How Maria Montessori’s system transitions well for current educational needs brought about by the pandemic.
The Montessori method isn’t a new educational philosophy. It was developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. But that doesn’t make it any less relevant.
“So far, Montessori has proven to be timeless,” said Ana Rivas, head of school at LePort Montessori Irvine Westpark. “Times may be changing but child development has been the same throughout human existence.”
No academic year has seen more change than 2020. Many schools pivoted to distance learning at first and then moved into hybrid models as restrictions have loosened.
Montessori schools were no exception, but the holistic approach to education implemented at such institutions just might make them better equipped to face the unique circumstances presented by the pandemic.
Maria Montessori began developing her education method by observing children and experimenting with their environment, materials and lessons. Dr. Montessori’s research inferred that children who are given the liberty to choose and act freely in an environment, prepared according to her model, would naturally move toward optimal development.
Typically, Montessori classrooms are divided into three-year age groups and children can choose what they want to do from a wide variety of options, with an emphasis on hands-on activities to encourage engagement. The methodology is mainly intended for young children up to the age of 12, as Dr. Montessori did not establish a clear teacher training program for adolescents. She created what she came to call her “scientific pedagogy” before opening her first classroom, the Casa dei Bambini, in 1907.
Over the next five years, Montessori schools would open in India, France and Switzerland. In 1929, she founded the Association Montessori Internationale to preserve the integrity of her teachings and trainings as they spread.
The first Montessori schools came to the United States in 1911, and today there are more than 400 private Montessori schools in California alone, according to privateschoolreview.com.
Many are right here in Orange County.
Giuliana De Frenza, principal at Montessori Harbor-Mesa School in Costa Mesa, studied the Montessori method in Italy before coming to California and eventually opening her own Montessori school. She has been the owner, director and now principal of Montessori Harbor-Mesa School since she opened it in 1970. De Frenza said the Montessori gets children excited about coming to school.
“Children become really self-motivated,” said De Frenza. “They become eager to learn and they become interested in their activities, they are not bored. They are constantly encouraged to progress.”
“It all starts with just a love of wanting what is best for children,” said Christy Licato, owner and founder of AmeriMont Academy in Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills. “The Montessori method lets us take advantage of the opportunity to teach.”
Kate Sweet is the executive director at the Montessori School of San Clemente and was a Montessori kid herself. She knows the benefits of the method well.
“I think it is so individualized, that is the biggest part,” she said. “If you have the teachers, and the parents and the administration all supporting each individual child, no one gets left behind.”
The method also takes a “whole child” approach.
“In Montessori education the child’s character, their physical well-being, their social-emotional and cognitive development are all addressed,” said Rivas. “We have a well-known phrase, ‘follow the child,’ which speaks to our commitment to practice our craft with the child before us in mind.”
At Montessori School of San Clemente, the academic day ends at 3 p.m. and then an immersion program of classes begin for the families that stay an extra hour.
“We have computers, Spanish, music, art and cooking,” said Sweet. “And it supports what we have been learning throughout the month so it is seasonally themed. For example right now, all the cooking projects were around fall and pumpkins.”
Sweet said they also introduce the children to an artist of the month and composer of the month.
“The children listen to the music or look at the art and they talk about it … what they like about it and what they don’t like about it. And there is a lot [of] appreciation, just noticing the world around them.”
In Maria Montessori’s original Casa dei Bambini, she included large open-air sections in the classroom, which encouraged children to engage in the room’s different areas and lessons. Which is partly why the Montessori method lends itself well to the way learning is being approached in a COVID-19 world.
“A key component of Montessori is to have a prepared environment,” said Licato.
Taking a similar approach at home can be less stressful than the more traditional method of teaching.
“In traditional school, a lot of planning is put into the day and what the child will do,” said Licato. “The Montessori approach is a little bit more lenient because it tends to go with the child’s interest. When you are at home with a parent that is maybe less experienced, it may be a little easier to support your child in the interest they choose than to force a topic or subject.”
Maria Montessori’s method also encourages uninterrupted blocks of work time, ideally for about two to three hours. The method also favors a “discovery” model, where students learn by working with materials rather than by direct instruction — which fosters autonomy and parallels students self-starting in an at-home or hybrid learning environment.
Which is not to say Montessori education happens without guidance.
“I think sometimes people think that it is just whatever the child wants to do all the time, and it’s not,” said Sweet. “There is a lot of intentional direction from the teacher and planning that goes into making sure children are visiting all areas of classroom. … It is really the teacher’s job to notice what are they avoiding and what they need to do to hook them in or to interest them in learning language or math or whatever they may be shying away from.”
Rivas pointed out that because the classroom environment isn’t dependent on particular equipment, the Montessori classroom can be created anywhere.
“Montessori is a lot about the attitude of the adult towards learning and child development,” said Rivas. “Many of our materials can be replicated at home and some can be completely made up with the help of an invested adult. This not only results in high engagement but also nurtures the child’s need to connect with their caretakers in a productive and purposeful way.”
In a Montessori environment, a child that works at a faster or slower speed than their peers isn’t penalized.
“Smart children really progress rapidly,” De Frenza said. “And children that have a little difficulty, they receive a lot of individualized attention. And they are not rushed into the next step if they are not ready to do so.”
Similarly, because the Montessori model is designed for adaptation, Montessori educators are equipped to change as they go and meet the child where they are.
“We had to have a teacher do a couple weeks of distance learning with her class and we came up with a daily schedule and it was fluid per child,” said Sweet. “So we met in the morning as a group online and then they did break-out session and they had playtime and yoga scheduled in there. And she did science experiments online … the hands-on aspect. I think that is the biggest difference between Montessori kids doing distance learning and typical school children doing distance learning. It’s not just two-dimensional.”
- Early Learners Overcoming the Pandemic
- Kids in a Pod: Parents Seeking Educational Alternatives
- Experts Point Towards Success in an Online Learning Environment
“Right now, 25 percent of families are not ready to return to preschool,” said Licato. “So for them we started an online program so they could educate those students at home.”
Montessori methodology also prioritizes outdoor play, which falls in line with the many schools that have taken to conducting class outdoors. Gathering outdoors can limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
“We have an outdoor classroom,” said Licato. “And the teachers don’t always have a planned curriculum when they take the children out there, but sometimes they do.”
If an interesting bird appears and children engage with it, then they might have a lesson about birds, Licato said.
“The beauty of Montessori is we embrace the moment.”
Some institutions have also found a place for technology in Montessori methodology too.
“Taking our method online has allowed us to bridge the school to home experience like never before, providing the consistency that our students thrive on,” said Rivas.
The environment at AmeriMont Academy isn’t 100 percent traditional Montessori and Licato said they integrate things like technology, that can work in tandem with the method.
“We have been using smart boards in our circle time programs for five years now,” she said. “And technology very much parallels the Montessori approach because with technology a lot of times, children work at their own pace or if they don’t get the correct answer, it won’t allow them to progress, and that is similar with Montessori.”
Schools also use technology to connect parents to their child’s classroom.
At Montessori School of San Clemente, Sweet said they have adapted by using KidsReport, a real-time child care communication app.
“Teachers can send information straight to the parent throughout the day, and the parents can contact the teachers when they need to,” said Sweet. “It really brings the parent into the classroom.”
At AmeriMont Academy, parents can enroll in a webcam program for an additional fee.
“If a parent does choose to enroll in that, they can watch their child on campus throughout the day,” said Licato. “We offer that for parents who do want that added level of comfort.”
The original Montessori environment also made time for care of one’s self and care for the environment, like dusting, sweeping and hand-washing. New routines of sanitizing and hand-washing can seamlessly tie in with practical life activities found in Montessori.
“We are teaching children about hygiene and hand-washing and [keeping] their distance,” said Sweet.
Like most learning institutions, Montessori schools have had to make some changes to limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
“Since we have so many hands-on type of tools, we do have to sanitize everything constantly,” said De Frenza.
“Right now we have closed campus,” said Licato. “And greeters take the children to their classroom, so we have a no-contact drop-off.”
The playground is divided into sections to limit mingling, and sanitizing happens throughout the day.
“LePort Montessori schools have consistently made health and safety a top priority,” said Rivas. “In the last months we have included physical distancing in all areas of our facilities, employed the use of masks, and implemented more intensive cleaning and disinfecting procedures.”
Wellness checks are also conducted on each person entering the building.
If you think a Montessori education might be right for your family, Rivas said parents should keep in mind this is not just an academic choice for your child, it’s an investment in their whole development.
“Montessori pays off in ways that will surprise you,” Rivas said. “Raising children is tough and it really does take a village.”
“We teach children to be very self-sufficient and that is part of what builds that pride,” said Licato. “As educators, we learn to stop and let them work out something, and [when] they figure it out, they are so proud.”
De Frenza agreed.
“Your child can really benefit from being encouraged to progress based on their own speed and their own ability.”
By Sarah Mosqueda
(Photos courtesy of Richard Unten, LePort Montessori)