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.

‘Planes of Development’ by Krista Kerr, Pohutukawa Teacher

It was great to see such interest in the two ‘People of the Land’ evenings. I was able to attend both as a teacher presenting geography in the Preschool, and as a parent to see what and how my children learn in this area throughout as they move up through the school. The differences in style and content of different presentations made me reflect on the planes of development.

During her observations of people, Dr Montessori observed that human beings pass through four stages, which she called the four planes of development. Dr Montessori observed that the mental and psychological growth of a person naturally coincides with their physical growth cycle.

One analogy Dr Montessori uses to explore the four planes of development is that of a life cycle of a butterfly. Eggs are laid which then hatch into tiny caterpillars, who then eat copious amounts of food and grow bigger and bigger. At a pre-determined time set by the laws of nature, it makes a cocoon and, with a fair amount of effort, a butterfly emerges. Each stage in this cycle builds on the stage preceding it and if, for any reason, one of these stages is interrupted, the normal development is not fulfilled and there is no butterfly. We can see throughout this process that great changes have taken place; the caterpillar, cocoon and butterfly, although the same being, look and act vastly different to one another.

And so it is with a human being during the process of development; a baby looks vastly different and has different abilities to a six year old child, as does a six year old when compared to a 12 year old and so on. Although we know that the 24 year old adult is the same being as the baby, they look and act immensely different.  As with the butterfly, if this natural process of human development is interrupted or unsupported then you do not get the desired or expected outcome: a 24 year old who has fulfilled their potential development and is well-balanced and adapted to their environment.

Each of the four planes is very distinct and the characteristics and needs of each plane are very unique. As each plane of development is unique and has specific changes and needs, Dr Montessori argued that education has to exist to support these developments and therefore address each plane in a way that those in that plane could fulfil their needs and reach their potential development, instead of the traditional, linear education system.

The adults in the child’s environment must do all they can to provide an environment that meets the needs and supports each plane. The adult should view the transition from one plane to the next as a positive time, and help the individual to do so also, as it will lead to a much smoother and easier transition. Most importantly we must be aware of these planes of development so that we support them and not, out of ignorance, impede development. To know what the planes and their needs are, we need to study development and observe the children in our environment. “If we are to help life, we have first of all to study it” as Dr Montessori says in The Secret of Childhood (1972).

These planes of development give one a new perspective, not only of human development, but of the role of education and educators in a person’s life. Education should be viewed holistically as an aide to life, rather than the traditional, subject based education. The person as a whole, both psychologically and physically, is fully developed and the natural, inner energy of that individual is strengthened. The implication for education and teachers therefore, is that they need to be responsive, to change to meet the unique needs of each plane of development.

It was interesting to hear from teachers in all areas of the school on how and why they present lessons and prepare their environments to meet these unique needs of the age group they work with.

‘Ask a Montessori Child’ written by Carol Palmer, Tawhai teacher

As many of you know I am currently undergoing my AMI Montessori training.  This is the most demanding challenge I have ever undertaken, it requires me to leave my family for weeks on end and consumes all of my spare time when I am at home, so understandably my loved ones want to know why on earth I am doing this when I am already a qualified teacher.

The answer is this – I am inspired by the Montessori child.  Because Montessori children shine.  And I don’t just mean they do well in tests or can sit quietly for an hour and write you an essay on a given subject, though of course they can do that.  If you ask a Montessori child to recite their times tables – fine, they can do that too.  If you ask them how to punctuate a sentence or construct a report – also not a problem.

But if you really want to see the power of Montessori education, ask a Montessori child how our galaxy formed; what the layers of our atmosphere are made up of or why ice floats on water.  Ask them to calculate pi for you, or find the volume of a sphere. Ask them to draw the atomic structure of barium, or label all the parts of a leaf. Ask them how to cook a nutritionally balanced meal for a family on a tight budget.

Ask a Montessori child to draw you a map of the world, labelling all the waterways, mountain ranges and continental boundaries.  Or better yet, give them an imaginary map with just the rivers marked and get them to show you where the mountains and human settlements would naturally lie.

And as they answer you, watch the light shine out of the Montessori child’s eyes.  Watch their joy in sharing their hard earned knowledge with you.  For a Montessori child is not just given this knowledge; they are guided to find it for themselves; it’s theirs and they are proud of it.

And if they can’t answer you, but they know you are interested, come back tomorrow and ask again – they’ll know next time, because a Montessori child knows how to find out.

So if you want to explore the arts, make leaps in science and nurture a lifelong love of learning; if you want creative thinking and the ability to problem solve in an ever changing society – ask a Montessori child.

How Montessori Prepares Children for their Future by Tania Gaffney (Rata Teacher)

I was talking the other day with Ava from the high school about the year 13s who are having their exams at the moment.  All these students are moving on next year to further study.  Our conversation was on the variety of interests that they are planning to follow:-  Criminology, engineering, pre-med with a desire to go into neurology and nursing.  None of these students are doing these things because they can’t think of anything better to do, but are truly following their interests.  This has me thinking about how this has been nurtured a Wā Ora from very early on.

All children are encouraged to follow what interests them and this may look quite different in each area of the school.  Sometimes these interests turn into something Montessori termed ‘Big Work’.  Because ākonga have the freedom to choose, they are able to meet an internal need or sensitive period they have for learning a skill or knowledge.  They take an interest they have and do something with it.

From what I have heard in the Preschool, ‘Big Work’ may look like tamariki practicing a lesson they have been given over and over again or learning all the names of the dinosaurs or countries in South America.  At this level the children tend to practice their work individually.

In Primary we also encourage choices the children have towards work.  We encourage the children to take on something of interest and research it further; or to take a lesson and show what they have learned.  This can be a short term idea or can be something that takes a long time.  Sometimes they take a concept through to some sort of final concrete product and other times there’s a lot of ‘finding out’ practice, without a concrete finish.  Both ways are OK as the child is still fulfilling their need to find out.   Some of the ‘Big Work’ I have seen over the years has been very interesting and different.  The children at this level prefer to work together, so if someone has a work they are bursting to do they generally rope in some other children to work with them.  The others often catch the spark and kindle their interest in the topic as well.  Between the children in a group they may take something much further than we ever imagined.

Here are some of the things I have seen over the years of my teaching:- Writing, directing, acting in, making the costume / makeup for a play;  putting the learning of circles into pizzas and sewing;  building a model of a river; doing a huge math problem that takes up the whole page, learning about all (or as many as they could) of the types of dinosaurs,  marking out the measurements of dinosaurs, trying to make all the planets to scale.

In the 9-12 classes big work takes on an even grander scale.  I have heard about all sorts of things happening, for example, building a model of a bridge, film making, catering for events, huge maths works, going out into the community to find out more and community lunches.

In the adolescent programme big work looks more like large groups of people working on the same projects to completion.

All of this, I think, contributes to the fulfilment of what we want to see for our tamariki when they reach the end of year 13 – a young adult excited about the possibilities that lie before them.

Why we Teach Cursive Letters in our Preschool by Cathy Wilson Deputy Principal, Preschool

I often get asked, “Why do we present cursive letters to tamariki (children) in the Preschool, instead of print?”

While I realise this question is not as important  for those in the High School, it will go some way to explain something that continues to impact tamariki in the Primary School and through to adult life.

In 2007 we began discussing using print sand paper letters versus using cursive sand paper letters for the Preschool. Letters were already being written in cursive in the Primary Classes.

In 2008 after much research and many conversations at all levels of the school, we changed all of our sandpaper letters, moveable alphabets and any writing the teachers did in front of tamariki, from print to cursive.

Our reasons included the following;

1.      Tamariki are in a Sensitive Period for movement at 0 – 4 years, a Sensitive Period for language at 0 – 6 years and a Sensitive Period for refinement of the senses at 0 – 5 years. For the years of 0 – 6, tamariki also have an Absorbent Mind which allows them to take in everything they are exposed to with ease. This is the time to present cursive letters to tamariki and to encourage them to practice to form them. It makes no sense to present sandpaper letters in print during this time and encourage tamariki to form letters in print, only to ask them to change from printing to writing in cursive  when they move over to Primary at 6 years when their Absorbent Mind and Sensitive Periods have ended.

2.      Many tamariki in the past were struggling with particular letters around the wrong way – e.g. ‘d’ and ‘b’ and ‘p’ and ‘q’. Due to the formation of letters with cursive, this problem has reduced dramatically.

3.      Tamariki naturally draw curves, squiggly lines and circles which lead to cursive letters. These are far easier for tamariki to form than the straight lines needed for print letters. Therefore tamariki take more pleasure from cursive letters and get beautiful results quicker.

4.      Tamariki have fewer challenges leaving gaps between cursive words since it is obvious when a word stops and starts.

5.      Writing in cursive is good for the brain as integration of the left and right hemisphere of the brain occurs.

6.         When we form letters as adults, we usually write in cursive, or a mixture of cursive and print, rather than purely print. So, why present print letters to children when they are not useful through to adult hood?

As you see from this, there are many really good reasons for us to be presenting cursive letters in Preschool. It is still going to be a few more years before all the tamariki in the school are writing in cursive rather than print, however, we are seeing the results of tamariki now moving from Preschool to Primary with beautiful hand writing.

This will continue to improve, with all tamariki throughout the school eventually naturally forming letters in this way.

The Importance of Oral Language by Robin Wilkins, Puriri Teacher

Being able to write clearly and effectively is an essential skill. As we all know, written language is a key focus in the NZ curriculum and ākonga have targeted expectations to meet. In order for ākonga to develop written language, they need a solid background in oral language. I have been doing a lot of reading on the subject and would like to share some of this with you.

Language shapes culture; language shapes thinking; and language shapes brains. Conversation helps tamariki learn to reason, reflect and respond to the world. The brain is intensely ravenous for language stimulation in early childhood. Many neuroscientists today are saying that the quality of young children’s language is declining and that this is affecting their cognitive development.

The results are declining literacy, falling test scores, faltering oral expression and ineptitude with the written word that extends from early childhood to the ranks of working adult professionals.

Much of the blame inevitably falls on TV, but some argue that is actually only a symptom.  There is increasing research that talks about the long-term effects of headphones, computer games and technology, and how these are affecting language development and social play.

Today’s world is such a fast-paced, over-scheduled and helter-skelter place.  If it is like this for us as adults, it is doubly so for our children. It is so important therefore, to be mindful of allowing quiet times for our children; to learn to analyse, to reflect and ponder and to learn to use quiet inner conversations to build personal realities and sharpen and extend their verbal reasoning.

Dr Jane Healy, an internationally recognised authority on learning and brain development and a speaker at Montessori conferences, suggests that good language is gained only from interactive engagement. Children need to talk as well as to hear. They need to play with words and reason with them. They need to practise talking about problems, to learn to plan and organise their behaviour. They need to respond to new words and stories to build a broad personal base of meaning.

There are concerns that children are not receiving enough daily doses of talk either at home or at school. It is critical that adults pay special attention to a child’s need to talk, to have language experiences of all kinds and to have good-quality conversation. Telling stories over and over, expanding on characters, events and ideas, help children to learn to think carefully and critically.

A child’s early experiences with oral language have powerful long-term effects on school achievement. One research study found that “frequent, responsive mother-child language interaction” was the most critical factor in raising mental ability. Studies show that mothers instinctively shape and expand their child’s language, tailoring their own responses precisely to each child’s developmental need. They seem to know just how to pull the child’s language up a notch by using forms in their own speech, that are one degree above the child’s current level. They do this automatically.

If we want growing brains to build the foundations for successful learning, we must examine the habits of our culture that are negatively impacting on the quality and the quantity of our children’s conversations and the effects of this on the written word.

Simply put, if we could all add a little more conversation and a little less action into daily life, we’d be onto a good thing!