MSGL now has a Book Reviews page.
Click here to visit the Book Reviews Blog. We welcome reviews of recommended books from staff, parents, and children.
Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to submit a book review to our site.
I had the great pleasure of working in my former classroom today and it reminded me of why the three-year cycle in Montessori classrooms is so beneficial, not least of all, to the teachers.
Our Montessori preschool classrooms are composed of a mixed-age group of children who remain, ideally, in one classroom for three years. A child starts at age three and stays through her Kindergarten year. This is called the three year cycle. Each of those years brings new and unique learning opportunities for the child. As a three-year-old, the child observes her older peers and benefits from their experience. As a four-year-old, she starts to see herself as one of the “big kids” and expands her social circle. In her Kindergarten year she is recognized as a leader and takes pride in helping others.
When I took a sabbatical at the end of the school year in May, I left behind children who had been in my classroom for one or two years. I was able to catch up with many of those students today when I visited the classroom. I observed that two of “my” third-year students, I’ll call them S and K, were part of what Montessorian John Chattin-McNichols calls a “roving pack of 5-year-olds.” They were wandering around with some other boys and mixing it up a little. I knew these two boys when they were just barely three years old. I knew them before they could consciously control their bodies at group time and even before they could dress themselves successfully. Now, here they were - big, bold 5-year-olds and I was curious to see who they had become eight months after we last worked together.
Angie, my dear friend and the lead teacher of my former class, shared with me that S and K had been working on the squaring and cubing chains in the math area, so I asked them about those activities. They were eager to show me what they had already done and tell me what came next. Within a few minutes, they broke off from the pack and were ready to master the 10 cubing chain.
The 10 cubing chain - or 1000 chain - is a concrete representation of 10 cubed. It’s made up of one thousand pea-sized beads organized into bars of ten. The bars of ten are attached at the ends to make a chain. Children are ready for this work after they have mastered the 1 - 10 squaring chains and the 1 - 9 cubing chains. This video from the DuPage Montessori School in Naperville, Illinois provides a good overview of how the squaring and cubing chains are presented in the Montessori classroom.
The 10 cubing chain is nearly 30 feet long so it must be laid out in the hallway outside the classroom. So, off to the hallway we went.
S and K divided up the tasks between themselves. One carried the rolled-up mat and the other carried the chain. We established the space we would use in the hallway and K unrolled the mat while S went back into the classroom for the number tabs. We discussed how they would sort the tabs on the tray and move it down the mat as they worked.
S found the 1000 tab. He knew it went at the very end of the chain but he left it on the tray. There was a pause before they started and I asked what number they would start with. S said, “We have to count them all.”
That is certainly one way to do it. But when a child is ready for the 1000 chain, he is generally ready to complete it without counting every number because he can now count by tens and hundreds. Once you trust that 10 is ten, you don’t have to count it again.
I asked if they thought they could first put tabs on the hundreds. Yes! They were sure they could. Together, we counted the bars as 10, 20, 30 and so on until we got to 100. S got the 100 tab and marked that spot. K quickly grasped the system and immediately went to work sorting out all of the hundreds tabs in a separate group so that S could place them. This was my cue to find something else to do. I went back inside the classroom to assist Miss Angie while the boys marked off every 100th bead on the chain with the appropriate tab.
They repeated the process, stopping after each bar of ten. K was the sorter, S was the placer. “150! I need 150,” S said. K had it ready. There was never any disagreement, that I heard, over who would do which task. They just got started and they each found their niche as they went. And they were really digging their work.
They started the cubing chain work at 9:45 and I checked in with them every few minutes. They finished at 11:00. One of them stopped to use the bathroom then went straight back to his work. Other children would step into the hall to see what was happening and then go back inside to their work.
Sometimes I checked on S and K without speaking and other times I acknowledged their progress. Once, I said I would be back to check on them in a bit unless they needed some help. “We need some help,” S said. They could not find the tab for 590. I suggested they leave a space for that number and they could put it there when they found it. They never found it, but they were able to move on without hesitation.
As they got to the very end, S picked up the 1000 tab and started to place it under the 1000th bead. K said, “Hey! We decided we would put that one on together!” And so they did. That’s when this photo was snapped.
If you had asked me three years ago if these children were developing normally and if they were going to learn to read and write and grow up to be compassionate humans I would have responded, “Of course they will!” But in the back of my head there would have been a tiny voice saying, “What if they aren’t? What if they are never able to sit in a chair for more than 8 seconds? What if they never learn to put their shoes on by themselves? What if they show no interest in reading? What if they always write six as 9?”
That doubtful voice is a familiar one to parents because most of us only get to experience the development of one or two children. We fear we will do something wrong and our children will not achieve their potential. Preschool teachers should know better because we get to observe hundreds of children over the course of our careers, right? But sometimes, even with years of experience, we forget that our job is simply to prepare a nourishing environment. It is the child who must do the work of building the man.
In 1949, Maria Montessori offered us some guidance in our quest to relax and trust that each child will reveal himself as a competent and confident being in his own time. In The Absorbent Mind she wrote, “...for while, in the traditional schools, the teacher sees the immediate behavior of her pupils, knowing that she must look after them and what she has to teach, the Montessori teacher is constantly looking for a child who is not yet there.”
Dr. Montessori also implemented the three-year cycle in our classrooms to give us enough time to look for that child and see him before he moves on to primary school.
I am not at all surprised that S and K can count to 1000 by tens and hundreds. I am not surprised that they can recognize 3-digit numerals or that they can prepare, complete, and put away their work. I am not even surprised that two 5-year-old boys willingly work together on a math material for 1 hour and and 15 minutes with only a bathroom break and very limited guidance. I’ve seen it before.
I am surprised at the sense of joyous relief I feel each time children reveal themselves in this way. It's an experience that never gets old. I suppose that’s the ultimate reward of being a teacher.
Grace's first day of Montessori preschool, 1997.
Last summer, my 19-year-old daughter was getting ready to move into her first apartment. I was excited for her to have the chance to live on her own and had been setting aside household items that I thought she could use. One day, after admiring the “steal” of a chair I had found at Goodwill, she asked me, “Aren’t you sad that I won’t live here anymore?”
“Well, honey,” I said, “I always imagined that you would grow up and move out of the house. That was our goal all along for you to be an independent, self-sufficient person.”
“I know,” she said. “But I’m kind of sad that I won’t be sleeping here anymore.”
I reminded her that she had hardly slept at home at all since she started college last year. She lived in the dorm, four hours away from home and we often didn’t hear from her for days.
“Yeah, but this is different. I just can’t believe this won’t be my home address anymore. Are you going to change the garage door code?”
A-ha! Then I figured it out. She was worried about cutting the cord from the house where she grew up. I had been concerning myself with making sure she was comfortable “out there” and she was worried she would no longer be welcome back at home.
It occurred to me that not much has changed between that day and the day sixteen years ago when we were preparing to send her to preschool here at the Montessori School of Greater Lafayette. Back then we were so excited to help our “baby” pick out a new lunch box and indoor shoes but we had little idea what to do to help prepare her (or ourselves) emotionally for this new chapter. She sailed through preschool and is now working through nursing school just fine, but we have learned a lot since then. Today I am sharing some tips and advice gathered from teachers and parents here at MSGL to help you and your child prepare for the first days of preschool.
Talk about school - mindfully.
Talk with your child about preschool when he is in the mood. Maybe he will bring it up or you can start the conversation, just don’t push too hard. If your child seems “done” with the conversation or is becoming anxious, let the topic drop until later. And be honest about your feelings when you do talk about school. Some children worry that their parents will be sad or lonely when they are gone. When you say, “I am going to miss being with you in the morning, but it makes me happy to know you will be enjoying yourself at school,” it lets him know that you will miss him but you are confident that school is a good place for him to be.
Check out the new environment.
MSGL’s Parent Work Day is Saturday, August 16th. This is a great time to get familiar with the school and classroom environments and to be part of the school community. Children are encouraged to help clean lockers, pull weeds, and load and unload wheelbarrows full of mulch right alongside their parents and new classmates. And, each family member's time counts towards your volunteer hours requirement.
You will have another opportunity to get familiar with the school when your child attends her New Student Orientation visit on Monday, August 18th. This is her first opportunity to see her teachers and classmates in her new classroom. She can put her indoor shoes in her locker, locate her cubby and extra clothes box, and see where the bathroom is. The whole family can attend the Parent Orientation later that evening and maybe your child can give a tour of her new classroom.
Make new friends.
You will receive a class list via email in August. Consider contacting a few families on the list to set up a playdate before school starts. Even if you can’t get together with any other families, you and your child can look over the names on the list together. You may discover that one of his classmates lives on your street or maybe someone has the same name as a sibling or a friend.
Help her dress for success.
Our Montessori classrooms are prepared to encourage your child’s independence and you can help by providing your child with shoes and clothing that she can put on and take off by herself. Belts, suspenders, and jumpsuits look smart but they can be difficult for your child to use successfully. Provide your child a choice of clothing that allows her complete independence in her self-care routines. And please remember that preschool is a time to jump in and explore. Paint, snack, sand, and dirt from the garden can stain your child’s clothing, so please send her to school in clothes that can stand to get dirty.
Plan a morning routine.
Now is a good time to do a mental run-through of your morning routine. Consider how much time your child needs to wake up, get dressed, and eat breakfast. Allow time for packing lunches, finding coats and shoes, and getting on the bike or in the car. Then add a few extra minutes. Parents and children who are not in a rush tend to have much better experiences at drop-off. Some families even do a few “practice runs” in the summer to see if they can get to school and work on time.
Create a goodbye routine.
Discuss with your child how you each want to say goodbye at drop-off. Some families say, “After you put on your inside shoes and put away your lunch box, we will walk to the classroom and I will give you three hugs and two kisses before I go to work.” Some children like to wave to dad out the window and some parents leave their children with specific plans for what they will do after school. “Sonia is picking you up today” or “we are going to the Farmer’s Market on our bikes after school today.” Children have so little control over their daily lives that they appreciate at least knowing what is happening and when.
And while we’re talking about goodbyes, let’s take just a moment to consider the specter of separation anxiety.
What if my child cries when I walk away?
Separating from your child that first time can be heart-breaking, but remember - it’s only for a few moments. The majority of children who are sad when they separate from their parents are able to calm themselves and choose an activity within a few minutes. If you have gone through the goodbye routine and are finding it hard to turn around and walk away, ask your teacher for help. Sometimes parents say, “Please help me. I need to leave.” That is the teacher’s sign that she needs to hold your child’s hand or pick her up so that you can walk away. Teachers don’t want to step in before you are ready to go but they are happy to help when you ask them.
The best thing you can do for your child at drop-off is to be consistent and walk away when you say you will. Lingering tends to just prolong the heartache for the parent and the child. The first few times you drop your child off may be difficult, but trust that with consistent repetition you and your child will develop a peaceful good-bye routine.
Talk with the teachers.
Talk with your child’s teachers about how the adjustment period is going. The teachers help dozens of children adjust to school every year but this may be your first time. They expect you will have questions and concerns. Email is a great way to communicate with your child’s teachers and all of the contact information is available on the classroom web page at Msgl.org.
Help your child talk about his day.
If this is the first time your child has been away from home you will no doubt be very eager to know what he did all day. Unfortunately, preschoolers often say they “did nothing” or “just played.” A lot of things happened between the time you dropped him off that morning and when you picked him up several hours later, but he might not yet be able to give a sequential list of his activities. Here are some ideas to help your child tell you about his day.
Take care of yourself!
The best thing you can do during these last few weeks of summer is to give you and your child the gift of a regular bedtime that allows enough sleep to wake up refreshed and ready for the big days ahead. Fill up with a good breakfast each morning and be extra patient with your child and especially with yourself. Parenting preschoolers, like college students, is hard work and there is no right way to do it. Follow your heart and follow your child, and in sixteen years, or so, you will be very proud of the people you have both become.
The s-word is in our forecast this week. I don't know anyone who is happy about the October SNOW except for my allergy-suffering friends. With the snow come cold temperatures and at MSGL we play outside year-round, so it's important for children to have warm and practical clothing to wear every day. For the past 12 years I greeted the children on the playground at 8:30 am, snow or shine. To help you prepare for this week and the next six months (it hurts me to say that), I have compiled for you:
Miss Heather's Top 10 List for Child Comfort and Parent Happiness: Winter Edition
1. Check the forecast. Every class - Toddler through Elementary - goes outside when the temperature is 20 degrees Fahrenheit or above. Check the weather forecast each day before leaving the house to make sure your child will have the appropriate cold-weather gear for that day.
2. Go with the low. Consider the time of day your child will be outside. The forecast may call for a high temp. of 63 degrees, but the temperature at 8:30 am might only be in the 40's. Some classes start outside, some go out at 10:15, some at 11:00. The afternoon and Elementary classes go out at varying times throughout the week. Provide clothing for the day's low temperature and your child should be well-prepared.
3. Layer, layer, layer. Imagine your child as a cute, rosy-cheeked onion and help her dress in layers. Being hot and sweaty outside in the cold is just as uncomfortable as shivering. If your child can take off a sweater or push back her hood and unzip her coat, she will be able to regulate her body temperature and still enjoy the time outside.
4. Listen to your child. Trust your child to make decisions about his comfort. The only way we can learn if we are too cold is if we are allowed to feel the cold. If your child doesn't want to wear his gloves, don't sweat it. Make sure he knows his gloves are in his locker and that he can go get them if he gets cold. The same goes for his snow pants and his bulky winter coat. An active child dressed in layers with warm shoes and a hat can generally enjoy himself outside without danger of getting too cold, even in winter. If your child is listening to his body instead of chafing under a "mitten mandate" he is more likely to develop a true sense of how to dress for the weather. My friend "Z" always told his dad he didn't want to wear his coat or his snow pants or his gloves, but 10 minutes after dad left, Z would ask to go get them.
5. Start a discussion. Talk with your child about the day's weather and how to dress. Remember that the ultimate goals are safety and independence. You might say something like, "It's 30 degrees Fahrenheit. You definitely need to wear something on your hands, but you can choose if you wear your Spiderman gloves or the mittens Grandma made for you." Or try, "It's going to be 45 degrees when you go outside today. What should you pack for school?" Young children can learn to speak three languages at once. They can also learn to make clothing choices based on the outdoor temperature.
6. Get a move-on. Remember that your child is most likely playing actively outside. We might feel very cold walking from the car to the school door in a suit or a skirt and heels, but a child riding a balance bike for 10 minutes heats up very quickly.
7. Consider cold pants. Snow pants or snow suits are essential when there is snow on the ground, but some children (and some preschool teachers) like to wear them as soon as they can see their breath outside. Think of them as "cold pants" and let your child keep them in his locker from October through April.
8. Label everything. Speaking of lockers, our lockers are small. When two children share a locker it's nearly impossible to fit snow pants, coats, book bags and lunch boxes inside. PLEASE make sure every article of clothing you send to school has your child's name or your family's last name written on it where it's easy to read. All black snow pants and all Spiderman gloves look the same when there are 24 children getting dressed in the hallway. If you forget, your child's teacher will be happy to loan you a Sharpie and some masking tape.
9. Embrace the terrific outdoors. Spending time outdoors is important for everyone's health and well-being. We do not have a gym and children may not stay inside by themselves. If your child is recovering from an illness and you don't want her to be outside, please make arrangements to drop her off late or pick her up early, depending on the class schedule.
10. Stock up. Have extra winter clothing on hand, if possible. The first Snow Day of the year is much less fun when your child has left her snow pants at school. And plan to lose at least one set of gloves. If you buy three identical sets of gloves, odds are you will have at least one matching set at the end of the year. Just in case, the Lost and Found box is in the office.
If you recently moved to West Lafayette from somewhere warm and lovely, I am so sorry! But seriously, you can stock up on all the clothing your family needs to get through your first Indiana winter at J.C. Penney, Sears, Target, KMart, or Walmart. You can purchase gently-used childrens' outerwear at Once Upon a Child in Lafayette.
Below are some examples of items your child will need.
Thanks for reading and bring on the snow!
Two years ago, before their daughter was even old enough to enroll at MSGL, Zoe Neal and Desiree Chuang made an historic donation to our school. Owners of Virtuous Cycles in downtown Lafayette, Zoe and Desiree gave us a bright orange Strider balance bike to try out on the tricycle track. It soon became the most beloved of all the bikes because it is the only two-wheeler and it has no pedals. And most importantly, it goes FAST! Well, it goes as fast as the square bike track will allow and with all of the tricycle traffic? The bike track is sometimes more like the intersection of 52 and Salisbury when Purdue heads home for the day. Still, it feels really fast.
On the bikes of my youth and quite possibly yours, I learned to pedal with a set of training wheels attached to the hub of the back wheel to keep the bike, and me, upright. I learned to pedal the bike but never felt what it was like to be truly balanced on two wheels. When the training wheels came off I wasn't really ready at all. I had to learn to balance, and quickly! - and my parents had to watch. Spoiler alert: we all survived.
Balance bikes let a child master the balancing part - the most challenging part - of riding a bike, first. When you are coasting on a Strider bike with your feet not touching the ground it feels exactly like riding a bike. You ARE riding the bike, you're just not pedaling it. And since many children already learned to pedal on a tricycle the year before, the two skills of balancing and pedaling come together nicely after they have mastered the Strider. Several online reviews point out that if a child can walk she can ride a balance bike, so some children skip the tricycle stage altogether.
Maria Montessori observed the importance of a child developing his sense of balance. She created activities such as walking on the line to help fine-tune this sense. At MSGL the Strider is an extension of that balance exercise.
Last year, the Franklin family donated a new, dark blue Strider and now the children can have a turn to ride in half the time. That's important because learning to have a turn and to wait for a turn is one of the biggest works of preschool. The children at MSGL and their teachers have come up with an almost fool-proof system for taking turns on the Striders and all the bikes. It came to be called the "waiting bench."
The Waiting Bench
The waiting bench is right next to the bike shed which is sort of the starting line of the bike track. The first two children take the bikes out of the shed and ride them. When another friend wants a turn, he sits on the waiting bench. This signals the riders that someone is waiting for a turn so they need to consider how many more laps they will take before handing the bike off to the next friend. Sometimes the rider stops riding and negotiates with the waiter.
Waiter: How many more times are you going to go around?
Waiter: That's too many! How about 7?
Rider: How about 5? (When you're learning numbers and quantity, it's sometimes more important to pick a number you like than to negotiate for the most turns. Negotiation skills improve with experience :)
Once an agreement has been reached, the rider continues his laps while the waiter and his friends count down from 5 to 1. At the hand-off between rider and waiter, the cycle is repeated with new riders. Sometimes there are misunderstandings and an experienced child steps in to mediate. A teacher is always nearby to see what is happening and make herself available to help, if needed.
The idea of the waiting bench just sort of happened, like lots of great things happen in child-centered environments. It's possible that the teachers could have made an arbitrary rule about each child getting only 5 turns, but that would diminish the child's ability to make choices and consider the feelings of others. For example, 5-year-olds can recognize a child who is struggling with being patient and they will sometimes hand the bike over early to help this child. This leads to another cycle that I call the "Cycle of Benevolence." Benevolence is an inclination to perform kind, charitable acts. When a child sees a peer giving freely of herself to make someone else happy, it feels good. Soon, that child is looking for a way to help a friend. The cycle repeats and those kind acts and good feelings spill over into the community and, ultimately, the whole wide world.
Heike Larson, an administrator and blogger at Leport School in California, writes frequently of the importance of fostering benevolence in preschool communities. All of us at MSGL are inspired by her blog. She has also written about balance bikes on the Leport Schools blog here.
If you are considering buying a balance bike for your child, be sure to visit Virtuous Cycles to check out their selection of models and colors. Tell them MSGL sent you and be a part of the Cycle.
Bunny the Guinea pig came to us when her family decided to adopt an actual rabbit, sometime around 2010. She was the much-loved and snuggled River Birch class pet until her death last week while the children were on summer vacation.
Bunny didn't really like to move around very much. She was content to sit in her well-appointed enclosure and munch on carrots and timothy hay. The children were allowed to pet her, brush her, and feed her as long as they were gentle and respectful. She sat in a box on their laps in the green chair and they could pet her with one finger or two.
Bunny never required medical care, but she did get a few check-ups.
Bunny tolerated being brushed, especially if she had a sweet apple core to keep her occupied. She really loved spring and summer when she could get fresh lettuce from the school garden.
Bunny was peaceful, quiet, and - did I mention - tolerant? She only nibbled a couple of fingers but we are sure she was just testing to see if they were carrots.
Thank you for remembering Bunny with us, today. She is certainly going to be missed.
What did your child do at preschool today? You can try asking, but often they will say they did nothing or they “played.” The most common question I receive from parents is, “How can I know he is doing anything at school? He never tells me anything and his cubby has been empty for days.”
Please believe me, your child is doing something. A lot of stuff, actually. But he may not remember "doing" anything at all that day. And his accomplishments often cannot be held in the hand or seen with the eye at pick-up time. If he could tell you, it might sound like this:
I concentrated today!
When someone asked to play with me, I said yes.
I looked at the caterpillars in the jar - for a very long time. Then my teacher read me a book about butterflies. Twice. Because I asked.
I sat next to a friend who was labeling the lifecycle of the frog. I handed her the labels and helped her match them. I got her a paper towel when her fingers were gluey.
When everyone was talking about bees I told them, “Bumblebees don’t sting. Only honey bees sting. Bumblebees just bumble.” Everyone agreed with me.
I looked at a real chicken egg and a real duck egg. I said the duck egg was bigger.
I used the very heavy tortilla press to make playdough tortillas. My friends helped and we laughed. None of us pinched our fingers.
I compromised about sitting in the comfy chair.
I served myself a snack, ate it politely alongside my friends, and cleaned up after myself.
I felt sad - just for a little bit - because I missed my mom.
I noticed that the lizard’s food bowl was empty and cut some lettuce for him.
I waited for a turn on the orange bike.
I heard that a friend is going to Korea for the summer and I gave him a hug to say goodbye.
A preschooler's greatest and most important work often doesn't have any external product to show for it. Having and being a friend, acting out of kindness, demonstrating patience and self-control, taking care of oneself, feeling satisfied with a job well done - these things are all internalized. The children in our classrooms build their character and their understanding of the world every day, but they can’t always verbalize it. They are doing so much challenging work! But they do not yet see their actions and successes as separate from themselves.
After a sunflower seed sprouts in the garden we might notice as the stem grows taller, but we cannot see the acts of photosynthesis and respiration and transpiration that take place every single day. The sunflower plant continues to do its work converting sunlight to sugars and sugars to fuel - the internal work of living - whether we take notice or not. Then, one day it blooms and we look at it and say, “Finally!”
Maria Montessori believed that the child reveals himself through his work, not through his outwardly visible successes and accomplishments. Every experience he has is internalized and becomes a part of his very being. She put it this way, “The things he sees are not just remembered; they form a part of his soul.”
Stories from their day and recorded work, like the blooms of a sunflower, are parts of the child we can see and they might be pleasing to us, but they are only the product of a monumental amount of internal work. So please don’t worry when your child says she did nothing all day. Nothing to grown-ups can be everything in the life of a child.
Lots of peace, lots of love ~ Heather