If you’re like most every parent, after the health and safety of your child, one of your primary concerns is education. (Actually, for some parents it tops the list-I know it did for mine!) And in the era of hyper-parenting, it begins the moment that your child is born, if not sooner.

There is no shortage of anxiety out there regarding education. Major life decisions, like buying a house, are often influenced by which school your kids will attend, for nobody wants to take a chance on their child’s future.

This is true even though we are continually reminded that the key to a happy and healthy child is a return to the basics, i.e., family, playing and nature. The basics, however, are too simple. We need something that costs money (thus giving it legitimacy) and is endorsed by an expert.

With this in mind, as new parents living in a suburb right next to an Ivy League school, Ruth and I, succumbing to the fear mongering, enrolled our daughter into a Montessori pre-school (when in Rome, et al). She was barely four years old.

Montessori schools employ the methodologies of the late 19th century educator Maria Montessori and are widespread throughout the United States. Though some high schools exist, they primarily function on the preschool and elementary school level.

The Montessori approach is based on the concept of individual learning, whereby the children are allowed to roam freely amongst different enriching exercises of their choosing, either alone or as part of a group. The instructors stand back and observe, watching each child and adapting the direction of their lessons according to what they see as their strengths and weaknesses.

The exercises themselves employ a physical approach to learning academic concepts and developing practical skills. For example, a child might learn to add numbers by stacking clusters of beads, thus learning the concept of adding while developing hand-eye coordination.

The Pros

All in all, I’d have to say that our experiences at Montessori were mostly positive. It was a good school where the faculty really took an interest in the students and addressed their specific issues. The teachers were dedicated and enthusiastic about their jobs from the get-go.

The classroom was designed as a large open space allowing for easy access to the games and activities that line the shelves. These exercises are meant to be fun ways to nurture kids along towards important developmental milestones, both academic and practical. Hand-eye coordination, communication, socialization and fine motor skills are addressed while introducing math and language.

One of the things that impressed us was the emphasis on multiculturalism. This might have been due to the multiethnic makeup of the class since we were in a college town, but they really went to great lengths to introduce the kids to different cultures by teaching languages and celebrating ethnic holidays.

Another thing we appreciated was the degree of openness. Parents were allowed to sit-in and observe a day in the life, something I would encourage every parent to do. Besides getting a huge kick out of watching our daughter go about her day, the teachers were continually explaining things and offering examples of Audrey’s work.

As I mentioned, our daughter’s school went up to the third grade, and the older kids were often asked to mentor the younger ones during activities and projects, and this integration of different age groups is a hallmark of Montessori education.

The Cons

On the negative side, the one thing that stuck in our minds was that school really stressed our daughter out. This probably had more to do with her place in life, and is perhaps more emblematic of our times. Our academic expectations for our kids have gone completely awry, whereby children are no longer allowed to simply be children and are instead expected to perform.

One of the criticisms that I’ve heard about Montessori’s is that they stifle creativity, which I found was not completely accurate. Then again, they did not go out of their way to encourage it, either. There is a pragmatic air to the program whereby everything has a purpose, even fun.

And while the teachers were outstanding, I do think they were a bit rigid in their expectations, considering the kids were only four years old. The reality is, every school program out there has it’s own agenda. Rather than letting kids grow according to their own schedule, schools try get kids to adhere to theirs. This works for the group mentality, but doesn’t necessarily build individuals with a sense of themselves.

In the end, I think Montessori was a good fit for our daughter, who loves to learn likes to be independent. We just felt like she was too young. Besides, children grow and develop at their own pace, and we don’t want to force the issue.

Furthermore, as much as we liked the Montessori program, we sought a more organic and imaginative environment that was as academically stimulating (which might be asking for too much). We want to give our kids a chance to be kids while enjoying the process of learning, rather than charting their academic paths from day-one, and to love learning for the sake of leaning, to value the journey and not get too hung up on simply performing.

At least, not yet.

In part 2, I’ll discuss our experience on the other end of the academic spectrum at a Waldorf school, and in part 3, our decision to finally home school.