I stepped into the room and shook off the March chill. The teachers greeted me warmly and showed me to a chair, then went about their business. I surveyed the classroom – good space, nice wood floors, big windows, freshly painted walls, happy children and happy adults. I was here to evaluate the school before the accreditation visit in just a few weeks. I was still not sure why these six little Canadian schools were trying for approval from the American Montessori Society. They were all clean and cheerful with thoughtful custom additions such as the tiny benches by the door with cushions upholstered to match the curtains and the wooden pickets which gave the effect of a charming garden fence disguising the sink area. The children were happy and healthy and having fun. The adults obviously enjoyed their work. But it was going to take some major changes to be ready for the accreditation team.
First, and most glaringly, there were the high chairs, rows of them. As I was considering the rationale behind equipping Montessori Infant and Toddler rooms with tiny tables and chairs, I watched a child strapped into a high chair being fed lunch. His body was slack – no need to sit up or maintain balance. His gaze was unfocused – no need to think about how to get the next bite into his mouth because a spoon would appear right before his mouth every time he stopped chewing. No need to try to communicate because the adult who was feeding him was stepping away between bites to interact with other children. He was simply chewing and swallowing.
Then there were the sippy cups. Children were slinging them around watching them tip and roll and bounce. They seemed to be less a means of gaining hydration than an ongoing science experiment. What does it take to get the liquid inside to spray across the table?
Then there were the mounds of plastic toys. The children picked through them, played for a bit then dropped them on the floor and looked for another. At the end of the play period the adults picked up the toys and put them back into a bin or in no particular order on a shelf. Plastic. We buy plastic for our children because it’s bright, fun, clean, safe and unbreakable. But what are they learning from these objects?
The words of one of my mentors rang in my ears. She was talking about how the car seat laws keep changing. She acknowledged that our children are much safer now than they have ever been. “But at what cost?” she asked. “Nowadays parents often have to drive for an hour or more to get to work and to school – that’s two hours a day that an infant is strapped into a seat. Yes, he is safe, but his head may not form correctly and he cannot exercise his limbs freely. Often, when he gets where he is going the infant is left in the car seat rather than held or allowed to move. And if not in a car seat he may then be strapped into some other kind of “baby container” – a walker, a bouncer, a stroller or a high chair. Baby containers are for the convenience of adults, but how will they affect the growth and development our children?” I’ve stood in Babies R Us and contemplated the rows and rows of baby containers. Indeed, how will they affect our children and our culture?
Maria Montessori saw that children learn through movement. In a Montessori setting we never limit a child’s movement, especially if it is simply for the convenience of the adult. So there are never high chairs, walkers or strollers in a Montessori school. Teachers have to be willing and able to get up and down off the floor many, many times a day in a Montessori class. The adults come down to the child’s level. It is, after all, a “House of Children”. Adults are there to give lessons and guide when needed, leaving the children free to grow and move and learn at their own pace.
After having seen the Canadian schools I explained the rationale for the child-centered environment to my students. I explained that they would have to replace the high chairs with small tables and chairs, the sippy cups with small glasses, and the plastic toys with Montessori activities using primarily natural materials. I also told my class not to make too many changes too quickly so as not to upset the consistency, which is also of utmost importance to young learners. I left thinking I had assigned them an impossible task and would be surprised if any of them could do it.
Three weeks later I returned to find that almost all of the high chairs were gone, many of the sippy cups has disappeared and the plastic toys were diminishing while the Montessori shelves slowly increased. I was happily surprised to see a class of toddlers drinking perfectly adeptly from glasses while sitting in chairs and expertly eating lunch with spoons. Knowing how hard this had been to find the funds and change well-established programs I realized the motivation of my students.
I continued to mull over the purpose of the project. We began with six very nice daycare operations that did the job quite well. Parents were happy, children were happy, teachers were happy. What more could you want? When I stepped into that same room a few weeks later I watched the children gathered at the tables pouring, spooning, sorting and tonging industriously. This went on without interruption for a long period of time. As I watched, the morning sun streamed in about them and I could almost hear harps playing and angels singing. This was that “aha” moment Dr. Montessori described so often in her books. The children were still clean, healthy, safe and happy, but now they had purpose. You could see it in their eyes when they lifted their heads from their tasks. They were doing something interesting and productive that spoke to their inner needs. The simple changes spoke to their need to exercise movement, their need to experiment, their need to add to their knowledge and their need to be responsible, independent, respected and respectful people.
The accreditation team came and noticed the few remaining high chairs, sippy cups and plastic toys. I described the determination and passion of these people to change a perfectly good system to Montessori. I told them how the director of the college had described the education for peace component of the Montessori philosophy as having affected his heart. His dream is to one day offer the first Montessori PhD. Their eyebrows lifted when I said it. It wasn’t going to be easy, but they all saw the importance of supporting this effort.
Coming home and stepping back into our own classrooms, I see that purpose I’d come to take for granted. There it is. I see the purpose in the child carefully lining up the golden beads in neat rows as she counts from 1 to 9000, the child organizing the artifacts of Asia, the child washing his snack dishes, the child stopping to help a younger one with her shoes. I see the purpose in the eyes of former students who keep in touch on Facebook or stop in to say “hi” – getting an education, traveling the world, finding a meaningful job, making a difference, living life. As I gave a prospective new parent a tour of the school today we stepped into an early childhood class and he remarked, “It’s so peaceful.” They are peaceful children and they go on to lead happy, productive, peaceful lives. This is what she meant when Dr. Montessori penned the phrase “education for life.”
Duna Strachan, AMS
Soaring Wings International Montessori School
Park City, Utah USA