Tag Archives: maria montessori

Home Education: Learning independence through spontaneous activity

I am reading The Montessori Method (free ebook) by Maria Montessori.  At the root of her method is the idea that children will find things out for themselves and that they desire and need independence. By constantly doing things for the children the parent or teacher is undermining the child’s ability to learn those skills for himself.

She has an interesting view that those who require servants are lacking in ability. Her view that the person who needs help because he has a physical disability is no worse off than the prince who needs help dressing because of his social status.

We habitually serve children; an act of servility toward them, but it is dangerous, since it tends to suffocate their useful spontaneous activity.

She differentiates between true service of others, such has assisting them to reach the independence they need and servility which is unhelpful at best and demeaning at worst.

She decries the mother who feeds her child without ever attempting to model eating herself or to help the child learn to hold and co-ordinate the spoon.  I think there’s a couple of things that cause this problem – which still very much exists today – and one is fear of mess. I have seen mother’s who can’t abide the phase where the child is trying to self feed and makes a right mess of himself and anything within a few yards radius.  There’s an underlying fear of dirt, I think.

The other reason for insisting on feeding a child who wants to feed himself is that awful modern thing of being afraid the child is growing up and won’t be a baby much longer. I have seen mothers who, can’t stand the idea that their youngest child is no longer a baby and they have decided (often without a reason) that there can’t be another.

Montessori bluntly calls mothers who won’t allow independence “not a good mother.”continuing

She offends the fundamental human dignity of her son, – she treats him as if her were a doll…”


I have to say, however strongly Montessori words this, she isn’t wrong. I worked with a class of children aged 4 to 5 and then the next year up when they were aged 5 to 6 (just before I got ill) and was amazed that most of the children couldn’t dress themselves. I don’t mean difficult buttons or laces, I mean putting on underwear and pulling on a sweatshirt. They couldn’t do it. The post-PE shambles, of trying to get 30 kids dressed, was astonishing to me.

Montessori says;

Who does not know that to teach a child to feed himself, to wash and dress himself, is a much more tedious and difficult work, calling for infinitely  greater patience than feeding washing and dressing the child oneself?

This is true. I am much more able to get the children to do things themselves when I am more with-it than when I’m so tired it just seems quicker and easier to do it myself. But it’s a bad habit to get into and one that takes a great deal away from the child.

I remember my friend telling me how she had picked up her son’s friend from school one day (they were both 10 at the time) and on the way home in the car the friend announced proudly that at school that day they had learned to cut an apple with a proper knife. Her son was unimpressed as he made lunch most days, cutting and preparing fruit, bread and whatever else was required with the right knives for the job and had been doing so for some time.

Children who are allowed to be capable are capable. But it takes time and commitment from the parents – lots of time, lots of commitment, at least to begin with. But soon enough a five or six year old can do a lot for themselves and a ten year old can do a lot more.

If you take the time and teach your children to be independent in what they do, they will more quickly learn independent thought as well, finding things out for themselves and asking questions about what they find.

Montessori moment; from The Absorbent Mind on selective mutism.

I am reading The Absorbent Mind which is Dr. Maria Montessori’s seminal work, based on her lectures in India where she and her son Mario lived during the years of the Second World War. I am not sure how this book published in 1947 has become public domain so early, but I am truly grateful. This woman was a genius!  Her understanding of language acquisition outstrips science and her recognition of the child’s need for a respectful and loving relationship with his mother to enhance language is profound.

She said:

Mothers, and society in general, must take special care that children have frequent experiences of the best language. Let the child come with us when we visit our friends…especially where people speak with emphasis and clear enunciation.”

Ignoring this salient advice we have, as a culture, put our babies and children into institutions where they are surrounded by children of the same age and same lack of language skills. When they are not there, we put them in front of the TV for hours on end and then teachers in school complain that Reception aged children (4 to 5 year olds) can’t talk!

Montessori was years ahead of the research in noting that a baby and toddler’s relationship with his mother was the primary source for language development. We now know from lots of research that this is true.

But there is something else Dr. Montessori picked up on, which I think is very oddly ignored by professionals, and that is selective mutism.

I have personally met a number of children who stopped speaking in school. Some were so truamatised by their school experience they stopped speaking at all. Most of the children I’ve met now speak and behave as happy, well adjusted, loved children behave. They have put the trauma of school behind them and are doing really well as home educated children.   There are a number of reasons a child stops talking, and some are very complicated and do get professional notice. However, I think Dr. Montessori’s observations of mute children speaking in her Casa Bambini’s should receive some attention.

We have children in our schools of three and four years of age who had never spoken and then suddenly spoke. They had never even spoken the words of the two year old, they were absolutely dumb and then suddenly they spoke. By allowing them free activity and a stimulating environment they suddenly manifested this power.”

That fascinates me.

Of my six children, one had delayed speech. His speech was so delayed we were referred to a language therapist. The NHS being the way it is, the child’s age and need for language comes second to the waiting list system so we waited a very long time for the appointment. The fact that he was already diagnosed with Failure To Thrive, that catch-all dx for children who are sickly, don’t grow or put on weight and are struggling, was not considered. On the day the letter, with the appointment, dropped through the door my son picked it up, came up to me and said as clear as you like, “Mum, there’s a letter for you.”

You might shrug and say, “Well most 3 year olds could manage that sentence.” And I would agree – except he hadn’t managed anything like a sentence until that moment and then suddenly he was speaking, full sentences.


I don’t know. But I have a sneaky suspicion my son’s language problem was rooted in how I was parenting him. I did the exact opposite to the things that both Maria Montessori and Charlotte Mason recommended. Instead of spending loads of time with my son, I was sending him to nursery and working my socks off as a student and then newly qualified nurse.

I am not doing a guilt trip here. I had absolutely no other option at the time. We have built an economy on forcing mothers into work. Even now living on one wage is pretty challenging. But the fact is, he was institutionalised, and his language was delayed. Research does show a causal relationship.

While delayed language and selective mutism may seem quite different, there may be a link between them in that they are caused by separating the child from the adult he should be attached to, and forcing them into a group situation that is unnatural and unhelpful.

Montessori wouldn’t have her classes separated by yearly age, but had classes with children aged 3 to 6 and then 6 to 9 and 9 to 12.  The older children helped the younger children and an atmosphere of cooperation was encouraged.

Just about all home educators will tell you that educating our children in mixed age groups makes a huge difference to their language and social development. It’s been known for well over 100 years.

Maria Montessori’s Decologue

Maria Montessori and Charlotte Mason are like twin beacons of educational light shining into the darkness of the encroaching ‘Prussian’ approach which would see to the mass institutionalisation and depersonification of children.

Montessori wrote a set of rules to underpin the way staff were to behave and think of children in their care.

1. Never touch a child, unless invited to.  This is not some pc rule about fear of being sued. It is rooted in a recognition that the child is a person with personal space. Montessori didn’t like seeing children manhandled, rather than treated respectfully.

2. Never speak ill of a child whether in his presence or his absence. If only this rule existed in all schools. We’d have less of THIS. Again this doesn’t mean that difficulties cannot be discussed properly, but the horrible habit among some teachers of talking about children in a way that is down right nasty was not to happen.

3. Concentrate on strengthening and assisting the development of what is good in a child to leave less time and space for what is evil. Sadly this view of children is a bit un-pc these days, so children are not helped to understand the difference between right and wrong. The results are not pretty.

4. Be active in preparing the environment. Take meticulous and constant care of it. Help a child establish constructive relations with it.Show the proper place where the means of development are kept and demonstrate their proper use. This is one of those things that I hear more from autonomous home educators than anyone else. They work much harder, I think, than most of us in ensuring their children have an environment that is designed for them to learn in.

5. Be ready to answer the call of a child in need of you, and respond to a child who appeals to you. This rule is diametrically opposed to the spoon feeding approach demanded by the National Curriculum. Like Charlotte Mason, Maria Montessori wanted the learning and discovery abilities of children respected. We are to be there when needed. (Strangely for me and I believe other home ed mothers have this weird problem too – the children do not need you until you go to the toilet and then you hear “Muuuuuum!” It’s one of life’s little mysteries).

6.Respect the child who makes a mistake and can then or later correct himself, but stop firmly and immediately any misuse of the environment, and any action which endangers the child, his development, and others.

7. Respect the child who takes rest or watches others working, or ponders over what he himself has done or will do.Neither call him, nor force him to other activity. This is so important, especially for the child who needs to process quietly what he has learned. A child who is thinking of wondering is not lazy or unproductive. Space to have quiet time is very important, and I have never seen it or heard of it in schools.

8. Help those who are in search of activity and cannot find it.

9. Be untiring in repeating presentations to the child who refused them earlier; in helping the child acquire what is not yet his own,and overcome imperfections. Do this by animating the environment with care, with restraint and silence; with mild words and loving presence. Make your ready presence felt to the child who searches and hide from the child who has found. This rule must surely be based on the assumption of small class sizes. Silence and restraint are barely possible in a loud classroom of 30 children with tables and chairs scraping and screaming on the floors – with the rising noise of children trying to make themselves heard over the impossible noise around them and then of the teacher who must shout above it all to make herself heard. Some researchers discovered that the noise levels in infant classrooms could top 90 decibels.

10. Always treat the child with the best of good manners, and offer him the best you have in yourself and at your disposal. I am sure that those who treat children and adults they are assisting respectfully will receive the same in return.