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Becoming you: child-friendly learning at a Montessori school

No grades, free work and mixed activities: often viewed critically, but in fact, full of opportunities, Montessori education is experiencing a global upswing. A school in Sophia-Antipolis shows Riviera Insider how lessons can be taught in a different way. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Italian doctor Maria Montessori recognised that children learn in different ways and that it’s how important they can develop freely and according to their individual needs. When learning is flexible and children are at ease, Montessori believed that responsible, independent and creative people could be formed for the good of society and for peace. Her insights, also referred to as Montessori pedagogy, are based on the belief that ‘the child is the builder of man’.

The doctor developed materials that are still used today and with which students gradually develop their own lives in a complex world. Of course, they also receive help from teachers who individually apply didactic techniques to each child in order to best support them. The basic idea of Montessori pedagogy is: ‘Help me to do my own work!’ Scores and grades aren’t given.

What Montessori developed intuitively through her observations, neuroscientific studies have now confirmed as meaningful. Her theories make immediate sense as Headmaster Nicolas Wattel of Les Colibris in Sophia Antipolis leads us through the establishment’s lovingly furnished school building with its large, tree-covered garden, animals, vegetable beds and composting plant. For every age group of two to three years, there is a dedicated classroom full of wood at this English-French bilingual Montessori school. The large, open spaces are subdivided into subject zones: one corner is about everyday life, another about maths, one about language and a different part for geography, for example. There’s also a ‘peace table’ where children learn to resolve their differences. “We respect the children and trust them,” explains the headmaster, “this is how they develop themselves.”

In a class for three to six-year-olds, little ones can ‘prepare food’ by experimenting with bowls of rice and water. Letters to be learnt are found in another area of the room, presented in small wooden shapes whose soft and organic texture helps the school incorporate the sense of touch into learning. In a similar way, dice and beads makes mathematical rules comprehensible: it’s about understanding rather than learning by heart.

“The materials we use are aimed at the senses and the different kinds of memory a child uses, and all children learn differently,” says Gina Wattel, the pedagogical director of the school. “The material is tailored to the different stages of development that every child goes through.” In the 100 years since the doctor began using her methods, barely anything has changed or lost its relevance because ‘the brain has worked in the same way for millennia’. According to Les Colibris, children at the school use more areas of the brain than their contemporaries in the standard system and their synapses correspondingly form better and stronger. One often heard criticism of the Montessori system is that children do whatever they want, whenever they want. Nicolas Wattel and his wife don’t accept this view: “Of course we have rules, many rules even, but children learn according to their own rhythm.” The school and its teachers highlight the skills children have or have mastered, not those they haven’t.

130 students of 25 nationalities attend the establishment, which is found in the heart of Sophia Antipolis. Many come because their parents are happy Montessori graduates, others had negative experiences in the mainstream French school system. Students who had given up in other schools have regained their self-confidence. “They thrive here,” says Gina, “that’s often the first things parents tell us!”

The transition to a ‘normal’ collège after sixth grade is usually completely smooth, explains Nicolas. “Any student who has studied here can study elsewhere. I would even say that some children are better prepared for the collège because they have more experience with independence and independent learning than those who attended a traditional school.” 


Ecole Montessori Bilingue "Les Colibris"
3735 route des Dolines
06410 Biot / Sophia Antipolis
Tel +33493632996