By Sarah Anderson; current TPMS parent & Board Member
A week from now, my baby will turn six. I am certain I could recount every detail of the first day I took him to the Children’s House two months before he turned three . . . what he wore, how his hair flopped clumsily into his eyes, how proudly he paraded his new backpack, how tiny his hand felt in my hand on the walk up to the front gate, yet how confidently, happily and excitedly he said goodbye, and how I thought my heart couldn’t ache any more than it did at that very moment . . . that is, until the next day I dropped him off in a fit of tears, grasping for any part of my body he could wrap his arms around, crying out for me not to leave him . . . and I left him. No sooner had I turned around did my own tears evade my previously stoic face. It was only a mile and a half drive home, but I cried the whole way, fervently composing what I would say to the Directress the next day because clearly, there was something she could have done to make that transition smoother. In retrospect, she handled it perfectly. That day, in so many ways, feels like a lifetime ago.
To start with, I didn’t know very much about the Montessori Method. I suppose I knew the basics. I knew the classroom was beautiful, calm, and quiet. I knew the children worked on materials of their own choice individually and at their own pace rather than everyone doing the same thing at the same time. I knew the children were exposed not only to letters and numbers, but also to geography, mathematics, and world culture. Most importantly, I knew enough to feel confident it was where I wanted my son, Liam, to start his educational path. But at that time, did I know what exactly went on behind those doors where I reluctantly relinquished control over only my first born child every morning or could I intelligently articulate to all my inquisitive friends whose children were in traditional preschools what made this place so . . . mysteriously magical? Absolutely not. For months, all I could painfully extract from an exhausted Liam at the end of his morning at the Children’s House was “I polished.” It would have been extremely easy for me (and for others) to be skeptical of something I didn’t know enough about. Thus, I embarked upon my own education as a Montessori Parent. I read books. I befriended other equally curious parents. I learned the school phone number by heart and thought I would just make the Head Directresses my best friend forever . . . much to her utter horror, I am sure (complete nuisance is probably more appropriate). In true Montessori style, I scheduled visits to the classroom for observations. I began to use Montessori principals at home and I eagerly participated in any and every school event and/or AMI seminar. The more I learned, the more I fell in love with the theory. I came to realize I did not always need to know the specifics . . . I knew the big picture. I trusted, I had faith, I KNEW that in the polishing AND in all of the other amazing things he was doing, there was an incredibly priceless value. For three years, I have trusted, I have had faith, and I have known.
Soon after Liam first began school at Bright Star Montessori in California, the Directress held a Parent Coffee & Conversation session regarding the “Kindergarten Year” or essentially, the third year of Montessori School. This is the year parents typically pull their children out to begin compulsory education. Until this meeting, I cannot say I had really given much thought to Kindergarten. As I mentioned, at that time, my understanding of Montessori was limited. I knew I liked it and keeping Liam there as long as possible seemed like a good idea, but in no way shape or form was I ready to commit him to a third year in a Montessori classroom that traditionally he was “supposed” to have in Kindergarten. I have to say, and I do not exaggerate, after a one hour meeting with this directress, it made complete sense to me why he should stay in the Montessori classroom for that last year. Thereon, that was my plan.
From that one poignant meeting, from the information sessions I have attended since, and from the three years my son has been in an AMI school, here is how I have come to understand it. Most Montessori Children’s Houses I have visited not only accept and educate children up to the age of six but they are very much designed for children up to the age of six. Six is most definitely NOT an arbitrary number here. Age six, or roughly thereabouts, is the age at which “Early Childhood Education,” a scientific term for a stage of human development, is complete. It is truly a pivotal moment in a child’s life at which point their physical, cognitive, and social-emotional growth and development enters into another stage. Seriously . . . that’s kind of a big deal, no? For just one moment, I implore you to suspend the pressure and stress that inevitably accompanies the process of getting your child into a traditional school setting by a certain age, and ask yourself this: for what reason and to what end does it make sense to drastically change a child’s learning environment just before this Early Childhood stage is complete? When a child enters the Children’s House for the first time at the age of 2 1/2, yes, the classroom is full of potential and mystery and opportunity to explore, but I can only imagine it is also completely overwhelming, massive, and even a bit scary. Most likely, there is very little on the shelves that this child recognizes from home or has ever seen before and yet it appears most of the other children, some a bit bigger, some much older, know exactly what to do. And so, this 2 1/2 year old begins his very active journey over the course of the next two years led by his own interests, by the gentle guidance of his teachers, and by his fellow peers of slowly unfolding and discovering all of the wonderful things this classroom has to offer. IF in act, a child is allowed the opportunity to return to this same environment for his last year of Early Childhood Education, he is able to complete this extremely crucial stage to human development in a learning environment that is age appropriate to his needs, with which he is familiar and in which he is completely confident and feels safe. He returns as a veteran and a leader of his classroom. He is the oldest and probably the biggest in his class now. He knows every single material on every single shelf extremely well and can now lead the youngest child in the class through these materials, further deepening his own understanding of them. These same materials are also multilayered and designed to take on more advanced concepts as the child reaches this point. He has the opportunity to continue his education, to learn new things if he is ready, but more importantly to review and fine tune anything with which he has struggled and to truly master all of the skills he has learned over the last two years. This last year, when the child turns six, is a culmination of everything he has worked on up to this point. It is in every sense of the term, Full Circle. The alternative? To pull the child from this environment, place them in a completely new world of unknown places, faces, and systems, and have them spend yet another couple of years as the youngest child in the school. For all intents and purposes, this child has to start over. To me, it is comparable to the following scenario: there is a beautiful yet very challenging puzzle in the closet to which your child is extremely attracted . . . she gets the puzzle out to work on . . . she works on it, but is only able to complete a portion of it so she puts it back in the closet . . . she continues to want to work on the puzzle at a later time, however, so she gets it out numerous times after this and she is able to finish a little more of the puzzle each time she works on it . . . just as she is at a point where the next time she takes out the puzzle, she will have the immense satisfaction of completing it once and for all, she goes to the closet, and the puzzle is gone, replaced with a larger, more challenging, new puzzle. That is not to say the time she has had to work on the original puzzle is all for naught. Unmistakably, there is immense value in the dexterity, concentration, persistence and independence she has developed working with the puzzle. BUT . . . that eureka moment when the last piece of puzzle settles into its only rightful place . . . that moment is lost.
I realize, on paper, it all sounds so idyllic. Until this year, I, admittedly, was putting an immense amount of blind faith into a theory, into words, into an idea. However, I would not be sitting here writing this if I had not witnessed firsthand what staying for Kindergarten in a Montessori environment has meant to my son and his development.
This past September, originally, although I felt strongly about keeping him in the Children’s House, I was extremely worried when I found out every single one of his fellow five year old friends except one was leaving for kindergarten. (Sometimes, no matter how firmly we believe in something, we falter when the perceived well being of our children is at stake). He, along with his one other friend, would be the oldest in the class by almost a year and he would be surrounded by a whole new lot of tiny, starry-eyed 2 1/2 year olds who cried when their mommies left. Surely, he would miss his friends, need more stimulation from children his own age, and tire of the screaming toddlers at drop off. Within the first week of the new term, my concerns dissipated. He was beyond joyful to return to this place and to his beloved teachers he knew so well. “Mommy, I am the oldest!!” The power of this new leadership, believe me, was not lost on my five year old. The first thing I noticed pouring out of him, was the extreme confidence. Confidence in his gait, confidence in the beautiful way he spoke to others, both friends and strangers, both children and adults, confidence I hadn’t yet seen from him in certain academic subjects, and confidence in the way he owned the new role of leader of “his” classroom. Once, he was the little starry-eyed toddler who would come home and talk about the five and six year olds in his class like they were heroes. Now, he most certainly is that hero. I have had multiple parents of the youngest students approach me . . . one mother told me her little boy is quite impressed by Liam because, “he is the only one in the class who can complete the trinomial cube,” and a father told me he hears quite a LOT about Liam at home from his two daughters. Another mother texted me one morning because she had been observing her own daughter in the classroom and while doing so had watched a little group of students ever so slowly forming. Some chairs had been lined up and Liam was in a chair alone facing these other chairs. No teachers were involved. Once all the seats were filled with other children, Liam started leading this small group. When I inquired of him later, it turns out he had gathered the children together to tell them all about a big storm we had recently read about at home that was supposed to hit London imminently. Essentially, my five year old son was having the opportunity to spontaneously and independently teach a group of younger children. I cannot remember the first time I ever sat in front of a group of peers to lead them in discussion, but I can guarantee it was NOT at the age of five . . . in all seriousness, probably more like the age of twenty five!! But, I have never once felt that Liam has grown arrogant or self righteous in this role. On the contrary, for the most part, I have found him to have an extreme amount of patience, gentleness, mindfulness and empathy toward younger children. Also, there are things at which Liam excels and can share with his classmates, but equally there are things with which Liam struggles and needs extra help. Certainly, there are younger students who excel in the things with which he needs help and what an amazing and humbling experience for him to be able to accept that help. And lastly, these children, whether 2 1/2 or 4 1/2, are in no way his inferiors, but his friends. He has grown to know them and to love them. Why on earth had I ever questioned a multi-age classroom setting? Do we not live in a multi-age culture? Is a multi-age classroom not completely more relevant to the real world?
Additionally, Liam has exploded academically this year. In previous years, his interest in reading and writing was at best underwhelming. His level of frustration was extremely high and his level of patience was extremely low, but over the course of last year, I saw small glimpses of gradual improvement. I was patient. I waited. Again, I trusted in the system and I was confident that all these shimmers of hope from last year would eventually turn into something tangible and amazing for him . . . provided his environment stayed the same. His teachers, bless them, KNEW him. They had spent the last full year (would have been 2 1/2 full years had we not moved) caring for and loving him, observing him, getting to know him and all the little things that make him tick, slowly, carefully and thoughtfully laying all the groundwork, without judgement or comparison to others I might add, and then making an extremely well devised plan based on all they had learned in order to help him catapult to where he needed to be. Could I see all of this happening or did I hear daily reports of it? No. Of course not. But because I am an educated Montessori Parent, I KNEW this was what was going on so I didn’t worry . . . well, not too much anyway . . . after all, I am human. It worked! He is reading beautifully, confidently, and most importantly, with JOY now. He begs me almost every night to delay his bedtime ten minutes so he can read a book to me. How can I say no really?! I remember when he was three he would come home from school and say wistfully to me, “I wish I could make a book like Lucas . . . “ Lucas was six. Now Liam brings home lovely little handmade books he has written, illustrated, and crafted (that I will cherish forever) on a weekly basis. Reading and writing went from being painful to being an absolute triumph. In mathematics, an area in which he has always shown interest and promise, he is doing things I don’t think I did until I was at least eight or nine. He has swiftly moved from addition and subtraction into multiplication. One day recently, I watched him work with multiplication bead bars, constructing and calculating the multiplication of numbers 1-10 by nine. He completed this in roughly ten minutes. When he got home later that day, without my prompting he said to me nonchalantly, “I did something really challenging today. I multiplied all the numbers by nine. The only problem was, my mouth filled up with spit when I counted that high!!” He also recently brought home a book in which he had written out the multiplication of numbers 1-10 by two, by three, and by ten. My neighbor, who has a five year old, saw it in his hand later that day and was completely floored by the work. The amazing thing, really, is that he hasn’t just written the problems down and/or memorized them. He has seen what the number ten laid out ten times looks like, he has felt it with his hands, and he understands what 10×10 actually means. Are these areas in which he could have developed so gradually, so organically, and so in depth had I chosen to move him just as he was on the cusp of blossoming? I can passionately and whole-heartedly say the answer is no.
When I drop Liam off at school these days, he is taller and leaner, his hair is freshly cut because he prefers it short (sniff, sniff), and his pants are just slightly too short. Yet, his hand still feels tiny in my hand, he still wraps his arms around me in the sweetest bear hug a mommy could ever have and occasionally he glances back at me as he walks through the door as if to say, “Mommy, are you sure you can’t stay just a bit longer?” But the child I am leaving at that school today versus the child I left in tears three years ago is unquestionably a child who has gone on an amazing, magical, and complete journey and one who is more than adequately prepared to embark upon this next stage, whatever it may hold. He has indeed come Full Circle. At the end of this year, he will be able to walk out of the Children’s House for the very last time and have the immense satisfaction of being able to place that last piece of the puzzle into its only rightful place. I could not dream of a more incredibly perfect gift for my baby’s sixth birthday.