By Bernadine Rodrigo
Nirmalee Gupta, with over 50 years’ experience in Montessori education, most of which she acquired in the US, opened the All ‘Bout Children Montessori on 31 January 2020 at the Montessori building leased to her by the Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind (CSDB) in Ratmalana.
Although the building of the Montessori is affiliated to the CSDB, and the opening ceremony was graced by Church of Ceylon Bishop of Colombo Rt. Rev. Dhiloraj Canagasabey as the Chief Guest along with CSDB Chairman (will be adding name), Gupta’s Montessori is for any and all toddlers just beginning to experience the outer world. Gupta had understood a long time ago that the system of preschool education has become a far more structural and competitive process than what Dr. Maria Montessori – the pioneer of encouraging toddler education, after whom the philosophy of early childhood education was named – would have intended.
Children aren’t taught basic things, but instead are thrown into a rigid and sometimes unpleasant environment where they have to perform distinct tasks as ordered by the teacher, thus hindering their independence and, most importantly, desire to learn new things.
Gupta, after having received her school education at Good Shepherd Convent in Kotahena, went onto follow the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) Teacher Training course offered at St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo 7 for two years. She says the true requirement to be a qualified Montessori teacher is actually intensive training of two years rather six months. She believes the course offered at St. Bridget’s is indeed the best in the country, a few of the reasons being that the certificate is offered from Holland and the degree is accepted worldwide.
When she moved to Minnesota with her husband, she had all the expertise she needed to start her own Montessori there. Her way of conducting the school is not of the mainstream preschool education system. While many common nursery schools are profit-gaining institutions of the service sector, Gupta’s has always been a non-profit organisation. This is not the only difference; as she did not want to follow the same method of the teacher dictating the entire classroom, she chose to allow student to choose what he or she wants to do and simply show them how to do it.
The knowledge, Gupta believes, is a present which must be presented to the child, and a present is only truly gifted with a full heart. If children simply duplicate what the instructor is showing them, they will not learn anything with joy, and that knowledge will not last with them forever, according to Gupta. The children need to be motivated to learn, and that can only be done if they are able do what they truly feel motivated to do.
Just like this concept she followed in Minnesota, where the children even said they wanted to come to school during the weekends, she ensures All ‘Bout Children truly is all about the children in Sri Lanka. The children are allowed to do what they want. Apart from the basic education of learning numbers and letters is provided by helping children trace the figures of the number and letters – letters with the sound instead of its name, creating a muscle memory of the figure rather than just a notation of its name – other basic day-to-day activities such as tidying up, pouring the right amount of water into containers, cutting vegetables, etc. are also taught at the school. The children get to choose whatever activity they would like to participate in.
As they do this, they approach a directress, currently including Gupta and a few close colleagues, and ask them politely if they could show them how to do it. The children are encouraged to use proper and polite ways of speaking, such as “could you please help me with this” when they need help or “would you like some?” after they are done, so as to inculcate good manners and etiquette at a tender age.
Children are also taught to clean up after themselves, which they are most likely to do gladly after having performed an activity which they chose for themselves. This personal care routine the children learn, Gupta believes, makes them more independent. While this learning is the direct purpose of the daily activity education provided at the Montessori, there is also an indirect purpose, Gupta enlightened. For instance, if the child wishes to clean a table, he or she is taught to do it using both left and right hands in a circular movement, therefore allowing the child to be stimulated in many ways and develop faster. This method is applied to all children, including the differently abled and children with special needs.
Another indirect purpose is that children learn to feel included as well as include anyone else, who if put into separate schools may forever learn to be excluded from society. Nevertheless, the primary goal is to allow the child to do whatever they please, allowing them to explore their minds and discover new ideas.
While many people might think that children lack the capacity to think broadly at this age, Gupta says otherwise. “Children are always learning at this age (aged between two-and-a-half and five). They are very keen on learning new things at these ages. They learn from everything they see – watching their parents do things, observing things that occur around them, and so on.”
Gupta uses the example of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of the world’s most well-known search engine, Google, whom she charmingly refers to as “the Google boys” to explain the importance of freedom in Montessori. She says while they founded Google in their 30s, their inspiration and ability to think creatively came for their formative years. When they were asked how they were led to coming up with Google, she recalls: “They said ‘our Montessori let us do whatever we wanted’.”