Advocates say libertarian educational approach gives children more leeway to self-actualise
Respect for the child is very central in the montessori environment.
French-Cambodian Muoy You, director of the nursery and day care centre Seametrey Children’s Village, has only one ambition, albeit a challenging one: the moral reconstruction of Cambodia.
Knowing what you want is half of the battle, but where does one start? She believes it all happens during early education, and more specifically, one with a Montessorian approach – observing and supporting the natural development of children, rather than a formal system for training in academic studies.
The basis of Montessori practice in the classroom is child-centred individual choice of research and work, and uninterrupted concentration as opposed to group lessons led by an adult. The Montessori curriculum is followed with emphasis on child individuality and so-called “sensitive” periods.
English is considered particularly important, and it is hoped that with volunteer help, the children will be bilingual by the age of 7. Knowledge of the English language opens up a wide range of employment opportunities in Cambodia.
In Phnom Penh there are only two schools that label themselves Montessorian. One of them is Muoy’s school, and the other is Montessori Kindergarten.
“Montessori says that a child from birth to the age of 6 is a mind absorbing everything from the environment. The child has her own pace of development, so you have to observe her, evaluate at what stage she is and then prepare the environment accordingly,” Muoy said.
To that purpose, the Montessorian approach makes use of specifically designed materials to help the child discover on his own, such as sandpaper letter printouts and the famous Montessori pink tower, a block structure used to increase coordination and develop concepts of numerology and dimension.
The idea behind Montessori learning is that the child thinks he’s free to do what he wants, but there’s an educational purpose behind each of the pre-selected materials available to play with.
However, as the environment also includes peers, the Montessorian approach puts great emphasis on mixing children of different ages and from various cultural and social backgrounds, just like in the outside community.
This emphasis is reflected at Seametrey Children’s Village – most children are Cambodian, but there are also foreign children of different nationalities. The foreign parents pay full fees, whereas Cambodian parents pay half, and poor families whatever they can afford.
“I think it’s very important to mix the children, so they don’t discriminate when they grow up,” said 26-year-old Panha Meas, one of the teachers at Seametrey.
“The children are born innocent – it’s the adults that make them discriminate,” he added.
However, with its strong child-centred approach, Montessori is sometimes criticised for being too liberal. How then to find that precious balance between freedom and discipline?
“Respect for the child is very central in the Montessori environment, but it doesn’t mean that we turn the children into tyrants. The respect is mutual,” Muoy said.
Australian Kathryn Bice sends her two children to the school. She said she feels a traditional, highly disciplined environment would have been a shock for her two children.
“I feel that the emphasis on individual learning, cooperation and responsibility was a very good introduction to the educational process,” she said.
French parents Pierre and Marie-Dominique also noticed that the Montessori method triggered an increase in creativity and free expression with from two children at Seametrey.
Living in Malawi before moving to Cambodia, they felt frustrated with their children’s former school, where free drawing and painting were not emphasised.
“After the first few months in Cambodia she was coming back with really beautiful drawings, so I thought, if she would be unhappy her drawings would not be so colourful, and it was nice that she got that space to express herself,” Marie-Dominique said of 5-year-old Nina.
On the other hand, Pierre feels that the lack of a formal class setup might hamper the process of making friends.
“It means they don’t end up with the same children every day all the time, which may delay the integration,” he said. “But maybe it’s also an opportunity for us to change our own views on what really matters at school,” he adds.
Montessori’s focus on not only academic achievements but also the social and emotional development of children convinces Muoy that it’s very effective in her quest for the moral reconstruction of Cambodia.
“Some schools talk about academic excellence. I want to talk about human excellence, because Cambodia needs that,” she said.
“And in order to achieve that you have to start with early education.”