Born in Italy in 1870, Maria Montessori grew up to become Italy’s first woman doctor. At age 28, she accepted a position as the director of a school for "unhappy little ones” and over the course of the next two years the young doctor spent long, tireless hours observing and working with these children. She realized that children have developmental periods in which they are primed to learn different things and devised a new method of education that proclaimed her a Miracle Worker by the educational establishment.
Heartened by the results she’d achieved with the children, she returned to school to study anthropology and psychology in the hopes that she could find a way to apply the educational techniques she’d discovered to the broader educational environment. In 1907 at the age of 35, she was given a chance to try out her theories when she was invited to take over the education of 50 children from Rome. The techniques Dr. Montessori continued to refine as she studied and worked with the children were so successful that her methodology began to achieve international attention. In fact, visitors came from all over the world to see these children – and their remarkable progress.
Maria Montessori believed that character education (teaching children to take care of themselves, each other, and the world around them) was just as important as pre-academic skills such as phonetics and number recognition. In the Montessori classroom, children are busy working by themselves, with another child or with a teacher. Free choice is key here. Children can take work down from the shelves and work with it for as long as they like. They only call on a teacher if they need help. They are responsible for putting the work back exactly as it was found and in the right location. This is done in consideration for the next child who chooses the work. If a child spills something, he is also responsible for cleaning up his mess and is shown how to sweep and mop.
The independence aspect may be a bit foreign to some. We are accustomed to seeing a teacher as the star around which the children orbit; in Montessori, the children are the stars. The Montessori teacher is more of a guide, trained to respect the child and to help her or him progress on her or his own unique path. In fact, when you visit a Montessori classroom for the first time, you may be surprised that the atmosphere is so peaceful.
Dr. Montessori advocated helping children to be independent and said that children crave independence. This can be a difficult concept for some parents to grasp. As parents, we want to do everything for our children and make their lives easier, but in fact, this holds them back from attaining the independence they desire. Montessori teachers show three-year olds how to put on their own shoes and coats and insist that they do it on their own.
For some parents, it’s hard to let them try on their own! You stand there, aware of the passing time and become more and more frustrated as your child valiantly struggles with the act of dressing himself. You can’t stand it any longer and you jump in to "help” him. According to Dr. Montessori, we are hindering, not helping and taking away from their sense of success and self-esteem. When you do stand back and let your child do for himself, you are amazed to see him beaming with pride as he excitedly says "Mommy, Daddy, I did it all by myself”!
Katharine Chernyak is the Communications Coordinator and Member of the Board of Directors at Four Seasons Montessori, a progressive Montessori school offering Preschool and Elementary programs. Have questions? You can reach the school at 250-758-8979 or visit www.fourseasonsmontessori.com