What is Montessori, Really?
Parents regularly ask me what Montessori is. My stock answer includes a mini-bio of Maria Montessori and information about the benefits of a Montessori Prepared Environment for young children. That is perhaps not a complete answer.
Maria Montessori‟s observations led her to view children as self-guided, internally directed beings who largely teach themselves. She could have closed up shop at that point and moved on to observe something else. Thankfully she didn’t; and now we have Montessori schools all over the world. Her Prepared Environment and the beautiful Montessori materials are creative, brilliant approaches to helping life. We associate Montessori with Pink Towers, Spindle Boxes, Sandpaper Sounds, Practical Life activities, math beads, low shelves, child size furniture, and all the rest. But is that all of what Montessori is?
Follow the Child is the Montessori mantra. Through her spontaneously expressed interests and explorations, she will show us what she needs. Give him an environment rich in interesting things to do that bring the world within reach and he will respond. You don’t plan a young child’s development; you just help it along. This happens in Montessori schools, and as we see on Mom Blogs, in many homes every day. Parents are doing activities just like those in Montessori schools, right at home. This is wonderful, but is that where Montessori begins and ends?
Montessori’s first school opened in the slums of Rome before 1910. Those children did not have the advantages of many children today. We hop in the car or on a plane and go to the mountains, beach, lake, meadow, mall, art exhibit, street fair, toy store, superstore, different city, Disneyland, historical site, children’s museum, etc. Young children learn swimming, gymnastics, and soccer. Our kids are surrounded by internet-connected devices. A year of Sesame Street gives a child all kinds of learning experiences. Many homes with young children look like toy stores. Homes and day care centers have educational toys and activities. Preschools are everywhere. A large percentage of children attend kindergarten. Things have changed. Montessori started it all, and I believe she would be thrilled with how our awareness of the importance of young children has evolved.
More parents today have an understanding that children learn quite a lot in the years before school. Helping kids count, pointing out colors and words, and playing educational games are common now. Let’s say a parent never creates or buys a Montessori material. If that parent involves their child in everyday life around the home, encourages their child to learn basic life skills and be independent, provides a variety of experiences the child enjoys and looks forward to, takes their child to the playground, provides a variety of interesting toys, watches educational TV shows, and reads with their child regularly, is that parent doing Montessori? If a parent is active in helping their child learn but never sets up a low shelf or creates a self-contained activity, is that parent still doing Montessori? That parent is helping life. That means helping in any way that benefits a child and that the child gets into.
Montessori was not big on pretend play or books with talking animals. What if your child loves pretend and dramatic play; and dearly loves her Talking Elmo or doll or book with talking deer and magical creatures? Many of us grew up on this stuff and turned out ok. The Lion King and Finding Nemo don’t seem to have caused abnormalities in children. Follow the child, wherever that leads. Many educators state that computers and TV are not appropriate for young children. Don‟t tell that to the kids! Information exchange is evolving; and kids are into keeping up. Keep a balance and control content, but follow the child.
Not everything can be presented to a child on a tray or a shelf. We don’t know what experiences children will find fascinating until we show them things and take them places. The Prepared Environment now includes the whole world!
If Maria Montessori were alive, what would her Prepared Environment look like now? Would it have evolved to include more experiences and other approaches to child development? I think so.
It seems to me that it is we adults who categorize, join groups, start training programs, and defend our territory. Children are smarter than that! While we debate the merits of our favorite approach, children are busy absorbing what they need from all of it. I wish we could get some of them into Congress!
I think the reason the different approaches to early childhood education work and make us believe in them so strongly is because of the absorbent minds and willing attitudes of the children using them.
Following Montessori’s approach means following the child and helping life. This can be done in many ways using many approaches. If I were starting a preschool or day care center today I think it would be a lot of fun to offer the children everything, all the approaches, all together. Let the children choose what they want to do. My guess is you would see the kids find their own intelligent balance and do everything when the time was right for them. Follow the child.
Give a child a stick and she will create a learning activity, a dramatic play sequence, an art project, and a cherished object. Give him the rich environment of a Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio, or traditional preschool and he will make each one look like the best thing since sliced bread. It’s not just the program – it’s the children. They adapt to all of them and make them look brilliant! As Montessori observed, children will teach us if we just observe and listen.
A Montessori Prepared Environment and Montessori materials have unique benefits for children. Children can follow their own paths using the same space and equipment; and learn social skills in a natural way. Their development as individuals is encouraged, not molded to fit adult designed, one-size-fit-all lesson plans. Montessori activities help children experience the thrill of succeeding through their own motivations. Isolating activities and skills helps children develop concentration. The entire setup shows respect for the child. The Prepared Environment truly is a “help to life”, as Montessori intended, whether it is in a school or at home.
Maria Montessori showed us that children are internally guided and directed. She gave us a beautiful way to help and encourage their natural development. If you follow her prime directive – Follow the Child – you find that many other experiences and approaches to early childhood education also support and encourage a child’s development. I recommend using it all and putting as much as you can within your child’s reach. Expose your child to the world in many ways and encourage her to become independent.
Help life. Follow the child.
John Bowman is the author of Help Your Preschooler Build a Better Brain.
© 2011 John Bowman
My thanks to John for writing this extensive article for us here at 1+1+1=1!
Did you miss earlier Montessori Minute Posts?