Lessons from summer camp

My kids aren’t going to day camp this summer. The little ones are too young and I also like having the flexibility to sleep in, hang out, and not rush the children to go anywhere.

It comes at a price, though… having three little kids at home all day can result in a very, very messy house, and since my oldest doesn’t nap anymore, there’s no kid-free time to clean it.

In keeping with Montessori philosophy, our home is a place that we all need to keep clean so that it is ready for us to use and enjoy. That means everybody does their part, everybody cleans up their own messes, and everybody can be productive. Even the babies. But how to implement it in a way that won’t make the little ones rebel?

Good thing this Montessori Mom learned a few tricks at summer camp:

1. Cleanup after breakfast

Young children crave order and repetition. My young kids seem happy to have a set morning routine: Wake up, get washed and dressed, eat breakfast (oatmeal from the crockpot – mmm!) and then, just like at camp, you go back to your bunk and clean up before you go outside to play. We call it “Nikayon” (Hebrew for “cleaning”) just like we did at camp, and everyone gets a task.

N and K love scrubbing the toilet. I let them, although sometimes I make a big fuss about it being “my turn” just to keep them interested. They like it when I let them get into an empty tub and scrub it with baking soda. We also have a sticky roller on a long handle that they enjoy pushing around to pick up dust and crumbs. Seriously, they fight over these tasks. It’s very cool.

Nikayon time also includes tidying up the toys in the living room and picking up everything from the bedroom floor. Beds get made. Our nanny does the kitchen cleanup while I finish off the bathroom. The place is clean… and then we go out.

2. Mealtime routine

At summer camp there is always some kind of system for clearing the table, usually involving a dishpan of soapy water, a slop bucket, and a scraper. It’s a fabulous example of Montessori’s “prepared environment”; the children are able to clear the dishes because all of the necessary tools and facilities are readily available and easy to use.

We’ve taken to filling the plastic sink in the children’s play kitchen with soapy water. When they are finished eating they carry their plates to the kitchen, scrape them into the green bin with a rubber spatula, and put their dishes in their sink. The table is clear and the dishes are ready for the dishwasher regardless of how long it takes for me to get back there and load them all in.

3. Get outside

At summer camp you’re only in your bunk to get dressed and to sleep. The rest of the time is spent outdoors. Same deal here: we clean up and then we leave the house, even if just for the backyard. Remember: they can’t mess up the house if they’re not in the house! Seriously, keeping the kids outside as much as possible really helps cut down on the indoor chaos.

4. Daily activities

We have tons of games, crafts, and toys here at home. Every day we try to bring out one new thing for the kids to play with in the morning. We’ve done a water table, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, bikes, and we usually set up some kind of beading craft. Even just handing them the garden hose counts, as this morning’s mud bath proved. Prepare the environment and then get out of their way, and the kids will do fascinating – and fun – things. It works at school, it works at camp, and it works at home.

5. Rest hour

Or as we say at Jewish summer camps, “Menucha.” It doesn’t matter how old you are, how tired you’re not, or whether or not you ever sleep during the day. After lunch we have rest hour, which means everybody is quiet and in their own “bunk.”

More often than not, rest hour turns into “rest couple of hours,” which is fine by me. Sometimes even I get to do some napping.

 

And that’s how things are at Camp Jewish Montessori Mom. I have to run – I’m in the mood for some water sports. Happy camping!

Yes, that’s me… the ultimate happy camper!

Start to finish.

First of all, full disclosure: I am terrible at follow-through. If you want ideas, brainstorms, and creative concepts, I can provide them by the hundreds, but if you ask me to see them through to completion… well, you’d be barking up the wrong tree. But this post isn’t really about me.

One of the things I love about Montessori education is the way it teaches kids to plan and execute complex projects. Field trips, for example: in the upper elementary and middle school classes (ages 9-11) the students can decide that they’d like to put together a trip to see or experience something related to their current studies. The students must choose a destination, plan a budget, figure out travel arrangements (often by public transit), solicit parent chaperones (whose sole job is to be the adult-in-case-of-emergencies, standing back and letting the kids lead the expedition), and make all the necessary arrangements. From a relatively young age, the kids develop the skills to see a project through from beginning to end.

I try to incorporate this kind of learning into our life at home. Most often I’ll propose a project (for lack of a better name) to link aspects of our Jewish life together. On Tu B’shvat (the new year for trees) we planted parsley seeds in a tray. They’ve been transplanted to a pot outside and we plan to harvest them for Karpas (a green vegetable) for our Passover seder plate. It’s the sort of thing that establishes a connection between two different holidays and creates anticipation for the kids. I don’t do a lot of that sort of thing, but occasionally I’ll get an idea.

So when K’s school announced the annual Passover food drive, it occurred to me that here was an opportunity to use the contents of her overstuffed tzedaka box. She’s been putting coins into it all year, often (but not exclusively) just before lighting Shabbat candles. We’ve spoken about how the money she puts into the box will be shared with people who are in need – who don’t have the things we take for granted, like food, shelter, clothing, or health. Wouldn’t it be great, I reasoned, if she could see this mitzvah through from beginning to end?

I presented the idea to K. She loved the idea of taking out all the coins and counting them, and with some prompting she began to think of what passover foods a family might need. We emptied the tzedaka box and discovered a little over $100 in there. I rolled the coins in the hope that some nice cashier wouldn’t mind us paying our grocery bill in loonies, toonies, and quarters.

After school today, K and I hit the supermarket. I suggested types of food (“how about canned fruit?”) and she made the final decision on varieties or brands (“we should get peaches and mandarins!”) K loaded up the cart, I pushed it to the cash, and she carefully placed her selections on the conveyor belt. The lovely woman at the cash didn’t bat an eyelash at our rolls of change; she just counted out the coins and made conversation with K.

“How does the food get to a family?” K asked as we treated ourselves to ice cream cones. I responded that someone would pack boxes up, and then volunteers would drive the boxes to the homes of needy families. “We should do that!” she exclaimed.

And so this Sunday we’ll be tootling around town, just the girls, delivering boxes of passover food. With that final step K will have experienced the entire process of charitable giving firsthand. When I think about it, it’s quite an education – even for an adult – as by the end of Sunday we will have covered almost all of the steps involved in almost all donations to a direct-service organization:

  • set aside money for tzedaka on a regular basis
  • choose an intended recipient (charity or individual)
  • count and allocate the money
  • choose how to spend the money in order to maximize utility and value; purchase necessary goods
  • deliver goods to end users

Sure, I had to initiate the project and guide her every step of the way, but K is only four years old and this was a concrete way to link her dropping coins into a box with helping other people.

During our ice cream date, I told K that the traditional thing to say to someone who did a mitzvah like she did would be “yasher koach” or “may your strength continue,” and that she should continue to be strong so she could do more mitzvot. She commented, “I need to eat good foods so that I can get stronger!”  “Yes,” I said, “that will help your body get stronger, but you can make your neshama (soul) stronger too, by doing mitzvot.” “You mean I can start with little mitzvot and do bigger and bigger ones? I want to do that!” And I kvelled.

Montessori educators already knew it, and now I understand it too: when you invest yourself in the entire process, from start to finish, all work – of the hand, of the mind, of the soul – is meaningful.

Repetition, rote, and religious fulfillment

I once had a conversation with a cousin of mine who asked me why I love the Passover seder so much. She was asking, she said, because she doesn’t enjoy seders at all (aside from the food and the family being together.) She finds prayers boring and unenjoyable and doesn’t understand how I could find fulfillment that way.

Here’s how I responded:

Imagine you have a friend who really loves line dancing. She drags you to a bar one night and tells you that you’re about to have an amazingly fun experience. You go out to the dance floor with her. The music starts and everyone is moving. You’re trying to watch people’s feet, and you succeed at copying their steps, but you’re lagging behind everyone and you keep bumping into people when you turn the wrong way. You’re trying to get with the beat of the music, but you don’t know this song and hearing the beat seems to take more effort and concentration than it should. You shuffle along as best you can, feeling stupid and uncoordinated. You can’t wait to get off the dance floor. When the song ends you’re out of there, with no intention of coming back. Your friend, on the other hand, really enjoyed herself and can’t understand why you didn’t have fun, too.

Prayer and ritual are the same as any other activity. If you don’t have the basics down pat, you’ll never be able to enjoy it fully. People seem to accept that you need to practice for years if you’re going to really enjoy playing an instrument in a group, and that you have to learn the steps and then practice them before ballroom dancing becomes an enjoyable pastime for you… and yet somehow people expect to step into a synagogue and have a transcendental spiritual experience. What’s more, when spiritual fulfillment fails to materialize, they blame the religion, the synagogue, and the language rather than their own lack of study and practice.

Yes, I get a kick out of the Passover seder. I love it. I love the words, the melodies, the symbols. I love them because they’re familiar to me, and I love them because of what they express. The Hallel section (aka the long part after the meal that most people just skip) puts words in my mouth so that I can use them to express my personal thanks and praise to God. I’ve been hearing those words since birth. In grades 1 and 2 we practiced excerpts from the haggadah for weeks so that we could put on a model seder in our class. I’m 32 years old, and we do two seders a year, and that means I’ve heard the entire seder at least 64 times, not counting all that practice in school and my attempts to learn my Grandpa’s melodies by tape recording him and listening to it repeatedly.

When people criticize their Jewish education they often cite rote memorization as a major reason why they hated it. Sure, being made to memorize words in a foreign language without any explanation of their meaning feels useless. But why is the instinct to eliminate memorization rather than to increase understanding? Both are important, but you have to know that all the understanding in the world won’t help you line dance if you don’t learn the steps.

Montessori education understands this principle. K’s classroom is full of activities that one could call “pointless,” like the one where you have to cut a strip of paper into squares by cutting precisely on the printed lines. Wouldn’t everyone love to go straight to sewing and collage-making? Probably, but they’d be disappointed by their results. I can tell you as a crafter and a quilter that being able to cut precisely on the lines is essential to making a good-looking product. Basic skill development is essential, and we jump to the end activity at our own peril.

Will my children have the comfort and facility with Jewish prayer that I do? I don’t know. Our school is less “religious” than the one I attended, which means that instead of reciting prayers every day they do it twice a week. I do know that at the age of 4 K already knows the entire (long) blessing over the Sabbath wine. She’s heard it every week since her birth which puts her at… well, upwards of 200 repetitions. One day, I hope, she’ll be able to stand and recite the blessing fluently while feeling the awe and sanctity of the words.

Our job, as parents and educators, is to give our children the skills to function in the world and to find fulfillment. When it comes to religious education, we’d do doubly well to remember that.

Hannukah “Play”, Montessori-style

I have always been in favour of what I call “child labour” (letting children do actual household tasks) and have often viewed most toys as superfluous, unnecessary, and even insulting to children’s abilities and intelligence. Recently, though, I’ve come to see how having one child in a Montessori school has affected my parenting decisions for the other children at home. Here’s the most recent example:

It’s Hannukah (as we all know by now), and while perusing our local Jewish newspaper I saw an ad for a sale on a wooden hannukah playset. It looks like this:

I considered buying one. I thought that N would definitely love putting the candles into the menorah over and over again, and he might actually like to spin the dreidel. I went so far as to put “buy wooden hannukah set” on my to-do list. Then I laughed at myself, because the Montessori parent in me knows that this is a ridiculously unnecessary toy.

N wants to put candles into a menorah? Good. Let him practice with real candles and a real (metal, unbreakable) menorah. Does he want to hold and look at a dreidel? Great. I happen to have a large wooden dreidel (too big to be a choking hazard to anyone) that he can hold and play with. And what use is wooden hannukah gelt? It’s not shiny like the real thing, and you can’t eat it. No, better to give him one or two pieces of real gelt to look at, and later show him how to unwrap it and let him taste the chocolate. As for the wooden latkes and frying pan, why would he need those when he’s allowed to help me wash potatoes, mix the batter, and eat actual latkes?

This is a very real, concrete example of the Montessori attitude towards pretend play. In Montessori, children don’t have to pretend to work in a kitchen, or to plant a garden, or put candles in the menorah. They don’t have to pretend, because they can really do it. They might want to repeat the task (put candles in, take them out, examine them, put them in, take them out…). They might not do it with great skill. But they will do the task over and over again until they have mastered it. No toys, just real objects and tools that are appropriately sized for children’s hands.

As for N, this morning he pointed at the menorah and put his hands over his face, imitating the way we cover our eyes when lighting shabbat candles (we don’t cover our eyes for hannukah candles, but I suppose candles are candles, at this age).

“Do you want to practice lighting hannukah candles?” I asked, and in response he put his hands over his face again and then peeked out, smiling.

I gave him a box of candles and set him up on the window seat so that he could reach the menorah on the windowsill. He picked up one piece of the menorah (it comes apart) and tried to walk away with it. “N,” I said, “the hannukiah stays here so that everyone can see it when we light the candles.” He put the piece back. Then he reached for the candles and began to place one in each holder. When all of the holders were full, he covered his face and giggled.

N repeated the task over and over again for about half an hour. Some candles got broken, but gradually he learned to be more gentle with them. The focus and pride on his face was an excellent reminder that, given the tools and the opportunity, our children will master the tasks that make up our lives, no toys required.


What makes our Montessori school Jewish?

This post is in response to a reader question from long ago. I promise I’ll get to the other reader questions soon!

The answer to this is quite simple, although a bit hard to express. Basically it goes like this:

Our Montessori school is Jewish in the same way our home is Jewish.

The rhythms of the calendar are those of the Jewish calendar. Friday is Shabbat – everyone wears white shirts (to make it special, not because there’s anything significant about white shirts); they bless the candles, the challah, and the wine; lunchtime is a special treat – pizza.

As holidays approach, the entire school prepares. For Passover all of the students were involved in cleaning the classrooms, checking for chametz (leaven), and collecting kosher-for-passover foods for the Pesach food drive. On Purim the regular school day was disrupted for a giant party, everyone dressed in costume (our principal dressed as the Montessori movable alphabet), and they made mishloach manot bags to give to one another.

The classrooms themselves are full of Jewish objects and symbols. Among the practical life exercises you’ll find materials for putting candles into candlesticks (or into a menorah at Hannukah) – great for developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. The metal-polishing activity, a staple of any Montessori classroom, often involves polishing a kiddush cup or candlesticks that the class uses to celebrate Shabbat. Around the holidays there is a display of relevant objects (for Rosh Hashana there was a shofar, a pomegranate, a jar of honey, and a machzor) for the children to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Hebrew books mingle with the English, and the usual Montessori language arts materials have their direct counterparts in Hebrew materials.

Both English and Hebrew are spoken in the classroom all day – English by the Montessori teacher and Hebrew by the Jewish studies teacher. Children move easily between general studies and Jewish studies, guided by their mood that day. There is no artificial division where half the day is Jewish and the other half is secular. The whole day is Jewish, the whole day is Montessori.

Judaism works its way into every discipline. The upper elementary students were studying Renaissance art, and they were very interested in the Sistine chapel and how it was painted. They researched the logistics of painting a ceiling and then set out to try it by painting the undersides of the tables in their classroom. Each child had to choose a scene from the Torah, sketch it, explain to the teacher why it was significant and what details would be emphasized in the drawing. Then they all lay down on the floor under their tables and painted their favourite Torah scenes.

Sometimes I wish there was a bit more rote learning (I can explain in another post if you like, about how I think rote learning contributes to religious experience), or a bit more emphasis on religious – rather than just cultural – Judaism. But all in all, I’m happy that our school reflects our life. Judaism is a part of it, infusing everything, and not something that is separate from our everyday life.

Demystifying Montessori

A few weeks ago Montessori Dad and I attended a parents’ information breakfast at K’s school. The topic: “Your tuition and the economics of eduction”, or as we termed it, “why our school costs so damn much”. It gradually turned into a discussion of how to attract more students, which in turn became a discussion of what makes us different from the other Jewish day schools in the city. It dawned on me that even some of the parents with kids in our school really didn’t seem to understand that it’s not just another private school – it represents a significant shift away from the average educational model. If parents of Montessori students don’t understand that, why would we expect anyone else to?

I came home on a mission – to figure out what the average person knows or assumes about Montessori. I turned to Facebook and posted the question in my status. Four friends were kind enough to answer. I want to use their comments and questions as a jumping-off point for a bit of an explanation about Montessori – what it is, what it isn’t, and why I’ve chosen it.

Disclaimer – I am writing about Montessori from my point of view. I am by no means an expert, although I have borrowed some books from the library and I do intend to read them :p Please take everything I say with a grain of salt. As Montessori Dad always says, “trust but verify”.

Here are two of my friends’ comments in response to the question, “what do you know about Montessori?”:

“Something about making choices and centers for play. I do remember I didn’t totally agree with the philosphy behind it when I originally learned it in college. But other than that, I have no idea.”

“No idea… something about “accidental/experiential” learning vs being taught? I just know(/think) that it’s expensive. ;-)”

The first thing that struck me when I read these responses was the use of the words “play” and “learning”. When K arrives at school, her teachers ask “what work would you like to do today?” or “what materials will you work with first?”. At Montessori, what the children do is called “work”. “Learning” is not a word that is avoided, but it’s more common to ask, “what work did you do today, tell me about it?” than “what did you learn today?”

The repeated use of the word “work” when it comes to toddlers and preschoolers puts many people off. Work has an unpleasant connotation in our society: it’s the thing we have to finish doing before we can play. But Maria Montessori saw work very differently, as the productive activity undertaken by people in their day-to-day life. Cooking, playing music, gardening, woodworking – these are all forms of creative work. Reading and researching new ideas is academic work. Setting the table, tidying up, fixing things – these are the work of maintaining and beautifying our environment.

Kids love work. Why else would there be so many replicas of adult tools? Toy lawnmowers and vacuums, play kitchens, tiny watering cans and even toy laptops are ubiquitous. Children have an innate desire to imitate the adults in their life and contribute to the productive work of their family. In our society, we shelter them from real work for a variety of reasons: it would be too messy, they can’t handle the tools, it will take so much longer if I let them do it. Maria Montessori, however, believed that given the right-sized tools and taught at the appropriate times, children can learn to do productive work and will participate enthusiastically.

Here is a rundown of some of the work that K has done at school that transfers to her life at home:

  • wiping up spills
  • pouring liquids without spilling (accidents happen, but they’re rare)
  • spooning food from a serving dish into individual plates
  • setting the table
  • putting her plate next to the sink at the end of a meal
  • spraying and then wiping down the furniture
  • stirring and whisking
  • washing and cutting fruits and vegetables (with close supervision, but little interference)

She is, I’ll remind you, three years old. This is the age where “I can do it myself” and “I want to help” and “let me do it” are the commonly heard refrains (sometimes spoken, often whined). Nothing pleases K more than being “allowed” to pin diapers to the clothesline or crack eggs for challah. She even seems to prefer these activities to “play” most of the time. Of course she has a dress-up box and crayons and dolls and stuff, and she does like to play as well, but she’s eager to work. Thanks to Montessori, she knows how.

Working in their classroom also gives the students a sense of ownership and responsibility. Snack is not just put out for them – they are responsible for preparing it, planning and making signs to explain how much everyone can take, and cleaning up after themselves when they’re done. If something in the classroom gets dirtied, the kids clean it up. In the older classes they plan their own field trips (more on that later), including recruiting parent chaperones. The teachers do nothing for the kids that they are capable of doing for themselves.

Have I mentioned that I believe strongly in child labour teaching independence? Some effort on the adults’ part now will reap huge rewards later… I hope!

Next time on “Demystifying Montessori”: choice and experiential learning

If you have any comments or questions about this, I’d love to hear them… and answer them in another post.