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An Amazing Feat: Classroom Set Up (Part 1)

Having left a 3-year project setting up 4 Montessori classrooms (2 for playgroup and 2 for kindy aged children) in Dongguan, china, I have to admit that I am really going to miss it.

My role was multifaceted. My involvement as a consultant included setting up the classrooms from the ground up, sourcing and putting together all the materials, teaching aids and a resource library, conducting teacher appraisal, training and professional development, developing a customized curriculum and educating parents.

I started by taking a close look at the classrooms assigned to me. I love looking at a classroom space, no matter how dodgy it is, and seeing lots of possibilities. I look at the light, which comes in through the windows, and visualize the breeze that flows through the space and the character that every corner of the classroom has. As soon as I get the feel of the space, I start imagining what it’ll look like when I’m done with it, with curtains blown by the wind and a wind chime in place, children’s paintings on canvas hung up on the walls, a spot for the nature table where they can be inspired by a collection of things which they have gathered from the garden outside, a homely corridor (and a passage to endless exploring and experimenting) for them to say their goodbyes to their parents when they come to school…the list goes on. In many ways, I feel like I am gifted in that I can look at a space and imagine how it would look like if it was Montessori inspired or Reggio or high-scope or inquiry-based or all of the above!

The first step to realizing my dream classroom was to work closely with the contractor to pick out the floorboards, paint colours, child-sized sink, faucets, wood for the shoe cubbies, lights etc. and to determine where best to position them in their own place. Then, I moved on to the furniture and hunted down the best child-sized tables and chairs and shelves, taking into consideration that I was catering for two groups of children, which meant that I needed all the furniture to be in two different sizes. I was also assigned a carpenter to help me make water tables, a sand box and shoe cubbies, which I’d designed. Next stop was to look for fabrics for curtains, pillows, tablemats, place mats, hand towels, carpets and floor mats. When it comes to classroom design, I am very particular about textures and colours, which create a warm, homely and relaxed environment for children to take ownership of and to thrive in.

My favorite part was shopping for Montessori materials, particularly for the practical life activities. The things available in Dongguan were of substandard quality as they were made for domestic use. As such, I had to do all my shopping in Hong Kong, where I knew where to get everything I needed and have them couriered to the classrooms. As for the sensorial, language, mathematics and cultural materials, I had a catalog from a local Chinese manufacturer to work with. This is particularly challenging since I cant really read Chinese (which was the language which the catalog was written in) even though I could speak a little mandarin and Cantonese.

I had scheduled all my materials to arrive just after the classrooms were renovated. When it all came together, the heavy work started. I spent many fulfilling hours planning and arranging the Montessori materials and learning corners for each classroom as every space had its own character and purpose. Every classroom had a different number of shelves, tables and chairs, learning corners (depending on the size of the classroom) and the playgroup classrooms each had a nice padded climbing frame in them.

The area for circle time was given great consideration. It was to be the daily gathering place for the whole class with all its teachers and children (and sometimes, even parents). This space was the focal point of the classroom and everything else was planned around it.

I also looked into the classroom scheduling to make sure that the flow of the activities and crowd were well managed. I had to make sure that there was enough space for the children to work at the table, on the floor and still have space to move around the classroom. I had to be careful not to place the sensory table and climbing frame too close to where the children will be working with the Montessori materials so that the noise level will not interrupt those who are learning to concentrate. The reading corner/library is next to a window so that the natural lighting will make for easy reading.

Everything had its place, each piece of furniture, each tray, each pillow, each book, each picture frame, even the rubbish bins. The trick is to see the classroom and to move around it through the eyes of the children and everything will come together like the pieces of a puzzle.

After the whole class was put together, I had to make sure that there were no ‘blind’ corners in the classroom (especially for the playgroup classes) so that the teacher, no matter where she was position in the classroom, could see all the corners of the classrooms and no child is hidden from her. This is a safety feature, which will come in handy when an emergency evacuation is necessary. I will also be looking out for teacher’s posts in different corners of the classroom where the teacher can position herself so that she can see almost everyone at one glance.

The maximum capacity for our playgroup classroom is 12 children (aged 1-3 years) to two teachers and a classroom assistant whereas the kindy classrooms would easily accommodate 15 children (aged 3-6 years) in each classroom. By the end of my contract, all the classrooms were operating at full capacity (we even had a wait-list) and we even had to stretch the kindy classrooms to take in 16 children in each classroom and my staff consisted of 8 teachers trained by yours truly and 4 classroom assistants.

Those classrooms have served us well and they had a tendency to ‘speak’ to the prospective parents who come to see it during school tours. They were our training facility for our teachers and my second home for many years. it still brings tears to my eyes every time i look at pictures of my classrooms and the special memories created within them.

More pictures are posted on http://www.facebook.com/queeniefoongkwintan. This is a 3 part blog where I share my journey (1) setting up the classrooms, (2) developing and customizing the curriculum and (3) training the teachers/parents.

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