Note: It might look like the centre is pretty empty, but this was because I only captured shots in which there are few or no children, as I strongly respect the privacy of the other children and do not wish to compromise their security.
The first time I heard of Montessori was when one of my friends took up a Montessori diploma after she graduated. At that time I didn’t have much affinity for kids, so it was completely foreign to me. Fast forward to many years later, after I started staying at home with the kids, I started becoming very interested in all kinds of educational approaches (e.g. Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, etc…), homeschooling etc. home learning and activities and anything else I could occupy the kids with. In a way, it was because I felt since I was at home with them, I should be doing something useful. If they were going to waste their lives away watching TV, I might as well have gone back to a regular office job, right? :p
Recently we were invited to an observation session by Greentree Montessori. Until I received the invite, I had not realised that we had never had the chance to experience a real Montessori setting. Even after all my reading and interest! So I was of course excited to be invited to an orientation session, and bring along Scout.
The Greentree Montessori Children Hub at Jalan Mata Ayer is a lovely house in a residential estate. It is very old school and very cosy like someone’s home. The first thing that greeted us was a large garden with some old trees, and once we stepped in we saw many cages of hamsters! Scout was absolutely delighted.
We sat down for a while, and I was asked to sit in an area to observe while the children in what is known as the “3 hour uninterrupted work session”. Essentially It looks as if the kids are all randomly doing their own thing within a 3 hour period, but while some kids get free play (of sorts), a few might be tasked by a teacher to a specific task to work on alone for a period of time, and the teacher might rotate her attention between the children. So each child is allowed to decide, within reasonable limits, how long he wants to work on a particular task, rather than be dictated by a timetable or have to follow a teacher’s direction.
The kids in session reminded me of what it’s like in my home, with three kids each doing their own thing, or sometimes playing together, or clamoring for attention. I was impressed by the teacher’s patience and ability to multi-task, and took a mental note of her calm demeanor – if she can handle 10 kids at a go, 3 kids at home for me should be no problem right?? For more info on the 3 hour work periods, this site shows a very lovely and well shot time-lapse-kinda video of a boy in session in school.
Scout loved observing the kids, and after a while she helped herself to some puzzles, and then to some paper and crayons to do some drawing. I loved watching the kids each working independently, one girl was tasked to work with brown prisms (click for more technical info on brown prisms), which are like blocks of different thickness. She was probably 5 or older, and decided to build a tower. One or two other kids periodically joined in as observers, and they decided they wanted it to be really tall, so they went by themselves to fetch a real ladder, and were soon climbing up and down it.
I am pretty sure that in another school the kids would have been told off, and before this incident I would probably have done the same at home. It was a really good reminder for me that we often need to let go of the limits that we set on the kids, and allow them to really grow into who they could be. I thought I am pretty liberal in a sense – often I find myself in situations where people are worried about my child’s safety, like knocking their head on the table top, or falling off a playground installation, and I’m not worried because I know they will be fine or a little bump won’t do them any harm. Obviously I still need some reminders, prompts and pointers!
As Mittens is growing so quickly, especially now that he’s in Primary 1, I have to constantly remind myself to let the reins just loose enough so he can discover the world for himself, while still keeping it tight to keep him close to my heart. With 3 kids to manage, I know I am sometimes more restrictive with them because it’s just easier if everyone just does as I say. So I’m thankful for the reminder on this day that children need their independence in order to grow into independent kids – sounds like stating the obvious, but it is true isn’t it? As parents these days we are so guilty of sheltering our children too much.
One of the integral parts of Montessori education is Practical Life* – not working on worksheets or playing with toys, but emulating skills that are used in every day life. Children do not necessarily need the latest toys, but can find immense joy in exploring and working with ordinary household items, muffin trays, spatulas, etc. An interesting aspect of Montessori Practical Life, is that they are tasks that are considered “work” for the children, because it isn’t just ordinary masak-masak (Bahasa Malayeu for “play”, what we say colloquially for playing) but rather something more purposeful and some of the items like knives, scissors, glass etc need to have special care so that the children do not harm themselves.
When I was at Greentree, I saw some girls having a little omelette snack, and later I learnt that they had cooked it themselves. With supervision, of course. In my home, kids get involved with some cooking, usually eggs too, on weekends breakfast when there is less of a rush, and they can get started as soon as their neck is strong enough. Of course the babies are just carried to observe, while the older ones can now crack eggs, beat them, add milk, etc. There might be shells and even egg all over the place, and sometimes they enjoy the process of cooking more than they enjoy the egg!
Last year, as part of a media invite, I was asked if Mittens would be allowed to wield a pair of scissors on his own. I was surprised! I have been allowing Scout to use scissors independently since I can remember, and now at age 2.5 years old, she doesn’t need any supervision. We use regular scissors, although the tips are generally more blunt. Last I checked, all 8 fingers and 2 thumbs are intact.
At Greentree, the children are encouraged to do everything themselves, from helping themselves to drinking water, to getting dressed, and even to cooking. They hone their skills in scooping, pouring, buttoning, etc., and often you will find that the materials used might be breakable – I really love and respect this philosophy that entrusts the children with care and responsibility. Of course the materials might be child-size, shelves are deliberately at a height which make it easier for children to reach objects, and other adjustments are made so that they are all age appropriate.
Dr. Maria Montessori started her first school more than a hundred years ago in 1907, and many schools today offer “Montessori”. But did you know that any establishment can use the “Montessori” as part of their school name? Some schools follow Dr. Maria Montessori’s core philosophies more closely than others. At Greentree, I learnt that 2 of the core philosophies they follow are that the children are together in a mixed age group, divided between 2 groups from 18 months to 3 years old, and 3 to 6 years old; and the children also have an uninterrupted 3-hour uninterrupted individual working periods during which learning can take place.
I would have definitely preferred for my three monkeys to have had the chance to thrive in a Montessori environment, but the preschool most convenient for us (and with 3 kids convenience is really important!) offers a generic curriculum. Although the school uses a few Montessori activities and materials here and there such as the moveable alphabet and wooden puzzles, the kids are lucky to have teachers who constantly awe me with their passion and love for their kids.
So if you are considering a Montessori environment, and it is important to you that they follow closely to Montessori principles, I would suggest you do your homework carefully and ask the right questions. And a word for the feint-hearted, you might need to stop helicoptering and learn to let go, but for many children, I’m sure you will not regret it once you see them thriving.
Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post, which included monetary compensation for the time taken to write my reflections and the cost to travel across the island to visit the centre. But as always, all opinions are 100% my own, and what I took away from the session was far more than what anyone can pay me really 🙂
* Because Practical Life Exercises are meant to resemble everyday activities, it is important that all materials be familiar, real, breakable, and functional. The materials must also be related to the child’s time and culture. In order to allow the child to fully finish the exercise and to therefore finish the full cycle of the activity, the material must be complete. (Source: http://www.infomontessori.com/practical-life/introduction.htm)
45 Jalan Mata Ayer
#03-11A Sembawang Shopping Centre, Splash Park
604 Sembawang Road, Singapore 758459