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A Celebration of Work on Labor Day Weekend

Going to work… Doing housework, yard work, homework…  Yuck!  For adults, work is something we want to do as little of as possible, because it takes time away from play!   (This was recently confirmed by the Twitter Mood Map, which showed that people are considerably happier on the weekends, when fewer of us work.)

It’s therefore understandable that one of the Montessori concepts which can throw parents for a loop is the idea that their little child will “work” in the classroom.  Here are some comments I’ve heard from parents of three-year olds:

“Won’t my child get tired from so much work?”

“Don’t children learn better when they play?”

“I want my child to love school; she’s not going to be happy if she has to work.”

Most of the time, explains Dr. Montessori, adults operate under the law of minimum effort, “according to which one seeks to attain the maximum productivity with the least expenditure of energy… It represents not so much a desire to do as little work as possible as to produce as much as one can with the least effort.”  Paradoxically, children, while not contributing to the production of goods and services, strive for maximum effort:  “[The child] consumes a great deal of energy in working for no ulterior end and employs all his potentialities in the execution of each detail.”

Why do children work so hard if they’re not producing?  What is their goal?  In a word: self-creation.  The child’s work “…is an unconscious labor brought about by a spiritual energy in the process of developing.”  In other words, the child is forming the man he will become through his drive to engage with his environment.

When Dr. Montessori started her first pre-school in a poor area of Rome in 1907, she offered the children beautiful toys that had been donated by rich patrons, because everyone knows that children love to play with toys!  She also involved them in everyday activities of the type the children saw at home but didn’t have the tools or opportunity to engage in: sweeping, mopping, dusting, washing.  To her great surprise, the children ignored the toys and gravitated towards the activities we consider “chores”.

She observed that while they were involved with these activities, they demonstrated an unexpectedly high level of focus and self-control.  She also noticed that they didn’t work just to get the job done; they repeated chores they had already completed.  They worked with happiness and excitement, as if the table they were washing or the shelf they were dusting were some delightful toy.  Even more remarkable, when they finished their work, they seemed more energized and peaceful than when they started!

Her observations led her to conclude that, “A child… does not become weary with toil.  He grows by working and, as a consequence, his work increases his energy.  A child never asks to be relieved of his burdens but simply that he may carry out his mission completely and alone.”

When it became evident that her little students were not interested in the fancy toys, she removed them and widened the scope of work activities.  She soon noticed that these children – street urchins who lacked discipline, self-esteem, and focus – became self-possessed, confident, and centered.  She called this process of positive self-construction “normalization“, and deemed it “the most important single result of our whole work.”

Dr. Montessori’s discoveries don’t mean that children should be forbidden from playing.  What she realized is that for children, work IS play!   A three-year old wants nothing more than to be involved in her parents’ everyday activities.  She wants to cook, garden, and mop.  Instead of banishing her to a toy kitchen, invite her to join you in the real kitchen.  Give her tasks at which she can succeed; tasks that require her to concentrate; tasks that don’t have to be done perfectly the first time; and tasks that truly contribute to the household.  

Take some time to modify the environment: a low shelf or table for food preparation, a few child-sized but real kitchen utensils, and some cleaning implements are essential for your child’s success.  Tell her what you expect her to do with a positive tone that emanates trust; show her how to do the task, using as few words as possible and slowing down your movements so she can internalize them; then leave her to concentrate and enjoy her company as you work quietly side by side.  There’s no need to praise her success or point out her mistakes; remember, she works not for productivity but for self-perfection.

“An adult must assist a child in such a way that he can act and carry out his own work in the world.  [The child’s] very life consists in the work of growth… If adults do not understand this secret they will never understand the work of children.”

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He Likes to Move It, Move It…

I had the good fortune of capturing Zach on video while he worked on his gross motor skills. (Please pardon the wonky camera angle; I didn’t want him to know I was filming him.)  I want to share what I recorded because I feel it illustrates several key principles for supporting the development of movement…

Motives for movement: The development of movement is two-pronged.  There is an evolutionary drive to move that comes from within the child, but it must be met in the environment by a reason to move.  Fortunately, babies are curious by nature, and don’t require expensive, flashy, and noisy toys.  A simple pinecone becomes a delightful plaything in the hands of a baby, and offers him a bounty of information in terms of texture, smell, weight, shape, sound, taste, color, etc.  (Make sure to check your pinecone for any tiny inhabitants before you give it to baby!)  Use your imagination to offer your child objects from nature and from around your house that satisfy his current developmental needs.

Clothing for movement: When I put Zach on his blanket, he was wearing cotton pants.  He quickly rolled over onto his tummy and began to do his military crawl, but his legs kept sliding out from beneath him.  I removed the pants and his traction improved considerably!  At all stages of child development, dressing for independence and freedom of movement is a key element for success.  Common clothing-related obstacles include: sleeves and pant legs that are too long; fabric that’s too stiff (e.g., denim and taffeta);  pants and overalls that are difficult to undo for going to the toilet; long and frilly skirts that get in the way during crawling and toileting; and socks and shoes that don’t let feet get the workout they need.  What do you think is more important: a fashionable tot or an active and independent one?

Space for movement: Playpens, walkers, jumpy swings… They are all sold under the pretense of keeping the child safe and entertained while the parent isn’t around to supervise.  However, they are an obstacle to the development of movement at a crucial time in the baby’s life.  If nature is driving the baby to move, we need to let him move!  Remember, a baby’s intelligence depends on his ability to move naturally and freely.  There’s nothing natural and free about a walker or a jumpy swing; they are expensive containers that infringe on a child’s freedom to develop.  A room, or even a section of a room, that has been carefully prepared to meet the needs of the child is a lot safer – and more intellectually stimulating – than any contraption (Trust me, those lights and bells on an exersaucer aren’t helping baby learn a darn thing).

“If a child is prevented from using his powers of movement as soon as they are ready, this child’s mental development is obstructed.”

Time for movement: Babies are often the victims of our rush-rush lifestyle; many spend the better part of their day in buckets car seats, strollers, and carriers, being carted from stores to siblings’ extra-curricular activities to restaurants.  In order to support a baby’s development, it is essential to block out some time every day for him to move on the floor.  Get creative: if you’re taking your older child to soccer practice, bring a blanket and let baby hang out on the grass.  If you’re making dinner, set down a blanket in a safe corner of the kitchen for baby to roll around on.  If you’re working out while pushing baby in a stroller, pause halfway through your run and let baby stretch out on a blanket while you do crunches.  Yes, it’s important for children to adapt to our schedules, but we also have to keep their needs in mind!

Baby sets the pace: Infants move slowly and deliberately.  It takes a lot of effort to coordinate movements during the early months of life.  The brain has to process a HUGE quantity of new data all day long! Be patient when your baby is taking his time reaching, crawling, exploring a toy, or simply looking around the room.  If you get used to waiting and slowing down now, you’ll be in a much better position to support your child’s burgeoning independence during the toddler years.

Maximum effort: Babies exert 110% effort when trying to reach a milestone.  Those evolutionary drives are no laughing matter; they push a child to his limit in the quest for development.  When I see Zach straining and grunting, a part of me wants to make him happy by helping him to accomplish his goal.   Moving the pinecone just a little closer to him, or giving him a little nudge in the right direction, should help him achieve his objective, and that in turn will make him feel happy, right?  WRONG Unlike adults, babies don’t work for an external goal.  Zach might seem interested in reaching the pinecone, but his real (albeit subconscious) interest is in developing the ability to crawl. (Did you notice how he would toss the pinecone every time he reached it?).  They repeat the same activity over and over and over, not because they’re masochists, but because they want to perfect an ability.  By “helping” him, I’m actually hurting his development!

“The ostensible aim of the child’s work is not its ultimate purpose; all the child does is to obey an inner impulse.”

Work without interruptions: Seeing your child reach new milestones is exciting!  It’s normal to want to encourage your baby or to bust out the camera so you can capture the moment.  Sadly, every interruption to a baby’s work weakens his innate ability to concentrate; chronic interruptions lead to an inability to focus on any task.  It is therefore essential to get out of the way and allow the child to finish his work – even if what he’s doing makes no sense to you at all!

“There is a vital urge to completeness of action, and if the cycle of this urge is broken, it shows in deviations from normality and lack of purpose.”  (Normality, in Montessori terms, refers to a child who is peaceful, focused, happy, helpful and autonomous – all qualities that develop if the child is allowed to concentrate on purposeful activities.)

The next time you are observing your child hard at work, remember Dr. Montessori’s wise words:

“No guide, no teacher can divine the intimate need of each pupil and the time of maturation necessary to each; but only leave the child free, and all this will be revealed to us under the guidance of nature.”

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Biology for all ages

The new Michael Olaf newsletter has fascinating information on exposing children of all ages to the wonders of Mother Nature.  In Montessori, subjects generally taught in high school, such as biology, are made accessible to even the youngest children.  We identify the child’s “sensitive periods” (windows of opportunity in which the child is driven to develop certain psychological/cognitive characteristics) and “teach to the sensitive periods” by providing aspects of each subject that will interest the child and therefore satisfy his development.

Thus, the very young child, who is driven by his senses, is introduced to biology through a sensorial exploration of smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and textures.  The pre-school child, with his hunger for words, will learn the names of leaves, animals, and body parts with lightning speed.   In elementary, the child is driven to classify the plant and animal kingdom, and to experiment in order to satisfy his burning desire to know “why, why, why”.

Instead of segregating and restricting subjects to certain age groups, we should challenge ourselves to find out how to bring all subjects to all age groups in a meaningful and appropriate way.