Monday, April 20, 2020

Supporting Language Development At Home

Supporting Language Development at Home

Your child's brain during the ages of 3-6 years has a special sensitivity to learning language. That means that, yes, they really are interested in learning to speak well, read and write. Instead of relying on worksheets or a specific language learning program while they are home from school, it's best to encourage and support them to learn with what they have available at home already- all the objects in their home environment, their outdoor environment, craft supplies, their parents! The most important thing in the next months is not keeping up, step-by-step, with a prescribed curriculum, but keeping kids engaged with learning and the idea of learning.

Here are some suggestions for helping these natural tendencies flourish at home:


Spoken language is the foundation for all language learning. Children are in an incredibly absorbent stage for vocabulary. Keeping this in mind I suggest:

Talk with clear and precise language. Use as exact “difficult” words as you can. Often, adults dumb down language when talking to children when given the powers of childhood they should be doing quite the opposite. Make an effort to talk precisely, for example, “for pouring out the pancake batter we need the sauce ladle”.

Tell true stories. Children of this age love stories about real things around them. It can be stories about when you were young, or stories about objects around your house, or something interesting that you saw or learned about yourself.

Listen to your children. This one counts double. Children will not learn to speak well unless they feel that what they have to say is of value to others. With all that's going on these days, a reminder to pause, look at your child in the eyes when they are speaking, better yet met them at eye level, and respond fully to what they are saying. They sometimes need extra time to express what they want to say, don't assume you know already what they are getting at.


Writing and reading should ideally be offered to little children as a means for communicating. It is a tool for human interaction, not just some random exercise that they are made to do.

For children who cannot yet write on paper:

Sound out words. Playing games of sounding out words like “I spy something that's a ppp lll aaa nnn ttt, do you know what it is?” or “I'm thinking of an animal that's a ccc rrr ooo ccc ooo ddd aa yy oo ll” Helping them become aware of the sounds that make up words is half of the work of learning to write.

Work to do with the hands. Any work that your child can do with their hands, helping with cooking, folding clothes, sorting silverware, spooning beads into a bowl, using a screwdriver, literally ANY work for the hands (but especially things that require dexterity of fingers) is helpful for the development of coordination of the hands for writing.

For children who can spell phonetically on paper:

Lists. Children of this age like to make lists. If the need for communication is tied to the task, the more likely they will be to find value to it. “I'm going to the grocery store today, can you make me a list of the things you'd like to have for snacks for this week?” Any child who can write may jump at an invitation like that.

Letters and Notes. It's a great time to write notes and letters to people. For children, the tangible feel of a note on a paper or a letter on paper is more satisfying than electronic communication (which is more abstract). However, writing text messages to family or friends is also a way to practice writing skills. Don't worry about the spelling. At this stage, it's all about just encouraging the writing process. In elementary they work on spelling. For now, helping your child feel confident enough to write a few words and give them to someone else is already a great introduction to the world of writing. Thank you notes are a great practice to introduce to children.


Read to your child. Nothing will be more instrumental to your child's desire to read than you reading regularly to them. At this age, children don't just love stories, they love books about science and nature. There can be a daily ritual reading time, whether before bedtime or before getting ready for bed. Books often include new vocabulary, ideas, and topics that are not always addressed in our day to day life. Books quite literally open up your child's world.

Ask questions while you read. As you read to your child, ask questions about the story, what do you think will happen next?, why do you think that character did that?, what feelings does the story talk about?, what would you do differently if you were that character?. Engaging your children's thinking, their own knowledge and ideas about the world, and questioning how the story evolves will give another layer to the learning and meaning while you read.

Just as with writing, children will be more motivated to read if they are reading for a real purpose, for something directly meaningful to them, than if it's just random words practice.

Secret messages. Write short notes or messages to your child every day. Whether a reminder for a daily chore, or a little note reminding them that you love them, children love getting written messages.

Scavenger hunts are games you can play that involve writing one word on a small paper and have your child find that object. Write ten words, or just five, keeping it fun and to your child's level can turn reading into a great learning game.

Early reader books. There are lots of resources for early reading books for little children to read to you (once they can read comfortably).

Online reading games. If you are avoiding screen time then skip this one, but for those looking for specifically for reading games for children ABC Mouse, Khan Academy, or Raz Kids have resources appropriate for our age group children.

Home Library. It doesn't have to be fancy, just a small nook where your child can find all their books and a quiet place to look at them is a great thing to incorporate in your home. Designating a block of time of your child's daily routine as :Quiet Reading Time where both you and your child read (your own books quietly, to yourself) can help instill the habit (in everyone at home) for a quiet time for reading.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Home Environment

One of the key beliefs of Montessori philosophy is that children want to learn and actually are learning all the time. Given a rich environment and opportunity to work and explore, children will engage in all kinds of learning experiences. One of the best things you can do during this extended time at home with children (if you have the time and want to) is to look at your home environment from your child's perspective and enrich it to support your child's concentration and independence.

Aesthetically, Montessori environments are meant to be:

Simple- not too much offered at once, just what is used and needed at the moment.

Uncluttered- there is a place for everything, and everything is in it's place. The order of the external environment is meant to support the development of order in the child.

Reality Based- things from nature adorn the environment, as do beautiful paintings or prints. 

Beautiful- it is an inspiring space that calls the child to be in it.

Complete- materials in it are not broken or have missing parts. All that the child needs to be independent can be found there. 

(photo from here)

Creating an environment that is conducive to your child's independence and concentration

1. Are the tools your child needs to be independent accessible and available to them?

If your child can access the things they need to clean up spills/get themselves snacks/get drinks of water/get materials needed for work and play/access their own clothing for dressing and are shown (by you) slowly and deliberately how to do these things, they are more likely to do them on their own. Children like to be independent, but they need you to show them how first, and they also need the tools to be available to them and within their reach.

2. Do they have enough but not too many materials for engagement during the day available and in order?

When children have too many toys, or too many options to play with it can be difficult and overwhelming to choose anything to play with at all. We see this in our classroom. Often we prune whole areas of materials and put away all manner of materials that children are not interested in working with at the moment. If someone by chance asks me later if they can have that dinosaur puzzle back, I gladly put it back on the shelf. As a rule we try to keep only the things that children are currently working with available on the shelf. You can try the same at home. If you keep only the toys and materials your child actually plays with available, and you pack away all the rest to rotate out later, it will give new life to things you've put away and will make it easier for your child to see what's there to play with. This is a good combatant to children's boredom, drastic reduction of materials.

Order, as you know, is very important for young children. If materials are sorted logically in containers that make it easy for access and for putting away, it is more likely your child will be ok with putting things away on their own. If you have not done so yet (show them first in a slow and deliberate lesson) how to put something away before taking the next thing out and then gentle reminders for a day or two will help. We group things that have to do with each other in areas in the classroom. Grouping things according to function within your child's materials will help them also keep them in order and know what is available (for example, all books in one area of the shelf, all arts and crafts materials together in a separate place, building toys in an area, doll materials in another, etc)

3. Time and space for concentration

Children need extended blocks of time to play without interruption. We have a 3 hour work period in our day at school just for this. It allows children to slowly “warm up” their concentration engines and switch between various activities throughout the morning and then before lunch, it's like they're ready to stop working and ready to eat and rest for a while.

4. Repetition

Children of this age group learn by repeating. Please consider this a very typical part of their learning process and when possible don't interrupt it. They will button and unbutton a shirt over and over (that's work for your child), or ask you to read the same book over and over (they will grow out of it eventually I promise), draw the same things over and over, or listen to the same song over and over, or repeat a cycle of play with a material over and over. Repetition is a natural and desired behavior in children at this age, it is the precursor to mastery. To them, the act of doing is more important than the resulting product. Let them repeat and even encourage it when it is something positive.

(photo from here)

Extra Materials you can add to your child's environment to enrich it and add valuable experiences to their day:

Music- Does your child have access to a music player or device so they can choose to listen to music or to play while listening to music throughout the day. Headphones can be great for them to be able to play their own music without disturbing others. An old mp3 player is perfect for you to fill up with music they like so they can listen on their own. If they have instruments to play along with their music, placing them next to the music player can turn listening into an interactive experience.

Arts and Crafts Materials- is there a small table and a corner of the house where they have scissors, glue, color pencils, old magazines, varieties of paper (you don't have to put the whole pack out, but a few sheets every day), recycled materials (like cardboard or paper tubes, boxes), maybe some masking tape so they can make things on their own.

Access to books- is there a small library or shelf or corner in your home where children can quietly look at books on their own.

Academic work folder or shelf- is there a place in the home where you can put options of more traditional “schoolwork” for the children to choose from if they wish during the day? You can add novel things to it each day, a page or two of fun worksheets (color by numbers, connect the dots, coloring pages, drawing instructions) to keep it interesting and your child engaged. Changing it up regularly can make it more exciting for your child.

Dress up corner- if your child is into that and you have materials for it, dress up is an excellent way for them to practice the skills of dressing and undressing independently. Your old shoes, costumes, wigs, perhaps an old dress or an old shirt of dads make great additions for children's fun and learning.

Games area- board games and a game time each evening can be a fantastic things to add to your home routine. It engages everyone in the family and when your child learns how to play the games on their own, if they have siblings, they may choose to do so without you during the day.

I've added a photo examples of a ridiculously neat and beautiful home environment, not for you to aim for this perfection, but just to give you an idea and some inspiration for how organized and with how few things you can help aid independence and concentration at home. Looking at these photos makes me think that Montessori would have been an advocate of Marie Kondo! Few things that are beautiful, in good condition, presented in an organized way is the key.



Monday, April 13, 2020

On parent communication

It's overwhelming. The amount of resources and ideas teachers and administrators have come up with to respond to this crisis of education is jaw dropping. It is also awe inspiring and makes me proud of those in our profession who join in with other tireless care givers in essential work during this time.

At the beginning of this, like others, I was scouring the web for resources to share with parents of all the wonderful offerings online that were being advertised. Shortly afterwards though, I realized that I was becoming a part of the overwhelm. By filling emails with links and ideas, I was robbing parents of the opportunity to actually listen to their own parenting instincts, to delve into their own family culture and craft their own routines and family rhythms. Giving them the space to figure out what they wanted to do with this time suddenly seemed wiser than clogging their emails with suggestions.

There are wide ranging school responses to the crisis at the Primary level, from sending weekly packets of worksheets, to making sets of rotating classroom materials that get passed from home to home weekly, to video lessons for parents on how to present materials, to video lessons for children, checklists, and all manner of school interventions in the home. 

Many of these options seem to respond to the idea that we must fill children's time at home with educational things to do. It almost sounds to me like a variation of the mistaken notion that we have to fill children's heads with knowledge, that adults have to drive children's learning and decide the curriculum. However, the basis of Montessori education is to follow the child. We know children are not blank slates. We know they want to learn. We know that what they need are environments conducive to learning so that they can do the learning. So before deciding on any course of action it may be worth thinking of the foundations of Montessori. 

Perhaps what is needed as a response to the school closures has more to do with helping parents create the conditions for learning in their homes as best as they can, given their resources and particular circumstances. I think our work may be to aid parents in understanding the development of children as nature intends it within their own home culture.

Let's have conversations with parents about enriching environments, about independence, about protecting concentration, about freedom within limits and how to set clear boundaries and expectations of behavior and natural consequences. Let's talk about the value of play in learning, and about routines and order, about how we talk, listen, and relate to children so that our relationships are respectful and harmonious. All these conversations not to train parents to become teachers, but to help parents be better parents because home life is the curriculum right now. We have a chance to not just to bluntly invade their homes, but rather to gently help shape family life so that it responds better to the needs of children. How about starting from the idea that education begins with how you are relating to your child from moment to moment.

I'm more comfortable with the direction our school communications are taking and have more clarity about our role as Montessori educators in this crucial time. It only took four weeks of clogging parent emails, let's see if we can move forward together now.

School Sessions

Upon mandatory school closures we decided to offer daily school sessions for our one room Primary School. Trying to base our sessions on Montessori theory and child development here's what we came up with.

Our Daily School Sessions

We decided to offer our sessions on Zoom because it is free, accessible to parents on most devices, has an easy interface and was recommended by teachers who had already been using it for remote learning. We chose it and decided to stick to it because we didn't want to overwhelm parents with too many things. Google classroom, Class Dojo, and many other great resources out there seemed a bit overwhelming and perhaps too much to ask parents to also have to learn to manage.

Daily sessions, offered live, five times a week give children the opportunity to see their teacher and classmates every day. I figured this was the most conducive way to giving a sense of daily connection. Our sessions are 45 minutes long, which is short enough to keep our youngest ones engaged, and long enough to keep our oldest ones wanting more. It's basically a whole group meeting, with roughly 20 out of our 24 children attending give or take a few. 

I looked at the children's sensitive periods and developmental needs when figuring out what to offer. I wanted what we chose to be founded on the principles of Montessori and child development, not just a knee jerk reaction to the stress of having to come up with 'something'.

What are we supporting?

Our main focus has been to support the social emotional development of the children. This is a chaotic and possibly traumatic time, families are experiencing momentous change. We want to be a balsam to the children. We are offering a moment of connection and fun that touches on what is familiar, safe and comfortable for them. The emphasis of our session is social, so that they can stay connected to their school and to their community. This part has to come first, before any learning can occur.

The sense of order that is so strong in children ages 3-6 is triggered with all this change. By offering a consistent program, at the same hour each day, that follows the same format, whose elements are familiar and include lots of repetition we aid their sense of order.

Movement is a key element of the sessions and part of why a live session works best. You can give real time feedback. Children are interested and learn well when their need for movement is supported.

It is easy to fulfill the need for language during the session. There is opportunity to have exchanges with each other, for the children to talk to their friends too, but also for integrating lots of new vocabulary with different elements involved.

Thinking of the children's sensitive period for sensorial impressions it seemed logical to include the many games we play in the classroom related to the sensorial area.

The development of mathematical thinking is aided by incorporating collective math games with the children live onscreen. The same games we would play in the classroom we bring online.

Below I've listed the elements that comprise a session, I don't do all of them every day but the ones with asterisk are the ones that I do daily. The rest I mix and match each day depending on what seems relevant to the day.

Elements of the school sessions

Just like when they arrive at school and I'm waiting at the gate to greet them and have a short exchange with each one, ten minutes prior to the official beginning of the session I am onscreen to greet each child individually and have a brief exchange. I do this by muting all upon entry and unmuting the children invididually as they arrive (and muting them back after our brief chat). I make sure I acknowledge each one.

I am usually holding a large clock during this arrival period that shows ten minutes to 9 so they can visually see how much longer before we start the session.

As soon as it is 9 o'clock I begin the session by singing a Good Morning song. Usually I sing the same one every day and improvise something about each child as I say their name. This keeps them interested even when they've heard the song a million times.

I count the children that are present as I hold up number cards and always ask one of the children to tell us the total of children while I hold up the last number card. Integration of teen numbers of numbers beyond 20 is happening.

Sometimes I play an introduction game with all of them at once such as the “What are you wearing” song with or without variations such as using sandpaper letters for first letter of their name or sandpaper numbers for their age, "If you're happy and you know it" song, or I show cards with their names written on them and they have to do something when they see their card, etc.


I don't do it every day but on Mondays and Fridays or if there is a special event coming up I'll bring over our paper calendar and mark it. We introduce the calendar by singing the Days of the Week Song, or the Months of the Year song.

*Breathing Exercise

Before continuing I pause and we do a breathing exercise such as the 5 breath (counting up to five with fingers on the inhale and subtracting the fingers on the exhale), Faucet Breath (when you put your hands out in front of you and inhale to “fill up the faucet” and exhale by running the water with a woosh sound, Starfish breath (extend out arms and legs for inhale, relax on the exhale), etc. There are lots of fun breathing techniques. We also sometimes do some shoulder rolls, head rolls, spine twists, or arm stretches to relax before we begin the other things.

Message or News

If I saw something positive in the news, or if something happened to me or a member of the community we talk about this. I use this time also to introduce things that are happening around us such as "What face masks are and how they are used", "What is Shelter In Place", "What is curfew", "Why can't I visit my grandma?", etc. It's sort of a touching base with what is happening around us at the moment. I try to keep this visual too by adding photos (on Zoom you can share your screen if you have photos that you want the children to see).

Special Guest

I've had special guests, like my mom from Costa Rica, read to the children on Fridays. I've brought my pets to the sessions to greet the children. There are LOTS of fun possibilities with that.

*Book Reading OR True Story

I read a book or tell a true story every day. We use this as a platform to talk about feelings. We talk about the feelings of the characters in the book and how they may associate to what children may be feeling at home at the moment.

Grace and Courtesy

I try to tie in the Grace and Courtesy lessons to the feelings we talked about. Ways of expressing anger, fear, frustration are things we practice often.

Art lesson and extensions

Sometimes I show and art lesson or extension such as how to draw something from the book we read, or a craft they can do at home. I also have our assistants from home video tape themselves making recipes of things children can make at home such as moon sand, slime, etc, and include those in the session (through Screen Share on Zoom).

Something from Nature

I will share something I found outside or at my home or a photo of something amazing from nature and tell a short story about it and initiate a short conversation.


By this point the children have been sitting for as long as I think they can really manage easily. So I make sure to start the game at this point. There are so many great collective games we play in the classroom and these work really well with the children at home too. This is many children's favorite moment of the session. It's kind of like scavenger hunting in your home.

Sensorial Matching games: finding objects in the environment by color, color gradation, size, shape, material they are made of, temperature, taste, etc.

Language Matching games: “bring me” objects in classification from home (objects from the bathroom, kitchen, for baking, for setting a table, from a bedroom, from a living room etc)

Math collective games: from our training the Memory Game of Numbers (everyone gets the same number), Counting Game, Zero Game, or games where I ask them to show me amounts on their fingers.

Controlled Movement

We do controlled movement games too such as Songs with Movements or Fingerplays, Dancing with coreographed steps, Yoga, Plain old exercises (jumping jacks, pushups, squats etc), and on Fridays when it's the end of the week we play the children's favorite game Freeze Dance (I've discovered it is very fun to play this online).

*Surprise Friend

Surprise friend is when I split the whole group randomly into pairs or groups of three and send them into Breakout Rooms. This is really easy to do on Zoom. Children can choose to join or not depending on whether they are comfortable or not with it. Then they get to have a little one on one or small group time with a few friends. They never know who they are going to get so there's a surprise element to it. I thought this would be the highlight of Every Child's session, but some children find it too intimidating and they choose to stay with me in the “main room” where we are all unmuted and have a more relaxed conversation. I allow about five minutes for these visits. I sometimes ask them to bring something as a prop to show to their surprise friend that helps them think of things to say to each other. As the weeks have progressed children have gotten much more comfortable with this element.

Practical Life Lesson

Just like I would do at school, I give a practical life lesson of something they can do that will be helpful at home. Lessons such as how to set a table, how to clear a table, how to put toys away before you choose something else to do, how to ask someone to help you pick up, how make yourself a snack, how to clean a spill at home, etc. The lessons are meant to be relevant to the children's home life and hopefully helpful to the parents. I ask parents to let me know if they need help with anything specific at home that I can give a lesson on. The lessons also give the expectation to children that they should help with these things at home.

Kindness Job

This is what I consider the children's “homework” each day. It may be something as simple as remembering to say “thank you” when given something, or to clean up their toys at the end of the day, or to give thumbs up to policemen when they drive by, or to thank their grocers for their service during this time. It's basically acts of kindness.

Silence Game

I like to often end the sessions with a minute of mindfulness. We sit in silence while a timer ticks the minute off, or we do mindful listening of a bell, or of sounds around you, or we play the silence game from home so the children all close their eyes and open them when I whisper their name. It's a good way to end the session, with a calm moment.

*Group Goodbye

I have a goodbye song that I sing every day to mark the end of the session before I unmute everyone and we wave and say bye to each other in a big chaotic celebration.

I do have to mention that I live a 10 minutes walk away from our school, so I can walk over every day and do the sessions from the classroom which allows me access to our materials which is really helpful. On days when we've had more severe restrictions I've done my lessons from home and that has worked well too.

This is our main offering for parents at the moment, but we also send an individualized work plan (checklist) of things that the older children can do each week that are more academically inclined.

I write a large newsletter each week to parents on Mondays (more on that on another post) which intends to bring Montessori and better understanding of children's development to the home culture. On Friday afternoons I compile the photos parents sent me during the week of their children doing all sorts of different things at home and share it with our whole community as a way for them to be inspired by each other.

There is a kind side to all this, I've certainly been learning a lot in the process of coming up with solutions to the remote emergency learning situation. We are currently being shaped by the changes in our environment, I look forward to seeing what long term benefits come from this time.