New Kenai preschool introduces students to Montessori, self-directed education

Learning to love learning

Posted: Wednesday, October 15, 2003

It's never too early for children to start learning.

At least, that's the philosophy Rachel and Robert Pugh take.

The husband and wife team run the new Kenai Montessori Preschool out of their home, putting their belief in children's innate desire to learn to good use.

The Montessori method, founded by Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, is nothing new. Through the past century, it has been endorsed by famous thinkers such as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison and has flourished throughout Europe.

In recent years, the method has seen a revival throughout the United States, and though Alaska may be a bit behind the Lower 48 in picking up the trend, the movement is growing here on the Kenai Peninsula.

Several years ago, Susan Larned of Soldotna began a preschool using the Montessori philosophy, and last year, she founded a charter school within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to continue the educational style for school-aged children. This year, the charter school has expanded through sixth-grade, and school organizers plan to keep going.

Rachel Pugh, a longtime Montessori believer, said she appreciates the efforts in Soldotna, but saw a need for such a program in Kenai as well. That's why the day care provider and mother who home-schooled her own children using Montessori philosophies spent last year becoming certified as a Montessori instructor. This fall, she and her husband who currently is working on his own certification transitioned their in-home day-care center into a Montessori preschool.

At first glance, it's hard to tell that grown-ups ever lived in the rooms now used for the school. The entire first floor of the Kenai home has been commandeered for the school, and the decor has embraced Montessori method. Walking in the front door, a visitor immediately enters a world made for children. Coat hooks and cubbies are strategically placed about three feet from the floor. Miniature tables and chairs provide work areas and space for snack time. And shelves, carefully stocked with educational materials, offer a plethora of fun learning activities easily within students' reach.


Rachel Pugh helps pour milk during snack time Monday at Kenai Montessori Preschool.

Photo by Jenni Dillon

Along one wall, bookshelves present the theme for the month. Right now students are examining the transition from fall to winter and beginning a study of different cultures.

But while there are units and themes, the Montessori school doesn't focus on teacher-led instruction. Rather, students are free to choose their own educational pursuits.

That doesn't mean the kids are free to wander about wildly, though, the Pughs said.

"We're hearing a lot in the area the misconception that kids get to do whatever they want," Rachel said. "People misinterpret that freedom."

While children do choose their "work," the options available to them are all educational materials and all chosen based on strict guidelines of the Montessori method.

And children at the school are far from running wild.

In fact, a primary tenant of the Montessori method teaches children both self-sufficiency and responsibility. They learn to choose their own activities and work independently, without constantly asking for an adult to do something for them or praise them. They are responsible for cleaning up each of their projects, as well as wiping crumbs from tables, chairs and the floor after eating. They learn to say "please" and "thank you" and use table manners, not to mention tie their shoes, button their coats and drink from "real" cups.

It's a world where the children are not coddled they also pour their own milk into glass mugs without spillage or breakage but where they also have plenty of fun.

While the "toys" in the room are all educational and kids' projects are always called "work," rather than "play," the room still is full of laughter. Earlier this month, for example, the children who recently read Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham" were treated to a surprise snack of, that's right, green eggs and ham.

"We try to open their minds to different things," Rachel said. "They didn't even see it coming."

As far as expanding the children's horizons, the school also provides instruction in different languages and cultures. While conversation is generally in English, students also know a few of the basics in French, Spanish and sign language. One of the student's family members soon will begin visiting the class regularly, during which time she will speak only Spanish.

Are the preschool's students, who range in age from 2 1/2 to 5, too young for such experiences?

Absolutely not, say the Pughs.

"It's actually really nice to start at this age," said Rachel. "We don't expect the same thing from a 2 1/2-year-old as we do out of a 5-year-old ..."

"... But we also don't limit them," added Robert Pugh. "It's amazing how quickly they pick things up."

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