, highchairs, playpens or walkers, which are very common in many daycare settings, have no place in a high-quality infant environment.


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When it comes to feeding, daycare centers often feel like assembly lines: we’ve seen some with six highchair seats around a table, with six infants strapped to their seats while their caretaker feeds them one by one! We think that’s a horrible mistake: eating is a individually paced activity. Babies need to enjoy the eating process, and move at their own pace as they learn to self-feed. The right start to eating habits can help prevent many food issues later on. That’s why our older infants steadily transition from cuddling with a teacher and bottle, to sitting at a low table and chair and enjoying eating with a spoon.


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Diapering is too often something done to a child at daycare, long after he’s capable of participating in the process. In contrast, at LePort we foster early toilet learning and independence. Our changing table is low to the ground, so the child can climb up on it. As soon as a child is able to stand, we change his diaper standing up, in the bathroom area. Low benches help children learn to undress and dress. And we even begin actual toilet training in the infant room!


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During the first two years of life, a baby’s brain will grow dramatically. Our Montessori environment is designed to offer your baby an array of stimulating materials that support his natural cognitive growth. We offer beautiful, captivating mobiles to observe and admire. Low shelves are filled with wooden and fabric materials that encourage fine-motor coordination and cause/effect experimentation: puzzles, balls, rings on a post, containers to open and close, and more.


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Research shows that one of the most important predictors of a baby’s language development is the frequency and quality of the communication with teachers. Our highly educated, engaging teachers are masters at providing high-quality language models for your child—they love talking to and with your child. And they know the importance of offering a lot of vocabulary in the right way—tailored to your child’s interest of the moment, to capture his interest and optimally support his language development.


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Sleep schedules can be a nightmare if not managed thoughtfully. We believe in following the child: we customize a consistent routine of eating, activity and naps to each child’s rhythm. None of the enforced group naps that are all too common in other daycare settings! As children start to walk, we transition them to low cots, so they can learn to search out a quiet place when tired, and acquire the self-soothing skills they need to be good sleepers, well-rested for all the exploring going on in our infant rooms.


We’ve created an environment we’d love to see our own babies in every day—one where an infant will find warmth, stimulation, and safety, and where a parent will be informed and respected,  We hope you agree, and that you’ll allow us to invite you to tour one of our schools, and see a Montessori infant classroom at its best, in action.

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

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

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

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

–Dr. Maria Montessori

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more in our Transitioning to Montessori blog series:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more in our Transitioning to Montessori blog series:

 

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

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

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

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

— Dr. Maria Montessori

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more in our Transitioning to Montessori blog series:

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

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

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

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

— Dr. Maria Montessori

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

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

montessori preschool

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:

The Montessori Preschool Difference, In A Nutshell

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

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

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

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

THREE MONTESSORI PRESCHOOL DIFFERENCES: HOW WE TEACH

montessori preschool

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

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

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

THREE MONTESSORI PRESCHOOL DIFFERENCES: WHAT CHILDREN LEARN

montessori preschool

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

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

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

Summer Crazies or Summer Camp Fun?

Summer time with the children is so much fun. Except when it isn’t.

Every year when school ends and summer camp starts, parents eagerly look forward to more time with their children. Time to go on local excursions, check out the tide pools, the parks, the pool. An opportunity to sign up for a week of soccer camp, or zoo camp, or arts camp (or other summer camp programs.) A chance to take a summer trip to visit relatives overseas, or grandma in the next state.

Yet by mid-July, so many families stream back to our Montessori preschools to sign up, last minute, for Montessori summer camp. Parents are feeling exhausted, and despite big plans for two full months of time together, they guiltily change their plans and sign their children up to go to Montessori summer camp, after all.

Why? Why is it that, just when they get to do all kinds of fun things with their parents, for weeks on end, children go crazy? Is it poor parenting, or something else?

As Montessori educators, we strongly believe it is not poor parenting. In our view, the real reason behind the “summer crazies” is that without the right summer camp environment, children loose their bearings. Young children need the order and stability of their Montessori preschool classrooms. The same reasons why such environments are right for them during the year apply as fully during the summer.

Children benefit greatly from short, limited vacations or extra-curricular programs, as well as from quality time spent with family and friends. But too much a good thing is not necessarily a good thing. Those that don’t attend Montessori summer camp for too long regress in their behavior, losing (temporarily) the developmental gains they made in preschool.

Dr. Montessori pointed out that negative behaviors observed in many young children—possessiveness, clumsy movement and breaking of things, unkindness, whining, shouting, screaming and general noisiness, clinginess and boredom—disappeared once the child became engaged in concentrated work in the Montessori classroom. Writes Dr. Montessori:

One of the chief reasons for the spread of our schools has been the visible disappearance of these defects in children as soon as they found themselves in a place where active experience upon their surroundings was permitted, and where free exercise of their powers could nourish their minds. Surrounded by interesting things to do, they could repeat the exercises at will, and went from one spell of concentration to another. Once the children had reached this stage, and could work and focus their minds on something of real interest to them, their defects disappeared. … All these disturbances came from a single cause, which was insufficient nourishment for the life of the mind.

montessori preschool

Children need routines. They need an environment designed for them, where they can function independently, with little adult help. Their developing minds must find interesting things to engage with, and a controlled, well-designed space that allows them to engage without distractions, corrections or time pressures to move on to the next activity.

Summer can be exciting—but it can also be too exciting some times, and too chaotic. Too many trips, excursions and adult-led summer camp experiences (especially when swim camp follows drama camp follows cooking camp!) mean children can feel out-of-control and out-of-sorts. All these summer camp activities leave little room for quiet time. Even when quiet time finally arrives, outside a Montessori summer camp environment, children don’t have access to the carefully designed Montessori materials that allow them to focus their whole attention, and to attain the concentration their minds need to develop optimally.

montessori preschool

In LePort’s Montessori preschool summer camp, we ensure that children continue in their familiar, safe environment. We do of course add fun elements to make summer camp special and different from the school year: bi-weekly summer camp arts & crafts themes and sports activities; in-house summer camp field trips; splash days and pizza parties. But the key thing is that all these activities are integrated into a Montessori preschool environment, and led by experiences Montessori teachers, not temporary camp counselors, so that a child experiences the new and exciting within a familiar, reliable framework.

We actively encourage you to take some quality time off with your child, and to help him or her explore the exciting world out there. But at the same time, consider whether eleven weeks of summer is a long time, especially if your child is only three or four. Your child benefits greatly from being in her preschool classroom, and the calming intellectual life she lives there helps her to be happy and centered.

So what advice can we give to parents who worry about their children going crazy in summer? We’ll let Dr. Montessori speak for us:

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

Montessori summer camp is the “mental food” a child needs to thrive in the summer. Spice it up with some trips, excursions and a week or two of another summer camp experience, and voila, the cure for the summer crazies!

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.

Silence: An Unexpected Montessori Benefit

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

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