Bees have been buzzing, the sun has been shining, birds have been chirping, squirrels have been digging and children have been busy laughing, smiling, singing, balancing, collecting, digging and conversing! It has been a busy little start to the school year over here at Frog Song Montessori Preschool. Over half of our class graduated in August and we have been joyfully welcoming many new faces into our little community this year. Some younger friends have become exuberant, helpful leaders, showing our new friends how things are done in the classroom. Although the start of school is especially busy for us teachers as we orient new families and their children, it is always a good reminder to sit back and watch what the children are capable of without our help. It is a gift to get to be a “fly on the wall” in a classroom of socially cohesive children and we are soaking up these moments as often as we can!
Lately, some Frog Song children (notably, those with older siblings in public school) have started asking to go outside for “recess.” As much as we know what they mean, “recess” we generally use the phrase “time outside” in place of “recess.” For children, of course, words don’t tend to carry much baggage; they just describe the object, attribute, or experience they’re connected with. Still, for those of us who grew up with an understanding of recess as a time when we could literally “recede” from the rest of the school day, the semantic difference offers a little reminder that we’d like to build a different experience for these children.
So, what does everyone do when we’re outside?
At Frog Song, everyone goes outside after lunch. Since everyone finishes lunch at a different pace, we don’t wait until the whole class has finished (or been required to stop) eating lunch. Rather, once about a third of the class has eaten the right amount for their bodies, packed up their lunches, and cleaned up their table, one adult takes a first group outside. This allows everyone to get just the right amount of food (and spend the right amount of time talking with friends!) before coming onto the playground. Except for nappers, everyone spends at least an hour outside every day. Depending on moods and weather, many children spend quite a lot more.
They play as a big group]
They break off on their own imaginary endeavors
They teach each other to do new things
They comfort each other
And they just hang around
More recently, many of the children who were once content to be instructed on what roles to take, or more committed to observing from the periphery, have jumped into taking a more active role in directing the play. The children who came into this year as leaders have handled this with surprising grace, stepping back and letting their friends change the direction of the game.
Montessori education centers on freedom for the children within guiding limits set by adults. These limits are much less evident (and also, probably fewer in number) on the playground than they are in the classroom. This leads to exploration, of course, but also to conflict. As a parent, it can be so difficult to hear about conflict, aggression, and disappointment children experience with their peers! These feelings are a part of most of our own daily experiences, and the playground is a laboratory where children do the work of testing and refining their limits and their comfort levels, seeing how their actions are perceived, and learning to observe and match their friends’ behavior.
As adults at Frog Song, we set limits around physical play for children (tagging and hugging should be consensual, wrestling is always a no-go), and, since the winter, have banned play based on weapons, zombies, jail, and some other topics that seemed frightening across the board. This created a great sense of relief among most children, consternation for a few, and a big explosion in the subject matter of play!
Music is very much a part of everyday life at Frog Song. So many children hum to themselves (or even sing full-voice!) while they’re working, we use music as a way to comfort children or to bring them together in a group, and the songs we choose help to orient children to the season and time of year. More recently, a few children have begun to really love Walking on the Line, a quintessential Montessori work that unifies proprioception, gross motor control, and social cohesion.
One of the most exciting things about this school year, though, is the return of a dedicated Music Class! Our Friday morning music class with Teacher Sophie elevates the wonder of music in our classroom environment. Beloved as she is, Sophie is not someone the children see every day, and so they’re particularly enthralled when she leads a gathering.
Sophie begins with a Music Together classic, Hello Everybody, which has a wonderfully unifying effect on the children, as everyone is just thrilled to bits to hear their classmates sing their name. While the songs we sing in regular class gatherings take some work to remember, Sophie chooses songs that involve repetition and are easy to join in on. In our Montessori environment, all knowledge is rooted in the first-hand experience of the child, and it’s especially lovely to see wigglier children pair their actions with song lyrics.
After singing for a good long while, we all join in to dance to Sophie’s fiddle playing. The tunes vary, and the children generally vary their movements with them, but we always dance for a while, then stop when Sophie’s music stops, resuming our dancing when she starts to play again. This kind of stop/start activity is terrifically fun for everyone, but, as an adult in the room, it’s interesting to see how it helps children harness their executive function and self-control.
Our approach to embracing music, as Montessorians and as observers of the individual personalities in the classroom, continues to evolve. Maria Montessori wrote in The Montessori Approach to Music (pp 37) “Reading music is like reading words. It begins when by presenting something written we are capable of understanding it and representing it in sounds. It is a mysterious thing like the matter of the alphabet; only here we have a musical sound to correspond to what is written; these are therefore exercises of reading. ”
Whether it’s a debate about the “right” lyrics of a folk song, the hilarity that comes with making up our own words, or seeing the blend of personal expression and group dance during instrumental music, it’s such a joy to share this time together!
As the Frog Song children have come in from outside lately, they have felt a pressing need to change finto warm, dry clothes. Things being what they are, this sometimes requires a look in the Spare Clothes Drawer. And, day after day, I seem to offer a sweater, sweatshirt, pants, or seemingly-perfect socks that, when held up to the actual child in need of a spare, could not possibly fit. Then it occurs to me, or they point it out themselves: I’m offering something that fit a child last year, but just doesn’t fit any more.
It’s a reminder of the value of observation, and observation is at the heart of Montessori education. We strive to offer just the right thing at just the right time. When we get it right, it’s beautiful:
Children do real work
Choose their work freely
And their work inspires concentration (which the rest of the classroom community protects)
So how do we know when a child is ready for something? We observe with interest and curiosity, and join in when we see a space for something we can offer.
We allow others to unobtrusively observe as we learn and practice what we know.
We accept that a work or game that fit last year might well be too small, but with variation, can grow a little larger. By creating freedom within guiding limits, we encourage that variation.
In a world of standardized sizes, standardized tests, and standardized expectations, we worry. Will she ever learn the letters and the sounds? Will he ever learn how to politely ask friends how to join in their game? When will these drawings become representational instead of abstract? At a time of year when gatherings of family and friends can lead to comparisons, it is especially important to extend grace and openness to ourselves, our children, and each other. When a real concern emerges, it is valuable to reach out to people we trust, including professionals like teachers, therapists, and pediatricians. But, absent these barriers to growth, we actively believe that the children to choose challenging work for themselves, work with joy and concentration, and know when to ask for help and when to reach for the next just-right thing.