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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why Montessori Materials, and Not Toys

By Alisa McCoy

Christmas morning is always a sight to behold at my house. I can picture the packages strewn over the carpet, leaving only a small passage to the sofa. Ornately decorated boxes obscured by the curtains, and small packages neatly tucked away under the tree. The children awake to toy bears clanging cymbals and loud holiday music. Excitement and anticipation fill the air. Glee erupts as dolls, games, clothes, crayons, beanie babies, and chocolates are discovered. A single peaceful moment emerges as my nieces engage in their game boy toys. Ironically, by late afternoon I suspect boredom. My nieces complain that there is nothing to do. The American dolls, board games, and other “precious” toys are haphazardly tossed into a pile in the corner of the family room. I can’t help but contemplate what a wise and clever woman Maria Montessori was. A person who developed material that children actively manipulate with tireless joy and wonder. Consequently, I examined what it is about the Montessori material that causes children to work with purpose, whereas the glamorous toys equipped with buzzers, switches, and contraptions are untouched in a heap.

The Montessori materials prepare the child for life by enabling the child to better understand the adult world. Unlike common toys, Montessori materials empower the child to become a functioning and contributing member of the family unit and eventually of society. All children crave a sense of belonging and usefulness within the family unit. Children are intensely interested in participating in those activities which they see adults performing. Thus, the Montessori material gives children an opportunity to develop a skill set in which they can contribute to the well being of the family unit. The Montessori materials offer the child the opportunity to practice purposeful activities and social techniques often overlooked in traditional lessons given to children. The child develops grace in his own actions, and learns to extend that grace through courtesy to others. The skills taught facilitate the child’s adaptation to his specific culture. The development of physical and psychological independence enables the child to adapt to new situations. As the child grows in independence, a sense of dignity, confidence, and joy is rooted in his heart.

The environment is not focused on a single skill, but calls to each child’s personality. The Montessori material helps activate and structure an ordered mind. Consider all the stimuli a young child is exposed to on a daily basis: new smells, sights, sounds, textures, colors, and weights. The Montessori material assists the child with the development of intelligence by providing concrete experiences with various qualities found in the world in an isolated and orderly manner. The materials of an exercise are designed to be exactly alike in all qualities, except that which is being discriminated by the highlighted sense. Discrimination of small differences becomes possible with the reduction of extraneous stimuli affecting other senses. The qualities are isolated in order to provide clarity and promote the development of classification by which the world is organized and experienced. By helping the child develop an ordered mind, a more solid basis for intelligence is formed as the child can more easily assimilate new information.

“…it (Montessori materials) helps the child to acquire new perspectives in its exploration of the objective world. It makes it aware of certain qualities of the objects, their interrelationships, existing principles of differentiation within a given category, organizational sequences, and special techniques for handling the objects. It challenges the intelligence of the child, who is first intrigued and later fully absorbed by the principles involved. If a spark is lit, a principle discovered, it awakens the child an urge to exercise its newly acquired insight through endless repetitions of the action that led to it….the material does not teach children factual knowledge. Instead it makes possible for them to reorganize their knowledge according to new principles. This increases their capacity for learning.”1

There is nothing more exciting than one’s own discovery. The children in the classroom have opportunities on a daily basis to see comparisons and realizations on their own. Montessori materials offer children enough information to elicit interest and exploration. The materials have often been described as “keys to the universe.” The material empowers children to make his or her own discoveries and explosions into learning. The children are not overwhelmed with factual information, but are offered some information, a taste so to speak, to entice the child’s questioning mind. When interested, the child will follow his pursuit of knowledge with an intense interest and come to own his learning experiences with confidence. What a gift this is to the child, both a love of learning and a realization of one’s own resourcefulness.

The Montessori materials offer indirect preparations for future learning. The materials provide the tools necessary for the child to master the environment. The exercises provide the physical, psychological and social footing necessary for the child’s successful experiences with all other areas of the classroom. From the very first lessons the child receives, he may be preparing his hand for writing, or training his eye to recognize minute differences in preparation for reading. For example, some of the earliest materials require the use of the pincer grip, which prepares the child to write long before a pencil is ever placed in the hand.

In addition, the materials provide instant feedback to the child telling the child the action has not been completed to perfection. Rather than discouraging the child, these materialbased controls provide challenge and prompt the desire for repeated practice. Controls may be auditory (hearing the chair bang into the table), or visual (seeing the cylinders are not in the proper place), but the fact that the feedback comes from the material itself means that the adult’s role is diminished, and the child is able to evaluate himself without needing input from others. This self-evaluation contributes to independence and fosters the ability to face challenges with confidence.

“…the control of error through the materials makes the child use his reason, critical faculty, and his ever increasing capacity for drawing distinctions. In this way a child’s mind is conditioned to correct his errors even when these are not that apparent to the sense.”2

The Montessori materials offer opportunities for social development focusing on respect, resourcefulness, and responsibility. Many of the materials offer games to be played with groups of children. The games are an excellent venue for children to practice taking turns, resolve who should be the leader, or discover new variations or ways to share newly acquired knowledge.

In summary, the Montessori materials entice the child and prepare him for future work by organizing the mind so the child can classify and understand the world around him. The materials offer indirect preparation to provide the skills which make learning easy and fun. Lastly, the Montessori environment encourages social interaction which teaches the child how to make a friend, and equally important, how to be a friend.

1 Education for Human Development, p. 20
2 Discovery of the Child, p. 105

Alisa McCoy, has a BSBA from Ohio State University in Accounting. She completed her AMI Primary training in Cleveland in 1998 and began teaching a primary class at Countryside Montessori School in Northbrook, Illinois where she continues to teach.

Distributed by Montessori Teachers Institute for Professional Studies

Click here to download the full document:  materialsVstoys.pdf

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