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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503



Holidays the Montessori Way (Practical Life for Families)

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

November 1. That is the day the radio began blasting holiday tunes into my vehicle, lists started appearing, and more physical space was given to store aisles dedicated to the “holidays”. You’ll find plenty of curmudgeonly material available bah humbugging about how the holidays have crept into every corner of our lives, earlier and earlier each and every year.

 This post is not one of those.

Instead, this post is a celebration of the gifts of Montessori education during the holiday seasons of October through April (yup. 6 whole months).

 I should say right up front that we don’t have big holiday lessons or celebrations in our classrooms. Even as an adult, I still vividly remember the day a woman dressed as a witch, with a broom, arrived in my sixth-grade classroom, serving apples with a cackle. It turns out it was Donna’s mother, our “Room Mother” (with apologies to the fathers), who had arrived to run our classroom Halloween party.

 I remember it as my first all-out, holiday party after moving to a new neighborhood and new school where holidays were celebrated in grand style. Birthdays were also celebrated with cake, treats and lots of sugar in the classroom. In between, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s, and even Easter made an appearance in that classroom. I think that first party remains so vivid because it stood in stark contrast from the regular classroom routine. When I think back on it as an adult, I cringe for the parents who received hyper, unfocused, and nutritionally-deficient children at the end of the day.

That just isn’t the Montessori way. You will find a dearth of parties and only subdued references to the holidays of the season. Before you accuse me (and others) of being “fun-suckers” who have taken the joy out of the holidays, I thought I’d share why we take this approach.

 Our classrooms offer our children the gift of time, the gift of routine, and the gift of peace. Adding holiday parties would minimize those gifts.

Holidays are cultural and family events, and we do not presume to overlay our traditions over those of your family. Our students in Infant/Toddler through lower elementary understand holidays through the lens of their own experience and their family experience. Even if they have been told and can recite the stories behind these holidays (religious and otherwise) the importance of the event is their time with their family and their family traditions. Developmentally, they are not ready for the underlying stories and histories of the holidays, and we therefore ask questions like, “How do you do it in your family?”

 For our older students who are developmentally ready for deeper conversation, we approach them with questions rather than answers. How do you imagine it happened? Why do you think people do it this way? What do you enjoy about this tradition? What do you wish would change? What have you read? Are there other perspectives? Like all things Montessori, we do not presume to have answers or even something to teach. Instead, it is our hope that we can foster learning and help ask really great questions.

For us, one of the richest gifts of our school is the importance of varied and vibrant traditions within our community. Students are encouraged to talk about how their families celebrate holidays and to share the importance of family traditions with friends. Friends in our community have shared traditions like Diá de Muertos, Diwali, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Hanukkah, Eid Al-Fitr, etc. Just as we do not presume to overlay our traditions over family traditions, we likewise do not presume which holidays to celebrate.

That does not mean that ignore holidays altogether. If you were to observe our classrooms, you would likely notice that work may take on colors, shades, and shapes of the seasons, with golds and reds in the fall, silvers and blues, reds and greens in the winter, pinks and reds in February. Art shelves often become filled with materials for students to express holiday traditions through art projects and creative expression. Pouring and transferring work will also reflect these new shapes and colors.

Books on shelves will likely reflect holiday stories, poems, and songs. These stories and poems are largely impressionistic in nature, designed to evoke feelings of generosity, kindness, sharing, and peace. Most Montessori schools, including ours, welcome book recommendations and donations!

 In some classrooms, students will bring the energy of gift-giving into the classroom, making special gifts for family members and one another. They often direct these gifts, making something unique and personal.

Personally, I’ve come to love the pace of holidays in a Montessori classroom. In the midst of holiday parties, gatherings, family feasts, and the harried pace of our larger culture, our classrooms are places of peace and refuge.

 As a parent, you can extend these gifts into your home with some of these more practical ideas:

1.     Share the work—Many family traditions include large meals and gatherings. Invite your children and adolescents to share in creating menus, cooking dishes, setting tables, and decorating your home. These a great opportunities for them to experience the holidays as a time of coming together rather than being relegated to a separate part of the home while the adults have stress-filled moments.

2.     Ask how they want to feel and what is most important to them—Rather than asking your children what they “want”, ask them how they want to feel and what is most important to them. This is a great opportunity to hear from them about the importance of time with family, traditions, and slowed-down moments. For older kids, ask them how your family can work together to achieve this goal.

3.     Invite hand-made gifts—If gift exchanges are part of your family tradition, suggest to your children and family that you make gifts together for friends and family. Handmade soaps, cookies, and wood-working projects are excellent containers for the love and joy of the holidays, and they have the added bonus of the gift of creative time.

4.     Emphasize the care of the environment—In our classrooms, we emphasize the importance of caring for our environment. For younger children, this may mean keeping a room clean, sweeping floors, or cleaning mirrors. For older children, this can mean regular responsibilities for rooms and larger chores. The holidays are wonderful times to create and build on the tradition of caring for our homes. Just be sure that children have appropriately sized tools (ideally, stored together in an accessible location), and any aids they might need due to their size (like aprons and step-stools).

5.     Practice grace and courtesy—The holidays provide innumerable opportunities to practice manners: writing thank yous, offering hospitality, and even shaking hands. As a parent you can model these behaviors. Even better? Take time during a non-stressful, non-busy moment to talk about your expectations and give a lesson for these courtesies.

 Above all, practice kindness to your child, to yourself, and to all those you encounter. That is the highest and most beautiful celebration of any holiday!

 The gifts mentioned above offer your child the opportunity to feel valued as a member of your family. They offer opportunities for confidence-building. They offer your child peace and security. Opportunities like these allow your entire family to know each other and yourselves better and at a deeper level.

Best, these gifts offer you a moment to slow down as well. You might even create a new tradition!

You likely won’t see many construction paper holiday crafts coming out of our school. But, you will find a great deal of respect for your child, heaps of love, and an outpouring of grace and acceptance.

 Happy Everything!


On Time

Elizabeth Topliffe

Does anybody really know what time it is?
— Chicago

By Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

Parents often wonder why we’re so regimented about start times at our Montessori School. I can assure you that we aren’t maniacal time-keepers or rigid people! Rest assured. The reason is that it is important to your child, and we take that pretty seriously.

Three Hour Work Cycle

To begin, I need to back up to Maria Montessori’s research. When observing children, Dr. Montessori noticed that children (even very young children) reach deep levels of concentration and learning. It was during these deeper periods of concentration that children were able to work with materials and lessons to achieve mastery, returning to the concept or materials with repetition until they became satisfied with their work.

All of us are familiar with the feeling of satisfaction for a job well done. For adults that comes in many forms. It may be figuring out what has been holding us back and using our morning to solve that problem. Or, we might complete a writing project or presentation. Or it might be something physical, like cleaning up a tree that has come down in the yard. It is just so gratifying to see our efforts pay off.

Children feel this same sense of joy and gratification when they master something or complete a project. Dr. Montessori noticed, however, that children did not reach this state of concentration (many of you would call it “flow”) until they had worked through some shorter, easier tasks, and then experienced a state of “False Fatigue”, which is a period of restlessness that sets in about 1 1/2 hours into the work cycle. The same is likely true for adults. We settle in to our days and then get to work on our own work cycles.

A Children's House student works with the 3 chain

A Children's House student works with the 3 chain

As a parent who has been late my fair share of the time, it is easy for me to think that my daughter didn’t miss much when she was late. Maybe she missed only the time to hang up coats, chat with friends, etc. She is pretty adaptable and can jump right in. I assumed that she hadn’t missed out on anything important—the meaty stuff.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. We can’t skip the small stuff. A child arriving at school will still take time to settle in and put away their belongings. They will check in with friends. They might wander in the classroom to find work that intrigues them. If they cannot find work, they might receive a short lesson. A child often completes one or two smaller, easier tasks not long after they arrive, repeating something they have already mastered. They will likely have snack.

These tasks are what allow the child to settle in to the concentrated work. Children (and adults for that matter) need to do those things first in order to reach that state of flow or deep learning.

An elementary student deep into the timeline of life

An elementary student deep into the timeline of life

When we’re late, we take time away from our children’s deep learning. If we’re ½ hour late, our child may not reach that state of flow at all during the work cycle. It doesn’t matter how much effort and energy we put into a carefully prepared environment, if a child is not there to receive the work, it is wasted. We are pretty attached to our students, and we do not want them to miss out on this important time!

It is also important for parents to say their goodbyes somewhere other than the classroom. Saying goodbye at the door or front-office allows children the dignity of caring for themselves. It sends the message that you think they are capable, resourceful, and whole. They receive that message from the staff and the entire environment of the school, and this is a way you can reinforce that. It is an act of dignity and agency to walk into a work environment on our own, without emotional assistance.

Sarah B. and her sign-in sheet

Sarah B. and her sign-in sheet

Montessori schools, teachers and administrators really do understand. We know snow storms, dentist appointments, lost shoes, etc. happen. We get it. We know that sometimes being on time is a challenge. It is our hope to help you understand why it is worth some up-front effort to build some consistency in arrival.

An Invitation

Our work is to establish peace. The first step in doing so is to respect our work, the work of others, and to respect ourselves—our agency and our dignity.

The best part is that every one of us is invited into the work of peace, grace, and courtesy. Our age, economic-class, social-class, religion, education, etc. have no bearing on the invitation.

You are welcome here. Your child is welcome here.


Community Sing!

Elizabeth Topliffe

Funny how a melody
Sounds like a memory
Like a soundtrack to a July Saturday night
            --Eric Church, Springsteen
I have some great news to share! Stepping Stones Montessori is starting a Community Sing!

Just in case you’re asking yourself what the heck is a community sing and why would we do it, I’m hoping to explain that here. A community sing is a group of people getting together to sing. That’s it. As for why, here are some of my thoughts….
Some of you know that I often begin my notes and posts with song lyrics. I really don’t know what inspired me to do this, but I keep doing it because songs often convey more effectively anything I could share in words here. For example, the lyrics above from Eric Church remind me how much of my own memory is tied to song.
Music has that quality. It can take me back to the roller rinks of my youth, the beaches of young adulthood, and the nostalgia of singing around a campfire.
But for years, I refused to sing while in the company of any other human. The truth is that my voice is tinny, flat, and rarely on key. I was too embarrassed to sing.
Then, I became a parent.
Soon, I was singing to help my daughter sleep. I was singing silly songs to share with her. We were singing together about cleaning up or getting dressed or any other chore. We would even sing-song speak to one another.
Some scientists believe that human language evolved from song and that our ancestors sang before they spoke. Regardless of whether that is accurate, human beings have been singing together for millennia. There was a time (before smartphones) when singing was a part of everyday life. Women sang as they churned, wove, worked. Men sang as they did the same. When groups of people gathered, they sang.
Among other things, singing creates a sense of belonging, which was important to early humans as they relied on their group for survival.
Today, we need that sense of belonging as much as ever. And, we have lots of modern research that describes the benefits of singing for health, immunity, warding off depression and anxiety, better sleep, lower blood pressure, longer life, and improved muscle tone and posture.
In our classrooms, children sing together—sometimes serious songs and sometimes fun songs. Last year, as the upper elementary students prepared our garden at River Ridge Farm (the location of our new middle school), they sang together as they worked. When I arrived during their work, the sense of joy was palpable. Singing helped create that joy and express it.
Singing is also a part of the quieter moments in our community. A couple years ago, Sarah B. heard singing in the staircase. She peeked over the rail to see a student taking care of the classroom’s recycling. As she worked, the student sang a made-up song about recycling.
Music is an important part of our learning environment, but we have not really extended it to our larger community. Until now. Jenn Porter and Josh Dunigan, our upper elementary guide and music teacher, suggested a community sing.
It is a monthly gathering of anyone (children, neighbors, grandparents, parents, your second-cousin, everyone is welcome!) who wants to join us to get together and to sing. Our first sing will be September 11 at 6. We will meet outdoors (if the weather is nice—otherwise in the cafeteria), share a meal (with suggested donation), eat together, and then sing for about a half hour. Jenn Porter and Josh Dunigan have agreed to help lead this. We plan to begin with songs from Rise Up Singing: The Group Singing Songbook. If you have a guitar, play an instrument, or otherwise love to help a group to sing, please bring your instruments and leadership capabilities!
Lest you think that you cannot sing, please join us anyway. I will be there, singing off key. Please don’t make me the only one.
Our greatest songs are yet to be sung. Join us as we grow them together.
In peace,