By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — In a house just south of Christ the King Church and School 10 children, ages 3 through 5, spend about three hours a day learning basic concepts that lead to reading, writing and mathematics, along with geography, botany, even cutting and serving bread, and washing dishes. And they have fun doing it.
This is The Children’s House, Montessori Pre-School at Christ the King Parish. Dr. Judith Wylie, director, is certified to teach Montessori school through age 8. “As a student,” she said, “I was mentored by a pupil of Maria Montessori, so it was almost like learning directly from the founder of Montessori teaching.”
Maria Montessori believed in the value of children, their importance and uniqueness. The teaching method she developed a century ago does not pit a child against norms or standards measured by traditional educational systems. She believed and passed down the belief that children should be free to learn and succeed without restriction or criticism.
Dr. Wylie explained, “When a child yells at a classmate or at a teacher, we quietly remind them that we don’t yell in The Children’s House, and that the other children are working to learn. They know and even more important, understand, that we can interact with respect for each other, learn from each other and still have fun.”
Montessori teaching takes to heart the needs, talents, gifts, and special individuality of each child, so that they learn in their own way at their own speed. The main concept of Montessori is to promote the joy of learning.
The children sat, wriggling just a bit, on red squares placed equidistantly apart in a blue circle that was almost a big as the floor space in the house’s former living room. Dr. Wylie and three adult teaching interns spaced themselves among the children, also sitting on the red squares. It was time to sing the alphabet.
Well, not exactly the standard ABCs. In order to learn to read, a child must first know how each letter sounds. He or she can then string letters together to make a word. “We have to synthesize before we analyze,” Dr. Wylie said.
So, the familiar tune becomes “ah,” “buh,” “kuh, “duh,” and so on. By singing it phonetically, the children become familiar with the sounds so when they hear a word they can figure out where in the word a particular letter is placed. Bird: buh, ii, rrrr, duh.
The children then marched around the circle singing songs. Some of the children marched dutifully, thoughts on what they would work on next; others were more fully engaged in the marching, arms swinging up and down.
From the circle, the children chose which learning activity they wanted to do. Some worked on pre-writing skills, coloring, using small strokes of the colored pencil, different shapes. Dr. Wylie commented on each small work of art, praising and suggesting.
As their familiarity with letters and coloring increases, sandpaper letters are introduced. “Children are more sensitive to textures at this age than they will be later in life,” Dr. Wylie explained.
Montessori is a hands-on approach to learning. It encourages children to develop observation skills by doing many types of activities. These involve the use of all five senses, action activities like marching and skipping, spatial refinement and coordination like puzzles and spatial relation games that teach order by size or shape, small and large motor skill coordination like the pre-writing activities, and concrete knowledge that leads to later abstraction.
Three children chose a tactical, life skills activity, cutting a slice of bread into tiny pieces, with close adult supervision of course, and then walking around to each group of children and offering a tidbit (what was left after the small server snacked all the way around The Children’s House). Two girls washed dishes in a bucket and then cleaned up after cleaning up, again under supervision.
Several children placed mats on the floor and worked with geometric shapes. A boy went off to an adjoining room carrying beaded number rods to practice addition and subtraction. He was followed by Montessori teaching intern Sister in Jesus the Lord Faustina Marie Goedkin, carrying a board that resembled a checker board. The two worked quietly, adding and subtracting, a childish giggle or two, then adding and subtracting again, accompanied by quiet praise from Sister Faustina Marie.
When a child finished an activity or had to stop to do something else, he or she either put their materials away, pretty much as they found them, or put a laminated tag with their name on the mat. They can walk away worry-free because the children all know not to touch a mat with a name tag other than their own on it.
The Montessori teaching method is methodical, with each learning step leading to the next level. When a child plays, he or she learns concrete concepts and later applies those concepts to abstract learning. Almost all learning tools are self-teaching and self-correcting, for instance, a counting grid numbered 0 to 100, by ones and tens. If a child makes a mistake counting (10-20-40, oops), he or she can easily figure out the error and correct it on the spot.
The environment allows children to interact with each other and in it freely and unrestrained; everything is child-sized, and safe to touch and use. Dr. Wylie named the pre-school after Maria Montessori’s learning center, “The Children’s House.”
The children in the Montessori preschool at Christ the King learn even more; they learn about their faith through daily prayer and grace before meals. And just before Christmas, they learned about celebrating what the birth of Christ means to all, rich or poor.
Dr. Wylie said the Children’s House held a ChristChild Party — students and parents brought gifts for newborns in poverty to honor the Infant Jesus.
The children played party games, and then were treated to a special surprise. Through Sister Faustina Marie, Sister in Jesus the Lord Maria Stella and her sister Meghan Whittier heard about the children and the party and came to play music for the pre-school. Sister Maria Stella is an accomplished harpist and Whittier is a professional singer and flautist. The two provided an hour of Christmas carols that Dr. Wylie said, “recalled the angels who visited the shepherds on Christmas morn.” After the concert, each child was invited to play the harp strings and Sister Maria Stella and Meghan Whittier answered their questions.
After the musicians said their farewells to the children, Dr. Wylie and the other teachers brought in the ChristChild’s birthday cake, a three-dimensional Christmas tree topped with a Star of David, the creation of Susan Dietchman, pastry chef and special friend of The Children’s House. As it was placed on a short-legged table, the children gathered around accompanied by the sound of oohs and aahs.
The gifts for the newborns were received with joy at Birthright, Dr. Wylie said. She explained that she had begun having ChristChild parties at home when her children were young. She later transferred that experience to the Montessori pre-school.
Dr. Wylie said the Montessori teaching method promotes independence balanced by obedience and courtesy to others. And at The Children’s House at Christ the King, all is overarched by fostering a love for and faith in Christ.