Lessons in gardening help Montessori students grow. Westpark Campus, LePort Schools.
Toss a rock in Orange County and it seems you’d hit a Montessori program, but what does that really mean in the everyday experience of students within, or in some cases outside, those classroom walls.
Montessori education dates back to 1907, when Maria Montessori opened the “Casa dei Bambini,” or Children’s House, in a low-income district of Rome. Working with institutionalized and inner-city youngsters, Dr. Maria Montessori was struck by how avidly the children absorbed knowledge from their surroundings. Given developmentally appropriate materials and the freedom to follow their interests, they joyfully taught themselves.
The goal of Montessori education is to foster a child’s natural inclination to learn. Montessori teachers guide rather than instruct, linking each student with activities that meet his interests, needs, and developmental level. The classroom is designed to allow movement and collaboration, as it also promotes concentration and a sense of order.
Maria Montessori believed that moving and learning were inseparable. The child must involve her entire body and use all her senses in the process of learning. She needs opportunities built into the learning process for looking, listening, smelling, touching, tasting, and moving her body. Unique learning materials beckon from accessible shelves, inviting small hands to take on new challenges, 1 concept or skill at a time.
Montessori children learn through experiment and play. Photo courtesy LePort Schools.
Benefits of a Montessori Education
Montessori education offers children opportunities to develop their potential as they step out into the world as engaged, competent, responsible, and respectful citizens with an understanding and appreciation that learning is for life.
- Each child is valued as a unique individual. Montessori education recognizes that children learn in different ways, and accommodates all learning styles. Students are also free to learn at their own pace, each advancing through the curriculum as he is ready, guided by the teacher and an individualized learning plan.
- Beginning at an early age, Montessori students develop order, coordination, concentration, and independence. Classroom design, materials, and daily routines support the individual’s emerging “self-regulation” (ability to educate one’s self, and to think about what one is learning), toddlers through adolescents.
- Students are part of a close, caring community. The multi-age classroom—typically spanning 3 years—re-creates a family structure. Older students enjoy stature as mentors and role models; younger children feel supported and gain confidence about the challenges ahead. Teachers model respect, loving kindness, and a belief in peaceful conflict resolution.
- Montessori students enjoy freedom within limits. Working within parameters set by their teachers, students are active participants in deciding what their focus of learning will be. Montessorians understand that internal satisfaction drives the child’s curiosity and interest and results in joyous learning that is sustainable over a lifetime.
- Students are supported in becoming active seekers of knowledge. Teachers provide environments where students have the freedom and the tools to pursue answers to their own questions.
- Self-correction and self-assessment are an integral part of the Montessori classroom approach. As they mature, students learn to look critically at their work, and become adept at recognizing, correcting, and learning from their errors.Given the freedom and support to question, to probe deeply, and to make connections, Montessori students become confident, enthusiastic, self-directed learners. They are able to think critically, work collaboratively, and act boldly—a skill set for the 21st century.
History and benefits of Montessori education courtesy the American Montessori Society: amshq.org. ©2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Children of mixed ages learn through mentorship and curated objects of play. Photo courtesy Montessori Schools of Irvine.
Montessori in OC
Montessori Schools of Irvine, open since 1976, is easily distinguishable by their logo of a rainbow over a heart (born when co-founder, Richard Ruszat, arrived at the first school and witnessed the colorful arc, commenting, “Look at that, a beautiful rainbow over all that love.”).
Ruszat and his co-founder and wife, Cheryll Ruszat, Executive Director of one of the largest private early childhood education programs in California, don’t sit on a board overseeing from afar. They not only own the program, but work at the schools every day.
“It’s a very personal commitment for us,” says Cheryll, whose own children were Montessori-educated. All four of her schools are nationally accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and are affiliated with the American Montessori Society. Her high standards show through in the success of the students and the now-generations returning to the school.
“I have actually hired some of my children,” says Ruszat. “Those who said, ‘Miss Cheryll, when I grow up, I want to become a teacher and come back.’. ‘Okay, I will be waiting for you.’ And here they are.”
Montessori Schools of Irvine hire those with a degree in Early Childhood Education and scholarship them to the University Montessori Teacher Education Program at UC Irvine to become Montessori certified (accredited by MACTE — Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education), an advanced credential earned through a one year intensive program in which students go to school in the evenings and also teach in a Montessori program under the supervision of a certified Montessori teacher every day during their academic year.
“Part of what happens in Montessori, it creates a whole person that is responsible and caring about the world. They compete with themselves, so they always try to better within themselves, as opposed to trying to compete with the person next to them.”
This leads to impressive tales of Harvard and other top universities and great success, both in the business world and as young people making a mark on the world.
“Montessori develops what is known as the executive skills; they are able to communicate well with other people — they have a good understanding and perspective within the situations they face, it’s an extraordinary method. It’s why, when my children grew up, I stayed.”
Another area school program, the LePort Schools, incorporated a love of nature and appreciation for the beauty of this place we call home, within the philosophy of Montessori.
“Montessori was an advocate for children to have experiences in nature and felt that children should have access to the outdoors throughout the day.” says Susan Locke, M.Ed., Head of School for LePort Schools of OC. “We have done our best to incorporate this idea into our Westpark campus by providing our students with an outdoor extension to the regular classroom. As each of our classrooms has direct access to the outdoors, we have created a small, outdoor classroom that allows the children to work on their Montessori lessons outside or to choose from one of the many activities that are exclusively in the outside environment such as gardening or easel painting.
“All LePort Schools provide an authentic Montessori experience as all of our Lead Teachers are certified by Dr. Montessori’s own training through the Association Montessori Internationale.”
Montessori children are guided through experiential learning by their teachers. Courtesy, LePort Schools.
While celebrating the traditional Montessori principles, not every school that carries the Montessori name adheres to the methods. Interpretation of what a program entails is not strictly or legally enforced when using the title, so parents should do their own homework and ask for more information about the background of the director and teachers within each program to get a full sense of what to expect.
“Montessori children are learners with confidence and an abundance of curiosity that naturally guides them through a stimulating, self-directed environment. The classroom teachers ignite children’s learning with a broad view in applicable curriculum,” says Catherine House, one of the newest kids on the Montessori block, as she prepares to open Bella Montessori Preschool, of Lake Forest. “Teachers demonstrate curricula in preparation for children’s advancement when they show signs in the developmental growth process during the infant-toddler (birth to age 2) and preschool (age 2 to 6) years.”
While other programs adhere to a stricter sense of the Montessori method, House sees value in flexibility.
“At Bella Montessori, records of each child’s developmental growth are displayed through portfolios, classroom wall documentation, and developmental profiles. Through the unique blend of the traditional Montessori and emergent approach, we are mindful of the need to prepare each child for his/her elementary journey. The local schools focus on The Common Core State Standards and developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills students need to be successful. We believe the hybrid curriculum lends requisite support to add a sub-focus through STEAM with story times, observation stations, cumulative projects, science areas, engineering activities, creativity, and innovation as focus in each classroom, daily.”
By Sascha Zuger