Today I’m talking about why I’m not giving up on Montessori activities in exchange for open-ended play. My opinion, in short, is that there is room for both.
When I observe toddlers, I see the satisfaction they get from mastering activities in our Montessori environment. As their guide, I’m always observing to see what they are working to master and offer them materials which allow them to practice these skills.
This mastery is something I experienced myself on our recent holiday to Australia. We purposely didn’t fly directly to our destination – Uluru – but flew to Alice Springs, 500km north, to get a small taste of driving through the emptiness, the sky, the space. It was a fun road trip with my teenagers 🌵(there aren’t really cactuses in the Australian desert – I just like that emoji).
There were many beautiful places that we visited, gorgeous sunrises, dinner under the stars, and long hikes at Uluru.
But I think the highlight was our 4 hour hike in the nearby Olga’s – Kata Tjuta. Unlike the smooth paths of the base walk around Uluru, the path around Kata Tjuta was unsealed, rocky, and steep. You had a sense of the Aboriginal people who had explored these areas for centuries before Europeans arrived and used these sites for sacred ceremonies.
Hiking in the winter meant a pleasant 25 degrees and not so many crowds but it was still a strenuous hike. Two hours into the hike, we searched for the trail markers which seem to have suddenly stopped.
And then we spotted them. An arrow pointing straight up a rock face. It was a steep scramble to get up and over to the other side and then a near vertical stair climb. Reaching the top you are met with a grand view into the other side of the valley and behind us a view down into the valley that we’d just mounted.
We paused at the top to eat our packed lunch and were to return the same route as we came. Or continue another few hours to complete the circuit. Decision time.
Can you guess which way we decided to go?
All the way around.
And I’m so glad we did. Getting back to the beginning felt like such an accomplishment.
There is something about mastery that gives such satisfaction.
How mastery is built into the Montessori approach
1. Children are set up for success – we prepare the environment and materials so the child feels this mastery often in their daily life.
For example, putting on their own coat with the Montessori coat flip or being able to help themselves to a glass of water in the kitchen or make their own snack
2. Children have activities at their level and following their interests – neither too easy (boring) or too difficult (you want to give up) but challenging enough to be satisfying to master.
For example, looking for those activities that your child is fascinated by and can stay with for longer periods
3. There’s often a beginning, middle and end to the activity – which again gives satisfaction upon completion.
For example, putting on an apron, fetching water in a jug, washing the dishes, emptying the water, returning the apron.
4. There’s a logical sequence of activities to work through – without any point to our activity our “work” can be meaningless. It’s so satisfying to complete one activity which prepares you to begin on the next.
For example, once a child has mastered screwing a large wooden nut and bolt they’ll practise with smaller nuts and bolts which they may need to grade in size.
5. The child can then teach the skill to another child – how do we know if we’ve mastered something? Try explaining or teaching it to someone else, just as Montessori children consolidate their learning by teaching or helping others.
For example, turning on the tap for a younger child
6. It makes the child feel capable – mastering something for themselves independently over and over again, making the child feel enormously capable.
Enough said, non?
So does that mean that there is no place for open-ended play for Montessori children?
Open-ended activities are great for sensorial and intellectual exploration, creativity and imagination.
I see open-ended play in my Montessori classroom too:
- a child who has mastered a basket of language objects will happily pretend to cook with the objects of kitchen items
- a child making cookies from playdough
- the exploration of a wide range of art materials (from scribbling with chalk to water colour painting to cutting with scissors and creating a collage with the pieces)
- playing with the farm animals
- children exploring the materials in other ways than I expected – and as long as they are not harming themselves, another, or the materials, I allow that exploration.
Exploration in the outdoors (hugely encouraged in the Montessori approach) is largely open-ended – scavenging materials, touching and exploring all around us, building with found treasures, and more.
There are also many Montessori-friendly open-ended materials for your home. Outside of the classroom I love toys like Lego, Duplo, Playmobil, Flockmen building blocks, Wedgits, blocks, nature collections from explorations in the outdoors.
The child will always be exploring. They are born to do so.
Mastery as motivation
That said, I myself don’t think I’ll ever abandon Montessori materials for that pure magic that is the satisfaction of mastery the child achieves. They’ll often even give themselves a clap when they are done. To celebrate their sense of mastery. They did it.
I was curious to find any link between mastery and satisfaction in other contexts outside of the classroom. I happened upon Daniel Pink’s book, Drive. The conclusion he draws in this book is that there are 3 things necessary for work in the 21st century: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Sounds a lot like Montessori to me! But perhaps that’s something to muse on for another day.
Thanks to my Montessori trainer, Judi Orion, and Karin Slabaugh for sharing their thoughts in a recent (closed) group conversation about heuristic play to help me clarify my feelings on the topic expressed here.
Other things I’m excited about…
And before I go here are some links you might like:
- I want to make some of these sensory smelling bottles for the classroom. So beautiful.
- My Montessori friend, Aubrey Hargis, has written a book for babies which comes out tomorrow (4 September). If you are in the throws of the first year, his is exactly the book you’ll need. I got to have a sneak peek and it’s a beautiful month-by-month guide how you can support your baby. She’s aiming to reach the mainstream audience with this book, so even though there is no “Montessori” in the title, all the great advice has her years of experience in there. Add it to your wishlist now! It’s called Baby’s First Year Milestones: Promote and Celebrate Your Baby’s Development with Monthly Games and Activities.
- I was reminded about this video I made of the Glass Classroom in Prague last summer – a great way to see a Montessori classroom in action on a small scale.
- Another special Montessori friend has a book out – Jeanne-Marie Paynel was asked to write (in French) “50 golden rules of the Montessori method”. You can find it HERE
- There’s an AMI 3-6 Assistants training happening here in Amsterdam! It started last weekend, but maybe it’s not too late to join. More information here.
- And on the subject of Montessori books, here is a great bookshelf of Montessori books from How we Montessori to enjoy. Feeling very honoured to have The Montessori Toddler in that collection of books! Still cannot believe that we are already in our third print run in less than a year. Available here.
I have lots more to share from my trip when I visited some special Montessori friends. But more about that next time.