It was the middle of the pandemic and parents were exhausted. Chera Wackler was home with her 8-year-old twins.
“A lot of us parents were like, ‘I’m out of ideas,’" she said. "We’ve made the goop, we’ve made soap, we’ve tie dyed t-shirts. You know, I’m running out.”
She saw that her friend, Eva Knutson, was making kits for her own kids.
“And she just seemed to have these endless amounts of ideas," she said. "And I was like, ‘You know, people would totally pay you for that.’”
She was right. In June, Knutson started Miss Cuteson’s Class, a line of Montessori-style education materials she makes from her home in Soldotna and ships around the country.
Montessori learning is based on principles of self-directed, hands-on learning. Knuston is a trained Montessori teacher and taught at Ridgeway Preschool before her youngest son was born.
He was in speech therapy when the pandemic hit. Knutson was putting together materials and art projects for him when Wackler suggested she start selling them.
“And it kind of became a business and I got a business license and started paying taxes and it got really crazy," Knutson said.
She also made a Square site and commissioned a logo from Lester Nelson in Soldotna. The name of the business comes from a student who couldn’t pronounce “Knutson” in class.
“So, it came out as Miss Cuteson, and then it just became kind of a nickname," she said.
Knutson sells themed “Boredom Buster Activity Kits” with weeks worth of projects for kids. The microbiology set, for example, comes with agar plates and pipettes. In the forensic kit, there’s a mystery to solve. All include printouts and suggested schedules for each project.
Other materials in her online shop are more traditionally Montessorian, like stacking rings and colorful felt shapes. She also has a “little citizen ballot box set” and “science experiment Kwanzaa celebration calendar.”
Kits are around $30 and a chunk of her earnings go to local charities. She makes a small profit but said it’s mostly a labor of love.
And you can tell just by looking at them that they’re made with a lot of love. When she has an idea, Knuston will write down everything she knows about a subject and create a lesson plan. She thinks of activities and then orders supplies in bulk, for all the things she thinks parents won’t have in their houses, like magnifying glasses or film canisters.
“The research part of it is I think the most fun," she said. "And then that’s what I do, I dive into the topic. And that’s kind of what I did as a teacher, too.”
It’s a callback to Montessori teaching. If a student showed up to class and said he wanted to learn about alligators:
“OK. Learn about alligators," she said
She also tests the experiments herself. It all has to be from scratch.
Wackler, who was at-home learning with her twins all fall, said her kids like the materials because they don’t feel like they’re learning.
“And she also, because of her education background, sneaks education in there," she said. "And I think that’s kind of the Montessori method, as well, is that it’s not about, ‘Here’s a lesson, step A, step B.’ It’s more like, ‘Lets put these two things together and see what happens.’”
Some parents who have struggled with at-home learning have joined Facebook groups. The groups are mostly private but Knutson can tell when users are talking about her kits because she’ll get swarmed with orders from a particular place.
“A little bit before Christmas, somebody shared my website on some homeschool group in Vermont," she said. "And then for the next two days, I got like 20 orders from Vermont.”
She also has an audience in Washington. That’s where Charlissa Magen’s grandkids live.
When they came to visit her in Soldotna, they fell in love with the kits, and with Knutson. Back in Washington, they like to do the activities as though she’s instructing them.
“The girls, they’ll say, ‘Well, we know Eva. And I think what she wants them to do is this.’ And they always put in that, ‘We know Eva,'" Magen said.
Magen gets her own kit so she can Skype with them and they can do it all together.
“And it helps to incorporate us into the kids’ program," she said. "The grandparents. Because we were able to do it with them here, and we can do it with them over Skype.”
Not all customers are kids or parents or grandparents. In December, she was selling chemistry kit advent calendars.
“I found that a lot of couples were buying them for date night activities," Knutson said. "It's really strange. The customer base is so varied and interesting.”
At some point, she thinks she’s going to have to hire help. When there’s a new kit, Knutson might sell 30 in a week. She also has 13 subscribers who get kits mailed to them. Four are from the Lower 48.
A lot of kids are back in school full-time now. Even so, Knutson thinks this year of at-home learning will likely change the way some parents think about their kids’ education going forward.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more discussion about that. Especially around the dinner table, when kids bring home projects," she said. "I can’t imagine that parents will be like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s really interesting,’ and not more engaged with what their kids are learning about now.”
Visit Miss Cuteson’s Class at misscuteson.square.site.