Freedom. The ability to move around. Freedom to choose. Picking what activities to complete and in what order. This strikes fear into the hearts of many parents. Perhaps you think that the absence of control must certainly result in mayhem and chaos. Perhaps you wonder how this freedom thing could possibly work?
Whether at home or at school, freedom is an integral part of using the Montessori philosophy. However, this freedom shouldn’t cause you anxiety. It serves a purpose.
Children Need Freedom
Montessori focused on this concept of freedom, believing it is an integral need of the child. In her words:
“These words reveal a child’s inner needs: ‘Help me do it myself'”
After all, who hasn’t heard a small child declare “I want to do it ALL BY MYSELF!” Independence, or freedom, is the ultimate goal of children, Montessori believed. Childhood begins with learning to walk and speak, two of the greatest tools for achieving freedom. With these two abilities mastered, children can move about freely at their will and express themselves.
After learning these two important skills, children continue to be driven, as if by an inner teacher. They struggle to improve their fine and gross motor control, continue to master their own movements and improve their speech. Children, when given the freedom, spend hours jumping, balancing, picking up tiny objects, playing in the dirt, and imitating adults. And they find the most joy when permitted to use real objects for the tasks at hand, such as cooking with real utensils, washing real dishes, using art supplies, etc.
It was Montessori’s belief that this inner need that children have to master abilities is something to take advantage of. We can’t replace this intrinsic motivation. Perhaps for this reason she advocated for children, saying:
“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”
An Environment for Freedom
Despite this call to give children independence and freedom, Montessori also believed that children needed the guidance of adults. These guides or teachers must observe the child carefully and prepare an environment full of activities adequate for the child and his/her needs. In her words,
“To give a child liberty is not to abandon him to himself.”
While children may have an inner teacher, it is only allowed to truly develop if provided with the appropriate environment and materials for growth. Children use what’s at hand. If we, as Montessori says, abandon the child to himself, he may very well choose to play with little purpose or refuse to clean up after himself.
Children must not be abandoned to play in just any sort of environment. If we provide them with TV, iPads and flashy plastic toys, the child will use these. If we provide opportunities to be outside in nature and crayons for drawing with, the child will use these. And if we go further and also prepare lessons and learning materials for the child based on his needs and interests, the child will truly develop.
Freedom within Limits
However, according to Montessori, we’re not to force these activities and lessons on the child. As guides, we must follow the child. The child should be invited to activities and works that are appropriate and interesting. There must be options for the child to choose from. In the words of Montessori:
“Discipline must come through liberty.”
Within the Montessori environment, discipline exists in the form of following routines, using materials correctly and concentration. The guide teaches children how to follow the rules of the classroom and how to use the freedom they are granted. Children work freely, choosing from the different activities, as long as they aren’t interrupting or disrespecting others. If a child uses a learning material incorrectly, the guide redirects the child and reminds them how to use it correctly. However, if the child doesn’t begin using the material correctly, the guide removes the material and puts it away.
The routines and expectations of how children are to work in the environment must be clear and enforced. Yet, there is enough freedom within the environment that children eventually work independently, following the routines without a second thought. Montessori said:
“The greatest sign of success for a teacher…is to be able to say ‘the children are now working as if I did not exist'”
Freedom that Teaches
This freedom within limits serves a purpose. Children are self-motivated. They direct their own learning. The guides or teachers in their lives invite them to interesting activities that meet the their developmental needs. Apart from this, the children are free to choose and work as they please.
This teaches responsibility. Children learn the value of choosing an activity and concentrating on it. They are rewarded by the satisfaction they feel once they’ve completed or mastered it. The children don’t need to rely on an adult to force them to work or praise them for doing as they’re told.
The freedom that exists in the Montessori classroom or home is a freedom that teaches. It adds value to the life of the child and prepares them not only academically, but prepares them for life.