Category Archives: Montessori

Handmade Minecraft Creeper Quilt

Last month, I may have boasted  – just a little bit – about my kids’ 4-H non-livestock fair submissions.  I tried to include a wide variety of their projects, but I omitted one project: my older son’s handmade Minecraft creeper quilt.

Minecraft Creeper Quilt

In fill disclosure, I left it out because I didn’t have a good picture. Plus, the quilt was hung sideways at the fair…probably by someone without kids. It didn’t look right.

However, I also wanted to highlight his progress and effort. This was a HUGE project. It took determination and motivation to finish such a large quilt. He’s only twelve, though he made most of it when he was eleven. It took months to complete.

Quilting for Kids

Let me back up just a bit. I’ve always had sewing projects for the kids to try.  It’s part of Montessori’s early childhood curriculum, and it was one of the first “maker” skills I taught myself after college.

So my older son knew how to use the sewing machine and I trusted him with the rotary cutters.  When he said he wanted to make a big quilt…well, I tried to talk him out of it.

I know!

But it’s a lot of work and I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to keep up with him. However, he was determined and we sat down and made some preliminary sketches (after a bit of idea-gathering via the Internet).

Minecraft Blocks = Quilt Blocks

Thank goodness Minecraft is built on blocks. It makes creating a square-based quilt much easier. After a few explanations of the technique required for certain designs, we settled on a five-inch squares. He could easily cut those out and he liked the look of the creeper.

We went shopping at our local fabric store, picked up some supplies and he started cutting that day. I can’t say the entire project went that smoothly, but he did all of the work by himself. I helped occasionally, but this was his project.

Quilting Logistics

Since he was homeschooled last year, it was easy to incorporate this into our learning routine. While this was a self-directed project, he would have given up halfway through without my support and guidance. He wasn’t lacking the skills, just the tenacity to finish such a large project.

As with most of our big projects, we broke it down into smaller steps and added a time requirement. He needed to have the top finished before we left for our big trip last summer. That gave him 2 months to finish. He competed it a week before we left.

Binding the Quilt

We didn’t get around to the quilting and binding until seven months later. (I know…we were busy). We had it professionally quilted at our local quilt shop around Thanksgiving, and he worked on the binding throughout the Christmas break (he was in school at that point). Plus, he chose to sew the binding by hand. He said he wanted it to look the best…since he had put so much hard work into it.

I’m happy to add this to his list of project-based learning successes. He was self-directed, but wasn’t allowed to give up when he felt overwhelmed or bored. I was the facilitator (project manager?), but he learned how it felt to complete a large project. And he has a pretty cool quilt too.

Research on the ‘Maker Movement’

The ‘Maker Movement‘ is slowly worming its way into mainstream culture. Maker Faires are being held throughout the country and Etsy is thriving.  Not only do we have a National Week of Making (June 17 -23), but a number of universities are conducting research on the maker movement. Harvard’s ‘Project Zero’ has been collecting data for the last couple of years. While their conclusions are still underway, they recently published a white paper on their preliminary findings.

The kids (ages 9 and 6) as they dismantle an old fan.

The kids (ages 9 and 6) as they dismantle an old fan.

Preliminary Research on the Maker Movement

In the white paper, researchers mentioned the connection between maker ideas and the economy. Most of the press articles connected the maker movement to business. For example, people are excited at the prospect of STEM-trained children. Will the maker movement increase our ability to remain an economic superpower ?

Not surprisingly, that isn’t why I like the maker movement. And it’s not why I became a maker myself.

Thankfully, it seems the research is proving my point. After analyzing articles and books from the last five years, Harvard researchers proceeded to interview maker-educators. They discovered we aren’t consumed with making to increase STEM knowledge. We like the maker aspect because it helps a child recognize the process of creating. They begin to see. They deconstruct objects and build something else. Students become comfortable iterating their designs.

That is not to say that students don’t develop technical skills along the way. But, for the
educators we spoke with, technical skills and expertise are by-products in the service of the
larger outcome of self-development. To focus on STEM skills and the like as the primary
outcome of maker education would be to sadly miss the point—like saying that learning to cut your food with a knife and fork is the most important outcome of eating a nutritious meal. In contrast, what we have been hearing from maker practitioners on the ground is the power of maker-centered learning to help students develop a sense of personal agency, a sense of self-efficacy,and a sense of community.  – White Paper on MakerEd from Project Zero

Finally, I have a voice for the thoughts in my head. It’s not about creating the next tech-maven, it’s about empowering students so they can figure it out on their own.

A picture of homemade cardboard circuit cards to teach about direct current

More Research on the Maker Movement

This article, from the Journal of Pre-Engineering Education Research, describes three elements that comprise a ‘maker’ education: low-cost and available (tech) tools, a community of teachers and business people who are utilizing them, and the ‘maker mindset’ which requires an acceptance of researching, prototyping and iterating their creations.

One of the author’s first citations is from Dr. Montessori.  Dr. Montessori was not the first to use discovery through hands-on materials, but she took it further than anyone at the time. The Montessori Method was a pioneering educational method. Is it any wonder I feel a strong connection to the maker movement?

In addition to the previous two articles, I recently discovered the work of Dr. Kylie Peppler.  Pepper has shown some links between using wearable electronics and an increase in girls’ scientific interest. As a female who found math easy (but boring) in high school, I was thrilled I never had to take it again (thank you, AP Calculus). Therefore, I am fascinated by the idea that perhaps science and math are taught in a way that discourages girls – not because we feel dumb – but rather because we find it uninteresting.  What if upper-level science and math combined art and hands-on creating? Would that bring more girls into STEM-related fields?

Recent findings indicate that introducing such novel, cross-disciplinary technologies can broaden participation, particularly by women. This STEAM (STEM + arts)-powered approach also improves learning outcomes and thus has ramifications that extend beyond the issue of gender in computing.         – IEEE Computer, September 2013

Positive Impact of the Maker Movement

I hope further research shows the positive impact a maker-based education can have on our students. In my most vivid, idealistic dreams I see a lovely vision for the future of public schooling. We start with a Montessori environment, free of standardized tests and homework for PK-6th grade. Those years are followed by a maker-based, project-focused education for grades 7 – 10. The culmination of a student’s twelve years of education would include apprenticeships and gap-year experiences, allowing for some discovery before they go off to college. At that point, they should be more than equipped to choose a major and potential career.

A pipe dream, perhaps? But, it’s looking closer than it did five years ago…

picture of Montessori landforms

In a Montessori curriculum, students use modeling clay and water to recreate land forms.




Book Reviews :: a parent’s guide to the montessori classroom

In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published every Friday. These reviews will cover science education books for and about children, as well as reality-based children’s books for a Montessori lifestyle.

A brief description of the learning that occurs in a Montessori classroom. By Aline Wolf.

A brief description of the learning that occurs in a Montessori classroom by Aline Wolf.

This little booklet was ‘one of many’ lifesavers during my first year as a new Montessori teacher. I was still learning how to facilitate, guide and present the materials to my students and there were days when I found the effort to be futile. Looking back, I still had a lot to internalize – both as a parent and as a teacher. This guide was a short, easy way to reinforce my Montessori purpose – and a great recommendation for parents who were considering the question, “why Montessori?”

Although I love the clear information it gives, prospective parents in today’s landscape might question the seemingly strong focus on “academics.” And, I will admit that I believe unstructured play to be very, very important for young children. Fortunately, I like to think that Dr. Montessori might have felt the same way. She just felt children should do that sort of free play at home – not at school.

The children she “honed her skills with” were poor children who were left to their own devices because their parents worked, in a reckless version of the free-range movement. Slightly older children teaching younger children to roam the streets. Yet Dr. Montessori found that they were craving this intellectual knowledge. They had gotten their fill of free play and were looking for other intellectual outlets. Of course, she did reject those children who could not settle down after a set amount of time, so we can’t exactly trust the ethos that Montessori is for everyone.*

Practical Life activities are an important part of a Montessori primary classroom.

Practical Life activities are an important part of a Montessori primary classroom.

Wolf’s slim book presents such compelling arguments for the practical life and sensorial “works” in a classroom that many parents will happily pay the high price tag of private school to let their children learn how to carefully pour water! The focus and lengthy concentration that three and four year-olds devote to these activities lend themselves to other pursuits. If anything, I think this extreme focus is the value of a Montessori education. The ability to lose oneself in a task – and to repeat it for the sheer joy of learning – is one of most beautiful things a teacher (or parent) can witness.

The focus of this book is the primary classroom, ages three to six, but Wolf briefly mentions the value of a Montessori education for both elementary-aged students and toddlers. She focuses on many of the different aspects of a Montessori primary classroom and to an uninitiated parent, it would seem as if your child will master all of these skills – geography, botany, reading, writing and advanced mathematics. That does set the bar rather high and I would caution perspective parents to view it more as a buffet of choices for your child.

If they are interested in botany, there are a number of materials to support a child’s interest, but most children will not delve deeply into that area. Parents need to understand that there is only so much time in the day and these materials are intended for a 3-year cycle of education. If your child only comes to Montessori at age three and leaves at age four, their education will look different. If they need an extra year to “settle” down, then they will need extra time to cover the other materials.

If you are considering a Montessori education for your child, grab a copy of this book and peruse the aspects of a good Montessori classroom. Not all schools that call themselves “Montessori” are true to her vision or even her philosophy. The very beautiful Montessori school near our area is only a “true” Montessori school through kindergarten. At that point, the children are given homework and the didactic materials disappear by second grade. That’s not to say that it isn’t a high-quality school, just that it succumbs to the pressure of being compatible with the local public schools.

Hopefully, this book can help you to determine if your prospective school is truly a Montessori school – and if you actually want your child to receive a Montessori education.

* If you have the time, check out the “unauthorized” biography by Rita Kramer for a more neutral take on Dr. Montessori and her method of education.

The teacher plays an important role - not for disseminating information, but for guiding a child has they follow their interests.

The teacher plays an important role – not for disseminating information, but for guiding a child as they follow their interests.


Do I need a tutor for my young child?

Most of the time, the answer is no.

Ironically, there are so many answers to that controversial question, but for many of us, the answer is no. Are we worried about the development of our children? Yes. Are we worried that if they don’t master (sight words, blends, subtraction facts, chapter books) by a certain age, they will never catch up? Of course we are concerned. We are parents (and teachers and well-meaning grandparents and friends). That’s what we do. However, the fact that you as a parent are seeking out a tutor implies that you are doing what you need to do as a parent. Unfortunately, it’s the parents who assume that a child only learns from a teacher that is in the most danger as he or she grows up. But, I digress…


If your child is having difficulties – whether with reading or school in general – I would like to recommend that you read two books before seeking out a tutor. From a personal standpoint (and as a Montessori teacher and homeschool parent), these books have been immensely life-changing for my own family. The first book is called Mindset and it’s written by Dr. Carol Dweck.

Dweck is an educational psychologist who studies how and why children succeed in school and life. To sum up her main argument, she found that those people who had a “growth mindset” were more successful in life. A growth mindset encompasses a train of thought that embraces challenges (rather than shying away from them because “they just aren’t my strength”). This mindset also sees effort as the path to mastery, accepts criticism as a way of learning, and finds lessons and inspiration in the success of others. It also tells us why we should never praise our children for being smart or assume that someone else just has “natural talent.”

So, when your child comes home from school on Friday, and you ask how they did on the spelling test, you say, “How did you feel about the spelling test? Did you try your hardest? Were you happy with your results?” You ask this, rather than praising them for only getting 1 wrong, or get angry about them getting 3 wrong. Then, you make a mental note to talk about those words and their meanings at dinnertime (with your spouse) and perhaps your child will join in and point out what she did wrong.

The other book I would recommend (especially for the oldest and only children) is The Birth Order Book by Dr. Kevin Lehman. This book is invaluable for helping those of us firstborns to recognize our own shortcomings as perfectionists with a fear of failure. And, for those of you who are not firstborns, it will help you to recognize why your own firstborn, or only child is struggling (in school, in dance, at home, in homeschool, etc.). They look to the adults as peers and find it exceedingly frustrating that you make it look so darn easy!

In my family, we found these two books extremely useful in helping our energetic and independent-thinking eldest son. We have a printout of the lessons of the growth mindset and routinely invoke that in discussions (with him, with ourselves, at dinner, etc.) We are constantly challenging ourselves to become better – even if it is hard. And, to be able to recognize when it is just a difficult phase of learning – or if perhaps this isn’t that important after all? (A side note: we found this worked well at age 7 and above).

Before engaging a tutor, check out the above-mentioned books and discover if you recognize those behaviors in your children (and yourself). Then, use the helpful hints given in the book to change YOUR mindset and YOUR praise and assistance to help your child overcome his fear. And, if you find that you have changed your mindset and your child is ready to advance her knowledge, then you can happily engage a tutor, and know that your money will be well-spent!

a gift for his teacher

This year Ronan was enrolled in a local Montessori preschool. He went five mornings a week from 9-12, as part of Florida's Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Program. He had a great experience – he enjoyed being there and it jumpstarted him with regards to combining letters to form words (CVC, for those Montessorians). It also allowed me some alone time with just Calum. It was wonderful to be able to give this time to Calum like I had given it to Ronan at that age. While I think there are some things that could use improvement (stricter adherence to the "snack" protocol and more Montessori materials), one of the things that we felt made his year a success was his teacher. She is patient and kind, but firm. She's always available to talk about concerns and she's genuinely excited about learning and that translates to the children. In short, I think she was a major contributor to his success this year. So, of course, we wanted to find a proper way to thank her.


So, we made her a "thank you" book. While I would love to take credit for this lovely idea, I was merely the recipient of such a wonderfully crafted book when I was a Montessori teacher.  It made such a lasting impression on me, that three years later, I thought it would be the perfect gift to give to a wonderful teacher. A way to say thank you – in homemade fashion.




Ronan and I both contributed to this book. I wanted to make sure she understood how important we felt her role was in Ronan's past year. It could have been a bad experience, but he excelled and enjoyed himself. (Plus, we tucked in some gift cards for good measure)!


All of the artwork was done by Ronan (or me). We used sheets of cardboard (from the back of the construction paper collection) for the front and back pieces, which were then painted by Ronan. It was a quick project that we hope had a lasting impression.


our work

this morning…


…an impulse purchase from IKEA. Perhaps you noticed that they're plastic? The very thing I'm trying to avoid. But, the justification?  Oh, it's good.  We've come across this activity twice in the last few weeks. A number of friends have remarked on the hand strengthening that it produces, not to mention the concentration required to create a piece. It's quite in-line with Montessori principles and I have been looking for additional fine motor activities to help Ronan strengthen his hands in preparation for writing. This is a fun start. And, I figured that if we don't melt too many "masterpieces" then we can pass them along and they'll get reused. Right?

…and my curious wee one…


…in motion and into everything. He's been mobile for a long time, but his balance and reach are getting quite high. He still prefers to crawl most places, but he's mastering the art of stopping while walking to regain his balance in order to continue in an upright position. He'll walk across the room now – if he wants to. Of course, he'll walk anywhere in order to get that piece of paper that was just out of reach only a few weeks ago. 

…and a Montessori wrap-up (hopefully)…


…I'm finishing up my geography/history/science albums and the language portfolio. It's been fun to work on these "loose" ends of mine. And, I've thoroughly enjoyed using my teaching brain and getting excited about some new activities and materials to show Ronan. Though, if I see one more phonogram booklet, I really might scream. 

In the end, we're quite happy to be able to do our work on this day. A happy and productive way to boost our brainpower and increase our knowledge. Beautiful.


There's something about observing your child and watching for interest changes and ah-ha moments, well, it just makes this whole parent thing pretty darn good. A month or two ago, Ronan decided that he wanted to get books about letters from the library.

Me: "We're going to the library tomorrow. What would you like to study or learn about this week?"

Ronan: "Letters. I'd like to get books about letters."

Me: "Okay, sounds good."

Wait…until he leaves the room and jump up and down in anticipation. Now, it would be disingenuous to suggest that I haven't introduced letters to him before. (We started with sounds – Montessori-style). But, I have presented letters numerous times and he knew some, but for the most part they just haven't "stuck." He seemed interested in them, loved to trace them as a 3-year-old, but the lowercase sandpaper letters that I made him – they didn't really hold his interest. So, I waited. (Not something my natural Type-A personality likes to do). And, I thought about it.

I decided to go against my Montessori training and introduce both uppercase and lowercase ones at the same time. Alphabet books are in uppercase. So, rather than try to work against the system, maybe he would retain them if he knew the uppercase first. And, after a few weeks of reading these books – and discussing – and a few more repeat episodes of The Letter Factory (egads – it is TV cartoon, but a really, really useful one), and he knows almost all of them.

And what does a frugal, fun-loving mama-teacher do when we need to go to the next level? Cobble together an idea from a variety of sources (friends, family and traditional education) and a homemade alphabet book is born.


A re-purposed binder, some printer paper, lots of stickers, and a collection of grocery store flyers – the perfect tools for a homemade book. We've started with Aa – a nice way to put that pesky alphabet song to good use. (In Montessori, we isolate the vowels in red and consonants in blue – whenever we write – at least for the first year. The rationale being that the vowels are much trickier to hear and notice when breaking down the letters in a word).

And, if you have no stickers or cutouts for your letter? What does your creative child do when you go to check on his younger brother?


You draw a dinosaur, of course.

letter recognition

Between the scorching heat and the thunderstorms, we've been spending a lot more time indoors lately. I hadn't realized how much time we were spending outside until I found myself scrambling for indoor activities. Thankfully, my brain has decided to start functioning again and I find myself with a wee bit of time in the evenings that wasn't there a few weeks ago. I've been knitting – yay! – and brainstorming new activities for Ronan.  I felt that some painting was in order. So, we broke out the easy watercolors -  because I don't have that much time – and got down to business.



I made a rubbing from the sandpaper letters that I had made previously and then traced them and eventually made a nice set for copying. I love that he is doing something fun – and I get to join him. We also talked about how to hold a paintbrush, all while calling the letters by their sounds. We are finishing up with this group of sandpaper letters and this is just repetition – another way to present the letters and "set" them in the brain. In Montessori's method, she recommended starting out with lowercase letters since most of the words in books are lowercase. (Traditionally, they start with cursive letters as well, but most of the American Montessori schools begin with print – again, the theory being that books are printed in manuscript).


A fun activity with a little bit of 'traditional' learning snuck in…not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Montessori Octahedron Mobile


Ironically, this was the second Montessori book I ever read – before I had children. I was weeding the education section at the community college library where I worked and stumbled across a lot of books written by or about this person called Montessori.

I opened up these books to determine if the information was still accurate and ended up checking out most of them to take home and read at leisure (definitely before I had kids). After discovering that she had been around for quite a while, I had a hard time understanding how I could have missed Dr. Montessori’s writings. I hold a minor in secondary education and we had discussed Piaget and his writings ad nauseam. Piaget was a student of Montessori – why were her observations omitted?

Needless to say, I was hooked on this “new” way of thinking – respect the child, follow their interests and address them in a non-condescending manner. I knew this was how I wanted to raise my own children.

And while I had Montessori in mind when Ronan was born, we did not implement the ideas in the book. I hadn’t found my creative side yet- it was dormant beneath years of status quo – and so we didn’t implement anything Montessori in our home until Ronan was about 20 months-old.

With Calum, we hope to start a bit earlier. He’s been enjoying his Montessori-inspired fish mobile, but it is time to change his mobile and once again I came across Montessori From the Start. So, this weekend I made him a new mobile :: octahedrons.


Here’s what the book says about baby mobiles:
“For the first few months, a mobile over the child-bed helps to develop the baby’s abilities to explore     the world visually. The baby gradually develops focus on a moving object, tracking of an object, and     perception of color and depth. The mobile is changed every two weeks or so to accommodate the         infant’s habituation to that particular mobile and to match her progressive visual development.             Hence, the first mobile portrays flat, black and white geometric shapes and reflected light from a         glass sphere. Subsequent ones are introduced in ordered sequence: three octahedrons of colored         metallic paper, ideally each in a primary color; five Styrofoam balls covered with embroidery thread     in gradations of the same color and hung in ascending order from darkest to lightest; stylized paper     figurines of light metallic colored paper that move with the slightest current of air; and finally,             stylized wooden figures painted in pastel colors” (Montessori From the Start, p. 44)


It seems that this mobile is should have been introduced a month ago for Calum, but I think he can still appreciate the shape and colors. The next mobile is this one, and I think I just might cheat and buy this lovely version at Etsy.



for the weekend

On the docket for this weekend: out-of-town friends, a zoo visit, and some mama-crafting! Heck, the house is already (mostly) clean, I may just party all weekend.

Well, except for the laundry. But, that doesn't count.

Here's a little preview:



Have a wonderful weekend.