On Choice: Part 1 – Offering Real Choices

Choice and the interrelated freedoms around it are a central part of Montessori environments and parenting. Over a series of posts we’ll look at the role of choice both in and out of the classroom. This post begins the journey by examining the importance of real, or authentic, choices.

Choice is integral to Montessori because it is a necessary component of respecting the child. Choice is empowering and important. Choice allows all of us, children included, to take ownership of ourselves and our environment. We often expect children to control themselves and make good choices, but we don’t give them the opportunity to practice either of these. If you want your child to learn to control their body, you must first allow them to move their body. If you want them to make good choices, you must give them practice making choices.

However, all choice is not equal. In order to reap the benefits of making a choice there are elements which must also be in play. One of these is the authenticity of the choice.

Often the “choices” we offer children are not real choices. Have you ever said something to the effect of, “If you don’t put on your shoes, you can’t go to school.” Let’s be honest, is that really what’s going to happen? If they do not put on their shoes are you all staying home for the day? Or are you going to just pop those shoes on their feet and scamper off to school? Perhaps you’re a negotiator,”I’ll tell you what, if you put your shoes on I’ll let you ….” Yes, we’ve all done this type of thing at some time or another. The point is simply to examine our language around the choices we offer our children and take time to think about whether or not we are offering real choices.

An authentic choice in the above situation would be, “Are you going to put on your shoes or would you like me to?” Or, “Are you going to put on your left shoe first or your right shoe?” (The second approach may require a follow up of, “I see you are not choosing which shoe to put on first. I will put your left shoe on first.”)

In order for your child to reap the vast benefits of offering choice-making practice, real choices are necessary. If a child is offered false choices, they learn that their choice is neither important nor valid. Furthermore, they do not learn the consequences (good or bad!) of making a choice.

Perhaps more profoundly in the parent-child relationship, false choices do not build trust. If we tell our children one thing but then do something else entirely, how do our children know what we mean? How do they know that the next time we really mean x or y?

When offering a choice try your best to mean what you say and say what you mean. Yes, this is a skill that takes practice! At times we avoid offering real choices in order to sidestep having to be firm with our children. Being perceived (or thinking we’ll be perceived) as “mean” can be difficult. However, the real kindness to our children is in honesty. The trust built on knowing that we mean what we say has a far-reaching effect for our children. It gives them a firm foundation on which to explore the world. It lets them see the power of their choices and actions. The boundaries and limitations which are inherent to real choices offer a security and consistency which nurture children’s growth.

Choice-making, specifically learning how to make good choices, is a learned skill. It takes practice which is why we seek to provide lots of opportunities for this practice. Offering authentic choices takes practice too. Go easy on yourself, reflect on what you’re saying and do your best to offer real choices.

With thanks to Melinda Smith and Rebecca Lev for the photographs.

Happiness and Learning…

“One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.”

-Dr. Montessori

Happiness is tricky, right? We want it for our children, but we also know that happiness alone is not the goal. If we strove only for happy children we would free our children from any discomfort. But the grit and resiliency built through challenge and failure offers greater contentment as an adult. So, instead of thinking of momentary happiness, let us look at happiness through the lens of contentment, fulfillment and deep joy – particularly as it exists in learning.

Stretching our knowledge and realizing our potential can be a source of joy and contentment. This is what Montessori classrooms provide for children. They prove fertile ground for the deep-seated happiness that comes through purposeful work.

Montessori environments consistently provide children with surmountable challenges. They provide work that children must stretch themselves to master, but which is not so far from reach that the child cannot be successful. Upper Elementary Guide Ms. Rebecca calls this “working on the edge of the cliff.”  Some educational theorists call it the zone of proximal development.

The zone of proximal development is explained using a model of three concentric circles.  The inner circle is that which the child knows and can learn completely on their own.  The outermost circle is that which is well beyond the child’s reach, that which the child cannot learn given where they currently stand. The circle in between is the zone of proximal development. In this space exists that which the child can learn with a little guidance. This is the magic zone where the child is pushed just beyond what they already know. It is the place where children can stretch themselves and  be successful.

The brilliance of Montessori classrooms is that the materials provide this zone for the child. They provide just the right amount of push.  The materials, along with the guide, provide a balance so that the child receives  guidance but also acquires knowledge themselves. The acquisition of knowledge is purely the work of the child – in combination with the materials. (Have you had this moment with your child’s guide where you tearfully thanked them for teaching your child to read, and they’ve calmly responded, “Oh, they taught themselves to read.”)

How brilliant to succeed at something that seemed just out of reach, but that we then find attainable through purposeful work. This is the Montessori environment. The happiness of the children in the classroom is the happiness of work, the joy of learning.

Photographic gems compliments of Melinda Smith.

Celebrating Diwali…

In honor of Diwali, we take a look back at the Elementary classes’ celebration last year…

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An important tenet of Montessori philosophy is the recognition of all of humanity as a part of a global family. The “global citizen” aspect of Montessori values the wide and beautiful tapestry of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and takes seriously the responsibility of raising our children to be open-minded and open-hearted. Part of this practice begins with introducing them to people from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, as well as the celebrations of such groups. On October 19th, the Diwali Hindu festival of lights began. Villa di Maria’s Elementary students were eager to celebrate.

Continue reading “Celebrating Diwali…”

Practical Life: Ironing

Continuing to build our understanding of Practical Life, let’s take an in depth look at Ironing…

Ironing is the culminating activity in a trifecta of Practical Life lessons. This series begins with Polishing, a lesson typically given earlier in the child’s time in the Children’s House. The cloths used in Polishing are then put in the bin for Cloth Washing. When they dry after being washed, they go into the basket for Ironing. Children’s House Guide Jessie Braud shares, “Ironing is the crowning piece of this three-part cycle. The child must be old enough and mature enough to be given the responsibility of working with the combination of water, electricity and heat. There is a definite pride in being given this lesson.”

The child prepares for the work by donning an apron.
Choosing a cloth. “Which one would you like to iron?”
The child fills the bowl with water to use on the cloths.
Then the guide and the child smell the lavender water which they’ll add to the bowl of water to give the laundry a lovely fresh smell.
Just one drop of lavender water is mixed in!
The child uses their fingers to sprinkle the lightly scented water onto the cloths.
The cloths are then rolled, allowing the fresh smell to permeate the cloths and providing the cloths with that slight dampness that is needed to produce just a little steam when ironing.

After plugging the iron in, the child must wait for it to heat. Here, Ms. Braud shares, they normally sing a song of the child’s choosing. When the child is later doing the work on their own, they can often be found singing to themselves at this time!

When the child and guide can smell that the iron is hot, they press it on the board to test it.
The guide touches the board where the iron was, “Yes, it’s hot.”
The child feels the heat as well. (You can see classmates looking on to this much anticipated lesson!)
The cloth to be ironed is unrolled and laid on the board.
The guide deliberately irons it, tending to the corners.
Guide and child both admire the product. A cloth with no wrinkles! How beautiful.
Now it is the child’s turn.

When finished, the child cleans up.
The ironed cloths are sorted, straightened and ready to use!

Many dismiss ironing as an outdated practice. But notice the child’s joy in this work. Let us not allow our views to hinder our children’s possibilities. Rather, let us allow their joy in work to kindle within us the willingness to partake and find meaning in our own work.

This story through pictures would not be possible without the skillful work of Melinda Smith. Many thanks Melinda.

Practical Life (An Introduction of Sorts)…

“A child tries to act like the adults about him, making use of the same objects. His activity therefore will be directly connected with his family and social environment. A child will want to sweep the floor, wash dishes or clothes, pour out water, wash himself, comb his hair, clothe himself, and so forth.”

-Maria Montessori

Cloth Washing in a fluid indoor/outdoor environment.

Practical Life constitutes some of the first lessons that children are given in the Children’s House. The children are drawn to this type of work. Even if the form is different, these lessons are fundamentally connected to the work they see the adults in their lives engaging in.

Handwashing. The water and soap are so appealing!

Practical Life is the work of independence. It begins at home with dressing oneself, putting on one’s shoes, feeding oneself. In the Children’s House the child is given the opportunity to grow these skills.

Vegetable Cutting.

How beautiful it is to see young children washing their hands, scrubbing tables and cutting vegetables. There is an inherent goodness to these activities. The work is purposeful and consuming; the outcome is measurable and satisfying; the children, as a result, are calm and centered.

Practical Life work expands as the child turns from activities centered around the care of the self (e.g., Hand Washing) to those that encompass the care of the environment (e.g., Table Washing, Sweeping). As young children more firmly develop their sense of self and begin to master those skills which enable them to take care of themselves, they can broaden their focus to include the world outside of themselves. Their interest in the environment is met with Practical Life work which involves them in the care of their surroundings. This is done in a way that builds their sense of ownership of the classroom as well as their role in the community

A child pouring water through a funnel and into a vase. Flower Arranging.

In Practical Life exercises such as flower arranging and ironing, the child’s care for the environment goes beyond necessities such as cleaning and food preparation and incorporates the beautification of the environment.

Plant Care. The child is washing the leaves of the plant to allow it to breathe and process sunlight more easily. A service to the environment on every level.

Practical Life does not end in the Children’s House. It continues to develop as the child’s relationship to their environment changes. Throughout the year we’ll delve deeper into the many aspects of Practical Life and examine how it evolves as the children move on to Elementary.

Thanks as always to fabulously talented Melinda Smith for her photographic skills.