As a current or prospective Montessori parent, you know one of the special attractions of Montessori preschool is its unique, natural approach to social development. The ability to move around the classroom freely and interact with peers across a three-year age span, coupled with the teacher’s lively lessons in “Grace and Courtesy,” helps Montessori children develop empathy, compassion, and prosocial behaviors.
But how can a classroom devoted to optimal socialization support the new reality of social distancing? Fortunately, Montessori education is designed to be—like the young human beings it aims to serve—adaptable to any time, place, or culture.
At Montessori Center School, we are preparing to reopen a school in which Montessori and social distancing go hand in hand. Although we do not yet have a firm reopening date, here we share six characteristics of Montessori and MCS that will support our work once we are ready to open our school campus this fall.
1. Physical distancing
“Social distancing” is a bit of a misnomer. Public health officials point out that keeping social contact with friends and loved ones may be more important now than ever. The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions against “social isolation,” urging parents to send even preschool-age children back to school as soon as local authorities give the okay.
What people need is physical distancing. Our large classrooms at Montessori Center School, designed for free movement and “big work,” give us the adaptability to set up appropriately distanced spaces where children can still have a feeling of working in a close, caring community. Montessori and social distancing means the social graces can still be practiced, just at a safe physical distance.
2. Individual work
Age 3–6 is a time of working beside peers but not necessarily sharing the same work. This developmental trait of preschoolers is conducive to physical distancing.
Even during this stage of individual, parallel work, however, Montessori children are learning important social skills, such as respecting others’ work and space. As we practice Montessori and social distancing, those lessons will take on new importance, and an expanded definition of “space,” when we return to school together.
3. Freedom to go outdoors
One mitigation strategy the Academy of Pediatrics recommends for preschools is to “utilize outdoor spaces when possible.” MCS is particularly fortunate to have a large, inviting, and educational outdoor environment, which children can freely visit during their long blocks of work time during the school day. They can even take certain Montessori learning materials from the classroom outdoors to work in one of the many shady nooks.
Unfortunately, certain distinctive parts of the curriculum will be absent as we implement Montessori and social distancing, including food preparation and other kitchen work done by the children. Also, while communal snack will not be offered, children will continue to have the opportunity to enjoy a snack sent from home during the morning work cycle.
4. Self-care, including hygiene
The Academy points to hand hygiene as an essential focus for preschool classrooms. If you’ve observed in our classrooms, you know that handwashing is a fundamental and beloved Montessori activity. MCS children know they should wash their hands before and after meals, after playing or working outside, after using art materials, and so on.
The self-care curriculum of Montessori, part of the Exercises of Grace and Courtesy, teaches children that people perform many routine tasks to take care of themselves, their environment, and those around them—and these tasks keep all of us safe and healthy. Thanks to Grace and Courtesy, MCS children already know, for instance, how to cough or sneeze into their elbow; how to use a tissue, dispose of it, and wash their hands afterwards. Montessori and social distancing means we will focus on these and other hygiene activities even more than in the past.
5. An orderly classroom
Montessori children develop a habit of keeping their classroom in neat and tidy order. That order, in turn, will help facilitate MCS staff’s frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces and daily deep sanitization of the entire building. At the same time, our staff will be helping children learn new routines. For instance, instead of returning a learning material to the shelf immediately after finishing with it, MCS children will learn a new system that allows staff to sanitize each material between uses.
6. The MCS learning community
Montessori education is ultimately about belonging to a community with a common purpose—to learn. That is why MCS children naturally want to care for their classroom environment and each other. When we come together again, and for as long as the need for Montessori and social distancing exists, MCS staff will teach children that keeping spaces clean, staying six feet apart when possible, and observing other new practices and routines are the best ways to show how much we care about each other and our families back home.