What is Montessori and Why is it Important?

For many young families, hearing this buzzword - Montessori - is a common occurrence. Friends may have sent their children to Montessori schools, you may have come across ads for local schools in parenting magazines, or you may have discovered your favorite A-Lister was a “Montessori child”. But what exactly is Montessori?


The short answer is quite accurate in its description, albeit lofty.


Montessori is a revolutionary method of observing and supporting the natural development of children. Montessori educational practice helps children develop creativity, problem solving, social and time-management skills, to contribute to society and the environment, and to become fulfilled persons in their particular time and place on earth. The basis of Montessori practice in the classroom is respected individual choice of research and work, and uninterrupted concentration rather than group lessons led by an adult - Montessori International Index


And while all of this is absolutely true, how is any family able to attain this without any guidance as to how to even start!? And how can a child, washing her hands everyday at school, going to “become [a] fulfilled person in their particular time and place on earth”?


It's so simple, it's genius. Let the child be. Let the child discover their world around them, at their pace, when they are interested. Now, this is very difficult for us adults. There is so much to know! There is so much to see! Part of this gut reaction we have as adults is pure interest in the world around us, and if that sounds like you, congratulations, you are a lifelong learner (one of many Montessori-isms) We see so much and through our life, we often realize that them more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. In this way, we want to give our children a “jump start” in the hopes they can know more than us. The other part of this is our own experiences through our culture that treats children as an “empty vessel”. Our culture believes that the child’s mind is a blank slate that needs to be written on, a vessel to be filled with knowledge. If we can just get them to pay more attention through punishment and threat, they can learn more. Or the flip side, if we make education more flashy and fun, they will have more information in that vessel.


However, the child's mind is not a computer, waiting to receive the latest download.


We humans are as natural as the flowers that bloom in the yard and the lion that roams free across the savannah. The flower doesn't need to be taught how to bloom. The lion doesn’t need to learn how to be agile and sly. All that information is already there, encoded in the very DNA. Humans are alike in this way; we have encoded in us a curiosity of exploring and adapting to the world around us. Because of this very beautiful trait all humans have, we do not need to fill the void we believe to be the child’s mind.


Our task is much more difficult than that. We must learn not to be the roadblock in their quest for knowledge.


The good news is, Maria Montessori left brilliant plans for us all to achieve this through her careful observation, implementation, and re-observation.


The first thing we must do is to prevent ourselves from being the obstacle to our child. This for many of us is the most difficult task. The key to this is to self reflect. We must be honest about our own experiences and how they have shaped our beliefs and who we are today. We must consider why we react to various situations in such predictable, personal ways. Gaining a true understanding of who we are will help us understand why we react to our children in the way that we do. Every interaction we have with our children will play a part in who they will become. Rewarding our children for behaviors can be just as problematic as yelling for noncompliance, in their own different ways. Rewarding our children externally through prizes or events and outings, never allows the child to gain a sense of internal motivation. The child will continually look for external signs of value and materialism, having learned the message that things measure my success. Being yelled at when making a mistake teaches the child to be fearful of power greater than oneself, or to be the largest and loudest in order to be the most powerful. Our children are young social anthropologists, exploring the boundaries of the adults and the peers in their lives. The family at home is the laboratory, where the main experiments are conducted, then brought out into the field for further testing at places like school and the park. We must think of the messages we are sending our children that inform the experiments they will be conducting.


The second thing we must do is to create an environment that allows the child to freely move and explore. Our homes must adapt to the size of the child, so that they may gain a sense of independence. To be able to eat when one is feeling hungry, is one of the most basic human rights. Setting up our kitchens so that the child may freely feel this right is such a beautiful gift we can give our children. This doesn’t mean we put all food at the child’s level and let them go, but rather a thoughtful consideration of placing the days available snack portions in a basket that can be independently reached when desired. Putting a limit on how many toys are available at a time, neatly arranged on a size appropriate shelf, rather than every toy received since birth crammed into a toy box, allows the child to be successful in reaching what they want, and the ability to clean up after themselves without the agony of feeling overwhelmed. This is the kind of thoughtfulness we should be putting into how we create the environment for our smaller family members.


And what will all this do in the end?


The subtle changes in the environment that lead to functional independence then begin to lead to emotional independence. The child can begin to have a positive feedback loop, internally:

  • If I can reach my food when I am hungry, I can satisfy myself.

  • If I eat too soon, I will be hungry again before the next meal.

  • If I take out all my toys at once, I will have too many things to put away.

  • If I put this toy and this toy together, I can create a whole new experience.

  • When I clean up my things, I am helping my home look beautiful.

  • I am important because I help my home.


The work we do internally helps us to understand what our triggers are, and then we set up the environment to prevent as many triggers from happening. When we find ourselves getting angry every time we step on our child’s toys, that is a cue to make a change to the set up of toys, maybe less toys, maybe more attention to setting the expectation that toys are cleaned up. When we are overwhelmed when we hear whining for food, adjust what is offered to the child independently to make more food available due to a possible growth spurt or more calorie dense options. We must look at our feelings that lie at the root of our reactions to determine what needs to be reworked in the environment. Our interactions with the child are our key to what needs fine tuning.


After all this work we do internally and to our home environments, we can begin to see that yes, our children will “develop creativity, problem solving, social and time-management skills, to contribute to society and the environment, and to become fulfilled persons in their particular time and place on earth”


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