Dr. Maria Montessori believed that activities aimed at strengthening and refining our five senses are a very important, though often neglected, part of a child’s education. The ability to keenly and accurately perceive the world is a core competence that benefits the person in all sorts of adult work. For example, this is self-evident in the work of the artist or poet, but also,
“Something of the same kind is true of the physician, the student of medicine, who studies theoretically the character of the pulse, and sits down by the bed of the patient with the best will in the world to read the pulse, but, if his fingers do not know how to read the sensations his studies will have been in vain. Before he can become a doctor, he must gain a capacity for discriminating between sense stimuli.” (Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method, p. 219)
Dr. Montessori believed that there is a sensitive period for sense development in early childhood, which is why it is emphasized in Children’s House. “Very often sense education is most difficult for the adult, just as it is difficult for him to educate his hand when he wishes to become a pianist. It is necessary to begin the education of the senses in the formative period, if we wish to perfect this sense development with the education which is to follow.” (p. 221)
These materials are referred to as “sensorial materials.” Below are just a few of the myriad sensorial materials in our Montessori Children’s Houses:
- Sound Cylinders: These cylinders help the child to differentiate subtle differences in sound. The cylinders are identical in all ways except the sound they make when shaken. The child’s task is to form pairs of cylinders with identical sounds.
- Rough and Smooth Boards: These require a child to discriminate between sandpaper boards that vary in texture. The child lines them up from smoothest to roughest.
- Pink Tower: This task helps children to refine their perception of size. The tower consists of pink blocks that are stacked on the floor. The bottom blocks are large and get smaller by 1 cm on all sides, with the smallest block being a 1 cm cube.
- Red Rods: These rods are identical except for length. The child arranges the rods from shortest to longest.
- Wooden Rectangles: These are different types of smooth wood that are identical in size and shape, but vary in weight. The child feels the weight of each piece in his or her hand to identify subtle differences in weight and separates them accordingly.
You may hear your child or child’s teacher refer to his or her “work” or “works.” Works are the tasks or activities, usually using specialized materials, aimed at teaching the child a particular skill.
Dr. Montessori took seriously the activities of children, including very young children. She believed that when a child is interacting with and exploring the environment, they are going about the very business of creating themselves—developing their intellect and personality. She had great respect for this task of childhood, and developed imaginative materials for the classrooms to facilitate the process of individual growth.
Montessori understood that the child, productively occupied, was actually developing himself or herself as a person; this is the child’s “work.”
Dr. Montessori sought a way to teach writing that was less fatiguing to the student than filling pages with the sharp angles and straight lines of the typically taught alphabet.
“The child makes too painful an effort in following such an exercise. The first steps should be the easiest, and the up and down stroke, is, on the contrary, one of the most difficult of all the pen movements. Only a professional penman could fill a whole page and preserve the regularity of such strokes, but a person who writes only moderately well would be able to complete a page of presentable writing.” (Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method, p. 257)
Montessori’s students were known for their beautiful penmanship. She noticed that it is difficult for older children to write in cursive because, by the time it is introduced, they have to unlearn their already established poor penmanship habits.
“We directly prepare the child, not only for writing, but also for penmanship, paying great attention to the beauty of form (having the children touch the letters in script form) and to the flowing quality of the letters.” (p. 295-296).“
The liberty of the child is the foundation of Montessori education. Students are free to choose their own work and move around their environment. Maria Montessori was an outspoken critic of the stationary desk:
“We know only too well the sorry spectacle of the teacher who, in the ordinary schoolroom, must pour certain cut and dried facts into the heads of the scholars. In order to succeed in this barren task, she finds it necessary to discipline her pupils into immobility and to force their attention.” (Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method, p. 21)
Most Montessori environments, including those at Bluffview, provide several large tables where one or more students may work, either individually or as a small group. In addition, students may choose a work rug to lay out on the floor to define his or her own personal work space.
The freedom to move about and choose their own work helps students learn to make responsible choices. “Discipline must come through liberty,” Dr. Montessori said (p. 86). Forcing children to remain silent and still does not teach them self-control, she believed. “We call an individual disciplined when he is master of himself, and can, therefore, regulate his own conduct when it shall be necessary to follow some rule of life.”
Counter-intuitively, this freedom does not lead to a free-for-all in the classroom. Under the guidance of a competent Montessori educator, a classroom of twenty or more children (even very young ones) will be calm and orderly, with each child engaged in his or her own work. You can see this in our school videos under the Virtual Tour section of this website.
The Montessori educator must master three basic skills: the careful observation of each child; an instructional style that flames the spark of interest in a particular task; and skillful self-restraint.
“From the child itself he will learn how to perfect himself as an educator.”(Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method, p. 13)
The art of Montessori education lies not in clever lesson planning, but rather in really knowing and observing each child and understanding what they need to grow. Montessori educators are trained to be expert observers:
“To one whose attitude is right, the little children soon reveal profound individual differences which call for very different kinds of help from the teacher.” (p. 231)
Montessori educators tailor their approach depending on the needs of the child. They do this by becoming expert observers of each child. To inform the help they provide, teachers are trained to notice things such as:
- what the spontaneous actions are of the child
- which materials seem to attract him or her
- how long the child remains interested in a particular work
- what level of mastery he or she has achieved with that work
- the expression on his or her face
- whether the child is developmentally ready to receive a particular instruction
The purpose of instruction is to flame the spark of a child’s interest in a specific material by showing him or her how to use it, and then leaving him or her to do the real learning through hands-on interaction with it. Consequently, instructions are clear, brief, and as simple as possible. They are also carefully timed so as not to impose an adult agenda onto the natural unfolding of the child’s development. Montessori educator Paula Polk Lillard states: “The protection of the children’s right not to be interrupted when productively occupied is key to the children’s development of concentration and interest in their work”(Montessori Today, p. 95).
One of the most difficult skills a Montessori teacher must master is self-restraint. Having the ability to refrain from intervening, correcting, or suggesting what a child ought to work on requires faith in the “exploring spirit” (1912, p. 227) of the child and a good measure of humility. Montessori had deep respect for the “triumphant inner force” which “sends the world forward” (1912, pp.23-25), and nurtured it in her schools.
“To stimulate life leaving it then free to develop, to unfold—herein lies the first task of the educator. In such a delicate task, a great art must suggest the moment and limit of the intervention…”(1912, p. 115).
Self-restraint does not mean allowing a child to flounder. Montessori teachers are aware of the overall progress of each student, offering assistance as necessary. In some cases, a teacher may request special intervention (such as extra one-on-one tutoring or assistance from a special education specialist) for a child who needs extra help.
Liberty was at the heart of Dr. Montessori’s understanding of discipline. She believed that the goal of discipline was not blind obedience, but rather the formation of self-discipline within the child that resulted in true freedom.
“If discipline is to be lasting, its foundations must be laid in this way… The first idea that the child must acquire, in order to be actively disciplined, is that of the difference between good and evil; and the task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility, and evil with activity, as often happens in the case of the old-time discipline. And all this because our aim is to discipline for activity, for work, for good; not for immobility, not for passivity, not for obedience.” (Maria Monteesori, The Montessori Method, p. 93)
She believed that the child becomes disciplined by developing his or her self through purposeful work.
“Discipline is reached always by indirect means. The end is obtained, not by attacking the mistake and fighting it, but by developing activity in spontaneous work…. Such is the work which sets the personality in order and opens wide before it infinite possibilities of growth.” (pp. 350-351).
This is consistent with Erik Erikson’s concept of “ego-identity” (or self-image).
“In this children cannot be fooled by empty praise and condescending encouragement… Ego identity gains real strength only from wholehearted and consistent recognition of real accomplishment—i.e., of achievement that has meaning in our culture.” (quoted in Lillard, Montessori: A Modern Approach, p.116)
Maria Montessori said that play is important, but that adults make the mistake of believing young children to need and be capable of little else. Early on, it surprised her to observe that children chose works over toys in her classrooms—and that children found a way to work even on an occasion where the teacher was locked out of the classroom! Based on these observations, she concluded that works offer unique opportunities for children’s development beyond that which toys alone can offer, and that this makes works enticing for even very young children. Dr. Angeline Stoll Lillard, psychology professor and author, describes it like this:
“Dr. Montessori observed children rejecting toys in favor of work. They preferred reading new words to playing, and cleaning the classroom with child-sized brooms and mops to setting up dolls in a doll house. Dr. Montessori was an empiricist, and she based her ideas on what children did…. Montessori classrooms lack toys because the children did not use them, and all items that were superfluous were removed from the classrooms because Dr. Montessori saw superfluous items as detracting from children’s education. Every item in the classroom is meant to serve a purpose.” (Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, p. 186)