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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Does Montessori offer too much freedom to a child?

One of  the parent, named Ashwin, who was invited in a Montessori school to observe his 3 1/2 year child for half an hour ( who was studying in the second year of a preschool Montessori house of  children) told me what he observed in the school:

My child was sitting in a mat. Did nothing for 5 minutes. Then he went and chose an activity of 'pouring grains'. Worked with it for 10 minutes. Did nothing for next 15 minutes. He seem to be watching some other child's activity. No adult came to suggest him or even ask him why the child is sitting idle. 

I can understand that the child should be given 'freedom'. But doesn't the child misuse the freedom?

Based on 30 minutes of observation, would you react like Ashwin? Even when we go for work, we chat, we engage in banter, and we also work hard. So can we expect children to 'work hard' all the time like Ashwin?

Remember, in Montessori House, the child is engaged in 'work-activity' and therefore goes through four different periods of Engagement, Relaxation, Activity preparation and Assimilation phase (where the child recapitulates the activity and absorbs it in her psyche) as he works. In a Montessori House, it is therefore observed that every child goes through these four periods in a cyclical manner, repeated 2/3 times in a day.

Therefore, only when one is aware of what the child has been doing, one can make realistic assessment of the child's 'engagement' or 'idleness'. Even 'pouring grains' is supposed to be a 'relaxation' activity for a  3 1/2 year old child, although it was a challenging engagement for a child of 2 1/2 year old child when he learnt it first. It is therefore imprudent to conclude anything from a snap shot of 30 minutes ( or even one hour) without knowing the full context.

This however does not answer Ashwin's question: does the child misuse the freedom: the freedom to work or not, the freedom to choose the type of work?

Does the child misuse the freedom in a Montessori House of Children?

In a Montessori, a child is never seen to misuse this freedom . Quite the contrary, it is observed that the freedom given to a child generates many intended and unintended consequences, all of which are surprisingly positive: the child develops his own will power to choose his own activity, learns to thwart other attention-diverting distractions, practices self-discipline without being told.

However, Montessorians also observe that a child sometimes misuses 'freedom' to avoid doing a 'challenging' activity. For instance, a Montessorian will notice that when a child is introduced to a new challenging activity, which is just above the threshold level of his 'capability', the child will tend to avoid that activity for a while. Such activities could be learning addition through snake exercise, or forming words by phonetic analysis of sound such as milk or cat.

The Montessorian is trained to observe this 'resistance' and not 'react' to it. She gives the child enough 'time' to 'readjust' her expectations. Only after the child refuses to 'overcome' the resistance on her own, will she gently prod the child. She may even 'repeat' the presentation of the activity. She uses various indirect ways to prod the child back on course without damaging the child's delicate sense of confidence.

Because of the mixed age grouping ( 3-6 year old are in one group) in a Montessori, a parent will observe that young children spend considerable time in watching the activities of older children. A Montessorian will never discourage this 'watching activity', because this is how a child gets interested in newer challenging activities. While observing someone else, she is also gaining the 'confidence' that she will also do it in the same way when she grows up.

Due to the mixed age grouping, a parent will also observe another occurrence in a Montessori House of Children. She will see that a young child will call an older child to 'evaluate' his activity, and not go to the Montessori Adult. Very often this is confusing to the parent. They feel that an older child may misguide the younger child. On the contrary, it is observed that an older child can point out 'mistakes' in a younger child far more directly ( it may look ruthless if done by the adult) and in a fashion that is far more easy to correct. 

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