Over the years of working in Montessori classrooms I’ve met many children who are eager to attend lessons, engage in follow-up work, and share their new knowledge. And then there are the occasional “puzzles” (as my son’s Primary guide once referred to him). How do you know if you live or work with a puzzle-child?
Puzzle-children are those for whom learning comes easily but who see most teaching as a hindrance to their own learning agenda. On a good day, they grumpily humor your agenda for a short while and then stealthily slink away to pursue their own interests. But most days, your invitation will send them into fight/flight/freeze mode: they either become argumentative (fight), run away from you (flight), or shut down (freeze), refusing to speak or make eye contact.
I used to think puzzle-children felt intimidated by the work or lacked the desire to learn. But these children aren’t insecure or apathetic – quite the contrary! I started taking the time to connect with puzzle-children to understand why they rejected lessons, and the phrase they said again and again was: “I already know that.” Upon gentle prodding, it became clear that indeed, they did understand the concepts I was trying to present.
Puzzle children don’t care about your ego. In fact, in a battle of egos, theirs will always win. They don’t care about sitting politely through your carefully planned presentation or showing you what they know. They don’t care about your album sequence, the state standards, or your lesson plan. They know what they want to learn, and they know they can use you as a resource to overcome any gaps in knowledge that pop up as they pursue their own explorations.
And that right there is the key to engaging successfully with a puzzle-child. You have to be like a floor lamp: present but unobtrusive, and willing to shed light on whatever topic the puzzle-child approaches you about. The puzzle-child will often be found with his nose in a book; tinkering with random objects; or using Montessori materials in ways that might seem sacrilegious at first but that, upon closer inspection, constitute legitimate intellectual explorations.
Conversations are essential for connecting with the puzzle-child. But you have to watch your tone of voice: puzzle-children detect the moment you switch to a “teacher” voice, and in that instant you’ve lost them. They also detect when you’re trying to quiz them. You’re better off assuming they’re already experts. Use precise terminology when chatting with them; rest assured they’ll pepper you with questions if they don’t know what you’re talking about!
Puzzle-children love stories and experiments, and they are cosmic thinkers (meaning they’re able to effortlessly make connections among seemingly unrelated topics). They’re autodidacts who focus on a topic until they have filled their cup. And then, just as quickly as the interest blossomed, it seems to disappear (but rest assured that the knowledge remains).
For puzzle-children and their adults, the most difficult times are those when the puzzle-child is between interests. They’re often restless and irritable, flitting from one activity to another. This is an important time for puzzle-children, and one should not jump in to fill the void with busy work or adult teaching agendas. For it is precisely the space and boredom of their aimless roaming that will help them find their next “big thing”.
Puzzle-children don’t need to be taught how to learn. If anything, they need to be protected from well-meaning adults who want to impose their teaching methods at the expense of the puzzle-child’s creativity and resourcefulness. It’s a blow to the adult’s ego not to be needed, especially when your entire identity rests on being a transmitter of knowledge.
For teachers and parents of puzzle-children, it’s time to change that identity and protect these powerful and eccentric learners. Help the puzzle-child learn how to communicate their needs and let them know you’re there as a resource. Prepare their environment with quality books and essential Montessori materials. Provide open-ended tinkering, building, crafting and drafting materials. Go outside together and explore nature through their eyes. Listen, observe, document, trust, and wait. Be flexible, creative, and honest, and above all, be genuine. Follow the child.
“Our care of the children should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” – Dr. Maria Montessori