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In Montessori… Work and Play Go Together

March, 2009
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Recently, a mother-to-be asked for some advice on what to read, to prepare her for motherhood. Her child is due in a few months and she is starting to feel the pressure. . Like most parents, she is concerned with making sure she will be the best possible mom, provider, caretaker, and loving. On top of everything else, she is trying to figure out what sort of environment she should provide for her first child. “I don’t want to mess up,” she says. She likes Montessori, and things that there is so much that children can get from Montessori that she is almost sure she will one day place her child in a Montessori school.

einsteinBookCover    She comes to us with this question because so much in Montessori seems to have to do with “environment” and, she says, “In Montessori people are always talking about how important the environment is, and refer to the ‘prepared environment’ all the time.” But right now she just wants some ideas, because it will be a while until her child goes to kindergarten… The list of questions is long: What can I do to help my child get started in life? How can I help my baby, my toddler, grow up feeling confident and to develop high self-esteem? Can I do anything to make my child smarter? Will the things I do impact my child’s intelligence? What kind of toys and play things, should I buy? What kinds of books? Should I buy educational materials? What is educational? What about computers? And TV… should I let my child watch TV? How much? What kinds of programs? Starting at what age? Should I play classical music? What kind? How much socialization is really needed? The list is never ending, and because we live in a society that is market oriented and far more concerned with profits and financial results than the wellbeing of its members and the quality of their lives, the pressure is only likely to increase with each passing day. This information overload or disinformation is confusing parents as to what is best for their child.

All companies use marketing. Marketing aims at improving sales. For sales and profits to go up, companies have to get an edge over the competition.. If consumers do not want the product they won’t buy it; to want it, they must be convinced that they need it. Most of the time, there is no difference between “need” and “want” and people get caught up in the vortex of doubts or false self-confidence, where they affirm themselves through consumerism. Companies invest huge amounts of money  in campaigns that undermine consumer self-esteem, and they create false values and imposing standards in order to make sure their products sell. They tell us that we don’t look good enough, are not healthy enough, do not perform as we should, etc., and thus, need their products to be “better.” The main aim is to create enough insecurity, so that some sort of dependency is created, so that their products can sell as “the solution” for this or that problem. The same thing happens with parents.

As you may know, Montessori trusts children to be able to learn by themselves. This is not some illusion, nor is it based on wishful thinking. It’s based on experience, on over a century of recorded observations of countless children in countless schools worldwide, children in different societies, speaking different languages, in different cultural backgrounds. Montessori recognizes and respects a child’s need for privacy, independence, and free time, and above all the importance of self-directed learning that starts with activities freely chosen by the child. Montessori trusts that in a prepared environment that benefits children and helps them realize their full potential, adults should follow children, and become as unobtrusive as possible. Montessori knows that “play” is “work” when it comes to children. Dr. Montessori recognized children as the builders of society and of their own personalities—when allowed to do so.

So parents often ask, “How can I do things in a more ‘Montessori way’ and help my child at home in their early years before school? Invariably the barrage of questions starts again about what should and should not be bought, what is and is not essential, educational, vital, how to “gain time” and help children be accomplishers, raise their IQs, etc. Some parents even ask if Montessori will make their child more intelligent, smarter, and brighter. In the back of their minds, they are already looking ahead, and planning 5, 10, 15, 18, 20 years down the line, thinking about school grades, university, diplomas, jobs, salaries, and success—or failure. If I don’t give my child all she needs, will she fail and be unable to make a living? And how do I know what she needs in order to succeed?

JinFengParents also worry quite a bit about their children missing opportunities. Will my child fall behind if by this or that age she cannot perform according to commonly accepted “standards” and should I try to push her to learn to write, read, count, be more sociable, etc?

Some people have a higher propensity to worry than others. If we can say that there should be as many educational approaches as there are children, then there are as many ways of parenting as there are parents. Montessori as an educational approach is pretty much just that when implemented as it should be, because it follows each child’s needs and respects each child as an individual.

As far as parents are concerned, the most important piece of advice a mother can hear is probably; relax, take it easy, and let your child be themselves. Play is probably the most important thing in your child’s life, other than the natural nurturing that almost every single mother knows her needs. As human beings, we are programmed to learn. Babies, infants, toddlers, and young children learn at a pace and in ways that we are often unaware of. But the same happens with teenagers, adults and older people. We learn all throughout our lives, albeit in different ways and following unique rhythms.

With children, “play” is of the utmost importance because that is the way that nature intended them to experiment with the environment and learn all they need to learn to become functional, independent beings. Play is defined in many different ways. Parents, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and artists will all define play in different ways. Mark Twain, the writer, said that “Play and work are words that describe the same activity under different circumstances.”

For Howard Chudakoff (Children at Play, 2007) the kind of play that truly matters to children is what children do when they are not supervised by, or even in the company of, adults. Play is free, unstructured, spontaneous, independent, and it often defies or subverts adult rules and norms. Play is also fun, pleasurable, and rewarding in the present—if not, it’s not play. Adult organized activities and adult-produced toys that add an educational or utilitarian dimension to play miss the point and tamper with children’s autonomy, says Chudakoff.

For children, there is no “right way” and “wrong way” when it comes to playing—not according to adult logic and rules at least. They make rules as they go, explore, experiment with the environment (objects, situations, people) and progressively set patterns and protocols, i.e., make sense of the world around them. Adult control interferes with most of these natural processes, and children struggle to cope—because they will find ways to do the things that they need and want to do, no matter what adults think of those things, or how they may want to convince them otherwise… and they will learn the things they need to learn, even when adults may think something else would be better or more appropriate.

So, when a parent is concerned and feels responsible about what a child may become or accomplish, and how much they should do to help them become high achievers, to learn their letters before they enter kindergarten, get them all the available educational toys, and embark on a crusade to help their children succeed, the best piece of advice we can give them is, “RELAX! LET YOUR CHILD EXPLORE AND PLAY… AND PLAY WITH YOUR CHILD.”

One book that we think puts it all in perspective, and is well worth reading is “Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children REALLY Learn—And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less” by child psychologists Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff and Eyer. What the authors set out to do with this book is tell parents that, much like with the story of the man in the Chinese saying, who decided to “pull the plants to help them grow” and that ended up killing them, to try to hurry a child’s intellectual development doesn’t help at all.

According to the authors, children who are pressured early on to join the academic rat race don’t fair any better than children who are allowed to take their time. Their advice to parents is simply to take it easy and practice the 3 R’s of “Reflect, Resist, and Recenter." Children learn best through playing, because that is how they develop problem solving skills, develop socially and get creative. Memorization may turn a child into a parrot, but does it equal knowledge? Will it foster creative thinkers? No! Creativity, self-reliance, independent thinking and problem solving have really nothing to do with IQ tests and other test scores. Recent research on the way children learn and how the brain develops also helps Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff and Eyer debunk a number of myths and products that parents nowadays are led to believe are essential to their children’s development (if Baby Mozart rings a bell, do read this book).

The important thing to keep in mind is that learning just takes place naturally, and is mostly programmed through thousands of years of evolution, and parents are not guilty, nor failing their children, if they are not keeping up with all the latest fads and trends on how to turn babies and children into super achievers.

If you find yourself doubting your parenting skills at times, read this book and you will be taking a deep breath again and again as you turn the pages! There are lots of practical suggestions and guidance, and little experiments you can do with your child that will both help and amuse you. And if you know what Montessori is all about, you will find yourself repeating “Hey, this is Montessori!” and thinking that Dr. Montessori was truly an exceptional scientist and observer, to have been able to understand, more than 100 years ago, and without the means we presently have, what science, brain research, and child psychologists like Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff and Eyer are confirming today. No wonder Montessori keeps growing in popularity!


Series on Montessori education contributed by Mammolina Children’s Home Montessori Kindergarten
Photos courtesy of Mammolina Children’s Home Montessori Kindergarten

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