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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Celebrating the Pink Tower


"The human hand allows the mind to reveal itself."
Maria Montessori

What is it with the Pink Tower?  Why does it have such a prominent place in Montessori classrooms?  What is its purpose?  And (I am sure some parents ask) when will my child stop playing with blocks and start doing some real academic work?   All good questions, and deserving a good answer….

If only we could witness the growth and the connections happening in a young child’s brain.  We adults can only see the outer evidence, and then we often forget to marvel.  In our Children's House, the glimpses we are afforded through observing their work can inspire awe.  I can think of no work that is more meaningful for your children as they begin, no better learning activity in our classrooms, and none more revealing for us as observers, than the Pink Tower.

The Pink Tower is one of the earliest sensorial activities we introduce to a child, after the Knobbed Cylinders.  All of these concrete materials support the development and organization of the child’s perceptions through the five senses:  sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.  The materials are hands-on, attractive, self-correcting, and fun to use.  Working with the pink cubes specifically develops and refines the child’s sense of size and sequence, through both touch and sight; these are critical skills for future learning.   The cubes are very precisely created too - from 1 cm cubed to 10 cm cubed - so geometry and algebra are wonderfully and quietly embedded in their design.


When first giving this lesson, the teacher carefully demonstrates the carrying and setting out on the rug (one at a time, building movement and memory into the work), and the stacking of the cubes, from the largest to the smallest.  Then the child tries it, and we never expect him to get it right immediately (if he does, the lesson has come too late.)  For me, it is a joy to watch a young child attempt this work for the first time – it is like a window into his development, his temperament, and his readiness. 

Then we watch for and encourage repetition.  Repetition is crucial for children - trying an activity again and again, exploring the possibilities, building muscular memory, and creating no one knows how many synaptic trails and connections in the brain.  Every child has her own inner process to follow every time she gets her hands on the pink cubes.   What sequence of blocks will allow the tower to still stand?  Where does this big one go, that I missed on the way up to the smallest cube?  Can I count them?  What other ways might I arrange the cubes? What else can I build?  How can I put them away when the biggest is on the bottom? 

Some days, weeks, or even months later, at a point initiated by the child’s inner guide, interest, and experience, he will stack them perfectly for the first time.  There is almost always an expression of joy, "I did it!”  Look at Seamus - genuine pleasure and pride!


When the cubes alone no longer hold the same interest or challenge for a child, he goes on to further explorations and creations.  He has been introduced to the Brown Stair in the same careful way. And then one day the child discovers that the pink tower and the brown stair are built to the same relative dimensions, and new possibilities open up.  Lots of new possibilities....



We invite older children who have worked through and mastered most of the sensorial materials to begin to try some of them blindfolded. They have done certain activities blindfolded from the beginning - in particular the Fabric Box and Opening and Closing - so the experience is familiar, but this is a new adventure, sidelining the usually dominant sense of sight.   It's a whole new level of challenge, and always a lot of fun to observe.  

During this extended period of exploration, free building begins for many children, using the pink tower and brown stair as a foundation, and this activity seems to hold an endless attraction. Their creativity explodes.  Early this fall, we had to ask certain older children to stop doing it for a while, because they were setting a rather wild example for the younger ones.  Now we've opened it up again, with some moderation and balance encouraged.  I can't tell you how many different and amazing "marble runs" and "castles" we have seen just over the past year - they have been countless, unique, and mostly not photographed.  

All three of these next photos were taken last year.



The Pink Tower.  Throughout this time working with this one material, from the experience of that first, precious lesson at 2 1/2 or 3 years old, to the shared creation of the sensorial  "grand array" when she is 5 or 6, the child has been ordering her world, both literally and psychically, and she has been developing a muscular, sensory memory and awareness, with a vital neurological base.  I like to imagine the synapses firing and connecting, over and over.  Other higher executive functions like problem-solving, creativity, concentration, and collaboration are beginning to form too, through the child's experience with these beautiful, simple pink cubes.  

So here's to the Pink Tower!  In this age of iPads and movies and all digital media, the Pink Tower shines as a prime example of the importance of hands-on materials, experiences, and learning for young children.  As Dr Montessori wrote long before the digital age, "The hands are the instrument of man's intelligence." 




P.S.  This blog post needs a postscript.  Remember the smallest pink cube, only 1 cm cubed? It is a favorite tiny object for the younger children, one that disappears and then reappears in Montessori classrooms everywhere.   Just this fall, two have gone missing.  The first was in September, and after a month, I replaced it with my last extra (I opened Chickadee with 3 extras).  A few weeks later, it was gone again, and this time it disappeared while the cubes were out on a rug, in use, in full view.  Ten were brought out, nine put away.    Pockets and cubbies were checked, rugs were lifted, shelves were searched.  We looked everywhere.  I have no more extras stashed in the basement.  In past years, more than one parent has found the tiny pink cube in a pocket at home, but not this time. So any day now I will order some more extras from a supplier, along with some pink paint to touch up the cubes. Because nine pink cubes are just not enough....     








Thursday, October 10, 2013

Outside: 30 minutes: October 10


"The child builds his inmost self 
out of the deeply held impressions he receives."
Maria Montessori

I grabbed the camera as we went outside today.  Every day, every hour out there is different.  Some seem taken over by one upset after another; on other days almost all the kids play and run together in a group game. Today I found a kaleidoscope of different activities, little groups and kids playing solo, shifting and moving in the mellow light of an autumn day. Their unfolding friendships, actions, and discoveries revealed themselves up and down and all around,  as I walked from one area to another with camera in hand, all in about 30 minutes..... 


I found Eleanor and Joey happily and peacefully playing in the sand circle, while Brady and Cara were engaged in some industrious shovel work in the digging area behind them.















Just beyond those two, Charlotte, Isabel, and Seamus were "baking chocolate cake" in that special spot sheltered by a Western Red Cedar and a Douglas Fir.  The top photo belongs here, Seamus bringing back a heavy bucket of more "chocolate."

A little further down behind this group, Collin was running along a path on his own, and then he stopped at this stump to balance and do big jumps.  I needed a faster lens for this photo - can you see him jumping?


I circled over to the stick house.  The kids have been covering it with green fir branches all this week, making it feel more enclosed and almost cozy.  Logan was hanging out in there, having a quiet moment.  


Collin ran over to show me the magnificent mushrooms in that protected area, and then he crawled into the "secret room" they had made on one side of the stick house,  and poked his head out the back.
I left them and headed back up past the overhead bars, and found Cherry and Evangeline on the side road playing with two of our "outside animals," the donkey and the bear.  Such sweet play has been happening between these two this week.    "They are friends," Cherry said to me, quite clearly, referring to the animals; she could also have been speaking about the two of them. She spoke quite a few short sentences today.



I found Ethan up there too, walking proudly along the retaining wall.  "Look how high up I am!"  He had been jumping (not from that high edge, but down a little further),  jumping just as his brother had been doing down in the forest.

Meanwhile, the great bike adventure of fall 2013 continued.  Noah, Rex, and Julian ride two-wheeled bikes every single day, more than anyone else - first round and round up in the concrete area, and then they ask if they can ride down into the forest.  Helmets are the rule now, when they head down the side road. Imagine this slope from their perspective!  They ride down the side road and all the way to the back fence, and then they are supposed to bring the bikes all the way back up again; sooner or later they get it done, right away if a friend is waiting.  

While I was watching the bike riders, Noah got tired of waiting for Rex to come back up, so he headed over to what we call the "nature fort" -  the huge, inviting rhododendrons just below the chicken pen - to show me how high he could climb.


We came upon the three hens in there.   Now that it's fall and nothing in the garden is critical, I let them out in the middle of the day for some free scratching and roaming.  All three are starting to molt, an annual affair, their coop full of feathers, and no laying eggs until it's over.  They are leading their own precious lives, and they're part of the story too.   

And the chicks?  Well, as I came around the house at the end of this journey, I discovered that once the kids stopped visiting them, they had settled in to rest on their perch, behaving just like the hens they will become.


As I read back through this simple sharing of this morning's play with you, Kahlil Gibran's wonderful and wise words come to mind:
  
"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself." 


Sunday, September 22, 2013

At the beginning is a good place to be


"To assist a child we must provide him with an environment 
which will enable him to develop freely."  
Maria Montessori



At the beginning is a good place to be.
What will each day bring for you and me?
New life, new friends, new things to do....
At the beginning is a good place to be.

"At the Beginning" is one of our beloved and familiar Sanford Jones songs - always true, because every day is a new beginning, and especially true in September.  We've been singing this song a lot in these first weeks.

In this top photo, Evangeline is practicing squeezing a sponge, by moving water from one bowl to another with the sponge.  This is a classic "at the beginning" exercise.  Sponges are in constant use in our environment, from the clean-up buckets to the paint trays, from the water-pouring works to food prep.  At the beginning of their Montessori life, every child learns how to use a sponge.

And here we are at the beginning of a new "school year."  For Chickadee, it's an artificial boundary in a way, because we are open year round, and the children really do not know such distinctions.   Ant yet, at the same time, September is also a time of beginnings and renewal:  
  • We have three brand new children, Cherry, Joey, and Eleanor, and two who joined us earlier in the summer, Evangeline and Logan, plus several beloved friends are no longer here.   Relationships are in new beginnings, shifting, renewing, and awakening.  
  • The weather is changing too, the shadows and sunlight shifting, the chickadees coming back, the summer veggies finishing.  We all sense that without a doubt we are at the beginning of a new season.
  • Routines are beginning again -  improved, reviewed, practiced - as we all explore how to live together more successfully and peacefully.  
  • Each child is at the beginning of some new learning or new ability, or a new urge to explore something that had seemed so challenging.  All kinds of beginnings are happening!
So what have the children been doing here in these weeks of September?   Some have been repeating familiar, beloved activities, some have been trying out new skills for the first time.  Some have chosen new and challenging materials, some are working right at the "cutting edge" of their development. Every child has been given a number of lessons in these first weeks - Erin and I track them in our record-keeping binder.  And most wonderful of all, at the beginning of each day, we do not know what each child will do, who will discover something new, who will master an often-practiced activity, who will wander, or what challenges will arise. "New life, new friends, new things to do....At the beginning is a good place to be."

So here is a set of photos for you, chosen out of so many possibilities, our new beginnings in practical life, art, sensorial, math, and language.

First some Practical Life.
Isabel is arranging flowers, as she has many times before, with the added summer delight of choosing and picking them outside, dahlia and cosmos and marigold.

Julian is slicing bananas to serve to his friends.  He's starting his second year with us, 3 1/2 now, and I have never seen him do this work so carefully.  He reconnected with his friends by offering them pieces of bananas.


Eleanor is doing the sink-and-float work.  She is our new youngest, and is revealing herself to be careful and competent.  "I can do it myself."  She has gotten sink-and-float out at least 3 times already - I need to change the objects!


Ethan is "scrubbing an object."   Many supplies are laid out - apron and underlay, peppermint soap in a dropper bottle, a scrub brush, water and sponge and towel. He scrubbed this red car until every bit of dirt was gone. (And then it went back to the forest to get dirty again.)


Collin was the first to try our renewed sweeping work.  Learning to hold a broom properly and to sweep effectively is quite a challenge for the 4-and-5-year-olds.   So on the shelf now the kids will find a box which holds wood chips to scatter, and this wooden sweeping guide which gives them a target, a place to make their pile. Collin did a great job sweeping up every single wood chip.



Now some Sensorial.
Joey is exploring the pink tower, one of the first lessons we give every new child. All over the world, Montessori children are working with the pink tower, every day.
We have asked our "old timers" to hold off on their elaborate marble run creations using the pink tower and brown stair, so that our new kids have some good, simple modeling to witness. 


Colors!  Lots of color work at the beginning of the year, in Sensorial and in art.   In this classic lesson, Evangeline matched up all eleven pairs of color tablets, and while working with her, I discovered how many colors she could name.

Cherry's family just moved here from South Korea; she has been with us for just one week.  In her first days she tried one work after another, and quickly showed us how many wonderful things she could do without speaking English.  Here she has just completed putting all these constructive triangles into one large triangle.  And then she proceeded to make her own design.  I was quite astonished.



















Art
We started the year with color mixing, using both colored water and paint as separate works. Logan is mixing colors with the dropper bottles of yellow, red, and blue.  He just lit up as he saw the green and orange appear.  All the kids love this bright and lovely activity.

Then we put out a special, first painting project, drawing an abstract design with black pen, and filling it using only the primary colors of paint.  We emphasized to not let the colors touch or mix together. Ethan drew his own lines, they all did, and you can see how intent he is on keeping that yellow inside the black lines.  Every child's design was freely drawn, spontaneous, and different.

Late last week we introduced the next step, mixing primary colors of paint to create the secondary colors.  Seamus was the first to do it, and once he mixed them, he used the colors he had created to paint a rainbow for the very first time. 



Math.
Meanwhile, in the second week there was a rather sudden explosion in math for some of the older children - again, a new beginning.   Rex looked at the Hundred Board one day and said to me, "I think I can do that now."  Over two days, he proceeded to lay out all the numerals from 1 to 100.

Charlotte did something similar.  She walked by the hanging bead chains, as she has hundreds of times. She stood there running her fingers over them, and said, "I want to do these now!"  These are the square chains;  we use them for skip counting.  Erin gave her the initial lesson and sat with her as she worked - Charlotte carefully and proudly counted them up through the 7 chain (7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49) in one sitting.


Brady caught wind of all this math and announced that he was ready to practice the golden beads some more.  He got out the tray of beads, showed me he remembered the layout and understood the one's, ten's, hundred's, and thousand's, and so we played some "bring-me" with the beads.    "Bring me six tens.  Yes, six tens is 60" and so on.  Soon he will add the actual numerals to the beads.

And then there's handwriting happening, both letters and numbers.  Left-handed Noah was doing some addition pegs, easy to add but still tricky to write the numerals.   So he practiced writing "rainbow numbers," using multiple colors of chalk,  on the big chalkboard.


Language.
Cara hasn't dived back into math yet; she's been busy doing various reading and writing works. Here she is reading longer, phonetic word cards.  When she came to 'milkman,' she looked up puzzled, and asked, "what's a 'milkman'?"  I laughed and told her about milkmen "in the old days," and then I threw the card away.  It's an anachronism now.

And so these beginning days have flowed one to another, and as I write this, we are only 14 school days into the new year.   " New life, new friends, new things to do...."   And all of it happens, inside and outside, one day at a time.





Sunday, July 28, 2013

A journey of discovery with Lewis and Clark

"Our care of the child should be governed, 
not by the desire to make him learn things, 
but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him 
that light which is called intelligence."
Maria Montessori

Lewis and Clark!  Our oldest children spent the last month learning about the great journey of Lewis and Clark, their Corps of Discovery, and their incredible exploration across a wild continent which we can barely imagine now.  I had an "idea" of how the process would go, with certain projects in mind.  But these children led the way instead, they shaped the process themselves, and it turned out more wonderful than I could have imagined.

Early in July we created the map you can see above, and began to trace the journey.  I gathered collected a set of books about Lewis and Clark, from the library, and quite a few that I purchased. We read them all, a bit at a time, reading sections more than once, overlapping the story from different perspectives, following the journey on the map.  "Seaman's Journal" told the story from the perspective of Lewis' dog Seaman. Several books focused on Sacagawea, and the girls were on fire with interest about her.  (Did you know she was only 15 or 16?)   I read some of the simpler stories to all the children in the morning, but it soon became clear that this was an extended-day, afternoon project.  It developed a life of its own. 

As it happens, these three oldest girls have been doing free writing in their "story folders" for many months now, it's a real passion for them, and this was the part I didn't anticipate.  They began to write the story bit by bit on their "story pages," and to draw picture after picture.  It became both a shared and separate project, sometimes they worked together, sometimes alone, each child just lit up about her own work.  I realized we should set these pages aside, and I began to tell them they were writing their own book.  Then we found out the date for Morgan's last day, which gave us an end goal.  Each of their books were finished last Friday, and they shared them and told the story to the whole group of children.

Their books were going home, so I photographed just some of their pages, randomly moving from one child's book to another - I gathered the tale with the camera.  This is what I want to share, a mix of their pages, with no names attached.  I have simply typed their words verbatim.    

two men livd in virginai, lewis and clark.


[Julian's brother Luca caught just a bit of the story early on, and created this]
They fild the keel boat with supleys in 1804
  
lewis and clark went on a long jrney

they brot gifts to the indians

lewis and clark, and seaman was a dog

they went up a long rivr

the bear got shot

Sacagawea had babe in wintr

Sacagauaya careed her baby

Sacagawea helpt them find food

sacagawea found hur bruthr

they crost the mountains

they rech the Pusific ocen in Novembr 1805

in march 1806 they strted east but there wuz a fight

they went down rivr to go home 1806

Here are our proud and beautiful explorers, Ava, Cara, and Morgan, as they finished this most wonderful part of their own "journeys of discovery."  As William Clark wrote in his journal when the Corps of Discovery first sighted the Pacific Ocean, "Oh the joy."