Great News! Montessori Can’t Be Bought (or Made)
Children I know have actually received a big box of shiny pink Sandpaper Letters for Christmas. (Ho ho ho). I also know a boy who got a Binomial Cube from his grandmother for his second birthday. When you are smitten with the Montessori approach, it is so easy (and certainly understandable) to get caught up in acquiring all the gorgeous and purposeful Montessori materials. You may even believe that there is actually some magical educational benefit of a Pink Tower or the Bead Stair.
Parents want to lovingly recreate what they have read about in books or have seen in Montessori classrooms. They ask me which five core Montessori materials are must- haves for their home environment. They eventually learn that while authentic Montessori materials are exquisite and often expensive, it’s alright, because many “Montessori inspired” activities can be handmade. Handy adults get out their wood saws and sewing machines. Online they can now find presentation videos and print out curriculum cards to laminate. Pinterest and so many wonderful blogs and e-books are there to help.
According to NAMTA (North American Montessori Teacher Association) new preschool and elementary classrooms spend up to $25,000 on apparatus alone. However, even a shiny new and complete set of Montessori materials will not guarantee an outcome of self-direction, focus, confidence, kindness, or love of learning.
That is because Montessori is not things. It doesn’t arrive in a box. Montessori is a philosophy, and the Good News is that philosophies are free!
We can all make Montessori education work if we understand it.
We Choose the Child
When you choose to practice the Montessori approach, you choose The Child. You choose to study your child to such a degree that you can create the optimal environment for their current need. This means you become familiar with the universal stages and the sensitive periods that all children travel through. It means that you learn to hone your own senses and observational skills so that you can create individualized effective lessons and an environment that assists his or her development. You learn not to worry, interfere, or direct their activity to suit your taste. You learn to respect that we all travel the path at a different pace.
The child’s journey is a cosmic and colorful one that belongs only to them.
Over one hundred years ago, Dr. Montessori directed a bright beam of light on the importance of four particularly sensitive areas of brain development in children between the ages of birth and six years of life. These Sensitive Periods are clear windows of opportunity for learning. These windows of heightened interest and ability are thought to close fairly abruptly at a certain point, and so it is critical that we notice them and provide appropriate support.
Sensitive Periods have been identified for Order (predictable routines and places for objects); Language (interest in making and learning about sounds within words, acquiring vocabulary and syntax, and learning additional languages); Senses (repetition and refinement of skills for all five senses); and Movement (refining all types of motor coordination). Learning can be effortless and joyful if timed to coordinate with these times when the brain is so willing and able.
Whether in the home or in a school setting, young children are small scientists who are seeking patterns and predictability in their world. They use their senses to learn. They have an inner need to create order within their minds. With greater control of their bodies and emotions, comes the ability to do things independently without our help. Children also are driven to connect and communicate with other people. These are human drives for fulfillment.
We can help them with that only if we are aware.
This is a gift that is rarely available in our society, let alone our schools. Most children are asked to change gears and transition every 45 minutes or so. There are interruptions for “specials”, recess, pull out reading groups, lunch, and more. At home there are appointments, errands, and activities that do the same thing. This makes it difficult to concentrate and conquer challenges. Children cannot learn to focus, learn how to take natural breaks, or learn to do hard things without time. I believe the learning is superficial and rarely interest driven.
Think about your work day. If you know you only have 45 minutes before a meeting, you can’t get into your project. You refill your coffee, check your email, and make To Do Lists for tomorrow. On days without interruption, you can think deeply and accomplish a great deal. How does that feel?
Related to the time issue, is while it is difficult not to push a child toward a harder lesson, especially when they repeat the same task day after day, we know that the child’s time table is sacred. If it were boring for them, they would move on. We can hopefully set aside our own “need” for the children to be advancing at the “proper” pace and allow them to move at their own.
This is wisdom. This is compassion. This is genuine kindness and respect.
Executive Brain Function
Montessori adults know how to stand back, keep quiet, and let the child figure out what they did wrong or what to do next. In real life, you can’t expect to walk right in and immediately solve everything without effort. Self-esteem does not come from being sheltered from conflict or struggle, or from rewards. Observe well enough to give children the precise physical and mental tools to succeed, and then watch them enjoy doing hard things.
A three year old can do so many things when we allow them to try.
So Why Does It Matter?
The reason I think I know that Montessori is not about things, is because I know children can learn about size without a Pink Tower. They learn to read with or without Montessori materials or lessons, and certainly can learn to add and subtract without Golden Beads.
We know that children learn rapidly, completely, and effortlessly with or without us. What we want is to provide the purest, most sparkling, and satisfying “water” we can for our young “sponges” at the exact time in their development when they need it most. That one little sentence is the key. Montessori philosophy provides a useful and respectful gift that trusts that the child can construct him or herself.
If we are not there to notice and support their sensitive periods, give them time and respect for their individual journey, I guess it really doesn’t matter what we buy or make, does it?
I can teach anything if the philosophy is in my heart and mind.