“They kindled a flame in a few that spread to many...”
Montessorians often talk with some pride (and maybe a little boasting) about the ways in which Dr. Montessori’s influence on early childhood has become commonplace today. Those child-sized tables that are present in every preschool setting? Montessori’s idea. The manipulative geometric shapes? Montessori’s idea. The understanding that the period of early childhood is not just smaller version of adulthood, but notable as its own distinct window of development? Montessori’s, too. There are so many concrete, practical qualities in our current understanding of early childhood that have evolved from Montessori’s original observations and, over a hundred years later, they still stand.
Why, then, does it sometimes feel like we’re still the outsiders? As parents or as teachers, why are we justifying our practices still, as though Montessori’s influence isn’t evident in almost every preschool classroom in the world?
It’s easier to influence things than it is to influence spirits, and many of the legacies of Montessori’s work that have made their way into the norm are the things: the materials, the furnishings, the lessons that help children learn to read or to understand mathematics. The things that can be adopted to propel children’s academics, or that allow them to behave more peacefully, those are the easy sells.
We have yet, though, to accept as the rule Montessori’s observations of the ineffable nature of children. Instead, we have adapted her methods to fit in to notions of who the child is or who the child should be, that still presume that the adult is more capable of defining that than the child is themselves. We use Montessori’s materials, but we worry about the second or third year child who is “falling behind” because their interests are not yet “academic.” Or we design preschool classrooms entirely around children’s dimensions, and ignore the restaurants and business settings and church pews and even homes in which they are most likely to be reprimanded when their bodies don’t fit in the environment. We commend the children when they experience joy, but rush them through other equally powerful and authentic emotions, like anger, like grief. We want to pick the parts of Montessori that best serve the goals we already have for children, and ignore her most powerful message to us: that children are capable of creating a better society than we have been able to ourselves, if we would only get out of their way.
It’s not from malice. It takes great courage to live in a Montessori way, to believe that our children are actually going to be ok if we actually let them be who they already are, if we let them grow at their own pace and love what they love instead of what we chose for them. We have no idea if it will turn out well, and we love our children dearly. It’s scary to live in a Montessori way, when the messages from grandparents or neighbors or the mass media pressure us to do more, to intervene more, to direct more, to push more, to be more. Respecting that your child is just as nuanced, just as distinct and emotional, just as much their own ineffable self as you are yours, is enough. All of the rest of Montessori starts from there. Montessori is not the outward trappings, but the core belief that are children are as complex as each of us. From there, we know they deserve materials that are designed for who they are in this moment, From there, we know that they need furnishings that are appropriate for who they are in this moment. From there, we support their agency in making choices about what to attend to and how long to attend. From there, we prepare environments that allow them to be independent thinkers, actors and collaborators.
They kindled a flame in a few that spread to many. We protect this for our children, despite the messages, despite the scary, despite the courage it takes to hold this much faith for them, because the more we do, the fewer of those messages there will be. There will be more of us, more community, more voices in the choir, more spaces where children are welcome, more companions with whom we can acknowledge our fears. The more of us who live in a Montessori way, the more of us there will be, until we are the norm. Until then, be the community you hope will come. Reach out to the other parents and teachers and remind them of their courage, share with them your fears, ask for the help you need and offer what you can. Kindle your fire, offer it to others, and the light will come.
* In response to To Educate the Human Potential, Chapter 17, The Hellenic Spirit