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June/July 2009

Learning the Montessori Way
Developing the Whole Child
by Carrie Whitney


Searching for the right school is already frustrating enough. But when you add to that frustration the stress of moving and finding the right school in a new area, the school search can seem overwhelming. Also, there are many education options available in Metro Atlanta, and while having choices when it comes to schools is a major advantage, having so many choices can make the task of finding that perfect school seem daunting. From charter and magnet to International Baccalaureate to special needs to religious to single-gender, the education choices in Atlanta are nearly limitless. But one option you certainly may want to consider in this process is an education option developed through one woman’s lifetime of working with children. In places as diverse as her home country Italy, as well as Spain, India and The Netherlands, Dr. Maria Montessori studied child development, devising the principles of what is today called a Montessori education. Used by schools around the world (there are hundreds of Montessori schools in Atlanta alone), a Montessori education is based on the idea that children learn best through hands-on exploration and at their own individual pace determined by their development. The Montessori concept instills a sense of self-direction and self-discipline in children and focuses as much on social and emotional development as academics. In addition to learning subjects, students learn life skills such as responsibility, respect and independence that they can take with them to high school, college and into their lives as adults.

Many Montessori schools begin with children age one-and-a-half and extend through elementary grades, although some schools have programs for older or even younger children. Classes typically consist of multi-age groups spanning three age levels rather than one grade level. For example, classes may include children from ages 3 to 6 or ages 6 to 9. This means children usually have the same teacher for three years, allowing teachers to get to know their students and their learning styles. Being developmentally based, Montessori is not used to accelerate a child’s development, but is used to work with his or her development, according to Gail Pruitt Hall, director of education at Northwoods Montessori School, which haslocations in Doraville and Decatur. “It’s a way of educating children, but it’s really more than that,” she says. “We’re looking more at what we can help a child do to learn.” According to Association Montessori Internationale, an organization dedicated to advancing Montessori education in the United States and abroad, the approach is designed to identify and address different learning styles, helping students find the way in which they study best.

At many Montessori schools, students do not rely on textbooks to learn, particularly younger students. Although the students do use books, many hands-on activities also are incorporated into the curricula, or “materials,” as the curricula are often called. For example, assembling a puzzle map of the United States teaches geography, painting improves coordination and teaches colors, while counting and sorting objects teaches math. In a Montessori classroom, rarely are all children engaged in the same activity at the same time. Learning is generally done individually or in small groups. This allows children to become absorbed in what they’re doing, which develops concentration, and also encourages learning at one’s own pace. Additionally, it helps them with problem-solving and social interaction.

Social and emotional development is also extremely important in Montessori education. Diversity can often be seen in the student body as well as in the topics that are studied. Nature, too, is part of the classroom, and a Montessori school will typically have outdoor education incorporated into its curriculum. For example, a school may have an outdoor garden that the children help maintain. In fact, caring for themselves, others and their own space is an important part of the Montessori method. Children learn tasks such as washing their hands and face, pouring their own drinks, serving their own food, hanging up coats, putting away work, washing tables and pushing in chairs. They are taught to respect other students—to avoid stepping on or walking into their classmates or to ask politely to touch someone’s work.

One of the best ways to see the difference between a Montessori school and a traditional school is to visit a Montessori classroom. “The classrooms typically look more like a home,” says Patricia Craft-Heuer, director of admission at First Montessori School of Atlanta, the oldest Montessori school in the Southeast. “The students often take care of everything in the classroom. It looks like a community of children working in their home.”

While there are a few public schools that follow the Montessori philosophy, most Montessori schools are independent. Since the Montessori name is not copyrighted, anyone can call his or her school “Montessori.” However, there are organizations that accredit schools they feel are operating in accordance with Montessori practices and principles, including Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) and American Montessori Society (AMS). Some of the schools, like First Montessori, are also accredited by independent school organizations such as Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS), Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and Atlanta Area Association of Independent Schools (AAAIS). Parents interested in a Montessori education should make sure that this option is right for their child, because ultimately, it is the parents’ responsibility to make sure their child’s new school is the best fit for his or her needs and personality. A good way to help ensure that the Montessori approach is a match for the child is to research potential schools by visiting Web sites and campuses, speaking to faculty and staff, etc., to learn what and how they’ll teach your child.

“A Montessori education is not only academic; rather, it fosters the social, academic, emotional and cultural development of each child, as his or her own individual needs dictate,” says Carolyn Godfrey, general manager of Montessori Unlimited, which operates five Montessori schools in Metro Atlanta. “Montessori educates the whole child and instills in them a lifelong love of learning and discovery.”


For More Information:

American Montessori Society

Association Montessori Internationale

The Montessori Foundation

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