Sheila Akhavein* — Logan Square resident, longtime Montessori teacher, mother, soon-to-be preschool founder (more on that later!) — took a bit of a break from school when she had her daughter Emma almost two years ago. These days, she is running Philly Montessori, a consulting service for schools and — more recently — for families who want to apply the Montessori approach in their own home.
“As I played with Emma, I realized that almost everything that I used to do with my kids in the classroom could be transferred to my home,” Sheila explains. “The goal in working with other families is to give them the tools and the knowledge they need to create purposeful and engaging environments that will enhance their children’s learning and fun at home. My hope, too, is to help parents simplify their homes and routines in order to reduce stress and increase quality family time at home.”
Did you hear the magic words there? Simplify! Reduce stress! Increase quality time! Not only is this intriguing, but I have to say, Sheila’s blog is awesome. So we wanted to dig a little deeper here and ask Sheila about Montessori at home, her consulting gig, and what it all means.
So in a few words: Why Montessori?
Montessori is an educational approach grounded in three beliefs:
1. Children learn through their senses.
2. Children should be respected as the small humans they are.
3. Children have an innate desire to learn, and they express this desire by interacting with their environment.
I could talk about the values of a Montessori classroom for days on end. The truth is that I have seen it work for almost every type of family and child I’ve encountered. As a mom, I believe the things we’ve done to implement some of the principles at home are so simple to do than anyone can do them. I’m talking about things like rotating toys (you can see the blog post I wrote about that for a tutorial on how to do it), displaying toys grouped together in baskets on a shelf (makes for easy clean up and reinforces a respect of belongings), and bringing everything you’d like your child to do independently down to his eye level and reach. (Want your child to be able to get a snack if she’s hungry? Make the lowest level of the fridge or pantry dedicated to snacks she can retrieve herself!)
What are some of the benefits of using Montessori in the home?
I’ve found that simple steps like these really help encourage independence, creativity and language. Another aspect I personally enjoy is simplicity: Having just enough toys and activities for engagement not only makes for easy cleanup and a more attractive living space for everyone to enjoy, but it also allows the child to discover her toys in new ways.
An example: Emma has had The Original Toy Company pop-up bus since she was six months old, and every time it comes into rotation on her shelf, she uses it with such excitement, it’s as if I’ve gone to the store and bought her a new toy! And as she’s gotten older, she’s learned to use the toy in different ways. When she was younger, she would take the pieces in and out; when she was a bit older, she learned she could press down on the pieces and watch the pop out; now, at 20 months, she does all of the above while rolling the bus around, saying the colors of each pop-up person, and singing “Wheels on the Bus.” The moral, I guess, being the less you have and the more carefully you choose toys, the more meaningful play can become.
So what should we consider before buying a toy?
When people think of Montessori they often think that the toy or material needs to be wooden or “educational” — this can’t be further from the truth! Often, the best toys happen to be things that we already have around the house, or things that we can find in nature. I’ve made countless toys for Emma out of recycled materials (things that only took minutes to put together) that have kept her entertained, interested, and taught her important skills and concepts for several months! (If you want to see examples, you can ask to join the Facebook group Philly Montessori, or follow me on Instagram & Pinterest @phillymontessori!)
When I do buy toys for Emma, I tend to look for things that I know she can grow into and discover in new ways as she gets older. A colleague of mine called these types of toys those that could “dance the developmental ladder”- meaning that the toy would work for a young infant in one way, and for a three year old in a completely different way. When you choose toys like this, you don’t feel as guilty about spending a little more money on quality products.
Lastly I’d say that when you choose the right toys, and you don’t need to buy as many toys, you end up feeling okay with spending a bit more money on quality products that can stand the test of time.
Beyond toys, what other types of changes can parents make that incorporate helpful Montessori principles?
My number one encouragement to parents is to step back, slow down, and observe your children. It really is amazing just how much you can learn about your kids if you take only 10 minutes out of every week not playing with them or telling them what to do, but simply watching them interact with their own environment. As you observe your children you will begin to see things you never noticed before, and will be able to make adjustments to your children’s toys, environment, or your own interactions with them.
I also encourage parents to involve kids in the everyday operations of the house. Children love being with us, and copying the things that we do. So why not let them help us in the ways that they can? At 20 months Emma helps me put away the laundry, empty the dishwasher, prepare dinner, set the table, clean up her own toys, clean up her own spills, and water the houseplants. What’s more is that she loves doing these things, and since she’s gaining positive feelings around helping, it’s likely that her helpful spirit will continue to grow as she gets bigger and her abilities increase. (Fingers crossed, right?)
My hope with Philly Montessori is to help parents figure out ways to make small changes in their everyday lives and environments that could result in big changes. My motto is less is more, quality over quantity ALWAYS.
So if I hired you as a consultant, what would a session look like?
I offer three levels of consulting and can really design a session to meet your family’s particular needs. You can read about each level in detail here — but in essence, the simplest level is a phone call to discuss your needs and hopes, followed by a customized action plan from me (including things like items that you might think about buying, directions for how to organize and store toys, floor plans for how to set up each desired environment, and a few DIY activities that meet your child’s interests and needs). The third most expansive level is a complete home design service, where I do all of the designing and organizing for you.
At any level, after we’ve worked together once, I’ll always answer any questions you may have. I offer discounted follow-up home visits, where I will help you make new activities for your child, rotate your toys, or reorganize your space to meet your growing child’s new developmental stage.
Also: Something new I’m working on is nanny training. If you have a nanny you love dearly, but would like him or her to offer more stimulating play for your child at home, this might be a good option for you.
Finally, what can you tell us about the preschool that you’re opening in 2017?
I’m so excited about the opening of Philly Montessori School, set to begin enrollment in Fall 2017! Philly Montessori School is not only firmly grounded in the Montessori principles and fully accredited by the American Montessori Society, but we also believe in incorporating the best practices in early childhood development throughout our curriculum. By keeping our schools small and creating an environment where parents, teachers, and community members feel welcome to collaborate with one another, we’re blurring the lines between home and school, and creating continuity in learning for the children we serve.
Everyone can stay tuned to www.phillymontessori.com for announcements on the location and admissions for our first school. Also, anyone interested in becoming a founding family can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
*About our expert: Sheila Akhavein has a M.A in developmental psychology and a Montessori teaching certificate from the American Montessori Society. She’s been a teacher and teacher trainer at West Side Montessori School in Manhattan, as well as the Director of Operations at a small Montessori school and as a Teaching Supervisor at Chestnut Hill College. (Even her mom is also a Montessori teacher who owns her own school in Atlanta! And: “Growing up I went to a Montessori school, and throughout my life worked with my parents in their school in various capacities.”) Want to reach her? Check out her website, Phillymontessori.com, which has all of her contact info, and follow her on Instagram & Pinterest @phillymontessori!