Carnivals and Classrooms
If you were to draw your conclusions about children's development based on the products you see marketed to them, you might presume that children are loud, brash, cacophonous creatures who prefer colors that clash, wide-eyed characters with squeaky high voices and a thick layer of glitter coating their world.
Don't get me wrong. I love glitter. But children are a bit more complicated than the bouncy, sparkly, primary-color driven ballpits that mass marketers presume them to be.
When you visit a Montessori classroom, you may be surprised at the color palette. Gone are the large-scale, full-wall murals of cartoon characters and unicorn-filled horizons. The teachers aren't wearing their "teacher sweaters," bedazzled with funny slogans or bold colors. The walls are largely unadorned, with next to nothing hung at the height of adult eyes. There is no loud music sung by costumed clowns playing in the background. Instead, the classroom furniture is stained in natural wood or painted in soft colors. The walls are neutral and bare. The teachers fade into the background, in both their dress and their demeanor. If there's music playing, it's gentle instrumentals. The physical environment, including the teachers within it, seems designed to fade away, instead of to draw the children's attention.
In a Montessori classroom, we want to support children's developing attention spans by enticing that attention to the elegant design of the didactic materials. If you scan a Montessori classroom quickly, you should notice the materials emerge against the neutral background of the shelves and walls. The beautiful, elegant lessons, each on its own tray, draw your eye. You notice the way the light catches the golden beads. You notice the crisp reflection of light through a stream of water pouring from one jug to another. The materials we want the children to attend to are at their eye level. There is little at all at the eye level of adults. Why should there be? This is not their space.
And, as it turns out, the children are comforted by it. These are not environments designed to inspire chaos, but to offer calm assurance. These are not spaces within which you will be startled by sight or sound, but instead ones in which your focus will be uninterrupted and your individual interests respected. If you want conversation, it will be available to you, but you won't be forced to answer or engage, especially if you're already absorbed in your own work. If the busy-ness of the classroom is too much for you, there will be a quiet space to which you can retreat, from which you can observe the activity of your peers until you're ready to re-engage. It turns out, these are environments in which children participate in much the same way that adults do in the environments designed for their productivity, ones that allow extended concentration without interruption, that allow for the self-regulation of one's own needs, that offer space for collaboration and space for retreat.
When the environment is disruptive, it is the child who is most disrupted. Instead, we want to offer the child time at his or her own pace in environments that support his or her own development, without the distraction of colors, sounds and sights that adults think are "childish." We want to protect the child's ability to attend and to wonder, by giving them spaces that draw their attention and allow them stillness and awe. Still developing the ability to concentrate without distraction (indeed- a skill many of us don't have even as adults!) children are able to focus best in spaces with fewer distractions. Still discerning whether the world is a safe place for them, children are comforted best by environments that are predictable and calm. There's a reason the symbol for peace is an olive branch: it takes a long time in undisturbed soil for olive trees to grow. Likewise, the classroom and the child need a stable climate, predictable conditions and undisturbed growth to thrive.