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Finding the balance between learning and play

By: Rohini Rustogi, Director, Founder & CEO of Brandon, Riverview and Southshore Montessori Schools, Tampa, FL

Today, learning is increasingly being conducted by rote. Even in early childhood, parents of children three to six years of age want to see homework, textbooks, and project papers! Online education has only exacerbated the problem and made education more impersonal. There seems to be a greater focus on a finished project than the process. In my view, we need to bring the focus back to the child’s mental, physical and emotional needs, where curiosity creates the excitement to learn and play.

Dr Maria Montessori has given us a practical scientific method for teaching children, which has been tested for over a century. She emphasised social interaction and the education of the whole personality. She said, ‘The human hand allows the mind to reveal itself.’ Dr Montessori believed that the hand and brain must develop in harmony; the former reports to the latter, guiding the former, and the cycle continues, helping to develop the intellect.

The Physical Environment

The Montessori method emphasises hands-on learning. The Montessori system uses specially designed materials that are sequentially laid out in the classroom, from simple to complex and from basic to abstract. The classroom is typically divided into four or five areas that support various types of learning, from understanding practical life to awareness of sensorial, artistic and cultural matters to the knowledge of subjects like language, maths and science.

The Montessori classroom is always warm and inviting. Tables and chairs are set up for individuals and small groups, and children use work mats on the floor. They can move among the different classroom areas and explore the various materials. Dr Montessori believed that learning occurs with purposeful movement. Moreover, it is well known that most learning occurs in the formative years, before six. This is the ‘sensitive period’, when children develop reasoning skills, learn to recognize their environment and begin to organise information.

Importantly, the Montessori method encourages children to work at their own pace. Here, teaching is based on ability rather than age. Multi-age children (between three and six years) collaborate to work together, In ungraded classrooms. There is flexibility, so some lessons are conducted in a group, and at other times individual learning is imparted, all based on the need. Typically, a Montessori classroom has children within a three-year age range with various levels of readiness and understanding. Therefore, teachers must ensure various materials for each age and ability level. Montessori teachers also constantly create customised materials that are culturally diverse and meet the needs of all children.

The Curriculum

The Montessori method spells out subjects in an age-appropriate way, and the teaching in each area is designed to engage children. At the same time, the system allows the flexibility to customise lessons to accommodate differences across geographies, cultures and backgrounds.

Practical Life lessons help to develop control, concentration, and independence. These encompass physical ability, care for the environment and people, and basic courtesy and grace. Special attention is paid to fine and gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and so on. Sensorial lessons are specially designed to engage the five senses - visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory - using materials that act as a precursor to Maths. Gardening, nature walks and outdoor activities are built into most days.

Math lessons cover simple numeration and extend to decimals and fractions.

Language covers reading, writing and communication and is always a favourite! From learning letter sounds to reading, these classes encourage children to grow into readers, writers and communicators. Teachers build a language-rich environment using songs, rhymes and literature. The focus is on reading aloud, discussion and auditory games that serve to teach nomenclature and build vocabulary.

Geography concerns itself with the physical location of places. Young children are usually more interested in the ‘what and where rather than the how and why’.

There is curiosity and excitement in exploring the living continents, with a natural path to History, Diversity and Social Studies. All these subjects activate the imagination and extend beyond sensory experience.

Science in the Montessori classroom provides an easy introduction to the world of logical thinking, the primary aim of all education.

Culture, Art & Music lean on physical activity and movement. Holi and Diwali and holidays from around the world are celebrated in culturally authentic ways. Music is ingrained in the child’s psyche and interwoven into a daily classroom activity. The infant sleeps to symphonies, and the two-year-old seems to love the sound of the triangle, while the three-year-old walks along to a melody and a five-year-old plays and performs poetry and song. Music, singing, dance and movement are an intrinsic part of each day and allow for endless creativity with various media! Monthly events are organised around visits from theatre groups, musicians and reptile shows. Each month we honour a famous Musician and Artist, and the spotlight is on that style of music and art and the influences of their times.

Early childhood education must be holistic, focusing on mental and emotional health and academic learning.

Early childhood education must be holistic, focusing on mental and emotional health and academic learning. Montessori programs, based on self-directed and non-competitive activities, help children develop a positive self-image and build the confidence to face change and challenge with optimism. The skills and habits children acquire in a Montessori classroom will stay with them for a lifetime. Ultimately, their personalities will be enhanced by positive behaviours - kindness, consideration, courtesy, grace - and their Montessori experience will become a way of life.

Today, Montessori schools exist all over the world, on every continent. Since its inception, this system has helped lay the scholastic foundation for its many notable students, and its list of alumni reads like a who’s who of luminaries. The names include Anne Frank, over 70 years ago, and extend to many illustrious persons of the day - ranging from Bill Gates, Julia Child and Hillary Clinton to Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page - recognized across disciplines and industries for a diversity of expertise.

Author Bio: Rohini Rustogi is the President & CEO of the Brandon, Riverview and Southshore Montessori schools, in the Tampa Bay area, USA. A career educator, her vision and passion for children has inspired a generation of educators who are now part of her Montessori tribe.

Rohini hails from a family of educators in India. Both her mother and father were Elementary School Teachers. Her purpose in life is to spread the Montessori method through her schools, whose mission is to develop and nurture the children's intellectual, creative, and human potential through excellence in all her endeavours.

Rohini’s love for educating young minds, over the past thirty years, is coupled with her love of gardening, her pets, and her family. Rohini Rustogi lives in Florida, USA with her husband, her adult children and her three dogs.

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