On the Montessori Method and why it is my preferred educational philosophy…

A couple of years ago, when I started looking around at schools for my daughter, I was overwhelmed with the options. Should we look at an home daycare vs. a center? What kind of educational method was I looking for? What should the learning focus be on? I read about the Montessori method, Reggio Emilia approach, Waldorf education, and more. Superficial research told me that Montessori was a popular choice. Not to be convinced by a popularity vote, I delved further into my research and tried to work out why Montessori was so popular.

The first thing that I understood, and a very important point that I believe every parent should comprehend prior to enrolling their child in a Montessori school, is that Montessori is a philosophy, not a curriculum. Before proceeding, I had to learn all I could about Montessori and decide whether I believe in the philosophy or not. I could not put my daughter in a school unless I believed in their practices. So, let me explain to you what I learnt, why I believe, and then you can decide for yourself whether this is something you believe in too.

The Montessori method was definitely the oldest method of all that I had researched. It was developed by Maria Montessori over a 100 years ago. It has been tried and tested all over the world with a lot of success. In fact, Maria Montessori’s methods were verified more than a 100 years later through new techniques in brain research and MRIs with young children! A lot of the other methods I saw were newer with comparatively less field studies, and I wanted to go with a more tried and tested approach.

More importantly, Montessori follows a constructivist approach to learning. This means that students are actively involved in the process of building knowledge and learning, as opposed to passively receiving information. For example, lecture-based instruction is a passive form of learning. Now, think from a child’s perspective. Would a child below the age of 5 prefer to be active, using their hands and moving, or passive, being asked to sit in one place for extended periods of time and listen? I know my child would prefer the former, and I can imagine most children preferring the former too. I have believed in a constructivist approach for many years and worked on incorporating more forms of active learning at all levels, so it was obvious that I would want my bouncy, happy toddler to learn in a constructivist manner too. Children should be allowed to participate in their learning, and not be chastised for it. Montessori ticked that box.

Not only do children participate in how they learn, but they also, to an extent, choose what they learn. In a typical Montessori setup, students choose their activities from a prescribed range. This encourages a child to direct their own learning. By doing so, we ensure that the child is more engaged with his / her learning. Making such choices also improves their decision making skills at an early age!

I was also impressed with how activities were setup in the Montessori way. I learnt from A’s teachers that in Montessori terminology, activities are called “jobs”. A “job” consists of everything required to complete an activity from start (including selection and set-up) to finish (including cleanup). The jobs are setup in small trays or bins, and placed at a child’s height level. For example, when my daughter was in the “toddler room” one of the jobs was to pour water from one small beaker to another. This job, obviously, involves some spills and messes when performed by a 2 year old. The tray also had a small cloth, and children learnt to clean up their own spills! This ensured that children learnt complete ownership in all their activities, and also developed discipline to keep their surroundings clean.

This sense of ownership and discipline prevails in all things Montessori. Montessori rooms are designed for children – safe spaces, items placed at convenient heights, enabling children to be independent and allowing them to explore without restrictions. With this, children also develop a sense of responsibility such as cleaning up after themselves and organization.

It has been a year since my daughter started her Montessori education, and I have found a sea change. I have also found that for Montessori to be as effective as possible, one needs to comprehend that Montessori is a philosophy and not a curriculum, believe in it, and implement it outside of school as well. In the past year, we have worked on incorporating many Montessori practices in our day-to-day life and found that it has made it a world of difference. In a series of posts, I will be describing the ways in which we have started leading a Montessori life. Stay tuned for more!

 

 

 

First pizza!

Recently, I had a breakthrough. A ate her first pizza! Now, you might wonder why this is such a big deal. Why would I want my kid to eat “junk food”? Well, as I’ve mentioned time and again, A is a picky eater. She eats a handful of dishes prepared in exactly a certain way, often force-fed with bribes. Combined with our love for travel, it gets inconvenient with lugging around a rice cooker and ingredients everywhere.

I’ve come to realize that pizza is common denominator food, available world-wide, and isn’t as unhealthy as we think when we have control over the ingredients (from trust-worthy sources and home-made as far as possible).  A has taken an interest in cooking and baking recently, and I’ve taken advantage of this by encouraging her to participate in preparing dinner and have her eat the same food as the rest of the family, with no screens or bribes. I fight my motherly instincts to make her eat more everyday! We follow a Montessori philosophy at home (more on this in a future post) and she uses a ladder to reach the kitchen counter and participate in the daily cooking, an activity she loves. This has been a worthwhile effort.

I’ve also observed that she has a love for strong bold flavors. For example, she will always choose a pesto pasta over a mac ‘n’ cheese. So I decided to have her make her own pizza, choosing her own toppings. First, I asked her what she would like on her pizza, showing her a few options. She made a face and rejected the more traditional option of marinara. No worries, I asked her if she would like a pesto pizza. While she was suspicious (“Do you mean pesto pasta or pesto pizza?”) she did agree that she would like to make a “pesto pizza with cheese”. Brilliant! Step 1 had been accomplished – that was further along than we’d ever gotten with pizza before. And I ensured that she was involved with every step that followed.

Next, we had to buy ingredients. Trader Joe’s is a family favorite, where we all love shopping for our treats, in a trust-worthy, vegetarian-friendly environment. I asked her to please help me shop for ingredients. Since we were in a hurry that day, we chose to buy our ingredients rather than make the pesto at home, but that worked out very well as she loved looking around and finding the pesto and cheese off the shelves.

Finally, it was time to go home and make the pizza! By now, the excitement had amped up and she was extremely excited to make her own pizza. This turned out to be one of the easiest cooking experiments I had ever done with her. Other than getting the pizza in and out of the oven, she could do everything herself. She patted and rolled the dough into a circle, eagerly “painted” the pesto on the base, and got a kick out of heaping on cheese on the pizza (of course with chef’s treats of bits of cheese to snack on!) She watched eagerly through the oven door as her pizza baked. When the pizza was done, she bounced between her feet while we sliced it for her. She was so proud of it! And, best of all, she ate  satisfactory amount of it!

It just goes to show that kids are way more capable than what we give them credit for. In fact, other than a light dusting of flour on the counter, the entire activity proved to be mess-free with A developing a sense of cleanliness and order as well.

The importance of “I did it!”

“I did it!” These three simple words are possibly the most important ones that your child will ever utter. For, not only has your child achieved a task, but they have also identified that they have accomplished said task, and feel proud about it! It is a crucial milestone that a child recognizes achievement, for this is an important factor in motivation. And without motivation, where would more achievements come from?

In order to help a child achieve something, one has got allow the child to make mistakes. I mean, if you get something right the first time you try it, chances are you probably haven’t gotten a chance to learn it well. This is something we forget often when we are working with little ones. In their process of learning, children need to be allowed to make mistakes. You don’t need a child who’s a mini-Picasso, the next Shakespeare, or a Ramanujam Junior. All you want is a child who enjoys learning!

One of the most important things to keep in mind to help a child achieve a goal and feel proud about it is to set attainable yet challenging goals. For example, for a child who knows his alphabet and reads sight words and other simple words, this goal could be to read a picture book with up to one sentence per page. A book with several sentences per page may prove to be too challenging, yet a book with mere word identification may not interest the child enough to pursue the task. This is something that schools should keep in mind as well as they design instructional activities for their students. If the child requires a parent to do a task assigned, then the instructional activity has not been properly set. After all, we want the child to say (proudly) “I did it!” not (disinterestedly) “My mom/dad/grandma/grandpa/someone else did it!” Especially at a young, tender age, such assignments set a precedence that a child can get someone else to do their assignments!

In this regard, it is also important to increment goals gradually to keep them challenging. One of my favorite tools in this regard is the competency map. Simply put, a competency map is a tool used to determine the order in which goals are set. For example, a child should learn to identify the alphabet before being asked to read a word. Increment goals sequentially and ensure the child has accomplished pre-requisite goals before pushing them further. Forcing a child to work towards a goal that they aren’t ready for may have the dangerous effect of making them averse to learning – we definitely do not want this!

It’s also crucial to keep goals interesting. No matter how good a child feels to accomplish a goal, he/she needs motivation. Interest is a huge factor in motivation. Offer a child a bright colorful picture book with images interspersed with text and a book with just text, and the child will show more interest in reading the picture book. It’s also important to align goals with the child’s interest. It’s okay for the child to pick arts and crafts over music, or sports over dance. It’s important for parents, caregivers, and teachers to align goals with the child’s interests.

Of course, another great way to motivate is to incentivize. Children (anyone really) do great when they are rewarded for their efforts! One great way to incentivize is to maintain a “reward chart” that recognizes efforts. For example, you could give your child a star for a job well done, and a reward for every 5 stars. While this method seems like you’re making your child work harder, it is a great way to positively reinforce and boost your child’s confidence, and encourage accomplishment.

Most importantly, have fun! We always want our children to enjoy learning and have fun in whatever they accomplish. Play games to learn, allow for wiggles and giggles and simple joys, and you will find your child picking up the joy and pride of accomplishment in no time! I wish you and your child the best of luck and joy, and a life filled with “I did it!”

 

 

 

 

Lifelong learning: Yay or Nay? (Yay!)

Educating our children is something we plan for pretty much from the get go. Be at it at home, the playground, daycare or school, our children are constantly learning, and it’s our job as parents to ensure they get the best education possible. However, that means different things to each of us. Before we proceed, let’s talk about a term that often gets glossed over – that is lifelong learning. What is lifelong learning? Lifelong learning is defined as the “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons”. This translates to our children, or even us, for that matter, being students for life. In order to ensure lifelong learning, we need to keep learning fun and exciting. Does that not seem elementary? We do, indeed, learn throughout our life, and children are definitely learning everyday and everywhere, even when they are trying to learn to hold a spoon at home or play on a new slide in the park. At this point, learning is still exciting. So at what point does learning get associated with pressure, and  hinder with the spirit of lifelong learning?

For example, let’s take the milestone of learning to read. Why do we want our child to learn to read? Is it because it is a requirement, to learn to read by a certain age? (If so, what was that age, and how did you arrive at that age?) Is it in order to succeed in their careers later in life? Is it because reading is a key to the wonderful world of books and knowledge? A mother of toddlers may feel that children should learn to read by age 5, while a mother of an older child would disagree saying that her voracious reader started reading by age 6. Ideally, a child should have to read only when they’re really ready. In fact, contrary to popular belief, studies have shown that early reading does not have a direct correlation to lifelong learning. By forcing a child to read just because he/she is supposed to, we would be associating reading with pressure rather than fun. Instead, we can easily associate reading with fun, by exposing children to a wide range of age-appropriate books. For example, a colorful picture book with clear, large printed words is very attractive to a young child. By offering fun books, with different topics, to our kids, we provide our kids with great exposure, allow them to express their interests, and ultimately, making reading books fun. This practice will ensure that the child will WANT to read, as opposed to reading because they HAVE to.

So let’s start with a discussion on the curriculum offered in different schools. In some places like the US, private schools claim to be a year or two ahead of their corresponding public schools in curriculum, while other countries like India, parents have a choice between CBSE, ICSE, and other Boards of Education, all of which are equally competitive. The reasoning behind exposure to a high curriculum to keep students engaged and to ensure academic success throughout life. But does exposing a child to a higher level of curriculum than they are ready for invoke a spirit of lifelong learning?

And then there is the system of written examination, which is followed in most schools. Nowadays, children start taking exams very young. Preschools have interviews, and there are elementary schools that have entrance tests. Frequent evaluations are performed throughout the school year to assess how well students are learning. Tests and examinations are needed to evaluate how well a child is learning, but the way in which they are executed also matters. Do these examinations, which encourage students to score higher marks, teach children that we learn for the sake of examinations? Do examinations foster a sense of achievement (or on the other hand – fear!) in kids? And by ensuring that students cram for the exam, are we saying that students need to learn for the examination and not for themselves? If continuous examination encourages the students to learn for the sake of examination, then this system directly goes against the spirit of lifelong learning.

So why do we parents fall into the rigor of milestones and examinations with our kids? One reason is that we want our children to be successful in life, and typically this success is associated with career and prosperity, which is tied in with attaining more marks. But to what end? Do we really need our six-year-olds headed to coaching classes after a long day at school, instead of playing in the park? Do we need our elementary school-aged children participating advanced classes which they don’t really enjoy learning, or should we expose them to a variety of arts, sciences and hobbies which may or may not lead to a fruitful career? (And when did career become the focus for children who are so young?!) Another reason is that vicious circle called “peer pressure”. Of course, when we raise our kids in a society where high curricula and milestone-based learning are the norm, both parents and children are bound to face peer pressure to confirm to society. While a certain amount of peer pressure is good and needed, it’s getting to a point where everyone is under pressure to perform and the goal of lifelong learning gets neglected in the process.

With this in mind, let’s talk about a few ways we can foster a sense of lifelong learning in our children:

  1. Read! Read anything and everything that seems to interest your child. While there is no perfect age by which a child learns to read, it is never too early to start! Colorful picture books on a wide range of topics like animals, space, food, culture can open a child’s eyes to a wonderful world, and teach children that reading books is exciting for life.
  2. Fun with toys! Toys are one of the most engaging sources of learning for little ones! If you want to know how some of the most common toys promote learning, click here.
  3. Go out and explore! Learning doesn’t have to happen from a book or a classroom. Go for a hike or explore a museum. The playground is also a great source of learning. Even a grocery store is a source of learning, where the littlest ones learn colors, fruits, vegetables and the older ones can learn how to pay for their favorite treats (for example, “Do I have enough money for one treat or two treats?”) Who says math can’t be fun?

Personally, I am not in favor of forcing children to learn to read, or add and subtract, or memorize facts by a certain age just because I believe forced learning invokes fear and does not promote lifelong learning. In order to promote lifelong learning, we need to show our children that learning is fun and exciting. While academic success is definitely valuable, I think we’re going at it wrong. In order to achieve true academic success, it’s gotta stick – and to make it stick, we must encourage our children to love learning for life. By giving them a strong foundation of lifelong learning, we are paving them a path for true success in life.

A’s thoughts on Eclipses

We spent a lot of time indoors last week as A was unwell. We read books, colored and when we watched videos, they were generally on her favorite topics – space and the solar system. One morning, we were watching a video about eclipses and I explained to A “see, sun and moon are playing peek-a-boo”, an explanation which apparently tickled her fantasy.

That afternoon, when I was taking her to the doctor’s place at 4 PM, the moon had already risen but the sun was also still out. She pointed at moon and said “moon!”. Then, puzzled, she said “Uh oh!” I asked her, “Why uh oh? What happened?”

She pointed back and forth “sun! moon! sun! moon!”. After thinking for a few moments, she asked me “sun, moon, peek a boo?”

I was amazed that she’d grasped the concept of an eclipse, not to mention applied it to that instance where she saw that both the sun and moon were out. Since then, every time we’ve seen them together, she’s been asking them to play peek a boo!

Time change!

It’s time for the dreaded time change! Honestly, losing an hour of evening daylight drives me nuts during the fall (although the late sunrise isn’t a picnic either). I really miss hanging out at the park or even just outside with A as the sun sets early and the days grow shorter.

That apart, the fact that A is a stickler for time makes these time changes hard to deal with. The “Spring forward” and “Fall back” usually bring with them a minor jetlag, with the child wanting to eat/sleep an hour earlier/later.

Tonight, we put her to bed later than her usual bed-time (something which A was actually excited about!) with the hope that she’d sleep in tomorrow, as opposed to waking up an hour early. Well, here’s hoping!

Fun at Weebee’s, Chennai

I’ve been in India for a few weeks now, and my search for a fun and safe play area for A has been on since I got here. We checked out a couple of playgrounds in Bangalore. While these were fun, I sorely missed A being able to play independently, as they weren’t as child safe as I would have liked, nor did I find enough infant / toddler – friendly activities. 

When we decided to visit Madras, a quick search led me to Weebee’s in RA Puram which among other activities, had a play space and cafe where I could take A. Intrigued, we checked it out on our first day here and I’m so happy we did!

Weebee’s has several different play areas, both indoor and outdoor. Today, on her first day, we allowed A to explore indoors first, where she first explored a section made mostly with foam blocks. There were steps, a slide, a few rocking horses and more. My favorite part was that the space was entirely lined with foam mats, so even when the kids topple, as they are prone to, they are safe!

You see the steps leading up on the right? This led to A’s favorite space of all – a toddler safe ball pit!   She has a small ball pit at home given by her aunt, and she loves them! However most ball pits outside of home aren’t safe for her- too deep, hard flooring etc. Here, there were enough balls to keep her engaged, but not so much that she’d fall. Of course, this space was also lined with foam mats. I loved how the teachers at Weebee’s were so kind with A, encouraging her to throw, teaching her to catch and cheering her on when she got it right!

Playing in a ball pit teaches several skills. At the tip of the iceberg are throwing and catching. Further, you can teach your child colors and numbers, and show them how to sort. The ball pit is great sensory play, and it can be made even more so by adding balls of different sizes, kinds and textures. 

Moving on, there was a room full of fun and educational toys! I saw several favorites like variations of stackers, shape sorters and musical instruments. There were also blocks of various kinds. Needless to say, this was a room full of learning and budding creativity. 

They also had a number of pretend play areas, including a kitchen, a hardware set, and a number of fruits and vegetables plus utensils to pretend cook. Pretend play is a glorious way to stimulate the young one’s imagination, and I love taking her to places that have a dedicated space for pretend play. 


In addition, there was also a reading room, an outdoor play area with multiple play structures, and best of all – a petting zoo, with ducks, rabbits and even a rooster! I can’t wait to take A again to play in the outdoor section!


The rates for the play space are INR 250 for two hours, which I personally think is worth every paisa for stimulating and child proof environment that’ll make learning fun. We met some of the teachers and assistants, and were touched by how thoughtfully they treated the children, guiding and encouraging all the way. A quick chat with the owner proved to us that weebee’s was designed and structured with a lot of care and consideration for the little ones. Also, they have a cafe with some snacks and drinks in case you need some refreshments after burning all that energy. 

I’ve been looking around and felt that a lot of places in India don’t provide the safety and stimulation that the youngest children need, and Weebee’s filled in that gap perfectly for me. Parents / grandparents / aunts / uncles / anyone with a little one in your life, make weebee’s a destination for the child and I’m sure it’ll be a happy day for all! Until then, I plan to visit again as much as I can while I’m Chennai… maybe I’ll see you  there!

Meta-cognition in infants and toddlers

A recent discussion with a good friend and colleague brought up the topic of meta-cognition. Meta-cognition is, simply put, knowledge of ones’ own self. There have been arguments about the measurement of meta-cognition. How can we measure awareness of ones’ own self? Can we set guidelines or rules to decide how much one knows about oneself?

I have been fiddling with this aspect of knowledge for years now with no real outcomes. Truth be told, I’d all but given up on ever coming to any real understanding of meta-cognition, for it seemed to abstract to me! However, I recently chanced upon an understanding of meta-cognition in my toddler, A, which then lead to an avalanche of thoughts on different instances where A has demonstrated that she does have meta-cognitive knowledge, or awareness of her own self. In addition, I could also identify future instances where her meta-cognition would prove to be a milestone. Here were some of my thoughts:

  1. Awareness of one’s own hands and feet: At what point does a baby become aware of one’s own body parts? Sure, they look at their hands and feet, but they are not born with the awareness that these are parts of their body. The first time I saw A demonstrate any awareness was closer to 5 months, when she would move her hands and watch the movement (and of course, proceed to eat her hands!) This was one of the earliest demonstrations of meta-cognition I’d seen in her.
  2. Awareness of the child in the mirror: As we had a full length mirror right next to A’s changing station, A has been aware of mirrors since her birth. She was always fond of her friend in the mirror, “they paapa” meaning “that baby”. Of course, she didn’t realize that child was her own self for awhile! A simple test to see when your kid is aware of his/her own reflection is to put a hat on them while in front of the mirror. At some point, they try to take the hat off AFTER seeing their reflection in the mirror. This indicates that the child is aware that the child in the mirror is his/her own reflection.
  3. Toilet training: I would say this is a huge demonstration of meta-cognition. If you haven’t already, do check out the potty training checklist on babycenter or anywhere else. When you read it, you will find several checks that all require self-awareness – such as “Knowing how to pull pants up and down” or “Understands the physical signals that mean he has to go and can tell you before it happens or even hold it until he has time to get to the potty.” By understanding the importance of meta-cognition in this aspect, I have begun rethinking the entire process of potty-training!

As I said, there were way more thoughts in my mind once I saw some clear demonstrations of meta-cognition. I am sure these are aspects you have seen in your child too. I’d love to hear back from you – what are some of the ways you observed meta-cognition or self-awareness in your child? What are some of the methods you would use to measure this? Can you observe in yourself, and other adults around you as well? Do share!

Childen’s Discovery Museum: An oasis of indoor fun

When the weather forecast for this weekend included both a frost warning and a freeze warning, I knew it was time to search for some indoor fun for A. There’s been one place on my list for months now, and that is Children’s Discovery Museum. Today we decided to tick CDM off our list, especially when A woke up after a night of semi-sleep with a bundle of energy. And what a day it was!

CDM is a glorious celebration of young curiosity. With two floors full of exhibits that promote learning in an environment of play, there’s something for children of all ages. And when I say all ages, I’m not kidding! My 16-month-old daughter, who until now has been too young for most museums and the like, was overjoyed! In fact, I saw tiny tots even younger than her! There is even a CrawlSpace, an area safe for the little ones who aren’t walking yet.


We started off with A clinging to me, curious yet cautious, not knowing where to start. After wandering around the first floor briefly, we landed in the Rainbow Market, an area where children learn about fruits, vegetables and are allowed to pretend-play all aspects of food – choosing vegetables, cooking, and eating. After tentatively venturing out of my arms, one of the volunteers handed A a pretend-slide of apple and then something clicked in her, and she was off! The vegetables and fruits were arranged by color, allowing kids to learn both colors as well as the names of fruits and veggies. The area has a pretend kitchen, with a stove, microwave, refrigerator, sink and table.

pretend-cooking


There are also separate sections celebrating foods from all over the world, including China, India, Mexico, Phillipines and more. The display from the Phillipines included a particularly nice coconut grater with a pretend-coconut that could actually be grated by way of cotton  straps attached by velcro!


Of course, this section would be incomplete without a mention of the display from India!


After a lunch of real food, we went up the musical staircase (a different note on each step!) moved on to the Wonder Cabinet, an area on the second floor exclusively for kids aged 0-4. This area was packed to the brim with at least ten different displays, including an Enchanted Forest with a wonderful story time, a super-cool craft area and numerous displays to pique the young mind. Kiddo started off at the very first display, where she gathered a bunch of blue balls and sent them down a chute.

There was also a maze of pipes with an upward blower that would send balls upwards and into the pipes, something that A loved  once she figured out how to use. The balls were to be inserted in the red circle where they would be sent upwards and then back down through the maze.


She also discovered a lovely area celebrating light  and shadow. An ingenious arrangement of horse cutouts, mirrors and red,green and blue lights on a turntable causing a melange of color and light. This had her gazing in wonder for several minutes, trying to identify the source of the beauty.

Speaking of sound and light,the Enchanted Forest housed one of my personal favorites, a grid of lighted rods that children could use to create their own displays. Once again, I found that it was easier for A to pull OUT the rid than put it IN. Pushing it back in required A to push the rod in a specific angle, which had her briefly puzzled. But the beauty of the pushed right lighting up encouraged her!


There were also displays where we could smell and guess aromas such as chocolate, strawberry and other foods. This made me realize that we haven’t done a whole lot of sensory play involving smells yet! There was also an area of huge but safe foam blocks, and the aforementioned crawl space too. 

When we were done here, we headed back to the first floor where she now discovered the Street display of traffic lights, vehicles and even a model plane. She even got to drive a car!


There was also a mammoth display and a display of fossils, a play area made entirely of cellophane tape, a display of bubbles bigger than A, and much more. 

Located in the heart of downtown San Jose, CDM is closeby enough to reach quickly on a lazy Saturday morning, making it a total win in my book. Public parking is available right behind, and with A toddling around, we could comfortably leave the stroller behind for a change. Healthy lunches and snacks are available at the FoodShed. There are sufficient changing stations (in both men’s and women’s rooms!) and a nursing area as well. Head on over for a wonderful day of indoor fun, and you won’t regret it! I believe I can safely say this was A’s happiest day ever!