Independence is a Gift

One of Maria Montessori’s greatest insights was that children were born with a natural desire to learn. They didn't need to be forced to learn, or even - and, this will be a topic for another time - instructed. They were, to use a phrase, born with the capacity for independence, for exploration, discovery and self-directed learning. They simply needed an environment in which they were allowed to follow their interests, one that provided just the right amount of nurture, support and guidance. 

At the end of the day, however, we don’t live in a world made for children. We live in a world that’s created for adults, by adults. As a child, it can be extremely overwhelming to try to navigate that world, a world at least five times their size. Picture that for moment. Imagine sitting in a room, perhaps the one you are in now, seated in thrones made for kings and queens.

You would feel out of place: awkward, frustrated, uncomfortable, tentative. In a very real way, you would feel unsure of your movements, let alone your thoughts. Well, at least most of us would. (Wink, wink.) Mainly, we would feel out of sync, because our expectations of what things should be like are suddenly misaligned with how things are, i.e.: some of us were not born to adorn royal thrones.

Now, keeping that thought in mind, try for a moment to put yourself in your child’s shoes. Try to imagine how they experience the world, from their eye-level, with their muscular strength, with their fine motor skills, etc. If, as adults, we find the task difficult, imagine how arduous it will be for them.

Independence, then, is the bridge to empower children to become who they wish to become: with confidence, determination, and a sense of hope. Our task, then, is to provide the environment in which children are afforded the opportunity to become independent, whether this is as simple as making sure everything is just their size, and tensile strength, or taking things further, and instilling them with the confidence that anything is possible.

As Montessori never tired of showcasing, how we help children, as adults, is not by overtly helping them, i.e.: stepping in and doing things for them. Rather, it's by creating moments of independence. These beautiful bursts of self-demonstration, of self-learning, where children open the gift of independence...

Profile Charlotte Wood

What can we say about Charlotte Wood. She’s in the DNA of the Baan Dek Montessori. Charlotte joined us four years ago as a primary guide. We can still remember greeting her at the airport, as she made her way down the escalator, embarking on an unknown and yet to be determined adventure - in, of all places, the wonderful city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Charlotte took a leap of faith in joining us, one in which we’ll always remember and forever appreciate. It’s been a great ride so far, and, as we always like to say, “we’re just getting started”.

Originally from California, where she herself attended Montessori as a child, Charlotte completed her Association Montessori Internationale training in Portland, Oregon. Having spent time as a guide in Germany, as well as in a public Montessori school in Milwaukee, WI, she joined the Baan Dek team with a wealth of diverse experience: primarily, in a private school and a public school setting. Over the years, we’ve learned a lot from Charlotte, and look forward to learning more, together. Charlotte’s the type of person who is as principled as she is passionate, as collaborative and humble as she is awesome. She’d say we need to sprinkle a little glitter on that statement. We sat down with Charlotte and had a little conversation that we would love to share with you.

Q: Can you describe yourself - you know, in a nutshell?

A: I never would have expected that I would grow up to be a teacher in Sioux Falls, but I’m delighted to be at Baan Dek! I’m thankful to have had Montessori be my first educational experience. Without a doubt, my favorite part of my job is getting to experience the discoveries the children make every day.

Q: We interviewed a lot of people for this position, but we knew immediately that you were the right fit. You decided to throw caution to the wind to come work with us at a time when we weren’t by any means favored in the Montessori community - namely, with our involvement in Montessorium. Why? Can you speak about your decision to come here? We know it wasn’t for the weather!

A: First of all, I was never supposed to be teacher. I was supposed to be an opera diva, live out of a suitcase, and sing at the New York City opera. I wanted to sing all of the operas. That was going to be me.

Q: Of course! We can see that! What changed? (By the way, you’re still a Diva to everyone at Baan Dek.)

A: The unjustness of the audition process. I couldn’t have a career that was solely based on someone else’s opinion of me. I needed work in which I was rewarded based on my hard work. For awhile I worked in human resources, but found myself teaching in every position I was in. I figured I knew I wasn’t going to be a traditional education teacher, because I didn’t have a traditional education experience. The answer was Montessori, and I thought, that’s what I’m going to do, because I like children so much!

Q: Can you tell us more about this process? Or, should we say, transformation?

A: Sure. Initially, I got my AMI training so I could teach internationally.

Q: We should mention that there’s something pretty spectacular in thinking that the pedagogical standards of Baan Dek, since we are a part of the Association Montessori Internationale, are the same as you would find in London, Tokyo, Berlin, etc. Which is one of the many aspects that make trained directresses so highly sought after...

A: Exactly. There was just something about Europe, that called me at that time. I wanted to move there forever! I had been to Germany, and started looking for schools there. For a time, I was a guide at a German Montessori school. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an authentic Montessori school, so I began to look elsewhere. I had experience with the language, but I lived in an area where the dialect was very strong. It was rough! Yet, I really liked their doner kebab, and I still miss parts of that experience.

Q: Can you tell us about your switch to a public Montessori school in Milwaukee?

A: The public Montessori teachers that I worked with in Milwaukee were extremely innovative. They had to keep the Montessori principles alive and adhere to them, while at the same time creating ways to meet public standards. Needless to say, a challenge! It was a really valuable experience, and unlike anything I’d ever done before. I had 35 children in my class, and there were four other primary teachers, as well as a lower and upper elementary. The school was huge, and to be honest, it felt like boot camp!

Q: Wow, very different than Baan Dek! How did your education, as a Montessori student, coupled with your eventual Montessori training, affect your experience?

A: I think the fact that I went to a Montessori school means that I don’t really need to focus on how to use the materials, but how to meet the needs of these specific children. The act of doing the binomial cube, for example, is ingrained in me. How I show it to individual children differs.

Q: Indeed. Can we ask? Why Baan Dek? You could teach anywhere!

A: The week after my Baan Dek interview, I went to D.C. to interview at a different school. Between the interviews, I visited my mom and was so enthusiastic about Baan Dek; about the people, their vision, and the projects they had in mind. But it was in Sioux Falls. Then I went to the school in D.C, where I thought everything would be ideal. There was no sense of community, no sense of kindness and camaraderie within the team, and I figured out that Bobby and June are people I want to work for and work with. Although I visited Sioux Falls at the ugliest time of year, April, and wasn’t enthusiastic about the climate, I told myself I could do anything.

Q: Well, that’s pretty nice to hear. Thank you.

A: For me the human component is so huge! Who I work with and who I work for matters a lot.

Q: What’s your favorite memory of your time at Baan Dek?

A: I don’t know, there’s the best moment of every day! I think every time I see one of my children growing. Like today, a child said “You can do it, I know you can do it!” to another child who was trying to complete a new activity. That, for me, is my favorite moment.

Q: You have an amazing rapport with children. It can’t be one sided; how does that relationship affect you?

A: Like why do I do this? I think it’s because they don’t even know what is going to come from them. Sitting there watching them put things together, thinking they can’t do something and the delight when they can. They’re genuine, there is no affect. No learned hiding of themselves, which is something I have, and that adults have. If they’re mad, they let you know it, and if they’re sad, they let you know it. Every time I see an older student doing a difficult work, it makes me understand and visualize who they are going to become. You see them grow in big ways, but mostly in little ways every single day.

Q: Is your family still involved in the Montessori community?

A: My sister is a fancy chef and is very passionate about food. The same way I am passionate about early childhood education, she is passionate about food. She wants to change hearts and minds through food. Both of us ended up in careers we didn't expect, but are passionate about. My family was unknowingly very Montessori in our upbringing, we helped build a house, we did a lot of purposeful hands-on work.

Q: Alright, now for a lightning round! Let’s get some more nitty-gritty details. First off, what is your favorite thing about Sioux Falls, besides “the boy”?

A: I like the seasons, but just not being cold. There is something beautiful here all the time.

Q: What is your favorite color?

A: Glitter. or pink and purple. When I knit, which I do a lot, a don’t use any color specifically. I like happy colors!

Q: What is your favorite Starbucks drink?

A: Ask Bobby, my favorite Starbucks changes every time! Probably a peppermint mocha or soy dirty chai. Last week I had a Soy Oprah Chai with a shot.

Q: What was your favorite childhood book or movie?

A: The Lady and The Tramp was a favorite movie.

Q: What is your favorite Montessori material?

A: I’m a big fan of the Sensorial Materials that have one foot in the math world -- the Trinomial Cube and the Geometry Cabinet were some of my favorites as a child, and continue to be favorites to introduce to children.

Q: What treats do you always say yes to?

A: Anything with mint and chocolate is a winner in my book!

Q: What is your favorite type of restaurant to frequent?

A: I love Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese cuisine. In Sioux Falls, my favorite Vietnamese place is probably Dynasty, or Lam’s.

Q: How do you while away a long, cold winter night?

A: I love to knit and listen to a book or watch a show or movie. - picture of knitting project?

Q: What’s your dream vacation / destination?

A: Somewhere I’ve never been, particularly if it’s close to the ocean.

A Qualitative Education

We hear so many wonderful stories. 

Not only from children, as they learn to navigate their world, so new and wondrous, but also from parents, as they observe their children, with such pride and amazement. One of our very favorite recent accounts involves a former student of ours, and an amazing description of her independence, fortitude and ultimately, accomplishment, as relayed by her mother.

This particular student, whom some might classify as being extremely modest, often exhibited timid tendencies, especially when she engaged with new activities. In our estimations, it wasn’t necessarily the outcome that she was apprehensive about, as there was nothing that she tried and couldn’t achieve. Rather, it was her willingness to divorce herself from her own expectations and dive right in to unfamiliar situations. Said differently: this five-year-old student was afraid to try new things, because she was worried that she might fail. 

Our task, as guides, was to nurture her development.

Over the Summer, this student took swimming lessons. The instructor was exceedingly supportive, especially physically, as she braced her unsteady, uncertain movements. Essentially, and from our understanding, the swimming instructor would place her hands beneath the student, to guide her and keep her afloat. The reassurance in the water meant everything. 

Then, one day, after weeks of practice and subtle encouragement, our five-year-old student turned to the swimming instructor and confidently said, “I think you should let me go. Otherwise, how can I learn to swim on my own”? Years worth of support and furthering suddenly buoyed forth. An exhibition of independence and a willingness to engage the world was demonstrated. Needless to say, the student quickly became the captain of the pool. 

There are so many lessons to be learned from this account, one of which leads us to an important and timely question. Namely, how can you teach, let alone measure, qualitative results? By qualitative, we mean, creativity, independence, determination, patience, perseverance, compassion, dedication, humility, modesty, collaboration, etc. The intangibles that often comprise a constructive life.

Which is to say, what type of educational system, or characteristics, would account for these types of metrics? On top of that, how would you stimulate, as opposed to suppress, their delicate growth? How can you say, “By the age of x, your child will tell their swimming instructor to let them go?” A different system is at work.

While some individuals think these qualities can’t be assessed, others argue that we simply need a new set of terms by which to have the conversation. A new vocabulary, so to speak, and, ultimately, a new type of yardstick by which to measure the output. How would you quantify the independence that the five-year-old exhibited with the swimming instructor? As usual, Ken Robinson is particularly helpful on these matters.

The traditional system of education, which most of us are familiar with, since most of us attended, was primarily set up to assess quantitative outcomes. These may include, but are not limited to, timed tests, pop quizzes, multiple choice questions, and other standardized evaluations. Everything is centered on this method of examination.

The ambition of this type of educational system was put into place to quickly ascertain results across a large swathe of students, and compute those results against local and national averages. Understandably, perhaps, it wasn’t designed with the individuals ability or interest in mind.

As a product of the Industrial Revolution, one can easily see, through a certain lens, how this type of educational system made complete sense. Education wasn’t about the pursuit of interests, or even passions, it was about the preparation of basic, fundamental, technical skills, the mastery of which was needed to enter the work force. Yet, as we all know, this way of thinking about education, no less than the economy, is completely changing. For some, it has already, irrevocably, changed. 

What about qualitative assessments, then, which often take time to manifest? As demonstrated in the swimming lesson example above, how are those types of qualities fostered? How are they nurtured, not to mention, measured? How do you assess, in good faith, creativity, for instance? By what standard are these types of practices evaluated? In a wonderful, almost paradoxical statement, it’s as Lewis Carroll says -

You can’t measure Alice growing, only her growth.

Where does this leave us? Moving forward, as a society, it becomes a question of where we choose to place our emphasis. What values do we want to place on qualitative traits? We would love to hear your thoughts and learn about your stories. We’re sure you have them too. They might make for a wonderful conversation.


Empower and Collaborate

There are a couple of things we always talk about at Baan Dek. The first, which is a powerful lesson of life, is to never hold children back. The second, which is just as meaningful as the first, is to try our best to act as collaborators, to participate in their early learning adventures. We would love to take this opportunity to elucidate.

Let’s start with the first lesson, on never holding children back. Knowingly or not, most of us fall into this category. At one point or another, we have prevented a child from exceeding our expectations. Which is to say, as adults, it’s easy for us to make assumptions about what children are capable, i.e.: they shouldn’t use glass, they’re not ready for silverware, etc. Yet, we’re so surprised when they actually accomplish a task. Why are we, as adults, the ones setting the expectations?

Children are capable of much more than we think. Our motto is: Let’s not hold them back. Let’s give them more than we think they can do. Or, rather, to speak more carefully, let’s create a safe, nurturing environment in which they feel confident enough to explore their own limitations. As adults, and especially as Montessori guides, this is where our responsibility lies. Let’s not give children what we think they can do, let’s allow them to show us of what they are capable.

We have a wonderful, somewhat related example that transpired over the summer. We were working with a student on crafting a bird house. Once the edifice had been adequately constructed, and the four walls had been tightly fastened together, this soon to be five-year old boy proceeded to paint it. However, he decided not to paint the outside, but rather, the inside. 

Our reaction was one of, “What is he up to?” “Why is he choosing to do this?” “Is he willfully veering off the task at hand?” Come to find out, as he later explained - and at our chagrin - “since the birds will live inside the house, I want them to see the beautiful colors, too". Our expectations of children are so often aligned with our judgements of what we think they are capable of, and the ways in which we think they should execute upon these ideas. Often, they are in no relation to what that child can achieve.

The second example, which is just as meaningful, and directly tied to the first, is to try our best to act as collaborators. If we become active, supportive participants in the journey of education, at a remove from judgements and assumptions, and of making decisions and completing tasks for children, everything starts to look just a little bit different.

In the Absorbent Mind, Montessori writes, in a rather candid passage: “To recognize this great work of the child does not mean to diminish the adults’ authority. Once they can persuade themselves not to be themselves the builders, but merely to act as collaborators in the building process, they become much better able to carry out their real duties; and then, in the light of a wider vision, their help becomes truly valuable. The child can only build well if this help is given in a suitable way.”

One of the advantages of a mixed-age classroom is that other children, especially at this age, have an entirely different set of expectations of other children. Whereas an adult might inherently make an assumption, based on the child’s age, demeanor, etc, other children are less likely to make those exact same assumptions. They have a unique way of making connections.

We have a visual example, illustrated through a series of photographs, that we would love to share with you. Namely, when a younger student, who had just entered the Primary classroom, after having graduated from the Toddler environment, observed an older student working with the "taking care of plants activity", she was completely mesmerized. She patiently observed, taking mental notes.

Then, something magical happened. The older student, who had been carefully demonstrating how to use the activity, almost as if the other student didn't exist, identified, or sympathized with her new friend's interest and decided to mentor her on the exercise. With the precision of language with which she was first introduced to the activity, the primary student gracefully, and with a certain eloquence, showcased the work. 

When the activity was complete, and both students were completely satisfied by the experience, the older student empowered the younger student to return the work to its proper place. She had, in effect, become a collaborator in the process. Not only had she served as a role model, without exhibiting judgments or assumptions, she had inspired her new friend in the "building process" with the assurance that only someone who believes in you, can provide.

That sense of empowerment and collaboration. There's nothing like it.

Back to School

The Basics:

As everyone prepares to head "back to school", some for the very first time, we thought we would take this opportunity to offer a few tips to help ensure a smooth transition. Whether you are a new family, or a currently family, hopefully these suggestion will help provide some guidance. We can't wait for the new year to start. It's going to be an amazing one!

Talk positive about school.

We recommend employing phrases like: “You get to go to school tomorrow!” Often, the idea of “going to school" can be subjected to negative connotations in our society. As adults, the same thing could be said for, "going to work". To combat this cultural orientation, and to foster a positive appreciation of school, you can use favorable expressions like, "Next week, you get to go to school!”. 

Learn More 

We recommend a quick drop-off and pick-up. 

While it can be difficult, we strongly recommend a quick drop-off. We know it can be the hardest thing in the world, but the longer a parent stays, the harder the separation becomes. Lingering can create anxiety for both children and adults alike, and this is never a good start to a day. Instead, children relish the reassurance that you have confidence in them and their day.

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Relate your own childhood experiences. 

There’s nothing more reassuring for children than to hear from their parents or loved ones that “everything is going to be okay”. When children have something to relate to, from someone they trust, they can feel more assertive and confident in their new experience. A possible phrase to use would be: “I loved school. I was always so excited to go to school and meet new friends and learn new things.”


One of the most important things for children is consistency. They thrive off of the routine, as it offers them stability and confidence, a sense of strength in their relationship to the world. Try to establish a routine that works for your family, which includes lunch preparation, bedtime, wake-up time, morning departure for school, etc. The more consistent the routine, the less deviation children experience. Of course, there are always hiccups, but consistency will help to alleviate them. 



Ensure that you keep your child apace of any changes to their daily activities. If there is a change in their routine, let them know by explaining the situation and providing reassurance. "Your mother will pick you up today." If children are apprised of what will happen, they will be less startled or surprised when the routine is interrupted. This will provide comfort and a better ease of transitions. It will also allow them to focus on the task at hand. In this case, exploring Europe!


Let your child help you prepare for the next day. Whether it's letting them set out their clothes for the morning, or allowing them to assist with the preparation of their lunch box, children love the responsibilities they are given - and, it helps builds their independence. Preparation also plays an essential role in the classroom, as children not only prepare work for other students upon completion, but also ready themselves for new tasks by going through the necessary process. Above, you'll notice that our student is cleaning the paint brush and tray, making sure that when she returns it to the shelf, it'll be just as she found it.


One of our strongest suggestions is to ensure that you arrive to school in a timely fashion. This is not for the convenience of the school, but for the benefit of your child. Late arrivals can interrupt routines and disrupt the classroom that's already in-progress. It can also create a sense of unease and apprehension for your child. As adults, we all know what it feels like when we enter a meeting that’s already started: we feel disoriented, anxious, and constantly struggle to try to catch up. We continually ask ourselves, “What did we miss?”. Additionally, for those who were interrupted, it can be difficult to return to that state of concentration.

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If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out. We're always here to help.