Captured Moments

We have a few labels put out in our garden to help children identify some of the plants growing in the outer environment.

Little wooden strips painted and mounted on wooden stakes, thrust into the ground. But like most things these labels have come to have many uses.

In the past few months, we have had 3 children from the primary environment discover reading through them! A stroll in the garden, has witnessed them sound out each letter on the label and discover that they can read!

A couple of days ago, a child pulled out a label from the earth. Upon being requested to place it back, he obliged but only after he sounded each letter and realised that the label said, ‘pumpkin’!

He had discovered reading!

You can imagine his delight. After that hand in hand with an adult he went to every label and read it, his grin getting broader and broader.

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Working with children it is all about ‘teachable’ moments and sometimes they are hard to miss!

We sat down on the ground, still damp after a recent spell of rains, and with a stick I carefully wrote out a word. He read it, though ‘devoured’ is more like how it was taken. The next thing we knew we were surrounded by a group of children, all wanting a ‘word’ for themselves!

There were several beginning readers, as well as children who had not yet discovered reading for themselves. Each one got a word. The readers read the words for the non-readers, while the latter carefully observed, as their friends de-coded the squiggles in the mud. Over and over again, the children shouted in excitement, “I want to read” , “Give me a word”,  “Write ‘nutella’ for me” and it went on and on!

While carefully drawing the words on the damp ground, I thought of Sylvia Ashton Warner, an educator who worked with Maori children and often took them to the river side to give them words in the sand! (you can download her book titled ‘teacher’, here)

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Now this has become a game that we sometimes play when outdoors and the children have dubbed it, ‘word, word’. 🙂

So how does this happen? How do children ‘discover’ reading, rather than being ‘taught’ reading?

Any note on reading cannot begin without a mention of the child’s sensitivity to language between birth to 6 years. A child passes through special times in her life when she easily incorporates a particular ability into her schema if allowed to practice it exhaustively during this time. Montessori called the unique sensitivities of young children ‘sensitive periods’. Her understanding of sensitive periods has now been confirmed by modern science and even popular culture, with Time magazine calling it ‘windows of opportunity’. The child ages birth to six years old passes through three significant sensitive periods; those for order, movement and language.

Reading in the Montessori method, is a synthesis of many individual strands that a child ties together for herself.

The path to reading looks something like this:

All through their time in the primary Montessori environment, children are given the tools to build a rich and precise vocabulary. The environment itself is one in which a love for language should be in the ‘air’. Good quality poetry and books should be read to the children and made available in the reading corner. A love and respect for books should be modelled by the adults.

Children imbibe the left to right orientation required for reading, through engagement with the exercises of practical life. As they spoon grain from one container to another, pour water from a jug into wee glasses and cups, prepare their places to make dough or flower arrangements, they not only gain in independence but in effect are working on the left to right orientation required for reading. The step-by-step procedure in a presentation, helps children indirectly gain the ability to sequence. Again, another pre-requisite for reading. They are also gaining the ability to concentrate.

Through their work with the sensorial materials, they gain the ability to compare and contrast their sensorial impressions. They hone their visual discrimination skills, required to discriminate between the shapes of letters for reading.

Then there are the ‘sound games’ or ‘oral phonetic analysis’. A simple game played with the youngest children where they practice recognising individual sounds in a word. They are able to pick out beginning sounds, ending sounds, middle sounds and finally sequence all the individual sounds in a word. Through these games, they discover that words are made of individual sounds and enjoy picking out sounds in the words that they encounter in their daily lives.

Children are introduced to the sandpaper letters where they trace the letters over and over again. Through this they connect the squiggle to the sound it represents. They associate sound with symbol. Indirectly they are building a motor memory of the symbol for writing, which will come later.

And then there is the moveable alphabet. A child builds words with cut outs of the letters of the alphabet. They carefully sound out the individual sounds of the word they wish to build and then identify the corresponding symbol and place them in sequence on their mat. Can they read what they have built at this time? No, not yet, but this too is an important step towards reading which is yet to come.

With exposure to all of this, by and large most children, tie these different strands together and voila! you have reading – reading, as a point of arrival!

Reading ‘discovered’ rather than ‘taught’ is a joyful process and the child can truly say, “I have taught myself to read!”

“It is the adult who makes learning to read and write difficult when he or she approaches the two as subjects to be conquered, rather than discoveries to be made.” ~ Maria Montessori

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Why Is The Giraffe In A Box?

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Missy is a little over two and a half years. The world is brand new and magnificent! A walk in the neighbourhood holds endless adventure and she is curious about everything she encounters.

She loves ants and can spend considerable time observing them. She throws down crumbs from her snack box hoping she will get a chance to see them carrying the crumbs in one long row.

Caterpillars too hold special fascination for Missy, as do cows (India has plenty of these gentle creatures on her roads), dogs, butterflies, beetles, squirrels, birds, cockroaches (yes, you heard right, cockroaches!) and every other animal that we co-exist with in our urban environments.

Yes, Missy’s world is a fascinating place.

Television, the i-pad, the computer and other varieties of screen time are not a part of Missy’s life.  But sometimes Missy encounters these.

Recently she was visiting one of her relatives who was watching a ‘childrens’ movie on television. Missy was riveted to the screen – singing, talking animals!!! Who Knew?

But if this was it, I wouldn’t be writing about a giraffe in a box, now would I?

That night, her mum was awakened to Missy crying! She was inconsolable. When Missy did finally calm down, she asked tearfully, “Why was that giraffe in a box?”

Missy was referring to the snatches of the movie she caught that morning – a giraffe was in a box and was being forced out with repeated prods from a log! It was supposed to be a slapstick and humorous scene, mind you – but to Missy it was the stuff of nightmares.

How was she to process what she saw? It was terrifying and sad.

Here’s another conversation with a child who just turned three. We shall call her Miss B.

Miss B: “You know one day I went to a f-a-a-a-a-r away place. It wasn’t here – it was f-a-a-a-r away. I met Tom and Tom could stretch his face up and down”

Adult: “Is Tom a cat ?”

Miss B: “Yes, I saw him in a far away place. It was scary – I got scared”

There are a million and one excellent reasons why young children should not have any screen time. For this post I will  stick to just ONE.

Aptly highlighted by the above anecdotes, young children have a difficult time distinguishing the real from the not real, fact from fiction, reality from fantasy.

They have found themselves on a brand new planet. From experiences in their environment they make generalizations about how things work and transfer these to their everyday life. What our young are doing is building their ‘road map’ to navigate their surroundings.

Nature helps them by ensuring their brains are wired in a way that they can go about their great work . Their great work can only be done through active exploration of their environment. Through this exploration the child will ‘incarnate’ their environment. Big word – incarnate. But, that is exactly what young children are doing everywhere in the world.

Television and other forms of screen time, are too abstract and confusing for the young child.

Not only is the child a passive viewer, but television often provides an inaccurate and counter productive picture of reality and the child uses this as their raw material to navigate their world! Fears and unrealistic ideas of cause and effect are served up to the young child through television and other forms of screen time.

Added to this is the fact that the images and sounds children encounter on television, the computer and other forms of electronic devices, do not stop when the button is switched off. They continue to ‘play’ in the child’s mind. Montessori called this ‘flight’.  The child is physically present but mentally is in some ‘f-a-a-a-r off’ place. Flight further distances the child from her present, here-and-now, environment.

Everywhere I go I see tiny mites, some still in diapers and prams, fiddling with phones, I-pads and other electronic devices. Often I see adults push these gadgets into their child’s hands so that they may continue with a conversation. At restaurants I constantly observe children with a  screen in their hands. The immediate environment instantly recedes. There are no people, no objects, no voices, no activity –  just finger poking and swiping and beeps and twangs.

Screen time places hurdle after hurdle for the young child.

Like I said in an earlier post, Urban India needs to wake up, turn their television sets off, put their computers to sleep and take their children out for a walk !

Follow Your Bliss

It’s three days to the start of a new academic year.

To wrap up the last academic year, we sat down today to a meeting of reflection. We usually do our reflection soon after we close for the summer break, but this time around it got postponed. Last year was a difficult one on several levels and by the end of March all of us were burnt-out. Centered again, we were now ready to re-visit the year past.

There was a lot of sharing and some insights arrived at. One point especially was brought into focus that I thought more deeply about.

My dear friend and colleague mentioned that she had realized that besides the environment belonging to the children, it was her environment as well and she was hoping to enjoy it more in the coming year. Occasionally, she would sit down in moments of quiet and do the things she loved doing, while in class. She was going to enjoy the space just like the children do.

Towards the end of the last academic year, the environment that I work in was so settled that I had many opportunities for this. The low hum of activity, the materials all at my disposal, the music in the background and the flood of natural light, all called to me and I found myself wanting to experience the day the way the children did.

At those times I put down my observation sheets and joined them. I drew, embroidered, symbolized poems, did design work with the equivalency insets, practiced some math presentations and made material in class. It was something that happened spontaneously. Initially, the children were curious about what I was doing. After a couple of occasions, they started saying things like, “I did some symbol work yesterday” or “After you, I think I’ll work with the long division”.  I remember a parent who had come in to observe the environment, later tell me that her child had mentioned that she should observe my work as well – because I had finally started working too! 🙂

There were some changes I observed in class. The children had started becoming more careful with the material and their movements around others working, they started re-visiting some presentations that I had worked with, they were eager for the materials they saw me making to be put on the shelves so that they could have a go at them…

Montessori has spoken about indirect presentations and any Montessori guide will tell you how powerful they are. Presentations that you give by doing certain things and being a certain way, yourself. They aren’t overt presentations to individual children, but rather subtle ones to the group.

The most valuable indirect presentation I think the children received here was the joy of work! It is different from the teacher enjoying what she is presenting to the child, or verbally expressing enthusiasm for an activity – it was the quiet, personal joy felt when one loves what one is doing.

So here it is folks – do what you love in front of your children. Follow your bliss and let them witness your joy at work!

Books We Love – Part 1

We LOVE our books at school and it only makes sense that I dedicate a few posts to them.

Here is the first in a series of posts on our favorite books.

The books that children are most drawn to are those with a simple layout and beautiful language and pictures.

Montessori spoke a lot about keeping things ‘real’ for the young child. Young children are still distinguishing between reality and fantasy and it is best to offer them realistic stories, so as to not confuse them. This means no talking cats and other fantastic tales till they are about 5 years old.

Here are two books loved by the youngest member of our school, who we shall call ‘Missy’. She is a month shy of being 2 years old.

FROG ON HIS OWN by MERCER MAYER

This is just one in a series of books on a boy and his frog.

The illustrations are wonderful pen and ink drawings and ‘Missy’ loves to tell the story as the pages are turned.

Frog on his own

BUS STOP by TARO GOMI

Young children will pick out the smallest things from their environment…a tiny ant crawling on the concrete, a little bead on the floor, a teeny spider hidden under the chair!

BUS STOPS caters to the young child’s love of small things.

The book has many details and is a burst of colour without being overwhelming.

Bus Stops by Taro Gomi

Can you find an orange car?

Here are some books loved by the children between the ages of 2 1/2 years to 6 years.

PONNI – THE FLOWER SELLER by SIRISH RAO

BABU – THE WAITER by SIRISH RAO

Both books are as ‘real’ as they get.

The books are about a day in the life of a flower seller and a waiter.

Children love their simple narrative  and the everyday images of life in urban India ( including a hungry calf eating Ponni’s flowers! :))

Ponni The Flower Seller

Babu The Waiter

I FEEL THE SAME WAY by LILLIAN MOORE; illustrations by ROBERT QUACKENBUSH

A delightful little book of poems by Lillian Moore, who is a very popular figure at our school. One little 5 year old, loved her poems so much that she started calling herself Moore … she turned 8 years last month and still pens her name as … you guessed it, ‘ Moore’!

I Feel The Same Way by Lillian Moore

 EVERYONE POOPS by TARO GOMI

Another book by Taro Gomi and an all time favourite. Children quietly appreciate that the topic of poop is out in the open, and love the whimsy of  “a one-humped camel makes a one-humped poop and a two humped camel makes a two humped poop! … just kidding”

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BRINGING DOWN THE MOON by JONATHAN EMMETT; illustrated by VANESSA CABBON

A sweet story about a mole who loves the moon and wants to have it for himself. The illustrations are soft, beautiful water colours.

Bringing Down The Moon

FREDRICK by LEO LEONNI

Fredrick is a wonderful, unusual morality tale. I’m not a big fan of morality tales myself, but this one is fine by me …. and the children too, it seems.

Fredrick, the field mouse doesn’t join the others to work through the  summer months gathering seeds, wheat and straw. Instead he gathers sun rays, colours-a-plenty and words for the long, dark winter months.

Finally, in the cold of the winter the other field mice applauded…”But Fredrick”, they said, “you are a poet!”

“So please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray, Go throw your TV set away, And in its place you can install, A lovely bookshelf on the wall.”

— Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory



The Secret To Happiness

Girl Reading ~ Alfred Emlie Stevens

Montessori said that the first essential for the child’s development is concentration, that the child who concentrates is immensely happy.

As Montessori guides our greatest satisfaction is when we observe a child deeply absorbed in work.

We spend hours upon hours arranging our environments, perfecting our presentations, observing and introspecting so that our spaces have ample opportunities for the children to make contact with a work which will bring this about.

We also know that children who have experienced deep concentration repeatedly, are able to choose it for themselves after a while.

So, it came as no surprise when I read about the findings of  a group of Harvard researchers, looking to find the secret ingredient of happiness. They found that a wandering mind is an unhappy one and on the flip-side, a mental presence – the matching of thought to action was a much better predictor of happiness.

Here is the article – A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy One

“When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Screen Time

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A usually vivacious and self-directed girl of 7, had been coming late to school everyday.

She spent the first hour or two walking around in a bit of a daze. She was finding it difficult to choose work and when she did, it was easy work that did not provide much of a challenge.

I sat her down for a little chat. We spoke about whether there have been any changes to her days. Nothing much had changed.

Then we spoke about her morning routine. Err, actually, yes, there was one small change. Along with her daily dose of toast and eggs at breakfast, she was getting some television too!

She thought about it a while and said, “When I do get  to school the characters (from the television show) are still in my head. I can’t turn them off”

Without having done all the scientific research, controlled all the variables and so on, most Montessorians will say that television viewing and early use of the computer are detrimental to the development of the young child.

So, what is this opinion based on? On the most powerful tool we have, observation.

We have observed that children who are exposed to large amounts of screen time (television or computer), often exhibit some of the following:

  • delayed language acquisition
  • inability to focus ones attention
  • frequent flights into a fantasy land
  • rough play, which is less creative and imaginative

Here is what Jane Healy, author of ‘Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It’, has to say in an interview with Stay Free Magazine:

“We hear what we want to hear. People do not want to hear that the American Academy of Pediatrics says that children under two should not have any screen time. Parents do not want to hear that the amount of TV their children watch has caused them problems in school. It’s easier to say, “He has a brain disorder.” And the fact is that many of these children do have brains that function differently. We know ADD runs in the family to some degree, but we don’t know how much of this is a function of this type of early environment.

The computer software that’s being rushed into market is training kids to be attention deficit disordered. It’s training them to be impulsive, to have meager finger control because they’re just using a small part of their motor system. These are the hallmarks of attention deficit disorder.”

In her truly inspiring book, ‘Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful:Preventing Exclusion In The Early Elementary Classroom’, Donna Goertz, recommends no more than 2 hours of screentime on non-school days, per week, for children in their early elementary years.

Urban India needs to wake up, turn their television sets off, put their computers to sleep and take their children out for a walk!