Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Prepared Environment

The Prepared Environment

Most children do not have the luxury of entering a world prepared to meet them with caregivers prepared to fulfill their needs.  Most children enter an artificially altered world with adults who do not actually understand what their needs really are.  A newborn’s needs are more readily understood than a child of one year or eighteen months.  Once a child is mobile we become guarded against what she might do to all the things around her.  We are weary of her hands that grab, her feet that go in unwanted directions and the mouth where everything enters that she comes across; from dirt to precious houseplants and pets.  We say that we must baby-proof a house for this child, but in reality we want to change as little as possible and then not deal with the frustration that comes with not really preparing for the child in our lives.  Because they are weaker, less able to tell us what they want, and smaller we choose for our wants trump their needs – if we know what those are at all.
Once the child moves out of the unconscious level of living and into the realm of ordering her subconscious for conscious living, the adults in her life can become more baffled about the support that she needs for proper and normalized development.  Anxious parents are easily guided this way and that as they try to do the right thing; frequently entirely missing the mark.  Personal difficulties and issues stemming back to their own childhoods can make it even more difficult to see their child for who they are and what they are trying to accomplish.  
If we look at the difference between a typical American home environment and a Montessori Early Childhood classroom we will see several stark contrasts.  First, the home environment is usually outfitted for the comfort of the adults.  Frequently there are a limited number of rooms that are geared toward the child.  Take the kitchen for example, the counters are high and out of reach for the child to use.  The tables and appliances are proportioned to the adults.  Even the chairs in most kitchen/dining areas are one size, the fully grown adult.  The milk in the refrigerator is large and heavy.  The young child has great difficulty in pouring from it without spilling.  If we let them try, and they do spill, they are often scolded.  The playroom of the typical American home is filled with many things to occupy the time of the child, but that do not necessarily fulfill the developmental  needs they have.
In contrast, the Early Childhood Montessori environment is filled with natural sunlight, neutral colors and beautiful surroundings.  There so much to draw they eye and interest.  The walls are adorned with a few lovely paintings at the eye level of the child, the low shelves are adorned with flowers that the children arrange themselves.  This classroom is specifically made to the child’s measure with low sinks and tables and they, the children, are the central focus here.  There is no teacher’s desk, you might not even readily be able to find her since she is probably on the floor with one or a few of the children. 

The Tenets of a Prepared Environment
There are six basic tangible and intangible tenets of the prepared Montessori environment.  They include freedom, structure and order, reality and nature, beauty and atmosphere, the Montessori materials, and the development of community life.  I also include the prepared teacher as one of these tenants, making in actuality seven.  Each of these components is incredibly important to the development of the child.  With even one element missing the whole child struggles in his education.  There can be many dropped stitches that continue to affect him throughout his life.1
Four year old Skyler enters the classroom and says goodbye to his mother.  He immediately heads straight for the peace corner.  He takes the thumb piano off the peace shelf and sits to play it quietly.  After about five minutes he puts it away and retrieves the water tube with the tiny beads and shaped sequins.  He lays down sideways on the pillows and watches the beads float back and forth.  He likes and needs his alone time in the morning and tells May, who is coloring in a chair near the peace corner, that he doesn’t want to talk to her yet.  His life at home can be somewhat disorganized with changes between parent’s homes and styles.  After about fifteen minutes he puts things away and heads across to the other side of the classroom.  He walks the line and then lays out a rug, gets the pink tower and broad stairs, and proceeds to work with them for about twenty or twenty five minutes.  This routine has been repeated by Skyler every school day since the beginning of June.  Once he puts away the tower and stairs he will choose any number of things.  Today he asked if we could use the ending sound mat together.  The beginning of his day is always the same.  He needs to take time in the peace corner and he needs to use the tower and stairs every day.  If someone else gets there first he will wait in a watching chair until he sees that it is free to use.  He chooses to work with friends and alone.  He stops to chat with other children from time to time.  He prepares his own snack; sometimes early in the work-cycle, sometimes much later.  He is progressing nicely through the language and math works of his own volition.  He is highly interested by what his older friends are doing and wants to do them as well.  He particularly likes to sweep under the shelves with the broom to look for any missing pieces of classroom works that might have rolled under there.  He is really beginning to come into his own at school, and makes friends easily.  Several new children have started coming in our classroom and he is enjoying the chance to show them how to do things.  He is confident and happy; a considerable change from the scared, boogery, and undirected little one he was when he first started in the fall.
We do not know who a child is when they come into our lives and classrooms.  They must reveal themselves to us.  Freedom in the Montessori classroom is of the utmost importance to this revelation.  I have worked in both traditional and Montessori environments.  The most apparent difference in a child’s day is the freedom they have in its construction.  Instead of a teacher who chooses what the entire group of children must be doing, and where they must be at any given time, the child has the power, within proper boundaries, to make those choices.  There are guidelines and a schedule, but even those have plenty of wiggle room to accommodate for the ebb and flow of any particular day.  If, at the normal time for cleanup, a child is not ready to put away their work they may scoot out of the line area – if needed –   and continue.  There have been plenty of times in the classrooms where I have been a lead guide when a child has worked straight through outside breaks and even, a few times, lunch before being finished.  No one is required to have a snack and no one is required to go to the garden, movement, or the library.  This freedom develops an incredibly important inner discipline and drive.  The responsibility of the guide is to make the materials in the classroom speak to the child, and to discover the ways in which she will control the environment and not the child.  
“It is necessary for the teacher to guide the child without letting him feel her presence too much, so that she may be always ready to supply the desired help, but may never be the obstacle between the child and his experience.”2
Reality and Nature
Near the beginning of the school year we were outside in the yard area when a little garter snake came to visit.  Several of the children were spooked by this little creature and started screaming and running around.  I have a bit of trouble with snakes myself because of being bitten when I was young, but I knew that this was a rare opportunity in most of these children’s lives to learn to have respect for all life.  Most of them had never seen a snake up close, in real life - AND we just happened to be studying reptiles.  As children came over to look at the snake, who was doing its best to hide, we chatted about how big we were to this snake and how scared it must be.  The children became quieter and more fascinated.  They understood what it felt like to be small and scared sometimes by the big people in their lives.  I modeled using a quiet tone around the snake so as not to scare it.  Pretty soon more and more children came to observe, with the child who first spotted the creature telling everyone to be careful not to hurt the snake or scream because it was really scared.  I had 17 children looking and speaking in hushed tones as they asked questions about the snake.  Allen was particularly scared of the snake and would dash over to take a peek, would grab my hand, and then dart back up to the top of the hill.  As we continued our quiet discussion he kept coming over for longer periods.  The snake moved and he stayed still, content to hold my hand.  We eventually agreed that we should let the snake go and hide, and went back in the school to watch what he would do.  He slithered away while the children all talked about how exciting it all was.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the real thing is priceless.  The young child learns best by their senses.  The Montessori environment and guide, inside and out, take this precious knowledge into account in every bit of planned, and unplanned opportunities that present themselves.  Because of the freedom to adjust the curriculum for the day, a visit from a turtle in the gardens (which we have also had) or the robins outside actively building their nests above the fire bell are not an interference; they are the choice experiences the children are naturally drawn to.  We can then utilize this practical knowledge to create interest in all sorts of areas of the curriculum now and later.  After our visit from the snake, Gretta (the girl who first spotted it) wrote a story about it for writer’s workshop, and the reptile nomenclature cards and booklets became a more interesting work on the shelf.  Some of the children asked to look at pictures from the internet at snake scales and drew freeform pictures of snakes with many scales.  The addition snake game was remembered by some of the children who had used it previously who took it out to practice with it together.  This experience was also expressed sensorially when some of the children created a rainbow snake with the third box of colors, and another created snakes from the knobless cylinders.  Just last Friday (nearly 9 months later) I was asked if we could go out and look for “garden” snakes again by May.  I could never artificially create something as valuable as the snake did just by being itself, and our class valuing the chance to observe it and let it go on its way.  We have had visitors with snakes and reptiles, and the children have loved them so well, but finding that little snake out in his natural home has remained in their consciousness this whole year.  They still talk about it with each other sometimes.
Careful planning of the indoor and outdoor environments should be made in order to support the child’s experience with real, appropriately proportioned things, and with nature.  No pretend sink or refrigerator could ever be as exciting to a child as a real one with real things to use them with.  When I first witnessed a lesson on a real tea party my heart sang at how beautiful it was to give this chance for loving grace and manners to a child.  Children don't just want to play pretend, they really want the chance to do what they see their parents and other adults in their lives doing.  They would much rather really polish shoes and mirrors, sweep and mop the floor, wash cloths and sew a straight line than to pretend to do these things.  The indoor classroom is extended to the outdoors by carefully planning which activities can be done outdoors and by the installation of components that will engender the exploration of the natural world along with large motor development.  Trails, trees, flowers, bushes, quiet spaces, and gardens are complimented by playgrounds and works that encourage the care of the environment and large motor development such as playgrounds.
Structure and Order
“If there is one feature more than another which should characterize the prepared environment it is order.  Order should pervade the Montessori classroom down to the smallest detail, being present wholly and completely in each part, as a spirit is present in very part of the body which it informs.  This order expresses itself in many different ways, and on different mental levels, according to the degree of development of the children who are helped by it.”3
A child is not free to do whatever he pleases.  He may not destroy or misuse materials, hurt others, or misuse the environment.  There are rules of grace and courtesy that we all follow in the classroom, and they are the benchmark for behavior.  The more we practice and reinforce how to respect another’s space, the classroom, and the works, the more in tune and connected all the children become with our environment.  In this way we become a community caring for our special “house”.
As a lead Montessori guide, I spend a great deal of time planning for our time in the classroom.  I usually begin plans for a school year in about February.  I have had enough time during the current year to know the things I didn’t spend quite enough time on this year and start researching how to improve for the following one.  Planning out the year is just a sketch of mostly cultural lessons and focuses for each month.  There are the weekly and daily plans and then the individual lesson presentation with follow through tracking and planning.  There is so much planning and preparing in a Montessori classroom.  I visit my local thrift shops at least a couple of times a month to look for all kinds of things from creamers that get broken now and then, to knick-knacks from faraway countries, books, science and art materials, and in short anything that will fit into our curriculum.  My co-teacher and I spend some of our planning time reviewing which things in our classroom are not getting used anymore and deciding what will inspire interest and activity based on observations of the children and their individual stages of development.  I might have made an observation that one child was using a clothes pinning work for stacking instead and my co-teacher may have seen her trying to balance on the edge of the playground and therefore bring out a balancing and stacking work for her; while at the same time increasing the interest in the water works by introducing colored water they can make themselves.  I might spend an entire weekend pondering a behavior that a child is displaying and trying to work out what might help him; what might I be missing?  I re-read portions of books and articles that are particular to a question about myself and my approach to the classroom or children that might need an adjustment.  I prepare and make many, many materials while focusing on what I believe, from some experience, will make the children go crazy with delight and therefore entice their to work and focus.
“It is one of the main duties of the directress to maintain this order in the environment; and be ever on the watch lest it be impaired in the smallest degree.  Every piece of the materials - down to the smallest cube in the pink tower, the points of the pencils, the accurate folding of the towels, the exact position of the materials in the cupboards, the correct tally of the words in the grammar boxes, the right number and order of the decimal system number cards, the soap in the soap dish, the shoe polish in the cleaning outfit - everything must be always and absolutely in its right place.”HL&W 271

The Montessori Materials 
The Montessori materials are beautiful and appealing.  The classroom is equipped with low shelves that the child can easily access and retrieve the work they love so well.  They are sorted into the following areas of the curriculum:
Practical Life -  The child is in contact with his world, but he needs assistance with how to live in it.  Most adults are confused or weary about how much their child knows and how to give them independence without making too much inconvenience or mess of their home  The practical life exercises are designed to assist the child with this living by isolating a specific practical skill and putting it into the hands of the child to practice and perfect.  Pouring, spooning, polishing, scrubbing, weaving, sewing, sweeping, dressing, folding, wrapping, washing; all of these and more give the child independence.  These exercises are easily extended into the daily function of the classroom and outdoor environment.  Each of these activities has a practical purpose and develops in the child a love of his environment and fosters care for his space while at school and extending to home. Preparing the tables for lunch and serving your friends, washing the windows of the classroom, sweeping under the shelves to keep the classroom clean, dusting the works and shelves to maintain a lovely atmosphere, cleaning plant leaves and arranging flowers for the shelves, gardening and sweeping walks gives purpose and independence to the child.
Sensorial -  The young child makes sense of the world through his senses.  The Sensorial area isolates one area of a sense to develop and educate it.  These very didactic materials leave a sensorial impression on the mind of the child that he can draw on later.  These exercises include the visual, auditory, thermic, gustatory, olfactory, baric, tactile and stereognostic senses.
Language - The language area trains the child to use the hand in preparation for writing and reading first and then moves on in a step by step process to teach competence in writing and reading skills.  The child writes words with the moveable alphabet before he can read them and then begins to learn how to read.  Again each difficulty is isolated in order for the child to focus on one thing and master it before moving on.
Mathematics - The Montessori math materials are by far the showiest of all areas in the classroom.  They are beautiful and attractive.  When I began reading lessons and practicing them in order to teach my own children, suddenly I understood math in a way I had never before.  It is the most frequent comment I hear from assistants and leads in the classroom.  They really wish they had learned this way.  Math is such an abstract concept in the traditional school but in the Montessori early childhood classroom they are hands-on physical representations of abstract ideas that become part of the child.  They can again, in later life, draw on these physical experiences with the works as their understanding of difficult concepts.  At a young age children are understanding the concepts of large numbers, fractions, time, addition, multiplication, subtraction and division.
Most schools also include science, geography, history and art in the same hands-on way that is so compelling and brain developing as the other areas.
Beauty and Atmosphere
Every day I strive to arrive at school at least an hour before the day is scheduled to begin.  At the end of each work cycle our class cleans and straightens pretty well and we of course, as guides, clean and prepare the room, but after we leave there is aftercare in our room.  Things might not be as well in order as they could be and I want to do everything I can to make certain they are ready to go for the coming day.  Are the metal inset papers stocked?  Do the watercolors need to be replaced?  What about the bathroom (one of the aftercare children tends to pee behind the toilet) and under the shelves?  Are the cloths and dusters for cleaning ready to go?  Are the trays clear of sand from the sifting work the aftercare children have a difficult time not touching?  Over several years of working with young children I have come to honor and appreciate the difference that a clean and prepared environment makes in their lives at school.  I may have some small influence on the home lives of some of the students in our classroom, but certainly not any control.  I do, however, have control and stewardship of the environment that they step into, and an expanding knowledge in how to foster our little community.
“It goes without saying that we should make this prepared environment as beautiful as possible.  ‘The best for the smallest’ was always Dr. Montessori’s motto.  A well-equipped Montessori classroom is indeed a beautiful sight, with its many low windows adorned with bright curtains, its gaily painted tables and cupboards decorated with vases of flowers.  Even the materials themselves are beautiful.”4
The beauty and atmosphere of the Montessori environment is created from more than just materials.  There are curtains in the windows, the shelves are made of wood, if possible.   There are plants dotting the shelves that the children care for.  The children take pride and care of the classroom and adorn it with lovely flowers that they cut and place themselves.  The peace corner or area is a quiet and beautiful space where a child can go to escape or calm down.  There is also a peace table where the children work out their differences.  This adds to the peaceful and inclusive attitude in the classroom.
The Development of Community Life
At the end of our worktime today I gave the music box to Charles to carry around the room.  He walked by friends without announcing the end of worktime.  The music box does that job with no words.  Many of the children cleaned up their work and started helping others who were still putting things away.  Some children still wanted to work and they left them alone.  We have spent a few weeks working up to a great cleaning of the classroom.  Five or six children get out the little finger dusters and dust works and shelves, others want the full hand duster or the wand dusters.  Other children use the brooms and the small dustpans to sweep under shelves and floors.  A couple of children take out the crooked rugs and make them straight, while others wash the tables and the sink.  My assistant helps a couple of children straighten and edge works, and I help a couple of others to put some of the practical life exercises back in order and fix some of the aprons.  After the tables have been washed we set the napkins and name tags at the tables to get ready for lunch and then ring the bell to sit for the circle.  This is a real community effort, but there is no jobs list.  No one is assigned any jobs before hand, but everyone keeps busy, or is invited to help one of us.  During our afternoon circle, arnold wanted to read a book that he had written to the class.  He sat in the author’s chair and counted down the five scoots toward the middle of the circle.  Once his story was finished the others in the classroom clapped for his success in writing and he again counted the five scoots back to their spots on the line.  When that was finished it was time for the silence.  They children encouraged a couple of the younger children to be extra quiet today for the silence.  They said that they really wanted to see if they could be silent for three minutes today.  One of the boys said he didn’t feel like he could be quiet today and slipped into the neighboring room.  It was very thoughtful of him to not want to disturb or ruin everyone else’s silence today.
The real story of community life exists in the very day to day activities of the classroom.  With a few guided lessons on the respect and love we show to others children take care of each other when they are not feeling well, are sad, or afraid.  Because of proper training, children need much less of our interference in their small disputes everyday.  They really love the peace rose talks and frequently take care of issues without any adults being aware that there was ever a problem.  They take turns to share their feelings and declare friends when finished.  Once in a while they will ask for a mediator to help with a big problem.  Sometimes that is a guide and sometimes it is another student.  I have watched children spend a great deal of time making lovely pictures and notes only to give them all away to their friends.  The way they care for the classroom is a show of love for the classroom and develops their sense of community.  
The Prepared Teacher
If there is one incredibly valuable thing I have learned in the years leading up to and since the beginning of my formal training is this: You can have a beautifully crafted and organized room with the most expensive materials from the best companies, and you can have an incredible facility with the best intentions, but place an untrained and unprepared teacher in that space and the children will be the ones to lose out.  Montessori philosophy and methodology, not to mention the use of the materials, takes a long, long time to understand and perfect.  It is a beautiful thing to watch the prepared teacher at work.  Her classroom is calm and orderly, the children are happy and busy with good things, the works are treated with respect, and she is warm and understanding.  The directress of a Montessori classroom must have the ability to focus in on the one she is working with right now, while her antennae are out with a pulse on the rest of the children at the same time.  She must learn through practice when to intervene and when to stand back and observe.  She thinks and thinks about what a child is doing and what it may mean and then observes more to try to determine how to help that child.  Her real work is to remove the false notions, and shackles of of her own prejudices in order to see the child for who they really are.  She must remove pride from herself continually.  She is overjoyed when her necessity in the classroom shrinks; when the children are acting as if she is not there.
“In addition to maintaining as close a contact as possible with the children’s parents and family life, the Montessori teacher has an important role to play as an interpreter of Montessori aims to the community at large.  There is a demand to know more about Montessori education on the part of parents and teacher, and Montessori teacher must be capable and willing to meet their requests for lectures, demonstrations, and visits.  They do this as a part of their commitment to the child and his education, a commitment that extends beyond their own classroom.”5
In Summary
I am aware of how far I have to expand in the knowledge of my craft.  I am excited about the perfecting of my work as a guide and preparer of the classroom.  People always say that they can tell how much I love my work, and it is so very true.  At first it was difficult to hear where I was wrong or taking missteps, but now I really watch and listen to try to pick up on the little things I can change.  It wasn't until I visited and observed one of the classrooms at a beautiful facility last spring that I saw enough of a good cleanup routine demonstrated that I could understand the process well enough to put it into practice with such great success in our classroom.  When I read, study, ponder and journal about the classroom and how it works, I learn with leaps and bounds.  I don’t just want a good classroom and I am not interested in being just a good teacher.  I have this quote that is carved in stone on my bookcase that I strive to live my life by: Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it - Autograph your work with excellence.  This phrase calls me to humility.  If I am to be an excellent teacher, and provide and excellent environment, I must be absolutely open to correction and change.  It has only been since I have opened by heart and mind to change that things have begun to improve for myself, and my family in all areas of life.  I get a great deal of satisfaction from what I do; from creation to implementation to revelation.  There is so much room for improvement, and I feel like every year brings greater ability to prepare the correct environment.  

1 - Montessori A Modern Approach Paula Polk Lillard (1972) Random House, NY p.51
2 - Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook Maria Montessori (2013) p.55
3 - Maria Montessori Her Life and Work E.M. Standing (1957) p. 270
4 - Ibid p. 268

5 - Montessori A Modern Approach p. 86

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Montessori Theory Part I - Normalization


The Normal Child
Within each human is an innate push to move forward, to learn more, to learn how, to create oneself.  On this path to self-creation each person meets with opposition and obstruction.  Continued obstruction causes deviations in a man’s behaviors.  An infant may feel the pull to learn to turn over onto his stomach and will work and try until he has been successful.  Having done that he will work to perfect his new skill until he can turn over with ease.  What if instead of success on the other end of his strivings there was something that impeded his ability to turn over?   He would become agitated and upset.  He may be very likely to cry and make a fuss because he needs to do this work, he is driven to learn this skill and then another.  What would happen to the child if he was stopped at every struggle to turn over?  His behavior would become changed or deviated until his impediment was removed.  Just as damaging to the child would be the parent turning him over every time he began his struggle for greater independence.  As we see, the infant becomes disturbed if his pursuit of learning is obstructed, the young child’s behaviors become deviated when he cannot follow that inner guide in accomplishing the task of creating the adult he will become. 
When a child meets with an obstacle to his learning we then see unwanted, or “naughty” behaviors exposed.  Many of the behaviors that are commonly attributed to childhood such as rowdiness, bossiness, naughtiness, defiance, carelessness, timidity, laziness, and stubbornness are actually an outward manifestation of unmet developmental needs in children.  These behaviors, contrary to belief, are actually not attributes displayed by a child who is allowed to follow his voice unimpeded.  The world is still largely unacquainted with the true normal behavior of children because the world, at large, does not understand the innate needs that children have and, even more importantly, how to meet them.  At every turn the child is hampered in his journey to independence and growth by well meaning adults.  The child must grow, and he must do this himself.  No one can do it for him no matter how we might wish to.  
In fact, ‘every useless aid arrests development.”  What the child needs is to work.  Work is 
for him a necessary form of life, a vital instinct without which his personality cannot 
organize itself.  So essential is it for the child to have the opportunity and means for this 
creative “work” that if it is denied him his deviated energies will result in all sorts of 
The publishers of educational and parenting materials have no shortage of, and make a great deal of money on books in the subject of the management of children, the correction and alteration of undesirable behaviors, and using the “good” child as a model of behavior in the classroom.  In her work with the slum children of Rome, however, Maria Montessori discovered something new; something that is still new.  She began without any preconceived idea about what education ought to be.  She approached her charges with an eye toward scientific exploration and observation.  She was most astounded by what the children divulged.
It was thus, through experience, that Montessori discovered - one might say 
stumbled upon- the characteristics of the normal child.  She was not looking for them; she 
was not expecting them; she was not even thinking about them.  It was a genuine and 
unforeseen revelation. . . These normalized children - “the new children” as they were often 
called - have appeared again and again in almost every country in the world for a whole 
generation.  Race, color, climate, religion, civilization, all these made no difference.  
Everywhere, as soon as hindrances to development were removed, the same characteristics 
appeared as if by magic. 2

What then are the characteristics of the normalized child?
  • Love of order
  • Love of work
  • Profound spontaneous concentration
  • Attachment to reality
  • Love of silence and of working alone
  • Power to act from real choice and not from curiosity
  • Obedience
  • Independence and initiative
  • Spontaneous self-discipline
  • Joy 3
In Maria Montessori’s words, “The children of our schools revealed that the real aim of all children was constancy at work, and this had never been seen before.  Neither had spontaneity in the choice of work, without the guide of a teacher, ever been seen before.  The following of some inner guide, occupied themselves in work (different for each) that gave them calm serenity and joy, and then something else appeared that had never yet appeared in a group of children: a spontaneous discipline.  This struck people even more than the explosion into writing.  This discipline in freedom seemed to solve a problem which had been insolvable.  The solution was: to obtain discipline, give freedom.  These children going about seeking for work in freedom, each concentrated in a different type of work, yet as a whole group presented the appearance of perfect discipline.”4  
This idea that to obtain discipline, give freedom is even more counter intuitive in our society today than in her time. Within the traditional education system it is common practice to believe that a disruptive child needs an intervention.  If a little intervention is good, then a lot must be better.  When a class is struggling they must need more assessment from which to draw data.  If a little data is good, a lot must be better.  People in our society sometimes make horrible choices, therefore they must need policing.  If a little policing is good, then a lot must be better.  When a group of people becomes unruly they must be forced into obedience.  If a little force is good, then a lot must be better.   One might even consider that, from this perspective, we first make thieves and then punish them.  From this camp of thought, how could greater discipline possibly be achieved through greater freedom?  Contrary to this deeply rooted misconception, year after year in Montessori classrooms all over the world this guided freedom unveils the true nature of children and their capacity for internal discipline.

Laws or Principles of Childhood
Before the age of three a child is in a state of unconscious preparation for later years.  He begins, as it were, a blank slate onto which all stimuli and experience is written.  His mind is absorbent and he constructs himself bit by bit, little by little.  By the time the child has reached three years of age the unconscious work is fixed and the child steps into a new frontier; the development of his mental functions.  He is ready to take what is unconscious and make it conscious.   Once a child emerges into this conscious arena he is ready to follow her innate pattern for development.  If two conditions exist, an environment that appropriately supports his and the freedom within that environment to follow the inwardly motivational pull of development, we will be witness to the laws and principles of childhood.  It is as if he is the theatre and will show to us:
  • The Law of Work
  • The Law of Independence
  • The Power of Attention
  • The Principle of Will

The Law of Work
In the fall the leaves pile up under the towering maple tree in our front yard.  I will want to find the easiest and most economical way possible to do the job of raking up and removing the leaves.  I may spend extra money on a fancy rake or even perhaps a leaf vacuum that will help this tedious chore be finished more quickly.  I look to the time when my chore is completed and what that will look and feel like.  For me this is a job to get done with, and I am so grateful when the last leaf has fallen and my raking is finished for the year.  Conversely, how often do we see the children of a house rake up the leaves into a pile just to scatter them out again and begin the process all over.  The adult and the child have vastly different aims in work.  For the child the interest is not getting to the end of the process; the process IS the aim.  Work, and it’s timing, are a different thing to children.  Repetition of work is a seminal observation of the normalized child.  Because her work is to develop her skill, and to understand what is before her she takes it up again and again.
“ …as we have seen, the child does not stop when the external end has been reached; he very often goes back to the beginning and repeats it, many times.  But he does stop in the end - and that quite suddenly.  Why does he stop just at that moment?  It is because, unconsciously, he feels within himself that he has obtained what he needs from that particular activity - for the time being at any rate.  While he has been repeating the exercises, there has been going on inside him a process of psychic maturation, which has now come full circle.”5
Because our aims in work are so opposed to the child’s, we miss the needs of the child and consistently project our own views of the value of work onto the child.  This presents no small opposition to his growth.  The adult may see the repetition of work as unnecessary, because it might be for us, or become agitated with the amount of time it takes her to be ready to move from one activity to another.  
If adults persist in interrupting the child during this cycle of repetition, his self-confidence and ability to persevere in a task are severely jeopardized.  Constant interruption during this time is so upsetting to the child that Montessori felt it caused him to live in a state “similar to a permanent nightmare.”6
The world is tailored to the adult for his convenience.  Everywhere in the child’s life the adult plans usefulness for himself.  This convenience is planned into even the cups and dishes that will not shatter to save money, time and necessary supervision without considering the impact on the child because she is unaware of what he may actually need. 
Because of the social nature of his life, which is neither adaptive nor productive to adult society, the contemporary child is largely removed from it.  He is exiled in a school where too often his capacity for constructive growth and self-realization is repressed.  This problem in contemporary civilization increases as the adult’s role becomes even more complex.  In primitive societies, where work was simple and could be carried out at a relaxed pace, the adult could coexist with children in his working environment with less friction. The complexity of modern life is making it increasingly difficult for the adult to suspend his won activities “to follow the child”. 
There are great factories built for adults to do their work.  Even the home seamstress or weekend carpenter understands the need for a place to complete their projects, and of the importance of access to all the necessary items for their occupation.  It is so frustrating for the adult to try completing something without the right tools for the job that they plan and save to create the “perfect” workspace for themselves.   The child as well needs his own places in which to do his incredible work, but he is not just building a car or a quilt, the child is building himself.  
        In order that the child may be able to carry out his great work properly, he needs something more vital and dynamic than a workshop.  We must accustom our minds to the notion of an environment which will be more akin to that living environment which surrounds the embryo in the maternal womb. 7
Therefore children needs a “living environment” that is prepared to answer the cry of their heart.  When adults understand and prepare themselves and an environment that is conducive to the very sensitive periods of learning in children, they respond by revealing themselves.
Maria herself had this to say about the role of the prepared environment in this way:
“All children, if placed in a new environment allowing ordered activity, show this new appearance, so there is one psychic type common to all humanity, which hitherto had remained hidden under the cloak of other apparent characteristics.  This change that came over our children and made them appear as of one uniform type, did not come gradually, but suddenly.  It always came when the child was concentrated in one activity; so that if there was a lazy child, we did not urge him to work.  We merely facilitated contact with the means of development in the prepared environment.  As soon as he found work all his trouble disappeared at once.8
It is imperative to understand the importance of the correctly prepared environment and sufficiently trained and practiced adults in achieving normalization.  Children need the right conditions in order to do their work, to follow this law.  If their conditions are not right we see all kinds of problematic behaviors surface…
          but once the conditions for building the psyche are there, the normal type appears.  We therefore called the type that developed in our schools “normalized” children and the others deviated children.9
During the 2013-2014 school year there was a girl in class 11 named “Lila”.  She was nearing five years old at the beginning of the year and had begun attending a Montessori school just a couple of months before I transitioned into directing that class.  She exhibited several deviated behaviors when we began classes together.  She consistently sought for inappropriate attention.  She would speak out of turn and over other children, interrupt children who were talking to me and demand that it was her turn, and deliberately make a lot of commotion at the line and outside in an attempt for one of the adults to pay attention to her.  When she didn’t succeed in getting the thing she was after, she would cry very loudly and flop on the floor.  Rather than turning our attention to her problematic behavior, my co-teacher and I strategized that we would ignore anything that didn’t disturb other’s work, hurt herself, the items in the classroom, or others.  We also strategized what works might interest her and made plans to present them.  She was interested in the practical life exercises in the classroom, and even more interested in works using water.  I gave her a few preliminary exercises to make sure she could be successful with more advanced ones, and then I presented her with the lesson of scrubbing shelves.  Being allowed to have a tub of water at her disposal was an experience that made her giddy.  She loved the soap, the bubbles, the dirty water, the drying of the shelves and seeing them gleam when they were dry.  She was completely engaged at this occupation the remainder of the work cycle on day one and returned to this same work for the three days following.  She never once brought us over to look at her work; she almost didn't even notice that anyone else was there except when they got in her way.  Each day when she would clean up she had the most satisfied and calm demeanor about her.  From this moment on she was a changed person.  It was as if something inside of herself opened up and light poured in.  She came to class eagerly looking every day for work that called to her and would get busy alone and eventually with friends.   She remembered practically everything we ever said or sang, and drank in the entire experience.  She loved demonstrating the grace and courtesy lessons, and took delight in her abilities to wait in absolute silence at the circle, especially in being called to leave the circle very last because she was so adept at waiting.  It was no longer about what someone else saw her doing, but what she knew she could do herself.  She was no longer possessive about our attentions and looked for opportunities to be the teacher and helper to the younger children.  There was a little three year old with some sensory issues that she took under her wing.  Line time was particularly difficult for this child.  Lillian once saw me rub her back in a circular motion and took it upon herself to sit by this girl the remainder of the year and rub her back at the line so she could be successful.  This tale of change is just one of many that has been repeated again and again in the classrooms I have directed, not to mention my own home.

The Law of Independence
Help me do it by myself is the watch cry of the child.  He longs to be in the world and to work in it as the adults in his life.  He is driven to do things on his own, and in his own time.  It is the necessary application of our stewardship to apply the law of work in such a way that the child feels that he has been his own teacher, in truth that he becomes his own teacher.  To set up his environment with success in mind, to prepare work that will isolate the difficulties he meets in his life in such a way that he can be successful in mastering it.  To step away from the child and allow him his own work and development within bounds that help him progress from one step to the next.  It is our aim for the parent to ask the child if we have taught him a new skill and for the child to answer that he did it himself.  We are aware that “Except when he has regressive tendencies, the child’s nature is to aim directly and energetically at functional independence.  Development takes the form of a drive toward an ever greater independence. 10

The Power of Attention
At a certain stage of his development, the child begins to direct her attention to particular objects in his environment with an intensity and interest not seen before. 11  It becomes the responsibility of the adults to make the environment attractive and irresistible to the child in order that she may pick up whatever may direct her attention and use it.  The child becomes concentrated in her work and will not leave it even when disturbed.
When a normal child is concentrated on his work, he refuses to be interrupted by those who try to help him.  He wants to be left alone with his problem.  The result is a spontaneous activity that is of far greater value that simply noticing differences in things, which is, of course, of great value in itself.  The material thus proves to be a key which puts a child in communication with himself and opens up his soul so that he can act and express himself.12
“Sara” was a first year student in class 11.  At the beginning of the year she was fearful and intensely quiet, but soon lost these attributes and worked well among her peers.  Every day she would begin with the broad stairs and pink tower as long as no one else got there first.  She was careful and attentive.  On a day in February I made the particular observation that Sara was performing this work with such concentration.  She looked around the room intently for the right place to put her rug, and began taking each cube and prism to her rug.  The classroom had a cement floor with seams.  She had set her rug so that she could take a trip to and from her rug on the seams in retrieving her work, and placed each foot carefully in front of the other.  She walked so slowly and patiently.  She would stop and wait if anyone went in her path.  We noticed this quickly and worked to shift a rug that was in her path as soon as that child was finished, and helped other children set up in another spot of the room so she could keep up her work uninterrupted. Once she had gotten them to the rug she made the tower and the stair only once, and proceeded in the same fashion to return them to the shelf.  Her work that day was the trip back and forth to the rug.  She began this work at approximately 9:15 and did not end until roughly 11:20.
The power of attention is that once a child has developed this skill and is attuned to the things that draw his attentions, he can then move from being acted upon to acting.  “He has more experience and builds up an internal knowledge of the known, which now excites expectation and interest in the novel unknown.” 13  His appetite has been wetted for experiences and the knowledge that work and learning imparts to him in his quest to create himself.

The Principle of Will
Once a child has established this ability for prolonged attention and concentration he reveals within himself a principle of will.  This will continues to develop through further as he works harmoniously in an environment that supports him.  An inner formation of the will is gradually developed through this adaptation to the limits of a chosen task. 14  He must make decisions and act, and these in turn develop will.  Because traditional schooling severely limits the choices, decisions, and actions of a child, Montessori felt it “not only denies the child every opportunity for using his will but directly obstructs and inhibits expression.”15  The observations garnered in her work with the children of the Casa de Bambini have been vetted by generations of Montessori children.  She has detailed three stages of the development of will.  The first stage begins with the repetition of activities.  When a work draws deep concentration and attention he will repeat such work again and again and demonstrates obvious satisfaction in said repetition.  This “achievement, however trivial to the adult, gives a sense of power and independence to the child.”16  The child has achieved an independence in this work.  We could say the first step of the will is independence through repetition.  Whereupon succeeding in this, the child progresses to the second stage of the development of his will.  This second stage is marked with an independent and spontaneous choice of self-discipline.  The child makes conspicuous choices to exert his efforts in the discipline of his own body in its relationship to his environment.  He develops self-knowledge and self-possession.  At the onset of this stage of development we may see a child exerting great effort to walk around a rug and not on it, to use “quiet” water, to shut the door with no sounds at all, to walk without so much as a shuffling sound during the quiet game, to walk the line with ever increasing precision, or to sit in an absolute stillness during the Silence.
“Anton” is five years old and has been in class 10 for most of the 2014-15 school year.  During the first weeks of the summer schedule we have had daily silence.  During worktime he has shown an increased concentration and self-awareness which has transferred into our line-time.  For him the silence has nothing to do with me.  His focus is increasingly inward and he has on several occasions become unaware that others are leaving the circle to go outside.  His travail is for himself alone and it is an inward work.  I spoke to his father about Antons’s development in concentration and stillness.  He asked if there was some kind of prize for the child who sits in silence the longest.  He had a difficult time understanding that his son would do this by choice since there was nothing for him to gain for this work except inside himself.  He wondered aloud why he was behaving so unlike himself.
Out of self-knowledge and self-possession springs the third stage of the developed will, the power to obey.  Obedience is not the same as the “discipline” so often described in parenting and educator help-books.  Obedience is the conscious choice controlled by a child herself to work in cooperation with her environment and world.
Will and obedience then go hand in hand, inasmuch as the will is a prior foundation in the order of development and obedience is a later stage resting on this foundation…Indeed if the human should did not possess this quality, if men had never acquired, by some form of evolutionary process, this capacity for obedience, social life would be impossible. 17
This is the pinnacle of normalization that we as Montessori educators look to.  This is the bar that is set for us and by which we measure the effectiveness of our classroom environments.  Are we participating in the development of a whole child?  A child who is in possession of all his faculties, who is awake in looking to learn, who displays self-awareness and knowledge, and who has developed his will of obedience.

In Summary
The revelation of “new child” is the work of the guide.  This is not a work we can take off the shelf and manipulate.  Our work is the constant observation, experimentation and careful managing of the prepared environment.  We must become attuned and experienced in the cues the children give about current needs so that we may alter that environment to meet them.  We must remove her pride from ourselves since humility is necessary to keep our eyes open to the workings of the classroom.  We must remove what distracts, discard what does not entice (even though we may have spent time creating it) and become the practiced observer of the children’s space.  We must teach ourselves; must choose to change ourselves and value the ways and workings of the child.  In the end we do not need greater interventions, but greater independence, greater understanding and greater preparation.
Each time a child walks the path to becoming new I am rewarded for every effort.  Each time the child discovers themselves through concentrated work, and I become invisible, that is when I get a feeling under my skin that cannot be described.  When the child awakens his new self and exalts in independence my heart flutters.  This is the work I love.


1 Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work  E. M. Standing (1998) New York: Plume p.148
2 Ibid p.174
3 Ibid pp.175 - 178
4 The Absorbent Mind  Maria Montessori (1949), Adyar, Madras, India: The Theosophical Publishing House p.289
5 Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work  p.150
6 Montessori: A Modern Approach  Paula Polk Lilllard (1972) p.41
7 Montessori: A Modern Approach  p.38
8 Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work  p.155
9 The Absorbent Mind p.290
10 Ibid p.296
11 The Secret of Childhood Maria Montessori (1966) New York, Ballentine p.82
12 The Discovery of the Child Maria Montessori (1967) New York, Ballentine pp.178-179
13 Montessori: A Modern Approach p.40
14 Ibid p.40
15 Ibid p.40
15 Ibid p.41
15 Ibid p.42

Monday, April 13, 2015

Oceania Mat for the Early Childhood Classroom

I am in love with this work.  Not only because it took a while to produce, but because I got to make it with my sweet son, Andon, who is battling Leukemia right now.  I want to express my thanks and love for all your support and kindnesses during our fight.  We are not done yet by any means.  He still has another 2 years and 10 months, at least, to go.

The Oceania mat laid out.  I forgot to take a picture of the mat in the bag.

The work on the tray.  The mat itself is kept in a bag that can hang on a wall or sit
behind the tray on the shelf.

I've been taking a sabbatical from school while Andon undergoes chemotherapy, but that doesn't mean I haven't been keeping very busy.  I have so many things I could post about, and I really want to post everything, but I don't have that kind of time right now.

Since Andon has come home he has been VERY interested in islands, and we have studied all kinds of them when he has felt well enough.  In fact his Make-A-Wish wish is to go to Aulani resort in Hawaii with his family.  He wants to see the island up close, swim with the dolphins, and learn to surf.  He has also had a real interest in Australia, so I thought it would be perfect to study Oceania.  I figured I do several things all at the same time, and get some work in for school as well.  We ordered the Elementary Biome work from Waseca Biomes, which will arrive on Wednesday (we are so EXCITED!!!).  While I've been waiting for that to arrive I set to work making something I have been meaning to make for over a year now.  The Early Childhood mat of Oceania.  Since Andon hasn't been exposed to this type of work he helped me to create it while also learning.  We spent some time learning about the animals, plants, biomes, industry etc. of Oceania and then we worked to create this mat.  He has learned a lot of things through this process, and has really enjoyed it.

The first order of business was to find a site where I could print a large-scale copy of Oceania.  I found that here.  I used the 4X4 setting, which used 16 sheets of paper.  I tried the 5X5 setting first, but thought it was too large.  I wanted to be certain that littler arms could reach the center of the mat without walking on it.

NOTE:  I think it is important that children be exposed to the Biomes before they start this work.  Waseca has a great curriculum that you can download for free.  It is, however, one of those life changing and mind expanding sites.  I LOVE their biome work, but am not such a fan of their rainbow boxes for language.  I DO, however, love their biome readers.

I traced Australia onto brown Duck Canvas twice.  This was to give stability and a control
of error you will see later.  I used some of the left over brown canvas to make a bag to hold the mat.

I turned the paper pattern backwards so that when I cut out the  fabric I could turn it the
right way and not have the tracing show.

In this mat I am teaching the child the biomes found in Australia mostly.  The other islands
won't have their biomes expressly taught since they are significantly smaller.  Sorry to all my kiwi
friends :).  I do talk about them in the presentation a little.  You can see the biome map I am
referencing above.  You can find it below.

I sketched out the biomes onto the paper pattern.
Then I cut them out.

I traced those lines onto the front of one of the canvas cut-outs of Australia. Once that
was finished I used a triple stitch and a light blue thread to sew the lines onto the top piece
of the cut-out.

The next step was to pin the two pieces of fabric together and sew them.

I used clear thread and a zig-zag stitch.

I cut a piece of blue Duck Canvas to 20X40 and placed Australia where I wanted it on the fabric.
I was certain to leave plenty of room for New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and some of the  smaller
islands of Oceania.  I traced the outline of Australia onto the front of the blue fabric.  I then used brown
thread to sew the outline onto the blue fabric.

I then cut the biomes out of their respective colors.  Again I used duck canvas and cut two
of each piece.  I traced the major rivers and Lake Eyre onto the top side of the biome fabric and
 sewed them in a darker blue thread with a triple stitch.  Once that was done I again sewed the pieces
together with clear thread and a zig-zag stitch.
I cut out a small Australia and sewed it onto this light blue fabric with
clear thread and a zig-zag stitch.  I then turned it into a drawstring bag.
  It holds items that go onto the mat.  Here you can see the stitch work on the biome fabric.

Next I made pieces for Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.  I used some tan
vinyl to do the other side in order to be neutral.  I cut two pieces of blue for each, sewed
the islands onto the top side with clear zig-zag.  The white paint dots
you see are for the placement of objects.

Using the sewn island pieces, I traced onto the blue mat and then sewed the
 outlines for them in blue thread with a triple stitch.  Some of these photos
were taken at night so they didn't turn out so well.

Once New Zealand and Papua New Guinea were made, I used the large scale
print-out as reference to trace more smaller islands onto the mat.
I used brown fabric paint to paint them onto the mat itself.  Tasmania was cut
out of the Duck and sewn directly to the mat.  Then I used double fold bias
tape in a dark brown to finish the mat.
The contrast of color is nice.

This shows the basic set up of the mat with just the brown fabrics.

Finally, all the fun stuff is added.  I am a big fan of using already made resources if I can.
The Down Under Toob had a lot of these things.  I also used the cycad palm
 from the Trees Toob, the coral, seahorse, diver, chest of gold and clown fish from the
Coral Reef Toob.  I used the apples and bananas from the Fruit Toob.  I used Super Sculpey
to create the Mountain ranges, Ayers Rock, the base of the Aboriginal man
(because he doesn't stand on his own), and the volcano.  I used a wooden disc and
painted it with dot painting.  I cut very thin blue rick-rack for the rivers,
and blue felt for Lake Eyre.  Each item is placed during a "story"
 told to the children.  I am working to find a tiny boomerang, cassowary,
echidna, kiwi bird, "diamond", "opal", sheep, Maori carving and Sydney Opera House.
The story goes something like this:

"This is Oceania.  Well, not all of it, but a lot of it.  There are many small islands not on this mat, but this mat has Australia (place it), Papua New Guinea (place it), and New Zealand (place it). Here is also Tasmania (point to it).  Up here at the top are several smaller islands (name some of them if you can).

"In Australia we can find several biomes (pull out the biomes control card).  The orange is desert (place the desert), the yellow is grasslands (place the grasslands including the small yellow piece), the light green are the temperate forests (place the temperate forests), and the dark green is the tropical forest (place the tropical forest)  We can find some rivers in Australia.  Down here we have the Darling River, the Lachlan River, and the Murray River (place the three rivers together)  Over on this side is the Murchison River (place it).  There are other rivers in Australia, but these are some of the largest.  Sometimes the rivers in Australia DRY UP!  Sort of in the middle of Australia we have some lakes.  I am just putting on Lake Eyre because it is the largest lake (place it).  On the eastern edge of Australia there is a range of mountains.  These mountains are called the Darling Range (place the three mountain ridges).  This curved set on the bottom is also know as the Australian Alps (point to the bottom ridge).  In the center of the desert is a very large rock formation called Ayers Rock. The Aboriginal people; the people who have lived here a very long time, call it Uluru (place it and the Aboriginal man) and it is very special to them.  In the desert there are gold mines (place it), and diamond mines (place it), and opal mines (place it).  Bananas and pineapples are grown in Australia because it is hot (place them).  The Aboriginal people create wonderful works of art called dot painting (place it).  We will be creating some of these ourselves.  Off the west coast of Australia people dive for pearls (place the diver)."

"Emus live almost ALL over Australia (place it), so do cockatoos (place it).  Frilled lizards and kangaroos live mostly in the hot deserts and in the grasslands (place it).  Dingos can be found a lot of different places in Australia, but they are finding less and less of them all the time (place it).  The taipan lives right along the upper coastal areas of Australia (place it).  The platypus lives on the western edge of Australia (place it).  Koalas have to live where they find eucalyptus trees, so they live on this western side of Australia (place it).  Wombats only live down here as you get to the southern tip of Australia.  They also live in Tasmania (place it).  Another animal that lives in Tasmania is called the Tasmanian Devil.  It is known for being very aggressive (place it).  Off the east coast of Australia we can find the Great Barrier Reef.  It is home to many kinds of Corals (place it), fish (place clown fish) and seahorses (place it).  There are many, many other kinds of animals that live in the coral reef, but we will learn about them when we study the coral reef.  In New Zealand they have many volcanoes (place it).  They grow apples and they herd many sheep (place them).  In Papua New Guinea and on the top of Australia we can find the Saltwater Crocodile (place it).  We can also find a kind of palm tree called a Cycad (place it).  Scientist believe that this type of palm tree has been around a very, very long time."

When you are finished with the presentation, carefully return all the items to the bag.  return the pieces to the tray.  Roll up the mat and put it in the mat bag.  Ask the child(ren, because by about 1 minute in you will have most of the class wanting to watch your presentation) if they would like a turn with this work.  When they say yes, you get to tell them that you will show them where to find it on the shelf so they will know where to put it back.  You then put the entire work away before allowing the child to use this work.  In this way you are consistently showing the child the importance of putting their work away in pristine condition for the next child to use.

The best thing about this work is that it has endless extensions.  Reading, writing, grammar, math!!