For moms thinking what school to bring their kids to, we have Mary Ellen Maunz to give us insights about Montessori. She is the Founder and Program Director of Age of Montessori in Bozeman, Montana. A mom of three, an author, and a 40-year experience in Montessori education, I'd say she has loooooot to share with us today.

Mary Ellen Maunz. Mary was a political science major at the University of California. She met a woman whom she admire who talked to her about her career, which at that point, Mary Ellen was still unsure where she wanted to go with political science. She was asked to think about Montessori to which Mary Ellen reacted saying, “What’s that?!”

She started reading a book called “The Absorbent Mind”, one of Montessori’s landmark books and it talked about the inner teacher.

That there’s something inside a child that propels them to want to learn. And that it’s easy to learn especially when they’re at their early years when they got this absorbent mind.

She was so taken with it that she read more, got her training, and started her career teaching 3 to 6 year olds during the ‘70s before going on to do the Elementary Montessori training in Italy.

In 1979, she met Elisabeth Caspari, who trained her to be a master teacher in training teachers the Montessori system. It’s taken her all over the world, which she claims is the most fulfilling thing she could ever imagine.

Montessori. We usually think of education as “we pour in, we teach”, but in Montessori it is the exact opposite. That they have a deep respect for the child who has an internal life and that

if we prepare the environment for kids and give them lots of hands-on materials that are developmentally appropriate, kids will follow their own path of learning as an expression of himself/herself.

They create what they call as a prepared environment. They understand that children go thru sensitive periods in development when neurologically they have a drive to do certain things. If we have the environment that corresponds to those things and we allow them to choose, they then follow their own inner path of learning. It’s structured in such a way that it covers math, language, reading, practical life, coordinating movements, etc. It’s very expansive but it also is very much developmentally appropriate and it respects the child’s choice.

In a typical educational scenario, they take the first graders where they learn the basics about their community or start from small to great. Montessori wanted to do the opposite. They want to take something that would get kids totally excited about life. They wanted to give kids the vision of the universe and the sense of grandeur. Montessori has a cosmic plan, where it integrates biology, history, geography, language and math in a beautiful manner for children. They start to see the relationships between things rather than isolated facts. It’s easier to get kids excited, they appeal to their imagination. Developmentally, they start to have moral issues so they talk about how each part of life does a service that helps another part of life whether it’s conscious or unconscious – that’s just the way life is. Mary Ellen also explains further that we have the rise and fall of species, sometimes, something has a cosmic task to fulfill and it’s completed and something else takes over, so we too then gets to thinking “What’s my cosmic task?”

This is a very interesting program, it plays to the elementary child the desire to just learn facts, their interest in using their imagination to visualize things that were millions of years ago, their sense of right and wrong, and how life works.

Learning to Read is Child’s Play. Starting as a young Montessori teacher, Mary Ellen found that they have a piece of material called Sandpaper Letters where the child traces the letter and learns its sounds. Then you move them into building with movable letters.

She found that some children were struggling. Like when giving them a figure of a cat, they should be able to first take that word apart –they should know the sounds for each letter then match those sounds with the letters. And she found that even if some kids knew the sounds of the letters they didn’t know how to segment the word.

So they started developing a reading program based on what now the modern research calls phonemic awareness – the child’s ability to hear and utilize individual sounds. So that after children is able to segment the sounds they should be able to blend them all together to say the word CAT.

Sound process is to go on with the ear and the brain. You don’t take a child, put them on a book and say “This-says-the-cat-is-running”, instead you work with the child to understand the sounds of the letters and how to put them together, and then how to put words together to create sentences.

The Montessori then had a grant to work in the Chicago public schools in their pre-school program. Mary Ellen worked with teachers from 11 different schools to train them on how to teach reading and the book “Learning to Read is Child’s Play” was developed based on that program that she developed and was very successful.

That’s now being incorporated in their school - Age of Montessori.

What can parents do?

No matter what school kids go to, we have to always be in conversation and observation with our children.

One of the things that Mary Ellen likes to do with her kids is that they would go to the library. Some parents would pick out books that are appropriate; however for her she takes them to the section for their age and say “Why don’t we just spend some time here and you find out what you find is most interesting.”

Now that we’re getting close to Christmas, parents are starting to think of what gifts to give their kids. She mentions minimalism. Keep it simple. Keep it as something that your child can put their own impression on rather than a very specific pattern.

Nurturing kids. She’s a mom of three and she’s had the privilege of being in the schools               where her children were and even guide those schools. She went on to share that her son who is now 41, she saw that the lessons he chose as a three year old and his best friends – the types of choices they made were very much expressions of themselves. They’re following careers now that parallel the kinds of choices they made in pre-school. That realization for Mary Ellen of rather than the pouring in of that same curriculum for every child, every year, every month versus allowing children to choose - they are still required to read, write, and do all these things but they’re allowed to choose. Her child is an artist from the time he was three, he had perfect symmetry, and now he’s an internationally noted artist.

Their choices as young children were expressions of who they were and most of us miss that and we don’t realize that they come in as this magnificent individuals and part of the Montessori system of education is to respect individuality.

One of the key things of Montessori is that they are observers - Montessori said “Follow the child”. So within this beautifully prepared environments we see children have certain things they really love to do so we nurture that. Obviously we keep on presenting other things so that they can expand their horizons, but we’re not just going to ignore what it is that they want to do.

While her son was growing up, they always made certain that he always had those opportunities to engage in his art. When he got to high school, they considered sending him to a boarding school since they live in a very rural area in Montana where choices were pretty slim but they ended up getting a tutor for him instead. When he got to college he majored in Studio Art. He got a master’s degree in Studio Art and tried teaching for a while but he said something very interesting to Mary Ellen - “You know mom, from my Montessori background, I know more than any of my students do. I have more imagination and I care about life” He quit teaching because he felt that the students didn’t bring very much to their classes. Many thought art is an easy way out, but it was a big disappointment for him to see how different his experience of art was from his students.

Her middle daughter is working on her PhD in Victorian Literature and they recently went to England so she could go to some of the sites where the great authors lived.

While her youngest daughter is an artist and a chef.

Mary Ellen believes that after school, children should play. She also believes that kids should have meals with their family. There’s a certain kind of bond that takes place in a family when you’re all together. So she allows her kids to develop within the context of their home and their schools.


What people don’t understand is that children play all the time. If they’re maybe playing with a pink tower, and they’re building that tower, in their minds they’re playing. They are at the same time building the material and learning a logical sequence, learning large to small, heavy to light and so many more things but they’re playing in their own minds. So for people to think that it’s not play, then they don’t understand children.

Not everyone in the Montessori view it as how Mary Ellen does, there are some who are quite rigid in their application, while the others who take a different look as how she does that children are children. They want to help them think logically and help them problem solve. So they might show them how to build the tower, but then kids themselves might discover that they can build it sideways, or they can build it from the bottom to the top. So there’s problem solving implied. There’s experiment implied. They’re just doing it coz’ they want to do it and it makes them happy. For her, that is play.

So for people to think that Montessori takes away play from a child is a total misconception.

Maria Montessori. Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Prize for three times. It wasn’t just because of the schools she has, but it was because she understood that the power of building peace is in the child and we can’t have that effect on adult – as we see dialogue after dialogue back and forth. But when you see children they are satisfied.

There was this time when Mary Ellen was visiting a student in Iowa.  There was a little girl in the classroom and she was 4 years old. When Mary Ellen first got there, the kid was tracing a letter and then writing it on a chalk board. Tracing it and writing it, tracing it and writing it.  She did that for like 15 minutes. After that she wrote the same thing on a piece of paper, where she was really refining that pencil movement and learning how to write and associating the sound each time she said it. Then she put that away and went to get the dishwashing lesson out. She got everything set up and she washed all these dishes from different activities, different places of the classroom, and she did it for 45 minutes. She was so engaged with her hands to do the scrubbing and to do the drying and Mary Ellen can see between the writing and the dishwashing she was really working on the development of fine motor coordination and the use of her hands. But what was so beautiful about it was that she was so calm and peaceful.

What Montessori talks about is something called normalization. It simply means that when kids get engaged in work that’s developmentally appropriate, the external activity meets the internal need, there becomes the calmness and the kindness

When we see this happy satisfied children, they’re not the ones running around the classroom, they’re not the ones who are hitting children, and they’re not making chaos -  they’re the ones so engaged on their own development, because what makes a child happier than their own development?

And for Mary Ellen, that’s the secret that not a lot of people understand. Even as adults, when we’re really doing what we feel is our mission we’re much happier than if were doing some dumb job that were just getting paid for.

Stages of Development. Mary Ellen created courses on their website, one of them is called Child Development. It discusses the stages of development.

What Montessori realized is that the first six years of a child’s life, they have what is called the absorbent mind. They learn just by doing. They don’t have to study and memorize.

But starting at about 6 or 7, we transfer into the reasoning mind which is the kind of mind we have.

Montessori drew a chart that shows the stages of development that would give us a very good understanding of the kind of activities that children like. Then they take that and refine that to what they call the sensitive periods in development. There are special times when children want to learn another thing.

There are a lot of activities in Montessori classrooms because they know that there’s times when children really wants to do something, there’s times when a child really wants to learn to count, times when a child really wants to form letters, etc. The thing that’s important is that every three year old doesn’t go through those at exactly the same time. So when creating an environment that has these choices we allow the child to gravitate to those things that meet his internal developmental need.

How to learn more about Mary Ellen





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Get Mary Ellen's book entitled, Learning to read is child's play