Before moving to Qatar, I lived in Vancouver, Canada, a city with a similar population to Doha. Montessori schools are pervasive there: hundreds of preschools and elementary schools pepper the area. In my neighbourhood of 25,000 people, there were three within a 10-minute drive. Vancouver is not alone: the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) has affiliated societies throughout North America, Europe, and East Asia.
As many expats have found, however, Montessori is not easy to find in Qatar. The AMI has no affiliated societies in the Arabian Peninsula, although there is a smattering of schools in Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. In Doha, there is only one preschool that provides a dedicated Montessori curriculum.
Doha does have, however, a growing number of parents who are finding a way to give their children a Montessori experience. The community is gaining momentum as people learn about the benefits of this mindful method of education.
What is Montessori?
At the heart of Montessori is the belief that children have an innate curiosity that guides their cognitive development. Within an ordered environment, children are free to explore and take charge of their own learning. The teachers are there to guide the children when they need it; otherwise they step back and observe.
A key element of the program is fostering the child’s independence. Montessori kids learn to choose their own activities, set them up and put them away when they are finished. There is a significant practical element to Montessori: children practice motor skills like balancing a tray and doing buckles and zippers. This builds confidence, responsibility and independence.
Montessori methods can be quite different from those in a standard preschool. Each learning activity has a progression of difficulty: children first learn to pour dry beans from one pitcher to another, for example, then they pour water, then they pour from one pitcher into several smaller glasses. Since children direct their own learning, their pace is entirely individual.
The Montessori school experience
When Lamia Ibrahim learned that she and her family would be moving to Doha, the first thing she did was look up Montessori schools for her kids. It was a quick search: at the time, there were really no Montessori options in Qatar. With a background in psychology and education, Ibrahim decided to start one herself. In September 2013 she opened Al Nebras (The Montessori Way) with 13 students enrolled. Now in her second academic year, Al Nebras has 120 students between the ages of 3 and 5.
We visited Al Nebras School to see Montessori up close. The classrooms are calm and organized, with minimal artwork on the walls. Every item has a purpose. Learning materials are set out on trays and placed on shelves throughout the room. As the children move through the program, the teacher will introduce new trays; until the children are ready, however, some shelves remain empty.
“Everything is individualized. Children must express interest in order to learn, so we give them the freedom to make their own choices,” says Ibrahim.
Grace En-Tien Chang is a Doha mom who is studying the Montessori method through the Montessori Centre International in London; she has also set up her own playgroup so her children can experience the program for themselves.
“The clean walls and simple classroom are done on purpose,” Chang says. “The Montessori classroom should have few distractions, it should be a calming place.”