The missing piece of the puzzle…

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It was a few years ago now and we were driving in the car, which is when my children seem to do a lot of their thinking and, hence, their question-asking.

“Mum,” said my eldest son. “You know how babies come from their mummies…well…how was the very first person ever born then?”

It’s one of the many things you don’t think about when you have children. Just how often you’ll be put on the spot with a tricky question that has you simultaneously thinking on your feet for an answer, while also thinking ‘this is one I should have prepared for earlier’.

There should be a book we can give new mums and dads when their first baby comes along “101 Questions You’ll Be Asked One Day So Get Your Answer Prepared Now Before It’s Too Late”.

I thought for a moment, and then I said:

“Well, there are really two different views on that. Some people think we come from apes – and that gradually over years and years and generations and generations, we have evolved to become the human beings we are today. That’s called ‘evolution’.

“Other people think God made the earth and everyone and everything on it – so God made the very first person as well. That’s called ‘creationism’.”


I wasn’t surprised, really. It’s a lot to take in when just minutes earlier we had all been enthralled by watching a seagull eat a chip at the beach while eating our ice-creams.

After a full five minutes or more, my son said, “Maybe the people that think we come from apes have read my book.”

“Which book is that?” I asked.

“My Tarzan book. You know, the one we read a few weeks ago about the little boy who lives in the jungle and is raised by apes because he doesn’t have a mum or a dad. Maybe they read my book and that’s why they think that.”

I was stunned.

I just find it SO fascinating how their brains work. How, even at the age of 3 or 4, children can synthesise what seems to be random pieces of information, and bring it together to give it meaning.

To make sense of their world.

In fact, children do that exact thing all day every day. Sometimes they are right, sometimes they are waaay off base and sometimes they are sort of on the money – like with the Tarzan story.

Tarzan is fiction, of course, but the notion that apes could raise a child as one of their own was, I’m sure, not a huge leap from evolutionist theory.

Now, this process of learning – learning by connecting – is well understood by educators of every persuasion, I’m sure. But for a Montessori parent like me, finding out what ‘learning’ means was quite an eye opener.

Most of us would probably describe learning as the ‘acquisition of something new’ – that is, to know something that you didn’t know before.

But Dr Montessori would disagree.

In her view, the act of learning was not about acquiring something new. Rather, her theories were based on the notion that our mind is constantly acquiring new information, through all of our senses, and that ‘learning’ only happens once we start connecting the dots and assigning meaning to that information.

Like pieces of a puzzle, this often doesn’t happen in a linear way. It’s more like – a couple of pieces joined together here, a bunch of the more obvious connections put together there, some edge pieces linked up because they’re the easiest over in the corner. And eventually – voila! The penny drops and we have our ‘aha moment’.

And then the final step is when we start to consciously apply what we have learned in everyday life.

For example, we start to use that new word as part of our regular vocabulary, or we practice building the binomial cube as we’ve gradually worked out that there’s a specific sequence that makes it work every time. Or, as adults, we use a newly learned technique when cooking that special dinner.

Or, even better than all of those, we teach what we have learned to someone else – the most powerful way of all of applying something new.

This three stage process is fundamental to the Montessori method, with early basic skills built upon as more knowledge and understanding is acquired. Cultivating intense concentration is needed for the first stage (taking in the new information in the first place – either piecemeal, over time, or step by step such as when a guide presents a new material); the ability to repeat an activity over and over is critical for the second stage (connecting the dots and assigning meaning, such as making the connection between the sound of a letter, and the actual letter of the alphabet) and purposeful activity, at the discretion of the child, is required for the third stage. This is when the child has the choice to incorporate what has been learned in everyday life – and use that knowledge as a foundation for future learning.

As I’m writing this I’m realising that this three stage process is exactly the same as the process I am undertaking to explain Montessori to other Montessori parents. The information I’ve gained has come from many different sources over the years, and I’ve had many ‘ohhhh, I see. So that’s why they do that’ moments where I connect the dots and see the theory play out in practice, either in a Montessori classroom or at home.

Initially, my research was just a personal project because I’m naturally curious and I wanted to know everything I possibly could about Montessori. But in sharing what I’ve learned with other parents, I’ve realised, there’s a lot to know and most parents don’t have the time to find out all of this! That’s where my ‘practical’ application comes in – when I think of a story that I can tell that will demonstrate what I’ve learned, hopefully in a way that is engaging and will resonate with you – another time-poor parent – I just have to put pen to paper and let you know about it.

So what does all of this mean to us Montessori parents? It’s great to know how our children learn, but how can we actually support this at home?

I’ve got good news for you. The answer is: you already are.

Our children are exposed to a myriad of information every day, just in everyday life and through normal conversations. And as all of the separate components of information are absorbed, their mind is already making connections.

And that’s when they’ll starting asking you questions.

The best thing we can do as Montessori parents – is encourage those questions. Thrive on their natural curiosity. Even when it’s their 100th question that day and it’s only 8am and you haven’t had your coffee yet and it’s SOOO tempting to brush them off with ‘that’s a great question for Daddy’ (because he’s already caffeinated and has a distinct advantage).

Don’t do it!

Observe them. Listen to their questions, really listen. Answer them the best you can using your normal language and vocabulary, and then help them find ways to consciously apply that new learning in their lives. It’s fascinating what they come up with!

Tell a story about that new concept with one family member saying a sentence each, draw pictures together, go on an outing, or invent a game. We’ve even built Lego airplanes with special ‘boxes’ underneath which is where all the poo goes – yep, that was one question from our 5 year old only recently! (He was kind of disappointed with our answer, I think. We went overseas last year and I wondered why we did so many restroom visits on the plane – I think he was picturing a spectacular waste-water fountain every time he flushed!).

And be prepared for their fabulous questions! (If they get really tough, there’s always Google…..).

Until next week,

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2 thoughts on “The missing piece of the puzzle…

  • It is interesting to question children, and listen to their reasoning. I recommend NEVER answering a child’s question, but rather encourage the child to answer his own, in his own way. All truth comes from within. So, use reflective language when a child asks a serious question. If a child asks “where did I come from?’ for example, just repeat back “Where did you come from?” If the child says “I don’t know” – then question further, where do you THINK you came from?” or “How could you figure that out?” You do a lot more good for children (and yourself) if you help children this way think through the answers for themselves.

    • Hi Lee. Thank you for leaving a comment! I totally agree that reflective language plays a part when our children ask questions and we certainly do that at home, too. Sometimes we will seek out the answer together as, of course, it does sink in more that way. But – I don’t aim to never answer my child’s question – as in my experience with my children, it depends on the context and the question. I believe Montessori is already terribly misunderstood as being extreme and I think it’s important that the ‘success oriented’ nature of Montessori is reflected when explaining Montessori to parents, rather than setting unattainable goals! The home environment is quite different to school and I think while some ‘pure’ Montessori concepts might work well in a classroom, a more moderate view is beneficial for parents, particularly if they are new to the philosophy. It can be good to aim high though and I appreciate you sharing your views. All views are welcome here as I believe the more we talk about Montessori, the more we can bust some the more harmful myths. Cheers, Chris

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