Recently, I was very fortunate to hear Julie Lythcott-Haimes, author of How to Raise an Adult. Just last week on our professional development day, many of our staff and I attended a wonderful day of training with Sarah Ward who presented Playing to Planning: Developing Executive Control and Self-Regulation Skill in Young Learners. One of our parents, asked me to express my thoughts of these talks based upon my understanding of Montessori education.
Well, as a Montessorian, it is very validating witness how the latest research and science support Montessori's own discovery from 100 years ago! By fostering independence and giving children choices, teaching them to tune into themselves and their surroundings, giving guidance and clear boundaries, foster social development and self-confidence we help the child to develop to be their very best. Montessori called this the integration of the personality. A child cannot grow if he is told what to do constantly which is critical for executive function and planning. As Dr. Montessori put it, The child's development follows a path of successive stages of independence... We have to help the child to act, will and think for himself. This is the art of serving the spirit, an art which can be practised [sic] to perfection only when working among children. (The Absorbent Mind, p. 257)
A child does not develop a sense of purpose with good job tossed around, but by feeling within herself the pride and joy, yes joy, that comes from a task well done. Do we praise a child's efforts? Yes, if they are looking for praise - but we turn it back to them with comments such as Wow, how do you feel? I see you chose many colors....Limits in the classroom give the children freedom to navigate their space in safety. Imagination and creativity are essential powers in a child that flower when they are child-inspired, not adult imposed; Ward gave the example of a block that may be imagined to be a fire engine but a plastic truck with a siren does not. Where does it begin? In Practical Life, of course; where children develop a sense of a work cycle, memorize sequences of activities, planning and process.
Then, of course, the bomb gets dropped when the speaker inevitably says children preschool age should just play, no academics. Or, the child will be burned out by second grade. But just a few years ago we were told by experts not to waste these essential development years with idle fancy! Now where do we stand? Is Montessori an anything goes play program? Well, no. Is Montessori an academic program? Well, yes and no. Again, this is where Montessori's study of children so long ago has paid off. The key difference is much like her views on imagination. Child-inspired academics are wonderful, joyful, and fun which is a completely different experience than a child being told to sit and do a math or language sheet because it is time. Our materials go from the concrete to the abstract which the child will pursue at their own pace, interest, and ability. Our reading activities are fun games that the children do in small groups (often, they don't know they are reading!).
Montessori observed that children are happiest when they are creating themselves - whether they are perfecting their ability to wash a table, care for a plant, help another child, count beautiful glass beads, or play with words to create something funny. Children do not put a value on these things and they do not put one skill above the other. They will applaud the three year old who at last manages to cross the room without dumping the water bucket as quickly as they congratulate a child who created a story.
As to much in this life, the answer is that it's all a matter of balance. The essential element is child-inspired activities in a well-balanced environment where children are free to move and make choices. And yes, our teachers as guides, are ceaselessly there to help and inspire them, to encourage them to work in all areas of the classroom, to take chances, and be interested in mistakes. We are ever ready to help them to the next level when and if they are able and patient and encouraging when they are not.
Watching the work flow is very interesting. A child may begin the day by tackling a challenging work, clean up then invite a friend to yoga or dishwashing, meander to have snack and then take out a creative work. While another child may warm up with coloring on paper and go from there. Some children spend two years fascinated by the materials in Practical Life and Sensorial, only to explode into reading or math in their third year. Some children begin our program thirsty for knowledge and then learn how to relax and balance this with activities in Practical Life. While children world-over have many things in common, each child, as is his spirit and life's journey, is uniquely his own.
The key is to research the statement from our leading experts. In her book, How to Raise an Adult in the section on How to Let Your Kid Play, Lythcott-Haimes states, Consider schools that value student-driven learning and play, such as Montessori schools, which exist nationwide. When I chatted with Sarah Ward, I was pleased to hear her commending Montessori education as a fantastic method of helping children to develop their executive function and self-regulation distinguishing our experience from other programs that stress academics. For more information, I highly recommend Dr. Steve Hughes talks on Building Better Brains and Understanding Montessori Education - The Neuroscience Behind the Method.
As a parent myself, we are always striving to do what is best for our children. In an information-rich world, parenting is a confusing journey. Key in my own Montessori training and confirmed by Dr. Hughes and Sarah Ward, is that it is essential to a child's brain development for us to put our electronics aside and engage our children in interactive conversation. However, we need to balance this with providing them quiet time to explore the world independently, with time focus and concentrate. Trust that nobody knows your child as well as you do and that finding balance always seems to be the right path.
Dr. Hughes quotes Montessori children are independent moral agents. They have self-control, advanced academic skills, empathy, and they understand complex systems. They understand that we are all connected. They know all human beings have the same needs and they also know that whatever comes out of a smokestack is going to land on someone, somewhere. They love the earth. They are attached to reality. Is this truly the case for each and every child in our program? We strive, but perhaps not. After all, a modern child's life has many influences beyond school. However, I do believe that this is true for many of our students and that our program is designed to help each child along her unique path to being her very best. Dr. Hughes, this modern-day neuroscientist, and the latest research on the importance of self-regulation sounds very much like Dr. Montessori herself: The child is capable of developing and giving us tangible proof of the possibility of a better humanity. He has shown us the true process of construction of the human being. We have seen children totally change as they acquire a love for things and as their sense of order, discipline, and self-control develops within them.... The child is both a hope and a promise for mankind. (Education and Peace).