Childlike Empathy: Connecting with Animals

When children are outdoors and are visited by an animal, such as the miniature horse like Blaze (Clay’s pet) who visited Little Lea Montessori Preschool or when children enter an animal’s space (nature) they just come alive. It’s as if they’ve been invited into a special world. Bringing a child to a wild place, a wooded park or even just a schoolyard, where there are opportunities to encourage wildlife sightings (such as a humming bird by the window, dogs in the backyard, bugs chirping in the tree, worms in the vegetable garden, turtles in the aquarium at home) or other kinds of connections, can help children develop that innate love for animals. Current research reveals that children who are supported in their love for animals tend to extend such love to other living things, such as plants and nature. Research also shows that when children are encouraged to care for animals, they tend to be more sensitive and caring toward other people. As a learning community, we highly encourage you to expose children to animals of all kinds to awaken a deep sense of connection and empathy. Such bond forged early will serve them for a lifetime of relationships.

Thank you James and Ash Barnes for making this a memorable experience for Little Lea family.

The Miracle of the Uninterrupted Work Period

“When the children had completed an absorbing bit of work, they appeared rested and deeply pleased.” – Maria Montessori

Can a Three-year-old Stay Still? It is quite fascinating to see little boys and girls as young as three-years-old stay on a task with a sustained attention span for up to 3 hours and even more.  After several months in a Montessori classroom, these little persons are able to choose their own work and actually focus on and finish their tasks after staying the course.

In her research, Maria Montessori discovered the significance of a two-and-a-half to three-hour uninterrupted work period after much observation and experimentation.  She discovered that the last hour of a lengthy work period is usually when children are most likely to choose challenging work and concentrate deeply.

Do it Again … and Again: Montessori once observed a three-year-old repeat the knobbed cylinders activity 44 times. The girl’s concentration did not waver when Montessori tested it, first picking up the girl in her chair and placing her (still in her chair) on top of her desk and then asking classmates to sing. When she stopped working of her own choosing, “…she looked round with a satisfied air, almost as if waking from a refreshing nap.” Montessori called this a “never-to-be-forgotten” discovery.

Phases of the Work Period: Montessori noted that in the first eighty minutes children often chose an easy initial task.  This was followed by a more challenging activity. Then there was a ten-minute period of “false fatigue” as children appeared restless and classroom noise increased.  This is the time when many teachers get uneasy and end the work period. However, it should be noted that false fatigue is actually “preparation for the culminating work.” This is when children choose challenging work and concentrate deeply.  When the task is finished, there is a period of “contemplation” as children appear deeply satisfied and at peace.

Interest to Absorption to Deep Concentration: Children in Montessori classrooms become absorbed in their work because they have the freedom to choose activities that interest them. In classrooms where the work period is less than two hours long, children rarely experience the deep concentration where leaps of cognitive development can take place. Children are hesitant to choose challenging work if they think they won’t have time to complete it.

So, what is false fatigue? False fatigue is similar to adults taking a short break after working hard. If children are disrupting others, they can be quietly redirected, but too much interference actually prolongs the period of false fatigue. Instead of anxiously over-controlling or ending the work period, one must trust children to return to work. Given some time, one can observe whether the children choose their most challenging task of the day.

At Little Lea, we strive to motivate parents to bring their children to school on time, since we are very aware that when children miss class time, they are less likely to choose challenging work that requires more concentration.  Montessori educators know the value of an uninterrupted work period for a child’s development.  Therefore, we fiercely protect the three-hour work period!   It is one of the most important ingredients in the Montessori method and one of the greatest mysteries of early childhood learning.

Growing a Child’s Imagination: The Benefits of Reading Early

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination” Albert Einstein.

“Our aim is not only to make the child understand, but to touch his/her imagination.”  Maria Montessori

It is never too early to start reading to your child to enrich and stretch his/her imagination. Reading to a young child is a crucial aspect of language and literacy development. The American Association of Pediatrics now recommends that parents and educators read to children from infancy through at least kindergarten. Reading to children all the way through elementary school and beyond has many benefits. “Reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development, which, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.” (pediatrics.aappublications.org)

Little Lea is very fortunate to have the public library close by.  The children love walking to the library to pick an interesting book and to have a story read to them by the children’s librarian, Mrs. Short.  Introducing the children to such literary environments helps to cultivate a love for all kinds of learning opportunities.

With the books chosen, the children get to read it in their Reading Nook at Little Lea or be read to during the day.  Every day, during lunch hour, the children know that a few books from their pile from the library get chosen to be read while they are eating.

Reading helps stimulate the children’s imagination, grow their vocabulary and nurture understanding about the world. The closeness of snuggling up with a favorite book leads to an increase in self-confidence and imagination, and helps children gain a wealth of knowledge from the books one shares. And it only takes 15 minutes a day of reading together to nurture this growth!

The Wonder of The Pink Tower

In her book, Dr. Maria Montessori’s Own Handbook, Maria describes the pedagogical sensation of The Pink Tower “Ten wooden cubes colored pink. The sides of the cubes diminish from ten centimeters to one centimeter. With these cubes the child builds a tower, first laying on the ground (upon a carpet) the largest cube, and then placing on the top of it all the others in their order of size to the very smallest. As soon as he has built the tower, the child, with a blow of his hand, knocks it down, so that the cubes are scattered on the carpet, and then he builds it up again.” (p. 72)

The Pink Tower is one of the most iconic of Montessori educational materials.  She strategically designed it and it remains unchanged through time and is found in every Montessori classroom around the world.

It consists of 10 wooden cubes, ranging in size from 1 cubic centimeter to 10 cubic centimeters, differing in three dimensions.

The Development of Intelligence: The Pink Tower seems like just a stack of blocks, but it’s so much more. It is a scientifically designed material in the Sensorial Area of the classroom. Dr. Montessori believed that working with the Sensorial materials enables the children to refine their senses, have a clearer understanding of what they are seeing, feeling, touching or smelling, and helps with the development of intelligence.

The cubes in the Pink Tower are all the same color, shape and texture. This helps the child focus on one important quality of the material – size!

The Pink Tower aims to refine a child’s visual sense by discriminating differences in dimension. As a child starts taking each cube (starting from the smallest) to a mat, they can feel the weight and progression of its size. As they build the Tower, they refine their voluntary movement. The child learns self-control by doing the activity precisely and exactly.

When a child first attempts to build the Pink Tower, they may not be able to do it exactly right, they may not be able to control their movements yet. Through repetition and development of their hand-eye coordination, the child is able to make their hands move in a precise way. This is the key to self-control. When the child masters the skill, they master themself, by mastering their actions.

Using their visual perception, the child can self-assess whether they’ve built the Tower in order. This control of error helps the child realize what’s wrong and correct any mistakes. Through this, the child grows more independent and confident.

Early Development of Language and Math Skills: Indirectly the Pink Tower prepares the child for Language and Math. It prepares the hand for writing, as children need to use the 3-finger grip to carry the cubes. Through language games, new vocabulary is introduced to the child such as cube, large, small, bigger and biggest. This enables the child to further explore their environment and find something small, large or something “bigger than this”. It also encourages the child to use descriptive language in the environment.

The Pink Tower also prepares the mathematical mind. It indirectly introduces the Decimal System, as the child works with 10 cubes which represents the numbers 1-10. It also introduces Geometry, as the child explores the different cubes and their dimensions. These concepts are not introduced to the child, but are absorbed by their Absorbent Mind. Who would have thought that such a simple material could introduce so many different concepts to a child? 

So, why is the color pink?  Maria Montessori experimented with different colors and observed that the children were more attracted to the color pink, compared to the other colors. So much forethought has gone into the shaping of the absorbent mind and the payback is enormous. Such is the pedagogical miracle of the Montessori method in the Sensorial Area of the curriculum

The Child’s Love of Nature and The Outdoor Classroom

I love Montessori’s commitment to hands on learning in the outdoor classroom!  Early on, as a young physician, Maria Montessori observed the healing, calming and ordering effect nature had on children.  She observed that children gained a sense of calm and tranquility when they were immersed in nature.  Montessori believed that the order and beauty of our natural world brought out the order and wonder of the children’s inner beings, bringing about a kind of healing: “It is also necessary for his psychical life to place the soul of the child in contact with creation, in order that he may lay up for himself treasure from the directly educating forces of living nature.

Anyone who has ever spent time with children recognizes the sense of freedom and abandon that happens when children are outside.  They run to the playground.  They happily state that the best part of their day was “play time.”  They love going to the park.  There are so many indicators of the importance of nature for our children. 

When we lived in Duluth, Minnesota the temperatures were regularly below freezing for most of the year, I remember hearing of the best performing ,Blue Ribbon’ elementary school in the area. We were able to drive our children to this school so that they could attend and one of the first things I noticed was the long time they allotted for recreation outside.  The school paid playground attendants so that the teachers could have a real lunch break while the children ran and played.  In the winter they flooded the playgrounds with water which froze.  Then they used a Zamboni to smooth out the ice so that the children could ice skate.  Parents volunteered to come in at play time to lace up the ice skates and give extra support while the young ones were learning to ice skate.  The children all learned to wear their boots, put their ski bibs on and out they went to play or skate.  Time outdoors was precious to the entire culture and this school tangibly reflected that.  There is no substitute for our natural world.

Seeing this emphasized and prioritized in every Montessori environment I have been a part of has greatly affected my view of being outdoors and my commitment to getting children out of doors as much as possible.

At Little Lea in addition to play time and gross motor activities, we dig, we plant, we water and weed, we walk, we wonder, we sit and talk, we discover things in the yard and garden…there is just so much to do and love about being outside!  We live in an amazingly beautiful world that must be cherished, enjoyed and prioritized.  Our young ones love to work and play!

Let the children be free; encourage them; let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and, when the grass of the meadows is damp with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet; let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath it’s shade; let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning as it wakes every living creature that divides its day between waking and sleeping. When children come into contact with nature, they reveal their strength.” – Maria Montessori.

Little Steps … Large Gains: Working with the Child’s Desire to Learn

Montessori educators organize their lesson plans according to the child’s interests.  Children are interested in different things at different times and have different capacities so it seems quite practical to try to work with the child’s interests, rather than imposing one’s learning agenda on them.  The children are learning on so many fronts at once that the teacher, as facilitator, can adjust to a child’s interest much of the time.

One student recently displayed Montessori at work so beautifully, I really had to stop and marvel.  He expressed interest in a lacing lesson.  I demonstrated the lesson to him.  He attempted it and it was challenging for him.  I showed him the lesson a second time.  He attempted it the second time, correcting what he had done wrong before.  He stuck with it to the end and completed the lesson successfully. He put the lesson away and went on to something else.  The next day, he came in and picked up the lacing lesson again.  He did it perfectly with such satisfaction that he had to take it apart and do it again.  Later when his friend was available, he said, “Hey do want to do this lesson with me?”  And he proceeded to show the other child how to lace which eventually resulted in the second child learning to lace successfully!  It was beautiful.  It was driven by the child, his curiosity and interest and his determination to succeed. The result was great joy! His reward was in his journey toward mastery.

Montessori educators usually do not reward children’s work with stickers or awards because we believe the reward is in the work.  The reward is the satisfaction that comes from trying hard, improving at a task/skill and then taking pride in what you have learned.  The reward is the work itself.  I believe this fuels the child’s interest and tenacity to take ownership of his/her own learning and to take great joy in what he/she does.  This little guy was so proud of his lacing work – and anyone who has ever tried to teach a child to sew or lace something complex will know that it was quite an accomplishment for a four year old!  Now he can build on that skill to begin sewing, patterning and all sorts of other detail oriented, more difficult works.

Showing a lesson can be like throwing down the gauntlet:  let’s see if you can do it now!  And of course they can, if they try hard, practice and stick with what they are learning.  Children take such pride in learning new things take such pride in learning new things and doing for themselves.  It does not always work perfectly but it is well worth the effort!

Exploring and Mastering the Simple Things

The Practical Life as a curriculum in Montessori is purposeful activity.  It develops motor control and coordination.  It fosters independence, concentration, and a sense of responsibility. The exercises in Practical Life cover two main areas of development: care of self and care of the environment.

For the Montessori child, the ordinary things that we take for granted as adults and do without thinking or trying, are often curious, new discoveries and challenges to be mastered. This includes the everyday routines and practices of life such as preparing food, dressing oneself, cleaning, washing, serving, gardening and so much more.  These are new, sometimes daunting, exciting tasks that are visibly part of the human world, needing to be learned and mastered.

The Montessori learning environment takes full advantage of the child’s motivation to learn these things at a very young age. The Practical Life curriculum explores these everyday routines and practices. With the same rigor as the academic areas of the Montessori classroom, the Practical Life learning offers a pedagogy that elevates and empowers the child in his/her pursuit of these skills.

According to Maria Montessori, “The exercises of Practical Life are formative activities, a work of adaptation to the environment. Such adaptation to the environment and efficient functioning is the very essence of a useful education. The children of three years of age in the ‘Children’s Houses’ learn and carry out such work as sweeping, dusting, making things tidy, setting the table for meals, waiting at table, washing the dishes, etc., and at the same time they learn to attend to their own personal needs, to wash themselves, to take showers, to comb their hair, to take a bath, to dress and undress themselves, … (they) take part in the exercises of practical life. This has a truly educational, not utilitarian purpose. The reaction of the children may be described as a ‘burst of independence’ of all unnecessary assistance that suppresses their activity and prevents them from demonstrating their own capacities. It is just – these ‘independent’ children of ours who learn to write at the age of four and a half years, who learn to read spontaneously, and who amaze everyone by their progress in arithmetic.” (From Childhood to Adolescence, 1974, p. 66)

Learning Language in the Montessori Environment

Sandpaper Letters!

The language progression in the Montessori preschool environment is hands on and great fun!  It is a wonderful way to start to challenge children in their discovery of written language.  First there are the sandpaper letters!  These letters isolate one sound and give the child a sensory experience to associate with the visual sign, the audible sound the letter makes and a muscle memory of engaging the written letter.  A child uses two fingers to trace the sandpaper letter while a teacher introduces the spoken sound the letter makes.  The child is fascinated with the feeling of the sandpaper as she begins to discover the wonderful world of written language.

The curriculum continues with sandpaper letters, individual sounds and concrete objects that begin with the isolated letter.  Small groupings of individual sounds are taught.  Then the child displays his mastery of those sounds by choosing the correct object to correlate with the beginning written sound. 

Sounding out words with the Movable Alphabet!

As soon as a number of sounds are mastered the child can begin to identify and pick out the sounds in words using the movable alphabet. As the teacher accentuates each sound in a given word, the child chooses the correct sound from the movable alphabet box until the word is completed.  The look of excitement when a child realized he has sounded out his first word is one of the most rewarding moments of working with children!

This simple progression continues and is repeated in many different ways and forms with the movable alphabet and objects, word cards and objects and then words alone.  Interesting objects, various kinds of cards, boxes, bags and treasure chests hold the wonderful implements the child uses to discover and practice written language.  The tasks become increasingly more difficult until short phrases and sentences are being practiced…and the child is reading. 

A fluid progression from Writing to Reading!

Writing is introduced simultaneously as the sandpaper letters are already training the child’s hand to form the letters.  Tracing metal insets, using a stylus to trace letters, making playdough rope letters, using his fingers to write in sand all contribute to the child’s success in learning to write.  Additionally, many areas in the classroom focus on fine motor skills and the development of the pincher grasp needed to hold a pencil.  Eventually the child is ready to hold the pencil and begin writing letters and words, from which written language naturally flows.  The Montessori environment is rich with language, vocabulary and all kinds of books to entice young learners to be intrinsically motivated to master the skills of reading and writing.

How Is Creativity Nurtured?

What do the founders of Amazon, Wikipedia and Google have in common? They are not just creative and successful entrepreneurs of this generation, but they all had their start in the Montessori environment. They all received a Montessori education. Peter Sims, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal asks the question, “Is there something going on here?  Is there something about the Montessori approach that nurtures creativity and inventiveness that we can all learn from?” Read more of what he discovered in his WSJ article.

An early Montessori approach is now frequently sought after by many young parents who desire the best possible foundation for their child’s early education. For example, the late Princess Diana chose Montessori education for her young boys, Princes William and Harry.  Such was the case for the parents of Beyoncé Knowles, Taylor Swift, Anne Frank, George Clooney, David Blaine, Julia Childs, Stephen Curry, and YoYo Ma, to name a few. These movers-and-shakers of arts, culture, music and sports can trace their roots back to a Montessori upbringing.

At Little Lea, we are deeply committed to unlocking the limitless possibilities offered by the Montessori approach in nurturing the little ones entrusted to us.  We strive to follow and fully engage the child in Montessori’s ways of which she observes “There is in the child a special kind of sensitivity which leads him to absorb everything about him, and it is this work of observing and absorbing that alone enables him to adapt himself to life.  He does it in virtue of an unconscious power that exists in childhood…”  Maria Montessori