Maria Montessori wrote a lot in her text books and lessons about how a certain type of education encourages the natural sense of order in children and that in her classes it was often not the teachers who gave the orders or instructions to the children about what to do, but they themselves who could choose the most interesting activity.
In the book “Citizen of the World” by Montessori we can read a wonderful testimony: “Our schools are like a furnished house, a ‘children's house’. And what do children do? What people do in their own home. They do a job that has a practical purpose, they sweep, dust, get dressed, etc. In this house everyone does their own job independently from the others; but if anything happens to one of them like dropping a cup full of beads, or when there is a need for help in similar accidents, the other children are ready to help.”
This extract tells us about an environment that makes children independent not only to move in space, but also to carry out activities following their interest; it tells us about a community that moves together, working together in the maintenance of a common environment with activities that really have a practical purpose.
Is it really possible to manage the ordered behaviour of so many children if everyone is free to choose what to do?
One of the three cornerstones of Montessori’s pedagogy is the environment, which she called “master”. This is because every educational context in which the child is immersed becomes a potential educator. Adults, therefore, must be ready and able to modify the environment carefully, without excessive distortion but with small details, so that it always remains a place of growth and stimulation for the child.
An environment prepared in this way becomes an important companion for adults in the education of their children, without the need to resort to using instructions or impositions with them. If adults, through their children’s observation, manage to work gradually on the organisation of space, they will be able to see the natural development of a spontaneous inclination towards order in their little ones.
Is it possible to replicate the order of a Montessori school in a house and ensure that children turn into valuable co-workers?
Although it might seem trivial and obvious, a key ingredient for achieving this goal is to be patient! But it is not trivial at all, because when we take something for granted, our mind tends not to give priority to that thing and to think that it is just there, it is just taken for granted! Conversely, patience needs to be trained and we often think that we must mainly have patience with our children, whereas we must first have patience with ourselves so as not to fall into the trap laid by frustration at not being able to immediately achieve results with them.
Another key element is knowing that children really feel pleasure and satisfaction in carrying out household chores (sweeping the floor, washing furniture, cleaning glass, setting and clearing the table, cleaning and cutting vegetables, etc.). In Montessori schools, children were not taught life’s practical activities so as to turn them into little servants or simply because it is something that will be useful in their lives, rather because they were themselves very interested in improving these actions in daily life and this type of activity provides them with unparalleled preparation for their years of cultural and intellectual development.
But the thing that attracts children most is doing what their reference adults do and doing these activities for real! Not simply laying little plastic tables with fake plates and glasses for their dolls or soft toys.
Maria Montessori argued that: “Before a child reaches the age of three, the highest and most ennobling form of work that engages them is sorting out the furniture and putting things in order, and it is also the one that requires maximum activity.”
She noted, in fact, that if children do not lay the table for people who are actually about to sit and eat, or if they do not have real crumbs to sweep up or real brooms to sweep with, they will never achieve any real skills, because they are not given the chance to have control over their mistakes. If I just pretend to sweep instead of really sweeping, how am I going to learn even the finest movements necessary to remove every last crumb? If we do not offer children the opportunity to transport ceramic plates and glasses, how will they understand that you must avoid hasty or clumsy movements otherwise You will drop that plate or glass and it will break? Breaking dishes is not a tragedy: it even happens to us adults, even though we consider ourselves capable and able to control our movements- Let’s not forget that. Conversely, let’s try to put more trust in our children: it will surprise us!
An adult’s patient work
It is clear that nothing happens by itself: as the child needs to learn to carry a dish, the adult must also learn to show how to move and do things. The solution is not to let the children do things freely without any instructions.
This is why as adults we need to make use of our own patience and teach the child how to do it, calmly, through our movements and only with the words strictly required to prevent the details from escaping attention.
We need to give children the right amount of time, but also to us adults to understand how to show the way to carry a dish or show an activity that seems completely obvious to us, but that is anything but that for the children. And if a dish is dropped, we will start again, showing how satisfying it is to lay the table carefully through every necessary movement, “each complex action includes a series of distinct movements; one act after the other.”
It is this analysis of movements that captures children’s interest: the more an activity is shown in all its details, the more it becomes a stimulus for an endless repetition of the same exercise.
When you read some passages from Maria Montessori’s books, everything seems incredibly perfect, as if the children from the first day of school had always been calm and collaborative. But this is not the case, Montessori herself speaks of the conquest of self-discipline and that children who were not accustomed to a certain educational context were difficult to manage. But with careful guidance from an adult, the prepared environment and suitable materials for their small hands, these children also subsequently showed great skills and personal qualities. This is why education must start immediately and the adult has an enormous responsibility to welcome their children into an environment suitable for them.
A place for everything and everything in its place
One of the most important indications for properly preparing a space in the home, whether it is an entire room or just a single corner, is to ensure that this is “readable” in the child’s eyes and within reach of their hands. Everything in this space must have its own precise location so that once it has been used you know where to put it back. If, for example, we want our children to be independent in the reordering their toys, the last thing one should do is have baskets or boxes to put everything in haphazardly. If one day a child wants to play with a particular doll and cannot find it right away, they will turn over all the boxes and baskets until the doll comes to light, creating a great chaos that will also be much more annoying to tidy up.
What can we, as adults, do?
Create a space where you can put a series of small shelves where they can arrange the toys together in an orderly way. It is not necessary for all the toys that a child has to be visible together; on the contrary, being subjected to continuous stimuli interrupts the concentration process that is so important for their development. If the child is still rather young, we can be the ones to determine what is best to keep out, based on the interests we have observed. If they are older, it is certainly useful to involve them in determining what they would like to have at hand and what not, so that we can later make a rotation with other games, eliminating those that have not been used for a long time.
Smaller toys such as cars, building bricks, animals etc. can be divided into small boxes.
We can also organise all their stationery, putting the coloured pencils separated from felt-tips, clean white sheets and the coloured sheets in two different folders, the rubbers in a small separate container, the scissors and glue in a cup or glass and so on.
The same idea can be used if we want our children to start being independent with their wardrobe, organising for example their underwear and separating socks from pants and vests. The same thing can be done with the rest of their clothes.
Food storage containers, biscuit or coffee tins and shoe or shirt boxes are very useful for dividing things up. You can also think of covering the boxes with coloured paper or paint them together with the children in the way they prefer.
For greater readability of the containers or boxes we can also put a label them with a word on each one (if the child already knows how to read) or a drawing/image related to the content.
- CHILD-SIZE SPACES
Small spaces suitable for children can also be arranged in other areas of the house, for example, in the area for leaving and arriving home, where the child needs to put on or take off their coat and shoes. A coat hanger placed at their height will allow them to take and hang their coat independently, without having to have an adult to do it for them, as well as a little stool where they can sit comfortably to put on and take off their shoes.
This also applies to every type of activity that we want to propose: all the tools that will be needed can be put together in a nice basket, so that the child has everything at their disposal; this will help them not to lose enthusiasm and interest and will also make it easier for us adults when we propose an activity. Also, at the end of their job it will be much easier for them to put everything back in place.
Maria Montessori wrote that: “Any child who is self-sufficient, who can tie his shoes, dress or undress himself, reflects in his joy and sense of achievement the image of human dignity which is derived from a sense of independence.”
Maria Montessori, La scoperta del bambino, 2009
Maria Montessori, Cittadina del Mondo, 1967
Il Quaderno Montessori, Anno IX, numero 35 - autunno 1992, DIREZIONE Grazia Honegger Fresco
Maria Montessori, Maria Montessori parla ai genitori, Il leone Verde, 2018
Maria Montessori, Il bambino in famiglia, Garzanti, 2000