Articles From the August 1994 Unification News


Montessori in the Home: 15 Minutes With Your Child

by Shirley Miho-NYC

If you look around a Montessori classroom, you will see many different trays containing bowls and glasses and different kinds of tools used in physical work around the home. And you might wonder: "Is this all Montessori is about-work?" The materials are not what makes the Montessori method. The real essence of the Montessori method is the attitude and heart toward the child. Montessori is not about teaching a curriculum or a series of activities; it's not about the teachers or their personalities but about learning and the needs of the child. The focus in Montessori is not the adult but the child.

Dr. Montessori observed the child as a pure being containing man's spiritual essence and each a spark of the Divine image. She wanted to help the child to express his potential by removing any obstacles to his learning-which included obstacles within herself as an adult-and to meet any needs that the child might have. If this could be done for all children, she felt that the world would be changed.

Montessori believed that dramatic changes can take place in the child and as a result of their whole personality being engaged in work. She called this process "Normalization", believing that it was the normal state for the child to be in: full of joy and in harmony. The Normalized child loves order and work and is attached to reality rather than the fantasy world we so often associate with children. Montessori discovered in her observations of the child that such children love silence and are able to work alone for long periods of time. They quickly develop a deep respect for others and seem to lose the possessiveness which is so often a characterization of childhood. Obedient, full of initiative, self-controlled and self-disciplined, it is no wonder that those who first observed the effect of her environment on children thought that they had had a conversion experience and spoke of "converted children" and "the discovery of the human soul." Even the Communist Party acknowledged her achievement at the Congress of Geneva in 1912, stating that education by the Montessori method was a basic human right!

This evening, we will concentrate on just one area of the Montessori environment, the first area the child should work with and the most important: the area of Practical Life or activities of Everyday Living, as they are called. These activities focus on the refinement of what we do every day-from washing our hands, to pouring a glass of water, to squeezing a sponge. Everything can be turned into an exercise. But the important thing is that the child must do it himself.

Children want to know about the world and be exposed to it. Our responsibility is to allow them access to it and to make it available to them. We need to touch the vision and imagination of the child if we are to help them realize their potential and become all that they should be. To make themselves into the person they are to be is their task alone: no one else can do it for them. The question is how to create the right environment and atmosphere for that unfolding to happen. And children do tell us: don't we hear all the time, "I want to do it by myself." Do we listen? We need to learn to guide the child without letting them feel our presence too much; we need to give help when and where needed but never to the extent that we become an obstacle between the child and their experience. It is a hard lesson to learn, for we think it love to help the child. In fact, we are robbing them of the dominion over themselves. No wonder they scream and yell when we interfere too much-it's the only means they have left to express their displeasure! Children need to complete the full cycle of activity involved in each work, from thinking about what they are going to do, to choose a work, execute the task, return the work and contemplate the next work....

Our primary goals as adults is to observe the child and prepare the environment based on our observations. With the materials we have prepared and our guidance and understanding, the child can do what they need to do. Too little and the child cannot act meaningfully-too much and their creativity is extinguished.

Take time to observe and the child will reveal themselves to you. They will tell you what you need to do. Just help them to experience success and model success. When you present materials to them, take time: go slowly, carefully and precisely-present simply and clearly- and trust the child. God will be revealed through him.

Practically we need to break down movement for the child. For example, opening a door has three steps: grasping the knob, turning, and then pulling. Present with as few words as possible in order for the child to concentrate on what you are doing.

Make sure that the materials are child-sized and that they are real- not make-believe-use glass as much as possible and good quality materials, emphasizing aesthetics through the variety in size, color and texture of the materials. Everything should be in working order with nothing defective or missing; the materials should call out to the child to be used.... In the home I would suggest a separate shelf or cupboard that the child has easy access to and can take responsibility for. Remember, the materials are devices and inventions to stimulate the natural desire of the child to act and learn through activity. They should only be used for the purpose that they were intended. Children are different from adults. When children work, they are more concerned with the process than with the product. They seek to fulfill an inner need by doing the work over and over again. Adults want to get the job done as quickly as possible and often use shortcuts to accomplish the goal. Children wash dishes, for example, in order to wash dishes. Adults, on the other hand, seek to improve their environment.

Practical Life activities appeal to sensitive periods in the development of the child, which appear between the ages of two and four years of age and peak around the third year. These sensitive periods are times when special sensitivities are acquired but which disappear when the trait becomes set. Dr. Montessori was specially interested in the sensitive period for movement, which of course begins at birth, and she believed that children must move and choose their own activities for their understanding to be engaged. The Practical Life activities also appeal to the sensitivity to order, routine and schedule, the materials being very orderly and composed of a sequence of steps. Children like to know what comes next and during this time period are very sensitive to any changes in the environment. There should be a place for everything and everything should have its place. It is this experience of external order which allows internal order to develop.

Sensitivity to small objects is another important factor for the young child. We have all walked with a child and had to stop short suddenly as they observe an ant, which we in our hurry have missed. Small details are extremely fascinating to the young child and so we use attractive objects, small beads, interesting colors, shapes and textures to draw the child closer. The key is the ability to engage the child fully so that the internal will can be developed, for Montessori believed that "before anyone can assume responsibility...he must be convinced that he is master of his own actions and have confidence in them." Based on this foundation of obeying his own will, the child has a better chance of obeying another's will, which we call obedience or discipline, for how can a child obey another when he has difficulty even obeying his own? That, like everything else, has to be guided. The Montessori environment and materials do just that.

Ultimately, the activities give the child an approach to life and work which are appropriate and worthy of their attention. Because they are appropriate, repetition is a natural response and helps consolidate learning. I am sure that you have observed your own child repeating actions over and over again when they are involved in what they are doing. One reason television can be such a danger during the pre- school years is that it totally absorbs the child without involving him actively, at a time in his life when he learns best through doing.

Through such work, ownership is established and the child comes to realize their own responsibilities. The child begins to know when something isn't right around them and learns how to fix it, taking dominion over their environment.

As you can see, the teacher or directress is vitally important to the Montessori method but in a very different way from traditional teaching. Dr. Montessori has much to say about the nature and development of the teacher, always in the sense of internal development and loss of self, the teacher having to be a humble servant of the child in order to be able to stand before them.

I do hope that you will read and meditate more on what the Montessori method means to you and your family and how it can be utilized in the home.

Dr. Montessori touched on something universal in her method. Especially today, as we witness a crumbling educational and family system and a dark hole where once values had a place, her understanding of norms and values shines like a beacon through the darkness. It is a sad reflection of our society, too, that we have even torn down God, for we have nothing to put in His place except our struggling human condition and relative values.

Montessori asked us to "Follow the Child," to invest time and energy into unlocking the Divine potential trapped inside each child. My prayer for each of you is that you will do that, each in your own way, and that you will have gained hope and inspiration from our presentation of Dr. Montessori's work and method-and that it will prompt you to study further and implement her thinking in your own homes. Let's educate our children in heart and norm, and establish the value and dignity of each child, creating a world of harmony and order based on God's absolute love. Thank you.


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