By: Maral Firkatian Wozniak
The Montessori environment is extremely structured, but in a way that is distinctly different from that of a conventional classroom. To the untrained eye, it may even appear unstructured. Dr. Maria Montessori studied the behavior of children and created an environment that would be best suited to meet their needs according to their plane of development, a term that she coined in order to distinguish between different stages of growth.
The Elementary Environment
Here, a child is playing with a box of brightly colored beads, there, a child stands on tiptoe to water a hanging plant. In the corner two children are laying a yard stick along the wall making small notations as they go. Another pair sit before a fish tank staring into the watery depths.
Where is the teacher? Isn’t anyone going to rally this group of children and focus them on their lessons? Why is no one giving instruction?
Upon closer inspection, the teacher (or guide) can be found seated at a rug with a small group of children giving a lesson on wind patterns while her assistant sits across the room quietly listening to a child read a draft of their report on the flora of the rainforest. The remaining children work independently or in small groups.
How can it be that the children in this room are getting an education? How can we be sure they will learn everything they need to in order to succeed in the world? How can they be trusted to work alone, without the direct supervision of an adult?
These questions are often asked by families seeking to understand the attraction of Montessori. In order to answer these questions we must consider two founding principles of the Montessori environment: freedom and responsibility.
Freedom and Responsibility
It is through careful guidance and the balance of freedom and responsibility that the Montessori environment is effective. One cannot exist without the other and the children as well as adults must be acutely aware of this in order to hold themselves, and one another, accountable.
Dr. Maria Montessori believed that each child has within themselves the power and motivation to grow into a thoughtful, caring and creative member of society. She believed that in order to achieve this end, we, as adults, must simply remove obstacles and offer guidance as needed.
Freedom is essential to a child’s ability to realize this potential within themselves. Responsibility is a necessary companion in ensuring that the freedom offered is utilized effectively and safely.
Taking this into consideration, we can return to the scenario posed earlier.
The child with the box of colorful beads is in fact practicing her multiplication facts. Those bead bars are helping her lay the foundations of learning more complex mathematics in the future like squaring, cubing and algebra.
The boy watering the plants discovered, from an experiment he conducted with his guide, that plants have specific needs in order to survive, and water is one of them. Basic biology, as well as care and respect for living things and the environment, are all at play here. In addition to the science, he has learned to appreciate plants for providing us with the oxygen we need to live. He now knows that without plants, human life cannot be sustained.
The pair of children laying out the yardstick have received a lesson on measurements and have spent time converting between inches and feet, feet and yards, yards and miles. A book, displayed on the shelf where the measurement tools are kept, informed them that a female blue whale can reach 82 feet in length. Now they want to compare the length of a blue whale to other incredibly large animals. An anaconda? A squid? An elephant? This work, which originated in measurement, has led them to explore the animal kingdom and practice the precision necessary to accurately measure and record their findings.
The children staring at the fish recently received a lesson on the different body functions of mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and amphibians. The respiratory system of fish is quite different from mammals. The lesson they received was an introduction into this complex system of breathing, now they want to know more and will begin by observing the fish then moving on to do some more research.
Each child knows that they must follow up on the lessons they have received- they must practice and explore. They are free to choose how and when to do so, but they are responsible for making sure that it gets done. They are also free to choose to work with their friends, provided they are responsible for staying focused and not distracting one another. Finally they are free to move about the environment, a freedom which aligns with a child’s natural need to move.
This balance of freedom and responsibility allows for the self-construction of the child. The teacher/guide leads them through this process.
About the Author: Maral Firkatian Wozniak comes to The Cobb School after completing her Elementary Montessori training at MTCNE and working as an assistant at Annie Fisher Montessori Magnet in Hartford. She loves to travel, write short stories, eat well and narrate the lives of animals she sees. Her passion for Montessori comes from a belief that children have the potential to build a more peaceful and equitable society, and that potential blossoms through education. She is an Elementary assistant at The Cobb School, Montessori.