Books are a beloved and important way for children to explore the world around them. In the Montessori classroom for children under 6, there are specific criteria for books, including:
- Books that have a variety of styles of prose and esthetically appealing illustration styles.
- Books that relate to the child’s own life and expand their understanding of the experiences of others.
- Books that can be looked at or read independently.
- Books that convey a sense of joy and appreciation for life and the world around them.
To get more insight into this topic, we recently had a conversation with Sarah Rinzler, a self proclaimed bibliophile and recent MNW graduate, who became “hooked” on Montessori when looking into preschools for her son. Sarah, who is currently an assistant at Chestnut Grove Montessori, shared some of her tips and insights about embracing books with children both at school and home.
What do you see as the characteristics of a really great book for a Montessori Children’s House classroom?
I will admit that I do “judge books by their covers.” Or at least, it is the cover art that first draws me to a new book. Beautiful, interesting, unique illustrations are important to me in choosing books. Attractive pictures are more likely to entice children to explore with books on their own, especially if they are not yet reading. I also strive to find books with a variety of art styles and which depict the wide array of settings and cultures present in the child’s world and the world as a whole.
Selecting books with rich language and vocabulary is also important, but variety is important too so I want to strike an overall balance with some books with simple text, others more poetic or rhythmic. I also look for books that are funny! There’s nothing better than making a group of children laugh.
In terms of a book for the classroom, it’s almost always essential that the book to be based in reality, with context that the children can relate to. I don’t discount books that have fantastical elements like talking animals, princesses or superheroes, but if I did read this type of book I would be sure to consider my audience and have conversations with the children about which themes are realistic and which aren’t. I don’t believe that a child who reads “The Cat in the Hat” will believe that cats can talk that Thing One and Thing Two may one day show up at his doorstep, but I would take a moment to acknowledge this.
I also prefer books whose goal is not to “teach a lesson.” Children don’t learn how to act from hearing a story that tells them how to behave; they learn from their own experiences.
You wear two hats, one as a mom to a 5 year old and one as a recently trained Montessori who is entering the classroom. How do you decide if a book is a good fit for the home vs the classroom?
In the home, I personally feel that we don’t need to shield children from fairy tales. I think it’s a losing battle, because at some point or another they’re going to be exposed to them. At Nana’s, for example, at a friend’s house, at the library, it’s going to happen. They will find a book that teaches them that all girls aspire to be princesses who wait around for their whole lives for a knight in shining armor to come and make them happy! And I actually think it’s great when that happens, because then you have a golden OPPORTUNITY to talk about the ideas in those books, and talk about why you may not (or maybe you do!) agree with that philosophy on life.
So much of Montessori education is based on the idea of exposing children to situations that will give them the opportunity to practice cognitive and social skills so that they develop independently. We sort of guide them into these situations that secretly turn out to be “learning experiences.” We can’t teach them self-control, for example, but we can put them in situations in which they need to control themselves. They learn self-control by experiencing it. Along those lines, books and stories can help them experience some things about life that can translate really well into opportunities for helping them learn about life.
This can lead to some great, and sometimes hilarious, conversations about life and how to treat people and how not everyone is nice all the time. My five year old son told me that he thought Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker in James and the Giant Peach were so mean because their underpants were too tight. It’s kind of silly, but the point is that, here we see something happening that we don’t like, and don’t want to see in our children. So, let’s take this chance to talk to them about it. Now, that doesn’t mean that we will read these kinds of books at school. All of this stuff I’ve been talking about really applies to YOU at home (families and caretakers), and what kinds of stories YOU are comfortable sharing with your children, and how much “real life” YOU want to dive into with them.
What’s your favorite way to find new, wonderful books?
In general, as I mentioned, I wander around and pick up books that appeal to me aesthetically. My favorite haunts are the Library, Kids at Heart, and Powell’s. I do have enough of a collection now that I will also explore what’s new by my son's and my favorite authors. I pass around books and recommendations with my parent friends (this is such a great resource!) and always look for used copies at bookstores and online.
Dip into a treasure trove of book ideas for the Montessori 3-6 environment by visiting our Primary Course Assistant lists on Powells.com - Casa Friendly Books to Share