In February, I had the honor of addressing over seventy teachers for the Bay Area Montessori Association. I had spent a couple of days previous visiting a large preschool. I arrived at 7:30 in the morning, but there were already several children there, under the age of five. They were sitting at the little tables, drawing and looking at picture books. They wouldn’t go home until dinnertime.
I am by no means a Montessori expert. But as I read some of Maria Montessori’s books, I was struck by what she didn’t talk about. Her work is based upon “following the children.” But, at least in the texts I read, I couldn’t find out much about what the children were already doing, how they were already living, about the knowledge and experiences that they brought to school with them. Maria Montessori quite logically jumped into the gap, and began her discussion based upon the culture the children already possessed. But I couldn’t find a place where the assumptions and skills of that culture were spelled out.
So at the workshop, I wrote two questions on the board:
1.How is the culture of the children taught by Maria Montessori different from the culture of the children of today?
2. What might Maria Montessori do differently, were she working with the children of today?
There were various answers to the first question: Maria Montessori lived in Italy. Autism. Schedules. Media.
One of the teachers spoke up in a beautiful accent. She said, “I grew up in Italy. I would hear my friends laughing on the street, and I would run down and we would play all day. I never had to ask permission. My mother didn’t know where I was but she didn’t worry. We didn’t have many toys, we just played. We went down to the beach. Some of the sand was hard, and we would slice off pieces of it to make plates. I had a dolly and I fed her with a bottle. . . My grandmother would put me on her lap and she would sing a song and rock me. . .”
I asked, “How many of the children in your classrooms come from a life experience like this?” No one raised a hand.
But probably this teacher’s childhood experience is closer to the culture of the children that Maria Montessori taught to any child in her own classroom.
Although the context here is Montessori education, what I am writing about is applicable to all children in all kinds of schools today. As I am fond of saying, although we live in today’s fast-paced, technological world, we still have stone-aged bodies and brains. We are wired for constant physical movement outdoors in nature. And every aspect of our development, especially as children, is dependent upon where and how much and in what ways we move.
Today, children move in many unnatural ways. Babies, instead of being carried around in arms, or lying flat, spend a huge amount of time in ergonomically designed bucket seats. And compared to children even a few decades ago, many children move very little. They aren’t running free outside as much, they are spending a lot of time inside playing with devices. And children today are sicker – more allergies, more spectrum disorders (who ever heard of autism even thirty years ago? And that goes for ADD, ADHD, SPD, and all the other acronyms we have become so unhappily familiar with). When you don’t feel great, you move less – or you move in less integrated ways, buzzing around from thing to thing, without a core sense of calm and focus.
Educational philosophy is based upon the education that went before – and upon the brain-body development of the children that went before. So just about any of today’s curricula assume a level of integration that most children today just do not possess.
It might be useful to for us to go back and imagine the things children used to do, at home and at play – the taken-for-granted ways that their culture prepared them for school. And then to think about how we can create that "prerequisite" culture of freedom and play in the classroom.
It is always a challenge to keep the spirit of great educators alive as we continue their work. But all of the greats understood that their work was contextual, and changed it as their context changed. Remembering our original “culture” is something that applies to all philosophies of education, all classrooms, all children.
We got away with focusing on the three “R’s” when the children played independently outside of school, developing their bodies, their social sense, their creative problem solving capacities, their imaginations. But now, when even tiny children are in school for most of their waking hours, we need to revisit our assumptions. Let’s bring that ancient culture of play into the classroom, make it the core experience of the developing child. And when we do that, I think we will find that the “work” flows a lot more easily.