I discovered Montessori quite by accident. At the start, when our son was around two, we decided he was probably ready for school, and thinking ourselves to be risk-averse, especially when it comes to education, we assumed what works for everyone will also work for us. No avant-garde, new-fangled schools with fancy themes and terminologies, all that is required is a safe, clean environment for a child (not a tall order here in Singapore!) and some good, friendly teachers. I had vaguely heard of the term “Montessori” and knew of its existence among the preschools, but I knew Montessori preschools were fewer in number compared to traditional preschools and they seemed to be something offbeat, perhaps for the elitist, wealthier types who could afford adventurous risks. We certainly didn’t think ourselves to be one of those. We were going to simply follow the crowd and find a good traditional preschool. After all, we went to one, we turned out fine, no reason why that wouldn’t be repeated with the next generation, would there?
And thus, we checked out some of the preschools in our neighbourhood and nearly settled on one that was closest to home. However, having checked out the inside of the preschool, I recall not feeling very comfortable. My husband and I both recalled our ‘first day at preschool’ or rather, the first days, weeks, and to a certain extent, months we’d spend crying, wailing, flailing, refusing to be sent to preschool and mentally steeled ourselves for some sort of a repeat. The preschool, the environment, the classroom, the books, the uniforms… it had started to make me nervous.
It was just then, out of sheer curiosity and a chance acquaintance with Anjum, whom I had met at an alumni meet of our alma-mater BITS, Pilani that changed everything. At the meet, as we made our usual small talk, I learnt she was passionate about teaching pre-schoolers. Indeed, this was very intriguing as ours was an engineering college, and a very fine one if I may say so myself, highly coveted for aspiring engineers in the country. What a coincidence that here she was with a preschool she had founded not very far from where we lived. It was a Montessori preschool, so I had to check it out. What is a fellow BITSian doing running a preschool?
That single visit shed all my biases about off-beat, different, elitist and whatever else I thought a Montessori preschool is all about. All I remember clearly is the three of us walking in – father, mother and son, and being so completely taken in by the inviting setup – rows of neat shelves lined with exquisite pretty material just beckoning me to come take a look. We three immediately set off in different directions ignoring Anjum entirely, picked out whatever material we liked and simply started to fiddle, admire and experience them! I know now we got it all wrong: we needed to roll out a mat, ask for the material to be presented to us and so on 🙂 but the EXPERIENCE of it all topped everything! It did not look like a classroom at all, instead, there were low shelves filled with different materials. Although I had no idea what purpose each material served, they sparked off a lot of happy, curious feelings. I wanted to be a child and enrol myself in and I sensed it was doing the same to my son. Luckily, he was the child and could enrol himself in! It was a no-brainer. It looked like paradise with the added benefit that it was actually a preschool, a place our son could come in to learn, to receive education in the formal sense. Nothing could be more wonderful, and thus, we ended up starting his schooling journey at a Montessori preschool. How grateful I am for it today!
Here are some key Montessori tenets for me- tenets that I’ve either discovered, or have affirmed and validated through my parenting journey of my son’s years at a Montessori preschool.
Tenets in the Montessori philosophy
We all desire to be respected, it is clear to us as adults. We know when we are treated with respect. We also know we respond better to the other person when we feel we are being treated with respect. And this is one thing Montessori clearly demonstrated to me – the magic that happens when the child is respected. A child just like an adult can sense when he is being treated respectfully and will mirror that same respect, a virtue which we would dearly want to inculcate in them. This is the beauty of order and discipline I discovered in the Montessori environment, one that is rooted in mutual respect for one another.
It is a misguided belief to think that children in a Montessori environment are left free, to do as they please and to make choices as they wish. They cannot if those actions and choices are disruptive and, most certainly, they need to be stopped if those actions and choices hurt others. However, the reason they stop and follow a corrective instruction is not because they fear the consequences of not obeying. Instead, I’ve come to realise that the reason for this is because they know and feel that they are being treated with respect and so it is only natural for them to behave similarly.
Trust in the method, trust in the school, trust in the child, trust in my parenting abilities, trust in the guides. TRUST. It is a big word. Yes, at times trust is very hard to do. Yet, I discovered that once I trusted, Montessori truly began to work its magic on me and my child. The more fully I could trust, the more joys and benefits my child and I reaped.
This is not to be confused with letting go. That can be another parenting mantra that works. To take it easy at times, not to fret on the small things, let go and trust that things will be ok. But here, this is not about me blindly letting go and letting things happen randomly. Letting go without trust does not help because the child is very discerning and is able to cleverly distinguish between when you are trusting him versus when you are simply letting go blindly and allowing him to do as he pleases because you have given up at that moment! When he knows you trust him, wonderful things start to manifest. When he knows you trust his school, he feels relaxed going there. When he knows you trust his teachers, he finds it easier to respect them. You now see that which you could not see before, a capable child who is able to do something without your judgemental helicopter presence whirring above him, vis-a-vis when you let go blindly. With trust, you now see a capable child, and almost always I have been rewarded with wonder, amazement, peace, joy, beauty, and, most importantly, with the ability to trust some more which sets off more good feelings. It’s a nice virtuous cycle!
Humans are really capable beings, and after becoming a parent, I discovered, even little humans, from the time they are born are capable beings! If they are incapable of doing something, it is usually either that they have been denied the opportunity to show they are capable (often by adults intervening and doing it for them), or simply, that they are incapable today, but capable tomorrow. And that’s what I love about the ability-appropriate methodical manner in which materials are presented to the Montessori child in the environment.
Self-doubt exists in all of us, even as an adult. Even for me, after working more than a decade in the same engineering job, there are times I come across a design problem or an issue I’m working on that I feel stuck at, unable to solve at that given moment, that day, that week; and then I wonder if I am capable of doing it at all, will I ever find a solution? Though, by now, I know very well, all problems have a solution – well, at least most engineering problems do! It is just all about reaching that solution by working at the problem. Yet, when we don’t see a solution in the horizon, we quickly doubt our capabilities. Once we surmount the problem and arrive at the solution, apart from feeling joy and relief that we could do it, our self-esteem rises because we realise we are capable of doing it after all! Yes, I can! And this is what the Montessori child routinely discovers and re-affirms to himself. The rising self-esteem leads to increased capability as the child feels like he can learn more and do more, the increased capability leads to increased self-esteem, it’s another of those virtuous cycles!
When my son enrolled in a full day Montessori programme, many were often stunned by the long hours: He leaves home at 8 and comes back at 5:30? Is he not tired? Is it not too much stress on him? Isn’t he too small to be out all day? Of course, it can be if this was a traditional school. Imagine sitting in a chair listening to lectures one after the other throughout the day, jotting down notes, going through countless worksheets with short, timed breaks to eat or drink. But I discovered the Montessori environment is one where the child works with purpose, at his own pace, making plans and decisions for himself about what he wants to accomplish. It neither tires him nor bores him. He is proud of that which he has practised and mastered. If he hasn’t yet accomplished something, he knows he can go back there tomorrow and continue working on it. As a 3 year old, he sees his 5 year old friend reading his favourite book. It does not bother him that he cannot read, he knows he is going to get there one day just like his friends have. “Right now, I’ll work on the Pink Tower. Thank you.”
Thus, I now know what I did not 4 years ago- Expect more from education – Get Montessori.