Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Magic of Montessori - an Interview with Nichole Holtvluwer

Nichole Holtvluwer has a way with children. Her gift has benefitted many families at the Montessori Academy of Colorado where she is a Directress. I asked Nichole to share her thoughts on the theory and practice of the Montessori model of education.

How did you come to be a Montessori Educator? What led you down that path?

I discovered Montessori in the winter of 2001 when I was 20 years old and utterly confused as to what I should do with my life.  
One afternoon I opened up the  phone book to the “Childcare” section and called every school in Denver on the list.  The Montessori International Children’s House (TMICH) in Denver, CO happened to be the only place with positions open, and two week later I was hired on as an assistant in one of the toddler communities.  I recall my first week as torture and constant question about why I had say yes to the position.  Between toileting, lack of verbal communication and general chaos, toddlers, especially toddlers in a Montessori community, can be a challenge!  But the second week my eyes opened up to the beauty and intelligence of the young child and forever I was changed.  I was blessed with an amazing Directress who taught me all about the Montessori philosophy.  It was a true serendipitous event, and lead me to my life calling.

After TMICH closed down due to financial problems I decided to return to college to pursue my early childhood education, attending Metro State College of Denver.  Traditional education has never felt right for me, so after one semester I left Metro State and enrolled in the Association Montessori International Assistants to Infancy Course (Birth to Three Years) at the Montessori Institute of Denver studying under Judi Orion and Liz Hall.  Not only did I learn and embody just about everything there is to know about the human from conception to three years old, I also learned a great deal about myself and the world.  

I completed my Montessori training in 2004, and from there decided to take some time off and really get to know myself before becoming a Montessori Directress.  I did some traveling, left Denver for awhile, but always knowing that Montessori was a part of me.  Maria Montessori puts it best, saying, “It is not enough for the teacher to love the child.  She must first love and understand the universe.  She must prepare herself, and truly work at it. 

Feeling confident and ready to put my all into a community I was hired at Fiddler’s Green Montessori in Greenwood Village, CO in 2006 as the Toddler Directress.  Wanting more of a community feel at a school I left Fiddler’s Green and started work at the Montessori Academy of Colorado (MAC) in Denver, CO in 2007.   I am currently one of four Toddler Directresses at MAC, with 15 children in my community ranging in age from 16 months to 3 years old.   You will notice as you read on that I call it a “Montessori Community” rather than a “Classroom”. I feel deeply that Montessori is not only for the child, but also for all those who surround the child. Thus, a Community is what is being established. I have found my life calling through Montessori and feel blessed each day I walk into my Toddler Environment.  

While I am a “Montessorian” through and through, I also have my own take, as all educators do, on the philosophy and pull a great deal of my strength as an educator from the way I see the world and the way I see the child in the world. I feel deeply that we need to make a 180 degree turn in or educational system, and am doing all I can to facilitate that change.  As Maria Montessori said, "The child is much more spiritually elevated than is usually supposed.  He often suffers, not from too much work, but work that is unworthy of him.”

What is the history of Montessori?

Maria Montessori was truly a miraculous woman, who through her life journey developed the most comprehensive, honest and true form of education for children, especially children under the age of six years old.  

Through her observations of the child, she came to understand that it was not the adult who the child learned the majority from, but rather the environment they lived in.  The adult in the Montessori Environment is considered another material with which the child constructs himself, independently.  She came to this understanding after a great deal of education, struggle and experience. 

Maria Montessori began her medical studies of mental and nervous diseases at the University of Rome in 1883 with great difficulty.  Being a woman she was denied acceptance many times, but due to her persistence she eventually was accepted at the University where she became the first woman in Italy to receive a  Master’s Degree in medicine in 1896.  

Some of her first work was done in working with children in insane asylums.  It was there that she found that the children were starved for experience, recognizing that their minds were not useless, just unused.  

After continued studies, and her discovery of Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard and Edouard Seguin’s work with impaired children, Maria Montessori became convinced that education, not medicine, was the answer to helping children who were mentally impaired.  She believed that the human mind is made to work and know and can not help but take in information about the surrounding environment.  After seeing how well the impaired children whom she worked with learned, it lead Montessori to wonder how the same methods would work with children who were not impaired.  

Montessori decided to change her course of direction, and began to focus on working with “normal” children who were not medically defined as “impaired”.  Through her work with “normal” children, Montessori wondered how a bad mark in school could make a child clever?  She concluded from this that the teacher’s role is to help guide, enlighten and awaken.  She felt that the school is there to help, not judge.

At this time the Philanthropic Society of Rome was renovating a poor quarter of the city.  The young children of this area had no where to go during the day, so a place was set aside were the children could go.  Montessori was asked to set up an environment to help these children.  

On January 6th, 1907 the first Casa dei Bambini was started by Maria Montessori.  Montessori felt that if the children were to be happy here they must feel as though they belonged.  The children were given the opportunity and guidance to care for their environment.  Montessori had furniture made that was child-sized, along with the introduction of plants and flowers for the children to take care of.  She also introduced to the children the idea of caring for themselves through washing their hands, brushing their teeth, their hair, etc.  This gave the children a measure of independence from adults and through repetition the children were able to develop concentration and finally master the skill.  

The idea of allowing the children to choose their own work came about one day when the cabinet containing all the materials, which was always locked, was left open.  The children began to spontaneously choose their own work, without the assistance of the adult.  From this point, the materials were never locked up again, and low shelves were built so that the children had this continued opportunity of choosing work independently.  

The children began to show and convince Montessori that the child’s characteristics were different from their usual characteristics when they were given an environment that met their needs.  

A great deal of Montessori’s work came about during World War II when she and her son, Mario were put on house arrest in India because of their Italian passports.  India was ruled at the time by the British and considered Italy enemy ground.  Montessori had recently stood up to and refused Mussolini’s desire to nationalize all the Montessori schools in Italy, so no political asylum was granted for Montessori and her son to return safely to Italy.  

While in India Montessori and Mario lived on a compound/community of families where she spent most of her time observing the children of the community.  It was here that Montessori wrote the Absorbent Mind, became interested in the child under three, and also developed the elementary curriculum.  

In 1929 the Association Montessori International (AMI) was established to support Montessori’s work and ideas.  The headquarters are currently in Amsterdam, with a US branch in Rochester, NY.  

Maria Montessori ended her days in Holland after travel throughout the world to bring about a new form of education.  She strived for peace, with the goal to bring to the general public the importance of education for peace, saying that it is “the young child who possesses the possibility for the construction of a new humanity”.  In 1952, Maria Montessori passed away.  On her tombstone is written, “I beg the dear all-powerful children to unite with me for the building of peace in Man and in the World.”  

How does a Montessori classroom look and feel compared to a traditional classroom?

The main difference between a Montessori community and a traditional classroom is that in the Montessori Community the aim is to always “Follow the Child” rather than “Follow a Set Curriculum”.  One of the ways that a Montessori program does this is by breaking down each community into mixed age groups, called the Montessori Age Groups:

Nido (Italian for “nest”): 6 weeks to 16 months
Toddler: 6 months to 2.5 - 3 years
Primary:2.5 - 3 to 6 years
Lower Elementary: 6 - 9 years
Upper Elementary: 9 - 12 years
Adolescence: 12 - 15 years
High School: 15 years

Montessori programs for high school students are rare, not only in the US, but around the world.  It was Maria Montessori’s hope that a child who had grown up with the Montessori philosophy would enter a traditional high school and college with ease.  There are some high schools in the US following Maria Montessori’s philosophy. 

This mixed age range allows for each child not only to work at their own pace, but also gives the older children the opportunity to give lessons and help teach the younger children in the community.  By following the child, we are seeing each child as they are, not where we think they should be.  It is less determined by their specific age, but instead their individual growth.    

As Montessorians, we see each child as an individual and thus allow for that individual to construct herself through the prepared environment that has been set up for them by the adult.  As a Directress it is my mission to prepare an environment that is full of beautiful, natural, developmentally appropriate materials that will literally “call to the child” from the shelf to aid in their development. The children in a Montessori community are free to choose whatever they would like to work with, as well as receive lessons from a trained Directress on materials within the environment that will aid to the child’s growth of independence, and the integration of the will, movement, and intellect.  

Many people opposed to the Montessori philosophy see the child as free to do whatever they so choose.  While this is true, the children of the community also have limits to the freedom they are allowed.  With too much freedom, a child feels abandoned, and with too many limits a child feels restrained.  Montessori strives for a balance between the two: freedom AND Limits. 

Unlike a traditional classroom, children in a Montessori community do not work from individual desks, but are free to work at a table or on a rug placed on the floor. 

As I touched on earlier, the language in a Montessori community is always directed in a positive light.  For example, if the child is standing on a chair, rather than telling the child to get down a Montessorian will simply tell the child that chairs are for sitting in.  The results of working in a positive environment, one that is filled with “I Can!” changes the entire mentality of the community.  Children who develop in an environment filled with positive reinforcement in turn absorb that positivity into their daily life.    

Through her observations of children, Maria Montessori learned not only to follow the child, but also saw that preparing an environment where the child is set up to succeed resulted in a group of children who were confident, eager to learn and joyful with their surroundings. 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of having the mixed ages in a classroom over the course of three years?

One of the most difficult tasks of any Montessorian, whether it be an infant directress or an elementary directress, is observing the child and knowing what task to lead them into to aid in their development.  It can be quite difficult to pinpoint the exact task, at the exact moment for the exact child.  This is the goal of any educator, and something that only comes after years of purposeful observation.  

With a mixed age range, this task grows ever more difficult.  Especially when there is a child wanting to work with a material that is above and beyond his developmental capacity.  Maria Montessori saw this, and through her development of materials for the community, found that each set of materials could be worked with, by each age, in different ways.  While a 3 year old may find great joy and development in the shape and sound of a letter, a 6 year old will then in turn write a sentence using that letter.  And while a 2 year old may only be able to open and close a pair of scissors, the 3 year old can then cut paper using those same scissors.  So through Maria Montessori’s countless hours of observation, and development of materials, she saw that each item could be used to aid in the development of the child, at whatever age and ability level they are at.

What I personally love the most about the mixed age group in a Montessori community is the growth of the child.  The child enters the community like a foreigner, trying to find her footing, unknowing of the routine, and basically alone.  While the child typically finds refuge in the adult at first, it is the older children who pave the way from the new, young child. 

 I’ll never forget a little boy, Charlie, who started in my community at 18 months.  Charlie had never been in group care, and was totally freaked out by the experience at first.  Charlie bonded with me at first, and came to me for comfort when he was feeling overwhelmed.  As he found his footing, my oldest child at the time, Nate, took Charlie in and began to show him around the community, give him lessons, showed him how to set the table for snack, etc.  At 2.5 years, Nate was guiding Charlie through the community.  Charlie looked up to Nate and would speak of him at home.  In turn, Nate took on a leadership role, sharing his knowledge of the community, which in turn was aiding to the development of his confidence.    

How do you handle the more energetic children in your classroom with dignity and yet still bring order?

The first understanding of the energetic child is discovering where all this energy is coming from and having compassion for the child who wants and needs to move in order to construct their being.

Often the energy of the child is stemming from the lack and ability of  natural movement.  Our society has designed all these contraptions to “contain” the child.  For the young child there is the crib, being swaddled, the walker, bouncy seat, high chair, etc.  The lack of movement is appearing now in a new generation of children who are babysat by a television or video games, which is a “container” of sorts.  While these containers make an adults life easy, they are a detriment to the child, who needs to move in order to learn.  A child learns best through the exploration of the environment.

The second understanding of the child who is overly energetic is learning about his diet.  Sugar and wheat products greatly heighten a child’s energy level, unknowingly to the child.  Many children are fed high levels of sugar and wheat for breakfast in the form of cereal bars, cereal, oatmeal, fruit cups, etc.  Low-sugar, gluten-free food greatly helps the child with extra, uncontrolled energy. That being said, some children are naturally energetic.  These are the children who are constantly moving, even when focused on a task.  These are the children who need hands on, gross motor activities.

In a Toddler Community the children with high energy are directed into materials that will stimulate that energy, but focus it into a developmentally appropriate activity.  So, if I have a child who is very high energy I am going to lead the child into work with mud clay where their hands are really working to create, or cloth washing, where the child has to move throughout the environment to gather water across the room many times, fill tubs with that water, and then scrub with soap on a washboard, using all of their energy to do so.  These are purposeful activities where the child can use that energy to develop concentration and focus.  Time outside to run and play freely is also a great benefit for not only the highly energetic child, but all children.    

There are times however where the highly energetic child is disturbing the other children involved in focused work.  When this happens, it is the responsibility of the adult to explain to the child, using kind, honest language that they are being unfair and disrespectful to the children working.  Adults sometime forget to simply explain to the child why their behavior is inappropriate.  Just saying to a child, “NO!” or “Find something to do” does not benefit the child.  A simple reminder to calm down, or to take a deep breath can work wonders. 

Young children are excited for life!  The worst thing an adult can do with an energetic child, or any child for that matter, is stifle that eagerness for life and experience.       

How does Montessori acknowledge different learning styles and intelligences and then work with them?

Through observation of each child a Montessorian acknowledges all the different learning styles and intelligences.  There is no blue-print on how children learn, because each child is internally creating an original, one-of-a-kind “map of existence”.   The well trained and dedicated Montessorian knows this, and thus creates individual learning plans for each child.  This is the beauty of “following the child”.  There is no one way to do it in a Montessori Community and as long as the child is being respectful, each material is designed to engage the child in his/her own personal experience.      

Through constant observation of the child, the adult begins to see developmental pathways for the child.  It is these pathways that the adult then directs the child through.  For example, a child who is eager to paint, or draw, or sculpt with clay, the adult will see this and in turn work on language and counting through this passion for art.  Or a child who is obsessed with books, the adult will then use the books to work on sharing, reading to others, discussion, etc.  Each material is designed to expand on the child’s knowledge.  A book is not just a book, it is a tool for learning so much more.  The same goes for each material in the community.

There is no one-size-fits-all model of education. What kind of students do well in a Montessori setting and what kind do better elsewhere?

It is difficult to say there is a “one-size-fits-all model” for education, when Montessori is done right, I feel passionately that is does in fact fit all children.  Because the environment is designed for the individual, specific needs are met on a daily basis.  Where in traditional education, each child is learning and required to progress at the path of the class, in the Montessori environment each child is learning at their own pace and in their own individual way.  It is rare to see a child who does not succeed and really do well in a Montessori environment.  

That being said, there are many different levels to a “Montessori Educator” and many different levels of Montessori training.  Unfortunately for those Montessorians who have gone through a comprehensive training program, there are those who get a lack-luster education as to the Montessori Method.  The Montessori Method is not trademarked, so really anyone out there can call themselves a “Montessorian”.

It is also true that some adults do not comprehend the important role they play in a child’s life.  This has nothing to do with the Montessori Method, but rather the adult who is running the community.  This is not just limited to Montessori, but to all forms of traditional and non-traditional education.  

What makes the Montessori Method work and come to life for the child is the adult who is establishing the community.  The core of Montessori will always work and benefit the child, but only if it is done with true compassion, constant observation, passion for the life of the child, humility, and the awareness of the world around.       

What is the magic of Montessori?

The magic of Montessori does not reside in the method, is resides in the child.  What Montessori does is allow for that magic to be nourished and embraced.     Maria Montessori said herself that, “Montessori is an approach to education, a system of guidance that does not proscribe, instead it permits.  Montessori permits the talent that every person possesses, whatever it happens to be, to be discovered and developed.”


  1. Thank you for this article! I have been trying to find exactly this information on my quest to decide if Montessori is appropriate for my soon to be kindergartner.