“Thus I saw my teachers act in the first days of my practice school in the “Children’s Houses.” They almost involuntarily recalled the children to immobility without observing and distinguishing the nature of the movements they repressed. There was, for example, a little girl who gathered her companions about her and then, in the midst of them, began to talk and gesticulate. The teacher at once ran to her, took hold of her arms, and told her to be still; but I, observing the child, saw that she was playing at being teacher or mother to the others, and teaching them the morning prayer, the invocation to the saints, and the sign of the cross: she already showed herself as a director.”
Dr. Maria Montessori
(Taken from The Montessori Method, 1912 pp.115)
A question was posed on the forum this week that often pops up from time to time over the last eight years. In fact, it is a topic as old as the Montessori Method itself. What is an authentic Montessori school ? and is it a place with an absence of play? Moreover, if I facilitate play in my Montessori preschool am I not a “real” Montessori?
Arguably, the only person who can truly answer the question without being accused of interpretation or bias is Dr. Montessori. In her absence, the only option left to us is to look at what she said in her writings throughout her lifetime and interpret for ourselves.
What is a Montessori School?
The Montessori schools that Dr. Montessori set up and actively supervised (the five Casa dei Bambini’s) in Rome and Milan were full day settings. They opened from 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday. The introduction of a three hour class was made in the adaption of the Montessori Method from Italy to America to suit a system that was used to the three hour model of the Froebelian Kindergartens.
“Ours was a house for children, rather than a real school. We had prepared a place for children where a diffused culture could be assimilated from the environment, without any need for direct instruction.”
(Taken from The Absorbent Mind, 1949 pp.7)
“It is imperative that a school allow a child’s activities to freely develop. For this is the essential change to be made if a scientific form of education is to come into being.”
(Taken from The Discovery of the Child, 1990 pp11)
It is important to note that The Discovery of the Child was a reworking of the original book: The Montessori Method, published by Montessori in 1912. She revisited it and updated it at the end of her career whilst living in India.
Is there play in the Montessori Method?
Montessori documents a lot of playful engagement with the materials and speaks about play at different points in her career. She particularly valued gymnastics and outside play.
“The strength of even the smallest children is more than we imagine, but it must have a free play in order to reveal itself.”
(Taken from The Discovery of the Child, 1990 pp71)
“Let the children be free; encourage them; let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and, when the grass of the meadows is damp with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet; let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade; let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning as it wakes every living creature that divides its day between waking and sleeping.”
(Taken from The Discovery of the Child, 1990 pp71)
Can the practical life exercises be used in a Home Corner?
The simple answer is yes. The shelves full of activities on trays that we are used to did not exist in their current state in the Casa Dei Bambini’s which were organised as a house. For a more authentic Montessori experience there could be real cutlery and crockery; food to prepare for snacks or a place to set up a pretty table to set out their pre-prepared lunches; real shoes to shine; real clothes to be placed on dolls with buttons and zips; an orange juicer, jug and glasses etc.; Practical life exercises can also be linked to a dress up corner or outdoor activities.
“The objects that are used for practical life have no scientific purpose. They are objects used where a child lives and which he sees employed in his own home, but they are especially made to a size that he can use. The number of these objects is not determined by our method, but depends upon the resources of a school, and especially upon the length of time that a child spends in school each day…If the daily schedule is very long, dinner will also form part of them. Of all the exercises of practical life this is the most difficult, exacting, and interesting. It includes such things as setting the table with great care, serving the meals, eating properly, washing the cups and plates, and putting away pots and pans.”
(Taken from The Discovery of the Child, 1990 pp84)
“There is no timetable for the morning or the afternoon. A child is constantly inspecting his surroundings, his “house.””
(Taken from The Discovery of the Child, 1990 pp85)
But Montessori said no toys!
Dr. Montessori never said there should be no toys in the Children’s house; she said she provided the children with toys and they were more interested in her materials and the social activity of the Children’s House. She removed what didn’t interest them. It would be standard practice in any early childhood education service to observe the children with resources, toys or materials and to remove or rotate what the children are not using. It is also important to note that when Dr. Montessori writes about toys she is speaking of toys available in Italy in 1906 (for instance a doll's tea set cup was a ½ inch deep – about the size of the top of your little finger and doll's tea set tea pot was only 2 inches deep – about the size of your little finger). Knowing the size of these toys in 1906 makes it easier to understand the children’s frustration because they weren’t functional. Most contemporary toys are in fact, developed or based on the materials and principles of Montessori and Froebel. They are child sized and they are mostly open ended enough in nature to allow the child to experiment with them.
“Though the school contained some really wonderful toys, the children never chose them. This surprised me so much that I intervened, to show them how to use such toys, teaching them how to handle the doll’s crockery, lighting the fire in the tiny doll’s kitchen, setting a pretty doll beside it. The children showed interest for a time, but then went away, and they never chose such toys the objects of their spontaneous choice.”
(Taken from The Secret of Childhood, 1996 pp128)
But the children must use the materials correctly!
This is a frequent comment and it has been argued that the children shouldn’t “disrespect” the materials. I think it is important to remind ourselves of Dr. Montessori’s caution to make sure we do not let the Montessori materials become the be all and end all of the method. In fact, she actively encouraged the children to experiment with the materials and encouraged teachers to go beyond her method – she stated that it is only for starting out. She cautions against creating a stifling environment for children because of our beliefs of what we believe education in early childhood should look like.
“A teacher who wishes to prepare herself for this special kind of education must therefore keep clearly in mind the following principle: It is not a question of giving a child a knowledge about the qualities of things, such as size, shape, and colour, by means of various objects. Nor is it her aim to train a child to use the materials correctly. This would put our material in competition with that of others, for example, that of Froebel; and it would demand the continual active operation of the teachers in providing information …”
(Taken from The Discovery of the Child, 1990 pp150)
“A child who shows a desire to work and to learn should be left free to do so even if the work is outside the regular programme, which is here given simply for a teacher who is beginning a class.”
(Taken from The Discovery of the Child, 1990 pp329)
“We simply ask our children to adapt themselves to their prison without causing us any trouble.”
(Taken from The Discovery of the Child, 1990 pp71)
Should the Montessori Method evolve?
Dr. Montessori certainly believed so. Her contemporaries, her writings and interviews show that she believed it was vital to the survival of the method. AMI International continue to meet yearly to discuss and agree new evolutions to the method based on her advice.
“Actually, what I am presenting is only an introduction to a new system of education. It is one I have used with children between the ages of three and six, but I believe that the surprising results that have been obtained with them will be an incentive for further work along this line.”
(Taken from The Discovery of the Child, 1990 pp22)
Did the Montessori Method evolve from other educational theories and practices?
Yes, Montessori (as a scientist) used her background in science to find out what was happening in education internationally and subsequently found the works of Seguin and Itard. She continued the scientific tradition of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ by crediting the beginning of her method and materials to Seguin and Itard who influenced her greatly.
“I followed the suggestions in Seguin’s book and also discovered that Itard’s admirable experiments were a veritable treasure. In addition to this, following the lead of these authors, I had a rich stock of teaching materials made for my use.”
(Taken from The Discovery of the Child, 1990 pp28)
“I devoted myself to the study of his [Seguin] books and those of Itard. I felt the need of meditating upon them.”
(Taken from The Discovery of the Child, 1990 pp33)
Why is this important to know?
Dr. Montessori was, at her heart, a scientist. She called her method a scientific pedagogy and likened her directresses to scientists who observed, documented and modified the environment based on the needs of the child. She expanded on the work of Seguin and Itard and fully expected others to come after her and, in the tradition of science, expand on her method.
Bringing it all together:
The quotations from Dr. Montessori are placed in this blog in such a way as to try to ease the doubts, and reassure, the Irish practitioner who may feel that by using Aistear and facilitating play in their service, they are somehow no longer an “authentic” Montessori service. There is a history to the introduction of Montessori to Ireland’s Education system that explains why the method became so rigid, stale and ‘schoolified’ over the years that has nothing to do with the method itself – but that is a blog for another day!
Montessori, M. Dr. (1912) The Montessori Method. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc. Oxford.
Montessori, M. Dr. (1988) The Absorbent Mind. Clio Press. England
Montessori, M. Dr. (1997) The Discovery of the Child. Clio Press. England.
Montessori, M. Dr. (1997) The Secret of Childhood. Sangam Books. Mumbai, India.
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