Saturday, February 12, 2011

Happy Birthday Thomas Edison!

Having completed a unit of study on magnetism, it only makes sense to introduce the children to some of the natural laws associated with electricity. The main sensorial key for introducing electricity in the Montessori classroom is allowing children to construct a simple electrical circuit with a small lightbulb as a load.

The children delight in constructing the circuit, learning basic nomenclature (electrons, source, load, and return) and learning that electric current only flows in a closed path (the electrons have to get back to where they started).

I happened to have several prospective families come to tour the school while children were working with this material, and I cannot even begin to explain their amazement at the children's ability to assemble the circuit and explain to outsiders what they were doing. In every case, the visitors commented to me upon what a clever lesson it was and how they would not have considered teaching something like that to children this age. As always, I find myself able to tell them with pleasure that this lesson was not my invention. Montessori was always ahead of her time. This science lesson is standard fare for children in this plane of development (in fact I have a copy of a write up of this lesson from the Maria Montessori Training Organization in London, which was opened by Montessori herself, from 1947). In fact, it was members of the American scientific community who first welcomed Dr. Montessori to America and embraced her beliefs; Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell invited Montessori to America for her first appearance in 1915, and the first Montessori school in America was established in the home of Alexander Graham Bell.

But I digress... In any event, suffice it to say, I am reasonably confident that children today enjoy their first foray into the study of electricity as much as the children one hundred years ago.

When presenting this unit, it can be fun to try a little experiment with yourself: If you have correctly sequenced the units of study and the scientific materials in the classroom (in which case you will now have a magnetic sorting lesson on the science shelves in close proximity to the electrical circuit work), if you have provided the right classroom atmosphere (which encourages intelligent experimentation), and if you have given the right hints and cues to encourage the students to reach a higher level of thinking (scaffolding), your classroom will spontaneously (without your giving any type of presentation at all) arrive at an understanding of insulators and conductors. It is a really fun phenomenon to behold!

Generally, one very observant child will begin to see that just touching the copper wires to the terminals causes the circuit to work and from there they will begin to wonder what else they could touch to the terminals to have the same effect. Soon, they will notice that some materials can conduct the current, while others do not. They will inevitably go and get the magnetic sorting lesson (sorting objects into magnetic and non-magnetic) and try using the different items in the box, and will not fail to notice that the items that were magnetic are also the items that conduct electricity. At this point, the guide should supply the appropriate vocabulary to their discovery. The excited child will inevitably go around the classroom sharing his or her discovery with the other children (it they have not already crowded around to watch the experiment unfold).

This type of autonomous learning, the "ah ha," the exhilaration of having discovered something for themselves, is absent in classroom environments where teachers present concepts and information to children, rather than creating the conditions in which they can discover it for themselves. That is the beauty of Montessori. Everything is available to the child and made ready for her, but nothing unnecessary is done for her. Unnecessary help is a hindrance to development. The task of a Montessori guide is to invite and challenge, direct and learn, nourish and care, but also to stand back and observe these inquisitive and industrious minds at work.

Once the children understand the basics of an electrical circuit and insulators and conductors have been discovered, it is time to introduce them to a generator and the ways in which magnets can be used to make electricity. Our little generator uses a small hand crank to turn a single alnico magnet which lights an incandescent lightbulb (you could also use a compass as the load).
"I did it! I made electricity," one little three year old could be heard exclaiming the first day this was out in the classroom. I had to laugh; I am pretty sure that in this age of ipods, DVDs, Leapfrogs, and television, there aren't children anywhere that are more excited about being able to illuminate a lightbulb!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Visit from Lluvia

This morning, the children were treated to a special visit from our CSA farmers, Mark and Kena Guttridge of Ollin Farms, and their three week old lamb Lluvia (pronounced "Juvia," which translates to "rain" in Spanish).

Although lambs generally conjure images of bucolic farms with undulating grassy slopes and these cute, gentle creatures wandering freely from one verdant knoll to the next , Lluiva was born in the middle of January's arctic storms. She was bottle fed for several days by the Guttridges, until they were able to return her to her mother, which might account for her calm acceptance of her new found preschool celebrity icon status.
The children were very excited to meet Lluvia! They sat as calmly as their little bodies could muster as we discussed some of the general characteristics of mammals, learned what lambs and sheep eat, and the parts of a lamb. They were particularly interested in the fact that Lluvia had been bottle fed, that she drank milk, that wool comes from sheep, and that she had cloven hooves and a tail that wiggles and wags when she nurses.
At last, the eager children had the opportunity to pet her! For her part, Lluvia was the most gregarious and good natured lamb I have ever seen. She seemed relaxed and happy while the children took turns petting her and then entertained them with her antics as she tried to jump around the rug and bleated softly as the children sang Ba, Ba, Black Sheep to her.

When it was time for them to go, the anxious children inundated our guests with requests to come out and see the farm ("When the snow melts," they patiently replied to countless children). I was glad to see that the children were as excited about our partnership with the farm as we are! We were also really excited about the prospect of incubating some chicken eggs in the classroom this summer and then relocating them to the farm!

For the remainder of the day, the children spent the majority of their outdoor play time in the garden, taking turns pretending to be farmers and lambs!

We wish to sincerely thank Mark, Kena, Amber, and Coral Guttridge for their kindness and generosity. The children were very excited to meet Lluvia and very excited about coming to see them at their farm.

For more information about Ollin Farms, please visit their website at

Monday, February 7, 2011

Chinese New Year Celebration

The children have been learning about Chinese New Year, a traditional Chinese festival which begins on the first day of the first month in the Chinese lunar-solar calendar (each month follows one cycle of the moon) and ends fifteen days later, on Chinese New Years Eve.

The children have been busy making red paper lanterns (traditionally used on the fifteenth day of celebration for the lantern walk) and red envelopes (traditional gifts given to children, usually containing money) and decorating the classroom with dragons (to scare away bad spirits).

The Chinese New Year celebration concludes with a sumptuous feast known as the reunion dinner, so it was only fitting that our study culminate with a celebratory meal of our own- fried rice and dumplings.

The children really enjoyed learning to carefully fold the tasty filling in the wonton wrappers.

A few minutes of pan frying, a quick steam bath, and voila! (er... qiao!), a delicious platter of irresistible dumplings.

No sooner had the crackling of dumplings in the pan subsided than the excited children gathered around the table and put their chopstick skills to the test with the special snack of homemade dumplings and vegetarian fried rice. Gung Hay Fat Choy!

We would like to thank Mei Lai for her informative, gracious, and delicious dumpling making tutorial, and for donating the supplies for the project. The children absolutely loved it!

Thank you!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


When I give tours of the school, I am often asked about science education for preschool children. Although there seems to be an acknowledgement that children are nascent scientists (in fact, a recent study by the National Science Foundation described them as "scientists in waiting... naturally curious and actively involved in exploring the world around them"), many parents are uncertain of how to expand their child's ability to think in ways which follow the scientific method and how to provide opportunities for children to conduct inquiries which contribute to the acquisition of scientific knowledge and nomenclature. So you can imagine the skeptical looks I get when I tell them that the best method I know of for doing so was invented more than one hundred years ago.
I have mentioned before that Montessori materials isolate one concept to brings forth the idea to the child in a concrete, hand's on manner in which the child can be at once scientist and explorer, and discover the concept for his/herself as an active participant in the learning process. The Montessori guide is indispensable in this process, but not as a teacher or a lecturer, so much as a facilitator who presents well timed opportunities for intellectual investigation that dialectically advances the child's understanding of the world. The main responsibility of the Montessori guide is to prepare the environment with the correct materials and provide the expert scaffolding (well timed interventions in the form of stimulating questions, hints, cues, and motives) that helps the child reach a higher level of thinking.
Few things illustrate the dialectical progression (how different concerete, sensorial experiences build upon each other to allow the child to acquire more sophisticated knowlege) of concepts better than science units.

For the past month, our science shelves have been stocked with lessons presenting basic concepts in magnetism.

A Magnetic Sorting Lesson allows the child to independently discover that some materials are attracted to a magnets and develop their conceptual sorting skills (the ability to form groups of objects based upon a single, common, objectively determined attribute from a diverse collection of objects- a complex skill that Piaget and Vygotsky famously believed children could not accomplish until early adolescence when they had achieved a sufficient understanding of the relationship between category and subcategory) as they sort a collection of objects into things that are magnetic and things that are not magnetic.

Once the concept was understood, the children used the concept to make some interesting insights which went beyond the scope of the lesson. Some children experimented with magnets in water (they were unsure whether the force of magnetism could go through water). Another girl spontaneously invented the classroom stud finder when she discovered that some part of walls were attracted to the magnet while others were not.

Another girl came up with the idea of producing this lovely book about magnetism.
After that, the children used a magnet to separate iron filings from other dry mediums, using these commercial materials

and by mixing sand and iron filings together and using a bar magnet to separate them.

Now that the basic idea was clear, children were given materials which enabled them to visualize magnetic fields by seeing how the iron filings line up along the lines of force of the magnetic fields.

They were also given materials that enabled them to see that the magnetic force surrounding a magnet is not uniform. There is a great concentration of strength at each end (at the poles) and a very weak force in the middle (demonstrated by dipping a cylindrical magnet in a tube containing iron filings- the filings accumulate at the ends while very few adhere to the center).

An assortment of magnets led the children to three other important discoveries: all magnets have two poles (north and south), opposite poles attract and like poles repel, and magnets can differ in strength.
The children also applied their understanding of polarity to match magnet configurations to pattern cards (putting opposite poles together when they wanted them to attract and like poles together when they wanted them to repel).

Then the children made their own compasses (out of corks, magnetized needles, and bowls of water) to understand that the needle of a compass is magnetic and to see how they respond to the bigger magnet that is our planet.

Then, the children learned about and visualized the Earth's magnetic field using a globe with a magnetic dipole.

Once the children understood that the needle of a compass responds to the Earth's magnetic field, they were ready to learn how to use compasses. They particularly enjoyed using them to label the room with its corresponding directions (they delight in getting this out and doing it several times a day). One child independently reasoned (based on her knowledge of polarity) that the Earth's North Pole must actually have the polarity of a south magnetic pole since it attracts the north pole of the compass needle!The children also examined compass roses on maps, created some compass roses, and discussed the way that a compass might be used as a literary trope.

And, of course, the children enjoyed relaxing and reading some quality non-fiction literature about magnets and compasses.

Over the next few weeks, we will be introducing lessons on electricity into the classroom.
Thank you to my mentors: Anna Applebaum (of Mapleton Montessori) for the idea of the Magnetic Sorting Lesson, Patty West (of Boulder Montessori) for teaching me how to develop physical science units for children in this plane of development, and Susan Stephenson for the Sand/Iron Filing Sorting lesson.