A boy creates “pumpkin pie” with Play-Doh as his neighbor screws nuts and bolts. Across the room, another child patiently practices writing P’s across a sheet next to a child organizing animal figurines. Another child arranges dishes on a tray and then sweeps his desk with a mini broom and dust pan on this particular Thursday morning at the Montessori Schools of Bowling Green.
As the children finished their individual tasks, they proudly showed their teacher, Jenn Hewett, the school’s director.
But the learning was independent. The children weren’t expected to sit still and remain quiet, yet it wasn’t chaotic: They remained focused on their lessons until lunch neared.
And the children seemed content.
In 2008, Hewett and Lara Park, the school’s administrator, opened the Montessori Schools of Bowling Green at 506 State St. to foster individualized education for pre-elementary age children.
It’s divided into three, purposely small programs: There are six infants, from about 6 weeks to 12 months; 12 toddlers aged 12 months to 21/2 years; and 35 students in the primary program for children ages 21/2 to 6.
In the infant program, a trained guide provides the support and tools needed for each child to reach developmental milestones while updating parents on accomplishments or concerns.
They grab gourds to put on tables for lunch, and if a teacher takes out a diaper, they crawl to the potty station – “they’re in tune with their surroundings,” Hewett said.
Toddlers tend to plants, fill bird and squirrel feeders, sing songs, listen to stories, and prepare fruits and vegetables while setting the table. They also wash linens, mop the floors and brush their teeth. The focus is on self-control, self-confidence and a positive attitude.
By age 21/2, children venture further into independent learning with art lessons focused on the creative process, environmental teachings like recycling, composting and discussions of how to positively contribute to the environment. Children water plants and harvest vegetables, practice cursive writing and study word functions, numerals, geometry, zoology, geography and more.
On Thursday, in the primary program, children occasionally checked in with another child if it looked like they were doing something cool – or just to check in.
Before lunch, the children clean up their stations. One child carried a small table to its storing place and made sure not to bump anyone around him.
When a boy lost his Play-Doh, Hewett asked if he’d help her look for it. And soon after other children fell into line peering around the room for the missing putty.
The school is actually an old house, with wood floors, fluffy rugs and framed pictures of George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. There is diverse playground equipment outside, and a set of rain boots and rain jackets for each child, as they try to get the children outside daily.
Each room is strategically organized to allow for freedom of movement as students select lessons and find a spot to do them. There are booklets with mushroom types, musical instruments, subtraction tables and parts of words, and puzzle maps for each continent.
“Lessons are organized into specific rooms, but children can take lessons anywhere. We encourage movement,” Park said.
The idea is freedom within discipline and boundaries. It’s a child’s environment – they’re not sitting as a desk while teachers tell them what to do – designed to meet their needs developmentally and academically. Adults live freely, but they abide by laws, rules and etiquette – so the Montessori classrooms reflect this, according to Anita Hanks, an American Montessori Society board of directors member and head of school at Starwood Montessori School in Frisco, Texas.
“The real benefit of Montessori is that is representative of real life,” Hanks said.
They work at their own ability and pace, operating with self-discipline and self-regulation. It’s pretty different than learning from materials designed for the masses or average student, Hanks said, or, vice versa, students can take the time to master concepts so they’re not forced to move on with gaps in their curriculum or understanding.
“What I really love about Montessori is that we look at every child as an individual,” Hanks said.
And each classroom is its own micro-community. Younger students look up to older students with an attitude of “if they can do it, I can do it,” Hanks said, which also fosters leadership skills and confidence for the older students.
Teachers provide guidance, but they never help the children unless the children ask for help. They have to demonstrate patience, as sometimes it’s hard to resist wanting to help the children, but they give them the time and emotional support to figure out things on their own with a little guidance.
“They build this ‘I can do everything’ mentality,” Hewett said. “Because you go out your own pace, it’s very welcoming,” including to children with special education needs – which avoids isolating certain children or allowing the children to see differences in a negative light.
And in Montessori, the children also teach the other children, which is generally better received than learning from an adult. That’s part of the reason that children are grouped by three years.
“As much as children love to learn from teachers, they love even more to have a peer teach them,” said Jesse McCarthy, author of “Montessori Education” and podcaster for The Montessori Education Podcast with Jesse McCarthy.
And it can reinforce lessons for the older children – because you have to understand something to be able to teach it.
“The greatest form of mastery is being able to teach a lesson yourself,” Hanks said, and it’s partially how teachers “grade” students mastery of subjects.
From about 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., the children focus on independent lessons. They they spend time outside, singing “learning” songs, discussing the bones of the body or the months of the year in a big circle, nap or do chores, then spend the afternoon with a more casual energy for reading or more lessons.
In addition to strong academic foundations, the school prioritizes mutual respect to other people, plants and animals through practices of “courtesies and graces.”
“It’s part of the built-in curriculum,” said Park, whose oldest child attended the school through age 6 – and her second child is currently enrolled in the primary program.
Her oldest child loved the program, and is now a second grader at Rich Pond Elementary School. In the first month at Rich Pond, there were a few odd customs – asking to go to the bathroom, being exposed to loud cafeterias and having less time to physically move around or play outside – but he ultimately adjusted and thrived. He’s academically ahead in math and on par with his classmates with reading, Park said.
When deciding whether to put her daughter through the same program, there wasn’t really a question.
“I feel like the academic process here is unlimited,” Park said. “Some of the things they’ve done here in kindergarten they’re not doing at Rich Pond.”
But both Park and her son love the public elementary school, she said.
Before children transition to elementary schools, the children tour an elementary school to observe their new environments and discuss how the children walk quietly in hallways, ask to go to the bathroom and often learn in larger classrooms.
“Change is hard,” Hewett said, but she thinks that early Montessori education instills the values of embracing both learning and self-respect, which carries them far in school and life.
It’s a valid concern to worry about children transitioning to other schools. McCarthy also said the foundation of self-confidence carries with children and helps them adapt to new environments and experiences. But sometimes children get bored in the new school, especially if they’re more advanced and the schools can’t support where they are with math or reading levels, he added.
After Montessori school, whether following kindergarten or high school, children choose different paths. But the majority pursue college, graduate school and beyond, according to Hanks.
“They love to come to school and they love to learn,” Hanks said. “They have that hunger for knowledge.”
In recent years, Montessori education has expanded across the states to about 16,000 schools as well as internationally. It gained steam last year after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos pledged $2 billion to fund Montessori-inspired, tuition-free preschools for low-income children, according to The Associated Press.
“It’s becoming much more popular,” Hanks said. “Parents are becoming more aware that they have choices. Education is not a one-size-fits all.”
There are also more elementary, middle school and high school programs – and Hanks expects this trend to continue. And more Montessori programs are seeking accreditation from the American Montessori Society, she said.
But despite the growing popularity, there are still a lot of misconceptions about Montessori education, according to Hewett.
In 2012, the Montessori Schools of Bowling Green added an elementary program at another downtown location for first through sixth grades. But they closed the program this past year after failing to retain enough attendance – not enough children remained in the Montessori program following kindergarten. “We’re still a business,” Hewett said. “Free is hard to compete with ... but we hope to open it back up.”
And Hewett didn’t believe in persuading families to keep their children in the Montessori program: ”It’s a personal choice, she said.
To battle misconceptions about Montessori education, the downtown school offers parent education evenings about every six to eight weeks. Tours are mandatory for parents or guardians interested in enrolling children into the school.
“It’s easy to have a misguided understanding and be disappointed,” Hewett said, but “it’s really impossible if you know what it is to not love Montessori.”
“They’re happy children trying hard. Before anything academic happens, children have to be happy.”
Happiness is an essential component of Montessori education, according to McCarthy.
Children learn these lessons “in a way that they feel like they’re playing,” McCarthy said, and they’re given the healthy freedom to roam about and largely take care of themselves.
“Children are a lot more capable than we often give them credit for,” McCarthy said.
Children in Montessori schools also learn the foundations to become a peaceful and caring member of society, according to McCarthy, who said there’s ultimately less bullying.
“When you can be independent, and you’re capable, you tend to not to want to bother other people or get into conflict with other people.”
– Follow reporter Caroline Eggers on Twitter @eggers dailynews or visit bgdaily news.com.