This post was written by Julie Douglas. Photo credit: Elyse Lewin/Getty Images.
When I was eight months pregnant, my husband and I visited a Montessori school and fell in love with the place. Here we saw well-behaved toddlers sitting on their tiny chairs, eating off of tiny tables with tiny vases of black-eyed susans brightening up their snacks of cheese, fruit and crackers (that they had prepared themselves, no less). There we saw a lanky 6-year-old girl leaning against the wall, her ears covered with earphones, presumably listening to the nearby classical CD.
It had everything we were looking for: a secondary language spoken, plenty of activities for kids to choose from, a sense of order, and more than anything, the unspoken promise that your child wouldn't be treated as just another kid to be tended to; she would be treated as an individual.
Those were heady days. And while I still want that and more for my daughter, now that she's 2 and I've had a chance to do some more research, I'm rethinking the Montessori strategy. And for those of you who may be looking at the dizzying array of preschool/dayschool/daycare options, here's a quick primer on some of the more popular educational methods based on praise and criticisms culled from studies, articles and word of mouth from parents. Also, it should be noted that every school that employs a particular method is different, and there are some schools that pick and choose from varying methods and aren't strictly adhering to any one educational philosophy.
Pros: Learn by doing; learn at own pace; learn self-control, responsibility; studies show a larger vocabulary, better reasoning skills by third grade
Cons: Expensive; not enough free play or imaginative play; ideally parents adhere to the philosophy at their homes -- no sippy cups, plastic plates, etc.
Pros: Cultivate child's imagination; spiritual aspect as quest for self and answers in the natural world; high ideals regarding eschewing electronic media
Cons: Lack of textbooks; high ideals regarding eschewing electronic media; transition from 8th grade to different program may be jarring given how different the Waldorf format is, and there are no studies to corroborate performance later in high school and college with education quality; also the format is noncompetitive, which may not sit well with some parents. (Parents yelling from the bleachers, we're looking at you.)
Pros: Parents are encouraged to participate in child's education and play; foster sense of community and collaboration for the child; work on long-range projects; encourages independence and creativity with cooperation as the backdrop
Cons: A school with Emilio Reggio accredited teachers means that the program is probably pretty pricey since it's not cheap to fly teachers to Italy for the course.
Sure my child does the dishes, but ...
The key here is to figure out what you need and what your child needs. Do you have time to participate in a cooperative school where parents essentially run the school in accordance with the director? Would you rather leave teaching to the school administration? Do you need a school that has longer, more flexible hours and pickup options?
I recently visited a different Montessori school and found that my perspective had changed quite a bit. This particular Montessori was pretty adamant that the kids use tools correctly. So there was a lot of play floor scrubbing, play putting dishes away, along with drawing and putting together puzzles. I wasn't sure that I wanted my daughter to engage in play that didn't encourage her to, say, imagine that a towel was a cape and she was a superhero.
Don't get me wrong: The program seemed great - some older children were learning to count to 1,000 and a clutch of children were learning shapes and colors - but once I was given "rules" for observing the children, one of which was not to engage the children in conversation, I realized the subdued, whisper-friendly environment didn't fit my gregarious, high-flying toddler.
So the lesson seems to be, Know Thyself (And Your Kid). Turns out that I want my daughter to engage in her imagination as much as she can. But what's important to me could be less important for another parent. And it doesn't make one parent more or less right than the other.
The other lesson, if you can call it that, is that we can fetishize and obsess over practically anything related to our children. And why not? We care about them, right. But are we the generation of caring too much? After all, how much of what our kids are learning are coming from us, and how much of what they're learning is coming from school?