Imagine it: you’re at your work, fully absorbed in the task in front of you. Your attention is focused on your project. You’ve finally hit a pace and you’re getting it done. And the phone rings.
What happens to your work? For most adults, getting interrupted from our work means broken momentum. The rhythm of our work is disrupted. It’s hard to get back on track. If we’re concentrating deeply, absorbed in our work, the impact is even more significant. We may be disoriented. We may have a hard time listening. We may find it challenging, or even impossible, to go back to the work we were doing before the interruption.
Our children experience the same obstacles when we interrupt their concentration, even when we do so because we are trying to be kind. Because children’s attention space may seem very short (or nonexistent!), it’s easy to forget that attention is a work in progress. Children’s ability to concentrate is a developing skill and, like all developing skills, requires the opportunity to practice in order to master. When children are engaged in interesting activities, they are simultaneously practicing their ability to remain engaged, to attend to other activities and to manage multiple stimuli without losing the capacity to concentrate on one.
But Montessori tells us it’s not just the protection from interruption that’s key to protecting the development of the child: it’s the interaction of that uninterrupted engagement and an environment that’s filled with interesting motives. Some of the “motives” are easy enough to identify: the beautiful materials, carefully presented in sequences that support children’s intellectual development and habits of mind. But there are more: the ability to walk freely through that environment, the tools available to solve problems that occur in that environment, and the other people- the other children - who inspire admiration or offer opportunities to influence. These are equally essential components of the “prepared environment.”
And, in truth, they’re more important than the didactic materials by which Montessori is most easily recognized. Those materials matter, certainly, in the support for the child’s understanding of concepts and the elegance of design that allows repetition and precision. But a child can find interesting activities to do anywhere there is purposeful work. To be able also to do that work while in the company of children they look up to, or children for whom they can care, peers who share their development and lack the trappings of our adult society, and to do so without interruption from those same adults: that’s the most powerful phenomenon in the Prepared Environment.
And the part that’s hardest for us as adults. We want the children to engage in purposeful work, but we want their purpose to be the same as ours. We want them to socialize, but not at the expense of the volume of our classroom. We want them to be independent, but we swoop in to solve most problems for them before they even realize something has gone wrong.
It won’t happen quickly. Indeed, we can’t predict when it will happen at all, but the children will find their motives. They will, seemingly spontaneously, emerge in their attentiveness, their concentration, their self-determination, their agency, their peacefulness, their joy. Unless we get in their way. Unless, we continue to insist that they work on our schedules, that they work on the lessons we’ve chosen for them, and that they do so until we’ve decided they’re done or their work is worth interrupting. We may develop compliance in those children, but only the child can construct the adult to come. When we get in their way, we trade what we already know for their unknowable horizons. We can either tie ourselves to those posts, or we can burden the child with an equally immovable anchor to their own development by tying them to us instead.
* A response to Chapter 23: Social Development. The Absorbent Mind. M. Montessori