Dr Maria Montessori wrote that a child “wants to acquire a knowledge of his own, to have experience of the world, and to perceive it by his own unaided efforts.” A child needs independence and freedom in order to learn and grow, and it is our job as educators and guardians to enable that independence and freedom in a safe and effective manner.
The first thing to know about “freedom” in a Montessori classroom is that it is always freedom within limits. Children have the freedom to move, freedom of choice, freedom of time, freedom to repeat, freedom to communicate, and freedom to make mistakes. The limitations on these freedoms are they must have respect for themselves, for others, and for their environment. As such, children can move freely about the classroom using their walking feet, because running endangers themselves and their friends. They can freely choose their activities and change between them, but out of respect for their friends and their environment, they must always leave their materials as they found them. This creates a habit of responsible freedom and social awareness that stays with the child for life.
Independence is one of the ultimate goals of Montessori work, and it is a process that requires guidance and patience. Dr Montessori said it is the adults’ job to “help the child to act for himself, will for himself, think for himself,” and a big part of doing so is setting up an environment that is safe and encourages discovery and concentration. Independence is not letting a child do whatever she likes to amuse herself, but rather it is empowering her to make appropriate decisions about her time and conduct her work with little assistance.
But what does this all look like? Let’s take a peek inside our classrooms to see independence in action…
8:25 outside the mixed Nursery-Kindergarten class:
All the children unpack their bags, take out their water bottles and put their bags in the correct cubby. One by one as they complete this task they walk to the bathroom to wash up before going to class. The new child who is less familiar with the routine is helped by her peers, and the teacher is around in case anyone needs help.
9:00 inside the Nursery-Kindergarten class:
Grace decided to have her snack right away this morning. After scooping herself one serving of blueberries, eating, and washing her bowl, she looks around the classroom for an activity to start her day! She decides on the Practical Life dressing board that her teacher introduced her to yesterday. She takes it off the shelf and heads to the table where she practices buttoning and unbuttoning.
9:30 with the Playgroup class:
Ethan needs to change his diaper, so he takes his diaper from his cubby and goes with his teacher to the toilet. Ethan takes off his own pants, disposes of his diaper, but he asks for help when he gets stuck trying to put on his clean one. He washes his hands they head back to the class.
10:15 at the Pre-Nursery class:
Ivan just finished reading a book in the library and takes a seat at a table. His teacher asks him if he is ready to work on a new sensorial material, and he agrees. She is introducing a new concept to him today and shows him where on the shelf he can find this activity. Ivan fetches a floor mat and they sit together to do the work. When they’re done Ivan is careful to put it back where they found it and roll up his floor mat. Next week Ivan will be able to find this activity on his own and work on it with less supervision from his teacher.
10:45 in the Playgroup class:
Regina chose to work on threading big beads at the table with guidance from her teacher. She has been introduced to this practical life activity once before and her teacher is nearby to observe her progress. When Regina struggles the teacher offers another demonstration before letting Regina try it on her own for a while. Although she has not yet mastered the threading exercise, after 15 minutes she is ready to move on for the day and she packs up and returns the tray to the shelf.
The hardest part of independence is often on the part of the adult, to accept that a child’s development comes from environmental experience and to allow our child to explore independently and freely. Of course, independence and freedom take different forms depending on the readiness of each child. It is up to the adults to help them grow this skill in the appropriate environment. With guidance, patience, and appropriate limitations each child can have the self-awareness, social awareness, responsibility and confidence to work and move independently in the world.