We can get a little sheepish when Montessori writes about the spiritual development of the child. We don’t want to offend anyone, and we want to be clear that Montessori as a method is for all children. We’re not sure how to talk about children’s spiritual lives without addressing formal religion or dogma.
So change the word if it becomes an obstacle.
Swap out “soul” for “wonder.”
A small child has a tendency which can be best described as a sensitive period of wonder. When the way the sunlight glitters through the branches of a tree can stop them in their tracks and bring them to silent observation, when the tiniest ant working its way back to the hill can inspire them to kneel down and cheer on the little worker, when they press their faces against the glass of a window to see the squirrels race across the yard, when they gaze at the sky from the backseat of the car watching cloud after cloud pass by, silent and reflective and wonder-ful.
A child’s sense of wonder (dare I say, their “soul,”) is not evidence of one religious structure or another, but of the intrinsic understanding of this tiny person that we are connected to each other in ways that warrant our notice. It is an awareness that is true and essential to the nature of the child. It’s not something we “teach” them or that they learn from books or special classes. The child’s sense of wonder is personal and individual to the child, emerging from them when they experience it.
What better reminder of how children experience the world. You might know of a beautiful piece of music that evokes wonder in you, and you may share it with a child hoping you’ll inspire the same response in them, and you may find yourself disappointed when they wander off disinterested. And likewise you may really be ready to leave the playground, just to find that your child has discovered a worm wiggling its way across the sidewalk and is squatting, immoveable, in reverent silence, deaf to your urging that it’s time to go.
Nothing you can do about it. It comes from them.
But because children’s wonder is personal, and individual, ephemeral and perfect, we know to make space for it. We know to follow their lead, to step back and let the child observe in silence or to cheer with them when they are overflowing with joy. In this part of the child’s development, whether it’s from respect or romanticizing, we know the child’s pace matters and we trust it.
The child’s sense of wonder (dare I say, their “soul,”) is that intrinsic understanding that we are connected to each other in ways that warrant our notice. The classroom is a space that relies on this understanding of our interconnectedness. The mentoring children do for each other, the care they show for the materials, the empathy they display for each other, the celebration of each other’s joys and the tender comfort at each other’s sadnesses: the normalized classroom is the embodiment of the spiritual connection of the children.
Of course, then, it comes first.
First before lessons that are aimed at reading or math. First before memorizing the parts of a horse or the countries of Europe. These are skills we need because they allow us to be connected to each other, they allow us to care for each other and understand each other. The content skills in the Montessori classroom are not valuable in and of themselves, but because they allow the children to develop an independence in their own choices and emphasize the influence those choices have on others.
If you translate what Montessori calls the soul to, “wonder” instead, and you notice the ways in which being aware of a child’s wonder inspires you to interrupt less, to observe more, to wait and allow it without obstruction, you’re on the path. Now, remember that it’s all about the child’s soul. It’s all about the child’s ability to see things differently than we can anymore, to appreciate these tiny connections, to celebrate each other without hesitation, to cry together and laugh together and build together a different kind of society. Our instincts tell us to protect it, because we know it’s only a matter of time before that child becomes indifferent to the life of that worm. And it will only be a matter of time, if we insist that the child hurry along, value what we value, care less about their community, care more about their own advancement. It will only be a matter of time before we’ve taught the child out of their wonder. The child’s sense of wonder is personal and individual to the child, emerging from them when they experience it. The obligation to protect it is ours.
* A response to Chapter 12, Observations on Prejudices, The Discovery of the Child. M. Montessori