What's the Point of Montessori, Really?

It’s not about buying wooden toys or withholding praise — it’s about loving the adult your child is destined to become

Melissa McElhill

For a word which describes one teaching methodology, many different things fall under the term "Montessori." A living room might be described as Montessori if it has plenty of natural light and contains modular IKEA shelving units. A floor bed is considered Montessori if it’s minimalist, natural, and expensive. Freezing children's toys in ice trays and creating Frozen-themed sensory bins is called Montessori. There are also many "Montessori" products you can buy online: wooden toys, bookcases, Pikler triangles, learning kits. Avoiding screen time and feeding your children fruit and nuts instead of candy is "Montessori."

It's a refreshing change of pace, therefore, to catch up with Katrina and Killian Pender. First-time parents, the Texas-based couple didn’t know what Montessori was until they enrolled their 10-week-old daughter, Adela, in a Guidepost school. "Once we found out that we were going to have a baby and that he or she would need to attend daycare, we started looking around and visiting places," said 29-year-old mom Katrina, who works as a Program Manager for a tech company. "Guidepost was the first place we visited, and I fell in love with how everything was set up and how everyone was so kind. The Nido program felt like a really good fit—and Guidepost became the standard that I compared all other daycares with." The family has now been with Guidepost Timber Ridge for almost two years, and Adela will soon make the transition from the Nido to the Toddler community. Based on the Pender's personal experience of Montessori, it's clear that the current obsession with consuming and tokenizing Montessori has distorted the roots of this life-altering education model.

During Adela's first year at school, the Penders made a few small but significant changes to their home, such as converting Adela's crib to a floor bed, and adding a low-rise shelf to the living room so that she could access things and put them back herself — "but we are not interested in buying or owning too much stuff," says Katrina. "We basically wanted to give Adela some consistency between home and school, by moving some things around and adding a few different pieces of furniture," added 29-year-old dad Killian, who is a Business Performance Manager at an international e-commerce company. It was never about turning the house into a school.

The most important changes these parents made were the intangible ones: setting new routines and expectations. "Having structure — organization, processes and familiarity — creates such a calm, harmonious environment,” says Katrina. “There's not a lot of the unexpected for Adela, because she sees the same things every day and she knows what she can do, like when she can eat breakfast and where she can take a nap."

Through their close relationship with Adela's teacher, both parents learned more about how to observe and support their daughter's capabilities and interests. Adela may spill or break something from time to time, "But that is one of the things we signed up for," said Killian. "We could have gotten plastic plates and cups, but we thought, if we're going to do this, we have to go all the way." They committed to taking a bit more time over everyday tasks and having a few more tidy-up sessions in exchange for giving Adela the freedom she needs to flourish. Along the way, Katrina and Killian have taken countless photos and videos which capture those precious moments of Adela's development and growth.

The Penders both work full-time while their child goes to Montessori school. But the extra effort they put into raising their daughter according to Montessori principles raises a misconception about the model. From the outside, Montessori can appear to be something incredibly time-consuming that only stay-at-home moms can manage. It’s not.

The confusion starts with the word itself. "Montessori" was the name of the person who founded the teaching methodology, Maria Montessori. She observed young children and experimented with different learning materials in order to discover the most effective and respectful ways to aid their social and cognitive development. After gaining international notoriety, Maria Montessori chose not to trademark her educational model, hoping that Montessori schools could open up across the world without having to pay her estate a hefty fee. However, due to the number of different ways her writing could be interpreted, a diversity of visions began to circulate regarding what Montessori actually is.

Fast forward to the present day and not only have those differing viewpoints multiplied, they all have a platform on social media. When you scroll through Instagram, you can see a vast array of "shelfies" (where Montessori influencers share photos of carefully curated learning materials on pristine shelves), as well as many hastily designed quotes and aphorisms, which are at best, vague, and at worst, harmful.

—Follow the child"

—"Why you should let your child climb trees"

—"What to say instead of 'well done'

They all grasp at the essence of Montessori, but fail to convey the detail of what is a deeply sophisticated teaching methodology. Montessori educators go through years of preparation in order to implement Montessori effectively in the classroom. It's not something that can be reduced to its bare bones if you hope to produce the same results.

Montessori is a model for parents who find fulfillment outside of parenthood, because Montessori is about setting the child up for future success while still living your adult life. "Killian and I really value education — we are both studying for MBAs in our spare time," says Katrina. "I think part of the appeal of Montessori is that it feels more like Adela is getting an education and has been learning from just 10 weeks old.

"The way Adela’s teacher presents exercises and then Adela can practice until she masters them, well, I see her critical thinking skills really excelling at home. She comes home and she'll start trying to unscrew something or put something in a place it doesn't necessarily belong. I can see there's a lot going on in her head, and I know it's because of everything that they're doing with her at school."

When she gets home from work, Katrina really enjoys spending time with Adela, even though a lot of home tasks like cleaning and cooking still need to be done before bedtime. "As Adela gets older, it will be nice to see how involved she can be, having her own little responsibilities, like helping to feed the dogs. She takes a lot of pride in being able to help out already, and she’s only 18 months old."

When asked if the Pender family's experience was indicative of every Montessori family, Assistant Head of School Shannon Dow discussed the relationships she has seen develop at Guidepost Timber Ridge over the years. "As a school, we support our families from the very beginning during the enrollment process, partnering with them and building a strong community through daily interactions at school. But the real connection and trust comes organically from the classroom." Reema Bhutani, Adela’s teacher, goes above and beyond with every family to make a special connection. "I think this really highlights why there's such great success with the children not only in her classroom but once they leave the Nido environment and join the Toddler community,” says Dow. “We aim to set children up for life, not just their time at school." 

Community seems to be the tool which guarantees parents a smooth transition from a more traditional mindset to understanding what Montessori can do for their child. Katrina is in close contact with Adela's teacher. "It's wonderful having Miss Reema's guidance,” she says. “She helps us parent in a way that matches our values. I feel like I can ask her anything, whether it's about the best clothing for freedom of movement, weaning from breast milk to formula, transitioning from bottle to cup, or even the challenges I face like getting Adela to sit in her car seat or how to manage potty training."

There's no denying that Montessori means different things to different people. But what the Pender family's experience demonstrates is that Montessori means so much more than the things you can buy and the advice you see peddled on social media. "Since joining Guidepost, I've learned so much about myself and how I want to be as a mom, which is raising someone who is a little bit more independent; someone who can stand on her own," says Katrina. Montessori means understanding the child and understanding one's self. It's seeing the potential in your child and choosing to give them the best possible start in life, so that they can grow up to be happy and independent.

The sensory bins and shelfies will disappear, as all trends do. But Montessori's fundamental ideas will remain for as long as humanity does, because Montessori is about preparing the child for adulthood. In learning to understand your child as they grow, you will fall in love with them again and again. In this era where practically every moment of a child's life is documented, living your life according to Montessori means that you will be able to show your grown-up child videos you took of them when they were very young; they will see how you helped them when they couldn't manage, and yet held back when they thought they could succeed — and they will fall in love with you all over again.

Meet the Author

Melissa McElhill

Melissa is an AMI-certified educator who has taught children aged 10 weeks to 18 years old in the UK, US and China. She is also a positive discipline parent coach, helping families integrate Montessori principles into their lives.

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