The Montessori Advantage, Part 3

Montessori Offers Freedom

One often misunderstood component of Montessori education is that, “Children get to do whatever they want to do. There are no rules.”  This is a myth, as Montessori offers children “freedom with limits”. When we offer children this type of freedom, it cultivates their sense of responsibility,

First, teachers evaluate their classroom environment to make sure that it fosters the child’s ability to make good choices.  For example, if there is a work that the children are not ready for, and that has the potential to be alluring to the child and therefore misused, she does not put that work out.  She will provide alternate, developmentally-appropriate work for the child. 

Second, the Montessori environment, as in the world around us, offers freedom insomuch as it does not bring harm to others or the environment. A child does not have the freedom to throw a work across the room, as that damages the cooperative classroom environment. A child does not have the freedom to pinch a friend, as it harms the friend.

However, Montessori does offer “freedom of choice”. One three-year old Children’s House student may be driven by her development to create art over and over. She works at art throughout the day for weeks. The gross-motor movement she uses on the chalk board or on the easel, painting, is what her body needs at this stage of development. The fine-motor movement and pincer grasp on a piece of chalk is strengthening her hand for later writing work. Another three-year old may be fascinated by how letters fit together, and may be already forming simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words!  We observe the unspoken message the child gives us, and allow them the freedom to choose what their development needs. When a child has the freedom to choose their own learning activities, they are more likely to LOVE what they do! It fosters an lifelong love of learning and the message to the child that they are not “wrong”, “behind”, or “ahead” – simply that they are truly themselves!

There is one caveat. Freedom with limits. Children who are offered too many choices and too much power are in danger of becoming overwhelmed. There’s actually a term for it: decision fatigue. Have you ever turned on Netflix with the intent to unwind with a good film, only to click through hundreds of titles, only to turn off the television without having watched anything? You may have had too many choices to wade through. In adults and children alike, decision fatigue leads to irritability and feelings of being overwhelmed and out of control.  It can result in impulsive, thoughtless decisions. In children, research shows it actually has a negative effect on their attention and creativity!  The key here is to offer developmentally appropriate choices and to set boundaries.

A child fascinated with scrubbing at preschool
A child who is fascinated by scrubbing activities is given the freedom to repeat them over and over; the child intrinsically knows his or her need for large motor movement, and the teacher understands that these movements develop the child’s muscles that are needed for writing – in addition to a host of other benefits for the child’s mental and physical development!

Montessori Builds a Concrete Foundation for the Abstract

learning math at preschool
young girl learning math at preschool

Above, these math materials introduce the child to abstract concepts through concrete objects.

Children in the Montessori Children’s House classroom are, in this way, introduced to numbers of 1-9,999; addition, subtraction, multiplication and division; binomial and trinomial equations; fractions; the decimal system, and more!

This approach is also used in our approach to language. Language is an abstract concept, as we can understand as soon as we study a language other than our mother tongue. (All around the world, there are different symbols that represent different sounds.) When acquiring the ability to read and write, we first enrich a child’s vocabulary as they interact in the environment. We may show them an apple, and allow them to touch and feel it, and repeat after us, “apple”.  We then build phonemic awareness: can they hear how the words, “ant” and “apple” start with the same sound?  Eventually we introduce the abstract symbol “a” and the sound it makes: “ah”. Even after a child has learned to read and write, he also interacts with concrete grammar materials to help him prepare for language mastery in the elementary years! As Susan Stephenson says in The Joyful Child: Montessori, Global Wisdom for Birth to Three, “Language is meaningless if it is not based on experience.”

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