At 2 1/2, my daughter began her Primary cycle in Montessori. For those who aren’t familiar with the “grade levels” in a Montessori school, Primary is a three-year cycle generally for ages 3, 4, and 5. The last year in the cycle is the “kindergarten” year. I hoped I was doing the right thing at the time, and her first primary teacher was so kind, gracious, patient, and nurturing, that I was instantly a Montessori fan. The hands-on approach to learning, very tactile, and the freedom of choice that the children had, it all won me over. In California, we found yet another classroom with nurturing, loving teachers who devoted themselves to my daughter’s well-being. And I assure you, she is not the easiest kid in the class, with her sensory needs, high energy level, and emotional outbursts! How could I not love these special adults who took my daughter under their wing and loved her for all of her wonderful qualities???
In the background, I was reading everything I could find on self-directed learning, and of course that led me to John Holt and Peter Gray. Unschooling became my secret dream, but Montessori was still so much better than any version of public school. I wished I had learned subjects like math in the Montessori way. I saw the hard work they put into developing the child’s social and emotional skills, and I valued the tight-knit community.
Then one day, at an introductory night in her new Montessori school, my daughter took out a work and placed it on a rug. It was a bowl full of little plastic animal figurines, meant for a sorting task of some kind. But M, being 4 years old and full of wonderful imagination, began to play with the animals, making up a story line and lining them up. The teacher came over, quickly, and corrected her. She said, “that’s not what this work is for” and showed her how to do it “correctly”. That was the moment, the moment I knew, that even though Montessori was full of wonderful ideas and wonderful people, it wasn’t quite hitting the mark. In fact, in that moment, it really missed. I can’t accept that there is only one right way to use those animal figurines. Or that the sorting activity had any more importance or relevance to my four-year-old than the activity she had devised from the material all on her own.
That was the day that I knew, without a doubt, that I couldn’t be completely satisfied with Montessori. And, as my stepdaughter transitioned into first grade, and the at-home work began to start slipping into our evening life, I felt more irritated. The sacrifice of free time, play, and family life felt like a detriment to learning, a hindrance rather than a help.
So when I start to second-guess my decision to put my daughter in purely self-directed learning programs, and take her out of the school building… I remember that moment, and I know it’s right.