Visitors to Montessori classrooms often comment on the beautiful materials on the shelves, the lovely wooden crafted puzzles, graceful glass pitchers and fresh flowers. The classrooms are welcoming like a living rooms prepared for guests rather than the brightly colored and washable settings we've come to associate with children's child care.
Montessorians aren't just being persnickety in the selection of materials in the classroom, and it's not just that we like the way it looks better. Montessori classrooms offer children apparatus made from particular types of material because we believe it serves the children's development better. Here's why:
1. Real work needs real tools: We believe children are motivated by an intrinsic need for agency and influence. (We believe we all are, adults alike.) We want to know that our actions have meaning, that the things we do have real consequences. You'll see real tools, from child-sized hammers to vegetable peelers with sharp edges, available throughout the classroom. When children learn to operate these tools, they know that their influence is real. It's hard to build a new world with a plastic hammer. By offering children real tools in a developmentally appropriate way, we build on their motivation to be independent and we help them to build their skills to achieve that.
2. We offer beautiful things to people we respect: By presenting materials that are beautiful, we remind the children that we take them seriously here, that we believe they are individuals deserving of our care in preparing an environment to greet them. In the same way you wouldn't serve an honored guest on a paper plate, we want the classrooms to be places that acknowledge children's value by surrounding them with valuable things.
3. In order to learn to be careful, there has to be a consequence of carelessness: Because the materials in the classroom can break, because they can be chipped or damaged, children learn to handle them with care. And in the practice of caring for their environment, children build their physical regulation, concentration and coordination. In environments that are child-proofed, children have only the abstract consequence of parents or caretakers telling them be careful. In environments that require care, children learn to take care.
4. Locally sourced materials provide an authentic connection for children to their communities. While most Montessori schools don't enjoy this luxury, the original Montessori guidance called for wooden materials constructed from local wood, to demonstrate for children the cycles of dependence within their environments. Absent the capacity to build everything from local woods, most Montessori classrooms will still include pottery, glassware, or local art that is representative of the communities from which their children come. In doing so, we initiate an understanding of community from a starting point most relevant to the child: their own lives.
5. Well constructed materials provide real feedback about the world: As children learn what their influence is, we want that learning to reflect replicable, meaningful lessons. A child understanding volume needs to feel differences in volume with their own hands. Things should be heavy or light, rough or smooth... these variations teach children about how to classify and understand the world around them, a much harder lesson to learn if all the materials feel like cool plastic. Plus, these materials, like the children, stay in the environments for years. Because they are well-constructed, they are lasting. The child who has learned about length with the red rods when they were three has a much truer understanding of their own growth when they pick those same rods up at five- their arms reach the length of the longest rod, the rods are lighter, they are more adept at moving them around the room. Because the materials are lasting and reliable, they offer the children a timeline of their own growth.
These same qualities can be incorporated at home, with care. You might not want to offer your toddler your finest china, but you should make child-sized, beautifully made tools available to them at home. Try real glasses, real plates and real utensils to start. Yes, sometimes they'll break. (Sometimes things break.) When things break, we have an opportunity to learn how to clean them up. Yes, sometimes they'll take time to master. (Sometimes things take time to master.) When things take time to master, we have an opportunity to build persistence and resilience. When we offer beautiful things to the people we love, we have an opportunity to remind them that they are worthy of beautiful things, and to support them as they learn, in turn, to treat them with equal care.