Montessori has a strong emphasis on personal responsibility. The kids often choose what they want to be working on. It’s their job to get out the materials they need and to put them back when they are done. The older kids (4-6 year olds) get the privilege of demonstrating activities to younger kids once they’ve mastered them. The kids take turns bringing snack and serving the snack to their friends.
And everyone in the class is their “friend.”
There are no “toys” and no screens – no TVs, no computers. Many of the preschools we’d visited included large blocks of time when kids were just free to play with random toys and time each day when they watched a show or movie. At the Montessori, the classroom was filled with activities they called “works,” lots of fun, interesting things, but they aren’t toys. The message to the kids was that they had important work to do, just like their mommies and daddies were doing at their jobs.
Some of the works change monthly, and others are there year-round. Many of them are designed to build progression of skills in a way that isn’t immediately obvious, but that makes so much sense when you see the progression.
For example, when a child is learning to write, instead of just having them practice over and over with actual writing, they build a progression of skills. The child can use their fingertips to trace the shapes of the letters on sandpaper on a wooden block (which also teaches them how hard to press when writing, resulting in fewer torn papers when they get to that stage.) They trace stencils in geometric shapes with colored pencils, creating some really interesting “art” in the process, but the shapes of the stencils have a specific purpose: they include all of the different shapes and strokes needed to create our alphabet, so they’re learning the curve of a c, the tail on a g, without even realizing that is what they are doing.
There are also some fantastic math-related activities that build concepts for students that provide a foundation for multiplication, division, algebra and much more advanced math. Many of these activities, designed for kids age 3-6, are things I thought would have been incredibly helpful for the 5th graders I’ve taught, for things like place value and multiplication families.
They stack towers of progressively smaller blocks and learn perspective and balance. They match words to labeled pictures and not only practice reading but learn about animals from Australia, parts of a flower, or whatever other content they’re currently focusing on. They use bamboo tongs to move small objects, like pom-poms, in what feels like a game but which helps them develop the coordination to hold a pencil correctly.
This spring, my son’s favorite activity at school wasn’t one of the “official” Montessori works, it was something his teacher called “color cubes.” They are 1/2 inch foam cubes with a flat magnet glued to one side. The cubes can be arranged on a magnetic white board in all sorts of designs. I think my son likes them because they are most like the beloved Legos that he devotes his time to at home. His teacher has said that he spends hours playing with those cubes and once filled the entire board with a rainbow design that he created.
Besides the creative/arts part of it, he’s also getting practice with those fine motor skills. And to put the work away, he sorts the cubes by color into divided sections of a box. And I love anything that encourages him to organize and put away!
So as we talked about the school year coming to a close, my son had one request: a set of color cubes of his own.
We got online, did a search for “color cubes” and looked at images until he recognized the same set he had used at school. They showed up in the mail today. He’s been on the floor, designing, ever since.