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Education Spotlight
A Room of Their Own
by Joe Zibell

For families, this time of year is truly the start of a new cycle. As one of the captions on our cover alludes to: it is a time of transition. It’s during the days of August that we begin shifting our routines; some of us fall back into familiar daily patterns, but when it comes to raising kids, there are always changes. At the very least, there is the change of grade level and a new teacher, but often there is a move to a new school with a new circle of friends to be found.

As we all have a chance for a clean slate, it is a great time of year to investigate education options. You’ll notice that the open house schedule for area schools will begin to fill-in over the next two months, as a sign that planning for your child’s education is a process that takes time and consideration. Along this thread, Montessori schools in Connecticut continue to reach out to families who are looking for an education alternative, which encompasses wonderful ideas of individuality, community, responsibility and caring.

What is it about Montessori education that continues to help it grow through the years, and pique the interest of new parents and families? Connecticut Parent Magazine sat down with several local Montessori educators, and they shared their ideas about Montessori’s success and what makes it stand out.

Photo courtesy of Montessori School of Greater Hartford.

“Parents are drawn to the individualized instruction,” says Una Barry, head of school at the Montessori School of Greater Hartford. “Though children work both in groups and independently, parents know that in an AMI Montessori classroom, their child’s instruction is paced and designed to meet their child’s specific developmental needs, while utilizing his or her most effective learning style.

“Parents also love that children are learning in a hands-on manner, and that they are encouraged to question and wonder. All of these components foster a learning environment where children are intrinsically motivated to learn deeply.”

“Some of the things that really draw parents in is that Montessori encourages a child’s independence, their freedom (with limits), a love of learning and responsibility,” adds Nancy Maznio, owner, director and teacher at Boulder Knoll Montessori School in Cheshire. “You want the child to learn to do things on their own: a 3-year-old zipping their jacket for example, or learning to get dressed completely by themselves.

“Parents want their child to have a love of learning. People who observe our classroom see 20 children of mixed ages and they’re all working cooperatively, and see them go to different activities, and they’re astounded at how the children are working either together or by themselves or with a teacher, and that everyone is respectful.”

Photo courtesy of Boulder Knoll Montessori.

As Karen Wiffen and Tina Donaher, co-directors of Town & Country Montessori in Wilton, note, there are several defining traits of a Montessori setting that appeal to parents who want to raise curious, independent children. These include, but are not limited to, respect for the child; freedom; structure and order; a tranquil setting; mixed-age classrooms; and each child being allowed to work at his own pace. Furthermore, they connect the dots between the origins of Montessori, which date back to the early 20th century, and the traits of the philosophy that benefit children today.

“Dr. Maria Montessori observed that childhood is a crucial time because it is in childhood that a person begins to create the adult whom he or she is in the process of becoming,” notes Wiffen and Donaher. “Based on this premise, the qualities of a Montessori environment provide for the needs of the child as a whole person — not only his creativity, but also his intellect and his spirit. As a result, a Montessori setting has several distinct characteristics meant to appeal to the particular needs (Maria Montessori called them ‘Sensitive Periods’) of the young child to encourage independence and a lifelong love of learning.

“These include the need for order, the need to manipulate materials with the hands, the need for movement, the need to explore and observe tiny and detailed objects, and the need to satisfy an interest in the social aspects of the community.”

Inside the Montessori Classroom

One of the defining and recognizable characteristics of Montessori is the structure and workflow of the classroom. For example, the set-up moves away from the “all eyes on me” set-up of a standard, public school structure and allows for the teachers to act as facilitators of the room. This fosters and encourages responsibility in the students, as the room becomes their own: the place where they not only play and learn, but also where they work and grow.

Photo courtesy of Town and Country Montessori.

“The classroom is truly a community, and every member of that community has a shared responsibility for it, understanding the importance of caring for it physically and socially,” says Barry. “The children are guided continually in how to do this, so teachers role play how to handle situations with grace and courtesy, and the younger children are able to model their behavior after the older children who have had many years to learn how to be kind, positive, contributing members of the classroom community.”

“It’s absolutely their environment,” says Maznio. “Everything is child-size; they can take work off the shelves by themselves and return it by themselves. They take a very large ownership of the classroom, and make sure that it looks neat and put things away. You’ll see a child sweeping the floor, and if someone happens to drop something, the children are very respectful and will want to help clean up. Everything is on their level.”

In a setting such as this, it is easy to make the connection between the structure of the classroom and the instilling of responsibility and respectfulness. For younger children especially, this could include the understanding of the ideas of “waiting your turn” and sharing, which are not the easiest concepts to get across, as any parent can attest to.

Wiffen and Donaher note that the actual, functioning Montessori classroom is different than some of the preconceived notions held by people not familiar with the philosophy. “Most people who are not familiar with Montessori think that a Montessori classroom is a ‘free for all’ where children do whatever they want or wander aimlessly. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. A Montessori classroom is a structured, ordered environment. Because the materials are grouped by topic and arranged in each group from simple to complex, the child comes to trust in the stability of the environment. She knows where to go to find the materials she wants to choose and she knows the point in the sequence where she must go next to work. The order of the environment, then, assists the child in building her own internal sense of order and in making meaningful choices for purposeful activity.”

As an extension of this reality, children are quite protective of their classroom according to Wiffen and Donaher.

“It’s important to them to maintain the order and the beauty of the place where they are happy and fulfilled in their daily activity. Consequently, the children take it upon themselves naturally to care for the classroom and to maintain the order on which they depend. From pushing in their chairs, putting materials back where they belong, and washing their dishes after snack, to cutting flowers to place in the classroom or cleaning up a spill, the children take responsibility for maintaining the classroom that means so much to them.“

Following Their Interests, Allowing for Independence

Of course, the greatest, shining example of Montessori are the children themselves. As students that will go on to either a public or private school setting, they are well-equipped to take the next step on their educational path.

After leaving Boulder Knoll, for example, most of the children make the transition to first grade in a public school setting. “I think they do very well,” says Maznio, speaking about the change to a different grade level and school environment. “They have a very good background, and a real knowledge of reading and number operations, and they are confident. As a whole the group does really well.”

“They love to learn,” says Barry, talking about her students. “They’re self motivated. They don’t put limits on their own learning, and they see themselves as responsible for it; this makes them excellent time managers! Most importantly, they are peaceful children and they trust adults and see them as resources.”

According to Wiffen and Donaher, children who have attended Town & Country Montessori have “the precious power of self-knowledge.”

“Over the course of the three-year cycle from age 3 to age 6, the children who attend Town & Country have had the opportunity to explore the world around them and, in doing so, discover their likes and dislikes, their abilities and shortcomings, the consequences of their actions for themselves and for others, the joy of discovery and of peaceful relationships with others.

“When they move on to the next chapter in their schooling, whether in public or private school, the children who have attended Town & Country take with them confidence in their capability and kindness to share with new friends.”

For many families, Montessori is an important and essential starting point for an enriching and meaningful educational experience.



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