Why is Montessori So Focused on Independence?
Helping our children discover who they are, free from excessive pressure and interference, is so closely connected to their wellbeing. Independence is actively encouraged in Montessori from birth, but the ways in which we can encourage it aren't necessarily intuitive — and sometimes feel at odds with our safety instincts as parents. The tug and pull between freedom to empower and limits to protect is a balance we must navigate through every developmental stage.
Nurturing independence is an aim that every parent and educator values, but it can feel like a dominant focus in Montessori practice. Why is a baby free to move on the floor rather than contained in a swing? Why is there a toddler using a real broom to sweep their classroom rather than playing with pretend toys? Why is a second grader managing their own academics rather than following the teacher? How is it possible that an adolescent has time to start their own business?
Montessori education emphasizes independence as much as the child shows interest and readiness — not at the adult’s expectation. Independence is motivated by the child’s natural drive to learn, and this drive ebbs and flows with distinct purposes over time. It’s the adult’s job to respect this drive by carefully preparing conditions which remove obstacles along the way:
- Infancy (0-6)
Functional Independence: In the first period of life, children are fixated on learning what things are and how they work. Infants are adapting to their surroundings in a physical and factual sense, while building their own sense of self as a capable and valued human being.
Catch phrase for this period of development: "Help me do it myself."
- Childhood (6-12)
Intellectual Independence: School-aged children experience a major shift from how does this work? To why are things like this? Independence is no longer just about doing things for themselves, but in thinking for themselves.
Catch phrase for this period of development: "Help me learn it myself."
- Adolescence (12-18)
Social Independence: This third stage is often dubbed the “parallel” to early childhood. In the same way that toddlers and preschoolers are drawn to real-life activities over academics, adolescents experience a desire to experience real-life work beyond the bounds of classrooms as well. This time, it’s in the context of figuring out who they are and how they fit into the world outside of the family unit.
Catch phrase for this period of development: "Don’t tell me what to do."
- Maturity (18-24)
Moral Independence: Montessori found that development is still happening in these years, and that it doesn’t arbitrarily stop at age 18 in the way it is culturally framed. This is a time when the young adult seeks maturity and financial independence in order to discover their place within the world.
Catch phrase for this period of development: "What should I do?"
Below, we’ll break down the idea of independence from the child’s perspective, and address some common misconceptions along the way.
"Help me do it myself" (0 to 6 years old)
One moment it seems we are doing everything from diaper changes and feedings, only to blink and have a toddler proclaiming, “I can do it myself!” The capabilities escalate rapidly in this period, but each milestone comes from the same inner need: they want to discover things for themselves!
In Montessori, this is supported with an emphasis on helping them make real-world connections without excessive interruptions. Yet, freedom to explore more of our natural environment often conflicts with parenting pressures to filter our toddlers’ first experiences in order to keep them as safe as possible. We may skew towards introducing cartoon illustrations over real imagery, plastic materials over breakable, pretend activities instead of invitations to join everyday work, and we may even avoid sharing factual information with distraction over honesty.
So, when we see a Montessori toddler already washing their own breakable snack plate, or a kindergartner processing a factual conversation about death, it can trigger misconceptions towards Montessori rooted in, “Aren’t they too young?”
Myth: Montessori rushes independence
Truth: Young children are far more capable than society assumes
At the root of this myth is an overarching belief that young children can’t yet be trusted to learn processes that come with risk — like carrying something that could break, moving where they could fall, or using a knife to slice vegetables that could hurt their fingers. This is rooted in love. Our protection instincts ring strong, but often this leads us to overreach. If we overreach perpetually, we become the driver of their learning — creating dependencies that boomerang back to us as they get older.
So much of the child is formed by age six, and so Montessori challenges us to question our interventions because our interventions become their inner voice. Demonstrating our trust in their own desire to try for themselves solidifies a foundation of curiosity, motivation, and confidence that will boost independence for a lifetime. Too many “Be carefuls,” could become “I shouldn't try this.”
How do we justify this level of trust when our protective instincts might get in the way? By understanding how they learn. Young children are biologically wired to enter the world as scientific explorers thanks to the "absorbent mind," which enables them to process information at an unprecedented rate. It is a “superpower” that begins to fade after age six. Waiting to offer real experiences that may come with some level of risk is counterproductive to skills like body awareness and the ability to plan that keep them safer in the long run.
At Guidepost, trust is built through our carefully-prepared environments, where each classroom promotes freedom of choice. Even a baby can self-discover, rather than be contained, when the space is made entirely at their level and with their interests in mind.
But wait ... doesn’t this early emphasis on real “work” stunt creativity?Independence and practical skills are not the antidote to creativity; they are the precursor to creativity
When you see a Montessori preschooler mopping the floors of his own classroom, you are not witnessing a child who has been authoritatively “put to work.” You are witnessing a child who is challenging your adult perceptions of what “play” means. Play is anything that the child chooses, and sometimes that looks like exploring real things that have tangible outcomes — not just a world of pretend.
Montessori families and educators call play “work” because of the respect it implies towards the child’s chosen interests. A child who is building a sand castle experiences the same type of engagement when they are window washing. To them, play is work, and work is play. In addition, Montessori advocated for us to value their chosen work as deeply purposeful, not frivolous. This drive towards meaningful engagement is why the novelty of a pretend kitchen typically wears off quickly, but the joy of getting to cook real food fosters much longer-lasting engagement.
To us, we look at window washing differently because we do it for the outcome: it needs to be clean. When a child does it, it is for the sake of process: I wonder how this works, and I want to find out!
By not hindering their reaches for practical activities like this, it leads to greater creativity, not less! Montessori found that a child who has been given time to process what is real tends to explode into more imaginary, abstract ways of thinking next, which typically comes at the elementary level.
It’s more accurate to say that Montessori is patient with creativity, understanding it takes time for the child to move from concrete thinking to abstract. This is why our Guidepost early childhood classrooms don’t contain pretend or fantasy toys, but instead offer unrestricted access to natural, real-world exploration — preparing them for more complex and imaginative ways of engaging in their next stage of development.
"Help me learn it myself" (6 to 12 years old)
No longer seeking physical order in pursuit of how does this work? The elementary child craves mental order in pursuit of why, and is there another way?
Independence in this stage is less about mastering movement and physical capabilities, and more attuned to reasoning, comprehension, morality, and community. This is the period when they most crave rich, academic knowledge. We may see a child who is a bit messier, a bit louder, and a bit more concerned with a sense of justice and fairness. It’s all related to this need of wanting to tackle bigger-than-themselves questions and gain cultural awareness and understanding.
Myth: To think independently, students must work independently
Truth: Intellectual independence is highly social
Unlike the early years of parallel play and egocentrism, elementary kids are wired for collaboration. This goes against the traditional education system, where socialization is often prematurely forced in the early years and ironically followed up in first grade with the expectation to sit for longer periods, study, and test in silo.
In Montessori, the reverse is true. Children work independently in the early years when they are building their sense of self, and then they enter their academic years as social learners. It is a natural part of questioning why, which is better answered when children can swap ideas, challenge these ideas, and problem-solve cooperatively — just like the real workforce they will eventually enter.
At Guidepost Elementary, student-led group learning is the norm, and unrestricted work periods replace adult-led hourly schedules. This difference in daily structure means learning is more personalized, and deep dives promote greater retention of knowledge, eliminating the need for excessive homework, testing and quizzing. This is a time to lend the child more freedom in their learning, not to presume greater control over what they learn and when.
But wait ... how do you foster motivation in a child if they aren’t held to individual assessments?
They are held to individual assessments, but instead of this being defined around rote memorization skills through tests and quizzes, it is defined around executive functioning skills empowered by the student-led model. When children aren’t competing for scores, they have more time to learn how to learn. They develop their work ethic, not just their performance. They harness the ability to evaluate their own work as a normal part of the process — not just when someone else evaluates it for them by way of a grade.
Executive functioning skills are key to independence. They refer to things like ability to plan, to manage one’s own time, to execute and follow through, and to put in place organizational skills. The more agency and responsibility the elementary learner is given to think for themselves and with their peers, the more they will leap into adolescence equipped to tackle deeply personal questions of who am I, and what am I capable of?
"Don’t tell me what to do" (12 to 18 years old)
Teenagers are often misunderstood and under-estimated, just like toddlers. Interestingly, in both of these periods, academic learning is not the priority like it is in elementary. Both teenagers and toddlers are intrinsically drawn to life skills and real-world application. Unlike toddlers, though, it’s not motivated by discovering their sense of self — it’s to discover their “social self,” or who they are and what their identity is outside of the family.
This shift in priority can feel like a regression if we are stuck on learning as linear. When we assume learning merely trends upward, we are more likely to over-emphasize their academics at the cost of honoring their social and emotional growth. Figuring out their place in this world is no easy feat, and it’s so much bigger than “college prep.”
Myth: Teenagers need more structured responsibility
Truth: Teenagers need more downtime and autonomy
High school feels like the last stop before we send our children off into the “real world,” so we can get fixated on throwing more responsibility towards them in the hopes that we are preparing them for higher education and an eventual career. This can backfire, and suddenly we’re met with, “Don’t tell me what to do!”
Add in the physical changes they are experiencing, during which they require more sleep, and we can suddenly worry that they are not where they are supposed to be — so we keep trying to structure their days for them, fueling more conflict.
Teenagers can be trusted with responsibility, but they most need autonomy. For the first time, they’re trying to make strides socially. Building independence is rooted in building their identity at this stage, and the more we try to control what they should be doing — or who we think they should become — the more we hinder their ability to uncover their own potential.
But wait … is there even a such thing as a Montessori approach to middle and high school?
While it’s true that Montessori education was founded more fully on early childhood and elementary, it is a lifelong learning path and always has been. Our own curriculum developers are putting more thought than ever into Montessori pedagogy from infancy through adulthood. This includes developmentally appropriate middle and high school, where social independence isn’t treated as a power struggle but is embraced as a normal part of learning.
Academy of Thought and Industry has re-imagined middle and high school on this premise. Learning is mixed-age, self-directed, and there’s no artificial distinction between “school” and the “real world,” since students can learn through real work in their communities built upon their own unique passions.
"What should I do?" (18 to 24 years old)
First, we nurtured our babies out of our arms and into their first steps. We watched them discover how to move and how to care for themselves by preparing their environment in a way that activated curiosity, purpose, and the beginnings of trust.
Then, we stepped back in awe of our children’s insatiable drive for knowledge. We listened to them think, create, and question the status quo.
Next, we mustered the courage to surrender control so that our teenagers could unapologetically own their passions outside of our homes, finding their footing socially.
If all has gone well, this first period of adulthood from 18 through 24 will be marked by moral independence. This is when functional, intellectual, and social independence come together to help answer, “What do I have to give to the world?”
And this is the long view of independence — to help a child become the person they are meant to be — not just for themselves, but for the advancement and betterment of humanity.
Jenna is a trained journalist and writer whose parenting journey transformed after implementing Montessori at home with her three children. She is a passionate advocate for bridging Montessori to the mainstream as a means to build community, empower parent-child relationships, and honor learning as the lifelong journey that it is. She holds a Montessori in the Home certificate from The Prepared Montessorian.
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