What is it about a Montessori preschool and toddler environment that enables young children to competently do for themselves things that much older children still can’t do in other settings?
According to Dr. Montessori, educating young children is educating them for independence:
“If teaching is to be effective with young children, it must assist them to advance on the way to independence. It must initiate them into those kinds of activities which they can perform themselves and which keep them from being a burden to others because of their inabilities. We must help them to learn how to walk without assistance, to run, to go up and down stairs, to pick up fallen objects, to dress and undress, to wash themselves, to express their needs in a way that is clearly understood, and to attempt to satisfy their desires through their own efforts. All this is part of an education for independence.” -Dr. Maria Montessori
Toddlers are naturally eager to learn these things. “Do it myself” might well be the refrain for the toddler years!
Unfortunately, our day-to-day lives often make for less than ideal circumstances to help our children achieve the independence they crave. Our homes are not optimized around a little person with his height of less than 3 feet: Objects are hard to reach, too heavy, or too big for little hands to use. Our days are not set up to move at his speed: We rarely just happen to have 10 spare minutes to wait while our 2-year-old puts on his jacket!
Yet enabling a toddler to become more independent has huge benefits, both near-term and longer-term.
Power struggles decrease when a child feels more in control. Temper tantrums are less frequent when a toddler is busy doing things for himself rather than resisting his parent’s efforts to do things for him!
A child who feels capable because he can act in the world, without needing to rely on Mom or Dad for every little thing, is a child who is developing self-confidence. Writes psychologist Madeline Levine: “Self-esteem doesn’t contribute much to success. But success contributes mightily to self-esteem. Kids have to “do” something, and do it well, to get a self-esteem boost.”
Children who start to contribute to the home’s smooth functioning in little ways reap many long-term benefits. A great recent article in Wired Magazine points out many of these benefits, and offers a great quote to the educational benefits of involving children in real daily tasks:
“So many educational tasks put before our children serve no purpose other than to instruct. But when learning is connected to something truly purposeful, it can’t help but kindle motivation. Children feel honored to be included in real work that includes real challenges. If we pay attention, we see that’s just what they pretend to do when they play.” – Article in Wired Magazine
So if independence is vitally important, how do we go about fostering it?
Let’s start by quoting some hard-hitting words from Dr. Montessori:
“We wait upon our children; and to serve them in this way is not less fatal than to do something that would tend to suffocate their own useful, spontaneous activities.”
“We believe that children are like puppets. We wash them and feed them as if they were dolls. We never stop to think that a child who does not act does not know how to act, but he should act, and nature has given him all the means for learning how to act. Our primary duty toward him is to assist him to perform useful acts. A mother who feeds her child without taking the least effort to teach him how to hold a spoon or to find his mouth, or who, when she is herself eating, does not at least invite him to watch how it is done, is not a good mother. She offends her son’s human dignity by treating him as a puppet, whereas he is by nature a man that has been entrusted to her care. Everyone knows that it requires much more time and patience to teach a child how to eat, wash, and clothe himself than it does to feed, bathe and clothe him by oneself. The one who does the former is an educator; the latter performs the lower office of a servant.” -Dr. Maria Montessori
A goal in our classroom is to act as an educator, in the sense that Dr. Montessori describes above, as someone who guides your child toward independence. How do we approach this responsibility?