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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503



Honoring Dr. Montessori's Legacy of Peace

Sarah Danielski

by Margaret Venema, Upper Elementary co-lead and Sarah Danielski, Admissions

War and the Lesson of Peace

As we approach this year’s International Day of Peace, let us stop to recognize and honor one of the world’s foremost proponents of peace, Dr. Maria Montessori.

Dr. Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, 1950 and 1951 for her unrelenting efforts on behalf of children around the world. Having lived through two world wars and all the horrors that entailed, including being held under house arrest as an enemy non-combatant in India, she worked tirelessly for peace.

She was specifically lauded for her fight against facism, the fast-growing threat to civilizations around the globe at that time. She famously rebuffed Mussolini’s requests for her pupils to recite state-mandated propaganda and refused to order her teachers to take the facist loyalty oaths.

Consequently, her schools were closed and her books and lectures were burned. She fled Italy for India in 1934, after the threats and harassment from Mussolini’s regime became too much for her. But she did not stop her fight against tyranny. Rather, this incident strengthened her resolve to implement change on a global scale…through the unlikeliest of agents.

Children Are the Only Hope for Humankind

Through her observations of children and her increasing disappointment in world leaders, Dr. Montessori came to the realization that the only hope for true peace was through children. She found that through purposeful work, children educate themselves, learn self-discipline, and acquire skills to function independently.

In the classroom, they are given the words and the opportunity to resolve conflicts and they learn how to function in society. They develop independence and initiative. This experience then translates into their interactions with others as they mature into peaceful adults.

“The child who has never learned to act alone, direct his own actions, to govern his own will, grows into an adult who is easily led and must always lean on others.” (p. 124 Citizen of the World,  Dr. Maria Montessori ).

“The child who has never learned to act alone, direct his own actions, to govern his own will, grows into an adult who is easily led and must always lean on others.” (p. 124 Citizen of the World, Dr. Maria Montessori).

Montessori Classrooms: Bastions of Peace

In a Montessori classroom, children are free to move, socialize within the limits set by the community, and follow their interests. At Stepping Stones Montessori School, we actively work to develop a culture of peace.

We foster independence by giving children the opportunity to choose their own work and their own partners.

We encourage questions.

The children take responsibility for managing the classroom by collaboratively solving problems that arise.

They share in maintaining the environment and caring for plants and animals.

As guides, we are always aware that the child’s overarching work is the most difficult task they will undertake, that of building the peaceful adult to be.

Become Part of the Solution

If you’d like to learn more about Montessori’s emphasis on peace education and how we implement its core lessons in our classrooms, contact Stepping Stones Montessori.

The Gift of Camp

Sarah Danielski

By Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

What would you think if I sang out of tune?

Would you stand up and walk out on me?

Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song

And I'll try not to sing out of key

Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends

--Billy Shears

Toward the end of September, our elementary community will leave for their 7th-annual two-day trip to Camp Henry. All of our 1st through 6th-years, all of our elementary staff, and a few extra chaperones will be at Camp Henry in Newaygo overnight. 

Here is what I have learned from our students at camp.

The Importance of a Community

We all learn best when we feel a strong sense of community. 

Camp acts as a catalyst for community creation. Our students are placed in groups with students of different ages and in different classrooms. They have physical challenges as well as mental challenges. They must function as a team to succeed. 

During my first year at camp, I thought we had failed to create a community. I watched as some of our students sat out, opted for the sidelines, or refused to engage. In the first year of camp, I felt irritated by this. We had worked so hard to get our students there, and this was how they behaved?

Boy, did I need a lesson! Every single year, without fail, our students have come together as a group by the end of the first day. They find ways to support one another, and before long, everyone is actively engaged.

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Everyone Counts

I remember one particular year when a small group was struggling to cross a rope bridge. One of our younger students repeatedly stepped off the rope, walked away, and it was clear he was struggling to stay engaged. 

This student moved things around, tried to hide things from the camp counselor, and was generally disruptive. I think most of this was done because he was struggling with the task. At one point, he took a belt from the counselor’s things. 

She immediately smiled and told the whole group that this was the Magic Belt! It allowed the group to have a few people come off the rope without starting over. AND, this friend had found it. What a wonderful discovery, and how lucky we were to have a friend like this who found the magic belt and shared it! 

That friend had been struggling to function in the group. And then, he became the hero for the team. That was absolutely beautiful to witness.

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I Can Do It!

Camp includes challenges. Many of our students have not passed a dish of food around a table. Some are afraid to even put on a harness at the zip line. A few have never made their own bed. Some of our students truly struggle to carry their things to the cabin, keep them organized, and then re-pack the next day. 

These sound like small things. I can attest to how big these are.

One year, a friend knocked an entire pitcher of juice into a student’s lap. The student with the lapful of juice, sputtered, and spoke in a very irritated tone. The student who spilled cried, and felt awful. She froze. 

Soon, another student came over. She reassured the first student that it was just an accident. She offered to help clean up the mess. They did the cleaning together. They apologized to the student who had juice all over himself. He eventually agreed that it was just an accident, and he went back to his cabin to change into different clothes.

Problem solved.

They managed a situation that might have been difficult for many adults. They did it without adults helping, and they did it beautifully.

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Our students leave camp with a sense of confidence about being able to manage in polite society without adult intervention. This is a wonderful step in gaining full independence.

Our students leave camp with a sense of confidence about being able to manage in polite society without adult intervention. This is a wonderful step in gaining full independence.

Spending the Night

Every year, parents ask about whether it is okay for our first years to spend the night away from home. Every year, I say yes. Do we occasionally have a home-sick student? We certainly do.

And, when a student is missing home, a few friends come over to comfort him. They ask what they can do. They offer to sit with him until he feels better. They help him make his bed.

And, eventually, that student feels better. The older students who counseled and encouraged him realize that they have purpose and power in the community. They learn empathy and compassion. They remember their first time at camp, and they offer whatever they can to help that student feel better.

And the homesick student? He learns that even when he feels sad, he can get through it. With a little help from his friends.

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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.

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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. 

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