Eleanor Doughty investigates the ethos of the Montessori nursery system
Sending your little one to nursery is a big step. But how do you go about finding the right one when there seem to be so many options out there? From small, independent nurseries with the sweetest uniforms, to larger day-care nurseries more suitable for parents working full-time, you need to weigh up the pros and cons, along with factors like the location, the ethos, the structure and the cost.
Whether your borough doesn’t have quite the one you’re looking for, or whether you turn up on the open day and find that half of west London has had the same idea too, the choice can be tricky to say the least.
But have you considered Montessori? Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori developed the famed specialised education system in 1897. With the emphasis placed on independence and respect for a child’s natural social development, for many parents it offers a perfectly balanced education. Montessori saw that children already held something special within them; she conceived that if they were allowed to develop in a natural environment, they could prove their innate ability to care for the world around them, and those within it.
There are 190 Montessori nurseries across London, and they all come with their own little character and identity. Due to the increasing popularity of the system, many are, inevitably, over-subscribed.
You may wonder why you should choose Montessori, over all the other nurseries that litter London’s chichi postcodes? “We chose Montessori because we liked the structure and focus on learning through play,” explains Kate Clark, whose two-and-a-half-year-old daughter attends one such nursery. “I was worried that she was too young, but she has thrived. She’s gone from saying a few words that only her Dad and I could understand to being able to hold short conversations with anyone.”
Maria Montessori understood for herself a few key notions about children and the way in which they should be educated. These range from peer-led learning – understanding that children gain from leading and helping each other – and sensory vision, to the notion that children love working with beautiful objects and are at their happiest when they are working towards something that makes them feel good about themselves.
The charm of this sort of education is in the independence of the children that attend. “Montessori education is based on the understanding that children have an innate capacity to learn and to educate themselves when placed in the right environment,” Anne-Marie True, Principal of Barnes Montessori explains. Montessori extends education beyong the classroom, and as talk in education circles turns to a focus on soft skills and self-confidence, helping your child down this path from early years is logical. The Montessori way is to encourage children to be independent, setting them up for ‘big’ school and the wide world of prep diaries and boater hats that looms in the distance.
Self-discipline is top of the to-do list inside Montessori buildings. While discipline might induce Victorian visions of lining up outside classrooms, in a Montessori environment, discipline is managed on an individual basis. “Children in a Montessori setting enjoy enormous freedom to choose within the limits of the prepared environment,” says the Montessori St Nicholas charity. The approach is not unlike the one taken by many parents at home, allowing children to explore and find things independently, but protected and overseen by an adult. Carlotta O’Sullivan, Principal of Fulham’s Sinclair House School, where the Montessori nursery spans two different sites, emphasises the central role of each child. “The experience in the classroom is pupil-led, rather than teacher-led. It is based on facilitating a child’s self-expression and choices, by helping them to develop self-awareness and self-worth.”
Montessori schools focus on an education outside the standard frame. “Every little activity that they engage in – from measuring out food at lunchtime to selecting books to read, and from chopping and arranging flowers to choosing to paint a picture – has an educational benefit, whether it’s hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness or fine motor skills,” one mother explains.
These skills are of the utmost importance, for when you are choosing an educational base of any kind, the final product is an important factor to consider. What will your child ‘be’ like when they finish and move on to the next stage? It is a crucial question to ask when looking around and observing pupils during the school day. Children that emerge from Montessori nurseries, are – both O’Sullivan and True confirm – confident, happy and independent.
The liberated style of learning has gained momentum in pre-schools nationwide, as they seek to include elements of Maria Montessori’s theory into their curriculum, enabling more children to benefit from her approach to learning. Wherever you decide to send your child, consider the children you meet when looking around. Are they happy, relaxed and sociable? If the answer is yes, then you’ve found your nursery.
mci.montessori.org.uk | Photography: Shutterstock