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Montessori Basics: Freedom Within Limits

“Freedom within limits” is a phrase often used by Montessorians. What do they mean and what does that look like? Read on to find out...

The Myth: Montessori schools let children do whatever they want. The children just play all day, and the teachers don’t really teach. It’s complete chaos.

These statements are typically made by people who don’t know a lot about Montessori and haven’t spent time in the schools. Montessori is very different from traditional and conventional education methods, so it’s natural to draw those assumptions based on limited information. However, people who are familiar with the philosophy tend to have a very different take.

The Environment

Preparation of the environment is one of the most important things a Montessori teacher can focus on. We believe that it is possible to create an environment full of materials that entice children to learn. These materials are organized very carefully on wooden shelves so that children may access them independently. As the needs of the children evolve, the offerings on the shelves evolve, too.

In short, we think about the desired learning outcomes and create an environment that will allow children to achieve them with a certain level of independence. We want them to satisfy their own learning curiosities and feel empowered by their own education. So we give lessons and we stand back and watch the children practice.

Care of Self

At a very young age, children begin to feel a desire to do things for themselves. Isn’t that what we all want for them? Sometimes out of habit, and sometimes when we are in a hurry, it can be easy to jump in and do things for our children. But, if we are careful to build in the time and structures that allow for independent self-care, it is amazing to see what kids can do.

This begins in the toddler class when they are learning to use the toilet independently. In primary classrooms, we actively teach children how to prepare their own snacks and even encourage them to listen to their bodies’ needs and have a snack when they decide they need it, not when we decide it’s snack time. Whenever possible, we don’t have our students ask for permission to use the restroom. We trust them to take care of themselves when they need to.

Have you ever thought about your own attention span? When we focus on challenging work for long periods of time, we need to stop and take breaks occasionally. This is healthy and makes us more productive in the long run. We trust children to do the same, but we are right there to guide them back on track whenever they might need a reminder.

Work and Learning

It is true that Montessori children are free to choose their own work. We want them to learn to follow their interests, but we also want to give them opportunities to learn time management skills and responsibility in an authentic way. While toddlers and primary-aged children have lots of choices, older children are expected to follow a general academic framework. While an elementary teacher is giving small group lessons, the rest of the class is working independently. Some children might have a written work plan, others might have internalized the need to cover the major academic areas, and still others may need more direct teacher guidance. Our goal is to meet regularly with each child to check in with their work and have a conversation about how that independence is going. Children may choose the order in which they do their work, where they sit, and who they work with, but they know that ultimately it’s their responsibility to get it all done.

Parents often ask, “What if my child wants to avoid a particular work?” This happens with many kids, as we all have things we like and things we don’t! Montessori teachers give children strategies to address the avoidance. When a child is younger, we may find a way to tie a personal interest into the work (for example, dinosaur counters in math). Older children are open to learning work ethic strategies. We may gently say, “I notice you’ve been avoiding grammar. Sometimes we save the things that are hard or that we don’t enjoy so much for last, but completing that work first is helpful. Why don’t you try that today and see how it feels?” Acknowledging the struggles we all face and providing helpful feedback gives kids the support they need to grow as learners.

Social Growth

One of the great things about Montessori classrooms is the flexibility we have in regard to time and structure. Because we don’t ask children to sit at desks (we allow them to make their own seating choices and their own work buddy choices), they are free to have more authentic social interactions. Kids under six often engage in what we call ‘parallel play.’ That is, they tend to be more apt to work individually beside their friends. These younger children receive lots of lessons in grace and courtesy, and their teachers are nearby to help guide them through any challenging social situations.

Once the elementary years begin, children become very social people. This is a time in which they are learning all about friendships and how to interact socially with their peers. They often delight in these interactions, but sometimes they are confronted with conflict. Montessori teachers have the time to specifically teach conflict resolution skills and peer mediation. We are able to sit with children and guide them through the process in such a way that children feel heard, respected, and empowered with the skills necessary to resolve their problems independently in the future.

A Gradual Release

It’s important to remember that while Montessori schools place great value in developing independence, we recognize it’s not something that happens overnight. Luckily, when teachers work with children for a three-year cycle, they become so tuned in to each child’s needs and progress that their learning experience is truly tailored to the individual.

We don’t simply expect children to be independent and make great choices right away. Instead, we slowly foster and encourage those values over time. Then, while paying close attention to each developmental phase and each student’s needs, we can intervene only when necessary.

We all appreciate being able to make our own choices regarding ourselves, our work, and our friendships. Montessori just makes this possible for kids, too.

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