Written by Nelinia Cabiles, Managing Editor, Lanai Today. Photography by Ron Gingrich and Nelinia Cabiles.
Originally published in the October 2022 issue of Lanai Today.
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The morning light streams through a wall of windows in the toddler classroom at Hala Kahiki Montessori School of Lanai. The room is spacious, bright, and designed with a purpose, with low wooden shelves, perfectly sized for toddlers, as are the sinks and the chairs and tables at several work stations. It is a toddler’s world – tactile, sensory, engaging.
One toddler is washing a dish in a small sink of soapy water; another is picking up pieces of colored felt that have been cut into various shapes. Another has arranged dolls in a vee at a table where he sits. He peers into the face of the firefighter doll for a few seconds, his expression thoughtful, as though he wants to ask the doll a question.
All toddlers are completely engrossed in their work. A feeling of calm pervades the classroom, perhaps the natural effect of the room’s muted wood tones; perhaps a result of orderliness and simplicity that come from a well-designed space.
“We try our best to model the calmness, to have the environment give them that,” says Karen Cuevas, head of school, and guide for toddlers, ages eighteen months to three years. (Guide is the Montessori term for teacher.) “We want to limit distractions on the wall and bright colors,” which can be overly-stimulating, she says.
But it is not just the sense of calmness that distinguishes the learning spaces at Hala Kahiki Montessori School from traditional classrooms. It is also the methods of instruction, ones that guide children in the critical formative years (birth to six years) to develop independence and focus and become self-directed, self-motivated learners. “We want to see children leave here knowing how to find the answers, how to be problem-solvers,” says Susan Book, primary guide for children, ages three to six years.
The Hala Kahiki Montessori School, located at 245 Houston Street, opened September 20, 2022, for children, ages eighteen months to six years. The two classrooms are a mix of children of different ages, seen as a benefit that encourages what Book calls distributive cognition: learning from others in one’s environment.
It is learning that includes academic work and respecting personal boundaries and developing empathy. Cuevas most joyful moment as a teacher has been seeing her toddlers “start taking care of each other. A child might come in upset and crying. We have them sit to calm down. And then a child will come with a tissue and pat the crying child. That sense of empathy. It’s amazing.”
It is also learning that encompasses tasks, such as filling the dishwasher, putting away dishes, straightening and dusting the shelves. “We design the space,” says Cuevas, “but they take care of it. They gain a sense of ownership of where they are. They’re doing something for themselves and their peers.”
“Children model for each other. They learn how their actions teach others. That’s very much highlighted in the classroom,” says Book. “The expectation is for them to be role models. They learn to have pride in that. Some of them are just shining right now.”
Cuevas’ toddlers “are still learning to interact with peers,” she says. “They’re teaching each other, and learning independence, how to get in and out of situations. They’re problem-solving and building language.”
In a typical class, one adult is sitting down and watching, “and that observation guides us to know what the child needs next,” says Book. “Observation is super key. The materials have a natural control of error, broken down from simple to complex,” a progression that has a logical sequence and builds more concentration.
Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor, developed her educational approach a century ago, focusing on the social-emotional sphere of learning.
When asked what traits are emphasized in a Montessori education, both Cuevas and Book answered thoughtfully, underscoring empathy and self-control. “A love of learning, global citizenship, respect, inclusion,” Book says.
These are values that mattered a century ago and still matter, ones that will resonate in the young minds at Hala Kahiki Montessori School and be reflected, when they are older, one hopes, in the kind of world they will build for themselves and for each other.