One of Dr. Montessori‘s principles that I try to live by in my classroom is, “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” Montessori education is heavily rooted in the idea that children learn best through experiences. The self-correcting materials allow the students to start with concrete ideas before moving into the realm of abstract thought. For example, the iconic “pink tower” consists of ten blocks of varying sizes. Children are asked to stack the blocks from biggest to smallest. They are given concrete blocks to measure the abstract terms of “bigger” and “smaller.” In the same sense, if the blocks are not arranged in the correct order then the tower will fall over. The child does not require an adult to tell them if they are wrong; rather, they learn through experience.
Throughout my years of teaching, children have become less and less independent. Parents carry their children into the classroom and expect a staff member to drop everything to hold and carry their child. Parents come in and put all of their child’s things away while the child just watches or refuses. This not only causes problems at home but also causes problems in the classroom. How can a teacher ask that a student’s crayons be put away if they don’t have to at home?
Our school has several ways of fostering the independence that children yearn for. When a child enters our classroom in a morning, they put their backpack, nap things, and lunchbox away. Each child’s cubby is at child height and reachable by even the smallest of our kids. This helps with the transition of drop-off too. Kids come in and they immediately have a job to do and know what the expectations are to start the day.
As kids get busy playing before class, they know that all of their legos and blocks have to stay on the blue rug so they stay separate and contained. The kids understand that if they are at a table doing a puzzle that they need a piece of felt to put the pieces on. Likewise, when a child is finished with what they are playing with, whether in free play or in class, they know that they are to put everything back in the box or on the tray like they found it, stand up and push their chair in, and then place the materials back on the shelf exactly where they came from. Sure, a teacher could put it away faster or tidy the shelves faster at the end of the day, but that doesn’t teach the child to respect their things and the classroom environment.
At the end of lunch, the children clean up their trash and plates. Then, they get a “crumb duster,” as we like to call it, and sweep up all the crumbs on the floor and on their table. Kids then go and get a rag and wash their tables. After going potty, they go and get their blankets and pillows for their nap and find their mat. The last big requirement for our students comes after nap. They put their nap things back in their cubbies and their mats back in the closet.
While this may seem like a giant test of patience, it is incredibly rewarding for the child! The process of adjusting students to the routines and expectations of Montessori usually takes anywhere from one to two weeks. In the grand scheme of things, that is not very long! The key is being consistent and patient. Yes, those first two weeks can sometimes seem to drag on and on, but once the kids have settled into the routine and have caught on to expectations, the rest of the school year runs smoothly. Imagine how difficult a teacher’s day would be if they were trying to carry around 24 kids, pick up after each of them while they pull everything off the shelves, and be in charge of teaching all 24 of them. This independence allows the teacher to focus on academics and learning.
Over the course of the school year, the kids become more and more independent and it is rewarding to see them take pride in what they can do. I remember the excitement of one little girl as she learned to fold her own blanket! There was lots of cheering and celebration at the accomplishment! She then had to share this new found skill with her classmates, teaching them to do the same and helping others that couldn’t quite do it themselves. More and more of our kids started learning how to do it and feeling that same sense of joy. If the teachers and adults had kept doing this for the child, she never would have the opportunity to do it herself.
Giving kids responsibility and asking them to do things for themselves is incredibly important. These kids are our future. They are going to enter the workforce eventually. What would the world look like if everyone sat around waiting for someone else to do it for them? Patience is the key. The age of helicopter parents has to end. If you know that you are going somewhere, start getting your child to get ready a few minutes earlier. If you have cleaning to do, allow your child to help you. Make time for it and express the importance of independence to your child. Their future teachers will thank you for it!