With our family exploring the possibility of spending next Winter in the Alps, I was interested to hear that a Montessori school had opened in the Chamonix Valley. With education being such a contentious point for families making the leap abroad, we jumped at the opportunity for our girls to have a half-day taster session whilst recently on holiday in Chamonix.
Set in an idyllic wooden chalet at the foot of goliath ski mountain, Les Grands-Montets in Argentiére, Peter and Julia Anderson, teach up to 24 children in an entirely revolutionary way. Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman in Italy to become a physician, founded the Montessori education methods in 1907 from scientific observation of children's learning processes and her discovery that children teach themselves.
After googling the Montessori principles, I’m intrigued to see how they're put into practice in reality. The next morning we find the school – a beautiful stone & wood chalet set amid tall fir trees with a petite stable housing two ponies, a couple of cheeky goats and a brood of pecking hens. We arrive a little nervously to a warm welcome by Pete and as he asks a couple of the older girls to give Bo & Minnie a guided tour of the ‘school’ (chalet), Pete explains that the children come in anytime from 8.00 - 8.30am to plan their lessons which start at 9.00am. One of the core concepts of Montessori is to foster independence of the children & to give a ‘choice of activities within limits’. We watch as some of the kids write up on a blackboard, under their name, the subjects they’d like to study that day. Wow.
The school has both English speaking and French speaking teachers. Lessons are conducted in English in the morning & French in the afternoon. Scott & I settle in a corner of the classroom, flies on the wall, to observe for half an hour before leaving. I serruptiously take in my surroundings - shelves upon shelves of materials are neatly piled up against the wooden walls, the children seem full of purpose and quietly go about their business setting up mats on the floor and laying out materials, or gathering in a corner and discussing a project they’re working on. What strikes me is the calm atmosphere - no shouting or hullabuloo.
Pete pairs an older girl to each of mine. Bo, my 5 year old, and her partner are setting out a maths lesson. They pore over the floor carefully putting the materials in place – long wooden strips of differing lengths. Minnie, meanwhile, is also fully engrossed in a maths lesson. She’s bent over counting out beads, learning about volume. Everything I see is visual and creative. Little pods of activity hum with energy and there’s a palpable will to learn. Pete is not standing in front of the class teaching, but moves around the classroom guiding where necessary and offering advice. He is greeted with absolute respect and the buzz of the classroom is positively uplifting. The children are trusted to get on with it, and incredibly they do.
After a quick confer with Pete, the girl helping Bo selects the next lesson- a mash up of English, French and Biology. She starts by lifting Bo onto a stool to show her one of the two school horses happily munching on hay not 20 metres from the window. Next Bo’s handed ten or so laminated squares printed with a horse outline. Various parts of the horse have been coloured in red. The task is to match the body part with the French/ English word. Bo needs a bit of help with this as in the UK she’s still only learning to read, but she doesn’t seem to be out of her depth at all, and she’s fully connected to the activity. Activities are kept short to keep kids tuned in. As soon as they lose interest, they can switch to something else.
I try to absorb it all. It seems clear as day when seeing it in practice. After 10 minutes of observation – I totally get it. I love seeing my girls so engaged. So easy, so obvious - nurturing creativity, stimulating independent thinking, and allowing children to grow at their own rate. My lingering thought is how sad this kind of education comes with a price tag and not readily available to every child.
It’s with a cacophony of excitement that Scott and I drive down to Chamonix for a coffee to discuss what we’ve just witnessed.
Something that doesn’t sit well with me in the UK is the consistent vigorous testing of children now from 4 years old. The new government regulations are crushing creativity in schools and are disabling teachers. Montessori differs from this hardcore testing approach by looking long term. Instead of testing every year, it’s done at the end of 6 years at 12 years old. This longevity approach translates into seemingly zero stress in the classroom. This is exactly the impression I get in Pete’s classroom - oodles of time – no anxiety – pas du stress. The children seem kind and respectful with a concrete self-belief, that at such a young age is enviable. Picking the girls up later, I leave with a sense of wonderment, an image detailed in my mind of the self assured young women my girls could become with such an education.
Of course the skeptic still fires off questions such as "won't there be holes in their education if the kids can simply 'opt out' of subjects they don't want to study?", "What happens at age 12 when the Montessori method simply stops?", "Could I put faith in a system which wouldn't actually test my child's results until so far down the line?" I've merely dipped my toe into Montessori so these questions are completely natural and Pete is more than approachable to discuss these and more. Overall, I'm seriously impressed and I can see my girls thriving here.
Are we still interested in putting our girls into this school for the Winter? Definitely! With a philosophy of “to teach children to love to learn” what is not to love about this school? I am frankly blown away!
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The Family Freestylers are us - the Nixon family, who relish travel adventures both near & far