Obstacles to Growth and the Montessori Solution: Chapters 10-12

In this month’s blog, covering chapters 10-12 of “The Secret of Childhood”, we look at obstacles to growth for young children. What did Maria Montessori see as common obstacles to growth and how does a Montessori school go about addressing them?

Chapter 10: Obstacles to Growth

As our children grow, they gain the ability to act independently. They also gain the ability to cause trouble – or as we like to say at COMS, “exploring boundaries” (think chewed cables and broken dishes)! According to Dr. Montessori, it’s this ability to cause trouble that creates a conflict within us. On the one hand, we want to give our children the freedom to explore and grow. On the other, we’d like to keep them from wrecking our homes.

The interesting thing about this conflict is our self-preservation often operates under a mask. It is concealed under “the duty of properly educating one’s child.” Dr. Montessori’s first example of that is making a child sleep too much. This doesn’t seem like a problem at first since, of course, children need to sleep.

However, sleep can go overboard and become an obstacle to growth. “If a child is so alert and so quick to observe, they are not a ‘sleeper’ by their very nature. Imposing excess sleep deprives children of the opportunity to explore and grow. When we suppress that desire, we suppress their personality.

Even the bed itself can become a source of stress. “A child should be permitted to go to sleep when tired, to wake up when rested, and to rise when they wish.” A low bed makes it easy for the child to get in and out, and removes the danger that comes with falling out of bed.

Low beds also have the added bonus of letting the child get up and go to bed without any help or difficulty. This example illustrates how the prepared environment can apply to the home as well as the classroom.

Chapter 11: Walking

The next obstacle to growth stems from a test on our patience.

When we push young children in strollers or carry them on our backs, we are depriving them of the opportunity to practice walking long distances. Of course, the obvious difficulty is that letting our young children walk these distances requires that we move very slowly- and probably not in a straight line.

Unlike other animals, children are not born with an automatic instinct to walk. Instead they need practice, which goes far beyond their first steps. Luckily, children are eager to practice their walking. How exciting it must be to finally move around on your own!

Nonetheless, the child’s excitement to explore is kind of scary. We want to prevent them from wandering off or getting into something dangerous. As proof these fears are common, we need only look to Amazon. There are endless products to prevent too much wandering: strollers, play pens, and even leashes. Despite all these modern conveniences, there is no substitute for paying attention. 

Rather than pushing the child to the park in a stroller, it would be much better to take the time and let them walk there on their own two feet. According to Dr. Montessori, “a child between the ages of a year and a half and two can walk several miles and clamber up such difficult objects as ramps and stairs.”

My favorite example of this follows:

“I once knew at Naples a couple whose youngest child was a year and a half old. To reach the sea during the summer, they had to descend nearly a mile down a steep road that was practically impassable for wagons or carriages. The young parents wanted to have their child with them, but found it too fatiguing to carry him in their arms. The child himself solved the problem by walking and running the whole way down. Every now and then he would stop by some flowers, or sit down in the grass, or stand to look at some animals. On one occasion he stood fixed for almost 15 minutes staring at a donkey grazing in a field. Moving slowly forward in this way the child was able to descend and ascend the long and difficult road each day without becoming weary.”

Chapter 12: The Hand

In this way, children who are left free to explore can accomplish great tasks, little by little. Knowing that children learn through interaction with their natural environment, and knowing that we can learn about their process by observing how they interact, it should come as no surprise the importance that Maria Montessori placed on children’s hands. In addition to objects that the child can see and hear, they also need objects to manipulate freely.

Children take cues from the actions of those around them. More than pure imitation, they learn to use these actions for their own purposes. They are fascinated by our most mundane activities.

Between 1 1/2 and 3, they can be seen performing tasks, which make no sense to an onlooker using household objects. Dr. Montessori observed an 18 month old child carrying a pile of folded napkins, one at a time, to the opposite end of the room and back. This child performed their task slowly and carefully. By the time they were done, the napkins were, more or less, still folded and still in a relatively neat pile.

Other examples include carrying large objects, pouring liquids and repeatedly removing and replacing stoppers from bottles. If we were to assume the point of these tasks was to accomplish something, we’d be missing the point. 

We may want to step in and help, either to ease the child’s work or to save our carpet. However, these exercises are important for the child’s growth. In the Children’s House classroom we call these practical life activities.

So we’ve identified some common obstacles to growth, and their underlying cause. The solution, again, is a combination of understanding, patience and a prepared environment. Of course, nobody’s perfect, but every attempt on our part to follow the child nurtures their independence and feeds the child’s love of learning. Every step in the right direction brings us closer to where we want to be.

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