In a practice that is so often attractive for its academic strengths, it’s easy to forget that the language and operations mastered so easily in the Montessori classroom are not for their own achievement. We don’t teach children to read so that they can be people who know how to read, or teach them about mathematics so that they can be people who understand mathematics. Those skills are tools toward a more essential work of the child: the care and stewardship of the earth.
We back into that, as teachers and parents, when we follow the child’s interests and attend to their natural development. Children in the first plane of development are fascinated by colossal numbers, motivated to carry heavy trays filled with glass beads to be able to build ever increasing quantities. We ask them how many grains of sand they think they could hold at once and they respond with fantastic quantities, “ A bazillion billion trillion six.” We smirk at how adorable they are. We laugh at the seemingly silly language they use.
But the child is efficient to their own needs, even when they are mysterious to us. They are motivated to the activity that serves them best. This fascination with large numbers in early childhood is its own preparation to appreciate the magnitude of the biospheres, to understand how much larger a whale is than a child, how much more vulnerable a seed is if the environment is not right to receive it. The child, left to their own devices, seeks the knowledge they need, before we realize they need it. How could I child truly care for the millions of microorganisms in an ounce of water if they don’t understand what a million is? Long before they were capable of action, as stewards of their environment, their spirits were building the knowledge they’d need to do it well. The child is fascinated by seemingly disparate ideas, until, left to their own design, they construct the integration of those ideas, until they are able to make use of those ideas in real and meaningful ways.
We must remind ourselves of this phenomena, when we seek to serve children and support them in their learning. We may have a general notice of the content skills they “need,” but we won’t know for certain what they’ll need them for until the child discovers it themselves.
It’s from this recognition that so many of the core practices of Montessori emerge. We do not interrupt children when they are at work, not merely because we want them to concentrate. Sure, concentration is a good thing. But there’s a mystery at work when a child is deeply engaged in their own activity. There is a development and a sense-making, a wonderment that we are not privy to, that we cannot understand just by observing it, and that is nonetheless essential to the child. We don’t interrupt children because their concentration reflects their fascination, and their fascination will drive their purpose.
Likewise, we observe children to be able to determine how to best serve them. We look for more than just what children need in general at age three or age four or age five, but what this particular child needs, on this day, in this moment. We observe children to try to catch a glimpse of the mystery. We know we will never uncover it all, but we nonetheless observe. Because even if we can’t discover the mystery of the child, we might nonetheless prevent ourselves by trampling it.
Finally, we trust the child’s pace even when standardized assessments or state-state-mandated content schedules may want us to impose our own rhythm on the life of the child. We hold space and faith for the child to show us, in their own time, what they need. If there is any rush, it is on our capacity to respond to what the child confides in us, not that the child will keep up with some arbitary timeline more telling to the limits we’ve set on children rather than the promise they hold.
It asks of us such hard things: a humility, that the child is truly more mysterious than we can ever fully know, a faith, that the child is truly a better diviner of their own needs than we are for them, and a courage, that we will protect them from the pressure to keep up in a race that they never chose to run. Humility, faith and courage: the price we pay for the privilege to bear witness to the unfolding of each miracle. When we find those things in ourselves, or when we support each other to find them more commonly among us, we are paid back richly in wonder, we are indeed wealthy in joy.