Dr. Jal Mehta is a Harvard University professor, researcher, and education reform advocate. Like Dr. Maria Montessori, Dr. Mehta believes that schools exist to equitably serve all students, and to help each child be successful and productive citizens that realize their responsibility and agency to bring about a better world. In 2020, Dr. Mehta published the book In Search of Deeper Learning in which he explores the qualities that make for deep, meaningful learning environments. Though his book focused on high schools, many of Dr. Mehta's conclusions are consistent with the practices we see throughout The Children's House, including and especially the Jr. High. We are sharing this particular article with you, not only because of Dr. Mehta's alignment with Montessori principles, but also because it highlights, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, what continues to make our school such a special community.
Dr. Montessori fought for peace among people and nations. She was part of the League of Nations - the predecessor of the United Nations. It is in our training as Montessori educators to create a community that is just, inclusive, and welcoming to all.
Author Blair Imani writes “kindness won’t end racism, anti-racism will end racism.” As Montessorians, we know that teaching kindness is not enough. That is why we are actively engaging in anti bias and anti-racist (ABAR) education.
To continue the work we started when Jen Cort visited our school in October 2018, our staff read This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell and discussed it in small groups this fall. It is an impactful and meaningful book. It is also a guide in how to talk to young people about bias and racism. Many students in the school have read chapters with their teachers and engaged in the activities.
We learned from Britt Hawthorne, when she visited our school virtually in October 2020, that ABAR begins with the self. We name our own identities and we help the children with this as well. We uncover our biases and work to remove them. We have books and materials that reflect all people.
Our ABAR committee met throughout the summer talking about our dreams for the school. One of our biggest wishes was to engage with the families in our school community. During the recent months of civil unrest, I spent time gathering resources to share with you which are now present on our website. The ABAR committee stepped in to add resources for all age levels.
This work is critical toward creating a world that is inclusive for all people. We hope you will join us on this journey.
TCH Parent Book Club
Dec 10, Jan 7, Jan 21, and Feb 4 at 8 p.m. via Zoom
We will start by reading This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell. You can purchase this book locally through Horizon Books. Please let us know if you plan to participate by completing this Google form.
Children naturally want to do things for themselves. Regardless of their age, we have all seen this drive for independence emerge in our children and students. At times, it can feel like a great accomplishment; at other times, a challenge. For all of us who care for them, a real challenge exists in allowing children to encounter struggle. We love them and we don't want them to become frustrated. We want to protect them and not see them fail. This is a natural reaction. However, we know that it is through the act of doing that we learn about our abilities and strengths, about our challenges and areas for growth, about how to struggle and to overcome. And it is these daily lessons, experiences, and encounters that aid their belief in themself, their self-confidence, and their self-esteem.
As we guide with this perspective, we navigate the balance of providing just enough support, without becoming an obstacle in their independence. As they grow and change, this balance evolves and they often need less support than we realize. So today, take a step back. Observe. Allow your child to try. Allow your child to struggle a bit. They may surprise you in what they're able to work through on their own.
To allow young children to do things for themself is both an act of faith and an act of love - communicating we believe in them and their ability to succeed, and that we care about their growth as a human being.
To explore further, Nichole Holtvluwer has a well-written blog post on the topic.
In a Montessori environment, the goal for children at any age is independence. Dr. Maria Montessori envisioned a world where we live in harmony and are mutually reliant on one another. Still, she recognized that this is only possible when individuals are able to satisfy their own needs first. Montessori saw independence as a continuous conquest and defined growth as reaching successive levels of independence.
Young children have an inner drive to meet their own needs yet adults and the environment are often obstacles in their journey. Children need a strong emotional foundation and carefully prepared environment to develop independence. Recently, I gave a presentation on this topic as part of our Montessori Up Close parent education series. Watch the whole presentation to get practical ideas and reduce the obstacles in your child’s path towards independence.
Over the past several months, I have been participating in online forums with other Montessori school leaders where we discuss and collaborate on opening safely during COVID-19 and how to successfully return to in-person learning. While there are many health and safety details to address, there are fundamental characteristics of Montessori education that set our schools up for success.
Fortunately, here in Northern Michigan, we are experiencing different circumstances than schools in other parts of the world for whom the restrictions related to the pandemic are more strict. We are also fortunate to have the space and resources to facilitate our adaptation.
Regardless of the place we find ourselves, whether learning is in-person or at home, our Montessori principles can be applied to create a learning experience that fosters the development of every child.
Recently, Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) published an article that lays out eight ways in which our educational model fosters learning for the child, even under these difficult circumstances. Click here to read the article.
Maria Montessori taught us to believe in the potential and value of every child. As Montessorians, it is our intention to provide an environment where children and adults alike are seen and respected, and to seek to understand others for their differences and similarities. We believe a future that is genuinely equitable for all is in the hands of the children.
On September 3, 2020, our staff of 54 people engaged in an all day virtual workshop with Britt Hawthorne, a Montessorian and Anti-Bias Anti-Racism (ABAR) consultant from Houston, TX. Britt took us on a journey of self-reflection, deep discussion, and mutual agreements resulting in our commitment to ABAR education at The Children’s House.
During the 2020-2021 school year, we will facilitate age-appropriate opportunities for conversations, materials in the classrooms that reflect the experience of every child, and opportunities and resources to support discussions at home.
The approach will be different at each level, as we want to be thoughtful about developmentally appropriate topics and content for the children. Most importantly, we want every child to feel safe to ask questions, share opinions, and learn to listen to others, and be their authentic selves.
The Dance of the Cosmos celebration has marked the end of the school year every year since the school’s inception in 1984. Obviously, I was looking forward to that day to say farewell to all of you and to begin my retirement, but when COVID entered the picture, I began to shift gears. My disappointment of losing our typical year-end traditions was met with a flood of memories and emotion about my 36 years at the school. I thought about how the Dance of the Cosmos concretely shows us that we are all parts of a vastly larger picture. Our meaning and value is not based on a single event or tradition, rather it is based on the collective spirit of community we have lived over many years.
The Children’s House is the epitome of what the Dance of the Cosmos represents. TCH thrives because of the people who, from the very beginning, supported the vision and culture of the school. TCH has weathered some difficult challenges – logistics, financial uncertainty, and heartbreaking tragedy from which we thought we would never recover. What we learned was that we would recover and would actually grow closer and stronger as a result. The community has always been able to carry the school forward. TCH is living proof that the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Some of you are new families and staff that I don’t know well and many of you I know like family. I want to say to all of you that The Children’s House is much more than a school – it is a community that will support you and enrich your lives. It may take a few years to understand this, but you will see it in the strong leadership from a Board of Directors and Head of School who have created a plan for financial sustainability (yes even through a pandemic) while holding on to the culture of community that has carried this school over the years. You will see it in a teacher who loves your children as unique people who deserve a chance to discover who they are. You will see it in your fellow parents and colleagues who put their hands up to do more and more for the good of the community. You will see it in the way someone notices that you are having a bad day and reaches out to you. You will feel it when you walk into the building and know that this is truly a house devoted to the enrichment of lives of all ages.
Yes, this ending is not ideal, but the memories of all of the other years are intact in my brain. I have developed friendships here that will last for the rest of my life. My own children came with me to “work” in 1984 and my grandson is beginning in our Junior High program as I retire. These family bookends to my TCH career represent what is at the core of our school. We are here because of our children – yours and mine – and because we want this world to be a better place. I know that it will be.
I recently did the math and realized that I have been at The Children’s House longer than I haven’t been here. People ask me what I’m going to do next and I honestly don’t have an answer because I can’t quite imagine doing anything else right now other than being here. Regardless of what is next, I am one lucky person to have had the privilege of going to work every day to support this community and be with all of you. Thank you for that.
One of the fundamental and most important aspects of the work of Dr. Montessori was her tireless work toward peace. She believed that the hope for a more peaceful and equitable world lies in the child.
Over 100 years later, we are still facing injustices and inequities that shake the core of our humanity. As a school community with the privilege of helping to raise the next generation of people that take a stand against violence and mistreatment of those who have long been marginalized, it is our responsibility to help our children learn, discuss, and affect change.
We have spent time over the past few years as a staff learning about how we can evolve as people ourselves through working with experts and reading literature on anti-bias and anti-racism. I believe we have a responsibility to educate ourselves to be as equipped as we can to support the children.
In addition, we have been discussing resources (see links below) that will help you as parents find ways to have conversations and respond to your children when they ask questions around these topics. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it is a start.
We stand with you in support of the children as they learn about what is fair, kind and just in the world. Please don't hesitate to reach out for support from the teachers or me in navigating this challenging time to be a parent in our country.
Right now we have over 1,500 plants started in the greenhouse that will grow to provide produce to local food pantries.
Since 2017 I have spent my summers helping manage Poesis Farm on the SEEDS property in Historic Barns Park at The Commons. This project focuses on growing food and flowers for donation, seed saving, and education. Many Children’s House students have helped on the farm and processed seeds at school. Some of our students are currently growing plants at home from our seeds.
Right now Poesis Farm is busy in the greenhouse at TCH! We have been fortunate to start our plants in the greenhouse over the last few years and this year we are able to start even more. We are partnering with local food pantries in order to give away plant starts for people to grow their own food, and we plan to give away fresh produce as well. We are also giving away our seeds by front porch pickup.
At this time with so much uncertainty and struggle, I feel excited and inspired to help by providing food for people. We know that many are unable to work and therefore purchasing food will become more of a challenge. I am happy to use my skills to lessen that burden in our area. I am grateful that The Children’s House continues to collaborate with Poesis Farm, and therefore the community, by allowing us the use of the greenhouse.
The beauty of the three-year cycle is never more apparent than when the 6th year children attend the Montessori Model United Nations conference in New York. It is not just sixth months of preparation, but years of preparation, starting well before they enter the walls of our upper elementary classroom. They’ve been developing their interests, their skills and their independence, following their unique paths to becoming who they are meant to be.
Entering as 4th year students, some fear the hard work and responsibilities of their 6th year classmates. Nevertheless, they research what interests them, broaden the scope of their worlds, and develop confidence in their ability to stretch themselves out of their comfort zones. As 5th years, they begin to accept that the challenge lies ahead and even look forward to the freedoms and responsibilities that accompany this great work. When they arrive as 6th years, they already have an air of “I’ve got this”. Yes, it wanes from time to time and the work and challenges may feel overwhelming at others, but they have faith in what they can do because they’ve been practicing and they have each other.
The 6th year group traveled to New York this year and followed a schedule of transportation, entertainment and dining that they created. They took the Q70 bus to the R line subway and ended up in Times Square, ready to absorb the world around them. They interacted with warmth and sincerity with children from Peru, Canada, Australia, Mexico and many states in our own country. They spoke in front of hundreds and danced in front of thousands, inspiring others to get out of their seats and dance as well.
Tired? Yes. Satisfied, proud and accomplished? Yes. Did they see themselves achieving all they did as 4th years? Maybe. Do we see our current 4th years following in their same footsteps? Definitely.
Maybe you’ve seen the glow of the greenhouse in the morning, maybe you’ve seen students running around with lettuce at carline, or maybe you are already a valued TCH Organics customer- at any rate, you may wonder, what is all this lettuce growing about? Is it botany? Soil science? Carbon footprint analysis? Business education? Yes! And so much more!
In From Childhood to Adolescence, Dr. Montessori stated, “The essential reform is this: to put the adolescent on the road to achieving economic independence. We might call it a ‘school of experience in the elements of social life.” She found that the real work of the adolescent is to achieve social and economic independence through refining their personality and identifying their role in the future of humanity. To support this process, Montessori put forth what she called the “Plan of Study and Work,” which is intended to be a guide to designing a “prepared environment” best suited to support the adolescent’s self-construction in their current time and place. The “Plan of Study and Work” consists of practical structures of the environment that provide opportunities for this work as well as connections to the academic curriculum. In the case of lettuce, two of these structures are at work; the “farm” and the “store.”
The role of the farm in the prepared environment is to provide real work that connects the head and hand, and integrates the personality. This “work in a social context” is referred to as “occupation.” Social work means work in a society, in this case a mini society; it is not to be confused with the work of catching up on the latest events, trending fashion, or TicToks, although that does seem to happen simultaneously. The role of the store is to demonstrate in real time and experience that all of humanity is dependent on each other to produce and exchange goods and services necessary for survival (a concept introduced in elementary). In the prepared environment, this societal work is scaled to a level appropriate for the adolescent, with scaffolding for success and friendliness with failure. It provides real life experience with resource management, understanding interdependency, division of labor, and moral decision making regarding resource use.
In short, through growing and selling lettuce, students are provided with a wide range of opportunities to share their own interests and skills. Art, music, science, organization, communication, writing, research, mathematics, public relations, and problem solving are just a few of the talents or specializations required to successfully grow and sell lettuce. Not everyone can or wants to play the same role in this microeconomy. Each person gets a chance to realize their own special role as a contributor, a necessary part of the whole. Through working together on real work, adolescents develop a true sense of community, social organization, and their own value as a part of it. And, as a bi-product, we get to enjoy fresh, green, organic lettuce in February!
This past week I received an email containing an article about banning homework nationwide from a popular teacher website. The article asked us to weigh in as lawmakers contemplate this controversial topic. Another article, shared by a colleague, discusses how homework time has increased dramatically, especially for teens, yet shows no benefits for elementary students and little benefit for middle and high school students. As parents, we all want what is best for our children, but to me the real question to think about is “does doing more equal being more”?
Having no homework has been a cornerstone of our Montessori philosophy for over a hundred years. Just as we don’t dictate the work the students do in class, we don’t do so at home either. Instead, we encourage using the hours outside of school to nurture interests and enjoy leisure time together as families. Home is a place to explore curiosities, and to share in the responsibilities of the household. Skills are naturally honed by cooking alongside a parent, writing a shopping list or playing a board game. Time spent curled up with a good book, or tackling a challenging jigsaw puzzle together is invaluable.
As children walk out the door the final day of school they often share with me the topics of future studies they are excited to pursue independently over the summer. Parents have sent pictures of their child’s cardboard creations held together rolls of tape, paint and glue. I hear tales of fantastic tree houses built, bread baked, trails hiked, books read and bike rides taken. To me this is real homework. Given the time and space, our children challenge themselves and investigate what is meaningful to them. This in turn develops happy, well-balanced human beings that we all are striving to become.
One of the most challenging parts of being a “Montessorian” is explaining the method to other people. We’ve all tried to come up with the perfect elevator speech and the most compelling case to sway a skeptic. However, it seems that most of the push-back is founded on misunderstandings. Among the points of contention is the idea that Montessori environments are too structured and don’t allow for creativity. It is true that Montessori materials are rooted in the real world rather than fantasy (research shows most children under five can not distinguish between what is real and imaginary); yet, a fundamental principle of the Montessori method is to value process over product.
Creativity is defined as, “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work” (Oxford Dictionary). The clearest example of this is on a primary art shelf. We value the child’s process by choosing art mediums for them to explore rather than paint by number type crafts. Your primary child might bring home an easel painting from their Montessori environment but probably not a perfectly made snowman that looks just like the model an adult made. Where would the originality be in that? If a child didn’t come up with it themselves, they are not exercising their creative brain.
The Montessori method is also inherently creative because we only provide children with the keys to the world. Rather than providing the child with every experience, we give them the sufficient minimum of information needed to learn the remaining elements on their own. For example, Montessori primary guides only directly teach six land and water forms so the child can independently discover the rest. They are given the opportunity to see a new water form in a book, research it and feel the joy that comes with unearthing new information. Similarly, children are invited to explore materials in new ways and even combine multiple materials as they innovate and imagine new possibilities. Our exact presentations are intentionally designed to be a jumping off point that pushes the child to exercise their creativity.
So how can we support children’s creativity outside of school? Ask open-ended questions. Let children explore to answer questions on their own. Let them take risks and make mistakes. Allow them to problem solve. Allow children to complete a task in a different way. Accept imperfection and embrace imagination rooted in the real world.
In November 2019, Megan Andrews, Karin Church, and I attended a professional development workshop with Marc Brackett, founder and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The day reminded us of the importance of emotional intelligence and provided us with new ways to help our students learn about their emotions. We know that emotions impact learning and were reminded that there are no bad emotions and that emotions provide information. We can use that information to help ourselves and each other. Providing students direct instruction on how to Recognize, Understand, Label, Express, and Regulate emotions can help in many ways. This R.U.L.E.R. approach is the basis of Brackett’s work. If our kids can know and manage themselves and consider the perspectives of others, they may be able to make sound personal and social choices.
Being patient, responsive, and loving, while holding children to a high standard, is much easier if we as adults are able to manage, understand, and accept our own emotions and know that our emotional state will affect how we perceive a situation. Learning is a social activity and is most productive through collaboration. Maria Montessori gave us a solid foundation with many lessons on what she called grace and courtesy. Young children are shown how to quietly push in a chair, walk through the classroom without disturbing another child’s work, and even how to blow their nose. The Montessori curriculum at every level explicitly uses modeling and stories to teach social behavior. Children have many opportunities daily to collaborate with classmates and practice social skills. Older students act out social situations demonstrating successful or unsuccessful ways to interact with others. Adults tell stories hoping to inspire good deeds.
We learned that one in five American children will experience a mental health issue before they reach eighteen. By taking the time to get to know children and building strong relationships with them, we hope to help stem this tide. Greeting each student in the morning with a handshake, allowing time to discuss feelings, and guiding actions all help to build trusting caring relationships.
Over the years, we have hosted several discussions on the topic of child development and digital technology. I continue to be interested in the topic and have recently read books by Nir Eyal and Anya Kamenetz. Kamenetz, in her book, The Art of Screen Time, How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media & Real Life, mentions differential susceptibility. Or, dandelions versus orchids. Most children, like dandelions, are hardy, resilient, and do well in a wide variety of situations. Some children, like orchids, are more susceptible to harmful effects without close supervision. That being said, I think it is smart to notice what is being missed when large amounts of time are spent alone looking at screens. Kamenetz also points out that all screens are not created equal. Facetime with grandma is not the same as whatever educational app they use or watching another episode of Peppa Pig. My key takeaway from Kamenetz’s book is: enjoy screens; not too much; mostly with others.
Indistractable; How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, is a book by Nir Eyal that discusses our actions being either traction toward or distraction from what we really want. We can think about what we truly want to happen in our days, weeks, and years of our lives and then decide if our actions are helping or hindering our goals. Even young children can begin to have conversations about how and when to best use digital technology. If children are involved in setting priorities, they can learn to make time for what is important to them and how to avoid distraction.
Maria Montessori believed that learning happens through observation. Our children learn how to use digital media by watching how we use it. I am trying to make more time in my life for traction toward the things I value and hope my children, both adults now, still learn a bit by watching the old man.
Last year, Lisa Thauvette, TCH parent, moderated two round table discussions about children and digital technology with our school community and has since written an article on the topic. If you’d like to gather as a group and discuss this further, let me know. I think it would be time well spent.
The Montessori work cycle happens in every prepared environment at The Children’s House. Depending on the age group, the work cycle can last from two to three hours in the morning and an additional period of time in the afternoon.
Why is this work cycle so important for the children?
The work cycle is when deep concentration and learning occurs. Children have the opportunity during this period of time to choose activities and work, uninterrupted, to the point of self-satisfaction. Sometimes, that activity may last just a few minutes, and other times, several hours. If the child is using the material for its intended purpose, adults do not arbitrarily end the child’s engagement with an activity.
At each developmental level the work cycle looks a little different.
In the early childhood years, children are typically offered presentations on an individual basis by the teacher during the work cycle. Children work at individual tables or rugs, using the material until they feel satisfied before replacing it on the shelf.
During the elementary and adolescent years, students join in small group presentations. Because children of this age require a great deal of socialization, activity typically happens collaboratively with peers. Students keep work logs and meet regularly with their guide one on one to ensure progress is being made with academic expectations.
At every age group, Montessori guides are keen observers of student work choices. They keep careful notes on each child’s activity during the work cycle and plan lessons accordingly. They also make note when a child seems to be avoiding particular activities and may give a follow up lesson on a material or invite the child to get support from a peer.
Ultimately, the uninterrupted work cycle offers children the opportunity to engage deeply in work, and to develop a sense of independence and confidence. The children learn to love learning because of the freedom they are given to choose what is of highest interest to them. Creating an environment where students can become passionate learners who go out in the world to make a difference doing what they love, is precisely what we aim for.
That year, I was given the chance to do something I had longed for many times. In September of 2007, I took charge of the Nido program at The Children’s House, and my dream of guiding infants came true. The Nido program itself was still in its infancy and just four babies, Alexander, Dillyn, Elise, and Lola, were put under my care for the school year.
Each one of them joined me at about twelve weeks old, Lola was even younger. At the time it did feel as though I had my own set of quadruplets, it was just me and the four of them all day, all year. Of course, I could call for backup but I rarely did. Dillyn’s mother called them my four calling birds. And because the word Nido is the Italian word for “nest” that made perfect sense to me.
So, these freshly hatched humans and I got to work getting to know each other. I remember thinking about them day and night, and how I could make their first year of life the best that I could. I sourced new activities constantly, in order to meet the growing needs and interests of each one of them. I planned our days to include walks, and a variety of sensorial experiences. I made sure we participated in gross motor and fine motor work everyday. We sang, we read, we ate, we rocked to sleep. I went home pretty exhausted everyday but we were a happy flock, and I loved my job very much.
And like all baby birds do, mine outgrew our cozy nest. One by one each one learned to walk, and talk, and do for themselves and I had to say goodbye.
Luckily they didn’t fly too far. I was able to witness their continued growth from afar. Each of them moved through the toddler and preschool programs at TCH and I would see them on the playground or at our all-school gatherings. Eventually, Alexander and Dillyn would leave our school for a different elementary experience but would return every year for our school’s summer program. Elise and Lola both stayed on through elementary and would often visit the Nido, to read and play with the babies.
But last summer, the summer of 2019, the most wonderful thing occurred. Dillyn and Lola migrated back to their original nest as junior counselors! Now they were twelve years old. They each took turns being assigned to help me in the Nido. My sweet calling birds took on their new roles with confidence and ease. Their care of the infants and their strong work ethic impressed me each day. I often found myself overjoyed and beaming with pride in seeing their maturity and effortless care of infants. I would even tease the girls that they were so good at their jobs because of the great foundation I laid out for them early on.
During the last week of the summer program, I decided I wanted to do something special to thank them for their hard work. I arranged a surprise outing for the three of us. I picked them up at school and we went out for ice cream, dipped our toes in the lake, and played games at the local arcade. We chatted about their lives as young adults and about their hopes for their future. We had a wonderful time. I made them promise to stay in touch and should they ever need a personal reference I’d be pleased to give them a glowing one.
“Two of the greatest gifts we can give our children are roots and wings,” wrote Hodding Carter. Alexander, Dillyn, Elise, and Lola - I am in awe of you. Your TCH roots are strong and sturdy, fly on my little birdies!
Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child.” One of my favorite topics is play. I define play as: activity for enjoyment or recreation rather than for serious or practical purpose, it is self directed. Play helps our children develop curiosity, social intelligence, creativity, and both physical and mental health. These skills are at least as important as IQ when looking at future success in life.
Dr. Peter Gray, an evolutionary developmental psychologist, wrote in his book, Free to Learn, “Research studies have shown repeatedly that adults who have a great deal of freedom as to how and when to do their work commonly experience that work as play, even – in fact, especially – when the work is difficult. In contrast, people who must follow others’ directions, with little creative input of their own, rarely experience their work as play. Moreover, dozens of research studies have shown that when people choose to perform some task, they perform it more fully and effectively than when they feel compelled by others to perform it.”
At The Children’s House, play is valued as an important part of children’s development. We have recently extended recess and the children have always had the ability to play with things of their choosing, they just call it “work.” Students at The Children’s House do not have a teacher telling them which activity to choose or how long to use it. You will often see things being left out overnight so the work can resume in the morning. There are very few products of their work because it is undertaken for the joy of doing it and not in order to create a product. I have often observed children polishing a mirror to a fine shine only to see them start right back at the beginning. They are not polishing the mirror to make it shine, they are building themselves and working on mastery.
“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiencing the environment.”
- Maria Montessori
We know Dr. Montessori was a scientist, she observed children and made groundbreaking observations about the way they learn. Perhaps, more admirable is the way she connected childhood to being human. She made it possible for adults to see children as extensions of themselves, working towards the same goals and deserving of the same treatment.
It is easy for us to see children through an immediate lens, as little people trying to meet their basic needs. They search for food, clothing, shelter, defense, and ways to move. They also long for love and other spiritual needs. If we zoom out, the child’s tasks are much bigger. In the first six years of life, the child has two key duties: to construct themselves and to adapt to their environment. What is driving the child to do this? Dr. Montessori saw and wrote about the human tendencies, defined as urges or natural inclinations that drive humans to meet their needs.
The fourteen human tendencies are hereditary, unchanging, and interrelated. They are universal to all humans regardless of time and culture, but are significantly powerful during the first six years of life. If we want to understand what guides our children to become who they are, we need to recognize and understand the fourteen human tendencies. I will outline them below and invite you to reflect on how they might inform the way you support your child.
Exploration: The more we explore, the deeper we understand the world and the more we can improve the human condition. The adult can support this tendency for the child by ensuring freedom of movement, freedom of choice, and a beautiful and orderly environment.
Orientation: To be comfortable, humans need to place themselves in relation to their environment. This is the inclination to find a point of reference. Young children are very new to their environment and need a predictable, safe and reliable space with minimal stimulation.
Order: Physical order brings mental order. Order gives a young child comfort and freedom, which are essential for engagement and learning.
Communication: Communication allows humans to correspond about satisfying their needs, transfer knowledge, and share stories. The adult can provide a clear model of language. Freedom to communicate in the environment is also essential.
To Know/To Reason: The tendency to know and to reason is especially prevalent in the elementary mind. The adult should inspire children to reason for themselves by providing resources for children to find their own answers.
Abstraction: Abstractions are concepts that are not tangible in the child’s reality. Maria Montessori made abstract concepts, like quantity, color, and subtraction, concrete by creating materials that the child could manipulate with their hands.
Imagination: The Montessori environment provides the child with a strong basis of the concrete world as a springboard for imagination. The adult must allow for the child’s own creativity by providing quality tools and letting children choose how to use them.
Mathematical Mind: We use mathematical thinking to measure the amount of flour in a recipe or the length of a table that is to fit through a doorway. To nurture this human tendency in the child, the adult must provide presentations in sequential order so concepts build off of previous understandings.
Work: Work is needed for survival, satisfaction, happiness, capacity, spirit, and turning ideas into reality. The adult must know how to choose inspiring, authentic, purposeful, and constructive work that will satisfy the child, rather than busy work that might satisfy the adult agenda.
Repetition and Exactness: Repetition and exactness are key characteristics of work that are very apparent in children. The adult must provide freedom to repeat activities that require exact movements.
Activity and Manipulation: Activity unites the mind and the body. Children need opportunities for movement and motives for movement, including activity of the hands.
Self-Perfection: Humans have a natural tendency to persevere and an inner compulsion to be self-disciplined. In order to support the child’s search for excellence, we must provide appropriate freedom and allow children to self-correct.
The first days of a new school year usher the children in with the promise of extraordinary potential. As they settle back into the routine of classroom life with one another, the guides take great care to establish a positive tone, respect, and care.
Grace and courtesy lessons are one of the most fundamental aspects of a Montessori classroom. These lessons provide clear and tangible guidelines for how to care for one another, the classroom and themselves. As we reestablish routines, these lessons are offered frequently to the children to establish expectations for behavior.
In the Young Children’s Community (YCC), a lesson may simply be quietly helping a child learn how to carefully walk through the environment. The guide may simply say “I am showing you how to carefully walk in our classroom.”
In a Primary classroom, these lessons become a bit more formalized. The guide gathers a small group of children to sit on the floor. She would say to the group “I am going to show you how to observe someone’s work.” She would then demonstrate how to ask a working child if she may observe, and then stand quietly with her hands at her sides as she observes. She then would offer a child or two the opportunity to demonstrate the skill, and end the lesson by saying “Now you know how to observe someone’s work.”
Lessons in grace and courtesy are offered to children to provide opportunities to practice the skills needed to coexist with others. It can be as simple as how to walk around someone’s work, or as complicated as what you could say to someone who was feeling sad or left out. I once offered a grace and courtesy lesson on what to say to someone if their nose was running. It was so fun to see that lesson carried out in the life of our classroom. Children were offering one another tissues every day!
Sometimes, adults expect children to know how to be graceful and courteous and when they aren’t, they correct the behavior in the moment. In our classrooms, we make note when we observe a child who may need a lesson and, at a time later, invite them to join a lesson that teaches that skill. In this way, a child doesn’t feel corrected or ashamed for simply not knowing the appropriate action in a situation.
Once children are in Elementary and Junior High, conversations occur as a group to create mutual expectations of one another. Rather than having rules imposed from the teacher, children discuss how they want to coexist in their classroom and create a class creed through their conversations.
When we grow graceful, courteous children, we offer the promise of a society where humans can peacefully coexist with compassion, empathy, and peace. I love the thought that Montessori schools all over the world are providing these opportunities for children every day— to learn the skills to care for themselves, one another, and their world.
The end of the school year at The Children’s House brings celebrations, traditions, and endings. It is important to note the passage of time by honoring each developmental milestone. It helps the children to mark their place in the continuum of their development with memorable experiences.
During her countless hours of observing children, Maria Montessori noted very distinct characteristics in each developmental age group. She called them Planes of Development. The first plane spans from birth to six years, the second from six to 12, and the third from 12 to 18.
The “Stars” of The Show
The first plane of development encompasses a child’s most profound period of physical and cognitive growth. In just six years, a child goes from being completely dependent on adults to being able to ride a bike, read, independently meet her own needs, and care for the environment and those around her. Because the change is so great, this first plane requires three separate classroom settings: Nido, Young Children’s Community (YCC), and Primary.
At The Children’s House, we respond to this developmental growth by providing children with increasing freedom and responsibility—from walks on the school grounds to community field trips and tasks that help them learn to care for one another and their environment. At the end of this plane, we celebrate the children by giving them prominent roles of the planets and comets in our Dance of the Cosmos celebration. It only makes sense for them to be the “stars” of the ceremony as we honor the completion of this foundational developmental plane.
Spreading Their Wings
Around the age of six, children move into the second developmental plane. This plane is marked by a move from concrete to more abstract thinking, the development of reasoning ability, and a focus on social relationships. In the elementary classroom, students work collaboratively, utilizing the strengths of every individual to complete work and care of their physical and social/emotional environment.
The culmination of this second plane at The Children’s House is the trip to Montessori Model United Nations (MMUN), where all of the skills they have acquired during this plane culminate in the writing of position papers and working on teams of children from all over the world to ponder solutions for real life issues. They are certainly ready to spread their wings in this way and prove to themselves and others their level of maturity that has come from this conscious phase of development.
The Middle Years
The third plane of development marks the ending of childhood and the passage into adulthood. In early adolescence (ages 12 to 15), young adults are exploring and coming to terms with integrating different aspects of themselves. This is a period of rapid growth and early adolescents need enough food and sleep, as well as time to process and reorient. All Montessori classrooms nourish the whole child—academic, emotional, social—but the adolescent experience adds personal reflection to particularly support students at this phase of growth.
Our school provides these experiences through a variety of outings and overnight trips to give real life, hands-on experiences with the topics they study in the classroom. They are given the responsibility to independently plan and execute itineraries of their outings. Students support each other and work together to problem solve when mistakes happens or conflicts arise. Graduating eighth years get the spotlight and take the stage to deliver speeches reflecting on what life at the school has meant for them and who they aspire to be as they move on to high school and older adolescence.
Being the parent of a high-schooler who spent her life at The Children’s House from three months through eighth grade, I can tell you firsthand why marking the passage of each plane of development with traditions and celebrations is so important. My daughter looks back with clear memory of being a comet in the Dance of the Cosmos, traveling to New York City the first time to discuss the rights of the child at MMUN, and, her final speech reminiscing and giving thanks for the experiences—thanks to teachers and friends—and the lasting memories she made here.
Traditions and celebrations are a deeply-rooted part of our school community. As the school has grown over the last 35 years, these events have evolved along with it to appropriately represent growth through all three planes. Endings can be bittersweet, but we choose to celebrate them to mark the completion of one chapter of life and the potential that held with the passage to the next plane.
In 2015, The Children’s House published a strategic planning document, Strategic Plan 2015, that guided our decisions through the 2017-2018 school year. The plan was generated through a comprehensive phase of discovery that included input from focus groups, research on best practices from independent schools nationwide, an organizational assessment, and goals set by our Board of Directors.
Over the last four years, this strategic document was integral in creating priorities to strengthen and grow our school community. Major accomplishments include launching our adolescent program (TCHJH), adding 2,600 square feet of classroom and fine arts space, strengthening our fiscal health and building cash reserves, and implementing new methods of communicating with families.
With the dedication and focus of the board, administration, faculty, and staff, we were able to accomplish all of our goals, putting us ahead of our expected timeline. It took every member of this community to reach these goals and we are proud of where we are today.
In the fall of 2018, we gathered again to generate the next iteration of our plan. Building on the thorough strategic planning work carried out in 2015, the board set to work to create a vision for the next 3-5 years. Valuable input from our dedicated staff was collected to generate a new vision for the future of our school community.
We are pleased to share our Strategic Plan Version 2019 which will be used to uphold the vision of high-fidelity, independent Montessori education for all of our 247 students. We are excited by what the future holds for The Children’s House and look forward to sharing the journey with you.
As part of my morning routine, I read “The Management Tip Of The Day” from the Harvard Business Review. This recent entry (from February 25th)—which I think applies to business and the way we educate our students here at The Children’s House—so piqued my interest that I thought I’d share:
Weave Learning into Your Everyday Work
We all need to keep learning new things to grow in our careers. But sometimes the urgency of our schedules gets in the way. To find time for learning, make it a part of your day-to-day tasks. One way to do this is to look for ways to pick up skills from those around you. Notice how your boss handles a negotiation; ask sales people about industry trends; get feedback from your peers after you give a presentation. Of course, there will be times when something piques your interest but you’re too busy to explore it. When this happens, try creating a “to-learn” list: write down concepts, ideas, and practices that you want to return to at a later time. And create a learning channel for your team, whether it’s through Slack, SharePoint, or somewhere else. Add links to resources you’ve found valuable — it will encourage your colleagues to do the same.
Learning how to negotiate by observing other students and adults…Get feedback from peers after a presentation or an action…Take note of something you want to learn later when there’s time to explore it.
Doesn’t this sound like a typical Montessori classroom?
One of the beautiful things about a Montessori classroom environment is that learning for children is interactive, joyful, and often effortless. Never forced. Rich learning experiences are happening constantly, from a multitude of angles. And the real beauty is that sometimes children don’t even know it’s happening. The idea of “weaving learning into work” is fundamental and a function of daily life in the Montessori classroom. It’s natural. And as our students grow and, eventually, move into higher education and adult life, learning is what they love because it’s part of who they are, something they have always done, and found joy in everyday of their lives.
Think back to a time when you were a child, passionate about learning something new. Whether it was experimenting with new words, creating art, riding a bike, or how a science experiment worked, it is likely that you practiced repeatedly to a point of great satisfaction. By continuing to have interest and engage in the activity, you mastered the skill without even knowing you were working hard to learn.
Children are born with an innate sense of curiosity. They look at the world with wonder, excitement, fresh eyes, and an insatiable desire to explore their world and learn. Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could do something to help perpetuate that wonder and love of learning as they continue to grow up?
The greatest gift we can give our children is to provide them the time and space for their curiosity to work its magic-- to slow down, encourage exploration, provide them opportunities to engage with the world, and be patient. Learning is a natural process that happens best when we provide them with the right conditions and don’t interfere.
When I talk with parents about their hopes and goals for their children, one of the things that is at the top of nearly every parent’s list is that their child is happy and loves learning throughout his or her life. Naturally, in Montessori, we revel in the chance to talk about life-long learning. Our environments and methodology provide the perfect place for every child to learn through interest, freedom to act on their curiosity, and uninterrupted time.
Activities, or what we call “work” in our Montessori setting, is beautiful, orderly and inviting. The materials beacon the children to explore them through their order and simplicity. Every activity is specifically designed to aid the child in learning a specific concepts. No bells, whistles, or complicated instructions included.
With support from a Montessori teacher or “guide,” the child is encouraged to choose work based on their interest and ability. When the perfect balance of challenge and interest is achieved, a child becomes deeply engaged in their work and concentrates to a point where they hardly notice the activity of other children around them. And, this “sweet spot” of engagement, is what keeps the child coming back for more-- to explore new challenges and continue to be interested in the world around them. And to love their work.
The world’s leading researcher on positive psychology and happiness, psychologist, Mihaly Czikszentmikalyi, referred to this deep engagement as flow, or a state of concentration or complete absorption with an activity at hand. He describes it as being in the grove, fully immersed in the task at hand. He states:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
In a world that is increasingly becoming more fast-paced, technology driven, and distracting, there has never been a more important time to provide opportunity for our children to have uninterrupted time. In their Montessori environment, the children have long, blocks of time to be curious, choose work that is interesting and challenging, experiment trying things, fail and repeat.
Step into a Montessori classroom and observe sometime. You will see children engaged with their work, happily learning on their own or side by side with a peer or two. The activities they will be working on will be as varied as the individual children are themselves, chosen based on their interests, abilities and curiosity. And, given uninterrupted time to engage doing things they enjoy, the natural consequence is that they love what they do.