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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How Young is Too Young

"Aren't They Too Young To Go To School?"
The Benefits the Young Child Gains From Montessori Educational Experience

If we take a few moments to consider the work of the young child it is really quite extraordinary what is accomplished in the first three years. The moment of birth commences a lifelong journey towards independence. At birth he relies on his mother to meet all of his basic needs. He cannot talk; he cannot crawl, scoot or walk; he cannot hold things; he cannot feed himself. Yet within three years the child has acquired the language of his culture complete with nouns, correct verb conjugation, syntax, intonation and accent. He is able to move in a variety of ways: scooting, crawling, walking, running, jumping, tiptoeing. He is able to grasp the items of his choice and make sophisticated manipulations of objects using his thumb and fingers. He is able to feed himself using utensils and digest any food he wishes to ingest. Quite an admirable work in just three years. How is all that possible in such a short time?
Dr. Montessori believed that this was all possible because the mind of the small child is unique at this time. In the first six years of life she referred to the child’s brain as the “absorbent mind.” She felt that the child’s mind was like a sponge, absorbing everything with which it comes in contact. Furthermore she believed that the human brain never exists with this capacity again in man’s entire lifespan. The idea that the child’s mind is able to learn more, absorb more, than that of an adult seems rather strange. Yet if any adult were transplanted into another culture, in three years he would be nowhere near as adept as the three year old of that same culture. The power of the young mind is immense and unequaled, and current scientific study is constantly reinforcing this age-old Montessori notion.

Why then do we consider the time of childhood so "unimportant"? Why do we feel that it doesn't really matter what the infant and toddler is exposed to or not exposed to? Why do we misguide ourselves into believing that babies "don't really know any better”? Perhaps it is because we do not consciously remember this time in our own lives. Or perhaps it is because until the child is older we do not see any evidence of the impact of the environment on the child. But clearly if the child of three has learned to walk independently, speak a language fluently, and observe countless social customs in such a short period of time, his experiences before the age of three have had a profound impact on him, in fact have actually constructed him.

Beyond the clearly observable growth mentioned up to this point, there is a far more substantial, yet less tangible, development occurring at the same time. And this development will impact the child’s life profoundly. One of the most difficult things to accept about this period in the child's life is that it is the very time that he is establishing his feelings about himself, society and the environment. This translates to the development of self-esteem, confidence, security, and responsibility. These are the questions he will have answered for himself by the time he is three: Is the universe a safe place? If I am in need will I be helped? Am I strong enough to care for myself? Am I strong enough to offer help to others? Am I capable of feeling joy and sadness? Is life pleasing or painful? Quite a profound time!

It was Maria Montessori's understanding of the importance of this time that led her to devote her life to changing the course of education to collaborate with the natural development of the child. It is also for this reason that Montessorians believe in sending children to school “even when they are so young.” If all of this growth is occurring so early in the life of the child, why are we leaving it to chance? Montessori did not leave it to chance. She carefully and meticulously constructed environments that best accommodated the unique “absorbent mind” of the young child so that the potential of this time could be maximized.

To do this Montessori spent countless hours observing and working with young children. It was these hours that caused Maria Montessori to believe that there were things about human beings that were identical in all people, across time and cultures. She believed in the idea of “human tendencies,” inclinations toward certain activities or behaviors with which all human beings are born. It is these common tendencies that directed Montessori in the construction of her educational philosophy. Some of these tendencies include the need for exploration, orientation, order, repetition, perfection, imagination, abstraction, communication, and work. It was the accommodation of these very tendencies that guided Maria Montessori in her construction of the three environments for children: the toddler, primary and elementary classes.

In a Montessori environment the children make many choices and move around the room freely, thus meeting the tendency to explore. The classrooms are not frequently rearranged, thus meeting the tendency toward orientation. The materials are shelved and presented in an exact and specific sequence, thus meeting the tendency to order. The children are permitted and encouraged to use materials as many times as they like, thus meeting the tendency to repeat and achieve perfection. The children are shown only one way to use the materials and are then left free to create their own variations consistent with the purpose of the materials, thus meeting the tendency to imagine. The materials give the children the concrete experience with concepts which then allow them to create abstractions in their minds, thus meeting the tendency to abstract. And finally the children are surrounded in the Montessori classroom with inviting and attractive materials to use, thus meeting the tendency to work.

Maria Montessori found these human tendencies to be of further importance. She believed that obstructing the impulses resulting from these tendencies in young children contributes to difficulties and deviations that plague them for the rest of their lives. The Montessori classroom allows for these tendencies to operate unimpeded in a way that most homes and lifestyles do not.

So ultimately each parent at some point faces the question, "When should my child start school?" The time that the child starts walking is of significant importance in the child's development. It is an observable indication that the child is ready for a new level of independence, an independence from his family. This independence does not come all at once but rather in slow stages. First he will wander off only momentarily, and then check to verify that mom is still close by. But soon, after he is more secure with his new ability, he will be ready to move away from mom for longer periods of time. And not long after this new exploration has begun the child is ready for a new social group, beyond the unit of the family, not to replace the family, but rather to complement it. The Montessori class is precisely an environment that, in conjunction with a healthy family life, allows the human tendencies in each child to operate unimpeded, and within the framework of this freedom contributes to the creation of the normalized human being: One that feels the universe is a safe place; one that feels help will come when needed; one that feels confident in his abilities to help himself and others; one that is capable of feeling joy and sadness; one that feels life is generally pleasing and when not so is able to cope normally with the pain and disappointments. As we consider when a child should start school we must value this early time of childhood as one of immeasurable significance and choose deliberately to what our children will be exposed.

Download the full document here: HowYoungisTooYoung.doc

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