I’m writing this at a campground on the coast of Queensland, Australia, where my husband and I are camping for a week with our sons. I’m writing by torchlight as everyone else is asleep.
As often happens when I get an idea for a blog, I just have to write it down RIGHT NOW and this was one of those moments. My fingers are itching to get it out.
In fact, I write all of my blogs at night when everyone else is asleep. I have a day job, two small children, a husband, a home to run. I’m sure you can relate!
AND I have a burning desire to write about MY burning passion – Montessori – so I often find myself typing away at 1am. But you know what? I love it. I’ve never felt so inspired, so alive. So wide awake at 1am! I’m usually a 9pm kind of girl (which probably has something to do with my children being 5am kind of boys!).
But not now. Now I’m burning the midnight oil because I’ve found by THING. My passion. My interest. So it doesn’t feel like work – not at all. It feels like fanning the flames of inspiration inside of me. I want to write more, tell you more, inspire you to love Montessori and understand it and tell you everything I know about it and the amazing ways it is transforming our lives.
And so it is for our children.
When they find their thing, the thing they have an overwhelming passion for, they are eager to learn. In the right environment and with the right guidance, there can be no stopping them.
The uninterrupted 3-hour work cycles in their Montessori classroom means they have learned how to concentrate for long periods of time. The ‘freedom within limits’ means they are able to choose what interests them – and pursue that interest for as long as it takes them to feel satisfied that their work is complete. That is determined by the child – not the teacher.
My son did a project on the platypus this year. Now, I don’t know a lot about platypuses (platypie? What is the plural?) – but I’m fairly sure they are unique to Australia, so those of you in other parts of the world may know even less than me, which is saying something.
They are an unusual Australian creature, but I have no idea why my 7 year old son has such an interest in them. But interested in them he is.
His project extended over a number of months and was far longer and more comprehensive that anything I did when I was 7. He researched the life cycle, the habitat, the anatomy, the growth patterns – you name it, my son can tell you about it if it relates to platypuses (I’m going with that for the plural – my son is asleep, I’ll ask him what it is in the morning).
A project of this magnitude would NEVER have been set for him – not by his Montessori school, or any other. But his enthusiasm is contagious (in fact, I wouldn’t have recommended asking him any platypus-related questions at that time unless you were in for a long chat – he’s a bit like me with Montessori, except his interest has passed to other things entirely these days).
I don’t know how many times he’d say over breakfast, ‘I can’t wait to get to school to work on my project’. He’d often be thinking of what he could research next, and the direction his project could take.
I understand passion like that. I’m living it right now.
You know, he didn’t do that project to get a good grade (there are, of course, no grades in Montessori) or to get a higher ‘ranking’ or a gold star or a ‘student of the week’ certificate. Dr Montessori specifically excludes any of these extrinsic rewards in her methods. He did it because he wanted to. Because he was encouraged to pursue his interests. Because he was in the driver’s seat, so he could take ownership. Because learning something new and the sense of satisfaction he got when he decided the project was complete, was enough for him.
In fact, a ‘gold star’ would have somehow cheapened the process. Put the focus back on the teacher and her arbitrary determination of whether the project was ‘good’ or not.
It was good because he made sure it was good.
Having an understanding of Montessori, I know that my son was in what Dr Montessori called a ‘sensitive period’ for learning – in this case, about platypuses and directing his own project.
A sensitive period is a time when a child’s brain is urging him to learn a particular skill or pursue an avenue of knowledge. The child shows an intense interest for a period of time, and it’s critical that this interest isn’t dampened in the name of adult-determined schedules. It is a natural state of being for the child, and other than standing back and letting it happen without interruption – and providing guidance only when asked – it’s not something we can control.
It’s much like we couldn’t control when our child first stood up, or walked for the first time. Their concentration seems almost effortless.
As Trevor Eissler says in his book, ‘Montessori Madness’:
“It’s a magical sweet spot in a child’s development where a variety of factors meld together to smooth the way for the acquisition of some skill.”
Dr Montessori understood this and it is one of the reasons why letting children choose the work that most appeals to them in any given moment is so important. It’s why having one teacher out the front of a class of 30, requiring every child to do the same thing for the next 40 minutes before a bell goes and they are expected to move classes, and topics, at the drop of a hat, actually impedes concentration, rather than encourages it.
With my son, his guides supported him along the way and gave advice when asked. He told me he learned how to Google when one particular sought-after piece of information proved elusive.
But it was his project, undertaken in his time frame, and the concentration required to see it through was only possible because of the 3-hour uninterrupted work cycles in his Montessori classroom.
Having studied the Montessori philosophy, we are now consciously adopting the principles in our home life, and the difference is remarkable.
My 7 year old son got a massive Lego set for Christmas (a combined effort from the broader family, plus us). Although aimed at 14 year olds, my son had been asking for it for over a year, so we figured it better to get one thing he wants, rather than many small toys.
It has over 2,700 pieces and looked like a mammoth undertaking by anyone’s standards.
Way before Christmas, my husband and I decided we’d let him build his Lego on Christmas Day for as long as it held his interest. Not so long ago, we would have put a ‘reasonable’ time limit on that activity and then insisted he join the family for the rest of the day.
Now, we know better.
We took him to a separate room with the massive Lego box – and left him to it. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as engrossed in anything in my life.
We all popped in from time to time to see his progress, but he was on a mission.
He did come out for meals and toilet stops (and a family game of cricket at one stage) – and of course, to sleep. And after a 6am start on Christmas morning, he declared the project done at around 4pm on Boxing Day – looking very pleased with himself.
No tantrums, no tears, no attempts to direct his attention elsewhere, no dramas. No ‘keeping up appearances’ and demanding he come out on our timetable.
He’s very pleased with the final result and we’re rapt to witness for ourselves the high levels of prolonged concentration that his guides tell us he has at school (especially considering staying focused and on task was a challenge for him when he first started at school).
What a difference knowing this stuff makes!
Of course, the downside of giving children choices is that as adults, we have to give up control over the decisions our children make.
My son’s guide found that out the hard way only recently.
She told the class they could get a class pet and, as the class is a cohesive community, they needed to jointly decide on what that pet would be.
Looking after a pet is an important part of the Montessori curriculum. It teaches compassion, empathy, zoology, how to care for an animal. So I was not too surprised when my son told me that this was on the cards for his classroom.
But I was surprised by what he told me next.
There had been a class vote that day, he said.
Eight people voted for a stick insect, 5 for a scorpion and 1 person voted for a bird eating spider.
(Once again, I’m not entirely au fait with arachnids, but I’m fairly sure bird eating spiders are only found in Australia and they are huge and aggressive – so I wasn’t surprised it only got one vote.)
“Let me guess,” I said. “You suggested the bird eating spider.”
“Yes!” he said, surprised that I know him so well. “How did you know?”
“Wild guess. And obviously you were the only one that voted for it” I said, secretly pleased that he is brave enough to pave his own way and not follow the herd.
“Yes. But, we’re not getting a pet at all now,” he said.
“But why not? Didn’t the stick insect win the vote?”
“No – 11 people voted for no pet at all. Because it’s cruel.”
Fair enough, I thought. I guess Dr Montessori didn’t factor in the animal welfare movement so many years ago.
Then my thoughts turned to the guide who had obviously been hoping to teach the children about animal care, with possibly a smattering of projects on the mating habits of the scorpion, or the preferred habitat of stick insects.
Instead, this process proved to be more a lesson in democracy than pet care!
You see, that’s the thing.
We don’t know what the outcome will be when the child makes the choice.
It’s also why the child’s ability to MAKE a choice, rather than have it foisted upon them, is so important.
In a sensitive period for learning, the child is energised. They are eager to learn and their choices will be determined by their interests at that point in time.
Our job – as parents and educators – is to provide our children with the right environment and opportunities for it to happen.
You might be surprised with the results!
But what happens when a child consistently avoids a critical subject – such as maths? Will they end up missing this subject altogether?
I’ll address that scenario in my blog next week.
PS – I absolutely love reading your comments! Please leave a comment below. Do you think you can stand back and let your child concentrate without interrupting? Have you done it already and seen the results? I’d love to hear from you!
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