Observation of the Prepared Environments - What might not be “The Obvious”
It happens quite often. Parents and educators will visit our school, observe the classroom environments, and walk away in awe and sometimes a bit mystified. They ask, “how can children ‘be allowed’ to do so much for themselves—and without the constant guidance of an adult?” There is a lot behind this question including the adult’s own expectations for “what school looks like.” This usually evokes recollections of a teacher centered classroom and a curriculum designed by grade level that is distributed to all students at the same time, regardless of the children’s readiness.
Therein lays an essential distinction. Dr. Maria Montessori’s philosophy and approach reveal that each child is born with a unique potential to be revealed; children are not a "blank slate" waiting to be written upon or filled with facts. When Montessori realized the power of the absorbent mind and sensitive periods in the young child, she knew children would take in peripherally and holistically whatever was in the environment, whether this be ugliness or beauty, coarse behavior or kindness, good or bad language.
Her many hours of observation revealed that the child’s potential is not just mental. Her main contributions to the work of those of us raising and educating children are to prepare the most natural and life-supporting environments for the child, to observe the child living freely and engaging in this environment, and to continue to adapt the environment so that the child may fulfill his or her greatest physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual potential.
After establishing the Casa di Bambini for the three to six year old, Montessori began to look further into the needs and sensitive periods for the child ages 6-12: the Elementary Years. Starting again with the current and required curriculum that was available to her at that time in Italy, she observed how children learn best and adapted the traditional teacher-taught subjects in the arts and science. Montessori discovered that elementary students need to utilize didactic material that emphasizes and reveals a concept that is being explored as well materials that guide open-ended research and individual interests. In this way, the elementary prepared environments allow the child to work to a much higher level than was generally assumed possible for children of this age. The mixed age setting allows for a dynamic interchange of inspiration, independence, motivation and teaching of knowledge between a teacher and students. It is not unusual that students could master academic subjects they would not otherwise encounter until middle or high school.
A point not to be overlooked is that while Montessori materials are an essential part of the classroom, the real value of Montessori education takes long and thorough training for the adult. The Directress must know that this work and discovery is continual and deepens when the complete "Montessori method" is understood and followed. The prime focus is not the adult in the classroom; rather it is the interplay between the prepared environment, the child and the “enlightened and humbled” Directress.
Our deeply committed faculty strives to reveal the essence of Montessori’s work in today’s world – to encourage not only the development of higher order thinking and academic mastery but a child’s emotional and spiritual intellect as well. Nurturing a child who cares deeply about other people and the world, and who works to discover a unique and individual way to contribute is an aim underpinning our philosophy. It is a lofty goal and a challenging process; however, like those first parent supporters and rather extraordinary, creative thinkers of their time, among them Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller and the President Woodrow Wilson, parents who wish to honor the value, powerful potential and sanctity of childhood find their way to our door.
Montessori’s words are as insightful and timely today as they were when she wrote them in the last century:
Scientific observation has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment. The task of the teacher becomes that of preparing a series of motives of cultural activity, spread over a specially prepared environment, and then refraining from obtrusive interference. Human teachers can only help the great work that is being done, as servants help the master. Doing so, they will be witnesses to the unfolding of the human soul and to the rising of a New Man who will not be a victim of events, but will have the clarity of vision to direct and shape the future of human society. Dr. Maria Montessori, Education for a New World
Connecting Home and School
Parenting is such a transformative experience. How quickly our world changes when we take on the joys, challenges, responsibilities, privileges and worries of parenthood. Parenthood can be a very humbling experience especially when we were previously experts and thought we had all the answers and solutions to everyone else’s child-rearing dilemmas. Our perspective and our priorities are often shifted when we realize that our children are agents of change: they make us care about the world in ways we probably never did before we became parents.
During the recent “Coffee and …” chats held throughout the Transition Week, many parents shared that they came to our Montessori school because they felt a positive energy when they entered the building. Several parents also wanted something different for their child. Perhaps you are a member of our school community who wasn’t totally satisfied with his or her school experience or researched the Montessori Method and was assured that their child would learn better and reach more of their potential with a holistic approach. Perhaps you observed a classroom in progress and went away completely in awe of the prepared environment, the Montessori didactic materials and the relationship between the children and the Directress. Maybe you are here because you sense that this is a place where childhood is taken seriously and the protection of this stage and of its innocence is one of our core values.
Regardless of the different reasons you chose LMS, you are already heightening the consciousness of your parenting and are aware that as your child grows and evolves, you will too. We hope to support this growth all year long through various presentations on Montessori curriculum, Breakfast Club topics, and through special focus speakers.
I am always amazed at the physical growth of our returning students that takes place over the summer months. It is truly a concrete reminder that they are at a different stage of development and each of the prepared classroom environments has been thoughtfully and meticulously prepared to accommodate the special characteristics associated with the developmental cycle of learning. I always felt a bit of tug at my heart strings when I noticed in September that the chubby knuckled little hand that I saw trace a sandpaper letter in the spring has grown slimmer, and is now ready to take on lessons in refinement and knowledge with the new school year.
Just as our children grow and develop, our school has similarly evolved over the past 38 years. Our faculty is incredibly loyal, knowledgeable and dedicated to the School, your children, and the Montessori Method. Whether you have just joined our school or are a longstanding member of our community, we welcome you and your children to LMS and to one of the most holistic and progressive instructive movements in the world.
An Autumn Reflection
Elaine Allessio, Lower Elementary Assisting Directress
As I was reading with a second year child this morning, I overheard a conversation developing between a second and first year child. They noticed a beautiful dragonfly caught in a spider’s web outside their window. One girl said that the newly caught dragonfly will surely die in the web.
The first year child answered, “Well, it will have a special place in heaven.”
“Maybe,” the other replied, and then remarked, “We can go out and get it out of the web.”
A second year boy went over and replied, “No, it’s the circle of life, the spider needs to eat.”
Both Deb and I said “We could release the dragonfly and give it a second chance.”
The boy retorted, “Then we will starve the spider, it is the circle of life.”
So we wise teachers replied, “When a cat catches a mouse, we try to free the mouse.”
“Yes, said the boy, but the cat doesn’t need the mouse to live, he has cat food.” What a profound conversation!
A Montessori elementary classroom affords a child the time to reflect on life as the Montessori method is based on observation, nature and a deep respect for life in all its forms. In the elementary classrooms, children form relationships between the facts learned in Children’s House. As children are spiritual beings, they can transcend their initial connections with higher thoughts. These three children observed in nature the dependencies of the food chain as they drew on their knowledge of spiders and insects. As they were given the time to ponder, they raised their conversation to a higher level.
Thank you lowly dragonfly for your presence. Though you are at the bottom of life’s web, you have raised our consciousness. Let us continue to give our children silence and time to reflect…
POSTSCRIPT: After gingerly approaching the dragonfly, it flew away! It was never caught in the web but merely resting near it. Its little life accomplished big things on this first day of autumn…
“Prepare the Child for the Path, NOT the Path for the Child”
During our June graduation I held up a small plaque engraved with a profound statement. It stated “Prepare the Child for the Path, NOT the Path for the Child.” As a parent of four children, it was one of those statements that I read, sighed and hummed a bit as my children were growing up. Three are now independent, and the youngest is still in college. I suppose I am at that stage of parenting in which I possess experience; I have known lots of celebrations, helped heal some bumps and bruises, and gathered wisdom from watching my children interact with each other. Parenting is a life-long role, filled with blessings as well as responsibilities that evolve so slowly in their demands that one wonders incredulously one day, “ Where has the time gone? “
Do you ever wish you could guard your child from all the inevitable pain and hurt, physical and emotional, you know they will experience in the same way you are able to when they ride a bike or play a sport?
Growing up, becoming independent, taking one’s place in the world can be a frightening thought or an amazing journey to a parent of a young child. The bombardment of other influences over parental authority and values lead many parents to actively seek strategies to keep their child “safe”. Some parents involve their child in an (over) abundance of activities while others limit activities and interaction with peer groups. Additionally, there is sometimes a feeling of helplessness which is fed in part by popular culture and the “Everyone’s doing it- why fight it?” syndrome.
Keep in mind that the goals we have for our children are often quite lofty, and require the attainment of essential life skills and the development of many kinds of intelligences. What do parents need to know to make wise decisions that will empower their child for success in school and in life? Are you ready to accept the path your child is traveling toward? How many turns in your child need to prepare for as they take this journey?
Skills require instruction, guidance, practice and time to develop into mastery. Skill building implies lack of perfection; so there needs to be room for mistakes, some disappointment, patience, and persistence. Skills building require an observant role model and teacher who intuitively knows when to offer a lesson, when to push or when to allow for more time. All throughout the school year, your child will benefit from the same firm, respectful guidance and Montessori instruction that my own children received here.
I do not profess to hold all the answers to parental issues and struggles. I can only offer information and extend my invitation for you to attend the yearlong opportunities we have thoughtfully planned. Unfortunately, we cannot wrap our children in bubble wrap each morning to protect them and keep them safe. Learning from experience is often the most powerful experience. Please take advantage of the various educational events we have prepared for parents and interested educators. One extraordinary opportunity is scheduled for Friday, October 29th and Saturday October 30th, 2010. We urge you to save the date to attend The Journey, our comprehensive presentation and hands-on experience through the various levels of our classrooms.
The Child’s Right to Independence
Susan Shea, Primary Directress
This is a wonderful time in history to be a parent! For all the imperfections in our world, never before has there been available such a wealth of support and helpful advice with regard to child rearing. The discoveries of the recent past concerning human psychology and the natural development of the human being reinforce for us as Montessori educators that Maria Montessori was ahead of her time in many respects. What were, in the early nineteenth century, considered drastic departures from the accepted styles of education and parenting are now receiving more and more approval from modern scientific studies.
Recognizing, then, that a distinct psychological development is taking place in childhood, it may be appropriate to revisit Montessori’s thoughts on what she singled out as THE most important rights of the child. These observations and conclusions were made several decades ago, but the modern parent is ever more eager to help their child in the most effective manner and with all the love they can offer. In fact, modern culture leads us to believe that there is an unending list of things we can provide for our child and it is tempting to face the world with our brand new baby, promising ourselves that our familial bond will be strengthened by our willingness to do whatever we can for this child. This is where trust in the Montessori philosophy can be truly tested! In listing what she considered to be intrinsic rights of the young child, Montessori was clear in placing the right to independence as especially important.
Now, what would a genuine acknowledgement of your child’s right to independence entail? Certainly, we can’t interpret this as a capitulation to the will of the child in all aspects of our family life. In truth, the child is dependent on the adult for security. A predictable routine is important to him. Even though he will naturally test parameters from time to time, it is reassuring to him that many things remain constant in his world.
In the majority of cases the friction between adults and children is due to the misinterpretation of each others’ motives. It is easily explained. Psychologically speaking, we are living in different worlds. The adult is focused on the practical aspects of his day. It is more efficient to choose his child’s clothes for school. It is faster if he sets out his child’s place at the table for breakfast. He ensures his child will not catch a chill if he buttons his child’s coat and feels his child will never be able to tie his own shoes anyway. As the flurry of morning activity draws to a lull, the adult answers his own need to show love for the child by carrying him to the car, as if he were an infant! This actually makes the adult feel better, and understandably so. As the child is going through a constant metamorphosis, it can be poignant to realize the passing of another stage in a young life. How dearly we wish to hold on to life’s precious moments since, as adults, we are aware of how quickly they pass by.
Let’s return at this point to the acknowledged right of the child to independence. Yes, it can seem like a leap of faith! At school, your child is experiencing the satisfaction of choosing their own preferred work. He can use the bathroom independently and eat a snack when it is convenient to him. He is addressed by his proper name, not by “honey”, “sweetie” etc. He changes his own clothes if they are soiled. He expects to be treated respectfully by the other members of his community. In short, his dignity is respected. No one carries him, nor would he request to be carried since his inner drive for independence is burning deep within him.
Yes, the community here is interacting within a prepared environment according to standards set by an adherence to the Montessori philosophy. But some of these principles are so easy to adapt at home. In fact, by making a commitment to try some of them you are recognizing the dignity of the young child and are choosing to put your hopes and dreams for your son or daughter in a place consistent with his/her human needs. In allowing them to choose their own clothes, you are giving them responsibility. In allowing them to walk you are acknowledging their sensitive period for movement. Children love to move! Moreover, you are acknowledging their passing from babyhood. Yes, it is a bittersweet fact. They are growing in independence.
Why does the mother cry at the daughter’s wedding? Is it not a happy occasion? Of course! It is a celebration! And so is this important milestone in your child’s life.
COME CELEBRATE THEIR INDEPENDENCE WITH THEM!