When Dr. Montessori talks about the child's duty, she is not referring to chores, or homework, but rather to the inner construction that a child completes in his first six years of life. She refers to the child's work of forming his own personality, developing his intelligence, and learning to use his body. Because the child is what forms the man, Dr Montessori saw the child's inner development as the most important work he has to do, and assisting it as the most important work adults have to do.
One of the things that Dr. Montessori repeatedly uses as an example is language. The child is born knowing only how to cry, and then, by the time he is three, he can speak clearly and reasonably grammatically. For an adult to learn a new language fluently in three years, it would be very hard work even if the adult enjoyed it. The child, on the other hand, absorbs language from his surroundings without ever having had a formal lesson. He listens as an infant, he practices the sounds, and then he builds up the structure within himself before he ever starts to use it. We know that any given language is not inherent within a child because an orphan can be raised in another country and grow up speaking its language rather than his biological mother tongue. Therefore it stands to reason that the child absorbs what is in his environment and incarnates it. The example of language carries through even further because one never speaks another language as well or as naturally as one's mother tongue.
So, in practical terms, what does this mean for parents and educators? It means that we need to perfect the child's environment so as to enable him to do his work. Parents and teachers not only prepare the environment for the child, but live and walk as part of it – so we need to strive toward being what the child needs as well.
Montessori consistently says to get out of the child's way. She tells us constantly that his inner teacher knows what it is doing and all we have to do is remove the obstacles. But what are the obstacles?
Many of them we take care of without thinking. For example, a sick child cannot learn as well as a healthy child, and parents certainly make sure that their children stay clean and try to prevent them from getting sick. Parents make sure that their children have proper nutrition, and adequate sleep. So the physical concerns are already being met. What remains, then, are the opportunities for broad knowledge, hands on activity, and repetition. What we need to offer is a wide range of experience, from real life; very concrete ideas. We need to present them in such a way that the child can access them whenever he wants and use them as long as he wants. Now, obviously, we can't provide a farm whenever a child wants to learn about animals, but we can schedule a single visit and move into slightly more abstract versions like figurines, picture cards, and books. Then, after we help the child connect to the material, we do as Dr. Montessori suggested and get out of the way.
Lack of a material is just as much of an obstacle, though, and remember that adults are part of the environment. We are needed to show how to use the materials, to give language, and to help the child connect with other human beings in a socially acceptable way. For ideas about how to do that, read here.
Welcome to Montessori Moments, a blog written for Dynamite Montessori School in Cave Creek, Arizona. If you'd like to check out our school, please visit Dynamite's website.