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Sensitivity to Social Aspects: What Maria Montessori Missed

Take a stroll through any proper Montessori vendor and you will find movable alphabets, child sized brooms, and hand crafted object permanence boxes. The one thing you will not find is a doll house.

Maria Montessori was a pioneer of her time. She was one of the first to suggest that "A person's a person, no matter how small."-- Even if she didn't phrase it as eloquently as the infamous Dr. Seuss.

In a sea of adults telling children to sit, mind, and speak when spoken to, Montessori opened Casa dei Bambini in 1907. This "Children's Home" honored the natural drive children have to work out their own education. We are indebted to her work.

Montessori and the Sensitive Periods

Children are tiny scientists carrying out experiments of their own divination and control, who pass through a predictable series of developmental leaps that the Montessori world refers to as sensitive periods.

Children are naturally drawn to activities that best support their current needs and development. They are naturally drawn to make sense of -and use of- the world around them. (Need a quick refresher on sensitive periods? Grab it here...)

Montessori brilliantly devised an entire school that appeals to these natural drives and developmental leaps. Each of these developmental leaps are nurtured through the thoughtful kindness and detail of the Montessori program.

The Unfulfilled Sensitive Period

Sensitivity to the social aspects of life begins at two and a half and lasts until the child turns five. This is when the child observes their environment as more than just a collection of people and objects. The recognition springs forth that special relationships and behaviors exist between these people and objects, and these people and other people.

The three year old wants to help Mommy stir the soup, because Mommy stirs soups. This observation is then placed upon the child by the child. "I am big. I stir soups too." The four year old watches Daddy hold doors for Mommy, and without prompting, begins to do the same. In the picture above, Sweet Boy is pushing a lawn mower and driving a car... pretty much all he wanted to do when he transitioned into this sensitive period.

Montessori surpassed all contemporary philosophers of education when she observed this and put it into practice at her school. Children are provided real, child-sized objects. With a broom their size, and a sink low enough to reach, each child begins to embody the culture around him, and carries out those works with increasing dexterity.

Montessori schools provide additional support for children working on sensitivity to social aspects by explicitly teach social norms and expectations with grace and courtesy lessons. Just as a teacher would introduce a math work by showing exactly the steps the child is expected to take, Montessori teachers clearly define the common cultural practices. Both child sized "real life" tools, and grace and courtesy lessons are perfect for helping children during the sensitivity to social aspects stage.

To this extent I have no qualms with the Montessori philosophy. We are all indebted to this advancement in classroom practice.

Montessori inspired homeschool curriculum

Finally Getting to the Point...

So here we have an environment that provides the child all they need to work at life. And with this Montessori was satisfied. Moving beyond this into imaginative play, or fantastical play is not something to be encouraged. The reasoning is easy enough to follow. "(Young children) cannot distinguish well between the real and the imaginary, between things that are possible and things that are merely 'made up'." -Dr. Maria Montessori, Times Education Supplement 1919

In Montessori schools, super heroes and villains, along with doll houses and make believe, are considered inferior to a real environment. I understand her thoughts, but in my humble opinion, I call baloney. Well, I don't just call it. I shout it from the rooftops to all unfortunate enough to endure my rantings. Super heroes and villains are the child's mythology, and mythology holds truths more True than the story at face value.

The Role of Pretend in Social Development

Playing at Hansel and Gretel is fantasy on one hand, but on the other it is a reality that must be encountered-- a social lesson far more valuable than how to push in a chair. Myths and fantasy play teach us those things which can not be learned any other way, and playing at them is as natural to a child as picking up mother's broom.

  • Super heroes teach us that good is worth fighting for, and it must be fought for, and that the effort may cost everything you hold dear.

  • The doll house allows you to play out relationship scenarios in which you are the father one minute and the mother the next-- the empathy strengthening equivalent of a page of math problems.

  • Fairy tales teach us when to ignore the candy attached to the walls, the importance of having a bigger goat brother, the importance of BEING the bigger goat brother when you can, the importance of looking carefully at Grandma (and all other family members) to see who they really are, and so many other lessons. It is awful to think that a trusted family member may be a secret wolf, but for a terrifyingly large number of children, this is a reality they can not ignore.

As teachers we recognize the repetitious nature of skill development in the realm of hand writing-- how much more repetition is needed for interpersonal relationships, empathy development, and the evolution of wisdom!! There is so much more to social life than remembering to say please and thank you. Social life is less obvious and more nuanced than 1+1=2. Children should be encouraged to read as many myths and fairy tales as they desire, and their natural tendency to participate in drama, make-believe, dress up, and rough-and-tumble play should be honored.

I will always feel indebted to Dr. Maria Montessori for her advancements in early childhood education, but I must make my stand here. Fantasy is not something to be set aside or tolerated. It is that which drives our art and our wisdom. It should be celebrated, nurtured, and loved.

Blessings on your journey,

Buckets and Berries


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