For those of you following along for a long time, I wanted to take you a little deeper into the Montessori approach. Even after more than 15 years working in Montessori, I still feel like a beginner with so many things to learn. And I had many moments of reflection, reminders and takeaways from finally reading Catherine McTamaney’s book The Tao of Montessori* that I want to share with you.
And if you are newer to the approach, maybe start here – where to start with Montessori at home.
The Tao of Montessori has 81 short chapters or sections, taking the same structure as the Tao Te Ching. And each is almost a small meditation on a topic and closes with a quote from Dr Montessori. Each chapter sparks a reflection. It’s not a book to be read in a day, although you could, but more to read one section at a time, in any order of choice, and to ponder upon the words.
Sacrilegious to some, I turn over the corner of a page when I find something I want to come back to. And this short book was well dog-eared by the end.
So this blog post is what I wanted to keep top of mind from this book and hopefully it will also be helpful to you reading this.
12 takeaways from The Tao of Montessori
1. How much help to give the child
I love the analogy in section 9 of a butterfly taking effort to first unravel its wings and pumping life into its body in the process. If a human helped the butterfly, we would actually be hindering the butterfly’s development.
Similarly, there are times when our well-intentioned help can inadvertently lead the child to look to us, rather than encourage them to challenge themselves. The example given in the book is of us helping a child to walk by holding their hands above their head. What we think is helping them, is teaching the child to look to us rather than working on their own balance.
And to those of you who’ve done this, no judgement. We’ve all been there. And we can kindly explain to our child that we are there to support them and walk alongside them. Still present. But with confidence in their ability.
2. Viewing mistakes as an adult as we do for the child
You may know something about self-correcting materials in Montessori. The idea is that the materials are set up so that the child doesn’t need to look to us to see if it’s right or wrong. If there is one piece left over in their activity, the child knows to try it another way until all the pieces fit.
In section 13, we are asked to consider whether we allow ourselves as adults the same grace in our learning. That we’ll make mistakes. But we can keep trying until we’ve worked it out, instead of seeing mistakes as failures.
3. False fatigue
This is something I’ve not written about but there is no time like the present. False fatigue is often seen in a classroom where things start to get a little chaotic, some items get knocked down, two children might bump into each other, or there seems to be a need to start running. This often happens in a toddler classroom about an hour into the morning. You may notice the same mid-morning at home.
As an adult we want this feeling of chaos to stop, so we step in to start to control things – we offer activities we think the children will like, in traditional settings we might start a group activity, we separate children etc.
In section 16, Catherine beautifully asks if a riverbed at the bottom of a waterfall “moves to redirect the the thunder of a waterfall? No. It remains still. It reminds the water through its stillness that there is no need for alarm, that peace will emerge again.”
Similarly as the adult (teacher or parent), we can remain peaceful. “Sit. Trust the waters will calm. Model the peacefulness you know will return. If you must move, move with the river. Put your hands on the materials and work. Practice lessons you hope to show later. Focus. Concentrate. Engage. Be the path of least resistance. The water will follow.”
I feel peaceful just reading that. And it’s true. The children generally settle all by themselves into some of their deepest concentration of the day.
4. Creativity in Montessori
Montessori can sometimes be criticised as not encouraging creativity. I love how Catherine explores this in section 28 where she describes how giving a child reality rather than made up fantasy actually allows them to imagine more. Even if you’ve never been to the Eiffel tower, you can imagine it as you know how it feels to look up to the tallest tower in your city. Even if you’ve never known suffering from a child in a war-torn area, you can begin to imagine what it’s in part like knowing how it feels to miss your parents.
Keep offering them knowledge about the world around them – rich information only limited by your own knowledge to teach them how to find out even more. And watch their creativity fly.
5. Observe the path of each child
Each child’s path is unique and we are a guide to them. In my workshops I often describe the child like a plant – you can’t turn a cactus into a water lily or a rose, but we can help support the cactus to grow to its full potential. Similarly, Catherine describes a tiny sapling – we cannot change its nature or turn it into a different tree. But we can make sure it has sufficient light, rich soil and fertile ground. And to remove the supports as it no longer needs them. [Gah – this is so beautiful!]
My two favourite quotes from section 48 are:
- “Our view is terribly clouded when we are kicking up too much of our own dust on the trail.”
- “Observe. Then when you are finished, observe some more.”
6. Difficult traits/difficult children
In Montessori we encourage a child’s independence and creative thinking. Then we get terribly upset when they don’t listen to us or cooperate.
Catherine explores this idea in section 49 when it is difficult to love the child. She provides wisdom – be honest to know our limits and ask for help when needed. Or view the child in the best light we can. And remember that they are children and, whilst sometimes so capable, sometimes need some grace too.
These are our greatest teachers to grow “with deeper compassion, more tireless patience, more joyful acceptance.”
7. Be prepared. And improvise
In section 50 we are reminded to be prepared. Things will not go as planned in our classrooms and our homes. So we can come up with some contingencies ahead of time.
I once read the book by Alain de Boton, Consolations of Philosophy*, in which Seneca talks about going through life expecting the worse. This allows you to make a plan for when things don’t work out, and you are pleasantly surprised if things do go as planned. To me it’s a slightly negative way to look at things, but I do like to have some contingency planning in place, and things are likely to run a lot smoother.
I also love that Catherine talks about how we need to be flexible in responding to how things happen. We cannot control everything. I like to see the adult as an improviser – seeing the child in the moment and responding as and when needed.
Because there are humans involved and each is (very) different.
8. Babies are taking in the world
The topics covered in the book are diverse and I love the random nature of the sequence. In section 51, we are reminded that babies are learning how the world is by how we respond.
“Take the time to offer infants deep respect and understanding.” Instead of ignoring their attempts to communicate or using “contraptions”, we are asked to: “…listen to our infants, pay attention to the things that grab their focus, let them turn their heads away in satisfaction before we move them along…”
9. Not everything has an answer – provide room for wonder
As Montessori teachers (and parents) we are generally focused on helping children find out answers to their questions. So I love that section 65 is an ode to questions that have no answers, something I hadn’t given much thought to. Examples from the book like why a bird lands just so on the playground fence; the difference in thickness in two blades of grass; and how paint changes from smooth and cool to hard, crisp and dry.
This allows us to model wonder to our children. And to remember to set aside our agendas and instead take time to wonder at the world as young children do.
10. Simplicity – patience – compassion
Catherine offers these three principles to be the basis of our practice as teachers and parents. I can’t say it better than the book itself:
“If we build our classrooms on simplicity, they are free to find our common soil. If we build our classrooms on patience, they are free to grow at their own pace. If we build our classrooms on compassion, they are free to wind together, climbing higher for the support we offer each other.” – section 67, Tao of Montessori
11. We are never finished
Just as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we are indeed always learning. Similarly in section 71, Catherine reminds us that the learning is never over. And “when we believe we are finished, we are finished.”
So no matter if your children are through babyhood, toddlerhood or graduating high school, and as teachers whether we’ve finished our diploma, or been 5 or 15 years in the classroom, we will never stop learning and growing.
I’ll be honest, it’s tiring. I said to a friend over the holidays, if this is as far as I grow, then I’m happy with that. Then I rested over the holidays, opened another book, and was ready to keep learning. I can’t stop.
12. Don’t follow blindly
There are many more takeaways from the book but I’ll end with this one. A reminder that Montessori is not a cult. Take the wisdom and question it. Don’t follow my advice or Catherine’s or another’s blindly.
Don’t just put an activity on your shelfie because you saw it on Instagram or because it’s next in the sequence – consider your child, the activity and make sure it’s a good fit. Don’t just follow the advice from my blog or book, make sure it suits your famliy. Don’t have a house rule or value because you saw it somewhere else, but add it when you can be sure it helps you.
Catherine challenges us to swap the cult for community. And that’s an idea I can get right behind.
I hope I’ve done this book justice. It’s a great read for those of you wanting to get deeper into the Montessori approach.
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