Briefly, what is Montessori education? Why should Catholic parents be familiar with it?
A Montessori education is merely the type of education that embraces the learning process through the physical senses of the child. Although Maria Montessori is credited for discovering this method as the most natural and compatible with organic learning, the recognition of its truth is much more ancient. It was Thomas Aquinas who said, "Nothing is in the intellect which is not first in the senses." Beyond this discovery, Montessori further discovered several principles that, when implemented, enormously assisted children in their learning process. Some of these include creating a prepared environment, matchmaking meaningful exercises to meet a child's particular sensitivities, control of error within the design of the exercises, as well as the isolation of difficulty.
What is an atrium?
Atrium means "ante room" or "before room." Architectually speaking, it is the interior space before the church, where one enters in order to come into the church building itself. Montessori's idea of the atrium was symbolic of the environment in which a child dwells as he prepares to enter into his fuller sacramental life in God's Church. In this sense, that environment is chosen and designed by God to be the family, aptly called the domestic church.
Is a parish children's atrium a catechism program in itself, or does it support the program?
There is not a formula for an atrium—it is merely the name used for a particular space designated for the catechizing of children. The name was adopted and used by Sophia Cavalletti, who worked for 25 years with children, and wrote about her observations in working with them. Parishes who establish an atrium are usually implementing the programs and methods Cavalletti used, but there is not a hard and fast formula for making an atrium, and it does not necessarily need to be established within a church either.
What is a home atrium? What would it look like? How would it function?
The home atrium is the family—the domestic church. It looks like your home, and it functions like your everyday life.
What ages especially benefit from the kinds of activities presented? (How or why?)
The activities of the home atrium affect and benefit ALL of its members. Perhaps it is most surprising to see the smallest members become engaged and captivated, and remember things even when we were not aware they were listening. I have also been astonished by some of the things my older chldren have said. One such example was my son (who was 8 at the time) after reflecting on the event of the Last Supper, when he said, "So really, the Last Supper was all of the apostles' First Communion." Amen to that!
But the effects are not limited to just the little ones. In my own experience, the work of our home atrium has transformed ME, and has completely transformed the way I think about teaching the faith.
What kinds of activities lend themselves well to a home atrium?
The simplest activities can have the profoundest meaning, so I find the best ones are not complicated ones but are the ones that are easily adapted into family life. Lighting a candle, reading pieces of scripture, talking about the words of Jesus and the mystery inside a parable, telling a story with your own words, etc. Beyond that, I enjoy the process of preparation and letting the chldren help me. They love to take out the colored banners for the change of the liturgical seasons, to set up the Advent wreath, or to light the candles at prayer time. These things are very simple, but it is the meaning of these things we do that makes the work appealing.
What kinds of materials can a family make for themselves that are especially fruitful?
Frist are the things that benefit the whole family—materials that help the family celebrate the events and seasons of the liturgical year such as colored banners or drapes for the liturgical seasons, Advent wreaths, Jesse trees, a Christ Candle, an Easter Cross, etc. Second are things more directly for the children. These may include a miniature Mass kit, miniature priest vestments (if the children are boys), story boxes for the parables of Jesus, or a beautiful reading and prayer corner. But apart from these "things" it is important to note that it is not just the acquiring of objects that is important, but the acquiring of habits—and by this I mean the laying down of traditions for your domestic church, that is of the utmost importance here. For example, one of our traditions is to sing the seven verses of "O Come Emmanuel" when we light our Advent wreath. There is no cost here, but the habit is deeply ingrained, and even though I have the verses printed out, most of my children don't need to look at the page to sing them anymore, because we repeat them every year, during the four weeks of Advent.
What materials would you say are worthwhile to purchase, perhaps because they can't be effectively made at home? (A miniature Mass kit comes to mind, just as a possibility to throw out there...)
I have not found anything so far that I could not make on my own. I would only say that the making of things should be a labor of love, and if making some particular thing becomes a burden, maybe it's better to purchase that particular thing "ready made" instead.
Do kids seem to have a favorite type of presentation, or respond well to a particular story, devotion, etc?
In my experience, children respond very well to beauty. If your presentation contains beautiful objects, they will be captive. If your story is told beautifully, they will listen. If you give them a page to color with beautiful images, they will be eager to do their best to color it. Beauty comes from God, Who is the source for everything good and beautiful. Beauty speaks to children with or without words, and to adults as well.
Many parents may feel intimidated by the idea of taking on a large-scale or long-term project like this, or they may not be able immediately to afford (in money or time) to do much. If you could make only three recommendations for materials or presentations, what would they be? (or, what would be a bare minimum or a good start-up?) Why these?
I would start with the resources for the domestic church: colored drapes, Jesse Tree, Advent Wreath. I would make the Jesse Tree with the help of the children, and while working on the pieces I would share the stories behind the symbols. This preparation is a wonderful activity, and even if the results are less than perfect, the process is invaluable.
What kinds of successes have you seen with the use of a home atrium in passing on the faith to children?
One of the best places to see this result is in the organic creative processes of children. They will create and RE-create whatever it is that they love. Much like a 9-year-old girl will draw horses over and over and over again, what comes out of a child in terms of artwork is the result of an interior love and interest. My children have made Jesse Trees, nativity sets, O Antiphon symbols, miniature statues of many saints, scapulars, prayer books, and lots and lots of images of their favorite sacred symbols and icons. And they do these with great enthusiasm and interest.
Is there anything you would have parents watch for to gauge their success, or fine-tune their practices?
I would simply say "be an observer" and let their children lead them.