While the protected Freedom of Choice for Infants and Toddlers tends mostly to lie in a preservation of the child’s natural patterns for sleep, food and activity, Montessori teachers in the 3-6 classroom expand upon this protection to include children’s free choice of lessons throughout the day. Now, in addition to choosing when and how much they will eat, whether they’ll move around the room or find a place to work in more stillness, children also demonstrate the ability to plan and choose what lessons they receive or practice, in what order and for what length of time.
Watch a 3-6 classroom and you are unlikely to see extended group activities in which each child is engaged in the same activity. Instead, you’ll see as many activities as there are children in the room, with children selecting materials from Practical Life, Sensorial, Cultural, Language or Math options according to their own internal drives. Likewise, you won’t see set times during which children can use the materials they’ve chosen. There are no timers that limit how long a child can explore the Pink Tower. There is no “turn-taking” demanding that everyone have the same amount of time with the Binomial Cube. Instead, there are assurances to the engaged child that they can choose their own activity and remain with it until their interest is satisfied, and similar assurances to other children that, indeed, that lesson will eventually be available for them to use with as much autonomy.
This assurance brings particular implications for the classroom design. The prepared environment must have those materials available every day, and they must always be in a condition appropriate for a new learner to engage. You won’t see materials available for a day or two before the teacher moves on to a new “unit.” Instead, you’ll see children circling back to lessons across weeks or months or even years, discovering at their own pace those unique qualities of the concepts they present. This predictability supports children as they learn to be patient, and increases their awareness of their social groups as they learn to be responsible for the care and upkeep of the apparatus.
Within an environment that protects this freedom of choice, a new role for the teacher also emerges. Teachers cannot direct children’s activity in the same way if they also value the freedom of choice. Instead, we put aside our adult agendas for what lessons children should complete on any given day and trust that the child’s intrinsic motivation will lead them to increasingly challenging and rigorous activities, in time. A child may be fascinated with one area of the classroom for many days or weeks. In a traditional classroom, that child’s interest may be sacrificed for the demands of a predetermined lesson plan. In a Montessori classroom, the child can remain with their interest for as long as it takes for that interest to be satisfied. The teacher, then, must be an expert observer, both to notice what it is about a particular lesson that continues to draw the child’s attention and to remain aware of opportunities to present more challenging materials that match the child’s growing mastery. Because we protect this essential freedom of choice, we must ask more of ourselves as teachers to make sure that the choices that are available to the child are the ones that will best serve their minds and spirits, a discernment that requires careful observation of each specific child.
And, just as toddlers are not free to choose to run out of the classroom or turn over the furniture, the freedom to choose for the early childhood classroom is within limits identified to be physically safe and intellectually supportive. A child, for example, who wants to work with the thousand-bead chain but whose attention or fine motor skills are still emergent may be redirected by the teacher to a lesson in bead polishing, or a lesson in the Bead Stair, or taught how to observe the long chains, or how to carry heavy objects. The child’s freedom of choice remains preserved, but it is expressed through limits appropriate for both that individual child and for the society of children in the classroom. Again, this requires teachers who are carefully trained in observation, who know the materials in the classroom so well that they could present a lesson on any one at any time, and who understand the kind of language to use to support a child’s agency while keeping them safe. Talk to your child’s teacher about the kinds of language you might use at home to support your child in making choices and to redirect them from the ones that might not be healthy for them. If they’re in a Montessori classroom during the day, they’ll understand and expect these norms. Enacting them at home, just like any of the other changes that make your home life more attuned to the natural development of the children you share it with, will decrease conflict and engage your child’s intrinsically peaceful potential.