The first Montessori math game my homeschooled five-year-old taught me that afternoon was called Stair Steps. I was never entirely clear on the rules, but here’s the gist. We matched number rods with their corresponding number tile, and sang a song about each. Though the game’s rules were opaque, I was happy to be using the materials.
Materials that had sat on the shelf, collecting dust. My daughter was not interested in using them according to the instructions. Instructions that were (admittedly) rather dry and boring.
I tried to remember: She’s five. I was the same way when I was little. I let the math kit sit for a month, and then decided to experiment. I asked her: could she show me how she wants to use them?
That she is willing to do. She ran and got the box, then started teaching me stair steps.
So now we’re singing, and matching and stair-stepping. After a few minutes, I decide to sneak in even numbers and odd numbers. “The even ones you can divide in two evenly. Can you tell which are which?”
She runs her fingers over the stripes. “The even ones end in blue.”
“So which ones are even?”
“Ummm, two? And four?”
We find all the even and odd numbers. And then she tells me it is my turn to choose a number tile, so we move on, picking tiles and singing. Except whenever she tries to match a numeral with a number rod, I see her place her finger at the middle of the rod, seeing if it divided in two evenly.
After a few rounds of Stair Steps, I can tell she’s growing bored. “Can I choose a new game this time?” I ask.
She shakes her head no. “I have a new game. It’s a really good game.” She pauses, thinking. “First, you take out the tens.” She takes the longest rod and places it on the table. “Now the nine.” She starts building a perimeter.
My daughter lifts up the long “eight” rod, a thin cylinder marked with alternating stripes of red and blue, and uses it like a shuffleboard paddle. She shoves a number tile towards me.
I hear the rod scrape against the shiny finish of the table. “The number rods aren’t for pushing things. They’re for counting.”
“Okay,” she says happily. “I’ll use my pencil.”
The game wears on. Its rules are more arcane than Stair Steps. It involves placing the larger number rods (ten, eight, nine) around a cage, and setting the smaller ones, like zoo animals, inside that decimal fence. She puts the number tiles inside the cage too, in order.
There’s educational value to that, right? I wonder, hopefully. I am also wondering if the game will come to some sort of point. Soon.
“Now, we push the numbers up,” she said, using the pencil to move the tiles through a gap (door?) in the cage. The number tiles float free of their confinement, and move into the wilds of our kitchen table. The table is also littered with empty bowls, dirty napkins, and a cut-apart grocery circular. Also tape. There’s always tape involved in every endeavor in our house.
Right now, it would be great to do the dishes.
I breathe. I think about my long-term goals. She is using the materials on her own. She finds them engaging. She finds them fun. She is counting and ordering them, just like in the lesson plans that went with the kit. We’d reviewed odd and even. She has a rock-solid, concrete understanding of the quantity of each number and its corresponding numeral. So far, so good.
I know from experience what happens when I made our learning times about my agenda, my academic goals, and my time table. Usually, no learning gets done; I got increasingly stonewalled. But I have to admit, it doesn’t really surprise me. If I come to the table thinking she had nothing to teach me, why should her attitude be any different? If I wasn’t willing to let her play her own games, why should she be interested in mine?
I know, I know, I have a lot more math knowledge than she does. But I’m her mother, not her schoolteacher, and the more I remember it, the more I can keep my expectations in line. A teacher can devote only a tiny bit of their attention, authority, and energy to each kid in their care. Even a private tutor would have limited time. Me—I’m like God. I’m always there, always correcting, always demanding things: cleanliness, manners, kindness. To add learning to the mix? Well, it starts getting a little Big Brother.
And do I need to be her teacher? The thing is—I can see her straining for all kinds of math knowledge every day. I can see her observing the world with intent eyes. What if I wasn’t afraid of her learning at her own pace? What if I let her lead? What if I had the expectation that she could and would teach me something?
She points to the cage. “See, Mama, with stair steps, we were learning to match the rods with the right number. And with this game, we’re seeing how the different numbers plus together.”
I inhale sharply. Had she just told me our learning objectives? Damn, the kid was canny. “You mean add together?” I ask.
She nodded, then pointed to the nine and the ten, lying next to each other. “Let’s count them, Mama.”
“Good idea, sweetheart.” We counted, and arrived at the sum together.