Montessori and the Magic of Mistakes

Have you ever had the chance to do something amazing, but were too afraid of failing to try? Imagine if, from the age of 2 or 3 years old, you were taught it's not only ok to make mistakes, but encouraged because it often leads to exciting independent discoveries. This could completely reshape the way you see and experience the world.

I’ve been a Montessori teacher for almost 5 years and one of the things I love most about this method are the underlying benefits that are so ingrained in the curriculum you may miss them. It is undoubtedly exciting to see a 4 year old completing Addition work, or to hear a 3 year old reading her first words, but what really makes a Montessori education special is how the freedom, the materials, and the guides allow the child to make mistakes.

When you embark on a career as a Montessori guide and take the certification training, one of the most shocking and difficult things to put into practice at first is allowing the child to explore the materials and sometimes be unsuccessful with them! Montessori lessons are scientifically designed to be self-correcting. This means when a child is completing the Spindle Game and puts an incorrect number of spindles in a numeral box you do not step in and say, “no, that's not right… let me show you.” Instead you let the child complete the lesson, and practice it again another day until he gets it. And amazingly, he does get it, almost every time on his own. Usually the child will come to the natural conclusion he has run out of spindles at the end, realize he made a mistake somewhere and will go back and fix it. You may have to present the lesson another time on another day; as you observe the child faltering, you will notice how proud he is when he corrects himself without you telling him. Whereas if you step in and correct him, he may get discouraged and choose to forgo the lesson entirely. Instead of you being an all-knowing, righteous higher being, you gift the child with the power of exploring for himself. The concept is clearer to him and more meaningful because he came to the conclusion independently by being the little scientific explorer the child so naturally is.

We recently had a group of children move up to Primary from a Pre-Primary room. They are just beginning to be shown new lessons. I presented the quintessential Montessori lesson, the Pink Tower, to a little boy we’ll call Peter. The Pink Tower is a Sensorial lesson with 10 pink cubes that get progressively larger with each one. I presented the lesson slowly, bringing one piece at a time to the rug and placing it gently down to encourage care of the material and graceful, refined movements. After I had brought all the pieces to the rug and laid them out in random order, I built the tower from largest to smallest. We took some time walking around the rug to marvel at our creation and then I disassembled the tower one piece at a time, brought it back to the shelf, and invited Peter to have a turn.

At first, Peter recapitulated my movements precisely. He brought each cube one at a time to the rug and carefully placed it down. When it came time to build the tower, an interesting thing happened. He was able to build the first few in order, largest to smallest, but before he would choose which one he thought was the next largest, he'd look to me every time and ask “is it this one?” And I would say “try it and let's see...” And he would place it on top of the previous cube. If it seemed like a perfect fit, his face would light up and he'd say “it fits!” And sometimes he would choose one just a bit too small and I wouldn't say anything. I didn't need to... because he would place it on, realize it was a bit too small, place it back down and retrieve the correct cube. We continued on in this way and I continued to let Peter make his mistakes, because I knew he would correct himself. When he completed his tower, it looked exactly like mine had, in perfect order and we took a trip around the rug as Peter beamed down at his creation he did “all by himself.”

As I was working with Peter and he continued looking back at me to double check before selecting a cube to see if I would give him the answer, I wondered to myself if we are all born unsure of our intuition. Observing young children, you begin to realize, we are each born a blank slate and our experiences, especially early on in life, shape how much faith we have in ourselves and where we look for answers later on.

The fact that Montessori education and materials are self-correcting, and we as guides are taught to empower the child to make mistakes and later correct himself, leads to young people who hopefully grow into adults that are not constantly looking for guidance or approval outside of themselves. These foundational experiences will teach them that making mistakes is proof that you are trying, and is sometimes the best, most powerful way to learn. They will become confident, strong people who don't back down when a challenge is presented, because they trust their intuition and know they have the answers and resilience within themselves. I believe this is one of the most powerful gifts we as Montessori teachers can give our children - the power to enter the world fearless and believe in themselves.

Montessori In The Home: Primary Edition

We’re rounding out our series on Montessori-approved activities to complement your child’s classroom experience with our third and final age group- the primary years, which include ages three to six. Children at this age, like the others, have a strong desire for independence, but now have the capacity to take on much more complex tasks. They have moved from an unconscious absorbent mind to a conscious absorbent mind, meaning that they are consciously seeking out and learning new skills. Giving your child opportunities at home to follow his or her interests will only enrich their time at school. Read on for ideas on how you can incorporate learning into your child’s time at home.

Baking

Baking is a wonderful activity at any age, but when your child enters the primary years it can be a great opportunity to practice reading as well as a little math. Show your child a simple recipe, and help him read it. Talk about quantities (like tablespoon, cup, etc), and show your child measuring cups so they can see the difference between a whole cup, a half cup, and so on. Let them measure out the ingredients, mix up the batter, and prepare the treat to go into the oven. Then set a timer, and when it rings help your child take your creation out of the oven, cut it up, and serve it to the family.

After you are all finished, make sure you have your child help you clean up. The clean up process is part of the work cycle in the classroom, meaning your work isn’t done until you’ve put it back on the shelf like you found it. The same is true at home! Have your child help you wash the dishes, load the dishwasher, and put things back in order.

Language Games

There are many language games that you can play at home. A favorite for all ages is “I Spy” using sounds instead of describing the object. For example, “I spy with my little eye something that starts with the sound ‘t’. A tree!” If your child needs a clue then you can add in some extra hints. “It’s tall and it has green leaves.” At school your child will be learning the sounds letters make, not their names, so it’s important to stick with the sounds, and keep them as short and pure as possible. “T”, not “tuh”. If you need a quick tutorial, talk to your child’s teacher.

Another language activity to try at home is keeping a journal. This can be a journal of pictures, or pictures and words- let your child decide. If something occurs during the day that your child would like to write about, or if there’s a story that your child enjoys telling, get out her journal and suggest she write it down. Encourage her to sound out words for herself, and don’t correct her spelling. If your child is not a storyteller, you could keep a journal of all the animals you see out your kitchen window, or interesting things you saw on your way to school. Follow your child’s lead.

It’s also important to have books available for reading. Make a little reading nook with a comfortable chair and a selection of books that your child is free to pick up and read at any time. Switch out the books occasionally to keep things fresh. You could even choose topics for books based on the time of the year- holiday books in the winter, books about flowers or frogs in the spring- it’s really about what captures your child’s imagination.

Focus and Observation Games

Concentration is an extremely important skill at this age, so why not work on it at home as well as at school?

Pick three objects, cover them with a cloth, then take one away and ask your child, “What’s missing?” Repeat as long as it holds her interest. Beyond increasing her attention span, this is also a good opportunity to expand your child’s vocabulary. In the classroom, for example, this game is often used to teach the names of the geometric solids (which include a cube, cylinder, sphere, etc). Choose objects that your child might not readily know the name for (kitchen tools would be a great place to start), and then teach her the names through the game.

Another fun game to play is the Secret Number Game. To start, have your child hide a basket of small objects like pebbles or little shaped erasers somewhere in the house. Then write a number (typically one through ten) on a little slip of paper and give it to your child. Have them retrieve that number of pebbles and bring them back to you. This requires your child to focus their attention, keep the number in their mind, and ignore the distractions that may be present as they walk to the hidden basket and back.

Science Experiments:

Simple science experiments are a great activity at this age, since your child is becoming more and more curious about the world around him. Drops of water on a penny- give your child a penny, an eye dropper and a small bowl of water. Before he begins, have him guess how many drops of water he will be able to fit on the penny and have him write his answer down. Then show him how to slowly drip water from the eyedropper onto the penny and count the number of drops. Body control and focus are very important for this activity! After he has finished, follow his lead for extensions- you could try drops of water on a quarter or dime, try salt water, compare a dirty penny with a clean penny- there are so many variations!

Another fun activity at this age is growing a plant from a lima bean. Place a couple of lima beans on a damp paper towel and seal them in a plastic bag. Tape the plastic bag to a window where your child can easily see it. Keep the paper towel damp, and in a week or so you should see a plant begin to sprout. Once the plant has sprouted, plant it in a pot. This is a wonderful activity for the spring, and seeing the bean sprout into a plant is very exciting!

We hope that this series of articles has inspired you to extend your child’s learning from the classroom into your home. The important thing to remember is that you should observe your child and see what interests them, then find ways to capitalize on those interests. As Maria Montessori once said, “The goal of early childhood education should be to activate the child’s own natural desire to learn.” When parents work hand in hand with teachers to allow children to pursue their own individual interests, the possibilities for what your child can achieve are endless.

 

Montessori In The Home: Pre-Primary Edition

Continuing our series of Montessori-approved activities to do at home, we will now address the pre-primary level (ages two to three). At this age, the child still has a desire for independence, but is now capable of taking on more complex tasks.

Chores:
This is the perfect age to introduce simple, daily chores. Folding laundry, washing dishes, picking up her room- all of these things involve your child in the everyday tasks of living and participating in a household. Choose jobs that your child can do successfully by herself, and ones that she can do every day, since children at this age benefit from consistent routines.

Preparing a Snack:
Children love working with food at any age, so giving your child some autonomy in the kitchen is a great way to reinforce her sense of independence. Allow your child to make her own snack, for example, or even a snack for the family. Have a small selection of appropriate foods available, and allow your child to choose which she would like to prepare. Then let her go to town! Some examples of simple snacks that a child could make would be: chopping an apple (with your help) and spreading each slice with peanut butter, pulling grapes off of the stems, washing them, and placing them in a bowl. Or you could even mash up an avocado and add a little lime juice to make guacamole. The possibilities are endless! After the snack is ready, help your child serve it, and then sit with her to eat. This is a great time to model appropriate mealtime behavior, and to connect with your child. Then when you are both finished, show her how to clean up (wash the plates, wash the prep tools, etc).

Toileting:
Getting your child comfortable with using the toilet is a big step. Teachers work with children on using the toilet in the classroom, but it’s extremely important for parents to follow up at home. Keep a small potty chair in your bathroom, along with a basket of clean underwear, and a bucket for soiled underwear. Show your child how to use the potty, and how to clean up if there is an accident. Offer opportunities for him to sit on the potty, such as when he gets up in the morning, and after mealtimes. If he declines, accept that, and offer him another chance at a later time. Be consistent, don’t force anything on your child, and remain positive and encouraging.

Reading:
Reading is a wonderful activity at any age, but it’s especially fun with two-year-olds because they are able to be more involved with choosing and interacting with a story. Ask your child simple questions about what is being read (Can you find the cow? What does a cat say? Etc.). If he chooses, your child could even act out the story! Some good books for this age group include We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann, and Freight Train by Donald Crews.

Free Play:
In this busy world, children benefit most not from lots of structured activities, but from time when they are allowed to simply play. Giving your child plenty of unstructured play time at home allows her to develop her concentration and flex her problem-solving skills. Open-ended toys like blocks, dolls, stuffed animals and balls tend to occupy children’s attention for longer periods of time and encourage creativity.

Limited Choices:
Allowing your child to make choices at this age can be a great way to prevent tantrums and power struggles, as well as accommodate his desire for independence, but the key is to offer limited choices. Choose two, weather-appropriate outfits, and then allow your child to pick which one to wear. Offer two options for breakfast, and let him pick which one he wants to eat. Ask if he’d like to put his jacket on first, or his shoes when it’s time to leave the house. Giving your child choices lets him feel a sense of control, but limiting them provides structure and safety.

Resources

  • How to Raise an Amazing Child The Montessori Way by Tim Seldin
  • Montessori From The Start by Paula Polk Lillard and Lynn Lillard Jessen
  • For Small Hands is a branch of Montessori Services, which provides Montessori practical life, science and cultural materials for schools and parents. Check out their website at www.forsmallhands.com to find child-sized kitchen tools and much more!