Lunch at Juneau Montessori School

Posted: Sunday, January 30, 2011

The first person I met last week during a visit to the Juneau Montessori School was a 19-month-old boy wearing a miniature hooded sweatshirt and little tightie-whities. The boy (I’ve omitted his name to protect the innocent) came toddling down the stairs, beaming ear to ear.

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Libby Sterling / Libby Sterling
Libby Sterling / Libby Sterling

“He’s proud of himself,” explained his teacher. “He just experienced his first bowel movement on the toilet.”

If this sounds stilted, let me explain. Juneau Montessori School subscribes to an educational method originally developed by Dr. Maria Montessori around the turn of the 20th century. Emphasizing exploration, creativity and empowerment, the method also focuses on reality and specificity. Hence, JMS employs an entire lexicon of approved terminology — for instance, while at “school” (not “daycare”), “children” (not “kids”) don’t “poo-poo” or “pee-pee.” And certainly never on a “potty.”

“Wash your hands after urinating in the urinal, please,” the teacher reminded another undies-clad young man.

Montessori philosophy frowns upon many trappings of modern early childhood: Junk food, cartoon characters, sippy cups, “time-outs,” DVDs, binkies, dollies, cribs — even diapers. (So the theory goes, a child should “feel” his or her bodily processes. The upside: JMS toilet trains — bonus!)

I’ll admit, two years ago, when my daughter first started in the toddler “community” (not “class”), the whole thing seemed cold and sterile, like nursery school as imagined by Ayn Rand. But that’s not the case at all.

In fact, the building itself exudes warmth. JMS is housed in the old schoolhouse at the corner of St. Ann’s Ave. and Savikko Rd. in Douglas. Built during the 1920s, the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places — along with the Governor’s Mansion, The Alaskan Hotel and 20 other locations in town.

The morning of my visit, I’d planned to eat lunch with my daughter; running (purposefully) early, I joined the toddler community in the “gross motor room.” With scooters, bouncy balls and giant foam blocks, the gross motor room constitutes a nifty indoor playground, although at Montessori, students don’t “play”; they “work.” Children as young as 15 months arrange flowers, wash windows and bake bread. Older students (by which I mean 5-year-olds) prepare full tea and coffee service, which, had I come earlier, I could’ve requested.

Lined with mirrors, mats and Tibetan prayer flags, the gross motor room also resembles a yoga studio. In fact, pictorial diagrams of various poses — with muscle names in Latin, no less — hang at toddler eye level.

JMS also runs two children’s “houses,” for ages three to six. With 20 minutes to lunch in the downstairs house, I decided to check out the upstairs, first passing the kitchen, abuzz with teachers prepping ingredients. Each day, a student rotation cooks breakfast and afternoon snack for each class — muffins, pancakes, pasta salad, quesadillas, smoothies, in the summer using ingredients children cultivate in the JMS garden.

The upstairs house was in the full-throes of its “morning work session.” One boy ground coffee with an old-fashioned hand crank grinder; a boy and girl traced their fingers along sandpaper letters; another boy stacked wooden puzzle pieces (the same puzzle that teaches algebra to middle school Montessori students). A little blonde girl scrubbed dishes; a group of older children observed the class lizard.

Hanging on the wall: Various flags, a poster about sustainable fishing, a portrait of Ghandi, a portrait of Jane Goodall, the cover of “Let It Be.”

In the midst of this, the teachers played zone, shifting calmly and patiently from one child practicing arithmetic to another matching shaker sounds.

“I notice you’ve been doing that for a while,” a teacher told a boy struggling to open a dropper bottle. “Let me show you…”

“Who wants to help me put away dishes?” asked another teacher.

“Me!” several voices cried.

“Okay,” the first teacher said. “Let’s start beautifying the classroom for lunch.”

This was my cue to head back downstairs. To me, lunch comprises the most intriguing Montessori ritual. In my daughter’s “house,” they set the tables for parties of two and three, complete with cloth place mats, cloth napkins, place cards — even candles. Seriously. Every day, three teachers orchestrate a candle-lit lunch for 25 pre-schoolers.

Once everyone’s pasta’s been microwaved, clementines peeled and sandwiches extricated from reusable BPA-free containers, the class sings a short song in thanksgiving to the Earth, then digs in.

Ever wonder what comprises toddler lunch conversation? Here’s a snippet.

“My name starts with P.”

“My name starts with C.”

“I took a super big bite.”

“I took a super baby bite.”

“I made a bridge with my arm that hand can drive over.”

When a small bell rang 30 minutes later, the children retrieved their lunch boxes — not a Dora the Explorer or Thomas the Tank Engine to be seen — packed up their leftovers, scraped their plates, dropped the linens in the laundry and dressed for recess. Truly, it was a sight to behold.

• Geoff Kirsch is a writer in Juneau. Visit his website at

Juneau Montessori School is a nonprofit preschool and kindergarten program. In order to provide financial aid to families who cannot afford full tuition, JMS raises funds through events such as the Hot Salsa Cool Ballroom Dance and Auction Extravaganza. The extravaganza will be held from 7 p.m. to midnight on Feb. 5 at Centennial Hall, featuring appetizers, a no-host bar, dessert and silent auction. Tickets are available at Hearthside Books, from Juneau Montessori parents or at the school by calling 364-3535.

JMS also offers free parenting and child development classes to the community, focusing on topics such as brain development, language and motor development, exploration and play, cooking with children and many more. Call or e-mail to get on the mailing list, or for pre-school program enrollment information.

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