Curriculum Feature: The Montessori Approach – Supporting a Primary-aged Child

by Chern Chieh Bay

From the editor:

This second curriculum feature in this series was developed over a hundred years ago. The Montessori system of education is typically used in schools but it is also favoured within the homeschooling world.

Following our previous reflection on neurological development, we could also, by extension, map the Montessori approach for the primary-age children against their neural development stage. During this period, the brain undergoes a rapid pruning of its synapses. This process of refinement is heavily reliant on a child’s environment. While these children are still reliant on adults even as they are increasingly exerting their independence, parents can harness this relationship to optimize their children’s experiences so that they are better poised to enter the next stage of academic learning and personal development.

It is fascinating how Maria Montessori developed her methods long before the prevalence of neuroimaging technology that informs much of our understanding of developmental cognition today. Montessori’s views of adolescence as a distinctive stage requiring a specially-designed form of education predates modern neuroimaging findings that definitively establish this stage as an important period for neural development in areas of executive function and social cognition.1

Academics like Chloe Marshall (2017) therefore suggest that current Montessorians further develop the Montessori approach for the education of 12- to 18-year-olds that is in line with the science of development cognition. In fact, she believes that one can also extrapolate Montessori approaches for the ageing population – just like how it has been applied in the management of dementia patients in order to improve their daily and cognitive functioning.

Given the scientific basis of the Montessori method, it is unfortunate that even parents who have adopted it for their children’s preschool education would cease doing so upon their entry into formal school years. On one hand, this stems from a widespread treatment of the middle childhood years of 6- to 12-year-old as the “forgotten years” of development.2 On the other hand, and in Singapore in particular, syllabus demands of the compulsory education years have also prompted parents to adopt what they deem as more “pragmatic approaches”. This article is therefore an important contribution to discussions on education in the Singapore landscape.

Chern Chieh Bay shares why and how Montessori remains the bedrock of her homeschooling journey even for her children who have to ultimately prepare for the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE). After she encountered the Montessori method several years ago, she spent many years trawling Montessori teacher forums, soaking in whatever she could. Eventually she took a course to study the method at the preschool level and subsequently received some training in the US at the Montessori elementary (or as we call it here Primary) level. She has been homeschooling for more than 12 years and has enjoyed experimenting with this approach with her four children and their friends.

Article is co-edited by Maryam Kiyani, an intern at homeschoolsingapore.sg.

1 Marshall, C. (2017). Montessori education: a review of the evidence base. npj Science Learn 2, 11. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-017-0012-7 (accessed 17Oct 2021) 
2 Mah, V. K., & Ford-Jones, E. L. (2012). Spotlight on middle childhood: Rejuvenating the ‘forgotten years’. Paediatrics & child health 17(2) https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/17.2.81 (accessed 21 Oct 2021)

Curriculum Feature: The Montessori Approach – Supporting a Primary-aged Child

By Chern Chieh Bay

I have always been drawn to Montessori.  I love its focus on independence and hands-on learning. However, as I took courses to study the Montessori “method”, I became excited by how it helped me understand children more deeply and gave me tools to scaffold their learning. Perhaps it gave voice to the child within me that was always wanting to be set free! As I studied the approach, I began to see how so many of its principles and its underlying philosophy applied to life so naturally, whatever one’s age. I saw it as an approach more to life than to education and today, I continue to enjoy living its tenets where possible.

Most people are only familiar with Montessori kindergartens, so it tends to surprise them to find out that Maria Montessori went on to develop her approach for primary-school-aged children as well. In Europe, Asia and Australia, there are Montessori primary schools just as there are Montessori elementary schools all over North and South America. (In fact, there are now Montessori secondary schools around the world, run by people who have studied her writings on adolescents!)

A Montessori school in Hanoi. Image credit: Jimmy Tran on Shutterstock.com

Montessori began her work for children aged 6-12 year-old towards the end of her career. And this she did, yet again, by observing children. Her gift to us lay in her ability to see the children through the keen eyes of a scientist and to devise learning experiences for the children that suited their unique developmental needs. So the “method” she came up with for the children of this age group was very different from that found in Montessori kindergartens. Yet through her genius, she took what they learnt at kindergarten and deepened it at the primary school level.

To understand the Montessori approach in the primary years, it is imperative to start with what Montessori observed of the child. Who is this 6-12 year-old? Which developmental stage is he or she at? Understanding Montessori’s answers to these questions would benefit anyone working with children of this age, especially busy homeschooling parents! It is not possible to discuss all of Montessori’s writings on primary-aged children in this article so I will only touch upon some of their key developmental characteristics.

Key Developmental Characteristics of the Primary-Aged Child

MENTAL / INTELLECTUAL

They are developing abstract thought, their reasoning mind and imagination.

At this age, children are not just capable of but are also deeply interested in abstract thought. Most neurotypical children under the age of six learn best from concrete experiences.  That is not to say that children above the age of six do not learn well from such experiences. The younger primary-school-aged ones do but they are all moving towards understanding the reason behind things so that they can deal with these learning experiences more and more abstractly. By the time they reach upper primary, much of their learning deepens and broadens.

It is often not acknowledged how many of Montessori’s discoveries have influenced educational curricula today. For example, many math curricula often start with using actual materials (concrete) – later moving towards pictures of the materials and finally ending off with doing the sums without materials but on paper (abstractly).

Progression from concrete to abstraction in Mathematics. Image credit (from left, clockwise: luis arias, Markus Spiske and Greg Rosenke on Unsplash)

So, in applying this progression of moving from the concrete to abstraction, we would start, for biology, for example, with visiting zoos, going for nature walks and spending time observing plants and animals. These concrete experiences would thus provide the basis for which the child may delve into abstract concepts, whether by his or her research or by a deeper exploration of the facts behind them. Likewise, the use of a language through speaking and reading would naturally precede learning of the technicalities (such as grammar or etymology) of the said language.

What also enhances the learning experiences of older children is their ability to imagine things that are not physically placed before them. Three-year-olds, for example, may struggle with imagining how the earth orbits the sun whereas a nine-year-old could probably imagine it if you describe it to him or her. Older children, therefore, have a wonderful resource – their imagination – at their disposal! 

Montessori discovered that this is the age where we can use exciting stories and analogies to strike their imagination or pique their interest. For it is at this wonderful age that they enjoy lapping up exciting stories that require them to imagine things like how far the sun is from them: one could ask them to ponder how, if a car was driving from earth towards the sun at about 160km/h without stopping, it would take 106 years to reach the sun! How their eyes would widen in wonder!

The Montessori approach for this age group thus harnesses these characteristics of deepening abstract thought, curiosity for reason and broadening of imagination to generate interest and deepen exploration.

Older children have a wonderful resource – their imagination – at their disposal! Image credit: Eriks Abzinovs on Unsplash

COSMIC

They want to learn everything, love to connect ideas and can do BIG works.

Children at this age have a deep curiosity and are eager to learn a huge variety of things. Primary-aged children love asking why and how questions (although it may not necessarily pertain to what you are teaching them). They are constantly wondering about the world around them! They especially enjoy seeing connections between things – for example – how you can find math in music, or how you can find out about the geography of a place when learning about its history.

Starting with the “big picture” is something that meets the needs of the child at this age. For it is from that “big picture” that the details can be fleshed out and placed in context. For example, in biology, we give the children an overview of the kingdoms of life so that they know how to categorise different living things. For history, timelines are particularly important for them to be able to place an event at a certain chronological time in history. These “big pictures” are akin to a cupboard with specific compartments within so that one may know the order in which information is to be stored.

Children at this age also love to do BIG works. They love project work, especially if it is something they came up with by themselves (but they will need the parent’s support when things get complicated). Their joy in engaging in a project is often proportional to the amount of table or floor space the project covers!

Montessori’s “big picture” approach that weaves in the interconnectedness of everything also meets the need for the child to figure out their place in the world, both in space and time. This helps them answer big questions like “who am I?” and “why am I here?”

MORAL

They are becoming very sensitive to morality. They are also in the “age of rudeness.”

Tact, patience, humour and grace are needed to help our children to navigate thorny issues of justice and morality. Image credit: Tingey Injury Law Firm and Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Many of us adults have met children of this age group who display a growing sense of “justice”.  They are always reporting on what they see others doing, especially if what they see does not align with what they have learnt. This is actually how they get to figure out how the world works. Unfortunately, it can sometimes frustrate the adult to whom the report is being made! It takes tact, patience, humour and grace to help our children to navigate thorny issues of morality, issues such as helping them realise that equality does not necessarily lead to fairness and that balancing the needs of others is a skill all of us are constantly learning to do.

As the primary-aged children are usually used to stating facts as they see them, they often do not realise how rude they sound. It is not unusual for adults to react to their “impolite” comments and outbursts. Again – tact, patience, humour and grace are deeply needed. Children need lessons on how to get along with others in society, just like lessons on anything else. Role modelling here is a particularly useful tool!

SOCIAL

They have a desire to build a community. They have a deepened sense of “communion” with others.

Most primary-aged children love being with other children.  The 3-6 year-old, may be happy to play alongside another child. Not the 6-12 year-old! They want to play together, being incredibly social creatures. They also enjoy working together and if given the chance, will want to build community with those they meet regularly.

The primary-aged child is at an age of increased compassion and empathy – they can feel for those they have not met – and are excited to help in any way they can, for example by organizing fund-raising events for C or, where they practise a religion, by praying for those in need.

OTHERS

General characteristics of a 6- to 12-year-old

Children at this age have more energy than their younger counterparts. They are more emotionally stable, and so are often emotionally more resilient than preschool children. They also have an increased sense of responsibility towards themselves, their belongings and to those around them.

For those who have been accustomed to their younger children’s strong sense of order, they may be dismayed to find that often, as their children reach 6 or 7 year-old, they become messier. This is because their sense of order is now being developed internally. Children at this age are trying to figure out how to sort and categorise things mentally. As parents, we will need to help them organise their external environment in such a way that assists the development of their internal order.

Unlike younger children who tend to be more process-orientated, the older 6-12 year-old is more goal-oriented.  It is to be expected that they do things with an aim in mind and may become increasingly frustrated if their move towards their chosen goal is thwarted or challenged.  Goal-setting is thus an important skill that needs to be broken down into simpler steps and scaffolded for children of this age.

Image credit: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Three Key Recommendations for Supporting the Primary-Aged Child

It would take several articles to describe all of Montessori’s recommendations on how best to support the development of such children. I will nonetheless try to focus on three of her key recommendations, namely to encourage and support their spontaneous activity, provide them with a rich learning environment and help them towards independence.

Image credit: Ben McLeod on Unsplash

#1Encourage and Support Spontaneous Activity

Montessori found that one of the most important keys to supporting the development of children of this age is to provide them with the freedom to complete activities that they have chosen by themselves (also known as “spontaneous activities”). Purposeful self-initiated activities must not only be allowed but supported and encouraged. Of course, the activity should be something you, as a parent, are comfortable with the child doing. For example, electronic gaming or watching certain television programs may not be activities that you will support your child doing.  Spontaneous activities that you will want to support (even if they appear troublesome or even a “waste of time”) may look like the following:

  • If they read something about kings and queens of England and decide to make a castle out of cardboard, wishing to research in detail about the structure of castles from a particular period;
  • If they are studying mangrove swamps and wish to visit Sungei Buloh to make closer observations or, better yet, desire to speak to an expert on the subject;
  • If they learnt about magnetism and suddenly decide to hunt around the house to see what is magnetic and what isn’t (of course you will want to include a lesson that magnets are harmful to electronic devices);
  • If they learnt about conjunctions and take out a book to spot the number of conjunctions used and how they are used;
  • If they heard about types of angles and go round the house looking for angles present and begin categorising them;
  • If they sit on the porch watching a bird’s behaviour;
  • If they create a puppet show out of household materials;
  • If they wish to help with any household chores or gardening;
  • If they spend a long time helping a friend with a problem; or
  • If they want to learn to bake, sew or just create things.

The list is endless.

I recall one of my children (then aged eight), after learning about place values and large numbers, decided to replicate the Montessori material (which went up only to billions) using coloured paper – but this time, the material that he created did not seem to have any limits (it just went on and on).  To support this activity, I helped him get the materials and paper and gave him the physical space to do this task along with a list of the names of large numbers listed in Wikipedia.  He was thrilled to learn how huge numbers could be and was particularly excited by the number googolplex! It was incredibly enjoyable to be part of this excitement.

On another occasion, another child, inspired by his sister in medical school, took it upon himself to draw and learn all the muscles in the human body.  He had already made a booklet but I provided him with card stock to bind his book, underscoring the importance of his work. I also made available videos for him to choose from to allow him to deepen his understanding of how muscles work and gave him hands-on materials to study the inner workings of specific muscles.

Image credit: Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

#2 – Provide a Rich Learning Environment

To help children get used to choosing such activities, it is important to first create a home with a rich learning environment which would have:

  • References

Well-chosen books for research (purchased or borrowed from the library) and developmentally appropriate materials which encourage exploration. Art and craft materials on a well-stocked stationery shelf, all organised neatly and in an orderly manner so that everything may be accessed and restored independently by the children.

  • Curiosity

A guiding parent with an excitement for learning new things and an understanding of the developmental needs of children (some of which are listed above). The main goal of a guiding parent should be to keep the interests of the child alive.  This can be done by learning alongside their child with curiosity and by celebrating discoveries made by their child, no matter how small the parent perceives the discovery to be.

  • Routines and Expectations

A set routine for learning (with flexibility for spontaneous activity and constantly reviewed in collaboration with your child). Creating routines and laying down expectations are also important tools in helping define boundaries (e.g. setting limits as to when the parent can be present to the child’s needs for support or encouragement). Children may struggle too if left to figure out where the limits exist in an environment lacking in structure.  Routines and expectations also help children develop a work ethic where they are used to applying themselves towards purposeful activities.

Observation of your child/children would inform you on what choices to make. Watch them silently, closely and carefully, trying your best to leave preconceived notions about them at the door. Observing them would also help greatly with planning what lessons to give next.

  • The World as their Classroom

The external environment is also key for primary-aged children. The world is their classroom: they love to go out and learn beyond the home, such as through excursions and field trips.  Their enjoyment is further enhanced if they are involved in the planning of the excursion or field trip.  In addition, they get to meet other adults and children!

Children of this age are also usually happy to be involved in activities away from the comfort of family as their independence grows.

Image credit: Rene Bernal on Unsplash

#3 – Help Our Children Towards Independence

Everything we do with our children should help prepare them to eventually become independent in the area in question.  Often we tend to think that things will go faster or more smoothly if we do things for them. It does not help that in our Asian upbringing, we are subconsciously taught that doing things for our children is the loving thing to do. However, what our children truly need is to know that we are there to help them towards the next level of whatever they are learning:  whether it’s lacing shoes, figuring out math problems, calming down from an emotional outburst, planning a project, setting goals or cooking a meal. Sometimes children may need more support and scaffolding. Other times all they need is to be given the tools and they will run off to figure things out by themselves. Children who are given ample opportunities to develop independence feel a sense of accomplishment and a growing sense of agency and thus build self-confidence.

Give ample opportunities to develop independence and feel a sense of accomplishment. Image credit (from left, clockwise): Annie Spratt, Clem Onojeghuo and Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash.

Conclusion

It is important to remember that learning is not confined to academic subjects.  Thus, the beauty of homeschooling or just doing this at home is that the practical life aspect of “doing Montessori” is just being part of the family at home.  Household chores and organisation, self-care, preparation for activities (such as packing your bag for an outing) and so on are all part of day-to-day rhythms which are fertile ground for building skills and independence, all of which indirectly support academic learning.  The school of life provides ample learning opportunities and it is important to constantly be aware: if there is something the child can learn to do by himself/herself, he or she must be given a chance to do so, taking care to meet the child at whatever stage he or she is at.

6-12 year-olds around the world. Image credit (from left, clockwise): Jeff Dunham, MI PHAM, mana5280 and Charu Chaturvedi on Unsplash

There is no child like the 6-12 year-old – with their infectious zest for life, limitless energy, wide-eyed wonder and awe at the gifts of the Universe, as well as deep connectivity with humanity. Their desire to share their joy and excitement with you – will be gone too fast. Savour this age and allow it to bring you the boundless joy that comes with it!

Links for further reading and resources are found here.