Maria Montessori, the first woman graduate of the University of Rome Medical School, did not approach children's education with the traditional question "How can I give children the knowledge I know they will need to make a success of their lives?" The children she was given to care for as a young medical doctor in 1896 were the insane, shut away in the asylums of Rome.
How ludicrous to think in terms of education for success in the world. Rather, Montessori sought a means whereby she might reach the humanity hidden within these "poor idiots," as she called them. It was this open-minded approach to education that made possible a great discovery. The keepers of the children in the asylums complained that the children were so greedy, they would snatch up any crumb of food left on the floor. Montessori watched more closely and saw what others had failed to observe. The children did not eat these crumbs but began to manipulate and play with them. She regarded this spontaneous interest as a sign they could be reached on a sensory level. She traveled to France to study the work of two French doctors who had worked with deaf and neurologically damaged children in the early nineteenth century, Jean Itard and Edouard Séguin.
With their insights to aid her, Montessori began work with her children (now housed in the State Orthophrenic School which she directed) in 1898. For two years she labored day and night, developing her materials and methods. So successful were they that her children were heralded in the press around the world for passing Italian public-school examinations in reading and writing. This phenomenon upset Montessori for she knew her unfortunate children could not equal children of normal intelligence. Realizing something was radically wrong with traditional approaches to education, she returned to the University to study psychology, philosophy, and anthropology, becoming a Professor of Anthropology in 1904.
In 1907 Montessori was given her first opportunity to work with children of normal intelligence. She was to direct a day-care center in a housing project in the slum section of San Lorenzo in Rome. Montessori approached these children in the same spirit she had her mentally deficient children. She had not determined what she wanted to teach them; instead, she simply observed and recorded their responses to her special equipment. To her amazement, the children showed an incredible spontaneous repetition of certain actions and a concentration of the deepest level in response to the materials. These phenomena were evident to a degree not observable in the mentally deficient children at the Institute. Even more surprising, they appeared to be contented and rested from their labors, as though some great inner need was being satisfied.
As Montessori's children daily became more involved with the materials, other phenomena occurred. The children demonstrated they thrived on being free to choose their own materials and activities. Interestingly, they gradually ignored the dolls and other toys Montessori had put in the room, and she eventually removed them. They displayed a total disregard for either rewards or punishments in relation to their work. They appeared daily more self-confident, self-disciplined, and loving toward each other.
Many people understand that Montessori education involves a particular environment that is structured to meet the needs of children, that this environment includes materials to be manipulated, and that amazing benefits somehow accrue to the child. Common sense tells one, however, there must be more to it than merely placing children and materials side by side in the same environment. How, for example, do Montessori children learn to write and read? (In Montessori writing precedes reading.)
An indirect preparation for writing begins with Practical Life Exercises, which are presented to the children when they enter Montessori at age three. These are a series of carefully laid-out activities involving those tasks the children see accomplished daily in their own homes and which, therefore, they spontaneously seek to imitate: the washing of hands, ironing, preparation of food, etc. The purpose of these exercises is not to learn the particular skill involved, although this accomplishment undoubtedly will aid the children's self-confidence and independence. It is rather to enable the children to develop control of movement, concentration, self-discipline, and the ability to complete a cycle of activity. Without this early experience with the Practical Life Exercises, any further exposure to the Montessori materials is fruitless, for the children will be unable to control their own minds and movements even when they wish to.
A second series of activities in the indirect preparation for writing are the Sensorial Materials. These are materials the children spontaneously choose to work with because they fulfill their instinctive desire to touch, taste, and feel the world about them. Through the manipulation of a sphere or a cube, different lengths of rods, or fitting cylinders into holders, the children begin to order their perceptions of size and space. Muscular movement needed for writing is refined by the use of thumb and index finger to grasp tiny knobs used in much of the equipment. Control of a pencil is developed by tracing of metal frames with geometric insets such as a circle.
After Practical Life Exercises and Sensorial Materials have laid a solid background, the teacher begins to present sounds to the children. She may say "sss," "some, Susie, bus. Can you hear sss?" Because at age three the children are still in their sensitive period for language, they enjoy the game. One day, when the teacher knows a particular child is aware of distinct sounds, she says "Do you know you can see sss, you can even feel it!" She then takes a tablet with a sandpaper S on it, and very slowly conveying by her manner the mystery of the written symbol, traces the letter S with her index finger. She invites the child to do this also. After a number of the sounds of the letters -- but not all -- have been learned in this way, the Movable Alphabet is introduced. This is a box containing the letters of the alphabet sorted into compartments for easy usage. Sound and symbol are placed on a mat in left-to-right progression. "D-o-g" is sounded out by the teacher and placed on a mat in a left-to-right progression. In this way, the children also reproduce their own words, then phrases, sentences, and finally stories.
The time comes when the children do not want to put away their stories, as they must with the Movable Alphabet. Because of the early indirect development of the skills needed for writing (the muscular control for holding the pencil through the gripping of tiny knobs on the materials, the tracing of the metal insets, the muscle memory developed by tracing the sandpaper letters), the children now can pick up a pencil and write their own stories. Other materials follow which present the intricacies of nonphonetic spelling and grammar. The creativity in Montessori is apparent here, for not many educational methods make it possible for four- or five-year-olds to compose their own stories, in spite of the fact this is the time when they show a spontaneous and unselfconscious desire to do so.
Because they know what they have just written, the children come to reading by the back door, as it were. They read their own stories to themselves and others. When at last they select a book to read, they already know how. Our reading children may be anywhere from five to seven, but they are most likely six, no younger than their non-Montessori compatriots in the first grade. The point then is not early reading, but an introduction to reading so carefully programmed and well thought out in terms of the children's own needs, interests, and abilities that its success is guaranteed. When well done, Montessori education leads to self-confident, independent, and self-disciplined children who acquire a sound background for academic and creative skills and interests.
Is it for you?
The question is purposefully stated: "Is it for you?" not "Is it for your child?" The philosophy and methods Montessori developed are based on universal laws of child growth and can certainly be helpful to your child. Whether Montessori will be helpful to you, however, is another question, for the answer depends upon your conception of your function as a parent. Montessori viewed parents as guardians, not as creators, for it is the children who must create themselves. They are given special powers for this task which the parents must seek to understand and collaborate with. How are they to do this? First, they must develop their innate capacity to observe, enjoy, and empathize with their young. On a practical level this means a frequent willingness to suspend the adult's achievement-oriented view of life and to adopt the much slower pace of the child, a difficult thing to do!
Secondly, it means preparing a home environment in which the needs of the children are met. This means that as tiny babies the children must be accepted into the social life of the family and not isolated in a nursery, where their need to absorb the world about them is thwarted. As they grow, their need to crawl and eventually to walk must be accepted and encouraged. Montessori did not believe the extensive use of playpens, cribs, and strollers is necessary. Rooms can be made safe for toddlers; low beds are much safer than cribs, which the adventurous children sooner or later climb out of; walks can be set at a children's pace and distance.
As the children grow, they want to touch and handle the same objects in the environment they see others using. The parent must encourage this, for it is the children's innate understanding that they must eventually take their place in the world as adults that compel them to this behavior. Inevitably, the children will want to explore things in the environment which belong to others. Where possible, a substitution should be made. For example, it is not mother's pen but one like it of their own the children wish. Because "don't touch" is synonymous with "don't learn" for the young children, it should be saved for only those situations where there is no other recourse. There is no question here of abuse, however, of either material things or the rights of others. The children have no way of developing respect for their environment and the people within it if appropriate limits are not set.
Parents must so arrange the home that they help the children master their environments and become increasingly independent of the parent's help. The children's room should be simple and orderly. Everything in it should be appropriate for their size and ability: low shelves with a few well-chosen toys, a low table with brush and comb, mirror, a pitcher and bowl for washing and brushing teeth, low hooks to put their clothes on -- the latter to be chosen for the ease with which they can get in and out of them, an accessible place to put their soiled clothes, hang up their towels, etc.
It is the children's instinct and desire for work and serious accomplishment that enable them to develop a healthy self-concept and realistic self-esteem. Therefore, they should be allowed to observe and participate in their parents' activities at the kitchen sink or garage workbench. An appropriate stool helps them into the adults' world, and the parents have only to slow their pace and expectations for the children to join them in making their own sandwiches and Jello or birdhouses. An overabundance of toys and many hours of television rob the children of their opportunity for these accomplishments and create an unnatural passivity and apathy toward life.
If you accept the Montessori viewpoint of parenthood, you may want to send your children to a Montessori school to complement your approach to them at home. You should know, however, what to expect from their experience. For example, children in Montessori are free to choose their own activities with only indirect guidance from the prepared environment, older children, and teacher. Children of parents who tend to over-control and manipulate them, albeit unconsciously, often use the Montessori classroom for a much needed rest from the pressuring they receive at home. The Montessori environment is good for them, but they may not be reading by 5 or 6. This is nothing to be concerned about, of course, but anxious parents may create a problem where none should exist.
All this freedom of activity in the classroom is balanced with discipline and structure. The Montessori environment is orderly, and the limits of social behavior are strictly adhered to. Dr. Montessori believed permissiveness, far from leading to freedom for the children, made them prisoners of their own destructive feelings and acts.
Is Montessori for you? It is if you can raise your children knowing that they belong not to you but to themselves, and that your job as a parent is one of temporary privilege and responsibility: the aiding and observing of another life as it unfolds.
If you decide to select a Montessori school for your child, you should check carefully those available to you. There is no franchise on the name Montessori, and even schools run by certified directresses are sometimes of poor quality. The only way to determine whether the school you choose is a good one is to observe it for yourself. Reading a good introductory book on Montessori may help you to have more confidence in your decision. But whatever you do, don't let anyone talk you out of seeing for yourself where you are going to leave your three-year-old for several hours a day.
Paula Polk Lillard is the author of Montessori: A Modern Approach, which has been published in seven languages and is internationally known as the standard introduction to Montessori education, and Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Plan of Education from Birth to Adulthood. She is also the head of Forest Bluff School (8 W. Scranton, Lake Bluff, IL 60044), a school which she co-founded in 1982 to provide Montessori classroom environments for children ages 18 months to 15 years.
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