Happy New Year! The earth has traveled around the sun one more time... what better day to think about the Montessori Sun Celebration.
Montessori materials share certain characteristics: they are simple, concrete, self-correcting, elegant and didactic. In each, the child is able to master a specific, isolated concept, which may be applied in other lessons or expanded upon in advanced exploration with the same material. Children learn numerals by touching and tracing the shape of each numeral with their fingers until they can identify each independently. They learn quantity by counting out beads that they can control and manipulate with their hands. They learn about the parts of speech through games that allow them enact verbs, to define nouns or to select items by the qualities of their adjectives. But not all concepts have clear concrete materials. The concept of time, for example, is almost always an abstract, a pattern formed to reflect a particular human construct, defined by its culture. You can't hold time in your hands. You can't move it around. But children nonetheless need to understand time as a concept that's relevant and immediate to their lives. The Montessori materials for time, then, are constructed concrete manipulatives that try to capture the language and experience of time, even if we can't manipulate time itself.
The Sun Celebration is one such material, the process through which Montessori classrooms celebrate children's birthdays. Children's birthdays are complicated experiences: for the child, very little may change from the last day of her three-year-old year to the first day being four. And yet, our society emphasizes birthdays as though the calendar determines one's development. "How old are you now?" "When will you turn...?" "Are you so excited for your birthday?" "When you are _______, then you can...." Birthdays are a lot of pressure! In Montessori classrooms, we try to honor the child's birthday in a way that acknowledges what a birthday actually is and helps the child to appreciate how far he or she has come in the previous year.
First, the entire classroom community is invited to join together on the ellipse. The teacher will carry a small candle to the center of the ellipse, detailing for the children that this candle represents the Sun, the center of our galaxy, around which the Earth orbits. The teacher will then invite the birthday child to find one of the classroom globes and return to the ellipse. The honored child begins to "orbit" the Sun candle, carrying the globe and representing the Earth's orbit over the course of a single year. In the first revolution, the teacher will describe for the class what that child was doing during his or her first year of life. "When Mabel was just born, she was so small she could fit in the crook of her father's arm. That year, Mabel learned to open her eyes and look at the world. She learned to smile and to make noises, to eat food from a spoon and to give very wet kisses. Mabel's parents tell us that she was a very loud baby and loved to screech in quiet rooms." As the child finishes one revolution around the ellipse, the teacher will remind him or her to pause while they finish the details of that first year. The child will a second orbit with the globe, during which the teacher will detail special things that happened in the child's development in his or her second year. A third revolution will detail the year between two and three. A fourth revolution will detail the year between three and four, and so on, until the child "arrives" at his or her current birthday.
What a beautiful dance! By mirroring the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, the child is able to better understand what has happened to define a "birthday." Observing children will note that some Celebration of the Sun orbits take longer than others: a child turning three has only three revolutions around the Sun before the Celebration is over. A child turning six has six revolutions. Likewise, the complexity of the development increases in each year's narrative, as do the details offered about the child's personality, interests and community.
Children may eventually invite a friend to carry a mirror, orbiting around the birthday child twelve times for each of the child's rotations around the sun, in the same way that our Moon orbits around the Earth, reflecting the light of the Sun. Older children in Elementary or Middle School might expand this further, inviting friends to participate as each of the planets, comparing the speed of each planet's orbit as some race around the Sun and others move more slowly. As you can imagine, the full orbit of the planets takes a lot of space... best experimented with outdoors!
Birthdays can be overwhelming for children, and we want to appreciate that children may be anxious or excited, enthusiastic or hesitant about their upcoming celebrations. Some families may be planning huge blowouts, while others may celebrate with quieter, more intimate gatherings. The classroom, though, is always a place of predictable routine, even as we approach children's birthdays. In this relatively short ritual, we are able to offer a concrete experience for an abstract measurement and, in doing so, honor the child not with presents or extravagance, but with genuine wonder and appreciation for how much he or she has grown and changed in a short lifetime.