In the life of a small child, and thus in a Montessori environment, what is important is the process of learning, not the product. The classroom is a laboratory for the child’s exploration and experiment, not for the perfection of a product, according to an adult standard. A child discovers over time what particularly interests him or her and finds that with practice s/he learns how to do all kinds of things to his/her satisfaction. This is learning driven from within. Pressure and stress are very negative for the young child’s physical, emotional and intellectual development and self-confidence. Generally a small child is physically not capable of fine-tuned coordination. Thus, teachers do not single out any child’s work or behavior as better than another’s nor do they compare children or speak about them in their presence. The child’s innate gifts need to be allowed to blossom without such comments and judgments. What is most important is how the child feels about his/her work, not what an adult thinks about it. In this early period of life a child must develop a positive inner strength and a conscious and subconscious wholeness and be shielded from the negative attitudes s/he will meet in the future.
The specific lessons and educational materials in the classroom are divided into four general areas called Practical Life, Sensorial, Mathematics and Language. In addition to these areas, lessons are available in art, geography, music, literature, manners and physical development. The children are read fiction, non-fiction or poetry daily. Many lessons are presented as oral stories or games and songs. Biology and introduction to science are found in the Sensorial area and on a special shelf with rotating materials. Grace and Courtesy and food preparation are part of the Practical Life lessons and daily activities.
The early Practical Life and art lessons begin as soon as the child comes into the classroom, followed by the initial Sensorial lessons soon after. Practical Life lessons are given because all children are interested them. These lessons are designed to stimulate both large muscle and eye-hand coordination and control for writing and other lessons in the classroom. Since the children are interested in these lessons, they promote increased concentration. The increasing complexity and sequencing within the lessons prepares for sensorial and math, as well as memory for all of the lessons in the classroom. Practical life lessons begin with manipulating interesting objects, spooning and pouring exercises and folding cloths. These are followed with polishing exercises, and the first cooking exercises such as washing fruit or vegetables, cutting them and then serving them. Eventually, the child learns how to make simple foods by him-herself and perhaps a snack for the classroom, such as squeezing orange juice, or cutting apples for applesauce. Later, the children have the opportunity of baking scones, muffins or bread. The children learn self care in washing hands, and care of the environment in taking care of plants, sweeping the floor, and mopping up spills. They learn how to wash dishes, load the dishwasher, how to wash cloths, fold and put them away.
The Sensorial Area consists of a series of materials which stimulate the senses for the development of the mind in classifying impressions about the physical environment. A key to every aspect of the physical world: size, dimension, form, color, weight, texture, and their exploration through the five senses (touch, taste, hearing, tasting, smelling) is created by use of these materials. These lessons prepare the young mind for mathematics, geometry and science, as well as clarify and order the child’s sense impressions of the world. The first lessons use a sequenced block of cylinders of graduated sizes. Through matching the cylinders to their holes the children become sensitive to comparative size and depth. Many other exercises follow in dimension. The kindergarten lessons include building the binomial square and the binomial and trinomial cubes, as preparation for algebra in Montessori elementary school. The children learn correct mathematical terms beginning at the age of three for geometric forms: triangle, pyramid, square, cube, circle, sphere, oval, ovoid, etc. All the materials are mathematically correct, beautiful and pleasing to touch, enticing the child to explore them further.
Language study begins at age 3 with sound games that prepare the child for writing and reading. These lessons follow the child’s pace in learning. Children are taught the sounds of the alphabet first, not the names of the letters. Parents are encouraged to speak with the teacher before teaching sounds, so that the parents and teachers may work together. Writing leads to reading as the child “writes” his own thoughts by building them with the moveable alphabet and by sounding out the words. Montessori believed in the concept of “Total Reading.” This concept includes not just basic reading of short vowel words, but fluid reading including exposure to the structures of sentences and what meaning the specific order of words conveys. The specially created “Who Am I” stories are in little drawers on the shelves. The school has all the materials needed to teach reading, and many books for children who love them.
Mathematics is taught first as quantity, then as symbol (number). Thus, the children learn that 1, 2, 3 actually means a quantity of objects, not just words or symbols. This process begins when the child shows interest and is able to understand the concept of quantity, which is generally around 4 years. Mathematics is increasingly taught after the age of 5. If the child is interested, s/he may learn all of the basic math facts through multiplication and division, as well as basic operations in fractions in his/her kindergarten year. Exceptional children may access advanced elementary materials in the classroom as needed.
Basic art lessons are presented in drawing, painting, collage, sculpture, printing, clay, weaving, sewing and fiber art, (which sometimes come home as projects, but are most often simply practiced in the classroom). These beginning practice lessons are, for instance, pulling a string through holes in a wooden card, or stringing beads and later threading a needle. Each lesson or material presented is given in a step-by-step fashion according to the interest of the individual child. Once one activity is physically mastered, the next level is presented. The teacher strives to present something of interest that is just beyond the skill of the child, so that s/he has to reach just a bit to be able to do it. This reaching to learn the new skill stimulates and holds the child’s interest. If the new skill is too easy or too hard, the child’s interest is soon lost. The teacher primarily focuses on observing each child’s developmental skill level, entices the child’s interest in each lesson and presents the lesson in a way that the child desires to do it. There are many art projects children may choose to work with as the year progresses.
Music is taught as part of the Sensorial area. It begins at age 3 with an introduction to the bells and the diatonic scale, which the children learn by singing, playing and listening to the bells. Songs are sung everyday. Rhythm is taught with clapping and other instruments as well as movement to music. Music appreciation is also taught, exposing the children to all kinds of music, but especially European classical music, because of its complexity of frequencies and American folk songs for rhythm and culture. In the exercise room we have bells, maracas, tambourines, triangles, a drum and other percussions instruments to use with music.
Children are exposed to geography through travel, families spread around the globe, and through television and books. Yellowstone Montessori has a goal of having a picture of every country in the world in the classroom among the geography materials. Examples of music, arts and crafts are displayed in the classroom for the children to discuss and admire. The children progress from the land and water globe to the painted globe, learning the continents. The children love the puzzles of the continents and countries, which they build, then trace and label. They have opportunities to choose to make maps and take them home. If the child is fascinated with geography, s/he has the opportunity to learn the location and name of every country, or to make special books on each continent or on the USA. Objects from different countries are shared. The children may learn the chief geographical biomes: deserts, grasslands, rain forests. They learn the physical geographical forms: island/lake, peninsula/gulf; isthmus/straight, as well as the chief rivers, mountain ranges, cities and capitals of the world. All of these materials are in the classroom, and primarily presented to children at age four, five and six.
The children are exposed to foreign languages in several ways. First, we have children whose native language is not English. In the past four years we have worked with children whose native languages are: Spanish, French, German, Polish and Arabic. This year a native Spanish speaker and Montessori-trained teacher will be giving Spanish lessons on Monday morning. The children will be invited to join her for small group activities. She has extensive materials and is eagerly looking forward to working with the children.
Physical development and coordination happen as part of every move and every lesson in the classroom environment. Movement triggers the brain to learn. The hand leads the eye, the attention and the brain development. In the exercise room walking-on-the-line stimulates large motor coordination and balance. Dancing and movement exercises, lessons for jump rope, hopscotch and balance beam, ball handling exercises and musical chairs all contribute to a child’s physical confidence. Outdoor games, free play in the sand box, on the climbing apparatus, and swings further enhance a child’s physical development. The teachers are trained to work with the children in these ways. Children handle all of these experiences best with their regular teachers whom they have learned to love and trust, rather than with part-time instructors.
In addition to the regular Montessori curricula, Yellowstone Montessori follows a cycle of themes based on national holidays, the cycles of the seasons and weather, and the particular interests of individual children. Art projects, celebrations, science lessons, books read, songs, cooking lessons, pictures and objects studied, and special visitors to the classroom, are all integrated in a cycle of themes depending on the interests of the children. As part of these themes the children learn about the solar system, magnetism, rocks, basic physics, the microscope and binoculars, shells, the growth cycles of plants and animals and the cultures of other nations.