Treehouse Montessori School

Author's Notes
After interviewing the head of the program, I wrote a print advertorial about the Yokohama Treehouse Montessori School.

When asked to describe exactly what the Montessori method is, Yokohama Treehouse Montessori School head Jenny Vyvial responded simply, “the Montessori method concentrates on the children’s inner core.”

And that’s exactly what it does. According to the International Montessori Society Web site, Italian educator and doctor Maria Montessori first introduced the method in 1907 after she observed children in their natural playtime habitat. Originally intended for preschool-elementary school children, the method focuses on honing children’s critical thinking skills during what is commonly known as the critical years — the ages before a child turns six. “Montessori believed that children are very easily influenced at this age and must be shown the most important things in their life, and we must try to raise their curiosity from the inside,” Vyvial explained, adding that her school in Yokohama does this not by telling the children what not to do, but by asking them why they make particular decisions.

While the popularity of the Montessori method has become increasingly widespread over the past few years, the number of certified Montessori schools in Japan remains small. “There’s a big move in Asia right now, but not many people know about it in Japan even though there are lots of Montessori schools, there aren’t many properly certified schools that teach in English, because most of the official certification courses are taught in Japanese, including mine,” she said.

Certified and accredited by the Montessori Centre International, Vyvial opened Yokohama’s Treehouse Montessori School in 2001 in an effort to spread the Montessori method after earning her certification and realizing there were few schools that both conduct classes in English and use the Montessori method. Nine years later, the school remains a strong example of the true Montessori method at work: Rather than being forced to sit down and listen to a teacher-led discussion, the children, whose ages range from 18 months to three-years-old, are encouraged to work and state their opinions. “The children learning through the Montessori method are allowed to whatever they like in the classroom, within reason of course,” Vyvial explained. “We allow them complete freedom of choice, the freedom to choose what they want to do in the classroom, because in order to take the best out of the children, we have to give them choices and we have to let them think about what they truly want.”

As a result of this, children whose early education follows the Montessori method are often better-off than their peers when they graduate and enter the first grade, according to Vyvial, who explained that her students are often able to read, write and do basic math by the age of four. “Some of our students can read really simple sentences by the age of three so by the time they graduate at the age of six, they can read first and second grade level books, without anyone helping them,” she explained. Vyvial and the other Montessori-certified teachers at the Treehouse Montessori School also encourage children to choose books on their own in order to foster a sense of self-education and to help students pursue their interests.

This self-motivation often follows the children into their later years. “They grow up to be motivated children who do not just sit around and do nothing,” Vyvial explained proudly. “They have their own plans, their own agendas, and they are always working on ways to fulfill this. When our students enter elementary school, they are very talented and very advanced, and in middle school, they plan and research before starting assignments and use skills they learned while at our school.”

Further following Maria Montessori’s teachings, class sizes are large and multi-aged — that is, children are not separated by age. This cooperative method of education is exclusive to the Montessori method, according to Vyvial, and is key during a child’s critical years. “When children are in a group, they influence each other and this is the most important factor that can influence whether a child develops properly,” she explained. “The children help each other and the younger ones look up to their older peers and follow them, and the older children learn to respect the little ones and even try to help them.”

During “Montessori time,” children at the Treehouse Montessori School are encouraged to interact and socialise during snacktime, and to use the pre-prepared items — shelves with Montessori-recommended materials that have been set up previously — to work freely by themselves. “We want to foster independence, so we support the children by observing them constantly and directing them towards the right path, but we never tell them what to do,” Vyvial explained. “Instead of telling a child not to do something, we will ask them things like, ‘Why are you talking when everybody else is waiting to be called?’ or ‘Why are you not listening?’” For the majority of the day, students are free to wander around the house that the school is built in, which is located in a quiet residential area and has child-safe artificial turf in its backyard and a playground. “People always visit and say they find our playground quite attractive,” Vyvial said, laughing. “And we just respond that a Montessori education takes place inside as well as outside.”

Educating exclusively in English, but teaching Japanese phonics and culture through songs and special events, the Treehouse Montessori School is not a far cry from a “non-Montessori, regular method” elementary school, according to Vyvial: “Just like at any other school, children have arts and crafts and P.E, recess, lunch and circle time.” During circle time, which takes place both at the beginning and end of the day, children are encouraged to speak their minds in order to develop strong social interaction skills and critical thinking abilities. “Our children integrate well into any environment you place them in, are very calm, self-motivated and well-informed,” she said. “All of the children who graduate from my school are easily able to take tests and enter public, private, international elementary schools, because my school guarantees your child a great future.”