The Montessori classroom functions as a community where the guide (teacher) and the children work together to make it a peaceful and safe place for everyone. An important aspect of building this sense of community is care for the environment.
The Classroom Belongs to the Child
Instead of the guide (teacher) inviting a child into her world, she works to create a world for the child. It becomes a classroom which belongs to the children, or, as we call it, the Children’s House. In their classroom, children feel a sense of both ownership and responsibility. Children want to have responsibility and to feel needed and an important part of their classroom community.
On a daily basis, children in the Montessori classroom find joy in helping with preparations for lunch (such as wiping down tables with soap and water, setting tables, washing up after lunch, sweeping the floor) and caring for the classroom (dusting, window washing, table scrubbing, leaf polishing, metal polishing, flower arranging, and more). They often sign up to help with classroom laundry and fold the freshly laundered cleaning cloths.
(Children also have this same desire to contribute in their home environment. Inviting them into the daily keeping of the home may not always be efficient or end up with tidy results, but it is important for a sense of belonging and allowing them to grow in independence. It’s important to observe your child for signs of interest in your daily tasks and invite them to participate with you, instead of waiting until they are “older” and “assigning” them “chores”. Invite them in when they are interested, and they will find natural enjoyment in the keeping of their home!)
The classroom is set up for the success and independence of the child (and throughout the school year, the observant guide continues to make changes based on the development of the children in her classroom), with attention to the smallest details as well as the larger details, such as the placement of the furnishings and equipment.
A Curated Collection
Many newcomers to the Montessori classroom will be surprised by the lack of traditional “preschool” materials – typically made of plastic and in bright primary colors.
Instead, they will find beautifully crafted items made from natural elements such as wood, glass, metal, fabric, and more. They will find many items which adults use, but crafted to fit small, developing hands. They may discover artifacts and art from around the world and safe, non-toxic plants which the children regularly tend by watering and leaf polishing and dusting.
Children are naturally drawn to beauty, to “real-world” activities and “real-world” materials that they see adults handling. They are also naturally drawn towards order and take pride in caring for their environment.
Respect for Materials
Children new to a Montessori classroom may not know how to interact with the environment and the materials.
The materials in a Montessori classroom are often quite dear in terms of cost and ability to replace them. Many teachers spend years collecting fascinating materials and objects to incorporate into their classrooms, over time, piecing together a collection that they know will fascinate and delight children.
A very important aspect of orienting a child to the classroom environment is teaching them to respect the classroom and the materials, but also letting them know that they are being entrusted with the care of these materials and that they are capable of handling them with respect.
Of course, Montessori teachers understand that accidents can and do happen, and that they are part of a child’s learning. Accidents are never a time of shaming but instead are a time of growth and learning.
During a period of adjustment, called “normalization,” it is not unusual for these children to accidentally damage the materials. Within the classroom, when things spill, drop to the ground or are knocked off the shelf, teachers quietly observe the child, and when necessary, step in without rebuke, to demonstrate how care for the environment by cleaning up. They ensure the child knows where to get the tools needed for clean up, and the steps in involved in the clean up process. Sometimes they will bring the child’s attention to the natural consequences of carelessness:
- “I see that the water from the pouring work is on the floor. It’s time to wipe it up that you or a friend doesn’t slip on the water.”
- “Let’s make sure this scooping work is ready for another friend to use. Here is how you can sweep up the beans.”
- “This work is delicate and needs to be handled gently. Since it is broken, we will have to take it out of our classroom. You and your friends will not be able to use it now.”
The teacher will never ask a child to clean up hazardous materials, such as broken glass. But she will point out the danger of broken glass as she cleans it up and explain that since glass is fragile in nature, it needs to be handled very carefully.
Sometimes the teacher may send home a damaged item with a child so that they can work with their parent to fix it and return it to school. This often happens when an item is repeatedly mishandled or intentionally damaged. There is not time for the teacher to work with the child on repairing an item in the classroom, and sending it home allows the child to spend time with a parent on fixing the item he or she damaged, and allows them to understand the natural consequences of their actions. If some materials are irreparable, some teachers may request the family to replace the item, encouraging the family to involve the child in the process, which provides the child with the opportunity to learn responsibility as well as respect. We are so grateful for the understanding community of parents we have who support their children’s growth in these areas, and support the investment of their child’s teachers!
When children work together to care for the environment, it becomes a place where all can find joy and delight in discovery and learning!