Aimee Hawker was running a Montessori program in West Vancouver, but she decided there was a need in the Comox Valley, where she grew up.
In July, she opened the doors to Little Llama Montessori Academy in downtown Courtenay. Already, she has students from two to five, but she points out that with the high demand for child care and pre-school, there is currently space available in her program, at least for now.
Of course, the program is different from daycare programs. She decided on the Montessori approach after seeing the effects it had on her nieces when they were small.
“I couldn’t believe how far they’d come,” she says.
The program is based around the ideas of Maria Montessori, an Italian education pioneer who came up with very different approaches for educating children. At the heart of this is a child-centre approach in which the children zoom in on activities that interest them and work in open rooms at child-sized tables and chairs — another one of her ideas — or in particular floor spaces where they lay down their own work mat.
At one table, a little girl is busy cleaning a small pair of shoes. At another, a child practices pouring. Some of the activities emphasize practical home activities.
“Things also mimic the home environment,” Hawker says.
It if sounds like work for children, it’s not. It is aimed at encouraging children to recognize they are part of a bigger family as well as get them to understand the importance of process and doing things the right way.
“Everything has a sequence of order,” Hawker says.
It is pretty clear the kids are focused and content at learning the tasks, as well as making sure to clean up their areas when done. They end the day with a song and movement exercise, “Sleeping Bunnies,” which the kids can’t wait to start.
The idea is that students learn at their own pace and in their own way while getting some guidance from the teacher.
“If the child likes something, they’ll repeat it,” Hawker says.
Lately, the children have been learning about the butterfly life cycle. There is also attention to the basics around literacy and numeracy, but the classroom finds ways for the children to incorporate that into practical activities rather than through abstract curriculum material in book form only. For example, the youngsters are learning about the alphabet using sandpaper letters, which are cards with the letters on them laid down with a rough, sandy texture. Such activities are mapped out in a big book of lessons.
A key idea with the approach is to have the children spot their own errors rather than relying on the instructor to point this out and correct. The teacher also tends to give individual lessons for each child or respond if they need help.
“We really foster independence,” Hawker says.
Other values such as grace and courtesy, knowing how to ask for things and exist with others, kindness and listening are parts of the program. Hawker likens it to freedom with ground rules. As well, the older children in the room often act as mentors for the younger ones, as the younger ones watch and learn.
“It’s a beautiful way for children to go and mentor each other,” Hawker says.
A goal is to instill a sense of order and independence in each child. The Montessori approach is aimed at the whole child: physical, social, emotional and cognitive development — in other words, those domains that form the basis of the Early Development Instrument (EDI) used by educators to identify children who might be falling behind in certain areas while they are still young.
Hawker, who is from the Comox Valley, has worked with children for more than 20 years. She did her AMI Montessori Primary training in Vancouver and her early childhood educator (ECE) training at the Pacific Rim Early Childhood Institute, then worked in other communities before deciding it was time to come back home to set up the Little Llama program.
For more information, see www.littlellamamontessori.com/