Meg McElwee, the author of the popular book Sew Liberated, and a certified Montessori teacher, sits down to discuss the benefits of Montessori education, and the way that it has impacted her family.
What do you consider to be the foundations of Montessori education?
Montessori education can be boiled down to three simple words: follow the child. Of course, this manifests itself in a myriad of ways depending on the age of the child, the child’s culture, and the child’s family structure. That said, Maria Montessori believed that there are certain similarities, or tendencies, in all children, regardless of their personal circumstances. The most important of these, when considering the young child, is his innate drive to assimilate to the human world that surrounds him. He does this by effortlessly absorbing all that surrounds him, from language to social interactions to the way other humans interact with their surroundings. Montessori education strives to provide the child with beautiful surroundings, both physical and social, so the child can go about the important work of development without the hindrance of environmental constraints.
How is handwork, and seasonal crafts and celebrations handled in Montessori?
In a Montessori classroom or home, handwork and seasonal crafts are handled like any other “work” (Montessori lingo for activity). The parent or teacher sets up the activity and demonstrates to the child how it is done, then the child is free to choose that activity whenever it is available (i.e. not being used by another child). The child can spend as much or as little time as she would like on it, and creative freedom is always given unless the child is misusing the materials (i.e. doing something that might cause it to break).
When I was a classroom teacher, we would celebrate as a community in the same way a family would celebrate (a Montessori classroom is designed to be as home-like as possible). We’d talk about the upcoming celebration at circle time, we’d sing songs related to the celebration, we’d have crafts available to make decorations, and we’d generally have a fancier meal together featuring special food dishes.
What do you consider to be the most important factors in creating rhythm for your family?
I truly value the creation of a predictable home-life rhythm for young children. It provides them with so much security, and helps to create the kind of structure that makes it easier for parents to stay afloat in what can otherwise seem like turbulent waters.
I’ve done a good deal of reading about the subject of rhythm, and initially I was tempted to put every family rhythm idea into practice in my own home. Soon enough, I realized that it is only the rhythms that already feel natural, organic, if you will, to your own family that will work. If, when reading, I said to myself, “That’s perfect! It would easily fit into life around here,” then the rhythm could be incorporated. If I said to myself. “That’s a great idea, how in the world could I do that?” then, of course, the activity wasn’t incorporated. It was a good lesson in “you can’t have everything” and that’s good, because having everything would make for an extremely crazy home rhythm!
What aspects of Montessori do you use in your every day life with your son?
The adage “respect the child” guides me in all that I do in my home. Even though I received my Montessori teacher training from the very thorough Association Montessori Internationale, I’m constantly questioning what I learned and taking what works for me (and my son) while leaving the rest. There are many Montessori ideas, however, that I use in my home:
-I try to make my home simple, orderly, and beautiful.
-I have a handful of Montessori-specific toys in the rotation, and I enjoy putting together “treasure baskets” for my boy – everyday items of various textures, materials, shapes, weights, sizes and sounds. We have no blinking, girating, plastic toys in our home.
I try to protect the absorbent mind of my son by not exposing him to the over-stimulation of television, malls, etc.
Our home environment is prepared according to the developmental needs of our son. It is child inclusive, and is set up so that he has freedom of movement (for example, our son naps on a floor bed in a baby-safe room rather than in a crib.) We have low shelving that he can easily access and only a handful of toys out at any given time. In the kitchen, he has a small table and chair where he can sit and snack (or play while we are cooking). As he gets older, our home will change to meet his needs. We’ll put hooks at child-height where he can hang his coat or his towel, we’ll put a small pitcher of water in the bottom of the refrigerator door so he can serve himself if he is thirsty, etc.
I never interrupt my son when he is concentrating. While it’s tempting to narrate everything he’s doing in the interest of language acquisition, I try to keep quiet and not do anything distracting when he is in a state of concentration, as the Montessorian in me says that it’s best for him to cultivate this ability to concentrate, knowing that it will serve him well in the future. Quiet attention is not something that is highly valued in our culture, but it can do wonders for creativity.
I try to be confident in the natural unfolding of his development, never rushing him or pushing him to do things for which he isn’t ready. This means that, as he grows, I will not push reading, writing, math, or “school” of any sort until he expresses a strong interest in these academic subjects. Montessorians believe that learning is intrinsic, and that the child who acquires knowledge through his own experiences of the world. In other words, education, for us, is the lighting of a fire rather than a filling of a bucket. The teacher, or parent, is merely a guide, offering ideas and inspiration and accompanying the child on his path of life-learning rather than pulling him along a path that the parent has chosen.
How has becoming a mother changed your idea of creativity?
When I sit down to sew (when it’s simply for leisure and not for my work), I have a renewed focus on the process itself, rather than the product. Because it takes so much longer to complete a project now that I have a little one zooming about the house on hands and knees, the focus needs to be on the process, as the product may take months to complete.
I’ve also let go of the idea that creativity means making “stuff.” It’s something that I’ve thought a lot about lately, the product-oriented drive to make more and more stuff, even if it is handmade. Things need to stay simple around here with a crawling baby, and less stuff (of all kinds) helps keep our home peaceful. This awareness helps keep my expectations reasonable. I’m trying to broaden my definition of creativity to include things like baking bread, arranging a shelf, choosing an outfit, or coming up with hand motions for a song that I sing with my son. Ephemeral creativity, I call it. It’s more of an attitude toward life focused on bringing beauty and thoughtfulness into everyday actions than making “things.” Things are great, mind you – especially handmade things – but those things are that much more special if they have a long gestational period in your hands rather than a make-it-quick-before-the-baby-wakes-up feeling that I sometimes find myself battling.
What do you consider to be the major benefits of rearing a child in the Montessori tradition?
I believe that a Montessori education fosters independent thinking, deep feeling, and well-roundedness. Most of all, a Montessori-educated child will grow up in an environment that views learning and self-improvement as a life-long pursuit – perhaps the most valuable attitude one can have as an adult, and one that I hope brings my son happiness in whatever he chooses to do (or be) in his life.
How did your creative journey begin?
I really believe that one’s creative journey begins from birth. I suppose this is a very Montessori belief to have, because Montessorians believe that the child does the work of “constructing” himself from the first day of life. Creating the person you will evenually become is a lifelong task!
To answer more concretely, my own creative renaissance of the fiber-sort came in graduate school, as I began to make handmade learning materials for my future Montessori classroom. I bought a sewing machine on Craigslist and started re-discovering all of those nearly-forgotten but oh-so-useful sewing skills that my own mother had taught me as a child.
What influenced you to write your beautiful book?
Honestly, I had no plans to write a book until, one day while stoking the wood stove in our adobe house in the mountains of rural Mexico, the opportunity just kind of fell into my lap! It was a mind-blowing opportunity – the chance to assemble all of these ideas I had floating around in between my ears and make them into a cohesive whole. The biggest impetus in saying “yes” to the book deals (there are two – my second book, Growing Up Sew Liberated: Over 30 Sewing Projects for the Daily Rhythm of Childhood is due out in Spring of 2011) was my desire to be able to work on my creative pursuits from home so that I could stay home with my future children. Within weeks of signing my book contracts, we found out we were pregnant! Book writing itself is not a very lucrative endeavor, but that, combined with my little pattern business, allow me to put food on the table and pay the rent while working from home. I’m eternally grateful for this opportunity!
What did you consider to be the most challenging aspects of writing a book?
This is an easy answer – having a baby while writing the book! Deadlines are very hard to meet now that I’m a full-time mama (and a full-time, primary bread-winner for my family). The creative aspect of writing a sewing book is a real pleasure, but it’s very difficult to have to work on a deadline.
How do you keep your creativity fresh?
The best way, for me, to keep my creative juices flowing healthily, is to spend time not creating, and just being. I have no qualms about not opening my studio door for a good week, spending that time outside, making some yummy meals, or strumming my guitar. Of course, there’s creativity in that, too, but I find that I need a break from handwork on occasion. I always return from my mini-fiber vacations with a renewed interest in designing.
What ways do you and your family celebrate the turning of Spring?
The vernal equinox heralds the celebration of life for our family – it’s my birthday! Because of this, and the reminder of new beginnings, I look at it as a sort of personal New Year. It’s a time to reflect on what new beginnings I want to bring into my own life. This year, I would like to focus on creating a meditation practice, which seems to me to encourage a perpetual Spring of the mind. Meditation empties the mind of all of the busyness of the previous day by focusing on the breath (Winter), rendering fertile ground for new personal growth, new perspectives, new sources of patience, and fresh sparks of creativity (Spring).
Meg McElwee is a certified Montessori teacher, sewing pattern designer, and author. She blogs about her adventures with fabric, thread, and mamahood at Sewliberated. Her second book, due out in late 2010, is tentatively titled Growing Up Sew Liberated: Over 30 Sewing Projects for the Daily Rhythm of Childhood.