Be still. Stop wiggling. Slow down. Sit down. So often, we associate children’s immobility with their obedience, as though the way you can identify a child who is thinking is by making sure, first, they are not moving. We wait for children to be still before we begin a lesson. We tell them to sit quietly on the line when we have something special to show them. We expect them to be silent and “pay attention.”
We would be better off observing the wiggling child than stifling them. Because sometimes they are moving toward the things that motivate them, and the observation can help us to understand better those motivations. But just as often they are moving because their movement itself prepares them for something we cannot see directly. Montessori teaching manuals include lesson after lesson that describe the direct aim of the material (for example, to understand the relationships of volume and dimension) but also the indirect aim of the material (to support independence, to develop concentration, to build coordination, etc.) The direct aim is the one we know, as teachers, the children will benefit from. But the indirect aim is the one that speaks to the child. The child whose unspoken mind knows it needs to develop strength and coordination becomes fascinated with moving heavy things. As teachers, we offer the child a lesson in carrying laundry or moving the Red Rods. And they learn, indeed, how to care for the laundry or how to discern between lengths, but they are motivated by the opportunity to carry cumbersome items.
We think children are learning best when they are quiet and still, when their concentration is so absorbed in their lessons that they stare attentively at their own material and aren’t distracted by other children in the environment. And, for some children, when that lesson matches their motivations perfectly, it may be just right that they sit more quietly, that they wiggle less, that they are less easily distracted. We think that the volume of their behavior is a factor of the usefulness of that behavior.
But not always. Sometimes, it is the child who cannot not move who is most authentically driven by their own development. Indeed, it is the child who cannot not move whose motivations are most intrinsic, even if that movement doesn’t seem to make sense to us. We allow children to repeat lessons as often as they choose, not because we believe that the repetition somehow increases the retention of the lesson, but because a child who is motivated to repeat a lesson should not be interrupted from that motivation. The child who wants to continue some activity, even if we think that activity is without purpose, is following an indirect line to their own development. How many times does a table need to be washed? The answer is not dependent on the cleanliness of the table, but on the spirit of the child. The table needs to be washed as many times as the child needs to wash the table.
This phenomenon counters so much of what we have been taught about schools and schooling. So many of our school structures are based on efficiency and productivity. We don’t want to waste (instructional time, children’s time with teachers, use of the classroom space, funding for the materials) and so we push for the most visible learning in the least amount of time possible. We commend teachers who are able to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” and complete the curricular demands in packaged, six-week windows. But that understanding of productivity and efficiency overlooks a core quality of children’s development: that it is, intrinsically, efficient. Children behave in the most direct route to their motives. What those motives are may be invisible to us, but they are nonetheless essential to the child.
When we measure our interactions with the child against a set of predetermined timelines for how long particular lessons should take, or how much a child should master in a predetermined window of time, or what content a child needs to know at what age, we foreground the values of industrialized, productivity models of children’s development over that development itself. We enact the belief that we are best able to determine what a child needs, when they need it and how long that need will take to be satisfied. And in doing so, we subtly and not-so-subtly reinforce long-held structures of standardized education that continue, generation after generation, to smother the spirits of children.
If we want, instead, to protect children’s intrinsic motivation, knowing that they are efficient already, that they are moving with focus through their own development, we must first concede our authority to that of the child. If we believe that nature really does know that they need, even when we can’t see the direct route of the satisfaction of that need, we will demonstrate more curiosity at the seemingly “off-task” behavior. Instead of asking, “How can I make them stop doing that?” we will ask ourselves, “In what way is that purposeful to the child?” That a child’s behavior doesn’t “make any sense,” to us will be an invitation to look more closely, to ask more interesting questions, to offer other motives to test what we think we know about the child, and then, to ask again and again and again. Not, “why don’t they...?” but “ why do they?” For the young child, this may mean allowing for endless repetitions with activities that we don’t understand, like Montessori’s example of the child carrying napkins from one side of the room to the other. For older children, this may mean increasing our compassion for the challenging child, knowing that, even when a child is acting in a way that may cause more problems, they are doing so because some inherent need is met by the action. If we understand the need, we can understand how to meet it.
Life must be one whole, Montessori reminds us. We are not separate from our bodies. Our minds are not best developed in isolation from them, and our spirits are not best preserved through silencing. Instead, we seek to integrate mind and body, to understand that the activity of the body precedes what is in the mind, and to be of service to that integration.