Montessori education can spark a variety of responses in people. Maybe when you told friends and family that you enrolled your child in a Montessori school, they praised the philosophy for its focus on independence and responsibility. Maybe you were met with a polite, “Oh that’s nice, but I heard Montessori doesn’t allow play,” or “They get to do whatever they want and I want my child to have structure and rules.”
To many, Montessori education is so foreign from the traditional education that they experienced as a child that people write it off as too bizarre, too curly, too this, or too that. Even the most well-intentioned parents can hear a Montessori catch phrase and run with it in the wrong direction, without the full understanding of what it means.
Montessori education has been in existence since 1907, when Dr. Maria Montessori used her knowledge as a medical professional paired with her scientific observations of children around the world to develop an educational philosophy that meets the developmental needs of all children. The philosophy is rich in guidelines, procedures, and materials, while simultaneously providing space and opportunities for the adults to “Follow the child.”
“Follow the child” could possibly be the most recognizable of her quotes, as well as one of the most open to misinterpretation.
So, how do I explain “Follow the child,” and what it means to me?
Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean:
• Follow the child off a cliff.
• Disregard common sense.
• Let the child rule the roost.
• Be a passive adult.
• Create a free-for-all environment.
Then what does it mean?
• Establish routines and structure with room for flexibility.
• Offer loving and firm support.
• Allow time for self-reflection.
• Foster opportunities for growth through struggle and mistakes.
• Provide freedom within limits.
• Permit opportunities for expression using limited choices.
But, Ms. Liz, what does that mean?
It boils down to data collection. We need to be detectives, collecting information to put the puzzle together and asking ourselves, “What does this child need from me right now?” Adults must follow the lead of the children in order to provide the next challenge, the next milestone, the next experience in the child’s development. We use the knowledge to give them the environment, materials, experience, and language to meet those needs that are driven from within each individual child. We assess the situation to include answers to:
• What is safe?
• What can I do to support what they need without doing it for them?
• What is the emotional component?
A child wants to run toward the road. We don’t follow the child into the road; we evaluate what the child is trying to show us in that moment. Perhaps they need:
But they also need:
They want to run. So give them a place to run that not only allows movement and freedom but also offers safe boundaries.
It is difficult work to “Follow the child”; to continuously observe, reflect, and be curious. But it is also incredibly rewarding to watch children grow based on what they show you. In my younger years, as a new Montessorian, I often held tight to the rules and guidelines provided in training. If a material is not meant for the classroom, it doesn’t enter the classroom. If I picked a space for a material in the room, I certainly didn’t move it to another space in the room to maintain a sense of order. As I become more of an experienced Montessorian, I provide flexibility when the children show me that they need it.
As many of you may have noticed, the room has changed … a lot! One day it looked one way and the next day everything was in a new spot. Moving all furniture and all materials three weeks into school within a toddler classroom would have been unthinkable to me—a totally disastrous move—until the children showed me otherwise. Training centers would advice against it. I would have advised against it, but the layout wasn’t working for the children. I was nervous, but I also believed it was what they needed.
It was. Everything fell into place. It made sense to the children. They needed the newness of a reset environment. That worked this year; maybe next year they will need something different. That is the challenge and beauty of “Follow the child.”
Ms. Liz and Ms. Yudis