Does Montessori Rush a Child's Development?
How the Montessori approach capitalizes on the child’s readiness—as soon as he’s ready.
Children in a Montessori environment make stunning achievements. Infants as young as 6-months-old learn to drink from an open cup made from real glass. Toddlers as young as 18-months-old learn to put on their own coats and shoes. Preschoolers as young as 2.5 to 3 years old build the foundation of phonics and often read their first book by 4. Elementary-age students plan and arrange their own field trips to deepen their study of history, science, and literature, while middle and high schoolers use their knowledge, interests, and abilities to start their own businesses.
And it doesn’t stop there. Out of proportion with Montessori’s small educational prevalence to date, a startling number of successful professionals were former Montessori students—from the founders and cofounders of Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, to Nobel prize winning authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, bestselling musicians like Taylor Swift, and NBA champions like Steph Curry—many of whom credit their success to their formative Montessori education.
Because of the uncommon achievements Montessori children and former-Montessori adults reach, it is often assumed that the goal of a Montessori education is to rush a child’s development in order to garner a competitive edge.
Though it’s true that children in Montessori environments often gain knowledge, skills, and independence far earlier than their peers in conventional environments, it is a misconception to view this as the goal.
In reality, the purpose of Montessori education is to observe and understand the universal developmental needs of children, to remove arbitrary obstacles to growth from their path, and to empower children to achieve their full potential. The fact that the children achieve such stunning results through the support of the Montessori approach is a testament to the grandeur and potential of all mankind—and a tragic sign of how children are conventionally held back.
Montessori's Discovery of the "Normal" Child
When Maria Montessori first began working with children at the turn of the 20th century, she didn’t believe they had a secret capability that went undetected by adults. She, like nearly everyone, believed children were fickle, flitting from activity to activity with no ability to concentrate, that they required bribes to behave, delighted in disturbing silence, and loved to make messes.
And it was true! Montessori’s eyes did not deceive her, the observations of parents and teachers for millennia were not a mirage. Children, in the environments in which they were raised and educated, with the support they received, did exhibit these characteristics. However, as Montessori was soon to discover, these traits were not the natural, normal traits of childhood, but the distortions produced by inadequate environments and support.
When Montessori opened her first school in one of the worst slums in Rome, she had 50 malnourished, impoverished, and practically abandoned children all between the ages of 2 and 7 in a room, a “teacher” who was really the uneducated daughter of the building’s porter, a few rudimentary supplies, and the educational materials she had previously designed or adapted in her work with special needs children.
Yet, Montessori observed these children as a scientist would—as a keen observer intent to reach the truth behind natural phenomena. She was committed to looking beyond the common conclusions, shedding her preconceived notions, and really observing children afresh. In her observations, she was startled to discover children who exhibited abilities she never thought possible.
- Her first discovery was a 3-year-old who focused on an activity with the cylinder blocks, repeating it dozens of times amid the chaos of the classroom, without once getting distracted. Where was that fickle child who couldn’t concentrate?
- She observed toys accumulating dust on the shelf while learning materials were being worn from use.
- She observed children ignoring candy and other bribes in favor of the sweeter rewards of developing one's faculties.
- She observed children able to choose materials to work on independently, who delighted in keeping the space tidy, and who could focus for work periods three hours long.
- She observed the children spontaneously becoming self-disciplined, delighting in following orders that required them to use and grow their faculties.
- And most surprising of all, she observed a child as young as 3 or 4, teach himself to read and write with minimal support and guidance. This, from a child living in the slums, at a time when the wealthiest and best educated people in the world did not believe it was possible to educate a child younger than 6, and whose usual educational methods were so miserable, the trend was to push literacy education back even further, to 8, 9, or 10 years old.
Montessori could not believe what she observed at first. Yet, time and again, with children from every culture, race, and socioeconomic bracket she encountered, the same result would occur. The children would achieve self-discipline, launch their independence to the next level, and pour themselves heart and soul into knowledge worth learning and work worth doing. She had discovered the true normal child—the child as he was meant to be, shorn of any unnatural defects or unhealthy coping strategies.
The secret to her discovery? A specially prepared environment that meets the developmental needs of a child, capitalizes on his developmental interests, and empowers his independence.
An Environment Prepared for a Child's Success
Over time, Montessori iteratively designed the materials and setup of her classroom to meet the child’s needs. When she observed that a child had the ability to concentrate on learning materials and could learn something as abstract and complex as literacy, she set out to design materials that would give the child access, at his level, to the whole scope of human knowledge. She created materials, for example, to bring advanced math operations to the concrete level of preschoolers, the work of preparing food and washing dishes to toddlers, and the work of coordinating hands and bodies to infants.
In order to design these materials and the environment that would inspire and support the child, she carefully observed his developmental interests and needs. She observed the toddler who defiantly cried when he was prevented from doing things on his own—from dressing himself, eating independently, or opening a door by himself—and created support that would allow the child to practice these skills independently.
Toddlers in a Montessori environment, for example, are provided with dressing frames where they can practice using clasps, buttons, zippers, and buckles, and are taught a specific technique that allows them to put on their own coat independently.
At every stage of a child’s development, Montessori was dedicated to discovering what a child was naturally interested in and then designing a way to give the child access to that work. Her first classroom, called a Children’s House, was designed to be a space for the child to do the work of living and growing up. A space where furniture was sized to him, where he could reach all the materials and tools he needed to work, and where every material was intellectually delightful, challenging, and inspiring to him.
What's more, as the child proved himself capable of acting freely in an environment that was designed to meet his physical and mental needs, he was given tremendous liberty. With lessons on how to use the materials and individualized support, the child was free to pursue the materials and the work he most desired at any given time, to focus for as long as he wanted, and to practice until he achieved mastery.
Though the child is prevented from misusing materials or distracting his classmates, he is never forced to do any of the work. The Montessori guide (teacher), rather, sees it as her mission to entice and inspire the child to find the work that will captivate his interest. For all the work across the whole curriculum, therefore, the guide endeavors to carefully observe the child, understand his interests, and then introduce the child to a corresponding material that she thinks will captivate him at just the right time.
When done well, the child does not need to be forced to work—he greedily seizes the opportunity and resents any distraction or hindrance.
Once the child finds work that ignites him, in short, he grows to love applying effort to achieve new knowledge and skills. He goes to his guide for new work like a person stranded in the desert finding an oasis. Every hard-earrned success or sparkling piece of new knowledge gained in a Montessori classroom is not given to the child, forced on him, or bribed and wheedled out of him—it is achieved by the child himself through his own initiative.
If there is any “rush” to the child’s development in a Montessori environment, it is the rush of the child himself, on fire with the love of life—to discover new knowledge, hone new abilities, and craft his character to achieve everything he sets out to achieve. As educators on a mission to empower and support the child's development, should we quell his zeal and throttle his ambitions? Should we hold him back to match our preconceived notions of what a child of his age can achieve?
When the child has an environment designed to meet his needs, crafted to make success possible through his efforts, and filled to the brim with deeply engaging and rewarding work, is it really any surprise that the child achieves so much, and so much earlier than his peers? Is it any wonder that he does not remain idle, waiting for things to happen to him or for others to do things for him, but seizes every chance to grow, learn, and develop?
Is it any mystery that—from infants to business moguls—a person supported in this way believes he can achieve great things and takes the steps, applies the effort, and builds his knowledge so that he can?