The Importance of Free Play This Summer

The Importance of Free Play This Summer

Written by Betsy Wimbrow, Director of Education

Ah, summertime! There is nothing like long, languid days that stretch slowly into the evening, running barefoot in the cool grass while chasing fireflies, and biting into cold crispy watermelon, the juice dripping down your chin. Summer is a time to relax, to play, to spend time with family and friends, to explore, daydream, and wonder.

There is a growing body of evidence that these same activities are key to developing important executive functioning skills. In the article “Why Free Play Is the Best Summer School“, Jessica Lahey states;

“Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health.”

This is great news for parents and children alike! No need to fill our children’s days with structured activities or for entertaining our children all summer long. The more unstructured “free” time we give our children the greater their chances of developing critical problem-solving skills, confidence in taking risks, and essential self-regulating skills. If you worry about loss of academic progress, relax! A recent study failed to prove such a slide exists for most children. You can read the details of the study, ”New Research Casts Doubt on the ‘Summer Slide’” Youki Terada at

So, sit back with a cold glass of lemonade and let yourself – and your children – just be. Dr. Montessori said it best,

“Let the children be free; encourage them; let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and, when the grass of the meadows is damp with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet; let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade; let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning as it wakes every living creature that divides its day between waking and sleeping.” (The Discovery of the Child)

I look forward to seeing you as the summer comes to a close, whether it be at an orientation for new parents or parents new to the next level, at one of our community picnics, or on your child’s first day of school. You needn’t wait until then to be in touch. I welcome your ideas, questions, and conversation at any time.


Changes to the Toddler Program Structure

Changes to the Toddler Program Structure

As the school year draws to a close, we are beginning to look toward the fall and all of the exciting possibilities a new year has to offer. The construction on the new Multipurpose Building is well underway and we are all looking forward to getting into the new and improved classroom spaces! Our Toddler team of guides and assistants has become a very strong and cohesive unit, and made a concerted effort to work together to plan for another great school year.

With that in mind, we are excited to share with you some staffing “shifts” that will take place in the fall. In looking at current student applications for the fall, we see that our needs will change a bit with regards to our Young Toddler program. We will therefore have only one classroom for that age group, and will adjust the other current Young Toddler class to a Mixed Age (18 mo – 3 yrs) group. The remaining three classes will be Older Toddler classes (ages 2 – 3 yrs), with one of them being our Dual Language classroom.

In conjunction with these changes, we will also be rearranging the staff. Beth Callahan will be taking on the Young Toddler classroom and Allie Alexander will move into the Mixed Age classroom. Danuta Wilson will take over one of the Older Toddler classrooms and Michelle Donohue will stay with the Older Toddlers, but will move out of the Dual Language program. Kim McCaslin will move into that last Older Toddler room, the Dual Language class. The assistants will also be making changes. We are expecting all of the current assistants to remain a part of our toddler team, but at this point in time, we are still working out staffing patterns for a few key positions, hoping to make the best possible fit for all involved. Once these decisions are finalized, we will share all of the new classroom teams.

The year ahead promises to be a great one, with a strong toddler team and amazing new classroom spaces. We look forward to working with you to make it a wonderful experience for you and your children!

The Toddler Team

Montessori Mastery: A Learning Process for Life

Big Works Day - Greenspring Montessori School

An Elementary student shares his work with younger Children’s House friends at Big Works Day.

Montessori Mastery: A Learning Process for Life

Written by Betsy Wimbrow, Director of Education at Greenspring Montessori School

Students are best motivated to learn when they work on something of their own choosing, at their own pace, and until they determine that they know. This may sound a bit laissez-faire, or even cavalier. Can we really expect students to know what they want to pursue, stick with it, and then demonstrate mastery?

Many of us who grew up with a conventional school education can reminisce on a very different experience: the teacher would enter the classroom with the day’s lessons all planned to be delivered in defined blocks of time within the boundaries of the regular school day hours. The next day was more of the same. Everyone would receive the same lessons at the same time, regardless of interest, readiness, or need for practice to solidify newly presented material—a prescribed curriculum administered by adults. Various quizzes and tests were given within a specified time period to determine whether or not newly presented material was understood. Regardless of the test results, the curriculum moved forward.

One major problem with this approach is that it does not take into account the students. Not all students are interested in the same thing at the same time, nor are they always ready for the same work because they are in the same class. There is a growing body of research that confirms the significant role that choice plays in student motivation and learning. Sue Grossman Ph.D. states strongly in her article, “Offering Children Choices: Encouraging Autonomy and Learning While Minimizing Conflicts,” that, “giving children choices throughout the day is beneficial, even crucial to their development.”

So, how do we change the system?

Montessori is intentionally and appreciably different than conventional models of education. Montessori is a developmentally based approach—an aid to life—where choice has always been a critical element in our work with students. We cannot force a student to learn. We can create an environment, rich with resources and manipulatives, that encourages autonomy and independence. We can offer lessons, observe students, and work with them to ensure their progress. We can model, demonstrate, establish and maintain high expectations for engagement and accountability. Ultimately, it is the student who takes ownership of and responsibility for his own learning.

In the words of Dr. Maria Montessori, “Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment.”

Guiding a class of curious young students, each of whom is making individual choices about what he or she is working on is no easy feat! How do we support individual interests and pursuits while also ensuring that skills are practiced and expectations for high quality, polished work permeate? We have at our disposal a deep understanding of the developmental needs of the students, uninterrupted work periods where we are available to provide lessons, observe practice, meet with individuals, and offer an abundance of beautiful, engaging materials with which to engage students.

Breaking down the process

A key technique we utilize to present information to students is called the three period lesson. Regardless of the content being introduced, this framework supports on-going work for individuals and groups of students as they move from observation to active manipulation and application, and finally to deep understanding and mastery.

Children's House Mathematics - Greenspring Montessori School

Ms. Lydia introduces the Red and Blue Rods, a new math work, to a small group of Children’s House students—the first period of the lesson.

The first period: An introduction

During the first period, the guide presents a new skill, idea, or story to a student. Depending on the developmental needs of the student this presentation may be short and precise: “This is blue.” It may be a naming period where vocabulary is introduced. For older students the first period may be the sharing of an impressionistic story such as The Story of the Universe, where just enough information is conveyed to inspire wonder and awe, and the story itself becomes the springboard for further exploration. This first period is presented in such a way that the students leave curious, excited, and motivated to engage with the work.

Montessori Practice - Greenspring Montessori School

A Children’s House student works independently, exploring the Subtraction Board—an example of the second period of the lesson.

Second period: Thorough investigation

The length of time a student spends manipulating, exploring, questioning, and repeating newly presented lessons is not determined by the guide, but rather by the interest and drive of the student. This period of deep engagement is known as the second period of the lesson. It is the longest and most important part of any lesson. Students are not rushed to complete a task or to prove they have mastered a new skill. Instead, students are encouraged to become thoroughly immersed in their work. For younger students, this usually involves repetition until new skills and concepts are internalized. A student may sort, match, name, and paint with all shades of “blue.” Older students may choose to explore the three states of matter, gravity, the composition of the earth, or formation of mountains after hearing The Story of the Universe. When students freely choose topics that interest them, motivation comes from within and kindles their natural desire to learn. They are learning for learning’s sake, and their drive is ignited.

Curiosity begins with questions and is fed by on-going investigation, discovery, and the sharing of ideas. As older students dive into self-chosen research topics, they rarely work in isolation. Learning is infectious! Students not only enjoy sharing what they are learning, but also invite critical feedback from their peers as they bring their research to completion. Learning to give and receive feedback supports whole-class collaboration. Students encourage one another by giving descriptive feedback that is kind, specific, and helpful. Engaging in the critique process often inspires multiple revisions, encourages further opportunities for developing listening and speaking skills, builds student confidence, and leads to amazing polished work. There are no limits when students share, exchange ideas, and support each other. Expectations for deep engagement and high quality product are modeled and reinforced by peers with the overarching goal being the creation of beautiful work.

Demonstration of Knowledge - Greenspring Montessori School

A Children’s House student teaches her friend—an unmistakable sign of the third period of the lesson—using the Hundred Board.

Third Period: Demonstration of Knowledge

So, how do we know when the students know? Third period activity is unmistakable with young students. They show us they know by spontaneously teaching their peers! Newly acquired skills are applied directly in daily activity, whether it is to identify the color blue or by helping a classmate put on her jacket. For older students the third period is manifest in myriad ways. Students know when they are ready to present their work. They have spent time revising and practicing, speaking clearly, making eye contact, fielding questions from an audience, and graciously receiving feedback. They have become “experts” in their topic. Presentations may include a skit, a song or poem, a video, or a model built to scale.

The final facet of the third period for older students is reflection. Students analyze the learning process from start to finish: “What went well?” “What were the challenges and how did I learn from them?” “What would I do differently next time?” Self-reflection inspires ownership of learning. Students are accountable to themselves. They not only begin to understand themselves as learners, but also how to tackle obstacles, work with others, accept feedback, and build the muscle they need to continue learning. John Dewey went as far as to say that “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

At Greenspring Montessori, students are encouraged to dive into their work wholeheartedly—to make mistakes, and to learn from them. “That’s how learning in a Montessori classroom works – not by memorization, or simply listening to a teacher at the front of a classroom, but by doing.” (

Yes, we do expect students to know what they want to pursue, stick with it, and then demonstrate mastery. They demonstrate this every day, with gusto and an insatiable appetite for more!

Expert Level Consultants at Greenspring Montessori

Expert Level Consultants at Greenspring Montessori

At Greenspring Montessori, learning is not limited to the students! We provide our faculty with access to world-class, often renowned consultants who are experts in the levels they guide.

Recently, for the second time this year, Julia Volkmann not only presented a two-day workshop to our Children’s House faculty (as well as some of our Toddler faculty), but spent time in each Children’s House classroom here at GMS observing side-by-side with each guide and then met with them one-on-one to provide valuable feedback.  After the workshop, the guides were anxious to get back to their classrooms to make adjustments to how their rooms were arranged, present some things differently, and even order new materials – like cursive moveable alphabets! – for next year.

Julia is the founder of Maitri Learning, and works with the Neuroscience Department at Harvard University.  She has visited us several times over the last three years, and we are also in the process of bringing her back in May.  You can learn more about her on the Maitri Learning website, which also lists several of her academic papers.

Children’s House faculty aren’t the only ones with expert consultants.  Mary Reinhardt, who is known worldwide for her Montessori work and has published writings with the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI),  is scheduled to come at the end of March for three days to observe, provide feedback, and present two workshops for the Toddler faculty.  In April, Julie Comber-Martin, who I met through a recent North American Montessori Teachers’ Association (NAMTA) Conference where she was presenting on Grace & Courtesy, is coming to support our Elementary Faculty.  Our AP Guide has one-on-one access to a couple of veteran Montessori Adolescent Program educators, including Kevin Campbell and Jessica Turner of KSC Consulting.

Every year, we put a great deal of emphasis on making sure our faculty have the best possible resources to improve their skills as Montessori educators.  Especially as we add more and more parent education to what we do, we want you to know that your children’s teachers are also constantly working hard to learn more about how best to serve their classes.

A moment of independent triumph for one of our Young Toddlers

A moment of independent triumph for one of our Young Toddlers

Abby, who is soon to be two years old, quietly and carefully packs up her things after waking from her nap. She isn’t frustrated, or rushed, or given any direct instruction. Pay attention to yourself as you watch Abby. How many times do you feel the need to step in and help? Be patient! Young children can do difficult things! We only need to set them up for success, step back, and allow them the time and space to do so.