Monday, May 13, 2013

The Importance of the Montessori Method in the Children’s Centres of La Paz

It has been 5 weeks since I arrived in Bolivia for what I know will be a life-changing experience. I was selected to be a volunteer on the ICS scheme along with 20 other volunteers. It was a daunting prospect to be travelling halfway across the world to a developing country with a group of people I have never met before and to be living and working with them for 3 months. Not to mention the language barrier as Bolivia is a Spanish-speaking country. It is a challenge communicating in a different language and making a lasting impact in the centres in which I work.

After a 2 week induction, I found myself being placed on the Ludoteca project. They work with the partner organisation Aldeas Infantiles SOS. I am working alongside two other volunteers on the area and we have each been allocated our own children’s centres to work in for the next 2 months. The three centres we have been assigned are Rosasani, Pura Pura and Centro Social 58 and I work in the latter. Ludoteca aims to cultivate strategies for children to develop through interaction and play through which the charity, Aldeas SOS, can use to implement in all their centres.

Signs in the Children’s Centre showing the different Montessori focus areas

One approach that all the Aldeas SOS centres follow is the Montessori routine. This method is widely used in Latin America and, albeit less so, in my own country: the UK. In utilising the Montessori routine, we aim to aid in the facilitation of a more structured approach and to develop ideas to help the children maximise their potential. What is the Montessori method and what is its philosophy? Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870.  She was a physician, educator, and innovator, acclaimed for her educational method that builds on the way children naturally learn. She opened the first Montessori school – the Casa dei Bambini – in Rome on January 6 1907, which was in a poor inner city area. The youngsters were unruly at first, but soon showed great interest in working with puzzles, learning to prepare meals, manipulating materials and having lessons in maths. She observed how they absorbed knowledge from their surroundings, essentially teaching themselves. Subsequently, she travelled the world and wrote extensively about her approach to education, attracting many devotees. There are now more than 30,000 Montessori schools in at least 110 countries worldwide.  Maria Montessori died in Holland in 1952 but her child-centred educational approach is still successful in diverse cultures throughout the world.

Centre children playing with lego

The components that are essential for the centre to be considered Montessori is to have multi-age groupings that foster peer learning, uninterrupted blocks of work time and a guided choice of activities. In addition, a full complement of specially-designed Montessori learning materials are carefully arranged and available for use in a pleasing environment. The children are encouraged to build a positive approach towards school and learning. The classroom is divided up into sections: pre-montessori, practical life, sensorial, language, and mathematics. Through a carefully planned stimulating environment, each child can participate in a learning task that is geared towards their need and level of readiness. Consequently, the child works at their own pace, completing the task as many times as they like, which then enables the child to experience successful achievement and a positive approach to learning. Beginning at an early age the child develops order, coordination, concentration and independence. It is important for the child to develop their listening skills and to have a stable routine as this prepares them for adult life. The children also work in multi-aged classrooms typically spanning from 3-6 years. Older students enjoy stature as mentors and role models while the younger children feel supported and gain confidence about the challenges ahead. The children enjoy freedom within limits. Working within parameters set by their teachers, children are active participants in deciding what their focus of learning will be. The Montessori teachers understand that internal satisfaction drives the child’s curiosity and interest and results in joyous learning that is sustainable over a lifetime. It has been found that Montessori students become more confident, enthusiastic and self-directed learners. They are able to think critically, work collaboratively, and act boldly – a skillset for the 21st century.

What I have witnessed so far in my centres: The morning routine begins with the children seated on an oval-shaped line (which all the Montessori classrooms have). They begin by greeting each other with a song and then they pray.  The educator reads out the register and the children listen for their name to be called. The children then place their name on the attendance calendar. A child is selected to go outside and express their opinion on the weather to the class. They then adjust the weather and seasonal clock accordingly. The educators interact with the children to discuss the sun, rain, spring, winter etc. A short activity or explanation of the topic for the day is deliberated and the children then return to the tables to begin the lesson. The children recognise the line as a time where they need to listen and remain quiet until addressed. These set of rules and routines are fundamental to prepare the children for adult life, even though they are learning subconsciously. The children are asked to go back to the line (to play the “silence game”) if they are misbehaving or are not listening. The importance to abide by the rules is then discussed as a group.  The line is also used for various activities such as the walking line to develop sense of balance and coordination. Most of the lessons are spent interacting with the educator who always encourages the children to ask and answer questions about the topic.

For example, one lesson I observed was on the topic of the human body and differences between boys and girls. The children discussed differences between the genders by looking at dolls and the type of clothes that differentiate them. The educator then chose a child to stand against the board and drew an outline of her body. The educator asked the children what she needed to draw to which the children would shout out eyes, hair, skirt etc. Most of the children took part and were very eager to participate. I felt that some children could have been encouraged a bit more to try and participate as some of the stronger characters in the class appeared to dominate and were therefore given more attention by the educator.

After the lessons, children line up and are taken to the bathroom for a toilet break and to wash their hands before lunch. This teaches the children about personal hygiene. In the afternoon, there did not seem to be a structured routine and children were given activities, such as puzzles, but as a whole class. Some children enjoyed this exploring and finding new ways to place the pieces together and were happy when successfully completing to repeat the process again. However, other children struggled and may have been better off choosing a different activity that they were more interested in. The educator did not seem to pick up on this and I felt there should have been more of a child-centred individualised plan. The layout of the classroom consists of low chairs, tables and reachable shelves which display each area of the learning activities making it accessible for the children to choose different activities.

Educators, known as Madres, demonstrating to the children

Having spent time observing the centres, I aim to develop more structured lessons enabling the children to learn to develop more skills such as their fine motor skills, cognitive, dexterity etc. I will work on an individual child approach and adapt certain activities based on different levels of abilities. There are a lot of positives to the Montessori routine, however, I find that some children tend to withdraw more from lessons as the dominant children take over. While I still believe the quieter children learn from this as I have witnessed children helping each other with shoe laces, puzzles etc; I still feel that some children get left behind in the lessons and are not given a chance to maximise their potential. The dominant children have both a negative and positive impact on the class. Sometimes they can distract the class in a negative manner and all the children follow lead. We also aim to make a documentary in our centres to show how the correct techniques for Montessori should be used. Aldeas SOS can then use this material in all the centres to show the educators best working practices. This will help the educators to give each child the same level and quality of education.

Written by: Emma Wolfe
Edited by: Liam Hilton

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