It's no secret that the mamas love Jacaranda Tree, Amsterdam's only Montessori playgroup. Deborah Nicholls-Lee tells us why.
If you thought children’s activities in Amsterdam need to be noisy, high-energy affairs with lots of running about and shouting, think again. Jacaranda Tree, a Montessori playgroup founded by Australian Simone Davies in 2008, is a quiet, peaceful space where the children explore their surroundings in a calm and focused manner. In fact, the only frenzied behaviour is from the acrobatic class hamster, Jill, who demonstrates a theatrical range of movement as she hurtles around her cage.
A Child-Sized World
As I enter the light and spacious rooms which accommodate the playgroup, I feel like a giant entering a miniature world. All the furnishings and materials are child-sized and, when my imposing 5’2” stature makes one small boy cry, I realise that, like the teacher and parents, I am more comfortable down on my knees at child-level to participate in this shrunken universe.
Simone explains: “Everything’s at the child’s height. They come in and it feels like their little house. It makes it feel very comfortable and relaxed. I try to make it a peaceful space.”
It is hard to believe that the playgroup is so tidy and organised given the age of its clientele. Jacaranda Tree offer a range of sessions for crawling babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. All of these age groups are prone to devastation and disorder - but not here. Everything in the room is very deliberately positioned for the maximum benefit of the children and has been carefully thought out by Simone:
“I sit on the floor and I look around to make sure that the artwork is at their height and the plants are at their height so they can take care of them.”
Not only are the children allowed to water the plants, they can do cleaning and washing up too. There is a miniature broom, dustpan, cloth, squeegee and water spray, as well as a tiny sink with a scrubbing brush and a scaled-down draining board. At home, many of these activities are off-limits but, at Jacaranda, the customised materials make it possible for the children to look after their little house themselves.
Everything’s at the child’s height. They come in and it feels like their little house.
Independence and Self-Esteem
I was surprised to see that the children even made their own snacks and pressed their own orange juice. There was no official snack time; each child could work at their own rhythm and eat, play, or read (there’s a cosy bilingual book corner) when it felt right to them.
Many of the materials at the playgroup help foster this independence. There are fabrics where they can practise doing up zips and other fastenings, and there were clever tablemats to show them how they could set the table.
The adults are really facilitators and observers, while the child takes the lead. Jacaranda really enables the child in this way, promoting self-reliance and high self-esteem, and the kids seem to love it.
Learning through Play
Simone has created special zones where the children can focus on different skills. She shows me the language corner with boxes of different themes such as camping, construction vehicles, and African animals. Some contain photographs or drawings which the children can match to the 3D objects. It’s a potential talking point for children and parents, where they can handle the objects and explore new vocabulary.
Another area helps develop hand-eye coordination, with various attractive, tactile materials for sorting, posting and weighing. Elsewhere, there is some printing going on with halved apples and sticky orange paint and, on another table, some shape-cutting in pale blue play dough.
The room is furnished with rugs and cushions and the walls are lined with chalkboards, climbing grips and mirrors. Everywhere you look there is a potential activity but the children are undirected and can choose how they spend their time. This, Simone explains, is crucial:
If you set up an engaging environment, they can explore and make discoveries and engage and learn in a much more natural way.
“It’s about children not being vessels to fill with knowledge where the teacher has to stand at the front of the classroom – or the parents – to tell them everything about their world, but that they’re curious and want to find out about the world around them. If you set up an engaging environment, they can explore and make discoveries and engage and learn in a much more natural way. [You can] encourage their love of learning that they can then apply as they get older as well.”
The Parents Learn Too
For Simone, the playgroup isn’t just about the children, it’s about supporting the parents in their parenting journey and spreading good practice. During the session, I noticed that parents would approach Simone for advice about their children. Herself a parent of two, with over 10 years experience working with families, she responded with reassurance, authority, and a mother’s understanding.
“I started Jacaranda Tree because I really missed working with the parents. I loved that parent education component, as well as working with the kids because then the children benefit 24/7 from the approach. It’s the people that make it special. The people that come to the classes are just so willing to learn a new way to be with their kids.”
Jacaranda Tree also reach out to English-speaking parents through the courses they host. These have included First Aid, Raising a Bilingual Child, Sibling Rivalry, and Setting up your Home Montessori-Style.
The fortnightly newsletter gives parents tips on using Montessori techniques, and Simone’s YouTube channel ‘The Montessori Notebook’ provides video tutorials, taking the learning beyond the weekly classes and out into the community.
Simone’s cheerful, supportive playgroup is a very special place to spend calm, uninterrupted time with your child. The hamster might be doing double-somersaults but your children will be far too busy to notice.
Jacaranda tree received an honourable mention for ‘Best Baby Class’ and ‘Best Class for Toddlers’ in the Amsterdam Mamas Recommends Awards 2016. For more information about Jacaranda Tree, visit their website.
Disclaimer: Jacaranda Tree has paid to be featured on Amsterdam Mamas because they believe that their services would be of interest and benefit to our readers, and we think so too. For more information on sponsored posts and advertising on Amsterdam Mamas, please see our Advertising and Disclosure policy.
Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a British national who moved to the Netherlands in 2009. A former French and English teacher, she now works as a freelance writer and editor while raising her two children. See her website to find out more about her work.
All images used with permission from Jacaranda Tree Montessori