‘Creativity in the Montessori Classroom’ By Anita Gokal, Kauri Teacher – 6-9 Primary

If we think about the technological revolution in our lives today, we can see that famous people such as Sergey Brin and Larry Page (inventors of google search engine), Will Wrights (inventor of The Sims, Simcity and Super Mario) and Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon) are just a few who have had a profound impact on us though their creativity. You may be wondering why I chose these individuals on my list here. To my astonishment, all of them have been Montessori children!

Wow! Isn’t that a big undertaking of a Montessori classroom – to prepare individuals who can create life changing things? Indeed it is!

So how do we support creativity in our classroom when we often don’t see any children’s work on the walls or bulletin boards? This is sometimes a huge question asked of us as educators.

To answer this, I compared two definitions of creativity. According to Dr Montessori, “What is called creation is in reality a composition, a construction raised upon a primitive material of the mind, which must be collected from the environment by means of the senses.” (Spontaneous Activity in Education, pg. 245). And according to the Oxford dictionary, creativity is defined as “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness”.

Both the definitions support the use of ideas to construct and create. In Montessori preschool, children collect sensorial impressions. The precise materials allow children the opportunity to refine and accurately classify and abstract their impressions. The creativity at this age is in using the observation and applying it to identify the known. In primary, however, the children use their imagination to augment things in their work. Every key lesson offers the opportunity to explore and investigate a topic further and all follow up work opens the doors to creation by virtue of using the imagination.

Teaching in a primary class often surprises me with the unique “big work” that the children create in all the classes at Wā Ora. I see these on the deck or outdoors, from making volcano models to making a garden shed; from caring for the animals to sharing community lunches; be it a creation of a simple word problem in math or making the cube of 9 to the power of tens; or researching the causes of extinction of whales or finding the effects of global warming. Our children keep going until they have satisfied themselves, challenged themselves, solved problems, created models, timelines or mathematical solutions of whatever it is that has intrigued and captured their interest.

It is natural that the future leaders of the world who will make a difference for others by creating new and innovative solutions to the issues of tomorrow will be found in no other than a Montessori environment where they can “be more!”

Reflections of a Montessori Directress By Amy Johnson, Kowhai Head Teacher – Preschool

I was recently asked to find a quote from Maria Montessori that I found inspiring and to reflect on it for publication. The biggest challenge for me was narrowing it down to ONE quote!  So I thought I might share a few of them here with you all.

“The most important period of life is not the age of university studies but the first one, the period from birth to age six. For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement, is being formed.”

The truth of this statement is demonstrated to me every day. Not only in my work with the children, but with my conversations with adults in my life.  Any character attribute I assign myself, I can find its source in experiences of my childhood. This statement also highlights perfectly Dr Montessori’s amazing observational skills and a vision beyond her time. This statement was made close to 100 years ago, before all the scientific developments of brain research that have supported this in so many ways.

“Any child who is self-sufficient, who can tie his shoes, dress or undress himself, reflects in his joy and sense of achievements; the image of human dignity, which is derived from a sense of independence.”

You have all seen it. I see it every day. This is what keeps me sitting on my hands when I see a child struggling with an activity or the acquisition of a skill. “The image of human dignity”… The pride in, and development of, not only the skill the child is struggling to acquire, but of the sense of SELF. There is an incredible development of self that comes from having struggled and conquored something difficult. Next time you see your child working to complete a task… allow that struggle. Yes, you (as the adult) could do that task much quicker, much more simply… but YOU don’t need the practice. And what you can unintentionally take away is an amazing self-building experience for your child, and often an incredible sense of accomplishment. Teach your child to ask for help when he/she wants it (before frustration sets in) and then follow an easy rule: Do NOT help your child unless you are asked to, by your child. I think you will be amazed at how long and hard they will struggle to accomplish something and at the growth of spirit that occurs when the task is completed. Also, try asking your child if they would like your help before your hands reach in to complete the task.

“If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, then there is little hope in it bettering man’s future.”

This is the quote I want to leave you with. For your own reflection, for your thought, and for inspiration.

Montessori Tips for the Home by Tania Gaffney, Rata Teacher and DP Primary

Over the course of my time as a Montessori teacher I have often come across books, readings or professional development that could be handy to parents for application at home, so I have decided to share some of these tips and thoughts with you.

  • Prepare every room in your home so your tamariki can join in fully in your family life and start their journey to independence. For example, prepare a place in your fridge or cupboard with healthy snacks and drinks that children can reach. Use appropriate sized jugs and child friendly containers, so they can help themselves during the day or after school. Remember with this, you need to talk about how much is enough – how often and how much of something they can have. You could go to the shop together and look at options of what’s available. Remember to show in detail how to set-up, serve and clear away.  Be clear with instructions – saying “don’t eat too much” or “don’t make a mess” is not helpful.
  • Make sure all your child’s possessions can be properly contained and displayed for use. If they can’t be, then they may have too much and you might need to cull. Go through these things and take out anything that is broken or incomplete and therefore unusable. Put some toys into boxes and store them so they can be rotated.  This could be every month or twice a term.  This means children will appreciate them more and not grow bored with what they have.  Your child may want to help you do this.  Also spend time making their room attractive with a place for everything.
  • Stay on top of the tidying. This doesn’t mean you should nag your children to do it, rather set some boundaries around it, eg. one thing out at a time. Having a place for everything to go as mentioned above also helps.  When things get overwhelming in the tidying department (as they will, even with the best intent in the world) help them, but divide up the jobs, giving the children jobs that suit their age and stage, while you do a job as well.
  • Supply your child with materials that are creative and open ended and that build up skills that could translate indirectly to the classroom and that connect them to the world of art, culture, language, science, geography and history. Fill your house with books, maps, atlases, a globe, dictionaries. Look at them whenever someone travels, moves or when something current or historical comes up. Spend time in nature with your ākonga.  We are lucky to be living in Wellington where there are all sorts of geological features.  You could find an isthmus, a peninsula, notice the river, walk on the hills, and notice the clouds and rock formations.  Collect things to study.  Take photos of things like different trees or leaves and see if you can name them looking at books from the library.

This is all for now but hopefully these are useful tips that you will have fun applying.

Adolescence and Montessori by Stuart Mason, High School Teacher

A small revolution in Kawakawa occupations work began this term.  Growing plants under cover, composting, setting up a radio station, keeping chickens and preparing a fleet of bicycles are projects being undertaken by our 12-15 year olds that aim to serve needs in the community.  All italicised quotes below are Maria Montessori’s, from Appendix A of ‘From Childhood to Adolescence’.

‘Men with hands and no head, and men with head and no hands are equally out of place in the modern community … Education should therefore include the two forms of work, manual and intellectual, for the same person, and thus make it understood by practical experience that these two kinds complement each other and are equally essential to a civilized existence.’

The occupations units aren’t just a means of occupying students with directed manual tasks.  They are about applying knowledge from the curriculum and elsewhere, in the service of the community.  The teachers have the challenge of making the New Zealand Curriculum a living thing expressed in the form of this project work.  It becomes ‘just in time’ learning rather than ‘just in case’ learning.

‘Adaptability – this is the most essential quality; for the progress of the world is continually opening new careers, and at the same time revolutionizing the traditional types of employment.’

Beforehand, the occupations teachers engaged in quite a bit of planning, thinking through how the new occupations units would work.  But many of the genuine problems of each project remain and students will work alongside teachers to discuss, refine, and implement solutions.  Charles Leadbeater writes ‘Our highest educational achievers may well be aligned with their teachers in knowing what to do if and when they have the script. But … this sort of certain and tidy knowing is out of alignment with a script-less and fluid social world. Our best learners will be those who can make ‘not knowing’ useful, who do not need the blueprint, the template, the map, to make a new kind of sense.’

‘We might call [Third Plane education] a ‘school of experience in the elements of social life’ … The difficulty of studying with concentration is not due to a lack of willingness, but is really a psychological characteristic of the age.’

As established by Maria Montessori at least 70 years ago, and rediscovered and researched since by others, the prime focus of the early years of adolescence is not of the academic and intellectual strain, but is about identity and place within the community.  Our new occupations units agree. Even so, ākonga can often be seen in deep consideration of some pretty heavy-duty science concepts when allowed to choose and explore from the options presented.  With this new work we are now engaged in building up the community, and the school, literally alongside the tradespeople who are finishing the walls of the buildings around us.

Some more thoughts on Cosmic Education by Richard Goodyear, Totara Teacher

I have previously written about Cosmic Education and its central role in the Primary Montessori classes (6-12 years).

This time I’d like to hone in on some of the specifics of how we work with the ākonga to develop their understanding of the great themes of Cosmic Education:  especially unity, for example that all living creatures share DNA, or that planets were formed by the particles uniting; diversity, for example all the different cultures on the planet or all of the different types of stars out there; and interconnectedness, for example our actions affect the environment.

Were you to take a stroll through the Primary classes at the moment, you may see ākonga engaged in studying the timeline of life, researching and making fossils, laying out the planets on a giant scale, creating accurate models of living creatures, the history of the universe, researching cultures from around the world, history and much more.

All these ‘topics’ come under the banner of Cosmic Education for sure, but it’s not the content alone that makes a learning experience for a Montessori child ‘cosmic’ in nature. Indeed, a mainstream school may cover these same topics, but is unlikely to be doing it in a ‘cosmic’ sense.

Sometimes the topics the ākonga end up doing can seem quite unusual. I once had a student who got obsessed by the lungs and respiratory system of crayfish! Mind you, our Montessori teacher albums cover some fairly specialized territory too: Ordovician extinction; the different theories of how humans acquired language; subjunctive clauses in grammar, to name but a few. These are not exactly the topics you’d normally see in a Primary School. I certainly didn’t get exposed to this stuff at Primary School, did you?

But in Montessori education we are ‘planting the seeds’ for further study at High School and beyond. Beyond this method of ‘seed planting’, is it important for a child to learn these things? In a Montessori Primary class the answer is yes. One of the main points of these seemingly unusual studies is the way they can be used to draw children’s attention to those great themes mentioned above.

To use the example above, learning about the respiration of a crayfish may seem unimportant, but it is a springboard for discussing and researching some big ideas, for example: crustaceans have a fascinating body plan, they are a product of adaptation to their environment, they have other vital functions such as reproduction and nutrition that are equally fascinating, they are part of a bigger story that connects with topics in Geology, plate tectonics, Chemistry, even astronomy. It’s all connected. And that’s the key to Cosmic Education.

This weaving of concepts and themes can happen within all of the various topics we present to the children. Thus we can encourage ākonga to research seemingly obscure topics, and we can cover the regular Primary School curriculum, but with a distinctly Montessori point of difference.

Maria Montessori saw that this approach would help children develop a sense of their own purpose and of their connection with their fellow humans and the environment itself.

Practical Life by Jen Smyth, ex Kowhai Teacher

Hi all, Kowhai has now been open for a full year. As Practical Life is the first area tamariki work in, I felt it was appropriate to update everyone on this classroom area. Practical life isn’t just the two + shelves of materials in each of the preschool classrooms; it is everywhere!

Practical life is to build concentration, co-ordination, gross and fine motor control and INDEPENDENCE! Parents are often surprised by how quickly their tamariki progress in terms of their co-ordination and independence once they start in a Montessori environment. The truth is, it is not us as kaiako (teachers) but the materials and environment which allow your tamariki to flourish. As Jan mentioned in a recent column, in a Montessori environment we try to have higher tamariki numbers and less ‘teachers’ allowing for independence and problem solving. This combined with a ‘child friendly’ environment builds your child’s independence.

The first area tamariki would generally start with is the preliminary shelf in the Practical Life area. This area usually consists of a range of pouring, spooning, threading etc. These materials build the skills and independence for a child to pour their own drink, spoon to feed themselves, thread as preparation for dressing themselves and sewing. On top of that all the materials prepare the hand for writing through building muscle tone and the three fingered pencil grip. From here we have table scrubbing, floor scrubbing, polishing, face washing, cloth washing, hand washing… the list goes on, all materials are designed for the needs of each class. A few years ago I noticed lonely individual socks being left around the class. Did the tamariki know how to roll their socks together to keep them in a pair? No! Tamariki come into this world as a blank canvas, they fill up on knowledge through observing their world around them.  Of course sock rolling went out onto the shelf as an activity and no more lonely socks left… well for a little while J

Practical life doesn’t start or finish at school or preschool for that matter. Building your child’s independence, and in turn confidence, happens everywhere.  A child friendly environment and equipment are so important – and time!  Tamariki desperately want to dress themselves and put on their own shoes and socks. This can only happen if they have clothing and shoes they know how to use. Buckles, buttons, zips, tight clothing are all doable but not until they have mastered the ability to do these actions with the dressing frames or through practicing at home. Until they have, dressing your child in clothes and shoes they can manage, builds their confidence and desire to learn more. Giving them the time to practice and perform these actions independently is vital too. Making breakfast, making their bed, cleaning up and dressing themselves are all tasks children can do (they do it here, why not at home?) but to encourage this independence and lose the frustration / temper tantrums, we must give them the time to complete this independently.

Making themselves a drink or even making you a cup of tea are all tasks that are age appropriate. In the preschool, 5 year olds make tea and coffee for kaiako; can they make you one at home? In the primary, tamariki do baking; can they make you morning tea in the weekends? Sourcing the recipe, finding the ingredients, completing the task from set up to clean up? Making their own lunch, feeding the family pets, doing the recycling and the dishes, hanging out the washing, writing the shopping list, sweeping the floor, vacuuming… These are all tasks which work towards an independent individual, and a happy, content child knowing they have the skills and environment to cater to their own needs and to assist and give to others.

‘The telling of the great stories’ by Jan Gaffney

At the beginning of the year in the Primary classes is the time that the great stories are told. These are the basis for the rest of the Primary curriculum and are told at the beginning of the year to set the scene for the rest of the child’s year. We are in effect giving the children a filing system in which to store the knowledge that will come in a logical and ordered way and one in which retrieval is easier.

The Primary child is ready to engage their imagination and reasoning mind to look at how the universe works and how it got to be like it is today. Their imaginations are capable of taking them on huge journeys across galaxies and time. Telling the great stories captures the child’s imagination and impels them to find out more.  The whole Montessori curriculum is based on these stories, which are derived from Science.

At the beginning of the year, many of our Primary teachers also tell creation stories from different religions and cultures. If there is a story important to your whanau, please let your class teacher know so they can include it in some form.

The first great story tells of the creation of the universe. It is often referred to as the Big Bang Story. It tells the story of how the universe came to be and continues until our own earth is formed.

This is followed by The Story of the Coming of Life, which tells of the development of life from the primordial soup of the Precambrian era to the development of mammals and introduction of human beings.

The third story tells of the development of human beings and their ancient civilizations.

The fourth and fifth stories tell of how human beings have used their intelligence over time to make the world more understandable. They are The Story of Math, and The Story of Language.

These five stories form the basis of the rest of the curriculum and every lesson given in the Primary curriculum can be traced back to one (or more) of these stories. Montessori termed this as the Cosmic Curriculum and for her it was that everything was connected and had meaning only in relation to everything else.

The Primary years are very exciting learning wise, and our job as teachers is to excite the child so much that they are interested in finding out as much as they can. In the words of Montessori, “If the idea of the universe be presented to the child in the right way, it will do more for him than just arouse his interest, for it will create in him admiration and wonder, a feeling loftier than any interest and more satisfying… The stars, earth, stones, life of all kinds form a whole in relation with each other, and so close is this relation that we cannot understand a stone without some understanding of the great sun! No matter what we touch, an atom, or a cell, we cannot explain it without knowledge of the wide universe… The laws governing the universe can be made interesting and wonderful to the child, more interesting even than things in themselves, and he begins to ask: What am I? What is the task of man in this wonderful universe? Do we merely live here for ourselves, or is there something more for us to do? Why do we struggle and fight? What is good and evil? Where will it all end?”

What a great way to start the year!

An insight into ‘movement vs fidgeting ‘ by Tara Israelson, Nikau Teacher

I recently read an article on the topic of ‘fidgeting’ and how there seems to be an epidemic of it in schools these days.

The article went on to describe an observation during a 45 minute period in which children were being read to.  The children, seated at desks, were tilting back in their chairs, kicking their legs vigorously, tapping their hands, swivelling their heads, and making many other ‘fidgety’ movements as the teacher read on.

I reflected on the children in our Montessori classrooms and I wondered if we have a lot of ‘fidgeting’ too.  It’s hard to tell with all of the natural movement that children engage in throughout the day!

In our Preschool classrooms we have movement naturally built in to every activity.  First there is the freedom to roam the classroom to find the particular activity that inspires.  Once a choice has been made, children can decide on a mat or a table and then go through the process of bringing the material to their work space.  This can sometimes take as many as 10 trips!

Practical Life activities often have the child standing and using their balance and strength to get the job done.  Language activities can often be quite physical as children act out verbs or stretch out on mats to complete a story with the Movable Alphabet.

There is a free flow from inside to outside, where all activities involve movement of some kind.  It is no accident that Montessori classrooms allow for freedom of movement.  Dr. Montessori saw movement as a natural motivation of all humans, from infancy to old age.  It is through movement and activity that we pursue our interests, orient ourselves and how we explore.

The freedom of movement in our classrooms and outdoor environment also helps to develop muscle tone and strength.  Children are not only toning their large muscles, but also the smaller muscles of their eyes and their hands as they manipulate pencils, small beads or a needle and thread.

In her book Montessori Behind the Genius, Angeline Stoll Lillard says, “when one moves with a purpose, there is a sense in which one’s body is aligned with one’s thought”.  Each movement built in to each activity is in fact, very purposeful.  Throughout Practical Life, our movements follow a logical sequence of activity, giving the child great purpose in their work.

The activities in the outdoor environment are all utilising real functional materials, again allowing for purposeful movements.  Some lessons, such as those in the Language and Math areas, call for more restricted movements.  What great refinement and control a child shows as they sit still counting beads or moving only their arm as they trace a metal inset!

Without the freedom of movement how would a child develop and refine their physical control and coordination? Isn’t it true that a child must develop the ability to ‘sit still’?  This control of movement is almost as difficult as crossing the monkey bars for the first time!

So, as I think back to the article on fidgeting, I believe that we have avoided the epidemic by allowing for purposeful movements in our daily routines.  As a Montessori teacher I also appreciate how much movement I get out of my day!

Imagination and Montessori by Sharon Udy, Kauri Teacher (maternity leave)

You probably already know that Maria Montessori observed the four ‘planes of development’ a person goes through as they become independent, from birth to about the age of 24.  Each plane spans about six years, and has two sub-planes, each of which lasts about three years.  This is why Montessori classes cover three-year age groups, so that tamariki (children) are grouped with others who have similar needs and similar psychological characteristics.

Around the age of six, tamariki (children) move from the first plane of development to the second.  We notice physical changes (loss of teeth, change of body proportions and a loss of ‘baby fat’, particularly around the cheeks) as well as intellectual and psychological changes.  Tamariki become more daring and adventurous, wanting to challenge themselves.  Their immune system is stronger, making them more resistant to diseases; they are more resilient and often don’t want a fuss made of themselves, even if they are sick or injured.

At the same time, tamariki move away from being sensorial explorers of their world.  They start to use reasoning and imagination to explore their world – both what they can see and what they can’t.  Where a child in the first plane of development (zero to six years) often asks, “What is it?”, a child in the second plane is more likely to ask, “Why is it?” They want to know about the functions of objects, the reasons for phenomena and how things work.

Imagination can be described as the ability to picture material things in their absence.  The imagination has three possibilities – to gather images; to apply those images in reality; and to invent or create something new, using those images.

Throughout the first plane of development, tamariki take in qualities, images and impressions of the features of the world that surround them. They are exposed to specific nomenclature to help them refine those impressions. These experiences and language provide a foundation for our work in the second plane.

Now the child is interested in understanding how our world came to be – why throughout the ages has land crumbled away in some places and in other places risen up? How did land prepare itself so plants could live on it; so animals could live upon it; and eventually so that humans could live upon it?

These are the kinds of questions tamariki are interested in, and we must help them find answers. We cannot take them back to the beginning and show them how the world was made, but we can make use of imagination and tell stories about how it happened.

Our stories present the universe, our Earth, the lives of plants and animals through the ages, and the achievements of human beings. We use personification, magic and mystery to appeal to the imagination, in the hope that tamariki will understand the wonder of creation, and the enormous efforts made by human beings who came before us and who have added to the comfort of our lives. We hope the child will discover in himself an appreciation for these wonders and gifts.

“Everything invented by man, physical or mental, is the fruit of someone’s imagination. In the study of history and geography we are helpless without imagination, and when we propose to introduce the universe to the child, what but imagination can be of use to us?”

The Social Curriculum of the Primary years by Tania Gaffney, Rata

The Second Plane of Development (6-12) is a time of great development of the mind for the child. They move from soaking things up unconsciously to becoming more reasoning, analytical and conscious about what they are thinking about and doing. Therefore the social aspect is very important to this age group. Tamariki are starting to see their peers as more important in their lives until, in the adolescent years, it almost usurps the role of the family.

Because of this great social age, things may come up with your children that you have never had to deal with before in their pre-school years e.g. lying, arguing with friends, feeling left out. Children are driven by the necessity to figure out the rules of the social order of the community they are in. Trying to fit into a new class has its own set of hurdles, especially when the young 6 year old isn’t always quite ready to be in an older environment.

Arguments and disagreement are part and parcel of the primary years. They argue, fall out and make up. This is the way of life in primary, sometimes this cycle happens and the adults don’t know because the tamariki have already learned the words and skills to figure this out for themselves. Sometimes we are only too well aware of disagreements between children. Our job as adults is to help them through this time and give them the skills and language to be able to sort these issues out themselves.

There are many ways to do this.  A child may not have the language yet to talk through an issue.  When they come to me and say, “Bob said or did this to me”, I might ask a few questions such as “Why did they say or do that?” Usually the answer is, “I don’t know.” I would then say, “Perhaps you could ask them” and carry on from there giving them some

words with which to talk to the other child.  Sometimes I will sit down with akonga who have an issue and we will talk through it, seeing how everyone feels and what could be done about things. Sometimes an older child can sit down with a couple of children and take them through the same thing.

Over the years, I have often looked across the classroom and seen an older child with a couple of younger children talking through an issue; when this happens it gladdens my heart as this is what we are aiming for.

When there are regular issues that crop up we may deal with these within a class meeting or devise a grace and courtesy lesson that will bring that thing up in a humorous way. What we as adults need to remember is that this is a learning curve for tamariki just as times tables or reading is something they are still learning.