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by Cass Winner, Director of Extended Programs at Wilmington Montessori School

“Why didn’t my marble go into the bucket?”

Home School CircuitEvery traditional classroom has one child who is so full of questions that some teachers may consider him or her to be annoying. In this educational model (the one most of us grew up with), information is transferred from teacher to student; teachers are supposed to ask the questions, and the children are supposed to answer them.  In a Montessori classroom, questions are the engine of education.  Not only do we welcome questions from the children, but we help them to find the answers.

At Wilmington Montessori School, the adventure does not end at 3 p.m. The hours traditionally seen as “out-of-school time” — before school, after school and days on which regular classes are closed — provide more opportunities to ask great questions and find real answers.  The first response of a good teacher is often, “Why do you think the marble didn’t go into the bucket?  What are your ideas?”

In Maribeth Low’s after-school room, second- through fourth-graders — a mix of WMS students and local public school students — spent the afternoons building electric circuits, creating 3-D sculptures with recycled materials, and playing math and strategy games.  If they learned about gases in school that day and wondered how they behaved, they could mix baking soda and vinegar and watch a balloon blow itself up before their eyes.

During summer camp, kindergarten children took a walk in the woods to see what they could find.  They gathered leaves from several trees and shrubs, then looked closely at them upon their return. Why are leaves made the way that they are? Why are the veins on an oak leaf different than the veins on an elm leaf?  And what about a plant that doesn’t have leaves, like aloe? At the end of the day, they knew the word “photosynthesis” and understood something about how it supports the lovely green world around our campus. In the afternoon, each child rolled a pair of dice. How many dots are on each? Five and four? Then they would do five jumping jacks and four knee bends.  What if we added them together? Then we could take nine giant steps down the hallway. In our oldest group of campers, children learned the science of flying objects by building a trebuchet. What about archery? That’s applied science, too… and more fun than most!

Extended Day STEMOn a parent-teacher conference day, Renee led elementary-aged students in building solar-powered cars to race on the blacktop playground. On an inservice day, students designed and built marble runs to accomplish specific goals.  If your marble does not fall into the bucket, why not?  How can you change your design to make it work?  The children used measurement, considered the forces of physics, explored the variables of texture and weight, height and angle.  When they succeeded, they set another challenge for themselves.  What if instead of a bucket, the marble would need to fall into a drinking cup?  That would require much more precise engineering. These children — from six different schools — worked together to refine their designs, experiment and refine some more.  Teachers were there to help the children to find the right questions, not to give them answers.  This is what children want and need: for adults to walk beside them as they learn for themselves.

In our school’s weekly Homeschool Enrichment Program, children as young as seven dissected fish, identified their major organs, and compared them to the way that human bodies are constructed.  Another week, they made solutions, taking careful notes about which ingredients dissolved and which stayed separate.  Ever heard the expression, “They were like oil and water?” The children in this program now know what that means, because they tried it for themselves.  New questions became new experiments, and new data was analyzed in small groups and with the teacher.  Does proportion matter?  What does proportion mean?  Let’s find out!

WMS Extended Programs serve as just one more place in which Montessori education is happening every day — and it’s happening with children whose school experience is very different from that of our own students.  The support of our extraordinary staff makes it look easy to create a great STEM program, even with an ever-shifting population of children.  This is the kind of flexible, creative thinking that the world of the future will demand of adults and children alike.  Our children are already in that future.  Each successful experiment, each well-articulated question, careful observation, and well-researched answer, each “Let’s find out!” is a step toward the competence and confidence that are the hallmark of success.