Fish out of water

It’s just after ten thirty in the morning when two young men saunter into the French café-cum-Brazilian-restaurant in Stockwell. The usual regulars in attendance – a middle-aged couple sitting outside chain-smoking Benson and Hedges cigarettes – raise their eyebrows at the peculiar sight in their midst, but soon return to their smoke-shrouded conversation. One of the young men, dressed in a white t-shirt so tight it leaves no doubt as to the extent and intensity of his exercise regime, chooses a table and sits down. He casts a sideways glance at his reflection in the wall to wall mirror and makes a small adjustment to his carefully sculpted hair before nodding his approval. His friend, in matching t-shirt and a pair of denim shorts that look too tight for comfort if not fashion, heads over to the counter where an attractive Brazilian lady is polishing glasses. She looks about forty but could be older. Her brown hair tumbles over her shoulder in loose curls and when she turns away to open the fridge the young man steals a glance at her behind, which sits snugly inside a pair of white skinny jeans. She turns back to him and he skilfully averts his eyes to the row of optics lined up like sentries behind her. She flips the caps off the beers, adds two slices of lime and hands them to him. He re-joins his companion at the table.

Several minutes later he shouts across the room to the woman. “Don’t s’pose there’s a River Island around here somewhere is there love?” he says in a strong Essex accent. The woman’s lips spread into a bemused smile. She shakes her head, wipes her hand on a tea towel. “Brixton,” she says, “that’s the nearest place for shops.” The young men thank her and drain their beers. With a final readjustment of their hair and outfits they walk outside. “Not from ‘round here,” one of the regulars says to the other as they watch them go. “Nope,” says the other, exhaling a stream of smoke through her nose as fat splodges of rain begin to fall down from the sky.

Past Post: Montessori nursery article

I recently stumbled across some articles I wrote as part of my Freelance and Feature Writing course with the London School of Journalism a few years back, and thought I’d share this one about Montessori teaching today:

The truth about Montessori teaching

Maria Montessori’s work with special needs children in the last century led to the development of a new and unique approach to teaching, with the learning environment being carefully planned from a practical standpoint to better equip children for adult life. In recent years it has come under criticism for impressing discipline at too young an age, but few people have a true understanding of what Montessori teaching actually involves.

Nicola Greer is the co-owner of the One World Montessori Nursery in Brook Green, West London. She explains: “Two fundamental aspects of Montessori teaching are cleanliness and order, with order being particularly important. Montessori is all about teaching the child to be self-sufficient – an important part of which is learning to take care of their environment. But it is also a child-centred philosophy that allows the child to progress at his or her own rate. They are given choices and are not pushed beyond their readiness. If you push a child it is counter-productive, but it is equally important not to hold a child back.  They should progress at the rate they need.”

Montessori nurseries differ from mainstream nurseries in that children are able to choose what they want to do.  Practical life tasks involve such activities as learning to dress and clean using scaled down versions of adult materials.  Sensorial tasks involve the use of geometric blocks, fabrics and smelling bottles to name but a few.  Cultural tasks utilise globes and science materials, and mathematical tasks incorporate number rods and counting beads.

But surely, if given a choice of activity, most children will persistently gravitate towards their favourite activities, ignoring all of the others? “Without guidance they might,” admits Nicola, “but children don’t have a long attention span and are therefore unlikely to spend too long on any one activity.  If they do, the teacher will introduce something else.  Practical life activities are generally very popular.”

So what would Nicola say to the critics of Montessori, who feel that children are encouraged to learn discipline unnecessarily early?  “It does work,” she says, after a moment’s hesitation, “that’s what I’d say.  Generally speaking, children at Montessori nurseries tend to do well.” But why is it so important for children to learn practical tasks like cleaning at such a young age?  “It teaches them the accomplishment of performing a task with a beginning, middle and end,” she says, “and children love to imitate adults, for example by pretending to cook with a toy kitchen.”  Wasn’t Maria Montessori very grounded in reality though? “Toy kitchens aren’t entirely in keeping with the Montessori philosophy, in the sense that Maria Montessori was opposed to anything fantasy based,” Nicola concedes. “But I feel that as the nursery is open from 8am to 4pm it is too long a day for a child not to have any fantasy at all.”

Nicola agrees that not all Montessori schools follow the original teachings exactly.  “The majority do,” she says, “although you can’t be too rigid because Maria Montessori lived a hundred years ago and we must move with the times and adapt accordingly, as well as complying with Ofsted regulations.  We are not a ‘pure’ Montessori nursery as such, because we have had to adapt to the requirements of the Foundation Stage where there is a greater emphasis on creative play. Montessori would say that children learn through doing.  The generally accepted modern philosophy is that children learn through play, and I think it is essential to encourage role-play to some extent.”

So to what extent does the One World Montessori Nursery follow traditional Montessori teachings?  “Well,” smiles Nicola, “essentially we are a pure Montessori nursery, but we also have a role-play corner which is definitely based in fantasy.”  The wizard costume just visible through the door of the tiny wardrobe beside us bears testament to this.  But as I leave the nursery, I can’t help feeling that Nicola has interpreted the original philosophy very well, and despite my own initial misgivings about Montessori methods I find myself wishing her all the best.

Remember these? I used to love mine more than anything (and yes, I did try to put the plastic tray in the REAL oven like the girl in the advert)