A few posts ago, Loraine asked me about whether or not the Montessori method was compatible with Catholicism, because “I am wary of the idea that children need always to be choosing for themselves. This seems contrary to the Catholic understanding of human nature – since the Fall our desires tend in the wrong directions.” And she had a few other questions I’d like to address. It took me a while to prepare a longer post, but here it is.
In answering Loraine’s question, I’m going to speak about the Montessori Method for children aged 3-6 (there are other methods for ages 6-12 and 12-18).
One generally unknown fact about Maria Montessori is that she was a devout Catholic, and her method is steeped in the Catholic understanding of the human person. She believed in the Fall, and understood that small human beings need moral guidance. But because she also believed in post-baptismal innocence and that our God Himself became a Child, she recommended that the Montessori teacher approach the child with a humility and reverence that is still as counter-cultural today as it was in the 1930’s. She didn’t have a romantic view of the child as a “noble savage” or any of the usual secular errors, and yes, she did design the environment to limit a child’s choices and encourage order.
What I find wonderful and mysterious about the method is that it works – children really do work and focus and learn in a Montessori environment. You have to see it to believe it. I always recommend that folks visit a Montessori school and simply observe. You’ll come away with a lot of ideas, and you’ll appreciate the peacefulness and order.
It’s important to remember that the Montessori method was designed to be used in a classroom situation, with up to thirty children in the charge of one adult. The Montessori classroom was to be beautiful, neat to a fault, and full of high-quality materials. The teacher (usually in possession of an MA in Montessori education) was to be completely focused on the children and guiding them in learning. As Lorraine correctly notes, since the classroom was designed to be solely a learning environment, fairy tales and imaginative figures such as Peter Rabbit or Mickey Mouse were not allowed in the classroom. The classroom focused on teaching young children about the real world.
All of this means that it is difficult to translate the Montessori Method strictly to the home. Parents are not gifted with the detachment of teachers: they have the responsibility of teaching children to obey, to be kind, and so on. And it is really difficult to maintain a fully-equipped Montessori classroom in the home as a homeschool. It takes energy to maintain it neatly, and further energy to acclimate the children to using the materials as tools, not toys. It *can* be done – I’ve seen it done – but it’s difficult!
“MegaMommy” Barbara Curtis is a mother of twelve (biological and adopted), Montessori teacher, and author of many books, who has thought deeply about applying Montessori principles to parenting. I highly recommend her book The Mommy Manual that suggests good habits for moms to acquire, such as watching your child without helping them (Montessori teachers learn to sit on their hands to stop from interfering unnecessarily). When you’re always in a hurry, it’s easier to do things for kids. But it’s so important to slow down and simply let them do something (ie: put on their own shoes, pour their own milk, put scotch tape on their present) all by themselves. This is how they learn, and they learn faster and more deeply when moms have the time and patience to watch and let them learn.
You might want to read her page about child-sized furniture, and other products (some great ideas!). The reason for giving children real things instead of toys is because children yearn for real things, to do things “myself!” They yearn to grow up and be like Mommy and Daddy. And as an artist myself, I can say that a solid grounding in the real world is a terrific launching pad for the imagination.
As for fairy tales – our home is a school, but it’s not only a school, so we do have fairy tales in our home. But I do think it’s important for very young children to learn about the real world first, so we have lots of DK books for our toddlers, the sort with real photos. We save the fairy tales for the next-level-of kids, ages 6-12, when even Montessori agrees that moral education begins in earnest, and then fairy tales are helpful.
I think that Montessori doesn’t necessarily distrust the imagination, but it’s important to remember that it’s a classroom philosophy, not a parenting philosophy. However, I’m trained in the Montessori Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and I find it wonderfully imaginative and very reverent. Montessori was a scientist, and yes, there’s room for the imagination in science, but only after you’ve learned a lot of the basic rules. A Montessori education focuses on helping you learn those rules.
Waldorf education is sometimes portrayed as the polar opposite of Montessori, but I’m not sure that’s true. However, it is based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, whose ideas are more New Age than Christian. What is remarkable is that despite his quirky and sometimes (to me) very bizarre ideas, the material end product of the philosophy is a lot of very beautifully-crafted chidren’s toys. I personally don’t care for or recommend Waldorf education (I’m a Montessori preschool alumna myself) but I certainly do love their toys!
Those are a few thoughts on Montessori – let me know if you have any further questions!