Despite its location in the basement of Liberty Park United Methodist Church, the space is open and bright, with mellow pastel walls and splashes of vivid primary colors peeking out from the shelves. Child-sized chairs, tables and shelves dot the room, and the scene is casual, yet orderly. The 15 children (ages two-and-a-half to six) who attend the Children's House Montessori School have gone home, but director Joan McLean is still there, preparing the environment for their return the next morning.
"In Montessori, at this level, the idea isn't that they're being taught directly but indirectly," she explains. "The environment is their learning environment, because at that age they have an absorbent mind, where they can just absorb things that are happening."
The Children's House Montessori School welcomed its first children just last September, after McLean returned to Spokane to be closer to her adult children (including Inlander photographer Amy Sinisterra) and extended family. Certified by the Association of Montessori Internationale (AMI), she most recently taught at AMI-accredited schools in Portland and Brighton, England.
"My niece, Kristen, was working for Woodland Montessori School here, and they had a huge waiting list," says McLean. Woodland is the only other AMI-based preschool in Spokane. "They suggested I start another school, so they would have someone else to recommend if they couldn't take a student."
Still in England, McLean wondered how she could possibly make all the arrangements to set up a new school from across an ocean and a continent. That's when her family stepped in to help. Her nieces and daughters applied for the necessary licenses and certifications. They arranged for the space in the church basement; Juliet Sinisterra, an architect and McLean's daughter, designed the interior and selected the child-friendly decor, and a nephew did the painting. They ordered the specialized Montessori equipment and promoted the school to prospective parents. When McLean arrived in Spokane last August, just about everything was ready for her to step into her new role as school director.
Now, on a typical day at the Children's House, McLean and her aide greet the children individually as they arrive. The children remove their outdoor gear themselves and place it in an individual cubbyhole, then move on to their favorite activities. The children spread out across the room, some working individually on tasks while others work together. McLean spends much of her time observing, sharing a lesson when the opportunity arises, but generally letting the children choose their own activities and work at an individual pace.
"We call it 'following the child,'" she says. "We really try to honor the individuality of each child, to look at them as an individual and figure out just what they need and help them, guide them toward that."
The focus on each child as an individual is part of what drew Ginny Whitehouse to Montessori preschool for her three-year-old daughter, Kaili. Last year, in a traditional daycare setting at age two, Kaili was in danger of being labeled a discipline problem due to her aggressive behavior toward other children.
"She needed more stimulation than she was getting in the regular daycare setting," Whitehouse says. "She also needed more alternatives to managing conflicts and more ideas of living in community, and I knew Montessori offered that."
Since enrolling Kaili at Woodland Montessori last September, Whitehouse sees tremendous changes in her daughter, both academically and socially. "She's so much happier now," she say. "On numbers, she's probably a bit behind [age level], but she's so into language, music and art that she's operating at a four-and-a-half-year-old level rather than just-turned-three. She's really into music, sound and colors."
Perhaps the most surprising thing about any Montessori preschool is the sense of order and calm tidiness. While the children work and play independently, each activity is done in an organized and routine way. A child chooses an activity, retrieves the materials, works alone or with another, then cleans up everything when done. Whitehouse says Kaili has blossomed in the self-directed environment of Montessori.
"The assumption is that the child will rise to the occasion given," she says. "They use glasses and plates to teach the children to be careful, and they are careful. Kaili used to drop things all the time, and now she doesn't. The child is thriving; she loves it. And it's not just for the bright kid -- it's for the kid who can work independently or the kid who needs to learn to work independently."
McLean says the order and routine are part of the Montessori method.
"We do a lot of classifying and helping people to organize their time," she says. "There's a certain security in realizing that you have the power, that someone doesn't constantly have to be feeding you and giving you something. You can do it yourself. We really try to get them to be independent."
McLean thinks some people misunderstand Montessori education, thinking of it as an accelerated academic program rather than a developmental method. Not all children in Montessori preschool will be reading or adding before first grade, she says, because each child develops at a unique pace. But she believes Montessori preschool can be a solid preparation for school, whether or not a child will continue with Montessori education, because it encourages children to become self-directed.
"You can help children too much, and when you do that you're not encouraging their own sense of self, their own sense of power," she says. "I think the best thing they can get out of [Montessori] is that sense that they can do it, they can make things move, they can change things and have an impact on their own environment. If they're not happy about something, well, they can make a change. I think that's one of the best things you can get out of Montessori."
In her 30 years as a Montessori teacher, at both the preschool and elementary levels, McLean has seen some changes in the children who enter the schools.
"I think kids are entertained too much now," she says. "It seems like they're always just sitting back and waiting for something to entertain them, whether it's watching something on TV or all these [scheduled activities]. It's like kids can't make their own fun anymore. They need to be less passive and more involved in their own entertainment."
When children first start coming to the Children's House, McLean says, they often wait for the adults to direct them toward an activity. "We start out, little by little, giving them choices," she says. "We say you can do this or this, gradually moving them into making their own choices. It seems like a small thing, but I think it could be a really powerful thing for their lives."