Fun, voluntary repetition that develops mastery of complex skills. Amber Pawlik



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The Montessori Method: Intellectual Gymnastics

I have to come to think of the Montessori Method as intellectual gymnastics. In the same way practice makes perfect in sports, so practice makes perfect for intelligence.

The main guiding principle of the Montessori Method is that people learn by doing. In a Montessori classroom, there are no classroom lectures directed at all students but rather the children are free to walk about the classroom. The children do activities of a very specific sort. Montessori developed this didactic material after many trials with children.

Montessori writes that when these materials are in the hands of someone who knows how to apply them, they produce remarkable results. But if in the hands of someone who does not how to apply them, they do not attract the children's attention. This article is meant to outline, as succinctly as possible, the Montessori Method so a person knows how to use them.

This is part of a series. This article describes the overall philosophy. The next article (part 2) will describe the order that the sensorial, math, and language material are presented to the children. The final article (part 3) will be a simple list of all material with detailed description about how they work and will include inexpensive alternatives that can be found in most households or in most stores. In these articles, there is also a special emphasis on how the principles can apply to a very young child, around 15 – 24 months, which is just slightly before the age that students would typically enter a Montessori school.

Although the materials designed by Montessori are specially designed and important, I have come to see the material as less important, with understanding the method as much more important. It is the method that Montessori presents, which I will outline in this article, that is the genius of it. If you are on a budget and/or don't have access to some of the material, you can still use the principles effectively with your children.

Like in training for sports, in the Montessori Method, the learning of complex skills gets broken up into simpler skills. For instance, in learning to write, children are not handed a pencil and expected to start writing. Instead, it is broken up into two component skills: holding a pencil and knowing the shapes and sounds of letters. Constructing simple words via phonics is also taught so that the child will know what to write, after they have mastered the other two skills. To learn how to master a pencil, the child makes an outline around a metal pattern similar to a stencil with a colored pencil, which they then color in. They thus learn how to master a pencil without the pressure of writing a letter correctly—and in a fun way. They learn the shape of letters by tracing letters made of sandpaper. While doing so, the teacher says, "This is [the sound the letter makes]." They construct simple words using the same sandpaper letters they used to trace the letters or the movable letters designed by Montessori.

The children practice these individual activities over and over again. In doing these activities over and over again, the skill becomes automatic. Like how an adult does not have to consciously think about walking—they just decide they want to walk and do it—so the activities that the children practice become automatic and subconscious. Interestingly, the directress (the teacher) never prods the child to write. After mastering all 3 skills, about one week later, the child usually looks at a pencil and a piece of paper and realizes that they can write. It happens spontaneously, on the child's own initiative.  

What is striking about all Montessori activities is how seemingly simple and easy an activity is, all the while preparing the child for something complex. The children are, whenever possible, allowed to sit in a comfortable position while working on an activity. Isolating out component skills is done to make it easier to learn the skill. Hence for instance, when learning how to button a button, such buttons are put on a wood board such that the child can practice them. I am keeping some of my son's old clothes instead of giving them away, so that I can mount the on a piece of wood or cardboard so he can practice buttoning, zipping, and other dressing skills later.

With every new skill that my son develops, I make an attempt to remember to break the complex skill up into component skills. It is something to constantly think about as the first few years of life are filled with many developments. As an example, when my son started to learn how to wash his hands, he had trouble turning on the faucet. To break up this skill into component parts, I used a sink that was in the middle of a counter, let him sit in it with just a diaper, and let him practice with the faucet. In this way, he was seated comfortably, free to turn on the faucet at will, with no pressure. Or, when learning how to use a real cup, instead of just handing a child a cup, let them practice filling and pouring water into and out of a cup, perhaps in the bathtub, with no pressure to drink the water. In this way, they get used to how quickly water flows out of a cup, which is one of the biggest challenges of drinking out of a real cup. 

As again similar to sports, it is the repetition of these activities that develops mastery, and it is this repetition that is fun for the child—not the final product. As Montessori writes, it is a source of pride to complete the activity, then start all over again. While at a park once, I wondered out loud why my son was always going up and down the stairs to the slide but never going down the slide. My husband, who had remembered Montessori's advice better than I, responded "Because he can."

It is sometimes a mistake that caregivers make to think that if a child can do something already, why have them do it again? Instead, let them do this enjoyable activity over and over again. This voluntary repetition is the heart of these intellectual gymnastics. This is something I have totally embraced as a parent. I present an activity to my son that I am fairly sure he can do. When he does it well, we both take enjoyment and pride in his accomplishment. We then do it over and over again, as much as he wants.

This approach was really important to language development. My son had an intense interest in picture books starting around 14 months and had an explosion in language understanding around 18 months. At first, when working with picture books with him, I would too often ask him to point to a picture I knew he would have difficulty with, rather than ones I knew he knew well. He usually left the activity shortly after this. After reading Montessori's thoughts, I instead asked him to point to pictures he would know and let him take enjoyment in this over and over again.

The author of the book My Toddler Talks, a book specifically about language development, says, many times, that too often parents ask too many questions of their children. The author advises to temper questions by saying 3 comments for every 1 question. I believe this sentiment is quite in line with the spirit of Montessori and my own observation to not ask too challenging of questions. However, instead of tempering question with comments, I have chosen a different solution. I think by "questions," the author means questions that are more like quizzes. The child is asked a question they probably don't know well in an attempt to supposedly challenge them. Instead, I think it is possible to ask as many questions as you want, provided they are not of the "quiz" variety. I can easily ask a dozen questions of my son, all in a row, provided I know that he likely knows the answer. I have done away completely with questions that are of the quiz variety.

To challenge my son in a healthy way and build his vocabulary, I took a cue from Montessori and used the 3 stages of learning that she presents. First I point to a picture and say what it is (Stage 1). Then I immediately ask if he can point to that object (Stage 2). Then, after much practice, I may ask him "what is this?" where he tells me what it is (Stage 3). I often jumped around in the stages as I read to my son, based on how well he responded during a particular reading session.

If at any time he doesn't respond as expected, the lesson ends. The directress (or in my case, parent) is discouraged from repeating the lesson, as it was already given. Doing the same thing twice in a row will not likely get a different result. In this way, the child is not pushed to do something they have demonstrated that they are not ready for. This is always something to keep in mind with every new skill: If they are not responding to the lesson, the lesson ends. Simply try it at a different time.

In approaching the learning of vocabulary this way, my son learned new words easily. It is a very simple and straightforward way with no tricks, tests, or needless complexity. Notice that in Stage 2 that the child physically points to (or retrieves) an object. This again is learning by doing. When watching my son point to pictures, it was indeed as if physically touching the object downloaded the idea of the object directly into his brain. In Stage 3, the child must say the word with no option given at first of what it might be. This helps to develop verbal language.

One of the greatest aspects of the Montessori system is how children develop skills spontaneously. I was thrilled when, after reading many picture books with a moon in it, my son would, on his own initiative, point to the real one and say, "Moon!" In fact, he seemed to catch it right when the sun set and it was first visible. Using these stages of learning caused my son to be a very astute observer of daily life.

I contend that this spontaneous learning is "Stage 4" of learning. Montessori writes of exercises to aid in this spontaneous learning, such as memory games, which will be discussed later. These 3 stages, Montessori writes, are integral to spontaneous learning, as it gives the child a very firm, exact nomenclature. Thus the stages are:

1.       Point to an object, say what it is.

2.       Ask the child which one is [name]

3.       Point to an object, ask the child what it is.

4.       Child, on their own initiative, points to an object and says what it is.

For many concepts, in the first stage, it is necessary to present at least 2 or more objects. For instance, if presenting two colors, if you point to an object and say "This is blue," they may not know what characteristic of the object you are pointing to. Instead, have two completely identical objects present and point to one and say "This is blue," and point to the other and say, "This is yellow." Keeping all attributes the same except the one being taught is a key Montessori principle. It is best to at first present the most strongly contrasting of the attributes at first, such as the colors red and blue, which contrast more strongly than red and orange.

Also, when it comes to the attributes of objects, Montessori writes that before telling the child the name of the attribute, it is best to have the work with the attribute. For instance, with colors, it is best to have them play matching games with colors, developing their awareness and interest in colors. Then after this, present the names. Indeed, I found that it was not until my son could do these matching games that he developed the vocabulary for colors. I found magnets to be a very good learning tool. We had circular magnets of different colors that I arranged on a low position on my refrigerator for him. At 23 months, he was able to put identically colored magnets in lines. It was at this age that he was able to follow the 3 stages of learning for colors. Thus when learning an attribute of something, the stages of learning are:

0.       Doing the sensorial activities

1.       Present two strongly contrasting objects to a child, explaining what each is, e.g., "red" and "blue."

2.       After a few moments, ask the child to retrieve one or the other, e.g., "Give me blue."

3.       Point to one or the other and ask the child to name it.

4.       Child, unprompted, spontaneously points to something and knows what it is.

When I used this approach to teach colors, my son again would see colors, spontaneously point to them, and say, "This is green!" How wonderful it is to see your child voluntarily challenging himself to name the color of objects all around him!

To promote this spontaneous observation of daily life, Montessori also has the children do memory games. For instance, with the color tablets, the directress may show the child a particular color tablet and ask the child to retrieve its match in the next room. The child must remember the task at hand while going to the next room and retain what the color looks like in his mind. This helps to extend the children's memory of colors such that, after their lessons, as they go about daily life, they can remember what color is what, even the most nuanced shades of color. I was able to do some memory games with my son before the age of 2. One was to have him retrieve a particular toy in another room (usually his Pixar Cars matchbox cars.)

Another built-in genius of the Montessori Method is that all activities have a "control," such that the child can see on their own if they have done the activity correctly. The activity with the most obvious control, which is why it is one of the first activities that the child does, is one where cylinder shaped wooden pieces of varying length and width must be put into their corresponding slot on a wood block. The control is the very rigid structure of the wooden block, which will not allow all cylinders in unless they are arranged correctly. In this way, the directress never has to correct the student, which Montessori writes can damage the child's self-esteem. This also has obvious application to adult life, where a person must often judge their own work.  The directress thus never has to be overbearing with the children; the children peacefully do their own work, judging it for themselves.

The directress of a classroom job is less to teach and more to observe. The goal of the lessons is to wait until the child is ready to receive a particular lesson and then capitalize on this moment. I have read before and agree that most lessons, even of the most important variety such as potty training, only take a small amount of time, if presented at the time that a child is ready for it. Montessori writes that the teachers she wants in her classrooms are more like scientists who watch the children, figuring out what their individual needs are, providing activities that are at the child's level, and making interesting psychological insight. There is very little "teaching" in a Montessori school, only a lot of learning. This is why the name teacher was renamed to directress.

This approach where broken up, easily digestible, enjoyable activities are presented to the child, which are repeated for fun, and then spontaneously develop into complex skills, is the genius behind the Montessori Method. The motto is: Wait, wait, wait—keep waiting!—and wait some more until the child is ready. Then swoop in and it's done. There are no belabored attempts to push certain skills. What the child likes to do, that's what you do.

This method is often accused of being pretentious for the reason that children read and write at such early ages (usually around 4 years old). This approach is certainly successful but it is the very opposite of pretentious. The child is never, ever, asked to do something above their ability. Indeed all of the activities, although preparing the student for something complex, are on the surface seemingly so easy! The child is left in peace, with nobody hovering over their work, where they do activities that are enjoyable, which all the while are awakening their spirit. A pretentious teacher is insistent and badgering in getting a child to learn something. This is the opposite of a Montessori directress and antithetical to the entire philosophy.

Most of us have memories of learning things, with our parents or at school, where learning felt belabored and frustrating. It is thus natural, I think, for people to be worried about lack of interest with their own children in learning. This Montessori system was entirely designed around what naturally interests children. Montessori would try activities, and if children weren't interested, she would come up with a different activity. All material is meant to attract children's attention. For instance, when doing the coloring activities such as to practice holding a pencil, the child actually draws around a stencil twice with two different colors. This creates visual interest and attracts the child. If you have worries about getting children to be interested in learning, if you adopt the Montessori Method, you can banish those worries! The material is kid-tested fun. The material itself does all of the heavy lifting to get children interested in learning.

I found, in using this method, that I had the opposite problem of a child not wanting to learn: I had to constantly find more and more challenging activities. My son mastered the wooden cylinders at just 20 months old. Once an activity is mastered, the child has outgrown it. But there is value in doing the activity over and over again as the child is making observations and judgments. To stress this activity, you can line up 4 blocks of cylinders and have them do it. I used a plastic tray meant to hold many batteries to challenge him. Instead of just 5 or 10 holes, there were 20 or more. As noted, I think it is more important to know the method than to know what the materials are. When you know the method, you can use everyday items or make up new, more challenging activities as to adjust to your child.

In the Montessori Method, most activities are preparatory work for something more complex on down the road. One of the most important aspects of the Montessori Method, and one I have come to see as the "ultimate preparatory work," is the sensory education. In addition to the activities for reading, writing, mathematics, and practical life, the sensory education materials are designed to teach the child to become sensitive to the fundamental characteristics that make up all objects: length, width, size, color, temperature, among many other characteristics.  In becoming sensitive to such characteristics, the child can observe them much more clearly and accurately when observing everything in the world around them.

Montessori writes that many people graduate college and enter a profession, but require years if not decades to finally become good at what they do. Most people think that a person needs experience until they are good at a job. Montessori puts forth the idea that if the person had a quality sensory education, they would not need these years of experience. Because they did not have a sensory education, they must spend years until they become accustomed to the observations required in their particular profession. A chef must learn what meat looks like when it is done; a physician must learn what a particular illness looks like, etc. Instead, this sensory education encourages a child to become sensitive to the meta-properties that make up all objects; thus giving the child the sharpest pair of epistemological glasses possible. They do not become astute observers of only those things in a particular field but of all things everywhere. This is why I've come to see a sensory education as the ultimate preparatory work.

The sensory education provided by Montessori uses again these didactic materials. A classic set of materials are those of the rods, the stairs, and cubes. The rods change only in length ranging in size from 10 cm to 1 meter. The stairs change only in width and thus make a stair when arranged. And the cubes are blocks that change in length and width and form a tower when arranged. As the child arranges these in order, they are becoming accustomed to length, width, and size. As with all Montessori activities, it is not that the child can do the activity that is the goal, but that they are practicing their powers of observation while doing the activity (gymnastics). I discuss in more detail these materials in the next article, which focuses on the order and progression of the core Montessori material, which includes primarily the material for a sensory education.

To teach discipline, true to the idea that people learn best by doing, Montessori advocates discipline through doing. It is not enough she writes to simply ask a child to not touch flowers. Instead, she gets them involved in the care and maintenance of flowers. In this way, they learn to treat this very interesting object in the correct way. As they watch the miracle of life grow before their eyes, they take pride in what they have helped grow and would not harm it. To learn how to be quiet, the children are not just told to sit still. Instead, they do exercises where they move quietly. It is a game to the children and they take great enjoyment and pride in accomplishing it.

I have taken this approach to heart with my son, starting at just 15 months old. I embrace the "positive discipline" approach to discipline, where punitive discipline, such as spanking or timeouts, is never used. However, I have found it is important, in addition to this, to practice, practice, and practice good behavior. If I want my son, for instance, to walk on the sidewalk and not run on to the road, we go and walk on the sidewalk over and over, and I gently move him to the sidewalk every time he strays. This is true to the "gymnastics" approach in that it is learning through repetitive action. I also let him use the garbage can as a garbage can, letting him throw away actual garbage. I never, ever had a problem with him throwing away things that were not garbage, and in fact, he often threw away used items on his own initiative!

Each morning as envisioned and practiced by Montessori, the children first inspect themselves for cleanliness then inspect and clean the room as needed. One great benefit of Montessori for my son was that he would put each toy away after using it and before getting another one, a habit that can start as early as 15 months in my estimation. The shelves in a Montessori classroom are all open with baskets holding the material. I switched the organization of my house to be more like this, as it proved to be so much easier for a young child to maintain. This was our shelf:

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In reading about Montessori, it became clear to me that the arrangement and organization of the classroom was nearly as important as the actual lessons being taught. Organizing the classroom is a lesson in itself. Montessori also gives special mention of how she arranges the materials for the children. For instance, the cardboard letters to arrange simple words via phonics are laid out in a tray where each letter has its own compartment. This serves the education of the child for they can see all of the letters clearly spread out such that they can compare and contrast them. It also reinforces knowledge of letters as they put the letters back into the tray when they are done.

One of the most jaw-dropping things that happened when my son started to attend a Montessori was how well he would maintain his toys. I dropped him off at school one day and he was looking at two baskets: one had wooden blocks in it and another had household items in it. He noticed a wooden block in with the household items and put it back with the wooden blocks! He did this at just 19 months old!

Having children participate in cleaning and organizing the room, in my opinion, is one of the many geniuses of Montessori. This is how one directress could handle fifty or more children. It is how a stay-at-home mother can keep her sanity. Some may see getting children to do chores as mean or dangerous, but I see great value in it. The children come to expect and enjoy order and cleanliness. They are encouraged to be actors in their environment. They may only be dusting a room now, but later it will be good stewardship over perhaps a computer lab, a manufacturing lab, or a medical office. By doing these simple exercises while young, they are being taught values of independence, initiative, and respect for property. What job is there that involves simply sitting at a desk and executing orders given? Well there are some, but most intellectual jobs involve moving about freely, interacting with people and machines.

I also think there is great practical value in learning how to do chores. Obviously, learning how to do them in and of itself is valuable. However, by learning them so young, the execution of such chores becomes automatic and subconscious. Thus when they are an adult, they do chores as a matter of subconscious habit, much like taking a shower, rather than as a belabored duty.

A common criticism of any kind of intellectual learning, especially when a child is young, is that it will hinder social development. The argument is rarely backed up by research or any other compelling argument, as if the statement itself is enough. But I want to point out that social skills are taught in a Montessori school.

First, the system of using mats greatly promotes healthy social relationships. In a Montessori school, the children do their activities on a mat and are taught to not step on the mat while they do the activity. It is a ground rule to never disrupt another child's lesson. In this way, the strong visual and boundary of the mat helps to completely stop any violence that other children more than have the ability to inflict on other children. This is what struck me on the first day of being at my son's Montessori school: how very peaceful it was and how easy it would be for friendships to flourish in such an environment. On the first day, while my son did the activity of building the pink tower, which he was a tad too young for, another child came over to coach him on what cube went next. From this, my son successfully built the tower! I submit to you that this collaboration is the very best social relationship possible.

Further, an often overlooked activity in Montessori is the daily talks that the children have with the directress. Montessori writes that the directress should ask them about the things acceptable to talk about in polite conversation, such as what they did the previous day. They thus learn, per Montessori's words, to never talk about anything scandalous. I had to smile at this when I first read it: the children are learning how to engage in small talk! This may seem unnecessary but such small talk is usually the foundation of professional networking later. It is better to engage in small talk than gossip. Montessori really did think of everything.

In reading about Montessori, I have also adopted these principles into my life. If I am about to do an activity where I need to think on the spot, I will practice what I am about to do several times before doing it. This increases my ability to observe what is critical quickly. Seems like such a simple idea, right? Most good ideas are. Isolating out this best practice as a concept allows me to think of it in every situation where it may be useful.

In fact, the very act of writing this article is a form of practice. By writing about her ideas, I can contemplate further the thoughts presented by Montessori. This activity causes me to have many more insights about it than had I simply read the book.  I will be reminded of the value of writing book reports as my children get older.

These are the main principles in the Montessori Method. If there is one overarching principle that I hope that I have describes well, it is to embrace methods that are easy, enjoyable, pressure-free, and fun. Montessori's guiding principle seemed to be, "If it makes a child smile, adopt it." This will also be my guiding principle.

Amber Pawlik
April 19, 2014


The Lucky Mom: How to have a Happy Infant through Respect, Observation, and Understanding
Amber Pawlik
This book is a guide to being that "lucky" parent with the happy baby. It is a very concise book with thoroughly cross-referenced information for parents regarding sleeping and eating habits and the intellectual and physical growth of an infant. A philosophy is presented of respecting the child where the parent observes the child for signs of hunger, sleep, or other needs, and responds appropriately. This book will give you much of the information you need as a parent in just a few hours!

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