Montessori’s Concept of Freedom
One cannot enter and leave a Montessori classroom of any age group without being amazed by the sense of responsibility these little people have towards their work and daily routine. From the youngest ones, to teenagers, they are all striving for the same thing – exploration. As a matter of fact, it is a part of the human nature to seek for the initiative within oneself, to choose his/her own work, to have the freedom to move and explore. Questions like: “Is that the school where children are doing whatever they want?” “Is my child is going to be ready for the traditional school after Montessori as you are just playing over there?” get out of the window, as it becomes clear to anyone witnessing the blossoming of a Montessori child, that this freedom is not taken for granted. It is a common thing in the Montessori environment to see toddlers, even still in diapers, who are moving peacefully and purposefully through the classroom, choosing the activities on their own and setting the materials for the learning process to start. Even in that early age, the children know that they do not have to wait for the teacher to fetch them to start working, they spontaneously approach the shelves right upon entering the classroom. Very often they can be heard saying that no one taught them a certain activity, but they had learned it. This attitude truly reflects the sense of pride and self-satisfaction that children feel after they had accomplished something without any adult’s assistance. More importantly, it reflects the need to learn and do things on their own. Unfortunately, not many educational systems provide with the environment in which the child would be encouraged to be free and independent.
Montessori schools all over the world advocate the freedom to act, speak, move and explore, as a mean of instilling respect and self-control since the very young age. The schools’ daily routines provide many opportunities for children to be free in any possible way. One look into any Montessori classroom and it becomes very clear how everything is carefully designed so that the children can be free and without any need for adults’ assistance or intervention. What lacks in all traditional educational methods is what Montessorians call the prepared environment. This concept can be described as a learning atmosphere in a classroom that is equipped and prepared by the adults but respecting and following the child’s needs. This prepared environment is completely child-lead, which means that the teacher lets the child has the main word in his/her own learning process, stepping aside until the child asks for help. It could not exist with the four key elements: the physical environment, the teacher, the materials and the work cycle. (MCI, 2013) These elements, when working together, provide a positive stimulation and encourage positive human behaviors. More importantly, they relate back to home, making the child an independent and confident participant in everyday life activities. The reason why Montessori classroom provides such support is that it “ought to be a real house; that is to say, a set of rooms with a garden of which the children are the masters” or even a small farm. (Montessori, 1965, p.37) Ideally it should also include some shelters so that the children can work and play outside when it is raining. A very own characteristic of the prepared environment is the fact that it is completely adapted to the child. All furniture is child-sized and very light to carry and move around even for a two or three-year-old. The shelves and drawers are low enough and not to deep; even the tallest ones are still at the level of the child’s eyes. Each material always stands on its own specific place so that the children would know exactly where to find and return it. The teacher must always bear in mind that “they (children) have a unique ability to absorb the qualities of their environment just by being exposed to them. … Because the infant absorbs every aspect of her environment, we need to be very careful about what we include in it”. (Polk Lillard&Lillard Jessen, 2003, p.40) It is the teacher’s assignment to organize it in a way that the children could work on their own, without the need for any adults’ intervention, as much as possible.
When working in the prepared environment, freedom is reflected in the way children utilize this environment and everything in it. They are free to move around and choose to work on tables or on the floor. They can also work with any piece of material that is available for them on the shelf for an unlimited period of time and get back to it as often as they need. Freedom of movement cannot be stressed enough as “it is only by movement that the personality can express itself”. (Montessori, 2007, p. 125) Montessori teachers are not afraid of the classroom getting messy, provided that the child who is working learns from this kind of exploration. After all, mops, brooms and towels are available for the children to clean up after themselves, leaving their house spotless and aesthetically pleasing. As the children are the masters of their classroom, their behavior in it is similar to the behavior of an adult in his own house. They enjoy this freedom of uninterrupted exploration in the sense that they are not to be interrupted not even to be fetched to eat. The snack is available at all times during the morning work cycle and they can serve themselves when and as much as they want. Snack time is at the same time a lovely social opportunity and children in the Montessori setting will never be shut down from a quiet and respectful chat with their friends around the snack table. After all, this is what the adults do when meeting their friends over a meal.
When observed uninterruptedly it might seem that, when given the freedom to do what they want, children are only to make mess and destroy things. Dr. Maria Montessori (2007) worded it nicely when she said that “if freedom is understood as letting the children do as they like, using or more likely misusing the things available, it is clear that only their ‘deviations’ are free to develop; their abnormalities will increase” (p. 187). And it truly does happen when an educational system or parents, for that matter, fail to understand the crucial balance between letting the child act on their own accord and providing them with clear boundaries. When the attempt is made to suddenly eliminate all oppressions imposed by rules, omitting to offer the alternative, children start to behave disorderly. The reason for this is very simple. The child, who has been controlled by adults for a long period of time, never had a need to develop much needed self-control in order to successfully transform this newly found freedom into an opportunity to learn and grow. For that matter, freedom in the Montessori terminology is not understood in an absolute sense, which gives an answer to the sceptics who fear that Montessori children experience troubles adapting to a traditional and more structured setting. On contrary, freedom in the way Montessorians understand it is the one within limits. This does not contradict one to the other, as these rules are based on respect – for others, for the environment and for oneself. Freedom is due to all and a person can only be free if s/he is not jeopardizing the freedom of others. Practicing the freedom within limits results in developing indispensable virtues at the crucial age of each man’s formation and “freedom [itself] is an accomplishment of the development of inner self-discipline.” (Seldin&Epstein, 2003, p.50)
Montessori teachers cherish and support the children’s efforts to develop in their wholeness and uniqueness. They understand the individual needs of each child and strive for excellence in themselves to be able to respond to these needs in a timely manner, without supressing the flow of the child’s unfolding. They train themselves to be slow to step in uninvited, breaking the boundaries of freedom, seeing the child as a man-in-becoming, with all due respect. On contrary, adults often feel that they need to do things for the child, whom they see as weak and incapable, underestimating their true capacities. We therefore sometimes see parents who carry their children in their hands or push them in the stroller, with the genuine intention of sparing them from long walks, or adults say: “Let me do this for you!” not giving a child the opportunity to try things, perceived by adults as too hard or complicated. In the lack of time, parents change their children quickly, just so they can head out after their business, instead of starting early enough to give the child necessary time to change herself/himself. Instead of helping, these adults are doing quite the opposite. “He [the adult] prevents the child from acting freely and thus makes himself the greatest obstacle to the child’s natural development.” (Montessori, 1966, p. 89) This sentence echoes loud in all its seriousness, crushing all good intentions down for the sake of children’s mental and emotional wellbeing.
What is, then, a role of a good Montessori teacher, or a Directress, as referred to in the literature? Children at this age do not possess mental capacities to differ good from bad, safe from unsafe and moreover, to make conscious decisions of what will benefit them, without the adult’s lead. However, the hope in their judgement is not forever lost. Good teacher knows that the child can acquire knowledge only when s/he is ready for it, otherwise it is just a waste of everybody’s time. In the Montessori literature, this phenomenon is described as “sensitive periods”. Montessori (1966) explains: “When a particular sensitiveness is aroused in a child, it is like a light that shines on some objects but not on others, making of them his whole world.” (p. 42) This can be also described with the analogy of a window that opens, enabling certain knowledge to pour in with such ease that can never be reciprocated in any other period of life. The awakening of the sensitive periods is very obvious to a trained eye; the child all of a sudden starts showing interest in obtaining certain knowledge or skills, becoming almost completely numb for any other area. The role of the Montessori teacher is knowing how to recognize and how to respond to this interest in rising, with subtle and delicate cues, respecting the child’s freedom of exploration the whole time. More important than teaching, Montessori teacher dedicates her time to observe and customise the environment, based on observed needs of the class. She is the one who arranges the furniture and displays the materials on the shelves, always putting herself in the child’s perspective, so that she can determine whether the children are truly free and independent. Whenever she feels that a certain activity is not self-explanatory, meaning that the control of error is not clear, she will adjust it or remove it, filtering the classroom from all unnecessary interruptions for the child’s natural development. She will also walk around the classroom to make sure that the children have enough space to move and work, that the shelves and tables are low and light enough for the children to freely move them around and fetch the materials from it.
One might wonder if it is possible to maintain discipline in such a large group of children where disobedience and taking advantage of the given freedom are inevitable? Furthermore, are the children going to learn anything through self-exploration and self-correcting? Numerous observations and real-life examples had given affirmative responses to such questions. As mentioned earlier in this paper, freedom in the Montessori sense is not an absolute freedom, but the one within limits based on respect. Translated in a practical way, children are not required to sit at one spot to work, but to freely move around, as long as they are cautious of the others around them. They have the freedom to speak and express their thoughts without being supressed in this need, as long as they speak respectfully. They are allowed to work and explore, as long as their work does not destruct materials or disrupt others. Boundaries are clearly set as a result of mutual agreement between the teacher and the children. Children have the natural curiosity and tendency to learn, so taking advantage of the freedom is not an issue, as long as the teacher guides the child towards materials of his/her inclination, redirecting them when necessary. It does occur, however, that the children disturb others in their quest for an activity of their interest. Instead of scolding, commanding and restricting the child, which are the strategies that either make children insensitive to them or break their spirit, adults should turn to work, as “the first glimmerings of discipline have their origin in work.” (Montessori, 1967, p. 304) Truly, when a child becomes so intensively engaged into an activity, s/he needs no external support to stay disciplined. The spark that lights up in his/her mind and heart burns as long as it is challenged. Classroom must, therefore, be equipped with a number of materials that vary in complexity and age level, so that the fast progressing children do not become bored or fall behind and the ones who need more time do not feel discouraged and unaccomplished. It is only through work that the child can feel free and disciplined at the same time, with the delicate line of self-control being drawn between the two. It is only then a child can be happy and “what resulted was not just the child’s happiness, but the child began his work of making a man” (Montessori, 2007, p. 155).
- Montessori Centre International (2013) Module 1 – Philosophy London: MCI
- Montessori, M. (1965) Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook New York: Schocken Books Inc.
- Montessori, M. (1966) The Secret of Childhood New York: Ballantine Books
- Montessori, M. (1967) The Discovery of the Child New York: Ballantine Books
- Montessori, M. (2007) The Absorbent Mind Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company
- Polk Lillard, P. & Lillard Jessen, L. (2003) Montessori from the Start New York: Schocken Books Inc.
- Seldin, T. & Epstein, P. (2003) The Montessori Way Sarasota: The Montessori Foundation