By Madlena Ulrich and Carla Foster, lecturers in Further Education in Montessori Pedagogy at the University of South-Eastern Norway.
These days, as Montessori Children´s Houses and Elementary schools around the country are re-opening, many people are wondering how to maintain the basic principles of Montessori pedagogy while at the same time following the guidelines for infection prevention. They seem to be incompatible in many ways, and it may be tempting to “cancel” Montessori and simply carry out other ways of teaching and supervision instead.
Yet we actually have a commitment to do our work according to the principles of Montessori pedagogy, both in regard to the children and to their parents.
Keep in mind that staff in all of the childcare centers and schools around Norway are facing the same challenges right now, and it is not unique for the Montessori community to have to think about new ways to conduct education and care for the children.
No one knows exactly how to do this and what would be “right,” since none of us have done this before. Still, we as Montessori trainers would like to contribute with some reminders and suggestions which hopefully can reassure some of you that what you are doing is fine, and which may help others to think of new ways to do Montessori.
We must consider the following conditions:
- Safety first! In order to ensure the safety of children, staff and parents, we have to carry out our work according to the guidelines we have been given.
- Each Children´s House and school needs to find their own solutions. What works in one location will not necessarily work somewhere else, due to the vast differences in buildings, staff, weather conditions, etc. In southern areas it may now be possible to have the children be outside all day, while other parts of the country are still covered in snow! Regardless of that, we should continue to exchange experiences and other tips, so we can give each other new ideas. This is the core of a “Montessori community”.
- The basis of Montessori pedagogy is not necessarily the use of our teaching materials, but is first and foremost a vision of children, of learning and of the role of the teacher that we should and can maintain, whether we find ourselves indoors or outside; with Montessori materials or without them.
The following may be of help to us in this situation:
- Montessori teachers are experts at preparing an environment that serves the development of the child and functions according to its purpose. In other words, we are very competent at thinking systematically through the physical, temporal and social organization of our surroundings. In the days to come, this will be one of our most important tools.
- Montessori teachers are experts at observing and systematically thinking through situations, activities and results. Our observations will assist us to quickly assess if the precautions are functioning to their intent or not, and to identify areas for improvement.
- We also know a lot about the characteristics of children at different developmental stages, which enables us to understand and predict what they need and why they react in certain ways.
Many teachers may wonder how to ensure that the children are able to experience the freedom that we wish to give them in a Montessori environment. The simple answer is that we cannot, at least not like we usually do. Just as everyone else in society has restrictions to their freedom at the moment, so must the children’s freedom be restricted in the Children´s House and Elementary. As an example, we may need to restrict the freedom to choose where they would like to sit, who to work with, or what to work on.
Yet this doesn’t mean that we have to remove all freedom. The freedom to make individual choices can and must still be present, but within other parameters than usual. An example of this could be that children are in a group that is going to stay outside all day. They can’t have the freedom to choose to be in another group, because the infection prevention guidelines do not allow for this. But if we have created possibilities for the “outside group” to still have different types of work and activities to choose from, or have given the children a degree of influence for when various activities can be done throughout the day, then we maintain the freedom to make their own choices.
It is impossible to advise how each kindergarten or school should solve the various challenges they are facing at the moment. As a trained Montessori teacher, you actually have all the tools in your toolkit (aka. albums), but you must dare to adapt them to the circumstances and be willing to experiment.
Here are some general guidelines that might help you think through your situation:
The prepared environment:
- Safety first! Infection prevention guidelines must be implemented as the experts have compiled them.
- In the Elementary, children can have set places for doing individual work, even when sitting at group tables. In this case you must ensure that there are fewer children at each table. At the teacher’s presentation table, surfaces and chairs must be wiped after each presentation, so that new children may approach safely.
- Use observation to take notice of when children need to wash their hands, if surfaces need to be cleaned, if there is enough soap, paper towels, etc. It may be useful to create checklists in order to assist all adults to adjust to these new observational elements and routines.
- Try to prepare so that the children can be independent, even if they may need to be independent under supervision for as long as infection prevention requires, such as when washing their hands.
- Think through your timing, in order to ensure good flow in the working environment and at the various stations to avoid conflicts and unnecessary stress.
- Use Grace and Courtesy presentations to establish new routines and to explain to the older children why it is necessary to do these things. When possible, allow the schoolchildren to take part in developing some of the routines and rules (make sure this is only in areas where different solutions are possible – don’t present the opportunity to choose when there is none!)
- Remember, there are many places in the world where children work outside with Montessori materials – on patios, in the grass, in schoolyards or on the ground, all depending on where they are. If you have well-established routines for taking care of the materials, the children can work just as well inside as outside.
- The infection prevention guidelines require us to clean materials and equipment regularly and between groups, but they do not say that cleaning needs to be done between each time a child uses the material. The most important thing is that the children have good hand hygiene. Of course, differences apply if we are referring to school-aged children or toddlers who are still putting things in their mouths.
- Include the schoolchildren in the cleaning routines during or at the end of the day. Find out what kind of cleaning they are able to safely do themselves and what the adult needs to take sole responsibility for.
If you are outside you should think through practical solutions for the following aspects:
- Perhaps presentation tables can be replaced with mats, blankets, or a ring of logs
- Use clipboards for the children’s writing. They should each have their own.
- Instead of shared writing equipment, the children will each need to have their own set for a while. Remember to have extra ones for the children who lose their pencils!
- Have a plan for how sheets of paper that are written and drawn on throughout the day are to be stored and at what time during the day they might be set in binders or folders.
- If you are able to set up some materials outside, be very clear with the children about how we use these. One idea is to set aside an area for working with materials, while other areas are used for other types of activities.
If groups of children are based in different areas at the school (such as one group inside, one group outside), they can change after one week, after the materials and equipment have been cleaned. In this way, you can ensure that over time the children are given access to different types of materials.
- If giving group presentations, make sure the group is small, so that there can be enough space between the children. Make sure to give even more presentations during the day.
- Make sure the children’s hands are clean before a presentation, so that they touch the materials with clean hands. Find ways to clean the materials frequently.
Subject areas and activities that require less use of materials and that can be done both inside and outdoors:
Exercises of Practical Life and other practical work:
- The most practical course of action here is to disregard the materials in themselves if we are not in our classrooms, and instead connect all activities to the practical aspects of our daily routines at school
- Wherever possible, many of the Children´s House materials can be moved many outside, such as washing stands, brooms and rakes, dressing frames, etc.
- The aim of the sensorial material is to help the child to understand the world through being able to explore its characteristics. If we are not able to access the materials, we can consciously help the child to explore their surroundings and nature with their senses.
- Sorting activities and stereognostic games with closed eyes or blindfolds can be done with any kind of materials
- The Three Period Lesson, particularly for leaf shapes and other aspects of biology can easily be done anywhere.
- Memory games (Fetching Games) with objects other than the materials are also easy to set up.
Stories can be told with little or no materials; perhaps some pictures or objects that can be looked at but not touched. In the Elementary we use storytelling in all subject areas in order to stimulate the children’s urge to explore, to create interest and to convey subject matter.
Biology and botany in particular are perfect for the outdoor classroom. We can work with plants, leaves, stems, roots, flowers and seeds, as well as insects and even larger animals if they are accessible. Typical areas for exploration are:
- Experiments that show function and needs of plants, flowers, seeds etc.
- Classification such as the shape of the leaf, the position of the leaf on the stem, parts of the leaf, kinds of nerves, adaptation of the leaf
- Working with definitions
- Etymology and storytelling connected to names, uses, mythology, etc.
- Written/and or oral work with Who am I? cards and Life Cycle materials
- Studies of adaptation and ecology
- Poems, songs or proverbs connected to plants and animals
- Drawing plants and animals
- Harvesting sap and edible plants
- Bird observation
Many of these aspects can also be explored in gardening boxes and among the plant life in the schoolyard.
Arts and crafts are also very well-suited for outdoor activities, where we are able to connect them to nature studies through:
- Leaf-rubbing or stem-rubbing pictures
- Drawing or painting plants, trees, landscapes (these are great for studying perspective!)
- Mixing paint to create the colors of nature
- Land Art – creating art from what you find in nature
- Techniques such as how to use whittling knives
History may be combined with Geography in order to study the landscape around us and find out how it has been shaped through time and how it has influenced human life, such as:
- Observations of the Work of Water, such as coastal- and mountain formations
- Habitations and historical sites, erosion through water
- Observations of the Work of Air, such as off- and onshore winds, weather phenomena and cloud formations, erosion through wind
- Observations connected to Sun and Earth, the length of the day, temperature, etc.
- Charts used in Geography can well be taken outside, as they are often laminated and are large enough for the children to look at them even if they sit well-spaced apart.
- Oral and written work with storytelling and non-fiction writing, connected to nature if possible
- Studying poetry and writing poems
- Working orally with parts of speech
- The outdoor environment gives us an abundance of words that can be used for both oral work and for activities such as writing and reading Environment Labels, Command Cards, Classified Cards, etc.
- Making non-fiction books, such as: “How to build a lean-to,” or “All about dandelions.”
- Statistics about things you observe in nature
- Calculations about things you observe in nature
- Practical math connected to everyday situations
- Geometry and symmetry in nature, this can again be connected to Art
- Presentations for the Line, which requires less materials in the Elementary
You can also initiate typical children’s games such as hide-and-seek, kick-the-can, ring games and singing games. All of these games help the children to practice the skills they need develop the most: gross motor skills, balance, suppleness and speed, adapting to rules (also emotionally) and impulse control.
This list is far from expansive and functions at best as a reminder of what is in your albums. If nothing else, it shows that it is fully possible to connect our pedagogical Montessori work, which usually takes place indoors, to other kinds of environments.
We should regard the current circumstances as an opportunity to finally do more of the things that most of us actually want to be able to do more of in school: use the outside areas and nature, help the children to be more connected to nature, gain outdoor skills, and use skills such as writing and arithmetic to explore the world around us in a more immediate way.
An important point for us to remember is that we can become over-ambitious at first, leading to stress and resistance for both children and adults. Many of us experienced this when our teaching suddenly had to take place online, until people settled into their new routines. If we are aware of this, it can help us to start with small steps, to celebrate small victories and to identify what worked well, so we can do more of it.
We must have faith in the belief that it is in human nature to be able to adapt, and that our human tendencies will help us look for solutions. It is important that we not only see limitations, but that we stay positive and open to finding new possibilities within the restrictions we have been given. In order to do this, we must encourage and affirm each other, be open to new ideas and dare to try them out instead of stopping them. Share ideas and be generous, praise each other and share this recognition with parents and the Montessori environment.
We can do this together!