Akumal’s Montessori School Offers Important Alternative in Early Education

Eleanor Zucker

Now in its third full year of operation, the Otoch Paal (meaning “Children’s House” in Mayan) Montessori Community Center offers a different model for early childhood education to Akumal’s families with young children. The school currently has two classrooms, the cuarto de bebes (babies’ room), ages 20 months to 3 years, and the casa de niŇos (children’s house), ages 3 to 5 years old.

The Montessori method is based on principles of independent thinking and fosters learning by building on young children’s natural curiosity about the world around them. Very unlike a traditional classroom where children are treated as passive recipients of knowledge imparted by teachers, Montessori children work freely according to their own interests, and the teachers are called “guides” since their job is to guide each child along their own developmental path. Therefore, each child engages in a process of individual learning based on their own desires and level of mastery. Even the classroom materials appear different from what you find in a typical Mexican preschool as there is no chalk board (since the teaching is not didactic), and virtually all the materials are hands-on manipulatives in order to exercise and refine all of the five senses. It is quite a wonder to enter the classroom and see these small children completely engaged in the work they are doing, at a level of concentration that is commonly thought to be unachievable among this age group, without any adult telling them what they should be doing.

The school does not have any state funding, but neither does it function as a private school. Instead, from its inception Otoch Paal has been conceived of a community center based in a grass-roots model of participation. Started by the director of the Cancun Montessori school, Gabriela Ortega Esquivel, the school was created to help fill an urgent need for the low income families of the area, many of whom are working parents with few alternatives for child care. In her own words, Gabriela Ortega expresses: “My intention is none other than to form capable, goal-oriented individuals with the initiative and competence to develop the skills that can improve their quality of life, through broad and diverse perspectives.”

In an effort to cultivate pride in the Mayan heritage of the school’s families, the classroom buildings are modeled on palapas, a traditional Yucatecan style of house construction. As well, the guides are all local women, in order to help conserve and respect the region’s culture and to communicate the importance of community participation in this educational center.

Following this model, the school’s five certified guides are all young women from Akumal or Chemuyil. These dedicated five women, all with families of their own, intensively studied Montessori teaching methods, philosophy, and child development, sacrificing a great deal of time to complete their certification. Last year, they completed and passed the extensive coursework with final oral and written exams administered by examiners from the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI).

Otoch Paal also fosters a model of participation for the families whose children attend the center. Low income parents who would not otherwise be able to afford education of this caliber, which include the majority of the school’s families, are given the option to contribute their labor in lieu of paying tuition, with each parent doing two hours of work per week at the school. They engage in tasks such as helping make the classroom materials (virtually all Montessori materials are made out of simple materials such as wood, rather than using commercial or store-bought items) and helping with cleaning and maintenance of the center and its grounds. Thus, although the center does not benefit from state funding, Otoch Paal is not a private school for the rich (in fact very few parents pay tuition), however it is certainly wealthy in terms of the opportunities for growth, learning and involvement that it offers!

Currently Otoch Paal is seeking donations for roofing materials so that the school can be certified, in accordance with strict guidelines from the Mexican Secretary of Public Education. The school meets all the requirements for certification except that the grass roofs must be replaced with cement ones. Donations can be made directly at the school or more information and an email contact for the school’s director can be found at: http://montessoriaroundtheworld.org/otoch.html

Otoch Paal welcomes visitors who are interested in seeing how a Montessori center operates. Classes are in session from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday. Visitors are requested to come between 9 and 10:30 a.m. The school is located near the back of Akumal Pueblo, on the Northern edge of the town. It can be reached by following the Pueblo’s main street (avenida) to the fourth block on the right hand side of the street. After passing the secondary and kindergarten schools (which are on the main street), turn right at the corner where the kindergarten is located and continue to the next corner. Otoch Paal is next to the kindergarten and the entrance is at the corner.

All those participating in the Otoch Paal community center recognize that these children are at a formative age which provides the base for their future development. With this knowledge, they have a created a fertile environment so that these beautiful seeds may grow in harmony and equilibrium. As we are all responsible for the children of today who will become the adults of tomorrow, your contribution is also very important.

Read about how the Montessori school got started.