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Life is beautiful at Chartwell House Montessori Eco School

| November 5, 2020 | 0 Comments


I was sold on the Montessori method the day I heard a Montessori teacher say to a four-year-old child: ‘Thank you for offering me a sip of the orange juice you squeezed. Now don’t forget to fetch another orange and put it on the tray before you return the juicer to the shelf where you found it – think of the person who will come after you.’

I was astonished to see such a practical example of altruism in a world that has become so self-centred.

Not only was I grateful that they would allow me to spend a morning with them, watching to see what went on inside, but it struck me that it was only the Montessori schools who had welcomed me with open arms to do so They were the only ones, across a genre of educational philosophies, who would allow me to come and make myself invisible, and quietly watch to see what my son would be exposed to if I enrolled him there.

Never in a million years did I think I would end up in Johannesburg, but I married a Johannesburger. It was therefore important to me to leave no stone unturned to do my best to give my children, and other children, a taste of what a barefoot, tree-climbing childhood of bliss should encompass.

Hence the motto of Chartwell House Montessori Eco School: ‘Life is beautiful!’ Because this really is what every child should experience.

The Faraway Tree, Singing Forest and the Chartwell Conservancy

After cutting my teeth in the television industry for the first 10 years of my career, I became a mom. This changed everything.

I longed to be with my child and to give him more than the garden of our suburban home in which he was growing up. So, I started researching early childhood development (ECD) philosophies.

When my daughter was born in 2008, there were no Montessori toddler groups in the Fourways area of Johannesburg. Schools only accepted children from ages three up. So, the principal of my son’s Montessori school and I agreed that I would start a Montessori toddler group, called The Faraway Tree, in the cottage at my house, and ‘feed’ them on to her when they turned three.

The problem was that when those toddlers turned three, they didn’t want to leave. So, I took a few years out, studied and became qualified as a Montessori directress for children up to age 12.

Our Singing Forest was born when the children overflowed out of our cottage and into a neighbouring house in our street. It was the best site at the time – a huge stand for Fourways at 1 700 m2, with the derelict house neatly positioned at the back, opening up into a vast expanse of what would become a wonderful garden in the front.

I slowly cultivated a beautiful garden. I sourced climbing trees and indigenous plants that were waterwise and would attract birds and butterflies. We settled on bunnies that roamed the garden to their hearts’ content. And then the children came, and overflowed, and we bought Chartwell House in the Chartwell Conservancy.

Chartwell House (the prepared environment)

Located on three hectares of golden highveld, we see our students chatting in the tops of our glorious towering trees; working with honey and wax extracted from the beehives in our apiary; making candles, furniture polish and body butter in the school kitchen; and preparing food from their own food forest for a break-time snack, or soup for the people in the Msawawa settlement on a cold winter’s day.

The lower elementary class overlooks an eco-pool. The children gather here for a peaceful sojourn to relax and reconnect over a snack.

Beyond lies a thriving wetland for the children to explore. It is not uncommon to find a hedgehog, mongoose or crab meandering through the flaxen grass.

Under the supervision of Belgian lepidopterist Jan Praet, we have scattered our grounds with indigenous larval host plants for highveld butterfly species, to promote the natural fauna and flora in our area. The children revel in the sight of these translucent beauties floating from flower to flower and flitting through the sunlight.

In practical terms, they express their love of nature when they groom our miniature horses, learning about their needs and physiology.

Here, we engage in a life that is beautiful and aspire to nurture and enhance the horme or innate life force1 of each child, so that it may blossom into curiosity, contentment, mastery of skill and resilience through real-life, hands-on sensory experiences.

Studying children as a scientist would, Dr Maria Montessori understood that by allowing children freedom within limits, in a carefully prepared environment, they would be naturally attracted to the concrete materials and learning opportunities that would enrich their spirits. This would satisfy their hunger to master new skills at each step of their developmental journey. Montessori capitalised on the child’s natural interests, providing children with a beautiful, rich, stimulating environment filled with concrete manipulatives to entice them to stretch themselves and acquire new skills, ensuring that authentic learning takes place.

Planes of development

Montessori pioneered a vision of the complete development of the child from birth to maturity, which provides a holistic view of the developing human being.

By observing children, she identified four specific planes of development, thereby justifying her belief of the importance of relevant education as an aid to life. Scientific studies all over the world, with children of different races and from different socio-economic conditions, have shown that development does not proceed in a linear fashion.2 Rather, it occurs in cycles or planes.

The four planes can be described as follows:

• first plane: infancy (birth–six years)
• second plane: childhood (six–12 years)
• third plane: adolescence (12–18 years)
• fourth plane: maturity (18–24 years).

To illustrate this concept, Montessori initially chose to use a stylised and geometric drawing, as illustrated alongside.

Although this chart shows that development is not linear but rather comes in cycles, it is not an organic representation of the developing child. Towards the end of her life, Montessori redrew the planes in a bulb-like manner, which highlighted the first plane as being the most important phase in the development of mankind.

Each plane of development is driven by specific sensitivities and desires, which help the child meet the focus of each plane as they move methodically through achieving physical, mental, social and moral independence pertinent to that plane.

At Chartwell House Montessori Eco School, we are mindful of the child’s inner thirst to grow as well as the sensitive periods and developmental planes of the children, and therefore carefully prepare our indoor and outdoor environments to unlock the children’s true potential.

Didactic material

Inside our light-filled school building – where large windows frame the highveld landscape and the trees the children love to climb – is a children’s house, more than a school. Shelves filled with wood, metal, glass and woven grass baskets overflow with books and models of all things wonderful. This treasure entices the children to explore and engage in research. The full range of Nienhuis Montessori didactic equipment,3 imported from Holland, speaks to the child’s desire to touch, feel and absorb information through their senses. Traditional concepts are unlocked in ways that appeal to the child, ensuring that authentic learning takes place.

Besides the children, our school is home to beautiful furniture, art, china and indoor plants. The students delight in taking care of their space and utilising pretty teapots and teacups, cutlery and table settings as they go about their studies.

Vertical age groups

Our classes allow for children on the same developmental plane (in a minimum of three-year cycles) to work and socialise together, as they are arranged in vertical age groups. The younger children are exposed to the work of the older children, and learn through observation whilst doing their own work, and the older children become role models and leaders. They learn to be gentle and kind and considerate of their peers. At times, they reinforce their own learning by helping the younger children with their work. One of the most encouraging benefits of this set-up is that children don’t feel judged or condemned if they are slower to grasp some concepts, as they are not divided into grades and therefore do not ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ grades. Instead, learning is one steady continuum, constantly building upon knowledge gained. Children who work and learn faster are able to progress rapidly and well beyond where they would ordinarily go in a graded classroom, keeping their thirst for knowledge and mastery alive and boredom at bay.

In an effort to cultivate the child’s inherent love of work, no rewards or punishments are enforced in our school. This allows the children to develop their internal work ethic unhindered by external distraction, for the pure joy of achieving the goals they have set before themselves.

An integrated curriculum and project-based learning

In our elementary school (six–12 years), much project-based learning takes place, as the children weave together different subjects into research topics that fuel their imagination. They execute these through many different mediums – written, art, computer, speeches, drama, dioramas and more, and love to present their work to the rest of our school community. Our approach builds family and creates a safe space for the children to let down their guard, and express themselves peacefully and respectfully, without judgement.

In South Africa, we are free to follow an undiluted Montessori approach, as the Montessori curriculum covers the guidelines laid out in the national curriculum and goes over and beyond, albeit at a different pace. Montessori adults are cognisant that we cannot make or force the children to be interested in learning. We can only entice them and lay the foundation for their developing an interest. The adults are persistent in trying new ways to elicit an interest from the child. In the first plane (birth–six years) the child is given lessons often, until they become interested in a particular activity and want to attempt it for themselves. Every day is a new day.

At the elementary (six–12 years) level, the same principle holds true. We have as our basis the cosmos and the furnishings of the universe and history through the ages, but not all the children will be interested in all of these aspects – and certainly not all at the same time. With this in mind, the adult is required to present something to the child more than once, in slightly different ways, to hook them. We know that with the six–12-year-old children, we may present something to them, and if they do not seem immediately interested, we will need to give them time to let their thoughts percolate, and allow the new information to incubate and fan the child’s curiosity into flame.

As Montessori guides (teachers), we sow seeds to arouse the child’s interest and stimulate their concentration. To do this, the adult needs to correspond learning to the psychological characteristics of the child. To show relationships between things, we need to be dynamic storytellers, showing enthusiasm and interest.

At this age, what interests the child is how things are interrelated. How is it that all of the lifeforms that are on Earth are interrelated? What keeps the planets circling the sun? What keeps plants growing year after year? What brings human beings to beauty and peace? How do the discoveries of the past help us today? How do we honour those who have come before us, and the work they have done? We begin to sow the seeds for interrelatedness of everything through cosmic education.

Endless time to immerse oneself in study

One of my favourite times of our school day is the uninterrupted work cycle. In this time, the children receive lessons and have the freedom to choose the work that interests them most, and immerse themselves deeply in it.

I love that Montessori pedagogy is conscious of the complex internal processes that take place in the heart, mind, body and soul of the child as they reach out and engage deeply with the subject and satisfy their inner developmental drive. It is within this sacred space that the Montessori guide holds space for the child, and balances the fine tension between non-intervention and not abandoning the child, in the best interests of the child.

The children blossom during the three hours of uninterrupted, quiet time in a carefully prepared environment, where they can fully immerse themselves in their chosen work daily before break, when we all meet outside to play and rest and enjoy each other’s company. After their break, the children enjoy another two- to three-hour work cycle.

During work cycles, the children are free to eat and take small breaks when they need to, as they prepare to delve deeper into their chosen fields of study. Qualified adults, who are registered with the South African Council for Educators (SACE),4 guide them to ensure that they progress at an ageappropriate level and are able to extract maximum benefit from the work they undertake.


Built on respect for each other, our environment and all living creatures, the heart of our school is love. Our school is founded on navigating respectful ways to interact with the community in which we live. This bonds us in kindness, consideration and helpfulness. It also culminates in our shared dream to make the world a better place by each contributing our personal best.

Even our youngest ones are taught to finish what they start, and put the activities they have completed back where they found them. As the child is immersed in a structured, orderly external world, they internalise this habit and become structured, orderly and methodical in their own approach to life.

When giving the children the space to figure things out on their own whilst believing in them, to battle through frustration and incompetence to the point of competence and mastery, a unique glimpse into the soul and growth of the human spirit of the child is observed. It is absolutely beautiful to witness a child independently grasp and master something they were previously unable to do, and to experience with them the great deal of satisfaction that they derive from a job well done – which, in turn, translates to a deep sense of peace, centredness and selfesteem.

It is with this faith in the child’s ability to grow and integrate all the parts of them fully on the inside, and from the inside out, that we guide our children through the Montessori curriculum and developmental planes to maturity.

As the children learn to manage their own time and workload, under the supervision and watchful eye of the Montessori guide, they become accustomed to taking responsibility and being accountable for their actions. This leads to a wonderful ability to make their own well-informed choices and to exercise their freedom responsibly. Through these experiences, the child learns to persevere through the three stages of a cycle of activity, and finally experience the deep satisfaction that comes from a job well done and a task completed.

Our dream

We are a school with a great dream of weaving together the fabric of a harmonious, integrated, productive society that will value the environment, each other and progress.

Having lived through the destruction ravaged by two world wars, Dr Maria Montessori was determined to nurture peace through the children who had the initiative, faith and drive to take hold of the world around them and improve it. She was determined to foster a new generation of ‘movers and shakers’ filled with ambition and grit, who would make the world around them a better place.

Her dream aligns with that of our former president, Nelson Mandela, which he so eloquently described: ‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised.’5

As Nelson Mandela believed, so too do we believe that ‘education is the most powerful weapon with which to change the world’.6

These dreams are one and the same. At our Montessori Eco School, we strive to fulfil them in a South African context, as we do our bit to build a fair, just, harmonious and productive society.


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Category: Spring 2020

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