Jennifer Howard, known to many as Montessori Mama, is the mother of three boys, a Montessori teacher, the leader of a toddler art class, an artist, and a writer. Whew! I’m tired just writing all that!
Note: Readers have a chance to win a set of Jennifer’s Maria Mouse notecards at the end of this interview. JEAN: First, can you tell us what influenced you to become a Montessori teacher?
JENNIFER: I have always worked in Early Childhood Education (birth to 5), and I was raised by two artists which established art as part of my everyday life. I was the owner/director/lead teacher of a child care center for many years in Massachusetts before moving to Maine and discovering Montessori. In 2001, I was hired part time as an art instructor at Cornerspring Children’s House, Belfast, Maine. At that time my son, Maximillian, began in the 3-6 year old classroom. Between what I was seeing in the classroom while preparing and leading art and the difference I was discovering in my little boy, I fell in love with Montessori. I shared this with the school’s director, Paula Johnson, and she became the person who nurtured the Montessorian that was already in me.
I tell parents and people who ask, that I discovered what Montessori was really about while visiting the children’s garden at Cornerspring. It was late summer; the children were caring for their vegetable garden. With their shoes off and little feet covered in dirt they were harvesting carrots, washing and scrubbing them at a low picnic table nearby, then cutting them and serving them to the other children and to me. It was absolute magic to me. Three year old hands offering me a carrot they had planted, cared for and grown, washed and cut, and they were glad to offer it to me, this new face on their playground. That was it. I was hooked!
In college I remember a brief mention of Maria Montessori, nothing in detail, and here I was immersed in a style of early childhood education that I had in many ways been living and parenting for years without having a name for it.
JEAN: Can you describe the Montessori approach to art and art education?
JENNIFER: During my formal Montessori training, Art was not given more than a few days attention, which honestly was a bit disappointing for me. I had already been leading art at Cornerspring for two years when I began my training and I had created my own curriculum based on what I knew about Montessori through my observations and conversations with Paula, and of course my personal knowledge of art and my experience as an educator.
The Montessori art education portion of the training was less than I had hoped it would be but I still came away with valuable information. Maria Montessori recommended children have daily exposure to art and music but offered very few materials to support this specifically. During Montessori’s time, art and music education were nurtured by the individual families and was not part of the children’s schooling. Montessori created many materials designed to stimulate the child’s senses that included color, shape, texture, weight, space, and form and believed that when possible art work depicting nature should be hung at the child’s eye level in the classroom. The Montessori approach to art is one of reverence and appreciation. Giving the children an opportunity to express themselves creatively is essential. And most importantly, as is the case with any Montessori material, it’s all about the PROCESS. The creative process is more important than the product.
The best example of art appreciation and Montessori art education is by Aline Wolf who has designed many Montessori art curriculums. I highly recommend teachers and parents acquiring her Child Sized Masterpiece books and materials for their children.
JEAN: How do you use Montessori philosophies and ideas in your own family life?
JENNIFER: After receiving my formal training in the Montessori method and philosophy, I shared it with my husband, and we began applying it to the way we parent. It really wasn’t as dramatic a transition as I thought it might be. Our parent style had been attachment parenting and the two are spiritually very similar. In 2005 I became pregnant with our third child, Oliver. I knew I would be taking a break from teaching at Cornerspring to be home with him and I began thinking about raising a child the ‘Montessori way’ from the start. We obviously hadn’t done this with our other two sons and it was exciting to me.
In the fall of 2007 I decided to blog about the experience in the hopes that I would learn from other parents and Montessorians, and I hoped, to continue to teach through this new medium. My blog has become so much more to me than I expected, it is a resource, an inspiration, my therapy, and a connection to Montessori and to families I miss so much. My children are the most important people in my life, raising them following the Montessori philosophy is what works well for our family. Nurturing independence, fostering exploration and self discovery, providing opportunities for learning, introducing them to the natural world and other cultures, and respecting one another by honoring the opinions and feelings of everyone in our family community are all ways I want to mother.
JEAN: Can you recommend any good Montessori books as an introduction for those of us who aren’t very familiar with Montessori ideas?
JENNIFER: I highly recommend anything written by Tim Seldin or Paula Polk Lillard-both are Montessorians who are also beautiful writers. My personal favorite book is Aline Wolf’s Nurturing the Spirit. Dr. Montessori’s writing is challenging to read (I have read just four of her books; she wrote over a dozen) but my favorite one has been To Educate the Human Potential.
JEAN: Do you have any favorite art books that have influenced either your own art or the art you do with your children and your students?
JENNIFER: For my development as an artist I have read and reread Drawing on the Right side of the Brain and Drawing on the Artist Within both by Betty Edwards several times and always find doing the exercises in the books very helpful.
For working with children, I recommend: Montessori Play and Learn by Lesley Britton is a wonderful book for parents & teachers, full of ideas. Art for the Very Young: Ages 3-6 by Elizabeth Kelly and Joanne Mcconville is another personal favorite. I also like Kids Create! By Laurie Carlson.
JEAN: Can you tell us about the Art & Play class that you teach for toddlers at your local arts center?
JENNIFER: Waterfall Arts is a wonderful art center in our town; everything from sculpture to fencing is offered for both adults and children. A couple years back the director of Waterfall visited Cornerspring and observed my class, she asked me some questions and then left. Not soon after that the program coordinator called me and asked me to work for them.
I lead a parent and child Art & Play class for children age 2 to 4 years old, for one hour, one morning a week, and it’s my favorite day of the week. It is open to drop-in visitors but there is a group of 8 children who regularly come. I have been given a great space-it is a dance classroom with wood floors and one wall that is lined with mirrors, lots of natural light and space. It’s perfect for toddlers.
I set out a sensorial open ended material (such as clay or play dough) so as families arrive and greet one another the children can transition and slow their bodies down a bit. As you know, manipulating a dough with your hands can be very peaceful and relaxing. Once everyone arrives and has had an opportunity to enjoy the sensorial experience, I sit down at the rug and sing a song inviting them to join me on a carpet square. Most often everyone cleans up their space and joins me. If a child wanted to they could easily make the transition to the group on the rug slowly or not at all and just watch and listen from the table. I don’t feel lights should be flashed on & off or a bell rung to get children’s attention; I think it can be disrespectful and I wouldn’t want to be commanded in such a way. Sitting at a circle can be challenging for some young children and I will communicate to the parents when they first arrive that participation is optional. I am a Montessori teacher and I believe that there is much to be learned through observation. I don’t want anyone to feel pressure to create!
At circle we sing and dance and often I will tell a story I made up but sometimes I will share a familiar book such as Mouse Paint or anything by Eric Carle (as I am a big fan of his!). I tie the art project together with the story and demonstrate the activity. I always do my first demonstration in silence and then repeat with language. The rest of the time is exploration, discovery, and ART! I am continually amazed by these small hands and what they create. After clean up we gather again for a goodbye song. The hour goes by far too quickly.
JEAN: Why do you do the first demonstration in silence for your Art & Play class, then repeat with language? Is that a Montessori technique?
JENNIFER: Yes, apparently you can take me out of the Montessori school but you can’t take Montessori out of me. Regarding silent presentation: young children look at your mouth when you speak. By doing the first lesson/example of art process in silence, it allows the children to focus their attention on the action my hands are doing rather than my mouth. Recalling multiple step instructions can be a challenge for some children under four, breaking it down into slowly demonstraited simple steps helps; using words while doing so can distract them.
JEAN: What are your favorite art activities to do with your Art & Play class? How about with your Montessori students? And at home with your children?
JENNIFER: Art & Play/Montessori students: I love making nature prints with toddlers and preschoolers using natural materials such as leaves, feathers, fruit, and veggies! And any activity that incorporates the whole body-for example painting with your feet, or group mural projects created on a big piece of paper on the floor to music. I find that when toddlers have an opportunity to get up and move around prior to an art project they take more risks creatively and check in less with their adult as to the ‘right’ way of how to make something. Instead they just let it flow naturally, which is what I hope for when leading the group.
With my boys at home: My middle son Max is a very creative person; he sees the world in a way most people only dream of. He has an amazing memory and often will recreate something he has seen. He has requested to visit art galleries and art museums since he could talk and understood what these places were.
He is a far better artist than I can ever hope to be, even at nine year old. I have to say honestly in our home it is Max who ‘teaches art’, it is Max who initiates projects and gets me to explore new mediums.
With my youngest, Oliver (22 months), my goal is to provide him with a sensorial art experience every day. His favorite (this week) is finger painting.
Nathan, who is 15, is less interested in creating art than he was years ago. He prefers art that is black and white with much contrast as he is red and green deficient. His creative outlet is acting; he is a theater person and is usually performing in or preparing to perform in a school play or local theater production.
JEAN: I’d love to hear more about your book, Maria Mouse in the Children’s House… What was the process of creating the book-both the story and the illustrations-like for you?
JENNIFER: Maria Mouse in the Children’s House, this is the first story in a series of 15 stories I have written for my students over the years. I am hoping it is ‘the little story that could’ and the publishing house enjoys it as much as my students seemed to. Maria Mouse is a curious mouse who lives in a children’s house, a Montessori 3-6 classroom, and has many adventures and learning experiences in the classroom with the Montessori materials. I have searched the internet, catalogs, and book stores for stories similar to mine and haven’t found any yet. I think it is an original idea and one that teachers and parents will appreciate sharing with their children. My students always liked to look for Maria in the classroom and would give me notes and cards with her likeness on them.
My drawings were always secondary to the story itself and although I love to draw, I was more interested in sharing the stories with the children; I have always enjoyed seeing what they imagine her to look like.Â When I took this year off from teaching full time to be home with my youngest son Oliver, I was inspired and encouraged by my family to create pictures for these stories and to submit them in hopes of publication. We are still waiting to hear and I have been seriously considering self publication due to the interest expressed by readers of my blog.
JEAN: Will you share a few lines from Maria Mouse in the Children’s House?
JENNIFER: “…up she climbs to the tip top shelf, for a small mouse, she can do a lot by herself! From up top she can see, beautiful art work made by you and me!”
JEAN: How fun! Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your artful Montessori life and perspective with us! Your students and your children are lucky to have such a dedicated mama and teacher. And I look forward to buying a copy of Maria Mouse when it’s published!!
For more information about Jennifer and Montessori education, you can visit her blog at Montessori Mama.
Readers who leave a comment to this interview by Thursday, March 27, Midnight EST will be entered into a random drawing for a set of Jennifer’s Maria Mouse notecards.