Many might think that letting children do as they please at school means lots of loud outbursts and frustrated teachers, but the Early Learning Center would beg to differ.
Located in the Carlin Park Elementary building, the Early Learning Center is the Metropolitan School District of Steuben County’s new pre-kindergarten program that utilizes the Montessori method, an approach that focuses on providing a learning environment that cultivates a desire to learn and complements the natural stages of child development.
“Typically, everything in the Montessori environment is designed to meet a very specific purpose. So you won’t find anything in our classrooms that isn’t purposeful for learning,” said ELC Director Jami Hubbard. “Even in the traditional sense, Montessori is filled with more academic pieces. Lots of focus on literacy and language and math, sciences, all of those things.”
Hubbard is also an instructor at the center and leads one of the classrooms, where her children roam the classroom to engage their interests with a variety of different educational activities that cover not only basic reading and math but also other life skills, such as teamwork and plant care.
“They have freedom to choose what they work on during the day,” Hubbard said. “We call it freedom within limits. They’re able to decide what they work on, and then there’s specific criteria. So, if they misuse the materials or they’re damaging or disrespectful, then that material becomes closed and they can try again tomorrow.”
Each class includes children between ages 3 and 6. While such a mix could lead to rowdy behavior, Hubbard’s children worked with an enthusiastic but gentle hum, even when visitors were present in the classroom.
“Because children are charged with choosing for themselves, there tends not to be that power struggle,” Hubbard said. “So kids that you would think would not operate well in this kind of environment actually do better because they are given choice and given freedom to decide what they would like to work on and what they would like to learn and experience.”
That’s not to say that the children do not have disagreements or quarrel at times, but the teachers strive to teach them to take responsibility for their situations.
“We don’t do any timeouts. We’re very big on natural consequences,” Hubbard explained. “If they come up and say, ‘so-and-so hit me,’ we redirect them and say, ‘OK, you need to go tell him that’ instead of telling us.”
The teachers become more hands-on when it comes to individualized instruction. Along with the children’s time for independent learning, there are also one-on-one lessons every day where the teachers work with each child in order to present new material and assess progress based on where the children are at in their development.
While other children may approach the teacher for help or guidance during the lesson, the main focus is providing personal instruction to that one child.
“The lesson is really sacred. It’s time the teacher and the child are spending together, and I, as the teacher, am assessing where he’s at. I’m assessing what he needs, assessing his development,” Hubbard said. “Once they’ve had presentations, then they’re free to choose that material any other time. Once they’ve mastered the material, we give them extension work.”
The indoor classrooms are carefully designed with special activities and materials, but the center’s outdoor area has been crafted with just as much attention to detail.
Outside the center’s entrance is an exploration space fitted with logs and other natural materials where the children are able to engage their minds in different ways than the traditional classroom.
“This is really about gross motor movement here. So they’re climbing on the logs, jumping, building those big muscles,” Hubbard said. “There’s fine motor skills where they’re digging, searching. Visual skills. Then just the act of a natural science experiment.”
One popular activity is cracking open acorns with logs.
“When they’re smashing the acorns, it’s cause and effect. They’re trying to figure out, if I do this, what happens to the acorn?” Hubbard said. “Some of them have discussed what happens to the acorn after it’s smashed. Some of them have put them out for the squirrels to eat. Then all of that talk turns into conversations about what do squirrels eat and where do squirrels live. So it seems like a simple experience for them, but it’s so rich. The hands-on piece for these kids at this age is so imperative.
As the children run around outside and move from activity to activity back in the classroom, there is a constant state of flux between them. Sometimes they gather to complete an activity together, and other times they sit alone at a table, quietly tracing a shape or making a craft.
With the ability to direct their activities for the day, the children are greatly independent but still want to make friends and seek out social connections.
“You’ll see a mix between being independent and then interdependent with their friends,” Hubbard said. “They work independently, but they also socialize as well. They’re in that developmental plane right now where they’re kind of egotistical and wanting to do things on their own, but they’re also wanting to learn about each other and work with each other.”
Hubbard admitted that there was a brief adjustment period in the beginning when the children were learning the values and rules that accompany the Montessori method, but now they all enjoy the freedom of the classroom and show initiative in learning new materials every day.
“The great thing about Montessori philosophy is that Montessori works for all children; it doesn’t necessarily work for all families. There are families that subscribe to a more traditional learning environment, but our families have been so flexible and patient and kind,” Hubbard said. “The reception from parents has been overwhelmingly positive. They’re referring other families to come to our center, which to me speaks a lot about what we’re doing here.”
The Early Learning Center currently has 45 children, but space is still open for 15 more to join.