Montessori de la Condesa-February 14, 2023

Between seven months and six years of age is a sensitive period for language and early literacy development, one that Maria Montessori described as “a window of time in which a child’s interests are focused on developing a certain skill, like a spotlight illuminating an area of development.” During this time, Montessori believed that children are “drawn to language and words like moths to a flame” and are particularly excited about identifying objects, rhyming words, and repeating words, especially in the earlier part of this period. According to Montessori, supporting children during the sensitive period for language means telling oral stories, naming objects around us, using real words for things, singing songs, reading poems and books aloud, and having rich conversations throughout the day. These events and behaviours were certainly observed during my visit to Montessori de la Condesa in Mexico City. 

Nestled in La Condesa, an area of Mexico city with tree-lined streets, art-deco apartments, and trendy cafes, Montessori de la Condesa (MDLC) was the first Montessori school in the area when it opened to the community in 1996. Founded by Carmen Ramos Méndez G. and Günther Wilfinger, MDLC’s philosophy stems from Maria Montessori’s primary goals of providing a secure environment for children to follow their needs and interests and develop their self-confidence, independence, and self-regulation. MDLC comprises of two buildings (the second opened just two years ago) and 288 students who can be found working, playing, and learning in the Children’s Community (ages 1-3), Children’s House (ages 3-5), and Workshop (ages 6 to 12).

Children’s Community, Montessori de la Condesa, La Condesa

I was extremely fortunate to visit MDLC multiple times over the course of a few weeks, talk to the English teachers about their literacy perspectives, converse with Carmen Ramos Méndez, the school director and CEO, and observe three different environments: the children’s or infant community, the kindergarten classroom, and the upper primary class. These visits broadened my understanding of Montessori education and helped me realize some of the subtle differences across contexts and how the English teachers at MDLC are finding ways to mesh English instruction with Montessori traditions. 

Each environment had materials lining the shelves, laid out in such a way as to provoke interest and coincide with the developmental stage of the children in the room. In the infant community, for instance, I observed a young child independently unroll an apron before pulling it over his head, carefully take a funnel from the table and use it to fill a glass vase with water before placing a cut flower in the vase. At the same time, several other children engaged in literacy and math-related activities at small wooden tables, bringing trays of materials to a designated spot before immersing themselves in the task-at-hand. These provocations were easily accessible and already seemed familiar to the children. The teachers in the three environments, known as guides and assistants, attentively observed the children and stepped in to support their learning when needed. At least one guide in each room sat one-on-one with a child who was working on writing, cutting, and drawing, and at times, a guide sat back taking meticulous notes on observed behaviours. 

In the kindergarten and upper primary classes, the English teacher worked with a small group of children in a designated area. The main focus of these small instructional groups was vocabulary building—the explicit teaching of familiar objects, mostly tier one words (for more on tiered words see my previous blog post on becoming word conscious). For instance, in the kindergarten classroom, the English teacher used several small objects, like carrots, footballs, and trees to not only name the objects but also use comparative adjectives to describe the differences in size. In the infant community I had the privilege of observing the English coordinator, Kimberly Sharon Winters work with a group of nine toddlers. Kimberly sat in a tiny chair, as did the children all grouped together in a circle. She sang songs with the children, pointed to pictures and illustrations in books, and identified objects—naming objects and relating those objects and words to ideas the children might already know. This all took place in English, the majority of the children’s second language. 

I especially loved observing the children in the infant community, partly because my son Eli is nearly the same age but also because of the amazing feat of language development (Kimberly was also so engaging and responsive to the children). Learning multiple languages at such a young age has incredible cognitive advantages, particularly related to the areas of the brain involved in executive functioning, like problem-solving, sustaining attention, inhibition, and switching between two tasks. Dr. Ellen Bialystok talks about the cognitive advantages of learning more than one language and how language learning engages and exercises the brain, and in fact changes the brain. The earlier the better, but a second or fifth language can certainly be learned and mastered at any age. A child’s brain is just a bit more plastic or flexible since so much brain activity is taking place anyway.

I’m incredibly grateful for the warm welcome I received from Carmen, Kimberly, and all the educators, staff, and children at MDLC. I gained new knowledge about Montessori education and language development from my visits and teacher interviews and felt inspired by the enthusiasm and passion of the educators. I look forward to sharing more about the teachers’ literacy perspectives and instructional approaches in a near future article. 


Montessori de la Condesa