If you look through any set of Montessori manuals, you’ll see a fairly common component in each detailed description of the material: the objective of the work. These sections often include bullet points that describe the specific physical or intellectual skill developed through use of the material and, usually, a bullet point or two about the direct preparation or indirect preparation the materials provide.
The knobbed cylinders, for example, are designed to offer children a concrete experience with the concept of volume, but they are a direct preparation for writing and an indirect preparation for the golden beads.
Pouring rice supports children’s developing independence, but it is an indirect preparation for writing as well.
And how often do we emphasize these direct and indirect preparations when we commend the qualities of the Montessori materials or market our schools to prospective families? See those beautiful materials? They’re not just going to help your child tie their own shoes. They’re also going to support them in reading and writing earlier.
We might allow ourselves to be all tangled up in the direct and indirect preparation of the materials. The children don’t care.
The purpose of being three is to be three, not to better prepared to be four. The purpose of being five is to be five, not to be better prepared to be a Kindergartener.
We know, as adults, that there are endless ways in which the experiences provided in our classrooms support children in being ready for what’s likely to come next. Indeed, we seek to create spaces within which children’s possibilities direct our work. Each material’s direct and indirect preparation is an act of optimism: we believe you will need this in the future, and so we are creating a space within which you’ll be ready for it when it comes.
It’s a powerful model, and one easily goes awry, if, instead of following the child, we urge them into the lessons that drive them toward the “next steps” we have already chosen for them.
For example, if we believe in this Montessori thing, if we really believe it, we will trust that the child will choose, spontaneously and at the time of their own development, the experiences that will prepare their bodies and their minds for an as-of-yet-unseen-next-step. Remember the infant, who coos and mirrors their mother’s face, unknowingly preparing the muscles of their own face to create language later. They are driven by the attraction to their mother, by the emotional response that engagement offers them. And in following it, their bodies are efficiently prepared for language.
They don’t grow out of that, unless we teach it out of them.
This is the secret of childhood: that ineffable connection between what they need and what they are driven toward, the pre-awakening that is enacted through spontaneous activity. It does not matter if we understand what is driving the spontaneous activity. It does not matter if we can see where it will lead. If we doubt it or, worse yet, if we replace it with activity of our choosing, we place a stone for the wall between who the child is and who they are meant to become. Enough stones, and we replicate our own values, our own mistakes and our own obstacles, for one more generation.
So, yes, it’s important to know, as Montessori teachers and parents, how the materials work. It’s important to understand what concepts and skills are developed, and how they may prepare the child for other experiences yet to come. And it’s important that, in our observation of children’s self-initiated choices, we notice the patterns between what kinds of experiences a child is motivated toward and how those experiences directly or indirectly prepare them for what they may need next. We can look to those patterns the way the first line of purple on the horizon lets you know where to turn to see the sunrise. But not as a means of changing the direction. We should notice the patterns that emerge from the child’s activity, rather than influencing the child’s activity by what patterns we want to instill. That the child cannot articulate it does not make it less valuable. That we may value other activities instead does not make them useful to the child.
*A response to Chapter 15: The Mechanics of Writing The Discovery of the Child. M. Montessori