I love Montessori. Not merely the materials and the way that they call to each child at different stages of development. I love Montessori as a way of living. I love the endless opportunities that a Montessori environment offers each child who enters it. I love the way that the small community that is created accepts every new child as if he was a long-lost family member reunited. I love that the “oldest” children in the environment not only teach the youngest; they mentor, nurture, adore, and protect them. So, why tack on a Before or After school Program at the beginning and end of a child’s school day? Is it truly to suit the child or is it simply easier for the adults to sustain? Throughout the years, I have become a bit of a crusader of All Day Montessori. I am an advocate of eliminating before and after school care in Montessori schools in order to encourage all of these wonderful things to continue to grow into something that resembles a living community: All Day and ideally All Year.
Every day for the last twenty years I have been fortunate enough to call two very special places “home”. I can say with confidence that the children who I share my professional space with today also see it as a home away from home. How can I be so sure? Well, if you were to ask me the same question within the first five years of this very unstable All Day, All Year program I would have likely cried and then said that I wasn’t sure of anything on any given day. If it weren’t for those first terribly unsettling years, I would not be able to say with confidence that children who stay at school for longer hours than a traditional school day, are best served in a Montessori classroom ALL DAY LONG. Their classroom. Their space. Isn’t that what we might call authentic Montessori?
There is a need for longer hours at school. There is no disputing that. Parents are workers and workers are parents, both out of necessity and preference. That’s in large part because many families in today’s economy rely on two incomes in order to pay the bills. The traditional primary class model is one that provides a school day from 8:30 am-3:00 pm. In order to meet the needs of parents and their demanding work schedules, many schools today offer before and after-school care. We (Countryside Montessori School) started, as many do, with a daycare set-up that was offered in the morning before the children went to their Montessori environments and then again after school when class ended. We offered 7:00 am drop- off, which included a light breakfast (cereal, toast, etc.). Also offered, was 12:00 pm lunch drop-in, which included lunch for children too young to stay for extended day. Finally, there was also an after-school option of 3:00 pm – 6:00 pm. This before/after care room could accommodate approximately 35 children at one time. It was available year-round, and only closed on major holidays. Parents could sign-up for any or all of those options – some even on a daily basis. It was named “Care Club”. When Care Club began almost 40 years ago, it contained no Montessori materials. The room was equipped with books, puzzles, blocks and traditional toys. I began directing Care Club when I joined the Countryside staff thirty years ago.
As many daycares can become, the program was essentially a revolving door for adults. The children could never really be sure of who was coming and going. Keeping ground rules consistent was unrealistic. Adults aside, the number of transitions in the children’s day was enough to make anyone feel muddled. Try to imagine every two to three hours being asked to pack up all your stuff and move to another room after you have finally settled in.
The day went a little bit like this for most children in Care Club: Having been pulled out of bed early in order to get to school on time, most days started badly for many children. After breakfast, they played with toys for a short time and then were asked to gather their belongings (again) and head to their Montessori class. After the morning class, all non-extended day children would come back to the day care room to have lunch and nap. After naps, the youngest children would play for a bit and at 3:00pm the extended day and elementary children enrolled in daycare would join us. The daycare room was located in the middle of the school so there would often be groups of children walking past the room to go home. For the daycare children, this was yet another reminder that they were different. Looking back, it is so clear why they weren’t interested in becoming connected to anything . . . they were simply waiting. Waiting for someone to tell them where to go next.
At the time, it seemed to make sense that the children needed “a break” in their day and the way to meet that need was to supply them with material that you’d find in their homes. Toys! As far as the toy selections in Care Club . . . well, they were endless. Subsequently, I felt that if I skimmed back and really focused on making good choices to place in the room, it would make a difference in the children’s behavior. I brought in toys and games that involved concentration and cooperation. However, it didn’t take long to figure out that it made little difference what kind of toy I put on the shelves . . . the children were equally abusive with each one. I’ll be honest with you, it didn’t feel right or even comfortable, but it was representative of how we often see children interact with each other in similar settings. Also, at this time I was not yet Montessori trained. It simply didn’t occur to me that it could be better.
There was something different about the day-care children, this was apparent. They were detached and uninspired with their daycare environment as well as their Montessori classrooms. In the daycare environment they bickered, damaged materials, they were careless and uninterested; in the classroom, they were only concerned with being with each other and waiting for Care Club to begin. What were the children trying to tell us? We continued to observe and explore, exhausting many possibilities along the way. We tried: adding more toys, limiting toys, adding service-oriented tasks for the All-Year elementary, and finally bringing in some practical life-type activities. After all of our best attempts failed, it was time to seek outside assistance. This day, I remember like no other. This is the day Carol Alver turned my world upside down . . . in a good way. I recall vividly when Carol and I sat down to talk about Care Club. I thought she would give me a few enlightening suggestions on how to make some minor tweaks to the program. This was not the case. In a nutshell, Carol said that it all had to go. The toys, the games, the “Day Care” environment had to go. She proposed that we create an All-Year Montessori environment with hours that would accommodate working parents, but most importantly provide the children with a place that they could call their own. I was rattled and fairly uncertain if I had a job the following day.
The school, however, was intrigued. We were not in the position to make the changes that were necessary to do it the right way. So I continued on, doing my best to offer the children an enriching Day Care environment. In the meantime, I also decided to embark on the AMI primary training. At the same time, our Head of School, Annette Kulle charged Wendy Calise, our Educational Director, with the responsibility of devising a daycare program that was pedagogically sound. She was specifically not to be influenced by the needs of parents; the realities of staffing; the space for such a program; the cost of such a program; or even whether we wanted to do such a program. While I kept myself busy with the training, Wendy was doing her own homework on how to make Carol’s idea work.
Two years later we took the plunge. These were the parameters that were devised for a new All-Year environment:
- All children enrolled in AYM would be in one class. This would mean pulling the day care children from other primary classes and forming a new fourth class
- The daycare hours would be shortened, taking a half an hour off each end of the day
- There was no reason that children should not be in a Montessori environment all day long
- Transitions needed to be limited
- Three staff members for the All-year class were sufficient, one trained directress and two full-time assistants
- In order for the All-Year Montessori teacher to not feel 2nd class – her number of days off would be the same as all other teachers in the school
- The class size would be 30 – 35 children
- AYM would need more space than a traditional class
- The room would be designed so that no other children would need to pass through to go home
- There would be a place (vestibule) for parents to wait when picking up their children
- There would be a full kitchen
- And finally, the program needed to be pedagogically sound
There was no doubt that these children were particularly sensitive to transition. Consequently, I made certain that there were few variations that occurred in their day. However, I really wanted to make their day seamless. Not an easy task with so many hours to consider. Also, there weren’t many successful models to follow. There seems to still remain many educators who feel that children need constant change to keep their interest. We had learned first hand in Care Club that it couldn’t be farther from the truth. So this is what I did . . . I observed. And then when I thought I had enough information, I observed some more. Through my observations, I had discovered countless shifts throughout the school day that were not only disruptive but robbed the children of the ownership that they needed in order to finally settle into THEIR class.
The All-Year class is almost 20 years old and in the best place it has ever been. Currently, the class consists of thirty-five children. We are open from 7:30 – 5:30m, 245 days a year. I continue to be the directress in the environment, and I have two assistant teachers. As previously mentioned, this place has become a home away from home for me and for hundreds of children over the years. As difficult as it was in the beginning to make the change, I can’t imagine working and living in any other environment.
When pondering the idea of Montessori all-day long it would be foolish to not reflect on the very first Children’s House. In 1906 Montessori worked with a group of sixty young children of working parents in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. It was there that she founded the first Casa, essentially what we now are calling All-Year Montessori. ‘There is a great sense of community within the Montessori classroom, where children of differing ages work together in an atmosphere of cooperation rather than competitiveness. There is respect for the environment and for the individuals within it, which comes through experience of freedom within the community.’ Dr. Maria Montessori (cited in Elizabeth Hainstock, 1986, p. 81 – The Essential Montessori). I am living in a community such as this every day. It allows the younger child to experience the daily incentive of older role models, who in turn flourish through the responsibility of leadership. This cycle is continuous, as those being mentored successively aspire to be the role model. Three to six-year-olds remaining in the same class ALL DAY innately eliminates all titles that the children naturally impose on each other. There are no morning children, extended day kids, or even “kindergarten” labels. They are all in it together . . . everyday. They are classmates. They are friends. They become a family. This environment also promotes the understanding that children not only learn ‘with’ each other but ‘from’ each other, minimizing the need for adult guidance and intervention. The peer teaching in an all year environment has limitless boundaries. The robust sense of community allows the children to become confident in their environment and in themselves, using the knowledge and skills they acquire to express their own ideas and creativity. It assists them in recognizing their value, to respect the creative process of others, and develop a willingness to share, regardless of the risks.
On any given morning, the delicious fragrances of cinnamon French toast, multi-grain waffles, banana pancakes or cheesy skillet scrambled eggs can be enjoyed throughout the halls of the school. As early as 7:30 am, parents escort children into a vestibule that leads into our AYM class. After good-byes are said at the entrance, the child walks independently into the classroom and the parent sets off to work. The child then tends to his belongings and walks into the kitchen area that is adjoining the class. At this time, he has the choice of either having the hot breakfast that is being prepared by his peers or beginning his day in the class. Once breakfast is made and all morning responsibilities have been fulfilled, the children sit to eat family-style. Some words of thanks for the bountiful meal are shared and then thirty-something children begin their feast. Conversation, laughter, and quiet reflection can all be observed during breakfast all year round. It is a perfect way to ease into a day.
As children finish up and breakfast comes to a close, there is more activity just beginning in the classroom. Children arriving after 8:00 am have already eaten breakfast at home and oftentimes are the ones preparing the class for readiness. In an All Day environment where we want the children to ultimately claim complete ownership, it is essential that they partake in the everyday class preparatory tasks that traditionally the adults are accustomed to completing. A variety of work can be observed in AYM anytime between 8:30 and 11:30; the traditional Montessori materials are in constant use as well as activities such as: baking snack for the class, tending to the garden, watercolor painting or cleaning an animal cage. By 10:30 am the children have already emptied the dishwasher twice. In addition, the laundry has been loaded, unloaded and folded for lunch preparation. In every corner of the room, real, purposeful activity can be observed. A living, working community.
Around 11:30 am a few children slowly begin to wash up and wander into the dining area once again to begin lunch set-up. At 11:45 there still may be a child finishing up a word with the moveable alphabet that he is anxious to get down on his rug before joining us for lunch. There is no hurry we have time. Preparation, eating, and clean up takes us close to an hour and a half. Mealtime is an opportunity for growth. Grace and Courtesy lessons have become as important to me as any other tangible material that can be found on the shelves of the classroom. These are life lessons. They are critical in order to maintain peace and harmony within a very extended day together.
After our second meal of the day, we retreat to our backyard. Most of the children in AYM are at school for ten hours a day. Outdoor play is a must, no matter what the weather brings. A few of the very youngest children who need an afternoon nap settle in shortly after some time outside. The oldest children are partnered up with the youngest to tuck them in, sing a song or rub their backs for comfort. When the others are ready to come in from outside, we gather for a few minutes to discuss the day or what’s to come in that particular week. We then begin our second three-hour work period of the day. This is commonly when I observe the most focused work, sometimes from the youngest in the class. It is not unusual to see a child completely engaged in his work at 5:00 pm. For the last hour, the All Year Elementary children typically go outside or to the gym for some large movement. A handful of the three to six year olds who need large movement join the elementary students. The primary children truly value their time with the elementary group. It is another wondrous occasion for peer teaching to take place on a different level.
I am still faced with some apprehension and a smidge of resistance when visiting schools who are considering an All Day model in replacement of their before and aftercare. The hesitance is typically coming from the staff, the teachers who will ultimately have to make the shift from a traditional school day. I get it. Change is hard. Most of us today live in places that lack community. Neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. Parents and children aren’t home long enough to develop the kinds of relationships with their neighbors that we had long ago. That’s why it’s so crucial that we help to nurture and inspire the children who stay at school for longer hours to develop a community within our Montessori classrooms. Being involved in a community of friends is vital in the growth and development of our children. Community offers support, a sense of belonging, a strong sense of self and of connection. The children feel emotionally and physically safe and valued; they develop social abilities and have a sense of sharing and caring for each other. Let’s work together to continue to create and develop these All Day/All Year communities. Anything of real value is worth the struggle. The children certainly are.