The Preparation of the Montessori EnvironmentWhat is the right environment for a child to grow, learn, and develop? Maria Montessori seemed to understand that a child needed a place "where a kid can be a kid" to develop into the wonderful human being he or she was created to be. Here is an insightful selection of a lecture from Miss Child, 1973.
"Dr. Montessori often used to criticize the people of these times because they took so little care to see that their children had the right conditions for their growth. Compared to the animals, most of whom treat the bringing up of their families as the most important business in life, human beings seem really rather neglectful. Not even a female butterfly, she would say, expects her eggs to hatch out into tiny butterflies who will grow up simply by imitating her. Somehow, whether by instinct or memory-for it is long since she ate leaves herself-she finds out the right plant on which to find the right food ready for them. Now we who live in artificial environments cannot any longer depend on nature or instinct to tell us how to bring up our children. We must study their growth and their development, discover their needs, and what are the obstacles that may hinder and obstruct them. Then we can construct an environment where they can grow naturally, not develop into problems.
As we have already explained it was Dr. Montessori's view that one of the special needs of the 3 to 6 year old period is for purposeful activity in familiar domestic environment. There is no scope for this among adults nor in the traditional school, so she recommended the provision of 'Children's House.' In these we aim to reproduce all the characteristic amenities of the civilization of the time, only carefully adapted in size and simplicity to the need and capacity of the child. What are the chief considerations we must bear in mind in arranging a school of this kind?
The room should be large enough to give the children room to move about freely, but not too large. If the class is lost in a great room or hall there is not the right atmosphere of security and calm, nor can the children remember it properly. It is necessary that they should have a clear idea of the whole in their minds, know every object in the room and where it is to be found, so that it can be replaced correctly. It is a great advantage if the children can go out into the garden, but if so it must be a fairly small garden.
There is no necessity that the room and furniture should be luxurious or expensive. Many Montessori schools have tried giving an environment of great beauty, but it has not been found to be of any particular advantage. The essential points are that the furniture and fixtures should be the right size and should be painted in light colors with some washable paint. The is indispensable, but it is not expensive. We must arrange that cupboards and shelves come no higher than our [children's] shoulder, door and window fastenings within reach, washbasins, looking glass, coat-hooks, etc., also available. The chairs should be made the right size with legs shorter proportionately that the ordinary chair because of the child's short legs. There must also be stools and mats for sitting or lying on the floor, as all these changes of position are necessary exercise for the growing body. The tables should of different sizes and shapes but they do not all need to be adjusted to the height of the sitting child because they are not used so much to sit and write at, like a school desk, but to set out the objects. All the tables and chairs should be strong but light enough for the children to shift them freely. No rubber is used to deaden noise; we want things to clatter when moved, so that clumsy movements can be noticed and corrected. All the furniture and woodwork must be carefully painted so that they are light colored and shinning. Then every spot and mark will show and can be easily cleaned of. The floor, too, is polished so that every speck of dust or piece of litter can be detected at once. In our own house we may think of choosing a dark color that will not show the dirt; but the children do not want to save trouble. They want to be active. All this activity has an interior aim, its real purpose is to develop the child's own powers. Yet there must be a superficial motive, a purpose in the real exterior world, that, so to speak, 'sets the child off', it initiates a cycle of activity.
The environment we have described has been found after many years of trial to be the best for stimulating formative activity in the children. Without it, it is not possible to put the Montessori Method into practice, and the Montessori teacher must see the room is properly arranged and be prepared to keep it in perfect condition. Some teachers might perhaps say that they could have nothing to do with the furnishing of the schoolroom or with keeping it clean and tidy; such things were the responsibility of other people. They might even be indignant at the suggestion that such things could have anything to do with the success of their teaching. But the Montessori teacher realizes that the care of the environment and material is one of her most important tasks. For the children can learn form the objects in the environment what cannot be taught by any teacher however gifted. But it must not be forgotten that the teacher herself is part of the environment, and a very important part. She must not take herself, her work and the children for granted, she must set out to give a good impression just as deliberately as she would if she would if she was attending an interview by a Selection Committee! Never think that such young children do not matter. They are quite as observant as any adult judges, probably more observant, for they have a passionate sensitive appreciation of beautiful clothes.
Actually the example of the Children's Houses has led to a great improvement in home conditions in the last thirty years. Nowadays there is hardly any house that has a nursery where some effort has not been made to provide suitable sized furniture. And even where space prevents any proper provision for the child there is usually at least a small chair or stool of greater value to the child than any amount of toys. I remember once hearing Dr. Montessori say 'We don't seem to hear as much as we used to about "Mother's knee." "I wonder if it is because they are getting chairs for the children!" And she was probably right. In spite of the great material prosperity of the early years of this century, on one else seems to have thought of making this simple provision for the comfort of the child. Father had a big armchair and Mother had a small armchair, but few people made the right sort of a chair for the child. The child must have been thankful to climb on to his mother's knee. It is interesting that this provision of nature, that the sentimentalists used to make so much of, should be deserted immediately other accommodation was offered, and confirms what Dr. Montessori says about the child's love of independence.
One wonders if the immense popularity of the Three Bears Story is due to the fact that the Baby Bear was not forgotten in this way. Children are always immensely thrilled that the Baby Bear had a tiny bowl of porridge and a tiny chair and a tiny bed, and everything was neither too big or too small, too hard or too soft, but JUST RIGHT! It seems that even today the accommodation we provide is not always adequate.
And it is certainly better if the children can have the experience of living in a Children's House. And this must be planned so that the children can really fetch what they want from a real cupboard and find that there is really space to set out the objects on a real table, without any help or directions from anyone. And their pleasures must not be spoiled by finding that things are missing or damaged or dirty, that they shelves are dusty and untidy, or chalk marks and scribblings on the tables. The hygiene that was a matter of indifference to the baby or young child can now be an advantage. It is not that children are interested in health or germs or in cleanliness for its own sake. But there is no doubt that to have perfect order in their surroundings and to preserve it by their own activity does give them real satisfaction. What the mysterious process in the mind may be we do not know; it may be the beginning of a love of beauty, or aesthetic sense. Whatever it is we have no doubt that the children who have this desire satisfied become calmer and are better able to overcome the difficulties of development."