The latest in Montessori — Maggie Dent


{INTERVIEW} A moment with Maggie Dent 0

Maggie Dent

Australia's "queen of common sense", Maggie Dent is an author, parenting and resilience specialist & mother of four sons.

Our Managing Director was lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask Maggie a few questions... See Maggie's answers below:

Q: Maggie, there is so much talk about ‘play-based’ care and how it’s being replaced by more structured academic learning – can you explain what ‘play based learning’ is and why it is so important for children?

Well firstly I'd like to say that play-based learning is not setting homework for four-year-olds, expecting children to sit still at desks while they complete endless worksheets, expecting Year 1s to write full sentences, nor subjecting Year 3 students to standardised tests. That's what I call the 'push down' of formalised learning into the early years, where it does not belong.

Play-based learning is not always about directing children's play but rather you create playtime in which kids follow their own leads and interests so that they can have an experience of discovery, risk-taking, creativity, skill-building and of course learning. Also, when a child is so immersed in play that they don't notice time passing, they reach a place of transcendence and that is very healthy for later life … it might even be planting a seed for their future life's purpose.

It might include exploratory play, competitive and non-competitive play, imaginary play, modelling play, cognitive play, solo play, child and adult-directed play, and using play to help develop a love of reading, language, dance, movement and music. There are so many ways kids can learn through play.

Play-based learning is so important because without it we are hindering children's cognitive and  psychological growth and development, as well as their ability to function as social beings. Play is how we learn everything about living in this world and it enhances the development of the whole child - not just a brain on a seat!.

Q. As parents we keep reading about how important it is for kids to be ‘school ready’ and how far Australia is behind with our Education system – what does it mean to be ‘school ready’ and why is our Education system seen as being behind soo many of the OECD countries?

Finland is held up as the exemplar of education systems internationally. It has a fantastic record of success when it comes to educational outcomes and they don't start compulsory schooling there until children are 7. Their teachers have greater autonomy to make professional judgements about individual student learning and I've read that teaching is the most highly revered profession there and only the best and brightest make it into the profession. Further, Finland doesn't have standardised testing and rankings; schools are publicly funded and they have a strong emphasis on play and socialising.

Our education system is seen as being behind I feel because we are following the UK and American models of one-size-fits-all, standardised testing and pushing formalised education into early years. That means we have very high expectations of what our kids should be able to do when they turn up to school. Kids are individuals so of course many kids turn up for school and they are not ready. Many are simply 'slow to bloom'. My own sons were such students.

Early years educators can also help with decision-making about whether children are ready for school. They assess a child's physical health and wellbeing (whether they can toilet and feed themselves, blow their nose, dress themselves etc.); social competence such as getting along with children and being able to cope on their own or in a group; emotional maturity, demonstrating a reasonable degree of self-regulation, language and cognitive skills (basic counting, following instructions, basic thinking skills); communicating skills, being able to communicate their needs and use manners; and independence.

Maybe the question should be “Is the school ready for your child?” rather than is your child ready for school? 

Q. Parenting seems to have become harder in some peoples eyes and easier in others – what are the biggest challenges facing Parents of children in today’s world?

Undoubtedly I think it is the rapid pace of modern life, the pressures of consumerism and the tsunami of   technology that has hit families, which makes it a really challenging time for parents and children.  Also somewhere over the last 10 years, parenting has become a type of competition — thanks largely to parenting being more highly scrutinised and idealised in media. This places hidden stress on parents and growing children, especially where expectations don't match the reality of every child being different and developing at their own pace. We live in an instant world too, where we expect everything NOW. Communication, food, pain relief, results, well-behaved children — you name it, we expect things instantly. This expectation works silently and unconsciously creates stress when things do not happen straight away. Also childhood is not valued as important as adolescence or adulthood and there is a sense of hurrying up our children –sexualisation of children's toys, books and clothes is an example of this. If only the powers that be could see that by honouring a slow childhood our children would end up happier, healthier both physically and mentally, smarter, kinder and more resilient.

Q. There are many families seeking alternative means of Education for their children and in Australia we have a very strong movement towards Montessori at the moment – what are your thoughts on Maria Montessori and her method of education?

I think we are blessed to have so many alternative means of education in Australia and I encourage families to be open to checking them all out. I admire that the Montessori method encourages children to learn through play, and that it focuses on following a child's development rather than forcing a child to hurry up their development to fit into a certain environment. However, I am never one to blanket recommend a particular school or method of education to families because ultimately I believe that one school won't be right for every child. School cultures are so vastly different so it is really important for parents to make decisions based on an individual school and how it matches their individual child. 

Q. What are your thoughts on the following “The average Australian child spends less time outdoors then a maximum security prisoner”? How do you think this effects the child’s development?

The benefits of nature play and time in nature are extraordinary. The research says children who play regularly outside in natural settings: are sick less often; are less likely to be overweight; are more physically active; more resistant to stress; less likely to have behavioural disorders, anxiety and depression; have higher self-worth; are more imaginative and creative; have better language and collaboration skills … the list goes on. Kids need to spend as much time as possible outside however the reverse is happening at an alarming pace. I am a firm believer in the need to nurture the human spirit and one of the best ways to do that with children is spending time in awe and wonder. Thankfully a seed that germinates, a chicken hatching from an egg and a starry night are all stunningly fabulous to children!

Q. Technology and kids – what are your thoughts on how early kids are using technology and what do you think are the benefits/ consequences?

Never before have parents and teachers been confronted with such a sweeping, massive change in human behaviour such. When you think about it iPads have only existed for about 5 years so we don't have good research yet into what the impacts of iPad use might be for very young children.  We don't have strong evidence about the pros and cons of the use of these devices — and there are big pluses and big minuses.

The pluses are technology can help young people learn, express themselves, problem-solve, and engage with the world and people in it. In the teen years, we're finding that technology can be a great support in mental health for example, especially when adolescents might be more comfortable to share experiences with someone online that in person (or if they don't have access to help on the ground). In the early years though I think we have to tread very carefully with technology. What we know with the brain mapping technology that exists today is that movement and repetition - clapping, rocking, hopping, playing lullabies and singing songs that include touch - are critical for developing neural pathways for young children. No screen can build these pathways. It's important parents and educators still interact with children massively so kids can reach their highest potential. The main concerns at the moment are sensory delays, speech and hearing delays, posture problems in children as young as 4, short-sightedness, screen addictions, weakening creativity, and poor social and emotional competence. There is only one way to learn to be a human and that is with humans. The educational benefits from technology are massive, especially to children with ASD however the over-use of technology for children's entertainment causes me much concern.

Also we know from the work of the likes of Dr Stuart Shanker that too much time on screens can impact a child's ability to self-regulate. There are also studies that show that pre-school kids learn relational aggression from tv shows that aren't violent but are otherwise problematic.

The guidelines endorsed by the Australian Government recommend NO television (or screens from other devices) for children under two; no more than one hour a day for children between two and five; and no more than two hours a day for children over five. However I believe short sessions on devices while interacting with an adult will not cause long-term harm provided the child is spending healthy amounts of time using all senses, playing with other children and being outside and moving.

Q. Best advice you have ever given parents?

I would say there are 3 best pieces of advice:

1. Don't try to be perfect! I follow an 80/20 rule in everything I do, so I aim to get things right 80% of the time but I cut myself a bit of slack and don't stress if I'm not getting it right 20% of the time. 

2. Remember you can't ever 'get ahead' as a parent so slow down and enjoy life instead of 'doing' all the time. Washing is a great example I often use. You think you're on top of it but they've probably already put a skiddy on their underpants before I finish this sentence. 

3. Don't judge other parents. Support each other. Don't stand around 'tsk, tsk, tsking' in the carpark at school drop off time gossiping about who's child is doing what. Women in particular can be very harsh critics of each other (and themselves). A supportive circle, a sisterhood if you will, is essential for raising healthy, happy children and that grows happy communities.