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October 2002

Play Right

Start out right at one of Munich's English-language preschools

When Kelly Hedges-Klenk's son Alexander pointed to a map of the world and identified South America, she couldn’t believe it. He was only two years old. Now he’s three and she’s used to hearing him talking about distant countries.

Alexander is one of thousands of children in Germany being taught under the Montessori education system in an English- language or bilingual school. Every time he steps into the classroom, he meets children from America, Japan, England and Germany. He is encouraged to explore art, music, math, geography and languages. But the emphasis of the program is on fostering independence and self-expression and developing a sense of responsibility. Maria Montessori devised a method of teaching that allows the child to steer the lesson by choosing what he wants to learn and for how long. This revolutionary system coupled with an English-language or bilingual setting affords children between the ages of two and six a unique learning experience.

It is one enjoyed by Alexander at the English Rainbow Preschool e.V., on Joseph Retzer Strasse. For the first two hours of the day, he and the other 23 children pursue an activity of their choice. They can select from a wide array of materials, including paints, papier-mâché, puzzles, games and books. At 11 am they go to a nearby park and after lunch they work on group projects. Lessons are taught in English but the children can speak German whenever they like.

As Montessori pupils, the children enjoy tremendous freedom. But with freedom comes responsibility—a principle embraced by the school leaders. If a child spills a glass of water, s/he must clean it up—with a child-sized mop and bucket, of course!

Nurturing a sense of responsibility in a child of two or three can be as much a learning process for the parent as it is for the child. Alexander’s mother, Kelly, recalls: “When I brought Alexander to school initially, I would always remove his shoes for him and put on the slippers for class. Then the teachers told me, ‘No, you must let him do it.’ It was hard to let go.”

The school is the result of a vision shared by a group of parents who wanted their children to go to an English-language Montessori preschool. Together, they overcame the bureaucratic obstacles involved in organizing such a tremendous project, raised the necessary funding and converted a retail space into a colorful, secure setting. They opened the school in February 2001.

Today, three parents, including Kelly, sit on the board of directors. They meet every month to manage the school’s finances and discuss important issues. Three fully trained teachers guide the children through a program, which Kelly describes as second to none.

“This is different to a German kindergarten, where the aim is often just to keep the child entertained,” says Kelly, who comes from New Mexico and whose husband is German. “The Rainbow preschool has concrete goals: to educate, socialize and foster independence.” Montessori believed that children who received such a well-rounded start in life would develop a natural curiosity and love of knowledge that would last a lifetime.

In another part of the city, a mother talks about a similar dream for her two children, two-year-old Nils and four-year-old Lars. Ute Sorger is on the board of directors of a school that has much in common with the Rainbow—Chocolate Butterflies on Gaissacher Strasse. Lars has been at Chocolate Butterflies for two years. No first-day tears were shed when Nils started there in September. “He's been coming to the school with me for years. So it's like a second home for him,” said Sorger.

At Chocolate Butterflies, it isn't just the child who goes to school. The entire family becomes part of the preschool community. Parents are actively involved in the day-to-day management. They make important decisions regarding the direction of the teaching program and annual goals and take care of manual tasks, such as making repairs, buying supplies and doing minor maintenance.

Like the Rainbow preschool, Chocolate Butterflies wouldn't exist today without the determination of a group of innovative parents. When a kindergarten in the area closed down in the early 1990s, they got together and set about opening an independent bilingual English-German kindergarten. They turned a former butcher shop into a spacious facility and welcomed their first pupils in July 1995.

Two English and two German teachers speak in their mother tongues to the children but are fluent in both languages. They teach up to 25 children at a time who come from America, Australia, Africa, England, Ireland and other places.

Subjects include arts and crafts, music and drama. The children also enjoy a range of outdoor activities, sports, forest walks and frequent field trips. The younger ones are encouraged to take time out in a quiet room in the basement every day, where they can listen to soft music or curl up in one of about a dozen beds. Next door is a darkened room with objects for the senses. Mirrors on the wall give distorted reflections and a cushioned floor space is hung with colorful balls, decorations and a bell. The head teacher at Chocolate Butterflies, Eva Maier, says that the emphasis at the school is on exploration, self-discovery and independence. “Lesson time is a partnership between teacher and child,” says Maier. “There are no boundaries.”

Another lady who enjoys communicating with children is Ingrid Hernandez. She discovered her passion for educating the very young after she helped set up a state-run Montessori preschool in Wolfratshausen in 1999. The school accepted only local children. Ingrid was so overwhelmed by requests from parents in Munich that she decided to set up her own preschool. She found a bright, spacious building with a big garden on Schwanthalerstrasse and opened the English International Preschool in Munich there in May.

When it came to running the school, one thing stood in Ingrid’s stead even more than her background in economics and public relations. That was her own experience as a mother. When her daughter was two years old, she realized first-hand what most psychologists and educators agree on today: the single most important period in the development of a person’s intelligence occurs between birth and age six. “At that early age, they are like sponges. They absorb everything. They have an overwhelming curiosity,” says Ingrid.

It was this heightened curiosity that she wanted to feed, so she chose Montessori’s basic teaching method. But she refused to be restricted by the boundaries of a single system. She also adopts other teaching methods and programs that prove effective.

As well as the traditional subjects, her pupils learn about different countries and cultures, the environment, life cycles, seed planting, the food pyramid, the solar system and dinosaurs. They can take part in comprehensive art and music programs. And, from the age of four, they can explore the world of science. The school recently adopted an American program designed for children between the ages of four and six called the Hands on Science Outreach. One lesson in the program involves the children making a slide and putting first a stone and then a paper man on it. They are then asked why the stone traveled faster than the man. “They are all encouraged to share their ideas,” says Ingrid. “We don’t tell them if they’re right or wrong. We want them to explore all the possibilities. And even more importantly, we don't want them to be afraid to express themselves freely.”

There are five teachers and 34 pupils in the main preschool and two teachers and 18 pupils in the mini-preschool (for two to three year olds). They come from Japan, Sweden, Norway, England, Ireland, Australia, Holland, Germany and the US.

Running a successful business may seem too much for a three or four year old to handle. But for children at the English Montessori Preschool, it’s a piece of cake! They make cakes, jam and cards, sell them and use the profits to pay for school outings. And despite their talents for profit-making, they keep in mind those less fortunate. After September 11, they raised more than € 700 from a bake sale. This went to people who lost a spouse and children who lost a parent in the tragedy. The school director, Gordon Kelly, says self-financing and fund-raising gives children an appreciation of the value of money. “It gives them a great sense of responsibility. They learn that money doesn’t come from parents or the bank. It must be earned.”

The English Montessori Preschool is licensed by the State of Bavaria. It opened in 1982 and moved to Laim ten years ago. Today, there are 15 pupils to two teachers in each of the three preschool groups. They study geography, math, language, reading and writing. Sometimes, they sit in a circle and explore different topics together. Children enrolled in the full-day program (from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm) also take classes in outdoor activities, including swimming, horse riding and skiing. “Help children to help themselves,” is how Gordon describes the main Montessori objective. “Parents of our pupils are often a bit shocked by their independence at a young age. We try to give them confidence in themselves so they can go out into the world and achieve anything.”

Most children only dream of the castles they read about in fairy tales. So imagine if they could go to school right next to one everyday. At the Munich International School (MIS), a group of four to six year olds do just that. They are pupils of the MIS Junior School located on the magnificent 25-acre campus in Starnberg, about 25 km south of Munich. The grounds are surrounded by woodlands and feature an original manor house called Schloss Buchhof.

The children learn to operate computers and study German, ESL, art and music in bright, spacious classrooms. They are taught under a system called the Program of Inquiry, which focuses on the developmental stages of childhood. Teachers build upon each child’s experiences with a view to develop-ing their social, emotional and intellectual skills. The children are encouraged to become inquirers, thinkers, communicators and risk-takers. They are taught to be knowledgeable, principled, caring, open-minded, well-balanced and reflective. As well as taking part in classroom learning, they have access to a play group, go on frequent field trips and can choose from a variety of extracurricular activities. Regardless of where parents decide to send their children each of these preschools offers supervised play time with a focus on learning and development in an English-language or bilingual environment. It is an invaluable service for children and education in a class of its own.

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