Montessori is school. It is not child care, day care, preschool or kindergarten. But parents can easily become confused.
The license on the wall that allows us to operate in the State of South Carolina announces us as a “Child Care Center.” To meet prospective parents where they look we can be found in the “Child Care” section of the Yellow Pages. A Google search for “Montessori Child Care” lists hundreds of institutions (and if you search near Camden we can be found on the first page). And yet, I argue vigorously that Montessori is not child care. Webster defines child care as “the care of children (so a center would be a place where the care happens), and a school as “an institution for the teaching of children” (I would prefer “for children to learn” but how can we argue with Webster?).
Neither is it “Pre-School” (another term often used in the names of Montessori programs around the world). A pre-school is characterized by some aspects of a school before the age to go to school—five or six years old. While we help children prepare themselves for their own futures, the learning is too advanced to be called pre-school.
It is not kindergarten, which traditionally is based on playing, singing, practical activities such as drawing, and social interaction as part of the transition from home to school. I digress for a moment: Kindergarten evolved in Germany in the 18th century. Its founder, Friedrich Froebel, would hardly recognize the high pressure classrooms that bear the name of his “children’s garden” but are designed to feed the high-stakes testing monster that our legislatures have imposed on public schools.
Montessori is school. It is almost an axiom that early learning is the most rapid in the life of humans. Montessori takes advantage of that characteristic of the young child and presents choices that allows these high-speed learners to advance at their fastest pace; their parents know that they are learning amazing facts, concepts, and processes at an age difficult to imagine from traditional predictions. They are sometimes startled to learn that their three- or four-year-old child has begun to grasp mathematics, geography, and written language. Our teachers, by the way, are not surprised at all; they see it all the time. A striking difference between Montessori school and traditional school: our children learn with enthusiasm and joy as they choose their own work.
An uninformed public is not necessarily to blame. Montessori administrators (not including this author), perhaps catering to the language parents understand, often advertise themselves as child care (or pre-school, or kindergarten). One Montessori chain advertises, “quality daycare, preschool, pre-k, Kindergarten and before/after school programs for babies, infants, toddlers and school-age ...” bold text in the original]. I can understand the impulse to name what we do using inexact language. We can speak a foreign language and expect to be understood. But until we clean up our act, we can’t fault parents looking for childcare to call and ask about a space in our school.
Clean up our act we must do. I experience the full spectrum of parents as they react to the tectonic shift from their original intention to the discovery of Montessori. Some grasp the difference immediately. Others adapt in varying degrees more slowly. The time they take undergoing that awakening understanding, the more frustrated they become with concepts such as showing up on time “Every day! “You’re kidding, right? Every day?”), expectations of progress and collaboration with teachers (“You’re just keeping my kid safe while I’m at work, right? Why do we need to set goals?”), or a child getting the subliminal message that her work is not important because, after all, “It’s only child care.”
Montessori is school, I gently remind anyone who uses a different term for what we do.