6 - 12, Cosmic Education, Theory and Practice

The Un-Checklist

If you’re a teacher or homeschooling parent who uses checklists to encourage a child’s organization and accountability, then you already know just how quickly checklists can turn into a battle of wills between adult and child.  You also probably sense that checklists hinder freedom of choice.  And you’ve surely noticed that checklists shift the focus of the child’s work away from self-development and flow, and towards task completion and industrial efficiency.

While checklists can work beautifully for a pilot safety-checking an airplane or a hospital staff preparing for a surgery, they wreak havoc on a child’s innate ability to follow his interests in the quest for true mastery and understanding.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting children to develop organization skills and hold themselves accountable.  So, how can we reach these well-intentioned goals without the drawbacks associated with checklists?

In our house, my son and I had a conversation about the reasons for practicing each of the disciplines that are currently a part of his homeschooling journey.  I made a large watercolor circle for each subject and wrote our combined thoughts.


Then, on one sheet of paper, I started a mind map with the six subjects he’s currently exploring written in the same colors as the individual watercolor circles.  We re-read the reasons for exploring each subject area, and I asked him to think of some interesting topics he might want to learn about.  I connected those interests to the relevant subject areas.  We talked about some topics that I wanted to share with him and I wrote those down as well.


This became our learning map, and we turn to it daily throughout the month.  Some days I choose what to present and other days he takes the lead.  We add topics to the month’s map as he discovers new interests, and I direct his attention towards the areas of the map that we haven’t visited yet.  Next month, I’ll start a new map and together we’ll discuss what he’s explored to his satisfaction and what he’d like to transfer over, in addition to the new topics we’ll be adding.

I love seeing him stand in front of the learning map, taking in the depth and breadth of explorations and learning opportunities he’s had in just one month.  This map doesn’t begin to capture the richness of his homeschooling experience, with daily adventures in nature, countless opportunities for social interaction, and freedom to play and daydream.  But I think it sends a message that’s developmentally appropriate for his age: Learning is a journey across a vast and varied landscape.  You may spend more time exploring some lands than others, but every stop along the way will enrich you and change you forever.

Montessori Theory, On Parenting, Science, Social and Emotional Learning

Letting the Child Lead the Way

You might be familiar with the idea that children learn best when they are following their interests.  But you might not know that by “following the child”, you’re also helping them develop executive functions: skills like impulse control, delayed gratification, problem-solving, strategizing and concentrating, which are much bigger determinants for success in life than IQ.

I recently attended a talk by Dr. Steven Hughes, where he focused on the development in childhood of executive functions.  I learned that when a person engages in work that challenges them, satisfies them, and gives them a sense of purpose, their brain produces just the right amount of a hormone called dopamine, which is responsible for managing drive and motivation, and regulating executive functions.  This explains why children rarely misbehave or make bad decisions while doing productive self-chosen work.

I did a little more research after his talk and discovered that boredom is related to a lowered production of dopamine, which explains why most children have to be bribed to do uninspiring school work (receiving bribes increase dopamine, but also leads to a bribe addiction because the motivation isn’t coming from within the child).  It also explains why children act out when they’re bored at school; they are not producing enough dopamine to remain in control of their behavior!!

Meanwhile, even low levels of stress (like those caused by threats, assessments, and externally-imposed deadlines) lead to a dopamine flood that shuts down the prefrontal cortex – the rational part of the brain that regulates executive functions.

In other words, when we pull the child away from his self-chosen explorations and force him to do the work that WE thinks is beneficial for him, along with killing his love of learning, we are also impairing the development of his executive functions. 

So, please, it’s time to start listening to Dr. Montessori and to modern science.  Let’s stop thinking we know what’s best for the children and start allowing their creative and productive energies to lead the way.  Are you ready to follow the child?  I know I am.


To Walk is Noble

A recent post on How We Montessori addressed the importance of letting toddlers walk when they show enthusiasm for it.  Yes, a walking toddler slows you down, but what’s your hurry?  Parents are always claiming that they want to stimulate their child’s intelligence, and yet they put a stop to the ONE activity that will most enhance cognitive growth – purposeful movement.

It has always driven me NUTS to see three-year olds being pushed in strollers.  Have you looked at a child’s face when he’s sitting in a stroller?  Is he engaged, curious, excited?  Or is he passive, bored, and even humiliated?  What do you think he’s learning while being pushed around?  What messages are we sending them when we strap them down? 

I hope you’ve seen the movie “Babies” (if you haven’t, what are you waiting for???).  It features a baby girl from a goat-herding tribe in Namibia.  From the moment the child starts to walk, the mother is never shown picking up the child again.

In one scene, the mother walks slowly next to the toddling girl, giving her sensitive feet time to become accustomed to the rocky ground.  The child’s discomfort is obvious, and yet the mother’s presence seems to be telling her: “You are strong, I know you can do this.”  In another scene, the mother bends down to nurse the girl while the child is standing.  In a third scene, the toddler is trying to balance a can on her head while walking – all this, while the three other same-aged babies in the movie (from Japan, Mongolia, and the U.S.) are still as wobbly on their feet as a newborn foal.

Dr. Montessori writes: “It is often we who obstruct the child, and so become responsible for anomalies that last a lifetime.”  By putting toddlers in strollers, we are giving them the message that walking is a chore, that our will is more powerful than theirs, and that their presence is slowing us down.  By letting them walk, we are encouraging them to “coordinate those movements which play a necessary part in [their] mental life, so as to enrich the practical and executive sides of it.”

Executive functions – the ability to plan, prioritize, initiate, inhibit, monitor, correct, control and change one’s own behavior – are honed through the simple act of walking!

Whenever I see a child strapped down to a stroller, I remember one of my Children’s House trainers.  She was an elegant older lady who floated like a butterfly but stung like a bee.  She told us that whenever she sees a child in a stroller, she approaches the parents and asks: “Can your child walk?”  Upon receiving an affirmative answer, she replies: “Then why doesn’t he?”