To Montessori or not to Montessori?
February 23, 2011 9:15 AM   Subscribe

How would you describe the difference between a Montessori preschool and a 'regular' preschool?

...or the differences in preschools in general?

We're looking at options for our daughter. We're inclined to the Montessori school for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it seems like a good fit for her--an independent kid, goofy but serious about her 'research' into her interest of the moment.

We're pretty laid back parents, dislike petty authority, but like rules that emphasize respect for others and kindness -- treating others and our animals with respect.

How vast are the differences between preschools? How much does it matter--a mild difference in parent philosophy versus school philosophy? Is that even a difference? Did I just describe everybody in the world?

Bear with me. We don't know other parents. Also, I don't know if it matters, but we're not rich. Montessori would involve some sacrifices for us. So: thoughts?
posted by A Terrible Llama to Human Relations (25 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I really can't tell you about the different school philosophies, but here are some anecdotes:

My boyfriend went to Montessori until he was in 5th grade. He was doing trig and calculus when he was 9.

I was home preschooled by my mom (who is an elementary school teacher). I started kindergarten at 4 knowing the basics of how to read and write and was miles ahead of my peers in those departments for years.

My little brother started private school preschool when he was two (my mom went back to work). He learned how to read and write with the rest of his class in 5K, and pretty much stayed with the pack.
posted by phunniemee at 9:30 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

The biggest difference I've noticed is one of engagement - Montessori schools are on the medium-high end of the spectrum, but so are places like The Goddard School and La Petite Academy. Between Montessori and these more formal programs it comes down to style preferences.

Do you want your child reading at a very early age? Learning Latin? Sitting and watching a lot of VeggieTales/SpongeBob? Messing around in the great outdoors? Do you want her playing with kids who are noticeably older/younger than her, do you want her to "play house" with sets of prefab plastic toys or do whatever the heck she wants with some pinecones?

It's a really good idea to invest a few workdays in visits to different programs. As a kid I did some Montessori, some intensive academic preschool, and some "at the nice neighbor lady's place, but I entered kindergarten when I was 4, so most of my knowledge comes from observing siblings and visiting the Montessori school that rented space from my church. Oh, and reading Mommy blogs (which allows me to pass as someone who has kids, or at least confuse people.) And on that note: look into the Waldorf method if you like the pinecone idea.
posted by SMPA at 9:38 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Basics of the Montessori approach.

The differences are pretty vast. As a former K-1-2 teacher, I'd say a few things about this:

If you go Montessori, see if you can go through at least 3rd grade. It will be a lot more effective. Montessori is designed to work in longer arcs than a single academic year, and I think that if you can do private schooling for only one part of a child's life, the wisest place to spend that money is on early stage development, which will pay lifelong dividends. It's arguably a better investment to pay for 5 years of Montessori at the start of an education than four years of a private liberal arts college later down the road. I would rather do the Montessori and plan on public college than the other way around.

In addition to some strong learning pluses, I found that kids from Montessoris had much, much better self-control and a greater sense of calm, and were able to handle independent situations far better than kids from more conventional settings.

One big help to you in making this decision would be observation. Arrange to observe for an hour or more in each type of setting, and discuss what you saw with school staff and between yourselves.

One important caveat is that the home environment is always, always, always the most powerful influence on a child's life and learning. All schooling is more effective when it connects to and builds on the environment in the home. There are wonderful, smart, productive children who emerge from every type of educational environment, when caring adults are engaged in their lives. So if you decide you can't swing it financially, don't gnash your teeth too much, just keep enriching your child's life.
posted by Miko at 9:40 AM on February 23, 2011 [17 favorites]

Agreed, Waldorf could be a good choice too. Also, look at preschools which bill themselves as "progressive" in philosophy. Many of them share foundational ideas with the more 'branded' approaches to education.
posted by Miko at 9:42 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Montessori schools vary WIDELY -- there's no requirement to do anything in particular in order to claim your school as a Montessori school. My daughter is in a Montessori preschool that cleaves pretty closely to what you'd think of; there's no "non-Montessori" time (we had her at "preschool" at a daycare that claimed to be a Montessori school by virtue of having 1 set of materials that they'd work on for 45 minutes a day prior to this), and all the teachers are trained in the Montessori method. I'd say the real hallmark of quality Montessori education is when the students are given a lot of autonomy and responsibility, but also a lot of guidance: my daughter's teacher writes a mini-lesson plan for each student, every day, with an outline of what she'd like to see them work on.

Your child sounds like she'd thrive in a good program, and it definitely is in keeping with your values. Memail me if you'd like to know more about our experiences.
posted by KathrynT at 9:45 AM on February 23, 2011

That question is the biggest problem with Montessori. There is no such thing as a certified Montessori school, its a name that stands for ideas that can be changed or not followed. ANY one can claim to have a Montessori, there are lots of schools that bank on the idea with little knowledge of its practice.

If you Google Montessori you will see a general list of principles, look for schools that follow them, or at least can offer explanations for why that choose to not follow them.
posted by Felex at 9:50 AM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

my 4yo son attends a reggio inspired pre-school (what is it with these italians and their educational philosophies?). the reggio method is ideal, i believe, for pre-school, with its emphasis on play and *doing* as a means of learning and development. it also helps that it's a low key but damned good little pre-school.

i'd agree with the earlier assertion that the home environment is most important. i'd warn against making sacrifices in your home life to get your kid into the "best" (i.e. expensive) school. if it means you can't go on vacation, for example, i'd look hard at your choices.
posted by iboxifoo at 9:55 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

It really, really depends on the kid. We visited several Montessori preschools when my now-14-year-old son was that age and we realized pretty quickly that it wasn't going to be a good fit for him. At all. But it would have been perfect for our daughter. Our son needed the rigorous structure and routine that a more conventional (but very similar to Montessori in theory if not application) preschool offered.
posted by cooker girl at 10:02 AM on February 23, 2011

Little more info: We don't care about her learning Sanskrit or anything -- we're not goal-oriented parents except for a brief moment of pride when we got her to stop eating ladybugs. She knows her ABCs and shapes and numbers but that's largely her doing. She really just likes learning stuff. We did a meet and greet at the school today and liked the staff and their approach. Little Llama went off to do her own thing with one of the teachers and blew us off. She said she liked it and she seemed to have a really good time.

Of course, she also liked those ladybugs.

I do think it's Montessori-certified, but if it's not, it's been there for thirty years and they're putting on a good show of it so I'm not sure if we should care. We would be doing a three year stint, two years of preschool, kindergarten, then probably throwing her to the wolves. I kid, but full disclosure--my own kindergarten and first grade experiences were almost laughably miserable.

Also, financially -- it wouldn't mean we couldn't go on vacation or wear pants. So -- it wouldn't be a quality of life hit, it would be a luxury hit.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:28 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to Montessori school, hated it, and cannot do math to save my life. But I suppose my antagonism toward mathematics contributed to my academic path that led me to a fulfilling career as a lawyer, so it's not all bad - unless being a lawyer is bad, which it is. So, yeah.
posted by The World Famous at 10:35 AM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

World Famous, how come you hated it? How long did you go?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:40 AM on February 23, 2011

As I recall (it was a long time ago), the method of mathematics education (and the emphasis on it) was very rigid and rubbed me the wrong way for one reason or another. I went for a year. I'm not sure what all of the relevant factors were (again, I was just little), but I associate only bad memories with having to count those stupid beads.
posted by The World Famous at 10:46 AM on February 23, 2011

At the preschool level there will not be a ton of difference between a Montessori school and other high-quality preschools. Far greater differences emerge once children get into the "academic" years of school. It would probably be worth visiting a few preschools and getting an idea of their methods and emphases; I'd worry less about the name and more about whether you like what's going on in the classroom and think it would be a good fit for her.

Also, your ladybug story just reminded me of a question I need to ask. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:00 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I loved Montessori school (and I have pleasant memories of the beads), but when I transitioned to public school in the fourth grade, it was hard. I couldn't do cursive right, I didn't have the multiplication table memorized, and the social structure was hugely different. Of course, I could read way above my grade level, won spelling bees, and made it through law school.

All this just to point out that every preschool will be different, and you should seek out the school that best suits the llama, not the school that is specifically Montessori.
posted by freshwater at 11:05 AM on February 23, 2011

This is just a personal anecdote, but for what it's worth: I went to a Montessori school for preschool through first grade. I hated my preschool/kindergarten teacher and dreaded going to school, although I learned a lot. Then my first grade teacher was great, and I enjoyed school for the first time. So my advice on that part is that the individual teacher may have as much of an impact on your daughter's experience as the overall school atmosphere, so if possible check out the specific teacher or teachers she would have, and find out how easy or hard it would be to get her transferred to a different class if she was initially mismatched.

In second grade I started a perfectly nice public school and it was a difficult transition. I was about two years ahead of everyone else in math, but was initially thought to have trouble reading because I read much better to myself than out loud. But beyond the differences in curriculum content, the change in social atmosphere and approach to learning were pretty intense. In Montessori school learning was much more independent and hands-on - it was hard to get used to sitting at a desk listening to the teacher all day. There was also much more focus on discipline and the teacher's authority - I was always a well-behaved kid, but I found the new dynamics intimidating for the first year despite having a very nice teacher. By the following year I had developed some confidence in my ability to navigate the new system and I suffered no lingering ill-effects from the transition.

I don't say this to discourage you from sending your daughter to a Montessori school for a few years, but just to let you know what might lie ahead. I think the Montessori method (at least as I experienced it) is great at getting kids to really engage with what they're learning, and building their confidence in themselves as learners.
posted by unsub at 12:06 PM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Another anecdote...

I am a nanny to 3 children, the two eldest are currently in regular school full-time (grades 1 & 2), but went to Montessori for preschool. From my perspective, and in talking with their parents, it doesn't seem like they got a lot out of it. They are not calm children, they are not very respectful, and they both have trouble and get noticeably frustrated (tantrums) while doing their homework from their current school. It may have been the school, it may have just been that their personalities didn't mesh with the learning style. That said, they probably (possibly) enjoyed it better they would have enjoyed the structures of the other preschools in the area.

As an extra note, the parents still like the school philosophy and try to use it at home when possible.
posted by Laura in Canada at 12:40 PM on February 23, 2011

Coincidentally, I just came from an observation at my (5yo) daughter's Montessori.

I was uncertain about the whole Montessori thing (this is our first year at the school -- we didn't do preschool there), but it seems to be working out well. My daughter tends to be an observer more than an engager, at least until she's gotten the lay of the land. The Montessori approach lets her take things at her own time, and now a halfway through her first year there she seems to enjoy school, and likes to talk about it at home and to share her work with us.

At the observation today, I was struck (again) by the relative quiet of the room filled with kids; how a kid would just get up and head to the bathroom, or to get a drink of water, without having to ask permission (freedom which, as has been mentioned above, could make a later transition to non-Montessori difficult); how some kids were goofing off w/o the teacher jumping on them (in part because the teacher was engaged with other kids) but how, over all, the goofing would end after a few minutes and the kids would grab something to work on.

I've also heard (and see above) that there is a huge variety in what passes as Montessori. Personally, I don't care how closely they hew to the doctrine, as long as they are able to create a good environment, and I'm sure there are plenty non-Montessori schools that manage that. To that end, your best bet is going to be to visit the school and do an observation. Trust your gut feeling.
posted by lex mercatoria at 1:46 PM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Coincidental unsolicited anecdote from a friend talking about her preschool-age son yesterday:

"I love Montessori! Kids learn to be self-motivated, not reward motivated! After K's music class today I asked him if he knew why the teacher gave out stickers at the end of class. He said, "I don't know. Maybe it's tradition.""
posted by Pax at 1:50 PM on February 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

You may be interested in the wide range of viewpoints expressed in this previous thread.
posted by jjg at 4:30 PM on February 23, 2011

How would you describe the difference between a Montessori preschool and a 'regular' preschool?

$6,000 a year.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:31 PM on February 23, 2011

I have just been through this process for my daughter. We have limited options for preschools here--a lot of "generic" preschools and a handful of private Montessori schools, plus a public Montessori in our district. I recently asked a question looking for advice about what to look for and ask when visiting Montessori schools, and got some useful answers.

Our daughter has been in a private preschool three mornings a week. Very typical: there's a dress-up area, a texture table, circle time, and so on. But I was thinking of moving her to Montessori next year, in part because Montessori preschools are always five mornings a week; it's part of the philosophy. I found visiting very useful. I love the atmosphere in Montessori classrooms: peaceful, no desks in rows, kids working independently at their little rugs. It always feels very orderly and pleasant to me. At the school I visited, I saw a fourth-grade classroom in action and liked it better than any fourth-grade classroom I've even been in before.

I think my daughter would miss the dress-up area, the texture table, and the art center. There's not a lot of room for play in a Montessori classroom, and while I think she would enjoy the "works" a lot, it seemed to me like there was a trade-off there. I'm not really sure which she'd like more.

The preschool we're at emphasizes independence, which suits my daughter and which I enjoy as well. The kids get their own snacks and are expected to get into and out of their outdoor gear by themselves, for instance. That's something people like about Montessori but I'm liking it about the school we're at, too. If it's a goal for you, it's something you could ask about when visiting other preschools as well.

In the end, I decided Montessori wasn't going to be worth the $2000 more the tuition would cost us next year. I just didn't love it $2000 worth! Like you, choosing Montessori would have meant some sacrifices on the luxury/cash-flow level, and I wasn't convinced enough by either the philosophy or by the visit that it was worth it. In my case, I have the added datum that my daughter has been at a non-Montessori preschool this year and she loves it, so for us it's a bit of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
posted by not that girl at 6:21 AM on February 24, 2011

"in part because Montessori preschools are always five mornings a week"

The one near me is 3 mornings a week.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:46 AM on February 24, 2011

Thanks everybody. All of this is very helpful. We're going to tour more schools and then make a decision.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:01 AM on February 24, 2011

That's interesting, Eyebrows McGee. All the ones around here claim that having preschool every day is essential to the Montessori process. But we all know there's lots of variation in schools that claim the name.
posted by not that girl at 8:06 PM on February 24, 2011

"But we all know there's lots of variation in schools that claim the name."

Yes, there are two in my town and one has daily preschool and the other (nearest me) three days a week. It's interesting how different the two programs seem to be. The one nearer me is much larger and claims to (and seems to) adhere more strictly to the Montessori method, but a couple of things about them give me real pause: First, they're housed by a religious organization that super-hates gay people (not "oh, that's sinful and/or we don't think gays should be able to marry" but like "gay people cannot be members and have no place in our religion and are an abomination and while we don't ADVOCATE violence against gays we certainly don't think it's a big deal when people GET violent") and while they are not affiliated with the religious group, merely the association REALLY raises questions for me. (Group is also not so fond of women, unsurprisingly.) Second, they told a child with ADHD that he was no longer welcome in the school he'd been attending for three years once he was diagnosed. (Which seemed so backwards; he was suddenly much better-behaved and less-challenging once he was getting appropriate treatment.) And there wasn't any compassion in how they handled it; their concern was getting the parents to get the kid OUT as fast as possible. We like their preschool program, but I really don't think I can overlook those two things.

The other local school rents commercial space and has a much smaller program, so I know much less about it because I haven't had a chance to meet nearly as many parents involved in it

Which all goes to the point, I suppose, that the best thing to do is visit and find these sorts of things out. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:21 PM on February 24, 2011

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