Why Montessori Homeschooling Doesn't Work For Our Family

September 23, 2013
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By Lea Z. Singh |

Image of Montessori shelving
Our classroom shelves are nearly bare.
Last year at this time I was in love with the Montessori method. For a while I was so enthusiastic that I told several people about my idea of opening a Montessori school right in our home, and I started contemplating certification as a Montessori teacher.

I bought teaching manuals online. I started reading a slew of books on the method and on homeschooling the Montessori way. I read dozens of blogs by Montessori homechooling moms and I tried to copy their incredible ways. My surprised but supportive husband turned our large family room into a Montessori-style classroom, our home chapel became an Atrium, and I began purchasing Montessori materials from educational suppliers. I also managed to get a number of used Montessori materials from local schools, which donated to me the things they were discarding and replacing with new items (lesson learned: never hurts to ask). 

Eventually I started herding our children into the classroom for daily Montessori-style sessions, and the pliable little sheep were getting initiated into the materials, the printables, and the method. I felt a ray of delight whenever they picked up the pink tower or metal insets or my homemade letter boxes, and they genuinely seemed to enjoy the various Practical Life activities and sensory bins that I was preparing for them on an ongoing basis.

But something kept bothering me.  Despite my conviction that the Montessori method was truly excellent and life-changing, I had nagging doubts about how it was playing out in our home.

Two authors that I discovered at that time contributed to my growing discontent: Carl Honore and Kim John Payne both made tons of sense to me. They both discuss the importance of "slow-parenting" or "simplicity parenting", meaning that it is better to give your child less rather than more: that includes stuff, activities, and even attention. They talk about boredom as a good thing - it fosters real problem solving, real creativity.

Honore's and Payne's words made complete sense to me, and in fact they sounded a lot like my own upbringing, which was rather free-range with hands-off parenting, lots of books and basic art supplies but very few toys and no fancy-schmantzy "materials".

And it struck me that homeschooling the Montessori way was turning out to be the exact opposite of the approach that Honore and Payne described. For one thing, I was turning into a total "helicopter parent". I was constantly having to create trays and bins of practical life and sensorial work, and to put together various printables (just creating all the language materials could easily qualify as a second job) and that was filling up too many of my evenings. During the day I needed to hover around my children, observing them at "work" so I could guide them and respond to them by taking out the materials that were of interest and removing the ones that lay fallow.

The required parental attention and activity was wearing me down, but what started bugging me most was actually the materials themselves. To be sure, they are beautifully crafted and effective teaching tools. But accumulating them in our home made me wonder:  what unconscious lessons are the children getting from the expensive and elaborate clutter of stuff, all focused on them, that is building up in our home?

When I look at the most well known Montessori mom blogs out there, on the one hand I really want to emulate the wonderful things they are doing for their children. But my gut reaction also whispers: wait a second, this is way overboard! "A child is not a project or a product or a trophy or a piece of clay you can mould into a work of art. A child is a person who will thrive if allowed to be the protagonist of his own life." (Carl Honore)

I have now come to believe that the Montessori method, at least as fully applied with its array of requisite materials, really belongs only in the classroom. Not because it can't be effectively used in the home, but because it unintentionally spoils our children by giving them far too much. Too much stuff, expensive stuff that challenges their humility and seriously endangers their character development (I also fear to think what they are unconsciously learning about materialism?). It's one thing to have all these wonderful teaching aids available in a school setting, where any individual child is not their owner. It's a completely different thing for the child to own these materials all for himself.

Montessori homeschooling also gives children too much parental attention, which actually results in the opposite of Maria Montessori's goal - rather than enabling them to become truly free and independent learners, the children learn to become too dependent on the ever-present mom, and they actually experience a loss of freedom due to the need to perform and use all of the fancy and expensive materials that their parents have acquired, as well as the printables and activities that the mom spent her nights putting together.

The new look of our main-floor playroom.
And so...I finally got fed up. Not just with the toys, as per my earlier post, but with the amount of child-related stuff in our house overall, whether it be Montessori materials or toys, whether it be neatly arranged on our home classroom shelves or strewn underfoot in the living room. I said I would pare down and I have. Over the last few days I have been filling up bins and taking them down to the basement (which is a mess right now but that's another story).

I was encouraged in my efforts by other bloggers who've taken the same steps: here, here and here (hear, hear!). Also check out this great post.

The results? The shelves are nearly empty in the downstairs playroom and the classroom. Much better than before. Not completely bare, but breathable, airy, not overwhelming. Much less stress.

And the results so far? The children haven't even commented. They appear not to have noticed all the stuff that is missing (even their toy kitchen is completely empty of stuff), or they simply don't care. They don't seem to miss the toys and materials one bit.  They have continued playing peacefully with whatever was left behind. And is it just my imagination, or are they actually more quiet and absorbed in their play for longer periods than before?

Ironically, the only person who misses all that stuff right now is me. I do feel some nostalgia for all the wonderful educational materials and developmental toys that I acquired for them, and I kind of wish they would ask for it back (is it really so unimportant that they don't even care to ask about it?). But mostly I am just so relieved and happy to be free of it all. Freedom from stuff is freedom of mind. I think I needed this lesson far more than my children.

So what is the future direction of our homeschooling efforts, now that Montessori is no longer my holy grail? I'm not really sure right now, I have not decided on a curriculum (this is kindergarten after all, so I'm not sweating it) and maybe we will be a mishmash of various approaches. I will keep trying what works best for us, but I have developed two new criteria for our home school:
  • The instructional method/curriculum must be minimally burdensome for the parent. "Because I am worth it," also known as "I need my sleep." I can't revolve my entire life around preparing materials for the children, so that's out. Ready-made, no-parental-labour curriculums are really appealing to me. 
  • The purchased materials required must be kept to a minimum. No clutter in the home, and very few if any expensive items. Because the children must not think they are the centre of the universe and our spending, house and lives must not (so obviously) revolve around them. And because I have learned a hard lesson: so many materials that promise tons of educational and developmental value are actually just a complete waste of time and money, and don't deliver on their promise. In fact the more you have of these materials, the less value they each deliver.
Right now, Hannah is reading the second set of Bob Books at the pace of one a day and making great progress. She is also zooming through the Canadian Curriculum Press kindergarten workbooks I bought at Walmart. I also just received a bunch of Jolly Phonics stuff that I ordered online, and I absolutely love it. It's definitely the best phonics program I have seen so far, and deserving of its own post (100 Lessons was sleep-inducing over here).

I do still plan to make use of the Montessori way to some extent. For instance, I love opportunities for spontaneous Practical Life exercises in the kitchen (peeling carrots, washing dishes), in the home (dusting, sweeping, folding laundry). I also reserve the right to occasionally purchase a Montessori material if it suits our needs, although I believe that the imperfect substitutes found in the home, while less beautiful and tailored to their purpose, are actually often preferable because they are more natural in the home and they do not pose a danger to the character development of the child.

We'll see where it goes from here.

Photo credit: Lea Singh, All Rights Reserved. For permission to use, please contact me.

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