Tag Archives: Montessori

Montessori; body, mind and soul.

P1000158I sometimes think our culture hasn’t so much embraced dualism as a kind of tri-ism. While the dualists liked to separate out the things of the body from the things of the soul, leading to some heresies where a “Christian” was told he could either do as he liked with his body, or must ignore it to death. But now we have separated out body and mind and ditched the soul. Montessori is a breath of fresh air in that she sees persons as whole; body, mind and soul. One interacts with the other.

P1000129In her education the child is not reduced to some one sitting and learning aurally by hearing the teacher and visually by watching the teacher – all very passive, but participates in his own learning and discovery by doing things, touching, manipulating, tasting, smelling and trying things out. I wish I had read her books while I was still doing my MA. It would have helped me a great deal.

I did my MA dissertation on how to bring children with various severe learning difficulties (especially autism) to the Sacraments. Montessori’s philosophy was rooted in three things (as far as I can see), her work with children with learning and physical disabilities, her Catholicness and her degree in engineering. At first sight you may wonder how they connect. Well, as I see it, Montessori learned a lot from the children she worked with in the hospitals. In my experience such children have amazing compensatory coping skills so that they can get a great deal out of life.

When I worked in a children’s hospice we had, what was called a “multisensory room”. Through light, sound and texture we could arrange the room to suit the child. Sometimes it would be warm, darkish and low stimulation, and at other times the children liked the music, bubbles and coloured lights. The walls were white so that they could be anything from low to high stimulation. Many children with autism in particular need low stimulation. There’s some evidence that children with ADHD cope better with it too. Montessori didn’t have to deal with the fall out from the over bright, shouting, busy stimulation directly aimed at children that we have today, but she understood children needing to learn through the experience of their whole body.

Montessori’s degree in engineering definitely influenced her brilliant idea to introduce geometry as a sensorial activity with very young children. It was a particularly brilliant plan in light of the children who first attended the “Children’s Houses”. While Charlotte Mason had the children under her care learn about the world around them through sensorial experiences with nature, the children in Montessori’s schools were in the slums of Rome. There wasn’t a lot of nature to be had. Even so, Montessori records how they found a piece of dump-land near the flats that the children turned into a little garden. Children feel and run their fingers around the shapes and edges whether of the items in the geometric cabinet or leaves and sticks from outside. The lessons introduce the names of the shapes and the children draw them, touch them, make them fit into place and so their whole selves get to discover the shapes.

So, how does Montessori’s Catholicness fit this? In my dissertation I wrote about how a church can be a multisensory room. (Putting aside the stuff that happened in the ’70s where churches became boxes with benches in them). In a church there are stain glass windows, statues, candles, marble, stone and wood. There is the smell of old incense – and at Mass the smell and sight of new incense. All of the P1010039accoutrements of Mass or the church when empty, are one big multisensory experience that does not require the participant to grasp spoken language (although that helps) or to be able to see (that helps too) or even to truly “get it” on a theological level. While the Mass has it all there for the Phd Professor- so everything is there for the severely disabled person. The Church knows that we need to have a relationship with God that is whole. We pray with our bodies, minds and souls just as children need to learn and form their relationships body, mind and soul. Montessori got this. In a nutshell I would say that Montessori produced a method of education based on a philosophy that we all need to interact with beauty.

Making the Montessori equipment do more than one job.

Looking at the Montessori online shops like Absorbent Minds it would be far too easy to spend an absolute fortune making sure every lesson on every album ever downloaded was covered as prescribed. So here’s what I’ve been trying to do.

P1010653I have not gone back to the online shops. What I don’t see can’t tempt me. I remember that I still owe Josh money for the Montessori stuff I did buy!

I did work out over a long time what we needed for the widest possible work using the least possible equipment.

So. I have a lot of bead stuff. They are good for all the math work the three children do, including the Life of Fred books. They are also useful for geometry.  Heleyna (and the others) can make triangles, and other straight sided shapes with the bead bars.  She can also make angles with them. This means I don’t need the rods and have used a free download of geometric sticks for extensions from Livable Learning.

I’ve laminated a lot of the sticks and added small magnets for work on the whiteboard. If you do this a tip if not to put the magnets too close to the end

P1000170of the sticks as you need to be able to overlap the sticks for making shapes and some angles.

A lot of the “flat” Montessori materials are available as downloads to be printed on card and/or laminated. The decisions I have made on this, have been with and eye to the sensorial aspects of Montessori. I have bought things that are important for how they feel as well as how they look so the children learn through their senses and learn to train their senses in things like texture and weight.

I haven’t bought a lot of sensorial materials so I want the children to use other things around the house for that. I bought a set of glue jars  which can be used in various ways; add different beans for different weights. Add hot and cold fluid for baric touch (it’s not quite the same but it works). Different smelly things can be put in them and by  filling them differently with orange lentils they make sound shakers.

We use the trays as work space. Heleyna, in particular is an “all-over-the-place” kind of person. The little rim of the tray gives a gentle boundary to her exuberant nature as she learns.

prismsThe box of prisms for the brown stair can be adapted as spindles and rods for measurement of angle. We’ve also use them to make a narrow line for Heleyna to walk along to practice balance.

They are 1 cm² by 10 cm so they make great little measuring rods too. Heleyna has also used them as building extensions with the cubes and brown stair.

I’m sure I’ll have more multi uses as time goes on.

As I have the hollow cubes instead of the pink tower we can use them not only for tower and stair models and extensions but for pythagorian rules and for measurement of volume. They are also good for listening skills as the children can make the tower with the hollow side outwards and then blow into each cube listening for the faint change in tone as they blow from small to large and back again. We also use them for listening by banging them with a stick for different tones. Heleyna like to play a hide and memory game with them too. Memory games are very useful, especially for children with dyslexia.

P1000172Finally there’s a great way to save money on Montessori models by making them yourself from play-doh. We’ve been studying the earth in geography. The layers of the earth model is £10 + at it’s cheapest. We made one out of play-doh.

‘Scuze my dd’s scary stare there!

There’s a lot more that can be made with play-doh; I have big plans 🙂

Home Education: Learning independence through spontaneous activity

I am reading The Montessori Method (free ebook) by Maria Montessori.  At the root of her method is the idea that children will find things out for themselves and that they desire and need independence. By constantly doing things for the children the parent or teacher is undermining the child’s ability to learn those skills for himself.

She has an interesting view that those who require servants are lacking in ability. Her view that the person who needs help because he has a physical disability is no worse off than the prince who needs help dressing because of his social status.

We habitually serve children; an act of servility toward them, but it is dangerous, since it tends to suffocate their useful spontaneous activity.

She differentiates between true service of others, such has assisting them to reach the independence they need and servility which is unhelpful at best and demeaning at worst.

She decries the mother who feeds her child without ever attempting to model eating herself or to help the child learn to hold and co-ordinate the spoon.  I think there’s a couple of things that cause this problem – which still very much exists today – and one is fear of mess. I have seen mother’s who can’t abide the phase where the child is trying to self feed and makes a right mess of himself and anything within a few yards radius.  There’s an underlying fear of dirt, I think.

The other reason for insisting on feeding a child who wants to feed himself is that awful modern thing of being afraid the child is growing up and won’t be a baby much longer. I have seen mothers who, can’t stand the idea that their youngest child is no longer a baby and they have decided (often without a reason) that there can’t be another.

Montessori bluntly calls mothers who won’t allow independence “not a good mother.”continuing

She offends the fundamental human dignity of her son, – she treats him as if her were a doll…”


I have to say, however strongly Montessori words this, she isn’t wrong. I worked with a class of children aged 4 to 5 and then the next year up when they were aged 5 to 6 (just before I got ill) and was amazed that most of the children couldn’t dress themselves. I don’t mean difficult buttons or laces, I mean putting on underwear and pulling on a sweatshirt. They couldn’t do it. The post-PE shambles, of trying to get 30 kids dressed, was astonishing to me.

Montessori says;

Who does not know that to teach a child to feed himself, to wash and dress himself, is a much more tedious and difficult work, calling for infinitely  greater patience than feeding washing and dressing the child oneself?

This is true. I am much more able to get the children to do things themselves when I am more with-it than when I’m so tired it just seems quicker and easier to do it myself. But it’s a bad habit to get into and one that takes a great deal away from the child.

I remember my friend telling me how she had picked up her son’s friend from school one day (they were both 10 at the time) and on the way home in the car the friend announced proudly that at school that day they had learned to cut an apple with a proper knife. Her son was unimpressed as he made lunch most days, cutting and preparing fruit, bread and whatever else was required with the right knives for the job and had been doing so for some time.

Children who are allowed to be capable are capable. But it takes time and commitment from the parents – lots of time, lots of commitment, at least to begin with. But soon enough a five or six year old can do a lot for themselves and a ten year old can do a lot more.

If you take the time and teach your children to be independent in what they do, they will more quickly learn independent thought as well, finding things out for themselves and asking questions about what they find.

Home education; freedom of the soul.

We know only too well the sorry spectacle of the teacher who, in the ordinary schoolroom must pour certain cut and dried facts into the heads of the scholars. In order to succeed in this barren task, she finds it necessary to discipline her pupils into immobility and to force their attention. Prizes and punishments are every ready and efficient aids to the master who must force into a given attitude of mind and body those who condemned to be his listeners.”

The Montessori Method, Dr Maria Montessori 1912

This paragraph follows an explanation of slavery. Montessori saw clearly that the school system in which a special bench that forced a child’s upright posture so they could sit all day and be talked at by a teacher, and go home saved from scoliosis, was all wrong. Of course, the doctor notices that children who are allowed to move around and find their own ways of learning are not in danger of twisted backs in the first place.

She finds the system of punishment and reward petty (red marks, detention and stickers are not designed for moral growth but merely conformity) and points out that without heroism – that is the will to do what is good because it is good – then corruption and cowardice are the results.

I think a brief look at our politicians clutching their Oxbridge degrees in one hand and what amounts to an allergy to telling the truth on the other, has to be a prime example of what Montessori warned us.

All parents have a right and duty to the education of our children, and we most definitely need to ensure they learn right from wrong. The tyranny of relativism was a mere yapping puppy in Montessori’s day. The Enlightenment had already brought some darkness in that area but it hadn’t grown to the proportions our poor children are faced with today.

Education is more than leading the child out. The child must grow and mature and as each child does this in his own way we can’t force understanding on them all at a certain age. Their age is mostly immaterial to their growth, maturity and ability to learn.

As Catholics we have a theology of the person that is deep and well considered. We know that the Sacraments give grace and so we get our children baptised but we also know that while the missing grace of Original Sin is mended by the graces that come with baptism, there is still the scar – the concupiscence – that we must all deal with. We tend to bend towards sin. But spend any length of time with children and you’ll notice that while they might need good guidance, boundaries and sensible discipline, they do have a strong sense of justice, if not mercy. Young children, particularly those under 7 or 8 – the age of reason, need close adult supervision to help form their conscience and curb tendencies to cruelty or meanness. We teach them to share, be gentle with others, and how to listen and basic safety.

Without this early formation children often lack social skills, basic kindness and even language. A classroom with at most two adults to thirty 4 year olds is not the place to do this basic learning; and that’s before you factor in the bizarre targets of the National Curriculum!

There is a cultural view that targets, exams and state provision are the be all and end all of education. I’ve even heard of parents who refuse to work with their OWN children when they can’t get the school placement they want, because they insist the state should provide.

Then there are parents who brag about how their child got A*s or whatever, in exams, but seem to have missed that their child is miserable, angry, incapable in social settings and lacking basic morals.

It’s well past time to change all this. When we consider that Montessori (and Mason) were writing over 100 years ago we look pretty dumb that we still haven’t set about changing things so that our children get a genuine education.

I was so wrapped up in the school model of education when I first began home education that when my children began to read books as Charlotte Mason would have them do, I got restless thinking that just sitting there reading wasn’t “doing” anything. How could I possibly know that my daughter was learning anything while she sat with a cup of tea in one hand and Notes From the Underground in the other?

But then I think it was C.S.Lewis who said that his best education came from being left to read the books in his uncle’s library. It took me a while to realise that when the children were “just reading” that they were learning. They expanded their reading and vocabulary. For Iona it helped her writing fluency and did more to stop her reversing letters and built up her general knowledge better than all those worksheets put together.

Montessori and the fairy tales controversy.

maria_montessoriWhen I first starting looking into the Montessori method for my youngest it was because she had such a strong kinesthetic approach to how she learns and I knew Montessori was very hands on, and manipulative based.

I am not a purist. I am not going to follow Dr. Montessori wherever she leads any more than I’d follow Charlotte Mason wherever she went. One of the major reasons to home educate is that we can adjust methods and approaches to suit how our children learn. Any approach that isn’t flexible isn’t useful in children’s learning. In fact one of the major issues I have with the National Curriculum is it’s shallow-narrow approach.

church_odyssey_cover_200_266 violetI haven’t read everything Dr. Maria Montessori wrote. I’ve read The Absorbent Mind and some other bits. In what I have read she doesn’t tackle the issue of fairy stories – at least not that I remember. However I’ve come across a few online debates based on the premise that Montessori did not think children should be exposed to fairy tales, at least not until they were around age 6 when their reasoning skills developed. It has been extrapolated that Montessori thought children under the age of reason couldn’t differentiate between reality and fantasy. It’s certainly true that before reason they are more questions about what is real and what isn’t – at least that’s been my experience with both children I’ve worked with and my own children. So, while children under the age of reason may not know which is which, I do think they know there is a difference.

I can’t comment on whether Montessori was right or wrong on this because I’ve never seen a reference to which book or article is being discussed. There is merely the assertion that this is what she taught. Hopefully I will come across her own words on this in time. Some have said she noted the younger children simply weren’t interested in fairy stories and would drift away to do something else. This has been my experience too with the “original” versions. Now that the children are older (Heleyna will be 6 in April and the other two are 8 and 10) they like to sit together and listen to a story, though Heleyna still wonders off in the middle of one sometimes.

If Montessori was saying that the original fairy stories such as those we find in Andrew Lang’s series are not suitable for children under the age of 6 because they may confuse them about the difference between “real” and “imaginary” and in some way stunt their own imagination, I would say; maybe.  But I have found that children will ask questions on this if they are confused.

It is certainly true that the original fairy stories can be heavy going and perhaps really young children would not be able to benefit much from them, but as with all thing home ed, I think it’s up to the parent to know their own child and be able to choose storytelling that suits. One of the joys of the original stories told as they were meant to be told is that they have a depth that makes them appeal to a large age range. There’s something for everyone in them. It has been said that Montessori, much like Charlotte Mason recognised the value of a well told story for vocabulary enhancement.

On the other hand I have a real bugbare with the appalling disneyfication of perfectly good stories so that they are dumbed down beyond redemption. If we respect our children we will not be feeding them a badly written sugar-fest of meaninglessness.  The fairy tales and myths are part of the structures of culture and children do love them.

I can’t help wondering if the reason we have so much dumbed down material aimed at children is to do with the structure of schools. If you have a class of thirty 4 year olds there’s a kind of mono-culture where a big in depth myth seems to have nothing to say. But families are mixed ages and needs so the meat and two veg approach to storytelling is a way of speaking to everyone, even the grown ups.

We are made for stories. Storytelling has been a vital part of human cohesion since Adam and Eve left the Garden. Even Scripture uses story and even mythological language to teach us God’s Truth.

Stories are a way of holding families together. In Africa they still have the traditional family story and news sharing time in families. Immaculee Illibegiza speaks of it in her moving books Led by Faith and Left to Tell as she survived the Rwandan massacres. I can’t remember the proper name for these gatherings but I think this family sharing of story is important to self identity.

So the bottom line for me is this. I don’t know where dr. Montessori said “no fairy tales” and I am not convinced she ever did. I know Charlotte Mason was very keen for strong, “no twaddle” literature being offered to children and it’s something I concur with.

My children do get fairy stories – and I do try and avoid the dumbed down versions, though there are some good quality edited versions we have used.

I think there’s more to be said on this especially on a child’s development of imagination through reality and the difference between a well grounded story and an illusion. I might come back to this one.

Montessori geometry; angles.

I’m working through Cultivating Dharma’s geometry album with Heleyna. I haven’t used THESE freebies yet.

I am using the construction triangles and rods as well as one or two other bits from JMJ Publishing.

We started with the triangles some time ago and Heleyna can now name the three basic types of triangle; equilateral, isosceles and scalene with acute, obtuse and right angles.

Using the construction triangles from JMJ she has made various shapes.

P1010625Then I introduced her to the Montessori protractor.  It has little pegs all around the face of a full 360º protractor complete with fractions.

We started with a bent straw (not from the album) to make a right, acute and obtuse angle on the protractor face. Repeated this with acute being smaller than a right and obtuse being bigger.

We made more angles and triangles with rubber bands.

Then I introduced the insets for the protractor. For the first lesson she simpleP1020050 measured their angle on the protractor and then drew around them in her Geometry notebook.

As the insets are easy to use Heleyna can get on with measuring and drawing around them herself, with me simply there to add a bit of help if she asks.

The next lesson we used the paper rods to make triangles in her book and then to label the parts of an angle; vertex, side and amplitude.

We used the paper rods to make different angles.

imagesI read her the story of Sir Cumference and the Great Knight of Angleland. This comes with a paper protractor. It’s a good, simple way of getting the facts across. We have a few Sir Cumference books now and I will probably buy more as we go along.

Having got the hang of measuring angles we started to use add angles. Heleyna would choose a piece for the Montessori protractor. A 90º or less piece. She would measure it and then draw round it and write the angle inside the shape. Then she would measure another shape (and acute piece). She would place that next to the first drawing and draw round it writing the angle inside.

P1020052Putting both pieces on the protractor she measures the new angle. We check it by adding the two angles together.

These lessons are done over  a few weeks and we repeat them through.

I think the tactile nature of the Montessori resources is a great help, and I can see how children aged 5 to 6 (Heleyna is 5) can get to grips with fairly complicated ideas if they can actually make it themselves.

Kids grow up too fast and adults are too childish.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of spam sandwich we are making of our culture. On the one hand so many people say “Oh they grow up too fast these days,” while on the other side we are told that childhood – basically gross immaturity – is lasting well into what should be adulthood. So which is it? Or is it some kind of paradoxical cognitive cultural dissonance?

While industry bosses are insisting on immigration to fill their work vacancies saying the home grown young adults are incapable of working hard, there are those who look with horror at the idea of children learning domestic duties and taking on any responsibility.

Dr Ray Guarendi has commented on this a few times. He, quite rightly, points out that historically there were never “tweens” or “teens”. There were children and then there were adults and adulthood began around age 12 when the boys went out to work and the girls learned to budget and work the home industries. In wealthier families where inheritance protection was important the young adults could be married by the time they were 13. (In the film Master and Commander a boy apparently in his early teens who had already lost his arm in battle was put in charge as an officer).

My beloved St. Bridget of Sweden was married around the age of 13 or 14 to Ulf who was 18. It is also recorded that Prince Llewellyn the Great of Wales won his first victory leading and army to battle when he was 14.

While in normal life most people didn’t marry or lead armies until they were in their early twenties, they still worked alongside their parents and other family members and were quite capable of doing so.

One of the massive advantages of home education is that children grow up learning to take part in the family organically. They take part in the housework with everyone chipping in together. They help with the shopping and learn to budget and how to shop sensibly from being around the normal life of the family. They learn to plan meals, to cook properly and to take care of themselves and each other.

20090327050123_762Dr. Montessori put practical life skills into her curriculum. She designed objects that were child sized so that children could learn right from the beginning how to dress themselves and  take care of their personal hygiene. Now, at home we don’t need the dressing frames as the children learn to dress themselves in the everyday business of getting dressed. They had a step stool for the sink rather than a sink at their height but they learn to wash and clean their teeth just as well with a step as a low sink.

The older children learn the importance of service in love when they help younger siblings and other younger children with activities.

Montessori designed her curriculum for mixed age classes to encourage this care for one another. In just about every home education/homeschool group I have ever seen or heard of there is a great mix of ages. The older children learn to share and be patient with younger ones and the younger ones find role models and support in the older ones – while mums and dads and even the occasional grandma who are home edding can support one another.

In the home children soon learn to prepare food. They learn pouring, cutting, measuring as they go along.  I have bought the Montessori pouring jugs because the design is very good and they pour accurately and easily.

Ronan is using the big kitchen knife now. He started with a small sharp knife and has graduated to my 6″ kitchen knife. He is just beginning to learn the rocking motion for quick accurate chopping.

Ronan is nearly 10 and he often gets lunch together for himself and his younger sisters. If he decides to cook something, he is quite capable of doing so well and safely.

My older children that I home educated can both cook very well and without problems for large numbers. My daughter did most of the cooking for the Church’s Christmas party last year, so she was preparing food for nearly 50 people.

My oldest is still struggling with the cooking side of things. But he didn’t get the time to learn at home. He was in school all day and had hours of home work most nights. This eats into family time and actively prevents children and young adults learning life and practical skills. It also, it seems to me, eats into the importance of reading time. Schooled children do not have time to read – which seems to me to be a damaging problem.

Sending adults out into the world with no life skills is not good. The reason so many get into debt, can’t eat properly and can’t get a job done properly, particularly in the service industries is they’ve never had to before. So many complain that their children either can’t get work or can’t keep it when they have it. My son Alex has been working in the service industry since he was 16. He has many a tale to tell about employees (who don’t last long) who don’t know how to sweep a floor or add up well enough to give change to customers.

Trying to convince our children and adults, in the face of the massive evidence, that they don’t need to think of doing anything as menial as sweeping a floor or washing cups, is failing them. Even those who are academically inclined must find some way of funding themselves and if they can’t  turn up to work on time or work hard then what kind of academic work will they be suitable for?