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Interview with school founder Maria Smirnova (Part 1)

Feb 21, 2022

Maria Smirnova has been working with Montessori for almost a decade. She used to own and run various Montessori schools in Paris and implemented Montessori Sports at that time. We had the privilege to ask her some questions to learn from her experiences! Thank you Maria for a wonderful talk!

Ruben: Hi Maria, thank you for being here! Could you tell a little bit about your background in Montessori?

“Sure, thanks for having me. Eight years ago I founded a Montessori School in Paris. And I started them when I became a parent myself. I am also trained as an AMI guide for both elementary and children's house. And I had the pleasure to work with Montessori Sports.”

Ruben: Well, it's an impressive CV. Can you talk a little bit about your own experience with sports?

Yes, I've done sports all of my life. The first sport I ever did was swimming, and I've been swimming since I was 4. I grew up in Russia, so it was pretty cold, a big part of the year. And despite that, we had to walk with my father to the swimming pool with minus 20 degrees weather.

But I still have very good memories about that and definitely about the culture and habits of practicing sport too. At the moment I do a lot of different sports, and I think it's very important for staying healthy both physically and also mentally.

Ruben: Yes. When you founded the schools, were you already thinking about implementing some sports program or was it something that you came up with later?

It was not something that I thought of originally because, in a way, in a Montessori environment there is already a lot of movement that is implied.

Ruben: Yes, because children are not sitting at the same place, they're moving around.

The movement is really built into every activity that they do: in their movement of the hand and the gross motor movement. So I thought it was enough. But then by observing children and working also myself in the classroom and also observing what's happening in our society I knew we needed more. Because the demographics are changing, the children are more and more in cars, chairs and in front of screens.

So yeah, it's definitely different from the times when Maria Montessori lived,  when children spent much more time outdoors and were moving more from that perspective.

Ruben: Yes, I can recall my own youth. I was outside every single minute I could be playing all kinds of sports in the streets. And now you see indeed, that it's disappearing. Especially in neighbourhoods with a lot of traffic and a lot of people in the inner cities.

So that's also what’s happening in Paris. And so that's what also brought me to this idea that we had to do something different with sports. At the same time, I didn't want to just hire a traditional PE teacher and do like a very traditional sports program which has a one size fits all approach.

Then there is also the kind of communication style in traditional PE teaching that is very different from what we do at school. So I didn't want to add this because it would have not matched the rest of our educational approach.

Ruben: Yeah. So for the people who don't know a lot about Montessori, in a nutshell, what would you say is the difference between the traditional physical education teachers and a Montessori teacher?

Well, it's definitely looking at every child as an individual and seeing what the needs of that individual are, and how can you make a prepared environment to meet the needs of that individual.

And then also knowing what are the broader developmental characteristics of the child between for example, 0 to 6 or 6 to 12 years old. Then you can really address those when you prepare the environment for this age group. That's definitely something that is almost non-existent in traditional sports, unfortunately.

And so that's why I didn't do that at the end, and when I met Montessori Sports and yourself, it was really something that matched very well.

So Montessori education in itself, I think it's important for the movement of children because there's no fixed seats and tables for children. They are free to move and to pick their own activities. So movement is already stimulated.

But it's not enough in modern society. When Maria Montessori lived, of course, children and people had to do much more labour and manual physical work like walking, biking, carrying. And nowadays it's much less. So, we need to compensate for that.

Ruben: I agree. How did you get to know about Montessori Sports?

It was at the Maria Montessori institute where you were giving the workshop. And we had a lot of practical components that you showed. So not just the presentation about the theory, but we did a lot of exercise outdoors. It was really very interesting because you could see and feel that that's exactly how we work with children in the classroom and to me this match was really very impressive. Like as if I have been always waiting for this kind of things to be developed because that exactly matches again our educational approach and you could just add it, and the whole ecosystem will make sense.

Ruben: Then you flew back to Paris and the next day you were in school and then what happened?

I told everybody about what I saw. And I said that I will try to convince Ruben to work with us. And eventually that happened. We were very excited because, to be honest with you,I think this discussion about whether having sports or not, and how to do that at school, there are always a lot of excuses, or actually valid reasons. But in the end they are excuses and nothing is happening.

These excuses would be for example, thinking that it's not necessary, and then maybe children can do it outside of school, and that sports is the responsibility of the parents.

And is also not covered in our studies so some guides who maybe would want to do something can look up something on the internet, but they're far from being able to implement something professional enough.

Another reason was that there is no outside space, it's very small at the schools, and all of those things sometimes can become obstacles. But I think we were very motivated to find solutions.

Ruben: That’s what we encountered. All of those obstacles were present in your school, right? Talking about the environment, for example, there were no indoor sports spaces.

We didn't have any outdoor or even indoor space. We solved it by taking advantage of the outside public space, the public park: we could go  there and use it.

At one of the locations we had a small nap room that we actually could use in the morning.

Ruben: Yes, I remember.

For the smallest kids we even went further when we retransformed the cloakroom. That was on those rainy days when you couldn't even go to the park. So we moved the benches. We created a parcours around the benches. I think it's a matter of, you know, being more solution oriented and finding creative solutions to reach your objective.

Ruben: What do you think is the role of the school director or the owner /the founder, in this case you, in implementing these kind of programs in a school environment?

Well, I think a lot of things start from the leader, and so it's important that the leader or the team, the head of school can actually inspire and empower people to make this happen.

So basically understanding in agreement that this is really needed and why we do that and how it helps us reach our overall educational objectives.

Then not only saying, okay, we need to do that because again, we will go back to the obstacles and hurdles. It's not only inspiring people and making them feel that they want to do that, but also how to do that and to empower them with specific things. Not just, go and figure it out by yourself. It's really providing training opportunities.


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