For lots of children, the month of September means starting or resuming a new important life journey: infant school.
Parents, especially those without any such experience, very often feel confused and uncertain about which school to choose or ask themselves endless questions over the following three years about the choice they made.
Which school should we choose? Did we make the right choice? What should an infant school offer in order to respond most appropriately to the educational needs of our children?
First of all, it is important to understand that every child is unique, as is every family unit with its needs and characteristics. So what may be the best choice for one family, may not be for another. But there is undoubtedly one thing above all that we should bear in mind and about which Maria Montessori wrote abundantly: “There are many who believe, like me, that the most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first period, the one from birth to the age of six. Because that is the moment in which humankind’s own intelligence is formed, their greatest instrument. But not only their intelligence; the whole gamut of their mental powers”.
These are really fundamental years and so it is good to know certain aspects that can guide us in choosing a good infant school.
In recent years, we have heard increasing talk about pre-schooling and how, especially in the last period of infant school, it is useful to offer boys and girls the opportunity of acquiring in advance specific skills and initial literacy such as: writing the first letters of the alphabet or the first numbers or even reading, because this is likely to prepare them better to deal with their entry into primary school.
So, it is not unusual for us to note that in certain infant schools a lot of time is devoted to filling in worksheets (that are the same for everyone) for writing letters and numbers, or pre-printed figures for colouring inside the edges, sheets with small sums and phonetic flashcards that are even to be finished at home!
Are we sure that this early introduction is good for their learning and responds to their period of development? What does research show?
Mitchel Resnick, Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab in Boston, argues that all school programmes should be more like infant school and not the other way around! Today’s world is subject to rapid evolution and everyone, from childhood onwards, should develop their creativity “and the best way to do this is to focus more on imagination, creation, play, sharing and reflection, precisely as children should do in infant school”.
Spontaneous learning, through play and the real interests of the child, have been proven to be the most effective and profound, but also something very different from providing early targeted teaching of academic content. In fact, several studies show that the only positive results of any early provision are ephemeral and short-lived, also leading to negative consequences such as feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and confusion in children, who feel they are being required to perform by their parents.
Undoubtedly, in a classic infant school, playing is also considered an important activity and will certainly not be lacking, but it is very likely to be interspersed with teacher-led lessons who set the pace of the day, a pace that will be the same for everyone.
Why then in a Montessori infant school do children learn to read and write, and also to count?
Pre-schooling, in the sense of the transfer of content from adult to child and exercises on teaching worksheets in Montessori schools, is one of the many false myths that should be dispelled, as this way of doing things is totally different from the idea of learning disseminated by Maria Montessori.
Through observation and years of work with thousands of children, she understood that they are like little sponges: capable of absorbing an incredible amount of knowledge if only given the opportunity to be in an environment responsive to their development needs. She actually wrote: “There can be no doubt that children absorb an enormous number of impressions from their environment and that the external aid given to this natural instinct triggers in them a lively form of enthusiasm. In this way education can be a real aid to the natural development of the mind”.
However, it is a good idea to specify what Maria Montessori meant by external aid. The teacher's help, for example, is always indirect, unlike the norm in a classic infant school, and it occurs only when it is requested by the child, because this allows them to concentrate and self-correct by finding strategies themselves for any problems that may be revealed in their activity. So it is the teacher who follows the child and the child, in turn, feels free to follow their interests in the environment prepared wisely by the adult.
In this environment of different ages, where little children learn from older ones and older ones teach the little ones, children will find a wide range of developmental materials that Maria Montessori designed, throughout her life, to maximise children’s desire to learn. Materials ranging from practical life activities, to the refinement of the 5 senses, moving through language and on to the enhancement of the innate mathematical mind of each. But the child and their pace of learning is always at the centre, and no kind of activity is imposed by the adult. This does not mean that everyone does what they want in total anarchy, but it means respecting children’s desires by recognising them as competent beings and builders of their own knowledge. By perceiving this respect from adults, children will tend to behave respectfully also with their peers and towards the environment by internalising rules and self-discipline.
In an environment designed in this way, with an adult observer and a material that allows learning through manipulation, children are in a place that will also allow them to write, count and read, without any effort or imposition and above all according to their inclinations and desires.
But the main objective of Montessori classes is certainly to lead children to discover the beauty of concentration, motivation, self-discipline and the love for learning.
Maria Montessori, La scoperta del bambino, 1950
Maria Montessori, La mente assorbente, 1952
Mitchel Resnick, Come i bambini: IMMAGINA, CREA, GIOCA e CONDIVIDI, 2018