One of Montessori’s “Four Freedoms,” is the Freedom of Choice, the agency of the individual that is protected in our prepared environments. Most of the time, the ability to choose wisely between two options requires sufficient reasoned thinking to discern the strengths of one path over another. So, how does the Freedom of Choice express itself in the First Plane, when the infant or toddler’s rational thinking differs to widely from that of an adult?
We understand that the basic dignity of the individual is demonstrated in their ability to make choices within their own environments, and so, to some degree, we protect this freedom even in pre-rational development as an acknowledgment of that dignity. But we also believe that children are born with certain internal compasses that can guide their choosing and get their needs met more efficiently than if we were to force them into our own agendas. By protecting the freedom of choice in infants and toddlers, we also maintain that compass.
For example, you’ll notice Montessori 0-3 classrooms rarely have furniture into which a child is placed or buckled. Instead, even in the infant classrooms, you’ll see tiny, sturdy chairs with seats just a few inches off the floor, into which a mobile infant can climb independently and from which they can pull themselves up to standing. Likewise, you shouldn’t see cribs into which infants are placed by their caregivers. Instead, you’re more likely to find floorbeds, simple wooden frames surrounding a mattress on the floor. Infants can crawl into a floored when they are tired and out again when they wake. You won’t see a schedule printed on the wall of when children in an infant classroom eat or sleep. Instead, you’ll see teachers following children’s choices to sleep when they are tired and eat when they are hungry. By protecting infants’ freedom to choose even these basic needs, we also protect that internal sense of their own needs.
In Toddler classroom, you should see a similar protection for children’s essential ability to choose how and when their basic needs are met. While toddlers’ nap schedule may be more predictable and uniform, you should still see accommodations for toddlers to access their beds or cots independently, and to leave them when they wake. You’ll see simple snack stations prepared to allow toddlers to eat when they are hungry, and all the supplies they need for toileting or changing wet clothes available at their own level.
But this freedom is not open ended. Children do not have the freedom to choose to run into traffic or to remain outdoors unattended if their community is inside. Just as you’ll see in older classrooms, children’s freedom to choose is bound by a knowledge of the kinds of choices that are appropriate for the child to make, that will keep them safe and support their development. You’ll see infant and toddler teachers preparing spaces within which children can express their free choice. The materials on the shelf will all be safe for children to use, so they can choose whatever is there. The classroom staffing will be flexible enough to support children who choose to eat at particular times, or to follow the lead of children who are paying close attention to beautiful things outside and are not yet ready to come in. It won’t be endless choice, but it will still be more evident than you may expect within a classroom designed for children between birth and three years old. And, as a result, you’ll see children demonstrating that agency, making choices and supported in that choice-making. You’ll see fewer power struggles between adults and children and you’ll see a more peaceful, more focused classroom space. By protecting children’s freedom of choice, we also protect their internal drive and their self-awareness. We don’t teach them to ignore their own hunger or exhaustion. Instead, we preserve their discernment and the peaceful nature that results when they're supported in an environment that follows the child.