Seven-year-old Zachary learned how to build a popscicle-stick catapult at a free library workshop last week. Over dinner that night, I “casually” asked my engineer husband if he knew the difference between a catapult and a trebuchet. A brief but interesting discussion ensued, and my son hung on to every word.
Sitting around the kitchen table after breakfast Monday morning, I asked Zachary: “What would you like to explore today?”
He pouted and crossed his arms. “Nothing.”
I tried again. “Your pen pal is waiting to hear back from you. Or I could give you ideas for that letter you’ve been meaning to write to Papa. You could also practice the ukulele.”
“That’s dumb.” He walked upstairs and threw his lanky body on the floor of his LEGO-strewn room. I followed him. He mumbled, “I’m not doing anything today.”
Then I casually pointed out, “I’m going to be building a trebuchet downstairs.” (Because all moms need a trebuchet.) “I would love your help.”
His head popped up. He tried to look nonchalant as he followed me downstairs. Five minutes later, he was reading instructions, gathering materials, and pondering physics. He worked with joy and determination for almost two hours, through fingers scalded by hot glue and countless design adjustments.
We discussed potential and kinetic energy; used fractions and measuring; identified angles and defined new words. He beamed with satisfaction when his creation was complete. He then spent thirty minutes flinging projectiles onto a cardboard castle with his catapult and trebuchet, comparing the tactical advantages and destructive power of both weapons.
Second plane children
want need to think for themselves. For many children (and their parents) it can be a time of massive struggle. Dr. Montessori wrote that the seven-year-old “starts to express judgements” and observed that “the adult finds [the seven-year-old] a bit annoying.”
“Without a new pedagogic directive, a new battle between the adult and this new child arises… [The adult] must be sure of what he ought to do, of what he ought to say, and of the extent to which he must reply to questions… It is indispensable to the child to feel the security the adult can and must give.”
Dr. Montessori observed that, “his thoughts could… have the tendency to lose themselves in abstraction by reasonings without end.” Pushing away or shutting down are the second-plane child’s ways of saying: I’m feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the world and I need a concrete activity to ground my imagination.
She reminds us to connect the child to “an external activity to which he will give all his potential.” You can start anywhere, with any activity that requires the use of the hands and the imagination. But the art of Montessori in the second plane is to help the child connect that one detail to the whole of the Universe. “Each detail holds the child’s interest by reason of its strict relation to the others,” Dr. Montessori wrote. Therefore, “it is sufficient to choose any one detail which will then become a point of departure in the study of the whole.”
You don’t need to have a vast depth of knowledge to engage a second plane child. You just need to know enough to get an activity going, and subtly point out a few connections through simple stories. Spend some time today noticing how everything connects to everything else, and think about the little stories you can tell to bring those connections to life. Learning will never look the same again to you or your child.
Montessori is not a curriculum – not a series of boxes to check off. It’s a guide for understanding how humans grow. It’s a way of supporting how humans learn. It’s a means for finding joy and purpose in life.
Montessori is not dogma – not a script to follow blindly. It’s a conversation about priorities. It’s a toolbox for navigating parenthood with grace. It’s a dance with the imperfect realities of life.
Montessori is not just for the wealthy – not a ticket to career success. It’s for the homeschooling family. It’s for the public school family. It’s for the refugee, the migrant, the orphan, the elderly.
Montessori is a way of seeing and being. It’s a new understanding of the adult’s role and a window into the child’s soul. It’s a path that leads to trust; a path that leads to peace; a path that leads to life.
Is your child afraid of math? I know many who are. I also know that one of the most effective ways to help them overcome their fear of math is to give them an allowance. In addition to teaching your child patience, opportunity cost, and the value of things, money is a hands-on way to work through many math skills!
My son got hooked on math through his allowance. At the age of four, he wanted to save up for a LEGO kit. On a piece of graph paper, I marked one square for each dollar he would have to save. Whenever he got his allowance, he would color in the associated squares and we would count how many more squares – or dollars – he needed to reach his goal. By the age of five, he was using addition to calculate his goals, and by six he was multiplying. Now that he’s seven, he has a money journal, where he writes down his debits, credits, and current balance.
His interest in money, and his age, led to the question: “Why do we use paper money? Why don’t we use gold or computers?”
I’m glad we had The Story of Money in our home library! This lovely book, written by an elementary teacher, traces the fascinating history of world currencies from the time of the very earliest humans. The engaging illustrations and clear text will take you and your child on a journey through ancient civilizations like Sumer and China. You’ll then make your way to colonial America and discover how the dollar came to be.
The Story of Money is written in the style of Montessori’s Cosmic Stories, which helps children stay engaged from start to finish. My son loved looking at all the different ancient coins, all carefully illustrated to actual size. This book can inspire many avenues of research for elementary students, from timelines to coin collections.
So, the next time your child feels scared of math, connect math to money, and money to human history with The Story of Money, and watch their fear turn to enthusiasm!
(This post contains an affiliate link. Purchasing through this link helps support the quality work you enjoy, at no cost to you. Thanks!)
The only thing I like more than discovering good children’s books is sharing them with others. I’m starting these “Book of the Week” (BOTW) posts to spread the joy of quality children’s literature and will try to post a new book every weekend. (This post contains an affiliate link.)
“Where do the names of the planets come from?”, asked 7-year-old Zachary. I knew they were first named after Greek gods and then were changed to the equivalent Roman gods, but didn’t know much else. Then I found Kingdom of the Sun, where we learned that Aristotle, the astronomer who originally gave the planets the names of Greek gods, “did his best to match the character the gods were supposed to have with what he knew about the planets – their speed, brightness, and color.”
This sets the stage for the rest of the book, in which the author beautifully personifies each planet. Thus, Mercury is “forced to lurk unseen in the dazzle of [the Sun’s] brilliance” while Venus “blazes like a brilliant diamond”. Personification gives way to scientific facts, but the inspiring prose is maintained throughout the book. The planet Jupiter, whose god persona used thunder and lightning to indicate anger, informs us that “immense electric sparks inject [his] clouds with jagged lightning.”
The Sun and Moon also make an appearance, the former reminding us that his “daily sky-ride is only an illusion” and the latter describing itself as a “somber rock… transformed into beautiful shimmering silver.”
The gorgeous full-color illustrations of the gods and planets have gold-foil accents and include the astrological symbols for each heavenly body. The author’s use of descriptive language is ideal for expanding the vocabulary of young elementary children (whom Dr. Montessori described as being “lovers of words”).
We had a few minutes to spare before leaving for Zachary’s swim practice, so I offered to read two entries. He became so smitten with the book that we ended up reading six planet stories before getting in the car; he then begged me to take the book with us so I could read him a couple more while we waited for practice to start!
I loved the combination of mythology, science, and lyrical prose – a true collection of cosmic tales that can inspire much research and creativity. I hope you enjoy Kingdom of the Sun as much as we have!
Few clean-ups seem as overwhelming as that of the Montessori fractions. The halves through sevenths are easy enough for most children, but the 27 hard-to-distinguish red wedges that make up the eighths, ninths, and tenths can leave even Elementary children feeling stuck and discouraged. I’ve inherited Montessori fractions in several of my classrooms, and I’ve often found that a well-meaning predecessor had written the corresponding value on the underside of each fraction piece. At first glance, this might seem helpful. It sure makes cleaning up those pesky fractions a lot quicker!
So, why did Dr. Montessori design the fraction pieces without labels? Did she harbor some evil desire to torment children and their over-worked adult guides? Or did she observe that leaving the fractions unlabeled led to the development of problem-solving skills through creative use of the child’s knowledge?
The answer becomes clear when we consider Dr. Montessori’s advice: “Every unnecessary help is a hindrance to the child’s development.”
Is writing the values on the underside of the fraction pieces really necessary? Or, by doing so, are we preventing the child from developing essential skills? If we don’t want to be a hindrance to their development, but we need them to eventually clean up, what can we do to guide a child who’s feeling discouraged by this overwhelming task?
When a child is faced with sorting a pile of unlabeled slim red wedges, it’s enough to help him recall that two eighths are equivalent to – or take up the same space as – one fourth. Depending on the child’s prior knowledge, you can ask, “What do you know about equivalences?” or “What do you know about the relationship between fourths and eighths?”
If the child is younger and doesn’t know this information, simply guide him in a sensorial exploration. Invite the child to bring out the fourths inset, ask him to remove one fourth, and show how the space within the inset serves as an objective control of error. When fractions other than two eighths are placed within the space vacated by the fourth, you will see a gap. Only two eighths will fit perfectly within the space of the missing fourth.
The monumental clean-up now becomes a fun puzzle that satisfies the child’s love of precision and bolsters his self-confidence. You can back away, returning only if he needs guidance to find the relationship between fifths and tenths, or thirds and ninths (children familiar with equivalences will likely make the connections on their own).Take a moment to observe the child’s concentration, enjoy his smile of accomplishment, and know that you helped him move one step closer towards reaching his full potential as a creative problem-solver.
Zachary, age 7, asked me how Valentine’s Day started. I told him we could research that at the library, but later that night I got curious and went online. I found conflicting information, so I decided to put together a Cosmic Education story to tell him the tale of the origins of Valentine’s day. I shared it with him and it inspired us to make care packages for the people experiencing homelessness in our area. I hope it can inspire acts of kindness, or at least get some conversations started, among the children in your life.
Note: I don’t follow any religion, and I’ve tried to make the story as secular as possible so it can be used widely. I use the lower-case “g” in all instances of the word “god”, but if that bothers you, feel free to copy/paste and edit at will. This story is meant to be told orally, as are all Cosmic Education stories, so you can adapt it to fit your audience and/or beliefs.
The Story of the Origin of Valentine’s Day
Have you ever wondered where people got the idea to celebrate Valentine’s day? Historians don’t have much information to go on, so I’m going to tell you one of their theories. For this story, we’re going to go back in time, almost 2,000 years ago, to a country in Europe called Italy.
Italy was the home of the Ancient Romans. The Roman Empire was very powerful, with a large army and a series of emperors that controlled land from Northern Africa to Western Asia and a large part of Europe. The Ancient Romans believed in many gods. You’ve probably heard of Saturn, Jupiter and Neptune… Before they were the names of planets, they were just three of the hundreds of gods the Romans worshipped! Keeping the gods happy was of utmost importance to the Ancient Romans, and the Emperor would throw in jail anyone who didn’t believe in these gods or who refused to make sacrifices to them.
One of the groups of people at risk of being jailed were the Christians. This small group believed in only one god – a god very different from the Roman gods – and felt their mission in life was to help people who were poor, sick or hurt. After receiving help from the Christians, these people would often convert – they’d stop believing in the Roman gods and start worshipping the Christian god. As you can imagine, this made the Roman Emperor very, very angry!
One of these Christians was a priest named Valentinus. He helped the poor and the sick, and many of those he helped were so grateful that they decided to convert. When the Emperor heard what Valentinus was doing, he locked him in jail to stop him from helping and converting any more Romans to Christianity. However, Valentinus did not forget about those he’d helped. He wrote letters to them from jail and signed them “From your Valentinus.”
Valentinus died in jail on February 14th, which was around the time of the Ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia. This rowdy party celebrated love, and when the Christians became more powerful than the Romans, they replaced this raucous festival with a day to remember the work of St. Valentinus. And thus, Valentine’s day was born! You can research how the holiday evolved to include chocolates and love poems; it’s quite an interesting story that will take you to Medieval England.
I look forward to hearing what you discover. But for now, when we celebrate Valentine’s day, let’s take a moment to think about how we – like Valentinus – can make the world a better place by helping those who are poor, sick or hurt. Because that’s the true spirit of Valentine’s day!
A Montessori learning community is a dynamic village, whose success – defined not in financial terms but by the growth and joy of the children – depends on the collaboration and shared values of all its members. What role do you play?
The Montessori Guide
Each environment (classroom) is steered by a well-trained and experienced Montessori guide. She needs to have a profound love for children and a vision of their immense potential; keep herself immersed in Montessori theory and continuously educate herself on aspects of human development; and be receptive to respectful feedback. But no matter how passionate, qualified and dedicated the Montessori guide be, she cannot fulfill the mission alone.
Administrators are the torchbearers of the school’s Montessori values. They serve as a sounding board for the guide’s ideas and challenges; help parents and guides understand each other; and uphold the practice of Montessori philosophy (to the exclusion of all others) through comprehensive parent education, effective professional development, and consistent observation/feedback in the classroom.
Parents (at home)
Parents who choose a Montessori education for their child need to understand the impact their home life has on the functioning of the classroom community. When the values of the home align with the values of the chosen school, the child transitions smoothly between his two environments. This continuity of values and expectations allows him to feel safe, accepted and successful. Parents who offer clear limits and hold their children (and themselves) accountable; provide a loving home environment rife with opportunities for connection; and model a growth mindset have children who come to school ready to reap the benefits of a truly transformational education.
The Parent Community (at school)
A parent community provides the “village” that allows families to successfully navigate the pressures of modern society and stay true to their core values. The village upholds the school’s values and uses them as a guide for how they treat the children, staff and each other. They volunteer their time and talents towards the upkeep and improvement of the school. Children see their parents’ commitment towards school and begin to understand its value.
In a society that tries to outsource or outwit the most challenging aspects of child-rearing, it takes commitment and vision to be a member of this type of community. Only when we each understand and embrace our role – and find the humility to admit that we need each other – will we begin to be of service to the children. It truly does take a village.
On a brisk and sunny Sunday three weeks ago, prior to heading out to a Christmas concert, I made my family a healthy and tasty lunch. Both of my kids (ages 6 and 3) scoffed at it and my husband had to beg them to take their (mostly full) plates to the kitchen. I cleaned the kitchen by myself while my husband and the kids played, and then we headed out, leaving behind a living room covered in toys and puzzles that I didn’t have the energy to fight about.
On the way to the concert, both kids began to whine that they were hungry and wanted to go to a restaurant. My husband told them that we’d go to one after the concert. We arrived early, so my husband and the kids played on the lawn while I sat in the sunlight, too exhausted from making breakfast, cleaning the kitchen, folding the laundry, doing the groceries, putting them away, cleaning out the fridge, unloading the dishwasher, making lunch and cleaning the kitchen again (plus putting in a 50-hour workweek at school, commuting, and making daily breakfasts, lunches and dinners).
A mixture of anger and sadness welled up inside me. Where had it all gone wrong?! Here I was, Ms. Full Montessori, with all my degrees, certifications, research and experience… And my kids were acting like entitled little brats! Furious thoughts whirled through my mind as we entered the chapel where the concert was being held. I tried to breathe out the negative thoughts and enjoy the music, but then my son began whining because I wouldn’t buy him a cookie from the concession stand and my daughter started melting down (because, no lunch, remember?). Something inside of me snapped, and the tears began streaming down my cheeks.
We left the concert at intermission (see: pre-schooler and mommy meltdowns) and quietly piled back into the car. We drove home in silence, and as soon as we got there I grabbed notebook and pen and fled the scene. I needed to think, to reassess our lives.
I sat at a coffee shop and furiously made a list of all the responsibilities I shouldered in our home. It was two pages long. Then I marked those tasks that could be done by either my husband or my children, and sorted them into lists under their names. As I crossed out chores from my list, I felt a considerable weight lifting off my shoulders. I wrote out a “Who Does What” plan for mornings, evenings and weekends. Then I headed home.
That evening, I called a family meeting and explained that I was feeling overwhelmed by all the responsibilities I had chosen to undertake. I apologized for failing to give them opportunities to contribute to the household, and pointed out how capable they had become in just a few short years. I shared all of the tasks I knew they were capable of doing, and showed them the plan that outlined all the family contributions.
I also talked about lifestyle changes: no eating between meals; restaurant dinners were limited to Friday evenings or special occasions; and my husband and I would leave the kids with the babysitter and go on date nights every other Saturday. At the bottom of the list I wrote: “No moaning/groaning/whining.”
My kids seemed excited by most of the changes. My husband, not so much…
Stay tuned to find out how our lives have evolved in the past three weeks since I set these new boundaries and expectations, and what tools I’ve been using to shift us towards more gratitude and less entitlement!