Monday, December 9, 2013

One Mother, Two Distinctly Different Children

My children are polar opposites. My daughter is bright and reserved and meticulous; my son is clever, exuberant, and gregarious. I marvel when my son, who is only four years old, talks in depth about his feelings and is able to ferret out his own opinions in the blink of an eye. For my daughter, a ten year old girl on the verge of adolescence, feelings and opinions have always been a bit of a mystery, but she is a master at focusing her attention on most any task that is set before her. She doesn't know the meaning of the word, "quit." She pushes herself as far as she can go in almost everything she pursues, while my son enjoys pushing others to their limits. These two souls are both so unique and have such different needs. I am only one person with one view of the world and one skill set. So how do I go about parenting these two distinct personalities?

I do have a husband who is very active in this parenting journey we're on together. Luckily he comes with his own point of view, his own set of strengths, his own skill set, all of which are different from mine. So when you put us together, we have many of the bases covered. But I can't help feeling a little inadequate when I look to him to provide something to our children that I can't. Why is that? Well, if you know me or have read this blog, you know that I am a doer by nature. I have a hard time delegating. When I manage to do so, I don't find it a relief. While the expression, "Many hands make light work" may be true, it is not satisfying to me. When hands other than my own do the work, I end up feeling lazy or like I got away with something.

I realize I can't be everything to my children. Not only is it impossible, it's unwise. Deep down I know they need influences other than mine to help them grow into the well rounded people I aim for them to become. Still, I am humbled when someone other than me comes up with the "right" answer to a problem.

When my daughter struggles with making a choice, it's my husband who talks her through it, breaking down the pros and cons of either side of the issue. And there I stand, observing, mystified by the concept of not knowing how to choose. I was born with an opinion - about everything!

The other day my son was upset when my daughter opened the door to an Advent calendar without him being there. He was beginning to have a meltdown, and I (in the midst of trying to get us out the door on time) became flustered and unable to calm him. My daughter curtly resolved the conflict by closing the door to the calendar and letting him open it a second time. So simple, and more importantly, so effective! My son was instantly mollified and we were all able to move on with our day. A big part of me was proud of my daughter for being able to problem solve on the fly. But I felt annoyed with myself for not coming up with that solution right off the bat. It was so obvious that a 10-year-old girl could clearly see it. Why couldn't I?

I am still learning how to parent each of my children. As they grow and change, so do I. My education in parenting started by watching my own parents. It has developed through reading books and blogs. I gather advice from fellow parents and friends. But most of all I am feeling my way. I am trying to remain flexible, to love in the ways they need, to be the mother they each need me to be.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

5 Ways to Streamline Parenting

I'm not an expert in child development, but I do have 10 years' experience as a parent. In that time I've made plenty of mistakes. But I've also made enough observations about what works and what doesn't to streamline and simplify the process. (At least little bit.) Here are a few things I've learned along the way, and if you're in the mood to share, go for it! I'd love to hear your tips.

Buy two identical loveys.
Specific, I know, but this piece of advice will save a lot of stress. Children are not known for their flexibility, plus they don't particularly care about cleanliness. If you buy two loveys and switch them out regularly on laundry day, you'll have peace of mind knowing that your child is snuggling with a clean lovey, and your child will never have to give up her security - not even for a couple of hours.

Introduce new foods at the start of the day.
Children are at their best after a good night's sleep. Conversely, they're at their worst at the end of the day (re: dinnertime). So I've taken to serving my picky eater dinner leftovers for breakfast, when my little one is feeling more adventurous. That way, when dinnertime rolls around, I don't have to feel guilty about defaulting to cereal. Cereal also has the added benefit of being simple to prepare, so I feel less like a short-order cook. Once he's more accepting of a diverse diet, I'll transition him to eating what the rest of us do at the dinner table. I figure before long he'll naturally start wanting to eat what the rest of us are eating anyway, like my daughter did.

Wait and see.
I've written about this subject before, but it definitely bears mentioning here. If I had one piece of advice to offer a new parent, it would be to take the "wait-and-see" approach. I'm a planner, so this goes against my nature, but childhood really is nothing more than a series of phases. It's like the weather: If you wait long enough things will change. So whatever the issue, give it a week or two, and you might find you're in a whole new place. All this stress we parents take on about doing away with the pacifier or transitioning to a Big Kid Bed or learning to eat new foods, it's a waste of time. It also places unnecessary stress onto both the parent and child. If you picture yourself and your child 15 or 20 years into the future, you'll see that your worry is likely unfounded. After all, how many teenagers have you seen with their mommies trailing them in case they need a diaper change?

Give up.
I don't take 'no' for an answer. Except when it comes to parenting dilemmas. I've found that if you can't find an answer to a parenting dilemma it's because there isn't one. Sometimes there's no real solution and you just have to wait it out. Take sleep, for example. Or eating. Or potty training. You can ask your fellow parents for their sage advice. You can read parenting manuals. You can ask your pediatrician. But after you've tried try every trick in the book and you're still not making any progress, it's time to admit defeat. If the milestone isn't coming easily, then your child isn't ready. I've found that if I give up and let my child lead the way, things will work themselves out without much intervention from me. My advice: Just hold on and enjoy the ride, you'll be on to the next big issue before you know it.

Leave your child alone.
Obviously I don't mean literally, children need adult supervision. I'm talking figuratively. Children learn very quickly from two things: Doing things for themselves, and failure. Neither of those things can happen if you're there, guiding them along all the time. I struggle here because it's hard for me not to share my rich life experience and infinite wisdom. But seriously, following this tenet requires patience. It takes a lot longer for my children to accomplish a task on their own. The hardest part is finding the fortitude to practice staying uninvolved. The heartbreak of watching them fail, especially when some simple advice could have prevented it, is hard to bear, but they probably wouldn't have listened anyway. Inaction really is the best teaching tool in your parenting toolbox.

Monday, July 22, 2013

5 Gorgeous Picture Books for Children

The 5 books that I'm about to recommend not only have beautiful illustrations, they are well written and fun to read to your little one. They also have universal appeal, so boys and girls alike are sure to delight in these tales...

The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman
Peter wants only milk, Lucy won't settle for anything but homemade lemonade, and Jack is stuck on applesauce. Each new addition to the Peters household brings a new demand for a special meal. What's a mother to do? Even though Mrs. Peters picks, peels, strains, scrapes, poaches, fries, and kneads, the requests for special foods keep coming. It isn't until her birthday arrives that a present from her children solves the problem with a hilarious surprise that pleases everyone.

The Seeing Stick by Jane Yolen
Hwei Min, the only daughter of the emperor of China, has been blind since birth. Her father offers a reward to anyone who can find a cure for the little girl. It seems that no one from magicians to physicians can help her. Then, one day a wise old man with a mysterious seeing stick visits the princess. Will he be able to teach Hwei Min that there is more than one way to see the world?

The Lion and the Little Red Bird by Elisa Kleven
A little bird discovers why a lion's tail changes color each day.

Wild Child by Lynn Plourde
In a satisfying tribute to the wonders of nature and family, Mother Earth attempts to put her wild child, Autumn, to bed, but Autumn isn't quite ready.

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
Once upon a time there was an old man and an old woman who were very lonely. They decided to get a cat, but when the old man went out searching, he found not one cat, but millions and billions and trillions of cats! Unable to decide which one would be the best pet, he brought them all home. How the old couple came to have just one cat to call their own is a classic tale that has been loved for generations.

Monday, July 15, 2013

6 Things To Do With Children When There's Nothing To Do

Does anyone else struggle to find ways to entertain their children? (Especially during the loooong summer vacation!) We have a little camp scheduled here and there and find time to visit the library each week. But inevitably we are left with periods of free time that seem to drag on. And on. So I'm sharing my ideas to fill those pockets of time, and I hope you'll share yours in the comments because my pockets can always use a little filling....

Car Wash
There's nothing better than a good old fashioned car wash for hours of good, clean fun. Your little ones will be thoroughly entertained and you'll get a shiny, sparkling car out of the deal. It's a win-win!

Image courtesy of

Obviously the recipes of choice are always dessert. There are plenty of healthy dessert options out there, but you can employ your little ones' culinary talents at dinner time if dessert is off the table.

Go beyond crayons. Build with playdough, paint a masterpiece, create with popsicle sticks or pipe cleaners, sculpt with shaving cream. Scan Pinterest for great craft ideas.

Image courtesy of
A world of fantasy is always a great escape from boredom. If you're children are too young to read to themselves or they just aren't that into reading on their own, read with them. If you're on a road trip, there's nothing like a book on CD to magically create an atmosphere of quiet.

Image courtesy of

Board Games & Puzzles
I'm not a huge fan of puzzles, but some claim they're meditative. Board games or card games are a fun way to pass the time. Hopscotch is always a winner. If you don't have a game that speaks to you on a given day, create your own!

Our own creation - a "Zoo Game"

What is it about bubbles? They mesmerize, they delight. They're beautiful, ethereal, and even a little magical. Even a brand new bottle costs very little, but you can make your own bubble solution and fashion bubble wands out of wire coat hangers. 

Image courtesy of

Monday, July 8, 2013

Why I love My Daughter's Best Friends

C & my daughter, friends from the start.
Each of my daughter's friends is unique and has her own strengths and funny little quirks. I am grateful to them all for the lessons they have taught my daughter and for the confidence she has gained through each relationship. Her best friends are especially precious because they provide a safe place for her to practice the social skills we all endeavor to master, from sharing our toys to sharing our hopes and dreams.

Lifelong Friends
I've known C almost as long as I've known my daughter. The two girls met when they were not quite three years old, and today we are neighbors. The two of them are like sisters. I have watched them grow over the years. They are opposites in many ways. Physically, they are on extreme ends of the growth charts - C is small, my daughter is tall. Their dispositions are also opposite: My daughter is reserved and measured, C is boisterous and wild. But they both love magic and animals and climbing trees. They are the best of friends, and I know C will always have a special place in my daughter's heart. C has helped my daughter revel in her own silliness. Most importantly, C is such a close friend that my child feels comfortable speaking her mind, which isn't always easy for a people-pleaser like my daughter.

Kindred Spirits
J & my daughter making pancakes after a sleepover.
Have you ever had a friend who you don't see often, but when you do it's like you've never been apart? J is that friend for my daughter. She moved away a couple of years ago but comes back to visit every so often. The girls are truly kindred spirits. They are similar outside and in. Their mutually reserved personalities create an even playing field. Both girls are smart and creative and never get bored when they are together. Whether they're washing the car or inventing a new board game, they are a pleasure to watch. My daughter can be self-conscious when she's away from the comforts of home. I love seeing her be herself with this person she rarely sees. I am grateful to J for showing my daughter what it feels like to be comfortable with being yourself, even in the face of the unfamiliar.

My daughter is still young, so I'm able to influence whom she chooses to befriend. I know the day will come when she'll be solely in charge of those choices. I am hopeful that these early friendships will help establish a good foundation for my daughter's future relationships. One thing I do know: Spending her time with these special little girls is a gift.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Why You Shouldn't Edit Yourself

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Like so many in my circle, I'm a conscientious parent. I do my best to keep informed about parenting. I read up on homework studies (and homework, it turns out, is a pretty pointless exercise perpetuated by parental pressure, by the way). I keep abreast of recommendations by educators who say that play and recess are essential components of learning. I even educate myself about ideas other parents have on child rearing, and as you might expect, it turns out there are many opinions out there. In the midst of this information bonanza, there's one thing that raises my hackles.

When I see posts on what you should or shouldn't say to your child, feelings of exasperation inevitably arise within me:
  • Six Ways to Praise Without Saying "Good Job"

  • Why You Shouldn't Tell Your Daughter She's Beautiful

  • How to Say No Without Saying No

Isn't being a parent confusing enough? Now we have to self-monitor our otherwise natural interactions with our children? Edit every word that escapes our lips? Enough, I say! I refuse to be pressured into limiting my own free speech. I will say "good job" to my preschooler when it seems appropriate (even if it's every day). I will tell my daughter that she's smart and strong and tenacious, but I will also tell her how beautiful she is, because she is! And I will say no. A lot. Because my children, like all children, push boundaries and need to know their limits, and let's face it: Sometimes "no" is the quickest way to communicate.

New ideas are what keep us evolving as parents, so is there value to these posts that shame us for using words that spring from love? The authors seem well intended. They're only trying to help us become better parents, but I think we need to trust ourselves more as parents. Our instincts are a powerful and undervalued tool! We are a thoughtful and loving bunch, so how can our well meaning words be so bad? We should feel empowered to use praise at will and set limits without having to hire a speech writer.

So I don't know about you, but I'm standing by my own instincts. They've served me well so far. I have two beautiful children who (usually) stop when I say no and (almost) always do a very good job.

Friday, June 21, 2013

4 Free Toys Every Child Needs

The last few weeks, I've explored both heirloom toys and toys of a less fancy ilk. Today I'm touching upon a fun topic: Toys that are absolutely, unequivocally free! And these may be the best ones of all....

Who needs a play structure when you have a tree? Trees are way cooler. The challenge of climbing is a built in reward. There are infinite ways to climb, so it's less likely to get boring. And it's a natural habitat, so there's always something new happening - a new animal building its nest, a seasonal change with the leaves. Trees are beautiful, awesome, and tons of fun.

Image courtesy of
Cardboard Box
With each new box comes a new world of possibilities. Cut new holes in it. Color it. Paint it. Will it be a stage for a puppet show? A dollhouse? A racetrack? Anything goes!

Toilet Paper Tubes
There are so many ways to use a toilet paper tube. Make them into puppets, a car, or use them to plant seedlings. Here's a great tutorial with more interesting ideas.

Mud is nature's playdough. It's a critical ingredient in everything from mud pies to magical potions. Not necessarily a parent's favorite thanks to its messy tendencies, but definitely ranks up there for kids. Luckily, children are washable.

Are there any free toys you'd add to the list?

Friday, June 14, 2013

5 Economical Must-Have Toys

In my last post I explored heirloom toys. I would be remiss if I didn't add a few other, more economical choices to the list. Even though these toys tend to be less aesthetically pleasing, they are loads of fun for little ones and deserve a place in your toy chest.

1. AquaDoodle
If you don't like the mess of paint in your house, this is a great alternative. All you need is water! For some reason children love this exercise, and it's perfect for a rainy day. I do recommend investing in a few more Aquadoodle accessories to avoid the inevitable argument over those darned pens.

2. A Playdough Kit
Whether you make your own or buy it from the store, it's one of the least expensive and most versatile toys you can offer your little ones. Having a few molding, shaping, and cutting tools on hand is essential. Here plastic is king because it's so simple to throw into the dishwasher to easily clean off all the muck. 

3. Doodle Pad
Again, this is a great tool for minimizing mess. It also is great on the go. The stampers and the stylus can hold the attention of both younger and older children.


4. Legos
Who doesn't love Legos? The only bad thing about them is stepping on them. But look at the bright side: They can double as home security if you place a few in front of your door. Other than that one small, they are hours of fun. I recommend starting with the big blocks for younger children.


5.  Art Supplies
You'll probably go through a ton of these, but they are crucial to any household with children. Be sure your kit includes scissors, markers, crayons, colored pencils, and of course, paint.

Friday, June 7, 2013

6 Heirloom Toys You Can't Do Without

Anyone who's been to my house can tell you what a sucker I am for heirloom toys. They're like little works of art designed to make everyone happy. It's true, they can get pricey, but sometimes it's worth spending a little more to get something solid that will last. (It's kind of like splurging on a great pair of blue jeans rather than a dress you can wear once a year.)

I've narrowed down the list to the toys that are worth the extra expense. While you're browsing through it, keep an open mind about "girls' toys" versus "boys' toys." I say there's no such thing!

I hope you enjoy this list of some of our household favorites (in no particular order)...

1. Lincoln Logs
Admit it: you played "Little House on the Prairie" with these. They're so versatile. Build a city or one big log-mansion.

2. Dollhouse
A great dollhouse is fun for any child - don't rule it out for a boy. (Although I think a classic dollhouse would be perfectly fine, there are also "boys'dollhouses available.) Oh! And don't forget to invest in a good how-to build your own dollhouse furniture book.

3. Blocks
Every children's toy chest needs a good set of blocks. Personally, I like the plain wooden variety. But if you want to jazz them up, paint them in chalkboard paint. Then your little ones can enjoy drawing all kinds of fun designs on them that can vary with the game of the day.

4. Knitting & Sewing Kit
Every child should learn how to sew and knit. (For the how-to aspect, you can invest in a good book, or there are plenty of free tutorials on YouTube.) It's such a fabulous life skill. It exercises fine motor development, critical thinking and problem solving, and even math! There are several methods of knitting - finger knitting is great for beginners. After that, move on to a French Knitting spool, and finally knitting with needles. This kit includes it all.

5. Marble Run
Encourage your little engineer with one of these sets. The possibilities are endless, so each playtime offers a fresh take on the same toy.

6. Easel
A beautiful easel is such a great tool. Be sure you invest in one that is dual sided with both a dry erase and chalkboard. Storage is good to have for art supplies, and a place for a roll of paper is nice to have too.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Waldorf vs. Montessori Part II

In my last post, I explored some of the ways Waldorf and Montessori differ. Even though it was a somewhat lengthy post, I wasn't able address all my observations. It was also pretty obvious that fans of Montessori were quite put off by my thoughts. I have two things to say:

1. My experience with Montessori is definitely more limited than with Waldorf, so I'm sometimes able to expand upon the why behind Waldorf methodologies where I can't offer the same insight into Montessori. However, you know what they say: Perception is reality. What I mean by this is Maria Montssori's intent isn't always readily apparent. That doesn't make my takeaway completely invalid.

2. I hate to state the obvious, but this is my blog. I say that only to defend my right to express my point of view! If you don't like what I have to say, feel free to comment. Or better yet, write your own blog.

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, here are a few additions that might help further distinguish between these two opposite philosophies.

Ensuring an Authentic Experience
I got a lot of comments to my last piece about this issue. Before I get into more detail, I want to say that it's true that my experience with Montessori is limited to just one Montessori school. However, that school has all fully-trained Montessori teachers and highly prioritizes staying true to Dr. Montessori's philosophy. The space is beautiful, their idea of an "ideal" class size is 40 children, there is a big emphasis on fostering independence. The list goes on, but the bottom line is that from everything I've read about Montessori, it seems that this particular school is a solid example of what you should find when you observe a true Montessori school.

Having said that, I can move on to the fact that there is no single central organization that regulates the use of the term Montessori, so in essence, every school is different. Parents must research carefully to ensure they are getting a true Montessori experience. This excerpt from The Authentic American Montessori School: A Guide to the Self-Study, Evaluation, and Accreditation of American Schools Committed to Montessori Education offers some good guidelines.

Waldorf is a different story. The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America is the holder of trademark rights for the use of the names "Waldorf" and "Steiner." That means that when you enroll your child in a school that uses one of those words in its name or literature, that school is adhering to the tenets of Waldorf Education, guaranteed by a governing body with standards and requirements. That includes not only teaching methodology, but a pedagogy and even a curriculum. AWSNA requires regular mentoring and advisory visits to any accredited school to ensure that it's in good standing.

Academic Readiness
Rudolph Steiner, the man who "invented" Waldorf Education, also created Anthroposophy. Waldorf is based on Anthroposophy. While you won't see much actual religion in the classroom (i.e., there's no "Anthroposophy Class" or praying), there is deep respect for childhood development that is rooted in the teachings of Anthroposophy. That is why both the teachers and the curriculum share an attitude of protecting a child's need to "blossom" at their own pace. When an Early Childhood teacher recommends that a child moves on to First Grade, she looks at much more than his age or whether he knows his alphabet. In fact, there's a whole list of considerations that get at making sure the Whole Child is ready to begin school life.

Steiner segmented child development into seven-year spans. In the first seven years of life, children are still in the fantasy stage. That means that, according to Steiner's teachings, academic readiness doesn't come until the next phase, which begins at the age of seven, or First Grade. That is why Waldorf Schools have a reputation for "delayed academics." In reality there is much work done in the Early Childhood classrooms that get at academic readiness, from stretching the attention span of the young child through lengthy oral storytelling to exercising fine motor skills via sewing and knitting. But actual reading, writing and so on are addressed beginning in First Grade.

Maria Montessori was an exceedingly well educated woman who carefully crafted her curriculum and pedagogy. Studies have shown that her methods give children an academic edge. She divided childhood development into three-year spans and believed that each child is unique and comes into the world with her own personality, temperament, skills and abilities. This gets at the mixed-age Montessori classroom, which gives each child has the opportunity to develop at her own pace in her own way. She also maintained that all children have absorbent minds that are ready to soak up knowledge, and they do it best when in the midst of a "sensitive period," or when a child shows an interest in a particular subject. That is why a Montessori classroom looks the way it does, stocked with a variety activities targeted at the various sensitive periods within the class. Students are given the opportunity to go as far as they want in any given subject.

Here we see how Waldorf and Montessori are polar opposites: In Waldorf, academics are delayed by design until an age of concrete thinking is reached. Montessori introduces academics as early as a child demands - the child is in charge of how far she goes in any given subject.

Fantasy vs. Creativity
A Waldorf classroom offers fantasy in a variety of ways. The toys are distinct. They are made of natural materials: silk, cotton, wood. Dolls have just a hint of facial features so as not to interfere with a child's imagination. River stones can become eggs in a kitchen or money for a shopping spree. Drama is also a big part of life in a Waldorf school. The goal is to give children a way to understand and immerse themselves in a variety of feelings in a safe way, by assuming a different persona.

Some say that Montessori offers fantasy. I suppose that depends on your definition. While it certainly addresses creativity through art, drama and music, it there is little in the way of ethereal fantasy. In fact, Maria Montessori herself felt it our duty as adults and teachers to help children distinguish between fantasy and reality. Her classroom and curriculum are designed to that end.

If there's one thing you might have heard about Waldorf it's probably the rigid stance on media. Waldorf schools discourage television entirely. In addition media characters are not welcome in any way, not on a t-shirt, not on a lunchbox. That means no Elmo, no Batman, no Dora the Explorer. The reasoning is that media imagery is so powerful that it infiltrates the imagination and impedes it, taking on a primary role during play. If you've ever watched a child play who has just watched Sesame Street, for example, it quickly becomes clear why Waldorf holds this value. Children often parrot catch phrases from their favorite TV shows or pretend to be a favorite character.

Computers use is discouraged at the younger ages in Waldorf, but in high school it is addressed as a tool to be used respectfully and carefully. The first thing Waldorf high school students do is to disassemble a computer and put it back together to that they know exactly how it works before they begin to learn how to use it.

Montessori is more flexible here. Although media is supposed to be discouraged, many schools do not adhere to this tenet. It's my theory that this variation in policy is due to the lack of centralized monitoring and quality control in the Montessori world. However, it's unclear to me exactly what "no media" means in Montessori Education. Is it just a referral to television? Are media characters allowed? It's difficult to find a definitive answer. The one thing that seems clear is that computers are used in some settings as a learning tool in Practical Life.

 How are Waldorf and Montessori Similar?
 I thought this would be a nice way to close to help Waldorf and Montessori advocates to come together. After all, we are all bucking the system by choosing something off the beaten path. So more power to us all!
  • Waldorf and Montessori are both "alternative" forms of education.
  • Both stress the importance of the natural environment, keeping in touch with nature and natural materials.
  • Both hold great respect for the child as an individual and a creative being. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Waldorf vs. Montessori

I'm not a teacher. I don't have a degree in education. So what makes me qualified to compare Waldorf and Montessori? I have two children: One is in a Waldorf school, the other is in Montessori. My Waldorf child is in 4th Grade - we've been a part of the school since she was 3 years old. I've seen my share of Waldorf philosophy in that time. My Montessori child is just about to turn 4. He only just started school 8 months ago. Because he wouldn't separate from me, I went to school with him every day, all day, for the first month of school. As you can imagine, I saw quite a bit of Montessori in action. While I'm not a so-called expert, I've seen enough to form an educated opinion on what works for my children.

Opposite Philosophies

Making vegetable soup on
Soup Day in a Waldorf Kindergarten.
My first (and arguably most important) observation is that, contrary to what most people think, Waldorf and Montessori are philosophical opposites. Rudolph Steiner, the Father of Waldorf Education, believed that children are rooted in fantasy and that it's our job as adults and teachers to protect and honor that phase until they are ready to emerge from it in their own time. Maria Montessori also believed that children are rooted in fantasy, but that is where the common ground ends. She saw it as a teacher's job to help a child learn to distinguish fantasy from reality through specific instruction and reality-based activities, thereby ushering students into the "real world" step by step.

What does that translate to in the classroom? Let's start with a Waldorf painting lesson. On a given day, the children might have two primary colors to work with, let's say red and blue. The consistency of the paint is watery for good reason (which will become obvious in a moment). The children are given wet watercolor paper and are invited to "experience" the colors, how they come alive, wicking along the paper, slowly blending together to create a new color. The teacher never points out that red and blue make purple. The children are left to discover that for themselves.

In a Montessori classroom the scene is different. Each educational exercise has a purpose. Each teaches a specific lesson or skill. You won't find dolls or other make believe toys, but you will see blocks for measuring and counting or bells meant to teach a child how to match different pitches. Before a child is allowed to try new "work," the teacher models exactly how to do it. Let's say the "work" is learning how to transfer popcorn kernels from one bowl to another using a small spoon. The class gathers to observe the teacher while she methodically completes the task from start to finish, carefully scooping each spoonful from the first bowl and slowly, without spilling, depositing it into the second.

Winner: Waldorf. Personally, I learn better through experience. While Montessori does offer learning by doing, there is much direction and explanation that goes along with that. In a Waldorf classroom, the child is allowed to draw her own conclusions about the best processes as well as the outcome.

Social Dynamics
Another way in which Waldorf and Montessori differ is in socializing. Anyone with young children will agree that they all need practice here. In Waldorf those opportunities are delivered through a group dynamic. That's not to say that children never pair off - they are allowed to play in whatever format they naturally gravitate toward during free play periods. However, there is plenty of work done with cooperative games and class puppet shows to help children learn how to work together.

Bell work at a Montessori school
In a Montessori classroom, young children work alone or in pairs. There are some group activities, for example, Story Time, Sharing Time, or Circle Time. But when students are at "work," the magic number is two. They graduate to working in larger groups later on, but to start, things are kept intimate with just two children collaborating on any given "work." This allows them to begin to get a feel for cooperation and also gives them the opportunity to learn from each other.

Winner: Waldorf. Children need help learning to work together no matter the size of the group, so both philosophies offer good practice here. What I like about Waldorf is that it does not limit the children to working in pairs. They have the freedom and flexibility to choose for themselves.

Experience vs. Instruction
What about how children learn in a given environment? Rudolph Steiner saw it as imperative that students experience learning though as many different channels as possible. In a Waldorf classroom, although plenty of time is spent at the black board working on fractions, you will also find that lesson being driven home through a measuring ingredients in a baking lesson. While students might spend some time learning behind their desks, it's just as common to see them moving around, marching in a circle, rhythmically chanting their times tables, for example.

A Montesori classroom is more free-flowing. Because each student is in charge of pursuing any given "work," there is a lot of movement and action going on. Students are constantly changing their focus, moving from station to station. Again, the senses are engaged, but here that is accomplished through the purpose and design of each activity. The school day does have structure. There is Circle Time, Indoor Play, and Outdoor Play. But exactly which activities each child chooses within those periods is up to the individual.

Winner: Both. Personality is the determining factor in my mind. Some parents worry that in a Montessori environment their children might shy away from any subjects which they might not enjoy, thereby creating a "gap" in their education. But if you have a self-motivated learner, it might work very well and be empowering. What's nice about Waldorf is that all the subjects are guaranteed to get covered, all in a fun and engaging way.

Teacher Led vs. Child Led
Perhaps the most well known component of Montessori is its child-led methodology. A Montessori classroom has many offerings for its students. In an early childhood setting you would find four stations: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, and Math. Language and Math are self explanatory. Practical Life refers to skills such as zippering, buttoning, pouring, slicing food, using a spoon, or carrying a tray while Sensorial refines the senses to enable children to better absorb information from the world around them. To most parents, the most interesting thing about all these components is that the time frame and order in which they are explored by the student is determined by the student. This gives children the freedom to develop according to their own unique timetable and, as a result, they are able to reach each developmental milestone when they are ready.

In a Waldorf environment, the teacher is the classroom leader. She is the one who determines the rhythm of the day. She directs the curriculum. She communicates the material. There is plenty of interaction and many modes of learning that are employed. All the senses are awakened. In other words, the curriculum is as engaging and meaningful as possible, and the teacher directs it all.

Winner: Both. Again, finding the right model for your child depends on her personality. Does she need direction? Or is she self-motivated and naturally curious?

The Bottom Line
There so much more to each Waldorf and Montessori than I've touched upon here, but Waldorf wins out for me. Montessori is certainly interesting, but some of its developmental philosophies feel out of sync to me. The stringent adherence to working in pairs, the tedious instruction when introducing new work. These practices don't seem especially friendly toward young children. Plus, while the academic and practical side of learning is addressed, values are not a part of the curriculum.

The truth is, there's never going to be a perfect school, but Waldorf works for my parenting style and my family. I identify with so many of the tenets. It is rooted in truth and beauty and community. It is media-free. It is about spurring a lifetime of curiosity and a deep connection to learning. Most importantly it is developmentally appropriate each step of the way. Waldorf has done so much for my daughter. (Next school year, my son will benefit from it as well when he starts at the same Waldorf school.) Waldorf Education has fostered a sense of confidence in my child that I believe comes from its slow and reverent pace, honoring each age and stage. It meets her where she is and adapts to her as she grows and matures.

To read more about the inner workings of a Waldorf Classroom, read my piece for Renewal Magazine: A Day in a Waldorf Kindergarten

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Renewal Magazine Feature: A Day in a Waldorf Kindergarten

Written for the national publication, Renewal Magazine, this piece paints a picture of what it's like to spend the day in a Waldorf Kindergarten classroom...

Monday, April 8, 2013

The "Smart" Dilemma

Photo courtesy of
This is going to make me sound really old, but I can't help feeling the way I do: Smart phones make me sad. I love my tablet, but I also resent it. It is a responsibility that requires my constant attention. Yes, I can retrieve whatever information I wish at the push of a button. But I also have to make sure to clean out both the hard drive and my email inbox regularly or suffer the consequences. Google Glass seems the worst iteration of technology yet, although I haven't had the opportunity to experience it firsthand. Talk about an ever-present violation of your privacy! As technology careens forward, I'm left behind with worry. How will all of these innovations affect us? Will it change who we are and how we relate? What will become of the human connection?

When I enjoy a night on the town, I can't help but notice people's downward gazes, fixed on their smart devices rather than their dining companions. A conversation interrupted by a text. An overriding need to attain a tidbit of information now. It's all so instantaneous and over stimulating. How can a mere human ever measure up? By our very nature, we humans are imperfect and inconsistent. We don't come with a search function to pare down our database to the simple and correct answer. A posed question requires thought and perspective. We each have our own point of view.

We do share some commonalities with our technological counterparts. Our batteries need recharging, too. We even accomplish that in a similar way--by plugging in, not into an outlet but into another consciousness. Our energy comes from laughing with friends or snuggling with a special someone on the sofa. We need a gaze, a kind word, a touch to know that we are recognized, seen.

A smart phone can't give you that.

My theory is that being good at emotional connection is like exercising a muscle in the body: Use it or lose it. I also believe there's a conservation of energy when it comes to socializing. There's only so much energy to go around, so spend it wisely. In other words, whatever effort you put into attending to your smart device is an opportunity missed in cultivating a meaningful relationship.

While these new advances gain popularity and an increasingly important role in our daily lives, what will become of us? Will we continue to be able to devote our undivided attention to another person? Will we remember how to have a deep conversation? I don't know the answer, but what I see worries me. It worries me deeply.