When you read Montessori’s description of the development of language in infants, it’s hard not to share her wonder at the accomplishments of these little people. Here are children, lacking words at birth, who just fifteen or sixteen months later are able to understand complicated conversations around them, who know how to predict, who know the functions of mechanisms in their environment, who know relationships, who loves them and who they love. And, heartbreakingly, who lack the language to tell us, who crave to be understood and who are, too often, oversimplified instead.
When Montessori tells us to, “Follow the child,” she is not instructing us to let them decide every choice themselves, to set their own rules or master their own households. She is reminding us that the child’s development is driven by a mysterious nature and that, if we want to serve that development, we need to lean in to the mystery. The infant, hours after their birth, turns their head toward the sound of their mother’s voice. Not to human voices in general, but specifically toward their mothers. How is it that they distinguish one human voice from another, or a human voice from other sounds entirely? They don’t choose it consciously- we know they are not yet thinking that way. Nature drives them. By observing that phenomenon, though, we understand the child better. We see the ways in which their nature leads them toward the things that will keep them safe, toward the relationships that will propel them.
This is what “follow the child,” leads us to do: to observe children so that we understand their natural development, because, when we do, we can follow the “whole syllabus.” It’s a perfect respect for the genius of nature, to recognize that we have developed, as a humanity, the tendencies that will best serve our continued growth, even if we don’t yet know why they will. Montessori gives us some clues: the sensitive periods, for example, which we can predict, prepare the child physically or cognitively for development that they don’t need until after the sensitive period wanes. A child in a Sensitive Period for Small Objects is simultaneously developing the visual discrimination and fine motor control that they will need for more advanced communication later. But we don’t see them consciously choosing that- we just see that they seem driven to notice every piece of lint on the floor while we’re just trying to move them across the room. We can pick the child up, interrupt their attention to the small objects and, in doing so, interrupt the development that’s coming with it, or we can “follow the child,” notice that they are doing something we don’t understand, but support them in doing it safely in a spirit of respect and curiosity. That a child behaves in ways we don’t understand does not mean that their behavior is wrong, but that we have more interesting questions to ask.
When my son was three, I observed him in his Montessori classroom. He was a self-directed child. He liked to do his own thing and, although he loved having vivacious friends, he was, himself, more reserved. I remember watching him shuffle across the tile floor of his classroom to the math shelf where the golden beads were stored, and I knew that he was not yet working with those lessons. He squatted to the second shelf, retrieved the small wooden box with the 45 glass beads in it, and carried it carefully in two hands to a table. He placed it on the table, sat down and opened the lid, then turned his head sideways and lay his cheek on the table. He picked up the opened box, and held it high above his head before tilting it so that every one of those forty-five beads poured out onto the table in front of him. They bounced. They rolled. Some landed in his lap. Some on the floor. He just watched.
Every cell in my carefully prepared Montessori teacher body went on alert. What was he doing? He was going to damage the material. He was going to make such a huge mess. I looked around the room from my observer’s chair to see if his teacher had noticed, every fiber of my self-restraint engaged to keep me from yelling across the room. His teacher was across the room. I walked quietly to her. “Sam,” I said, “Do you see what he’s up to?”
“Yes,” she answered. “He does that every day.”
My son poured out the golden unit beads every day? “He’s going to damage those beads, Sam,” I whispered, trying to stay positive with my colleague but still pretty sure that my son was up to no good.
“No,” she answered. “Watch him. He’s going to count every one of them back into the box.”
So I watched. And he did. He tracked down every one of the forty-five beads, one by one, returning them to the box, before closing the lid and returning the box to the shelf.
It occurred to me, “he’s totally missing the point of that material.” And then it occurred to me, “It must be beautiful to watch.”
I don’t know what motivated my son to pour those golden beads every day. Maybe it was the way the beads looked while they were bouncing. Maybe it was the sound or the vibrations against his cheek. Maybe it was the personal challenge to find them all again. And, I know, as his parent, how hard it was for me to trust that he was motivated by his own internal syllabus, that my understanding was not as important as his motivation.
This is what she means when she tells us to follow the child. He wasn’t pouring shards of glass. He wasn’t juggling knives. And a curious observer, the scientist of his teacher, was curious enough to wait without judgment, to realize that he was doing this pouring, this weird, unexpected, unexplained pouring, without damaging himself or the material, taking responsibility for it and yet, still totally fascinated by something in it that was beyond her ability to name. When we follow the child, it doesn’t mean we follow them into traffic, but that we approach them with wonder and curiosity, withholding judgment about whether their motives make enough sense to us, whether what they’re up to is a waste a time. The world, Montessori reminds us, is more beautiful through the eyes of the child who is just discovering it. If we want to see that beauty again, we can only do so by observing them the way they observe the world, without judgment, abundant in curiosity and awe.
*A response to Chapter 11, The Call of Language, The Absorbent Mind M. Montessori