Your Questions Answered

Are you seeking answers to your questions about Montessori education? Let us help.

Montessori professionals are available to answer your questions.

Recent questions from parents are posted below and may be of help to you.

Not ALL questions will be answered - though we do try our best....

Q: Why should I continue my child’s Montessori education through to age six in the preschool environment? Most five year olds in New Zealand start primary school at five years.
 


As a member of the governing body of our school, I am frequently asked why we seek a three-year commitment (age 3 to 6) from parents wishing to enrol their children.

The Montessori Casa (3-6 year olds) is specifically designed as a three-year programme with the first two years laying the foundation for the third year. It is a well-documented fact that educational development varies between children, just as some children walk at 10 months and others at 18 months.  There are many experts more able than me to comment on educational development but as a father of seven- and four-year-old daughters, I would like to share my experiences on the social aspects.

If a child is socially well adjusted they will enjoy learning, which in my view, is the most important factor in ensuring a lifetime love of learning. Having children of mixed age is not accidental but a key component for both learning and the unique opportunity to experience leadership at five!! 

All our children benefit from having younger and older children in the classroom. From day one the younger children have older children to look up to and have their interests stimulated by what is going on around them – often the older children will teach the younger, thus reinforcing the older child’s own knowledge.

The oldest children will naturally take a leadership role in the classroom as modelled for them by those who came before. The opportunity to lead at age five is unique to the Montessori environment and more often than not increases self-esteem and confidence.

If a parent decides their child will leave after only two years of the three-year programme and enrols their child in the local primary school the child still benefits from the Montessori programme but is robbed of the precious third year – the opportunity to complete the educational cycle and in my view the most important aspect of the chance to become the leaders that they themselves had the opportunity to look up to. As parents we all have an obligation to ensure our children complete the full Montessori experience.

Read more online from a likeminded parent at http://mariamontessori.com/mm/?p=1640.

Allan Rutledge, Titoki Montessori School, Auckland, New Zealand

Q: The teachers in my child’s Montessori primary (6-12 year) class want to start a programme called ‘Going Out’. What is this and why is it different from school trips ?


A:  Dr. Montessori said, “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.”  It is easy to think that this refers simply to the classroom, but it extends much further than this.   Going Out is much broader than the school environment and is just as much a part of the Montessori 6-12 year curriculum as the materials and the lessons. 

As the child begins to outgrow the confines of his classroom, it is vital that he is allowed the opportunity to learn by venturing out of the classroom.  The second plane or 6-12  classroom should actually be a limited environment – one that does not provide all the answers, in order to encourage students to go beyond the class into the world to deepen their life experience.  For the 6-9 child this may be as simple as a trip to the public library to get books on a topic of interest, while for the 9-12 student it may take the form of a trip to the museum, concert or conservation area. 

Going Out should not be confused with class trips, which are teacher-driven.  Going Out is the opportunity for students to follow their own interests after a lesson.  It is a process initiated and organised by the students, the teachers only facilitate and prepare the students for this process.  Montessori is education for life. Letting children experience the world first-hand, is the best preparation possible.  Going Out should not simply be encouraged in your child’s Montessori primary classroom, but an integral part of the learning process and community. 
 
Tesneem Couper, Eastern Suburbs Montessori Primary, Auckland, New Zealand

Q: I thought that Montessori aimed to promote early reading and writing, yet my child is four and has not learned to read.  Is this normal in a Montessori programme?

A:Montessori schools are different from other schools in that our commitment is to the holistic development of the child.  Our children gather a great deal of factual knowledge in school.  Cognitive development and a solid academic foundation are important but equally as important is your child’s emotional, spiritual and physical development. The choices your child makes and the responsibilities that come with those choices influence the character of your child.  By choosing his own work, following that work through to completion, while working independently (or in a group), your child identifies his interests and develops his gifts.  Your child becomes self-motivated, serving his community, his classmates, classroom and family.  As the child grows he reaches out to the larger community – helping others.

The best and therefore the most successful form of teaching is that which draws the desire to learn from each individual, which stimulates interest first, and the assimilation of information as a natural offshoot of that interest.

Children learn best when they do so at their own pace.  We shouldn’t be tempted to rush children into reading as there are many things that need to be done first.  These include understanding of rich oral language, co-ordination of mind and body, concentration, a knowledge of the world around them so they can comprehend text, and most importantly cultivating an enjoyment of books and desire to read and write. 

In Montessori we develop knowledge of the sounds of letters, recognition and correct formation of each letter, and generally give meaning to linking these together in writing as a precedence to reading.  Reading can occur spontaneously and be a joyful accomplishment for children when the preparatory elements have been well established.  Montessori teachers will follow the lead of the child in each of these aspects, trusting the nature of each child to guide their own path.  For some children reading may happen when they are four, for others when they are five and some may start to read at six.  As with every other developmental milestone this can be different for each child – talk with your Montessori teacher about your child’s preparedness and interest in language. 

Shayne Frickey, Waikato Montessori Early Education Centre, Hamilton, New Zealand

Q: My children's grandmother is concerned that our children should be learning ''manners'. What can I tell her about how children in Montessori learn to be respectful to each other and adults?
 

A: Grandparents are often concerned with ‘manners’ and for good reason. A child that is socially appropriate is not only more pleasant to be around, but has skills that will help throughout their life. When you think about people you know socially or work with, it is the people with good social skills who are thoughtful of others that you look forward to being with, not the rude, inappropriate-types! I read recently that ‘likeable’ people are also promoted more often. So how do young children learn to ‘manners’?

 The child’s role in life is to self-construct an adult. Our challenge as teachers and parents is to guide the construction of the physical, mental, emotional and social being. We support the child to learn how to do what’s right and to behave in a way that is socially appropriate. Dr Montessori called this Social Cohesion’ or the harmonizing of social needs. Our aim is that by the time a person reaches adulthood they are flexible, resilient and able to adapt to any social or cultural community. Wouldn’t you like that for your child?  In a Montessori community social cohesion develops as a result of; a mix of ages in the community, the need to wait to use activities and to return activity ready for the next child to use, the careful modelling of social graces by the adults in the classroom, an appreciation and understanding of other cultures, daily attendance that enables the development of strong community, contribution to people or groups in need beyond the school community. Children in a mixed age setting develop a tolerance and appreciation for people’s differences and sensitive and respectful adults help the children to take responsibility for their own community.

Manners are also modelled and practised in a deliberate way in the lessons called ‘Grace and Courtesy’. For the young child the lessons in Grace and Courtesy will help them learn simple acts like blowing their nose, saying thank you, greeting and farewelling a person, giving up a seat, moving carefully through the classroom, offering help., learning to say ‘no’, asking another child to stop (a behaviour), learning to hear ‘stop’, being aware of another person’s space etc. These lessons are modelled by teachers and older children and the children love ‘practising’ these skills with other children.

You can reassure your children’s grandmother that ‘manners’ are not forgotten in a Montessori classroom, but are very much a focus each and every day.

Ana Pickering, Montessori Aotearoa New Zealand

Q: Why do Montessori teachers expect young children to wait to use activities and why is there only one of each activity in the Montessori classroom? Isn't it expecting too much for young children to wait for a turn?

A: The Montessori classroom is an environment carefully designed and set up to inspire children to develop themselves to their full potential.  It is a place where children are safe to explore the world, including how to be a part of it.  The Montessori environment reflects expectations and guidelines of the communities in which children live or will become a part of.  When our 3 to 6 year olds are adults they will need to be able to work cooperatively with others, negotiate, problem solve and compromise on a daily basis.  Maria Montessori talks about respect, consideration and patience becoming ‘habitual parts of life’ (Absorbent Mind, Pg 203) and these are nurtured in the environment by simple exercises such as the child having to wait for the equipment or activity they wish to work with.  There are many other exercises in the Montessori classroom that also nurture and encourage virtues such as friendliness, gentleness, pride, orderliness, thoughtfulness and patience that also promotes the child’s awareness of being part of a community of learners.  I have observed even two-year-olds being able to accept that they need to wait their turn and this may mean they will go and explore something else while they are waiting, aware exactly when the activity of their choice becomes available.  Another aspect of the younger children learning how to be an active part of the community and developing social skills is the role modelling that the older children provide.  The combination of the child interacting with the environment, other children and adults as well as the awareness of guidelines and expectations promote the skills children will need to be active members of society.

Tracy Smith, formerly of Koru Montessori, Auckland, New Zealand

Q: In Montessori primary my child can work for as long as she wants on her chosen activity or project. How will she adapt to having set times to complete her work in, when she transfers to the mainstream school environment?
 

The primary aims of Montessori education serve to provide all the necessary attributes that children need, not only to adjust to a new school environment with different routines and expectations, but as a full preparation for life.

These skills are being fostered from the time the child enters a Montessori early childhood centre and embarks on practical life activities, which begin the development of concentration and independence. The early sensorial experiences enhance the child’s ability to make observations and judgements by developing their powers of discrimination, and the language and mathematical materials provide a concrete representation of all the academic concepts that the child needs to master abstractly and will encounter in other classes. 

The nature of the Montessori materials enable children to explore and discover many things for themselves, and by being able to choose and master activities that are meaningful to them, they become self-empowered and gain the confidence to undertake new tasks.  As everyone is working on different activities the children get used to focusing on their own work, regardless of what others are doing.

As the students move through the Montessori 9-12 class they learn the importance of covering all areas of the curriculum and are guided as to the amount of work that is required to progress. Through independent studies they learn to plan against a time frame and have first- hand experience with managing their own schedules and completing work in set times.     

The freedom that the children are afforded in the classroom provides an opportunity for character development and the socialisation of the child to take place. They learn to work with and alongside others, through sharing ideas, helping and supporting each other, and working cooperatively to maintain a harmonious environment. This arms them with the skills to adjust to new social relationships easily.  
    
Paula Polk Lillard, a prolific Montessori writer from the USA, makes reference to studies that have been conducted in the United States addressing these very concerns of parents. It seems that children arrive at their new schools eager to learn and adjust well because they are used to working closely with others and have a high level of independence. She says that as well as the children doing well academically, because of the sound understanding they have gained from the Montessori materials, the Montessori students have also developed the necessary characteristics important to school success, including completing work on time. 

Jo Radley, Montessori at Port Ahuriri Primary, Napier, New Zealand

 Q:    My child loves pretend and fantasy play. Is it true that Montessori centres do not encourage this kind of play?

Pretend and imaginary play is a vital part of young children’s learning.  It allows them to practice the reality they see around them, so learning vital social and language skills.   They love to play mothers and fathers, cooking and cleaning, cats and dogs, doctors and nurses – everything they see in their everyday life.  They know these play situations are not real and that they are pretending.   We couldn’t and wouldn’t want to change this.   In fact we think it is so important that we give it to children, as much of it as possible - in reality.  We insist children take control of their world at school.  Montessori told us that children will learn far more by doing something real than through pretending.   We find that the more the children are in touch with real things the less they want to pretend and this play tends to disappear.  

Where we do have a problem is with fantasy.  Fantasy is imagination that is not the children’s own - it comes from adults and it can never be real.   Before the age of six children have difficulties with understanding what is real and they can easily come to live in fantasy world of princesses, fairies and talking tank engines!   When this happens it is very difficult for reality to get through, as this fantasy offers a fun and easy life for them, especially if it is supported by the parents, through videos and commercialism.  Who wants to stop and choose challenging activities and concentrate, when you can live in a pretend world, painting and drawing fairies and princesses all day long?   I am afraid the Pink Tower and the Number Rods just cannot compete!   Children need a firm grounding in reality well before they are six or, as with all other learning, we risk an imperfect foundation.

So in conclusion, imagination is great so long as it is the child’s true imagination, based on reality, and not society’s imagination that we are pushing on to children who are not yet ready for it.  We need to stick with reality, to a large extent, until the children are over six, when they have the maturity to start to really understand what is true and what is not.

Lois McConnell, Capital Montessori School, Wellington, New Zealand

Q: My school is introducing indoor-outdoor flow; will this mean my child will play in the sandpit all day?
 

This was a question we were often asked when we told our parent community that we were introducing indoor-outdoor flow. The children would be free to access the outdoors and stay outside for as long as they wanted.

Indoor – outdoor flow is encouraged by the Ministry of Education, however this concept and its benefits were well understood by Maria Montessori herself, as well as subsequent educational theorists.  Dr Montessori believed that having easy access to an outdoor area was ideal. In her first casa dei bambini’s (or children’s houses) activities were taken in the garden so that children were able to move freely from the inside to the outside.  She believed there should be no separation of the indoor and outdoor learning environment; they should be treated as one.
 
Montessori believed that children are naturally curious and that children are capable of choosing an activity they are interested in.  She believed that “when children come into contact with nature they reveal their strength”. This fits in well with modern educational theory which understands that the role of the teacher is to provide a stimulating environment for the child’s independent self discovery. 

Early Montessori schools encouraged children to take outside what today is often seen as ‘inside work’, if they wanted to.  Today this may not be encouraged because the equipment is often seen as too precious to go outside. In addition many Montessori schools are sessional and so it is assumed that the children will be getting outdoors time in the “out of school” parts of their lives. (Turner,1999).

One of the tenets of the Montessori philosophy is that for self-directed learning to take place, the whole learning environment is a ‘prepared environment’ and that the classroom, materials and social setting must be supportive of the child. The teacher therefore provides a prepared environment which provides exposure to materials and experiences that stimulates the child into developing their own capabilities. This holistic approach therefore should in fact extend to both indoor and outdoor settings.

At our own school we have discovered that by ensuring that there are many different activities outdoors for the child to work with, the children do not feel the need to be in the sandpit all day.  In addition, trained Montessori teachers are skilled observers of the child and know when to step in and either redirect the child or extend their learning.
The key to the successful implementation of indoor – outdoor flow is that of well prepared and inviting environments both indoors and outdoors. Our experience has been that while requiring a team effort and some trial and error this change has been a positive experience for both the child and the whole centre.

Fiona Goodman, The Children’s Corner, Howick, Auckland, New Zealand.
 

 Q. My child is very energetic and is always moving.  Is Montessori a good choice for her?  How will the staff help her settle down?

Montessori education is a science and an art for meeting the developmental needs of all children, including the intensely energetic.  The science of the method is a complete understanding, derived from scientific observations of thousands of children, of the various developmental paths children may follow.   Based on this science, teachers prepare an environment with materials and experiences to address every need.  The art of the Montessori method is to recognise the unique needs of each child and help children connect with the specific experiences for their individual developmental path.

A child in a Montessori environment with an abundance of excitement will learn self-control through experiences directing that energy.  A childcare setting with play structures and less organisation than a Montessori environment may seem at first blush to be good fit and easy solution, but in truth these play-based settings do little to teach children the self-control that will benefit them later in life. 

An artful teacher in a Montessori environment can recognise the needs of an energetic child and offer activities that require plenty of movement and exercise, but also have a step-by-step process and guiding principle to develop self-control and willpower.  Table washing, clothes washing, gardening, and sweeping are just a few examples of activities that require concentration and enthusiasm.

Active children who may have difficulty sitting still for a run-of-the-mill Sandpaper Letter lesson are not consigned to washing all day.  An artful teacher may change a traditional presentation to require more movement to satisfy the needs of a lively child.  Instead of asking a child to move the sandpaper letter from one corner of the table to another, the teacher might ask for the letter to be carried across the room and back. 

If you have further concerns, ask your child’s Montessori teacher how they help children to direct their energy.

Ed Stanford, Titoki Montessori School , Auckland, New Zealand


Q. How can some early childhood centres be allowed to be called Montessori when they do  not have even one trained Montessori teacher? How well are Montessori centres regulated?

The first Montessori school started in 1907 in Rome, Italy, and the name ‘Montessori’ has been used without restriction worldwide for the last 103 years. Montessori is a philosophy. There is diversity within the Montessori community worldwide and each school is unique, reflecting its interpretation and practise of Montessori philosophy, the staff and parent-family community, the facilities and resources available and the vision of the centre or school.

You are right to wonder how a centre can deliver a Montessori programme without having Montessori-trained teachers. Montessori Aotearoa New Zealand (MANZ) has published Parent Guides to help provide answers to questions parents often ask about Montessori. In the Parent Guides you will find essential elements of Montessori, what to look for in a Montessori classroom and suggested questions to ask when you are visiting a Montessori early childhood centre or school. One essential element identified by MANZ is that Montessori teachers need specialist Montessori qualifications for the age group they teach, in addition to appropriate New Zealand early childhood  or primary teaching qualifications. MANZ suggests that ideally, all staff in the centre will either have a Montessori qualification or be working towards it and, at minimum, the lead teacher in the classroom needs to have a Montessori teaching qualification for the age group taught.

MANZ urges parents to read the Parent Guides at www.montessori.org.nz/choosing-montessori. Make a list of questions important to you, visit one or more Montessori centre or school. Take time to observe the community of children. Visit the centre or school more than once. Deepen your understanding of what each Montessori early childhood centre or school has to offer your child. Ask the teachers your questions.

MANZ is also working on the Montessori Journey to Excellence; this will be launched in 2012. Montessori centres and schools will be able to join a pilot programme in late 2012. The aim of the Montessori Journey to Excellence is to provide qulaity indicators for Montessori and mentoring support to enable centres and schools to continually reflect on and improve the Montessori programmes offered.

Ana Pickering, Montessori Aotearoa New Zealand


 Q: I notice that in my child's Montessori early childhood centre all the children use sharp knives and breakable crockery, glasses and plates. The children also iron the table napkins. Why do young children have sharp and dangerous objects in the classroom and how are the children supported to learn to use these safely?

What parent hasn’t had their child ask to help with housework? And why are children so keen to vacuum or dust when they have all those toys to play with? As adults I’m sure we would pick play over housework any day, but for children housework is their play. Through her observations Montessori noted that children had a need to perform and repeat what we would nowadays label ‘housework’ activities in their quest to master the skills that ultimately lead to their independence.
 
Montessori’s observations are still relevant to today’s children and therefore Montessori schools still offer the children ‘housework’-type activities to practise and enjoy, commonly known as the exercises of practical life. Each practical life exercise is designed to isolate a particular skill for the child to master, for example cutting fruit, setting the table or ironing the washing, but in order for the child to complete these exercises and gain satisfaction from a job well done they need to use the correct tools. If a child was to cut fruit with a plastic knife they would soon discover that the task is impossible and would become frustrated and eventually give up.

It is also important that the child learns that in mastering a skill there may also be various outcomes, for example if you drop a plate when setting the table it may well break. In providing the correct real life tools for the child to use in such activities, there also comes a responsibility for the teachers to ensure the child understands how to use them in a safe and respectful manner. Montessori teachers are trained to observe a child’s readiness to use various tools, for example a knife or iron. The teacher observes the child’s developing motor skills and concentration levels, and at the correct time gives a one-on-one presentation to the child highlighting any areas of risk for example the sharp edge of the knife.

Claire Nesdale, Wee Wisdom Montessori School, Auckland, New Zealand

Q: How will I know how my child is doing in a Montessori classroom - do they do tests and assessments? What other feedback will I get?


In New Zealand, the majority of Montessori 6-12 classrooms are within state primary schools and gather assessment information in similar ways to the rest of the school. All primary schools measure student achievement using tools and procedures that are endorsed by the Ministry of Education.

For example, children can be tested in reading by using either STAR (Supplementary Test of Achievement in Reading) or PAT (Performance Achievement Test) in Reading Comprehension & Vocabulary. Throughout the year, children will do a Reading Running Record, so that their errors can be analysed and targeted. To assess the quality of children's writing, schools often ask them to do a sample of writing that is then compared ('moderated') and levelled according to progress indicators set out in the NZ Curriculum. All six year olds do a test known as the 6-Year Net, which measures a range of reading abilities such as alphabet and sight word knowledge.

Numeracy and other mathematical knowledge can be tested through PAT: Mathematics, which is a series of multiple-choice tests designed for students in Year 3 to Year 10. Some Montessori teachers may also be required to do Numeracy testing of their students, but as Montessori maths uses a different approach, the information yielded is not always reliable. Often regular testing of math facts also happens in schools once children master simple addition and subtraction facts and start working on multiplication.

Usually during the year, schools organise formal sessions for parent-teacher meetings, and it is becoming more popular to have the child attend and to have student-led conferences, with an emphasis on individual goal setting and evaluating the progress towards these. Most schools also send home a written report, at least once a year, if not twice.

In our classroom at Montessori @ Berhampore Primary School, we regularly meet just with parents. Sometimes these meetings happen because parents request them; other times, because we initiate them. Meetings are an opportunity to discuss a child’s general progress or their specific needs. For example, this year we have had conversations that were about learning difficulties, friendship and behavioural problems, transition issues, interpreting and evaluating test results, and simple catch-ups.

With new parents, we make it a priority to meet at the end of their child’s first term. By waiting a term before reporting to parents, we give children a chance to settle into their new environment, form new friendships and start fresh learning.  We observe carefully, note possible concerns and spend time building up rapport. We also suggest to parents that they should come and observe the classroom work-cycle, and make time after school to discuss questions. We encourage all parents to attend the parent-information evenings, where we discuss children’s developmental planes, Montessori philosophy, classroom practice, curriculum content and lesson equipment. Evenings like this, as well as our regular newsletters, help to nurture an informed school community, and it keeps the lines of communication open.

In our experience, Montessori schools are mindful that families have chosen an alternative educational option for their children. They put in place a range of opportunities to feed back information to parents. Teachers make themselves always available, and no issue is ever considered too small for a face-to-face meeting. Often this is the best way to seek feedback on how well children have settled and are working. It is the classroom teacher who over three years builds a relationship with each child and develops an understanding of their strengths and work issues.

Tania Gaffney and Diitra Pantazis, Montessori @ Berhampore Primary School, Welington, New Zealand

Q: Why do Montessori teachers talk about our child’s ‘work’? It sounds very serious and adult.

What is work anyway? The dictionary defines this word as “an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result”.
 
The ‘work’ that Montessori teachers talk about describes all activities that your child does during the course of a day that leads to concentration. In other early childhood environments adults may be more comfortable using the word ‘play’ to describe the child’s activity that is done with a focus, a purpose and is self directed.
 
Montessorians use the word ‘work’ to describe the child's activity, as we feel that this gives dignity to the child. It is only adults that feel that ‘work’ is a burden. Adults work to complete an activity, children work to build themselves up. For young children it is a joy to be active and learning.
 
Self-creation is the work of a young child. In order for this great work of the child to proceed unhindered the adults need to remove the obstacles in the part of the children’s development. We also need to create conditions that will support and aid this development.
 
The purpose of long, uninterrupted blocks of time of provided in Montessori learning environments allows your child to select activities freely and to become deeply absorbed in activities that have a particular fascination for her at this point in her development.
 
This long period of time needs to be protected from interruptions. Interruptions could be in the form of whole group lessons in art, music, dance, physical education, breaks for morning tea, outdoor lessons or even adults commenting or joining the child’s work uninvited.  It is better that these lessons are  offered to small groups of children when they are ready and interested, and as a part of their three-hour work cycle, and not when the clock says it is time to go, no matter how valuable the alternative activity might seem to be. The interruptions disturb the fragile development of the child's focus, concentration, and intellectual exploration on his or her own.
 
So when you hear your child’s Montessori teacher using the word ‘work’ do not be dismayed, your child is certainly is not!!

Shubha Narayan, Nova Montessori School, Christchurch, New Zealand

Q. We have set up our son’s room with low, open shelves that he can reach independently. What other ideas can I use from Montessori in our home?

One of the first things a new parent will notice about a Montessori environment is the sense of order. You will see that everything has a place. From the ages of three to six years, children have a special interest in order. There are many simple and practical ways of encouraging this at home. You may want to purchase some basic household equipment such as child-sized brooms, mops, dusters, dustpans, and place them where it is easily accessible for your child. In this way he can clean up after himself. He might take a longer time than you would, but allow him the pleasure of accomplishing a task he has set for himself.

Follow your child. Once he becomes aware of his capabilities, he will want to try his hand at all sorts of grown-up activities, such as preparing dinner, washing, cleaning, or gardening. Rather than trying to keep him out of the way, find child-sized equipment and invite him to work alongside you. What a great way this would be to create a sense of belonging and self-worth for your child.

For us as Montessori teachers, it is extremely rewarding to know that Montessori does not end at the school’s door, but extends into the child’s home and becomes a way of life.

Vasie Govinder, Montessori @ Herne Bay, Auckland, New Zealand

Q. My child is starting at a Montessori early childhood centre, how will the staff help my child to settle and what will he be doing the first few weeks?

A. Every Montessori centre does things slightly different but a goal of all Montessori programmes is to welcome a new child so they quickly feel part of the community. I suggest you and your child visit a few times before starting so that you can talk to your child at home about the centre ... the pets, the new friends, the fun activities and all the great teachers!   It is helpful to talk to the teachers about your child's personality, likes, dislikes and interests.  On those important first few days at school the teachers will introduce the new child to the other children, talk about the routines and show them around the class.  If a child is really having a difficult time saying 'goodbye'; talk to the teachers so they can support you with some strategies during this transition time.  Teachers will spend time connecting with your child and begin presenting some of the basic Montessori practical life activities such as pouring from jugs, rolling out a mat, peg boards and spooning activities. Your child may begin using the Montessori sensorial materials learning about different colours, shapes and sizes using the Pink Tower and Colour Tablets.

Children usually settle in a Montessori environment within a few days but some children take longer than others.  I think the most important thing is for parents to have a good relationship with the teachers. If a child sees that the parents and teachers are friendly he or she will feel more secure.  I know it has worked for me! 

Cam Mountsier Cole, Montessori Children's House, Wellington, New Zealand

Q: Why should I keep my five year-old daughter in Montessori ?

If your child has been in a Montessori environment since two-and-a-half or three you will already appreciate the special way in which Montessori education supports the growth of the young child with its unique, individualised and non-competitive approach. What you may not be so aware of is that the Montessori approach is designed to respond to all of the developmental needs of the child from two-and-a-half years old right up to six years.

Over those early years you will have witnessed your daughter's growing awareness, understanding, self-confidence and thoughtfulness.  In the Montessori environment, this step-by-step growth culminates at six when the child is at a stage when he is able to enjoy the 'pay off' from all that earlier development.  This final year - when your child is five - is the year in which everything comes together; all the sensorial preparation, concentration, and practical skills begin to bear fruit.  The child integrates the work of the earlier years and 'fixes' it in her mind. The child has taken the learning, and made it her own.

This is why the older child, when not occupied with her own work, may be found reading stories to others, organising group work or teaching others what she herself has already learned. When they are able to pass on their knowledge to others it really validates for the child exactly what they know themselves.

When your son or daughter arrives at this point of development, she will have achieved the necessary skills and experiences to prepare her for primary school and, much more importantly, laid the foundation that will last the rest of her life.

Carol Potts, Maria Montessori Education Foundation, Auckland, New Zealand

Q: The Montessori primary (6-12) class has children of mixed ages. How does the teacher cope with so many different learning needs?

A: One of the aims of the Montessori primary classroom is independent learning, personalised to the needs and interests of the child. How does this happen?  Montessori teachers are expert observers - they observe, contemplate the next step, intervene where necessary, and then observe again.  Observation provides time to reflect on the needs of individual children and needs of the class as a whole.

I think it is important to distinguish between learning needs and development needs. When we say 'learning needs' we tend to think of breaking down learning into pieces that we then prioritise, with literacy and numeracy at the top, and making lunch for some classmates near the bottom.

Framing our children's classroom experience in terms of 'development needs' gives us a wider and less anxious approach to their education. This is the point of view we must adopt when we talk about Montessori education. We can then place many of the possible experiences of the child in a context where the child's overall development takes centre stage. This means a learning experience, such as organising a trip to the NZ Film Archive, can sit beside times table practice; where planting a garden can be seen as equally important to writing a report, and where resolving an issue between friends is as valid as silent reading.

There are countless conversations, demonstrations and corrections that need to take place in order for learning and development to occur. The primary child will call on more experienced peers for guidance just as readily as, and often more so, than the teacher. This kind of peer interaction clearly benefits the recipient, but it also benefits the peer tutor.  When you teach something, you must first organise it clearly in your own mind. This concept is well developed in Maori education and is known as tuakana-teina (older learner-younger learner).

So how does the Montessori teacher deal with the diverse learning needs of the children in a mixed age setting? Short answer: we don't.  We simply form part of the prepared environment and create structures that meet their developmental needs. Remove part of the prepared environment - the other children, the focus on a broad development-based curriculum or the teacher, and neither learning nor development would occur.

Richard Goodyear, 9-12 teacher, Montessori at Berhampore, Wellington, New Zealand

Q: When I ask my young daughter what she did at her Montessori 3-6 centre she often says ‘nothing’. Why does she say this and how do I find out what she has been doing?

Your young child is absorbing colour, shape, language, culture and is developing a sense of who she is and her place in this community. She will be involved in many activities from the moment she walks into her Montessori centre. She may have been involved in Practical Life activities like cleaning, gardening, sweeping, preparing food or may simply find satisfaction in observing her peers at work.

Young children are interested in the process rather than the end result and they live in the present. It is NOW that is important to them. So when you ask your daughter what she did you're most likely to hear ‘Oh, nothing.’ or ’I played outside.’ This is not because she didn’t do anything: on the contrary so much has taken place that it may be only the things that are part of her daily routine that she can remember - like playing with friends outside! As adults we don’t remember the details of all we did throughout the day so how can we expect this of a young child? Think about it. You may not share every single detail of your day with your partner but only those which really sparked your interest. It is more so for your child because everything is a new experience. Everything is a wonder!!

Talk to your child’s teacher and make time to go in and observe your child at work. It will be an amazing experience. Every centre has different ways of communicating a child’s progress. Profile books, parent teacher meetings and newsletters are some methods Montessori centres use to inform parents. If you're concerned with something do not hesitate to make time with your child’s teacher and discuss the issue. Montessori centres might differ in some ways but the child’s wellbeing is the focus for every Montessori community.

Next time try asking your child ‘How was your day?’ instead of ‘What did you do at Montessori?’ Comment on something specific like how good the garden looks or how big the fish has become! Then wait and listen. You'd be surprised at some of the things you'll hear. These may only be snippets of her day but treasure them and respect your daughter’s interest because that’s what is most important to her.

Tamiko de Silva, Richmond Montessori Preschool, Richmond, Nelson, New Zealand

Q: My child says she makes snacks for her friends at school, how can I encourage this at home?

Children of all ages like to be involved in real tasks and to be able to contribute in meaningful ways to not only their classroom but also their home environment.

A Montessori classroom has as part of its prepared environment an area designated for food preparation. Trays are positioned on shelves with all the necessary utensils and serving dishes so the child is able to carefully carry the tray to the table, select their piece of fruit from the fruit bowl or snack items from the shelf, and begin the task. It is important when children are working with sharp utensils, such as knives or graters, to give them an initial lesson on how to carefully hold and effectively use these items. In this way children can understand the need for care, but can also now be trusted to use the utensils safely.

The activity, be it preparing a sandwich, cutting fruit or making a batch of scones can all be demonstrated through an initial presentation, with each important part of the sequence emphasised. Children love to copy and imitate their older peers and the adults in their life and as a result quickly learn to perform quite complex tasks safely. The joy seen on the faces of the children as they offer around the food they have prepared with care is priceless. This is also the perfect opportunity for the presentation of many grace and courtesy lessons, such as how to offer a snack ‘Excuse me…. would you like a piece of apple?’ The other child is encouraged then to respond with ‘Yes please’ or ‘No thank you’ followed by ‘You are welcome’. Real lessons in real situations.

This type of environment can very easily be transferred into the home. Talk to your child about what food they would like to prepare for the family, write or draw a list and plan a trip to the supermarket to purchase the ingredients together. Having the tools easily accessible to them makes their task so much easier and enables the child to be more independent. Position the fruit or spreads in the fridge or on a bench at a height where they can reach them. Have a low cupboard in the kitchen that contains all they need to be independent in their work: bread board, plates, spreading knives, a cheese slicer etc. Providing children with a bench or table that is the correct height for them to work at, in, or alongside the kitchen not only makes the task easier for them to complete but also safer than standing on a stool at the kitchen bench. As part of the work cycle your child can enjoy the clean-up process once preparation has finished, so making available to them a non-toxic cleaner such as Tough and Tender (Melaleuca) and a sponge is a good idea. Make the most of your child’s interest in food and its preparation by encouraging discussion about healthy lifestyles and choices. You may be surprised how knowledgeable they are and what a great help they can be.

Ruth Libby, Koru Montessori, Sunnynook, Auckland, New Zealand

Q: I am worried my child will be too tired to do Montessori all day. When will he have a break and just play?

Your child is free to choose and regulate his own activity throughout his day in his Montessori environment. There is no part in Montessori philosophy that separates a child’s work from play. Any activity a child self selects and engages in is referred to as the child’s ‘work’ as it is the process that helps the child in the construction of who he is to become. In Montessori the term ‘child’s play’ is interchangeable with the term ‘work’.

A very important part of Montessori learning environments is the provision for children to have freedom within limits and a three-hour uninterrupted work cycle during their morning with  further options for continued uninterrupted time during the afternoon. Uninterrupted means ‘free from whole group activities’ so that your individual child can choose the activities that meet his inner needs.

Children who experience this uninterrupted time often exhibit a calmness and peacefulness as they can eat when they are hungry, read a book, rest or sleep when they need to and participate in challenging and interesting new activities when they feel ready.  For a Montessori child there is no difference between ‘work’ and ‘play’ when he has the freedom to make his own choices throughout the day.

Liz Webster, Montessori @ Kidicorp, New Zealand

Q: Who is responsible for the Montessori primary (6-12) classroom environment, the choice of activities available to the children and daily chores? 

The short answer is …the Montessori community; children, professionals and to some degree, the parents. The professionals ensure suitable materials are bought or made. Many Montessori primary classes hold regular working bees, where parents laminate materials, label boxes, cover books etc. Sometimes a parent is responsible for helping to source materials.

The primary children take an active role in the classroom. Montessori children love order and quickly remind each other to pack things away carefully. They clean the environment regularly, an extension of the practical life activities undertaken in preschool. They might bring in flowers to arrange, or plants for the class garden, and take turns to weed and water. The children take pride in their environment.

Children are responsible for daily chores. In our class the daily tasks may be discussed at our class meeting, when the children bring a variety of issues to be discussed, learn to use an agenda and take minutes. Matters discussed have ranged from children finding solutions to the problem of lunch wrappers being left on the floor, to deciding what to plant in the vegetable garden, making plans for celebrating Maria Montessori’s birthday and a request for additions to the choices of fitness activities.

Classroom activities are chosen by the teacher and child in collaboration; some lessons are given in sequence but the children also request desired lessons. The children may ask another for help when mastering new work. Peer teaching is beneficial for both tutor and tutee. There are regular conferences, so child and adult can discuss progress, difficulties and plan the next lessons. The Montessori primary class depends on the collaboration of adults and children.

Dee Gordon, Howick Pakuranga Montessori Academy, Auckland, New Zealand

Q:  My child seems to do the same activities every day. How will she be encouraged to try new activities in her Montessori early childhood centre?

It can be very beneficial for young children to choose the same activities every day.  By repeating and repeating the activity, your child is mastering the skill or refining her understanding of the concepts involved.   While the child is still learning and gaining from the activity, a Montessori teacher would not deter her from choosing and doing it as often as she wants.  Like Rafael Nadal perfecting his tennis stroke, lots of practice is vital!

Your child’s Montessori teachers will observe your child carefully and when they notice that she has become less focused on the activity they will take the opportunity to present a more challenging extension of that activity or another activity.  For instance if she loves to pour, the teacher might introduce her to practical applications of pouring such as pouring a drink for morning tea or filling a bowl to experiment with sinking and floating. 

Montessori teachers are also be alert to what it is that most appeals to your child about an activity.  Is it the sounds of the little grains being poured from one jug to another?  Perhaps your child would find the Sound Cylinders appealing?

Montessori teachers will closely observe your child to see what interests her; perhaps she is curious about activities other children are doing? The teacher may also talk with you to see what your child is interested in doing at home.

If your daughter seems resistant to the idea of trying something new and unfamiliar, there are a variety of strategies teachers employ to entice the child to try the activity, especially when your child seems ready or likely to enjoy and benefit from the activity.  For instance, the teacher might invite your daughter to watch one of her peers doing the new activity or let her see doing a teacher engaged with the activity and obviously finding it enjoyable!

Montessori teachers want the children to develop their ability to be autonomous, independent and to make choices for themselves.  Therefore they do not insist that the child do something they are not inclined to do right now.  If your child does not seem keen on trying a new activity, the teacher would leave it for another time or day.  Children like to return to activities that might seem too easy to adults.  Your daughter may sometimes be in need of some downtime and want to spend a while doing something which is simple and soothing.

Montessori teachers do not give up; they will continue to present, and present, and present new activities to your child, to entice her to try new experiences and encounter new knowledge.  Montessori teachers have faith that when the time is right that your child will be ready and eager to engage with new learning.

The Team at Mana Montessori, Whitby, Wellington, New Zealand

Q: How can I encourage my two-year-old daughter to put away her activities at home ? 

Working with toddlers to clean up their activities is like any other expectation in a Montessori environment at home or school; it starts simply, continuing on with ever-greater complexity and challenge. 

Modelling the Behaviour
The most important component to establishing any expectation with your child is the strength of adult modelling.  If we expect children to participate in tidying up their activities we must be good models of this human behaviour. You must model that humans in your child’s world are respectful of all activities, by handling materials gently and always tidying up when you’re finished. When daughter sees that you always put your activities away she will absorb this as another aspect of humanness, just like walking, talking, eating with utensils, etc. So make sure that you are being the model in all aspects of home life (dishes, coats, shoes, books, etc) from when she is a baby.
Encourage the Behaviour
As your child gets older, around the time she begins walking, her hands are now free to participate in the activity of ‘tidying up’.  The expectation that we ‘tidy up’ must now move from an observed human behaviour to an encouraged human behaviour.  The key to encouraging your child’s participation in clean-up is adult observation.  You must be a keen observer and catch your child while she is still in the moment.  If she has walked away from the activity and is now purposefully engaged in another activity, continue to be a good model and tidy up the activity for her. If, however, your child is still in the final moments of the activity you may intervene and invite her to clean up.  If your invitation is met with defiance you can offer the child the help by saying ‘Let’s tidy up together, I’ll do this part, now you can tidy up this.’

Expect the Behaviour
As your child grows into a two-year- old you can begin to firmly and consistently expect your daughter to tidy up her activity.  If your child becomes frustrated and refuses to tidy up one activity before moving onto the next, it is now appropriate to be firm with the expectation by not allowing your child to move onto another activity until the previous activity is put away.

At every stage of development respect for the material/activities must be enforced. If an activity is being misused or abused remove it from her choices for a while.

Hilary Smith, Portland,Oregon, USA and formerly of Blenheim, New Zealand