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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503



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Our Family’s First year at Camp Henry: a Story of Survival and Discovery

Sarah Danielski

by Mandy Geerts, mom of confident and capable elementary twins

One fall morning, I walked my kindergartner twins into Children’s House past a milling, wild group of elementary students on the playground. Suitcases were strewn along the walkway. I scooted my girls past them quickly.

“What’s going on out there?” I asked Sarah B. at the front desk. She wore a crisp white shirt. “Oh, it’s Camp Henry day, the annual overnight trip for Elementary,” Sarah said. 

“Overnight?” My heart beat faster.

“The kids are so excited,” Sarah said. “Plus they get to ride a bus!”

I waved good-bye to Sarah and walked down the steps of CH. “No way,” I was thinking. “Absolutely not. Next year when my girls are first years, they will most definitely not be on that bus to Camp Henry.” I would figure a way out of it.

I had so many “logical” Mama reasons! We were new to SSMS and new to full days of school. Four weeks into the school year, we’d arrived on time twice. It was impossible to imagine rallying ourselves enough to successfully attend an overnight camp. 

Plus, the girls could not possibly go to sleep without me! Our bedtime routine involved reading, singing, back rubs, drinks of water, me reciting the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—in Middle English, more drinks of water, and, finally, the three of us collapsing in sleep. Later in the night I’d wipe the drool from my mouth and rouse myself to move to my own bed.

If this weren’t enough, the two or three times my kids had slept over at my parents’ house had involved multiple tearful phone calls to me while my husband and I were attempting a date night--each time leaving him in the restaurant and me spending the evening outside on the phone. 

Add to this EpiPen-level food allergies.

The girls were just too little. My kids would never go to Camp Henry.

We All Can Grow Up in a Year

One year can pass like the blink of an eye. The following August, the girls were first years. I hadn’t figured a way out of Camp Henry. But now, I wasn’t sure I wanted them to avoid the experience.

Something strange had happened over the past year. My self-focused kindergarteners had lost three teeth each, turned six years old, grown almost two inches, and bloomed into social creatures of the Second Plane of Development. They were ready for an adventure.

Still, I was still nervous about Camp Henry. 

Over the summer, as the girls grew out of seemingly every pair of shoes they had, I started to grow out of my underlying Camp Henry fear of “they’re so little!” They now more resembled those throngs of energetic elementary kids than the wanting-to-cuddle kindergartners.

Maybe I was ready too.

How We Prepared Physically and Emotionally for the 31 Hours at Camp Henry

 We spent a lot of time preparing for their inaugural Camp Henry trip.

  • The girls picked out cute and impractical faux fur pink and blue sleeping bags and pillows.

  • I labeled socks and underwear with their names .

  • I sprayed T-shirts and shorts and sweatpants with bug spray and packed them individually in plastic Zip-lock bags. 

  • I made multiple trips to Meijer to get toiletry bags and travel hairbrushes. I agonized over the colors of travel toothbrushes in the sample aisle.

  • I emailed the Willow guide, Jan, six times regarding the intricacies of bungee cording sleeping bags in the slippery garbage bags to the girls’ suitcases.

  • More than once at morning drop off, I interrogated the Hawthorn guide, Holly, to verify the availability of gluten-free food.

camp henry_bungee cord.jpg

I was feeling good about things (minus the bungee cord tying, which was above my technical expertise), really good. The girls came home from school with stories of a bonfire and songs, and, yes, they could bring their Silkies. Only when I looked at the growing pile of bug-sprayed clothes in the plastic bags did my eyes prick with tears. 

Pre-Camp Jitters

When I picked them up from school the day before Camp Henry, they cheerfully got in their car seats. Caroline sat in her pink car seat on the left, Bea in her blue car seat on the right. We turned the curve down at the end of the street.

“Girlies!” I said. “Camp Henry is tomorrow. Are you so excited?”

Caroline’s face crumpled up. She pushed her worn Silky bear to her face.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” I said. Her face scrunched tighter.

“Is it Camp Henry? I said. She cried. Her face turned red.

“Caroline doesn’t want to go,” Bea’s forehead puckered.

“Sweetie,” I said, not certain if I was talking to Bea or Caroline. “Do you want to talk about why you don’t want to go?”

“I’m not going either!” Bea started crying. Caroline’s tears escalated to heaving screams.

My face turned red. This was all wrong. I had been wrong. They were too little.

The Big Morning Arrives

The morning of Camp Henry, the dark sky threatened rain. The whole way to school, I clenched the steering wheel. The girls sat silent in their car seats. 

The upcoming moment of good-bye had so many opportunities to go wrong. I imagined Caroline clinging to my leg crying. I would look at Jan and mouth, “Help.” Worse—and this had happened to me before—both girls could mutiny and refuse to get out of the car.

I parked the car on the sidewalk off Paris Avenue. The playground was filled with the screaming, moving kids. This was our moment of truth.

“The school bus is here!” Bea said.

“I see Makaio!” Caroline said.

I pulled the suitcases out of the trunk. They were lightweight. Surely not robust enough for the first night away from me. The girls’ Silkies were tucked in the outside mesh pockets.

The girls started heading off.

“Wait, Girlies. Stop.” I said. “Picture!” “Hurry,” said Bea. She looked toward the kids.

“I’m hurrying,” I said. “Get close.”  “Got it!” I said.

The girls grabbed their suitcase handles and turned away.

“Bye!” I said. “Love you! Have fun!”

Bea turned around and waved. But Caroline kept going. She walked swiftly ahead, one foot in front of the other.

I slowly walked to my car. A single red rose, drumming, or a rainbow. These are the things I yearned for to mark this milestone.

I texted my mom. “Girls off to Camp Henry. Caro never said good-bye.”

“Brave girlies,” she responded.

Camp Days

Pictures came throughout the day. I eagerly scrolled through again and again. The kids on the bus ride. Setting up their bunk beds. Archery. Muddy boots. The kids all looked happy. 

Late in the afternoon came a video of a giant swing—two kids wearing helmets and harnesses were attached and hoisted high in the air. A release cord was pulled and the kids soared through the air again and again. Clearly, this swing was for older kids, probably just 5th and 6th years. Daredevil kids. This is not something I would ever go on. Certainly, my kids would never go on this contraption.

Thirty-one hours after I dropped them off, I picked them up. The girls scrambled into the back seat. The first thing they said was “Where’s food?”

“I missed you!” I said.

On the drive home, they mostly ate. They wanted to know about my day without them. Had I been able to sleep or had I missed them too much?

"You Had to Be There, Mom.”

Throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening, Camp Henry details emerged. The delicious gluten-free food, ghost stories, the counselor who’d been thrown in the lake, and the bonfire and giggling with the other girls in the bunkhouse. Again and again, they said, “We spent the night without you. We can’t wait for Camp Henry next year!”

Bea tried to tell me about a red line that one of the Camp Henry workers had told them to either stand on or to avoid but she couldn’t get through the story without laughing. Finally, she gave up. 

“You had to be there,” she said. Caroline nodded. “Had to be there.”

I felt a little left out. I was always there with them. And now, they had experiences that they couldn’t even explain to me because I hadn’t been there. 

Me Not Being There, Had Been the Whole Point of Camp Henry!

A few nights later, we were snuggled in bed. One round of water had been completed and we’d thankfully opted out of the Canterbury Tales. I was reading aloud with the girls’ warm bodies pressing against me. 

 “Mama, Caroline went on the big swing at Camp Henry,” Bea said matter-of-factly.

 “Read,” Caroline said.

 “You mean the rope swing thing that drops really far?” I tried not to sound alarmed. 

Caroline nodded. She sucked her fingers. She snuggled her Silky close to her face. 

 “Read,” she said.

 I read on, even though I wanted to make a big deal about this swing. 

My Kid Had Chosen to Do Something I Would Never Do! 

Even though it was a really big deal to me, it wasn’t a big deal to her. 

My girls are second years this year. Already, Caroline has picked who she’s going to bunk with and Bea is plotting to stay up super late finger knitting. (Attention Guides and Camp Henry chaperones—please stop this rogue finger knitting, but don’t tell Bea who tipped you off!)

I am a little nervous about their night away, but I’m mostly giddy. My evening plans are to take a really long, hot shower and then I’m hosting my book club. 

The girls are worried about me.

“We’re afraid you’ll forget we’re gone,” Caroline told me yesterday at breakfast. She took a forkful of sauerkraut and gave me a long look in the eyes.

“We’re afraid you’ll make us breakfast that morning and then come down to wake us up and our beds will be empty,” said Bea. She patted my shoulder.

“I absolutely will not forget you are gone.” I pulled them both to me and kissed the tops of their heads. 

camp henry_twins.jpg

Our Montessori-Inspired Playroom

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Frigga Jacob, a Stepping Stones Montessori School Parent

Up until a year and a half ago, I knew nothing about the Montessori philosophy. You might imagine how mind-blown I was when I saw the clutter-free rooms, materials arranged neatly on the shelves, the miniature versions of things we use daily at home, the peaceful interactions, and the busy kids: some with laser-focused looks on their faces, some with a satisfied, contented looks on them. 

We had already toured  several preschools, but the tour at Stepping Stones Montessori School made a lasting impression. I mean, I just thought that those things were impossible to do in preschool-aged kids! 

It didn't take long after that to get motivated. I want that at home too! I mean, who doesn't? First off in the "List of things I need to change at home" was our playroom. 

It was Time to Change Our Perspective on Play

After three years of accumulating stuff, our play area was always messy. I tried getting more storage and put toys in bins to hide them. But I hadn’t seen any changes. 


I was still spending a significant amount of time reorganizing and feeling frustrated. It was also very difficult to encourage the kids to clean up after play. 

It was time to jump on the Montessori bandwagon. I looked on Pinterest, Google-searched everything related to Montessori, and got to work. It took me more than a month to finish and missed my intended deadline (before school started). But, it was for the better. After going to the Stepping Stones Parent coffees and reading school newsletters, I was continuously learning -- and our playroom benefitted from my new awareness.

Here are the things I learned along the way. 

Don’t Give Up

Initially, it seems impossible! The kids were constantly rediscovering a long lost toy at the bottom of the bins. They delayed me several times in finishing my playroom rehaul. Naptime and when they were out were the best times to work on the project. 

Get Organized

Toy bins just hid the clutter and made it inevitable for the kids to scatter that clutter around, as they search for a particular toy. I got rid of those and decided to use open shelving.


Next I automatically took out the toys that were broken or had missing pieces. 

Finally, I donated toys that mostly just made lights and noise by pressing buttons rather than actually helping our kids explore and be creative while playing. Our toys now are a mixture of Montessori toys, dollar store toys and hand-me-downs that they continue to play with and spend a lot of time with.

The only toys left in individual bins are the ones dedicated to building (wooden blocks, magnatiles, Legos). 


Follow the Child

 I try to regularly observe their interests and put toys related to those in a low, easy-access shelf.


 I keep the rest of the toys in the basement, and I will rotate those once my kids lose interest in the current ones or once their interests have changed. I noticed that the fewer toys that are out, the longer they spend time with them and the easier it is to take it out and put back after.

Emphasize Themes 

I arranged the toys by theme and matched them with books. This is a personal preference since I liked incorporating reading with play or they might pick the book instead of the toy depending on what they are currently interested in. 


I also liked that Stepping Stones provides lessons on caring for the environment. I own several orchids and decided to put those in the play area. My son helps out with watering them at times. It took awhile for my 2 year old daughter to learn not to pick the buds and wood chips, but she did it and now they're basically untouched.


Be Consistent

I like to continue the habit from the school of putting the bags on a hanger and shoes on the shelves. I dedicated a piece of furniture and an area for that, reinforcing that we respect our materials both at home and at school.


Our Montessori Playroom Encourages Peace and Focus

There were other unexpected advantages that I enjoyed after finishing our Montessori-inspired playroom. Though sometimes they don't cooperate in putting the toys back before the next (mostly when another person is taking care of them), I noticed that putting things back in order was a breeze compared to before, for the obvious reason -- there were fewer things to put back. 

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to minimize the number of toys. Surprisingly, the arrangement withstood many playdates. My kids' friends (not schoolmates)  were as engaged and focused as my kids were. Since the arrangement is by theme, it was easy to remember where things belong, even for the kids. Lastly, things do not get lost as often as before (even the puzzles) and they seldom break anything since we preferred and kept the wooden ones. 

If you are a seasoned Montessori parent, you already know our homes will never be like a Montessori classroom. However, I saw so many things that were doable in our household and it made a huge difference in our everyday lives. I am sure you'll find plenty too. If you have additional ideas, I would love to hear them in the comments! 


Montessori at Home

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

One of the most frequent questions I receive, as the Head of School of a small Montessori School, is “How can we make a Montessori home?” This is a great question. It tells me that a family is engaged in their child’s development and eager to learn about and implement Montessori philosophy. 

Keeping in mind that your home is not a Montessori school, and that unlike a classroom that is designed only for 3-6 year-olds, your home is a place for people of varying ages, here are some thoughts:

The Environment

Keep it Real

Our classrooms use “real” things. We use glass pitchers and cups. We use ceramic bowls and plates. We use real silverware. We use knives to cut food. Our classroom materials are made of natural materials wherever possible, utilizing beautiful wood, fabric, and metal. 

This part of our philosophy serves a few purposes. First, all of us react positively to beauty in our lives. Second, it demonstrates in a real way to our students that we take them seriously, and we trust them. Third, we can model that things are things. If a cup breaks, we clean it up. Knowing how to do that also carries a sense of independence and freedom. Fourth, it teaches students the importance of caring for things. If something is beautiful, we can model how to care for it, fix it, and make sure it lasts. When things are made from cheap plastic, we sometimes tend to toss it when it breaks rather than focus on care, maintenance, and repair.

Keep things in reach

If your child is old enough to set the table (starting at about age 2), they are old enough to have those plates, cups, etc. within reach. Imagine how frustrating it would feel for you, as an adult, to have to ask someone else for utensils every time you eat. Your child likely feels the same way. This is true for clothing, art materials, cleaning supplies (rags, water, non-toxic and natural cleaning sprays), and other things your child uses regularly.

A few things instead of all the things

Keep a few things out for your child to use, but the truth is that children play more creatively and better with fewer toys than with many. Also, when parents display toys on shelves with only 2-3 items per shelf, children can see what is available, and learn to return things where they belong. A toy box filled to the top with piles of toys makes it difficult to know what is available and where to return it. 

Modeling & Contribution

Work alongside your child

No matter what your child’s age, their classroom at Stepping Stones Montessori School will include a guide and peers who patiently explains, demonstrates, and partners with students to help them learn how to do things themselves. Whether this is setting a table, pouring water, ironing a shirt, or mending a chicken coop, when your child gains a skill, someone has modeled it for them and has often shown them the steps. Block time in your schedule to do this with your child. Even 10 minutes a day makes a difference.


Expect your child to contribute to the family and contribute yourself. Chores are important for children. They teach confidence, belonging, and motivation. Here are some ideas to get started.

Stay Peaceful

Provide unstructured time for your children and your family. Avoid the temptation and anxiety to provide lessons, museums, libraries and other activities at all times. Instead, give your children opportunities to become bored. Play a game as a family. Do a puzzle. Make up a silly play. Just sit and read together. After a full day at school for them and a full day at work for you, it is important for you both.

Be Realistic

Our guides are trained over the course of years. They have learned meticulous details for creating a Montessori environment. We do not expect our parents to do this at home. The best way we can support you as a parent is to help you be present and free of anxiety while you’re with your kids. You don’t need to have the perfect Montessori environment at home. We have one for your child at school. 

Thank You

We know that working, keeping a house, and being a family can be both overwhelming and rewarding. We have abundant grace and understanding for you. We hope you read this as thoughts to share rather than as a to-do list. Thank you for being so engaged in your child’s development. Stepping Stones Montessori School is fortunate to have such beautiful and committed parents.