Maria Montessori, the world-renowned 20th-century educationalist, wrote: “No one can be free if he is not independent, therefore, in order to attain this independence, the active manifestations of personal liberty must be guided from earliest infancy.” – (Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, p. 57)
Maria Montessori believed that the attainment of freedom is inextricably linked with the concept of independence. In order to attain this level in their development, children need a guide and an environment prepared in such a way as to facilitate the achievement of these goals.
Thanks to her excellent observation skills, Montessori discovered great truths, which have also been confirmed by neuroscience today, realising that every child has different strengths and different interests from other children. And it is precisely this characteristic of the human being that brings into play the concept of freedom of choice, on which, however, there must be clarity and not confusion, as often happens, with people thinking it simply means letting children do what they like.
Freedom of choice is built precisely on this recognition of the uniqueness of every child, of their gifts and their talents. That's because our child might be quick to learn to write, another to read, another to play an instrument, another to run, and yet another to draw.
Children are not all the same, so it is not at all helpful to get everyone to do the same activity, maybe even at the same time, purely because they are all the same age. Individual differences between children, moreover, apply not only to skills but also to each child’s emotional sensitivity and activity levels. That is why freedom of choice is so important in the Montessori approach, so that all can find their own “element” and allow their talents to blossom.
Some parents, however, confuse this freedom with the absence of rules, and this can lead to bad habits and behaviours.
Instead, in the Montessori method, freedom of choice is something the child achieves through the acquisition of self-discipline, and this freedom is set within certain clearly defined limits.
How do we get children to follow the rules while enjoying freedom?
Freedom and limits, especially when dealing with young children, seem to be contradictory terms that don’t sit well together.
Yet, on the contrary, the concept of freedom interconnected with respect for rules is a powerful educational tool, and is based on three basic principles of Montessori education:
- The child as an explorer, with the ability to do things independently and to learn through personal experience, and not through the mere imparting of knowledge. Adults should never try to educate children according to their personal likings or convictions, but should allow children to play and work according to their own inclinations while observing them.
- The adult as a guide: a guide for the children to follow their own interests with passion, thereby developing their innate potential.
- The environment as a teacher, an environment prepared by the adult, in which the child has access to the right tools at the right time. Obstacles should thus be kept to a minimum, and the environment must provide the necessary means for exercising those activities that develop the child’s energies (low open shelves, few, logically ordered activities rotating around developmental needs). This will encourage children to feel free to follow their own interests.
What are the ground rules of Montessori education?
There are three clearly defined ground rules in the Montessori approach, and all other rules stem from these three; they are:
1) Respect for oneself
Self-respect is something children acquire when they perceive that they are valued by adults and their peers, through the freedom to perform a desired activity and to freely express their inclinations and thoughts. Only then will they develop a sense of self-worth, and, if gained in early childhood, they will carry it with them throughout their lives. By recognising and believing in their own worth, they will also gain the respect of others.
2) Respect for others
One of the key principles of Montessori education is to enable the child to attain high-level social and behavioural skills. It is no coincidence that one of Montessori’s seminal and most wonderful books is “Education and Peace”. The first rule is interconnected with the second rule because the children, guided right from the start by the adult and the environment, perceive that while they are free to choose, they are not to invade or interfere with the space and time of others, be they adults or their peers. Thus, in Montessori schools, children can choose to work individually or in small groups, developing a sense of cooperation and a willingness to help others.
3) Respect for the environment
In Montessori education, everything is strongly linked and interconnected. Hence, the children’s respect for the environment starts and grows through the respect we show towards them, because only by considering them competent can we give them responsibility for taking care of the environment, be it the home environment or the natural environment. If, for instance, we let the children help around the house, we would actually be surprised at how willing they are to do things, and they would learn to appreciate that a well-cared for environment is a beautiful and pleasant place to live in.
When children have the opportunity to choose what to focus on and what to do, they are truly interested in learning and discovering how things work. And, according to Maria Montessori, that’s how children learn to follow their "inner teacher".