What a powerful message for us, as teachers, parents and advocates, to be reminded that we can offer endless beautiful lessons for the children and, yet, the children will be drawn to the one that matches them most.
I like lilies. But I do not love carnations. I love eucalyptus but I am not a fan of baby’s breath. I can’t tell you why. I don’t know what it is in the development of my own preferences that leads me toward one flower or another. And yet, if I were collecting flowers for a bouquet of my own design, to make my space more beautiful, to admire and enjoy, you would not insist that I “choose” carnations and baby’s breath. Or, if you did, you wouldn’t call it my “choice.”
The alignment of the materials to the needs of the child is not a function of their number. More choices or less doesn’t mean that the child’s needs will be better met. Neither is it a function of our valuation of the importance of the lesson or the standardized content goals that we know exist outside of our classrooms.
The strength of Montessori is not in preparing children to thrive in traditional spaces. The strength of Montessori is in preparing children to create fundamentally different spaces, spaces which elevate their potential and the potential of their community, which move more peacefully toward collaborative, interdependent and independent. That ability relies on the degree to which we trust their natural drives and the degree to which they are able to satisfy them independently. When we “choose” for children, by insisting on their busy-ness or sitting them down in front of lessons we have decided are best for them, we teach them not to trust their own motivations. We teach them that our decisions, as adults, are better than theirs. We fundamentally undermine the humanitarian potential of the method.
A child’s inability to articulate their choices with the same complicated vocabulary that we employ does not mean those choices are not present. We see them in the child’s gaze, in the materials around which they linger, in the attention they give to some lessons over others. We see them in the child’s calm and joy, in their concentration and repetition and precision. If we interrupt the repetition that leads them to mastery, why are we so surprised when the focus and industriousness that mastery creates is absent, too?
Think about it this way: if we know that I child will need, later in life, the fine motor control to hold a pencil carefully and write, we offer that child, earlier in their development, the tools through which they can develop that. We don’t give them first a pencil and chide them for not knowing how to use it properly. We increasingly refine the diameter of the tools they have available to grasp. We offer them materials to carry in their hands that build the muscles of their wrists and fingers. We enchant them with the metal insets to allow their creativity and aesthetic awareness to unfold as they are simultaneously, building the physical skills they’ll need later.
If we know that a child will need, later in life, the sense-of-self, the agency and determination and awareness to affect change, we need to offer that child, earlier in their development, the tools through which they can develop those. We need increasingly to offer them opportunities for to enact their choices. We need to offer them experiences to practice independence, to make choices for themselves in safe ways. We need to give them space to develop authentic relationships with their peers, trusting that the wide diversity of skills needed in a society will be met by the wide diversity of talents present in any group of children. If we know that a child will need the ability to make responsible choices later, we need to offer them the opportunity to practice making choices now.
And then we have to respect the choices they make, even if they contradict what we would have the children do. If a material is safe, if the child is using it in a way that will not cause harm to the material or injury to another child, even if we would rather they do math, even if we think they’ve done that lesson enough today, we respect the choice. A child will come to trust in their own capacity to the same degree that we show them we trust in them, too. When we direct what materials a child can use, for how long and in limited ways, we may influence the child’s ability to perform on an arbitrary math quiz, but we’ll do so at the expense of their ability to manage, discern and develop their own leadership.
If we want more of the kind of society that we have endured as adults, cemented in power dynamics, exclusive to some voices over others, perpetuating established hierarchies of influence and capitol, we should continue to insist that children “choose” the materials we choose for them. We should continue modeling a diminutive of the individual to the will of the authority figure. We should keep silencing some voices to preserve our positions of control.
But if we believe (as we say we do, anyway) that children have the capacity to develop a New Society, that their natural development is obstructed by our will and that, without our intrusion, they will develop healthy, interdependent and individually-affirming societies, societies toward which their contributions are all important, for which they feel responsible, and toward which they are protective, we have to get out of the way. Our choices pave the path to the only place we know: where we already are. The children’s choices may blaze new paths, ones we did not expect and ones that may even make us a little uncomfortable. Thank goodness. They are moving toward a horizon we can only imagine, and a society that only they can make.
* A response to Chapter 6: The Materials for Development The Discovery of the Child. M. Montessori