Finding Montessori: Creating the experience in Doha
Before moving to Qatar, I lived in Vancouver, Canada, a city with a similar population to Doha. Montessori schools are pervasive there: hundreds of preschools and elementary schools pepper the area. In my neighbourhood of 25,000 people, there were three within a 10-minute drive. Vancouver is not alone: the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) has affiliated societies throughout North America, Europe, and East Asia.
As many expats have found, however, Montessori is not easy to find in Qatar. The AMI has no affiliated societies in the Arabian Peninsula, although there is a smattering of schools in Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. In Doha, there is only one preschool that provides a dedicated Montessori curriculum.
Doha does have, however, a growing number of parents who are finding a way to give their children a Montessori experience. The community is gaining momentum as people learn about the benefits of this mindful method of education.
What is Montessori?
At the heart of Montessori is the belief that children have an innate curiosity that guides their cognitive development. Within an ordered environment, children are free to explore and take charge of their own learning. The teachers are there to guide the children when they need it; otherwise they step back and observe.
A key element of the program is fostering the child’s independence. Montessori kids learn to choose their own activities, set them up and put them away when they are finished. There is a significant practical element to Montessori: children practice motor skills like balancing a tray and doing buckles and zippers. This builds confidence, responsibility and independence.
Montessori methods can be quite different from those in a standard preschool. Each learning activity has a progression of difficulty: children first learn to pour dry beans from one pitcher to another, for example, then they pour water, then they pour from one pitcher into several smaller glasses. Since children direct their own learning, their pace is entirely individual.
The Montessori school experience
When Lamia Ibrahim learned that she and her family would be moving to Doha, the first thing she did was look up Montessori schools for her kids. It was a quick search: at the time, there were really no Montessori options in Qatar. With a background in psychology and education, Ibrahim decided to start one herself. In September 2013 she opened Al Nebras (The Montessori Way) with 13 students enrolled. Now in her second academic year, Al Nebras has 120 students between the ages of 3 and 5.
We visited Al Nebras School to see Montessori up close. The classrooms are calm and organized, with minimal artwork on the walls. Every item has a purpose. Learning materials are set out on trays and placed on shelves throughout the room. As the children move through the program, the teacher will introduce new trays; until the children are ready, however, some shelves remain empty.
“Everything is individualized. Children must express interest in order to learn, so we give them the freedom to make their own choices,” says Ibrahim.
Grace En-Tien Chang is a Doha mom who is studying the Montessori method through the Montessori Centre International in London; she has also set up her own playgroup so her children can experience the program for themselves.
“The clean walls and simple classroom are done on purpose,” Chang says. “The Montessori classroom should have few distractions, it should be a calming place.”
Creating your own experience
With limited school options, many Doha parents are incorporating Montessori elements in their own homes. Some, like Chang, have brought in other like-minded families to share the Montessori experience.
To get started, Chang suggests several small changes that make a big difference to your child’s learning and development.
Adopt a Montessori mindset
Although it is tempting to tend to our children like they were still infants, Montessori encourages kids to do things for themselves. Allow children to dress and feed themselves, let them guide their own play and exploration. Adults should be gentle guides, intervening only when necessary.
Children are curious about the world, and any place can be a learning opportunity. With an emphasis on learning practical skills like pouring liquids, balancing a tray or using tools like tongs and pipettes, a Montessori mindset looks for ways children can participate in daily life.
Create an accessible environment
Just as the Montessori classroom is simple and uncluttered, your environment should limit distractions. Instead of giving the child access to buckets of toys, set out a few things on small trays. Develop the habit of setting up an activity, enjoying it, and then putting it away to keep the play area tidy.
Children are capable of doing many things, but with small hands and a short stature, this can be difficult in an adult-sized world. Put their clothes in lower drawers, store dishes in a lower cabinet and have stepping stools available so they can reach things higher up.
Find your materials
Chang pointed me in the direction of a blog called livingmontessorinow.com. “It’s a conglomeration of several different blogs with lots of ideas for making materials and creating a Montessori environment in your home,” she says. “You start there, and then you get lost in the rabbit hole.”
She’s right. There is a huge online community of Montessori homeschoolers who have countless ideas of how to create activities. These activities fall under the five broad categories of the Montessori curriculum: practical, sensorial, math, language and culture.
Start with ideas from the web—many have printable instructions—and look around your home for materials. Stores like Daiso, Home Centre and Al Rawnaq in Souq Waqif all sell small craft items and kitchen tools at good prices. Look for items that will be easy for children to manipulate: lightweight, small handholds and short handles. Chang suggests trying to manipulate the tool with your non-dominant hand to test if it will be suitable for children.
Become part of a community
When Ibrahim was first planning her Montessori school, she put a questionnaire on the Doha Mums forum to gauge interest. She had a great response, which inspired her to move ahead with her plans.
Chang started her Montessori playgroup in a different way. When she was out in the community, she would observe how other parents interacted with their children. When she saw parents with a Montessori mindset—letting their children try things on their own and interfering only when necessary—she approached them to ask if they would be interested in a Montessori playgroup.
“Some people just have a Montessori mindset without knowing anything about the program or the theory,” she said. She built a group of like-minded parents who all contribute to a collective Montessori experience for their kids.
To learn more about Montessori, both the practical and the theory behind the method, we have found some resources to get you started.
Grace has set up a Facebook page called Doha Montessorians, an excellent resource for Doha parents who are interested in Montessori.
The Al Nebras Facebook page is called Montessori Way Qatar, and it has many articles and links to information about Montessori.
The exceptional blog livingmontessorinow.com is a portal into hundreds of Montessori-related ideas, activities and informational resources.
Al Nebras (The Montessori Way) is a dedicated Montessori preschool for 3 to 5 year olds, located near West Bay Lagoon. For more information, visit them at montessoriway.qa, or phone +974 4435-8251.
Books on Montessori that are available in e-format
Montessori from the Start: The Child at Home, from Birth to Age Three, by Paula Polk Lillard
How To Raise An Amazing Child the Montessori Way, by Tim Seldin
Teach Me to do it Myself, Montessori activities for you and your child, by Maja Pitamic
The Absorbent Mind, by Maria Montessori