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What is Montessori?

I get asked "What is Montessori" often. It's a reasonable question - I do claim the title of Montessorian. I founded a Montessori parent education center! In large part because there is SO MUCH to it, I find this question daunting in its size and scope. When it's asked of me, my brain darts around all over the place - wondering which answer will captivate the listener best. Or sometimes, I hone in on the area of Montessori I am particularly taken with that week.

One thing I enjoy about Montessori is the room for each person to have their own relationship with it. My definition will not be the same as someone else's - and indeed, my definition also changes somewhat from day to day, moment to moment.

I can confidently say I have never answered this question the same way twice.

But this is the definition I am working from when I am given the luxury of time, when I am not trying to sway someone to learn more with a quick 5 second summary.

The foundation of Maria Montessori’s philosophy is that children are worthy of respect. This fundamental respect in their humanity as they are right now - not for what they will become as an adult, but for their childhood self - dictates how we should interact with them in any space, whether it be at school or at home. We start with the assumption that children are good, they are motivated to learn, and they find joy in contributing to their community. Those baseline assumptions dictate how we prepare both ourselves and our environments, and it changes the nature of our interactions. We are no longer trying to mold our children into something specific. We recognize that they are creating themselves, and we have the privilege of observing and preparing the space around them for that growth.

Giving children respect guides the language that we use with them. It slows down the pace of our conversations, our walks, our interactions. It has us including them in the conversation from infancy. It leads us to providing real tools and creating opportunities for them to engage in meaningful work. It impacts how we respond when they have big emotions. We understand they are new to experiencing emotions and need help, not punishments. It gives us patience.

When we understand all children are intrinsically good, we can see their 'bad' behaviors as a means of communication. We seek to understand what they are telling us. We can respond to those underlying needs instead of the behavior we see, and when their deepest needs are met, those behaviors change. We can meet them with empathy and curiosity instead of anger or frustration.

When we understand they are motivated to learn, we see their actions as experiments. We understand they may have exhausted what they can learn from what they have available and need different materials. Or perhaps we will learn that we provided too many materials, leading to overwhelm. We can change their environment, allow it to slowly grow with them, and observe what they might want to learn next to stay one step ahead.

When we know they want to contribute to their community, we comprehend any ‘misbehavior’ when only given pretend work. We realize they need a real vacuum instead of a toy. That they would love to help cook breakfast in addition to using their play kitchen. Their first community is the family unit, and they want to help it! From the small child who loves putting items in the trash or recycling to washing dishes to helping feed the dog - the need to be and feel like they are a part of something, that their role is just as necessary as the adults’.

When we respect children’s intrinsic motivation to learn, we want to give them the tools to create themselves with as little interference from us as possible (while also giving them as much help as is necessary). Montessori lessons are self-correcting to allow for that autonomy, to give them that opportunity. In a classroom setting, the curriculum is out on the shelves, and the basic elements are always there and available so that each child can move through the work at their own pace. The respect for the child means an understanding that some will move through lessons quickly on their own, some will need significant support, some enjoy when friends help them, and some need a way to always tie their math work to another subject they like better.

Yet while the materials used in Montessori are lovely, I do not want to give the impression that they are all necessary, or that you have to own them all to be a Montessori home. The real test of a Montessori home is one that respects the child, that operates on the base assumption that children are good, want to learn, and need meaningful contribution.

I don’t think I have ever actually given that full explanation to anyone in real life, but I will continue to work on it! Now I’m curious - how do you explain Montessori?

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