Play school

Montessori: Make learning fun

Posted: Monday, May 15, 2006

Imagine if beads were numbers, there were colorful alphabets with vowels that made sounds when rubbed, and school was without grades.

No, it is not the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine." It is Juneau Montessori School, a preschool in Douglas.

For 3-year-old Stella Tallmon, this is her first foray into the world outside of home. She is joined by 60 other children in a sensorial exploration, their first steps as little people.

"There is so much I like to do," Tallmon said. "I like language cards and the movable alphabet."

Tallmon is happy because she has many friends, she said. Two year-old sisters Jessica Rice and Ani Rice could be counted. So could Kolby Goldstein, a 3-year-old with a painted smile on his face. Naturally, Principal Lupita Alvarez and Andrea Stats return smiles when he speaks.

"I like working with the caterpillars," Goldstein said before being distracted by a picture of an airplane on the wall. "Hey, my daddy has an airplane like that."

After playing with toys and "doing some work," Goldstein retired to the nap area.

It's not all fun and games for students. Well, it is fun and games, but educational games, lessons and educational tools, Alvarez said. There are the "golden beads, numerically stringed to provide tangible numbers; the "pink tower," cubes used to teach size and shape; and the "little island," a plastic replica of an island that kids can fill with water to gain a better understand of geography.

"This is really a hands-on process of learning," Alvarez said. "Students are able to pursue their interests, which spawns many other skills and lessons."

Outside, supervised students played and laughed Friday under a rare blue sky as Alvarez went inside the classroom to illustrate a slice of her program. She used a student's interest in a horse as an example. Cultivating this interest is a process that develops preschoolers, she asserted.

"The student may start and see what type of horse it is they like, where it is from, who rides it and so on," Alvarez said. "The child may then go to our geography book or encyclopedia and start to cultivate an interest while learning."

Cultivating the children's natural passion for learning by giving them guidance to engage in spontaneous, purposeful activities is a trademark of the program, Alvarez said. Juneau Montessori School is part of the Association Montessori Internationale, a private nonprofit organization founded in 1929 by Maria Montessori, the first woman to practice medicine in Italy. She believed children construct their own personalities as they interact with their environment, among others.

Three Montessori-certified teachers are on site. Monthly tuition is around $700. Although children are not graded traditionally, as part of public schools older Montessori students must have their Montessori evaluations translated into grades, Alvarez said.

"I was looking for a different, alternative way of teaching early childhood education," Andrea Stats said. "Here we follow the child's lead and work with that interest."

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An emphasis of the Montessori method is teaching practical life skills, Alvarez said. Children learn to dress themselves, cook, clean, put away their toys and do many domestic activities, she said.

The school's site has seen many changes since the 1900s. The building served as a school, community hall, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation laboratory and food bank over the years, Alvarez said. In the early 1990s it became the Montessori schoolhouse, full of bright paint.

"Children should be free of criticism or quantitative grading," Alvarez said. "They should be free to learn."



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