The Montessori approach is making its mark on the education landscape in South Africa. The prevailing perception though is that Montessori is for wealthy children, with a myriad of private Montessori schools on offer. But Montessori has its roots in the poorest area of Rome where Maria Montessori set up the very first House of Children (Casa dei Bambini) in San Lorenzo. Maria Montessori worked with a group of 50 children growing up in appalling conditions in this squalid area of Rome and began the principles of what is now a global phenomenon with over 20 000 schools around the world.[i] From these early days, community involvement was very apparent, it was, in fact, the mothers of the children being cared for in the House of Children that pleaded with Maria Montessori to teach the children to read and write, as they themselves being illiterate.
Central to Montessori’s method of education is the dynamic triad of child, teacher and environment and this is being carried through Learning in Reach’s approach to the Lavender Hill project. Situated in a modest but spacious building in the heart of one of Cape Town’s poorest communities, this ECD centre is being developed by the community as a whole, with parents getting involved in everything from carpentry and electrical installation through to cleaning and preparing children’s meals. Learning in Reach Project Director Leanne Reid says: “While Learning in Reach is intent on redefining Early Childhood Development in marginalised communities, we realise that the child only spends a few hours a day at school. A larger part of their learning and development is impacted by their surrounding community. It is therefore imperative for us to address the environment surrounding the child if we are to have a profound impact on the child’s future prospects.”
The school is just getting started and currently has just 4 children with 2 teachers, but it is expected to grow into a pupil complement of around 20 children. It is the community orientated approach that has helped overcome the misconception that Montessori simply “allows children to do whatever they want” which is just as prevalent in lower income areas as it is in affluent suburbs. Says Reid: “The approach is helping to address a lot of issues, issues around respect of self and others, care of the environment, the lack of strong role models, low self-esteem and confidence and has helped to rebuild the connections between parent and child and even community.”
Science supports the notion of Montessori in less affluent communities and a recent study has suggested that Montessori education may be a better method of schooling low-income children.[ii] The study tracked low-income children who either attended public Montessori preschools or applied but did not attend Montessori preschools. It found that the Montessori students did better by a range of indicators, including test scores. The study was led by University of Virginia psychology professor Angeline Lillard who says: “At the start of the study they were equal in terms of demographics, parent education, income, age, gender, ethnicity. Over time, the Montessori students were doing significantly better on many measures and none were doing worse.”
But the real magic in Lavender Hill is the level of training and support being given to the community. There are over 30 ECD centres in Lavender Hill, many of which are little more than day-care centres and the support that Learning in Reach is able to provide to educators and caregivers is a game-changer for the prospects of these children and the community as a whole. A number of workshops have been held, such as the Mathematics in Early Childhood Development workshop held at the Generation Schools Blue Moon Montessori in Heathfield which filled Lavender Hill teachers with inspiration and new ideas. The workshop ran over three weeks, demonstrating ways to engage all the child’s senses in learning and becoming proficient in numeracy; building a solid understanding as to the foundation for future learning.
Learning in Reach is not working in isolation and has partnered with organisations such as Montessori Centre South Africa for accredited teacher training and Red Ink and Word Works who are providing invaluable early maths development and literacy tools. Childrens House is a proud supporter of this project and has supplied Montessori learning materials for use at the ECD centre.
In the true spirit of Maria Montessori, and in ways that parallel those early days in San Lorenzo, Learning in Reach is making a much-needed impact in this community and providing a platform to help provide these children with a better outcome. The vision for the Lavender Hill project is to create a safe, vibrant school that is the pride of the local community who seek to offer their children the best future possible. Perhaps, more importantly, it is becoming a hub of learning for teachers, parents and neighbours and we at Childrens House support them whole-heartedly.
For more information, and to get involved please visit learninginreach.org.za/