Perhaps the most important gift we can give a child is the gift to BE – to be him or herself. Montessori said, “The psychology of man is like a big continent. Take America, for example: although it already existed, nobody knew it was there. The soul of the child is rich, like a vast unknown continent – if we wish to understand, we must discover it; and to discover it we must be patient.”
Head Start believes in the child – every child. Each comes with his or her own unique perceptions of life and this vast universe. We can only offer the opportunity to help a child find his or her individual direction and rhythm. Where he or she can go, what learning happens, what values are imbibed or what challenges emerge, cannot be predicted. They lie within; they lie beyond our knowledge or understanding, but they come to light at some point of time. The realisation of this comes as a discovery, a revelation, and it is decidedly individual.
It is difficult to define a young child’s development under a ‘curriculum’. While Montessori has given us amazing materials and activities for the child, they provide a framework for daily work. However, her purpose goes far beyond these materials, into a realm of deeper understanding, in the development of life skills, and a preparation for living with confidence and independence in a wider perspective. No wonder she says that education is not for the classroom, but for life.
Having had the privilege of observing our children from infancy to adulthood over the past several years, so many life skills have become apparent, though in varying degrees; work ethic, organisational skills, the ability to make informed decisions, being able to rely on oneself for daily needs and so much more. This reaffirms our faith in Montessori’s wisdom and encourages us to move forward with greater faith. This is not ‘theory’; it is actual implementation through internalization.
It is natural for parents to be anxious about their children’s futures, about their ability to achieve academic goals and pass examinations. A confident, independent child, who has self-esteem and has developed a good work ethic, will always do the best he or she can. Having said that, ones best is relative, because each of us is unique and individual and one cannot do more than ones best. We must respect and appreciate this.
While reflecting on the Exercises or Activities of Practical Life in a Montessori environment, one cannot help but wonder and marvel at their efficacy in preparing us for life. While we are aware that they promote motor co-ordination, both gross and fine, enable children to take care of themselves and the environment, help them develop good posture, control of movements and independence, they also develop a sense of appreciation of order in our environments and teach us how to coexist harmoniously in a community. Courtesy to fellow beings, finesse and balance, dignity of labour, are all indirectly imbibed. These are the lasting benefits of the Exercises of Practical Life.
While many activities are ‘practical’, concretised and tangible, including those that involve the use of the senses, once again, they lead to a higher purpose, the development of sensitive and caring human beings.
Our senses help us to connect deeply to everything around us so that our reactions are ‘complete’, and our involvement, ‘total’. So often we hear the words, “Listen to the music” or “Look at what you see”. However, it is much more meaningful when we do not just listen to the music but we ‘feel’ it, connect to it and internalise it with our total being, our total involvement. Many great personalities have been individuals who appreciated all that life has to offer. Be they scientists or musicians, writers of poetry or drama, sportsmen or actors, they looked beyond their specific fields and drew the maximum they could from the varied beauty and experience of life.
When we hear the name Einstein, we usually think of a scientist, the theory of relativity, mathematical wizard. How many of us think of Einstein as a poet, a writer or a musician? Yet, he was all this and much more. He was passionate about music and played the violin and the piano – a passion that remained with him throughout his adult life. His writings are poetic and philosophical. Here is an example:
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”
Further, Einstein shared:
“The really valuable thing in the pageant of human life seems to me not the political state, but the creative, sentient individual, the personality; it alone creates the noble and the sublime, while the herd as such remains dull in thought and dull in feeling.”
In a Montessori House, the purpose behind the ‘Sensorial’ materials is not just being conscious of the fact that we have so many senses. Montessori believed that the development of these senses is vital for wholesome development and that is why she laid such stress on them. She must have felt, like Einstein that the ‘noble and sublime’ are important and that we can help our children transcend beyond, into higher realms of feeling and understanding.
In our world of technology, we often forget about the sensorial aspects of life and how our senses actually enrich our experiences. If children are allowed to be their natural sensitive selves, they will find beauty in all that they touch, and hear, and experience. To quote Einstein again, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity”.
Herbert Read says, “The aim of education is the creation of artists.” He does not suggest that this refers only to people who draw and paint; rather he means people who are efficient in various modes of expression – mathematical expression, poetic expression, scientific expression. To that extent then, we are all artists.
Think of math and geometry. Many centuries ago Plato and Pythagoras had already realized that numbers were the clue to the nature of the universe and the mystery of beauty. If we look at the bee’s cell we will notice that each cell in a honeycomb is close to a perfect mathematical figure – a hexagonal prism. Mathematical proportions give rise to the emotion we associate with works of art – with music – the rhythm, the beat, the melody – they all come together. They evoke our senses and our understanding. There is beauty and emotion, science and art, in everything.
A scientific explanation of the ‘wind’ is ‘air in motion’ but Christina Rossetti gave it poetic emotion:
“Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.”
Wholesome sensorial growth benefits total development-emotional, physical, biological and spiritual. We cannot think of ourselves as having separate compartments – an emotional compartment, a cognitive compartment, a biological one and so on. We are ‘whole’; we are ‘one’. Our education should also think of us as thinking, feeling, well-rounded beings, where our senses, our thought processes, and our bodies, all come together harmoniously. Here the ‘muscular’ memory also plays a huge part.
A young woman, a 100-metre hurdler, described to me how this harmony helped her become a better athlete. She gracefully demonstrated her run up to the first hurdle, the folding of the knee of one leg over the hurdle, the drawing up of the second leg from behind; the landing, and then the three steps till the next hurdle. It was poetry in motion, brought about by long hours of practice, and the harmony of mind, body, muscle and feeling.
Another example of our muscular memories comes to mind. While switching to an automatic car after years of driving a manually operated one, I found my muscular memory was so strong that my left hand would automatically look for gears to change and my left leg would go to the clutch. I had to consciously retrain myself to believe that there were no gears to change, and no clutch to go to. There are many activities to strengthen our muscular memories in a Montessori House. They have long lasting benefits.
A child’s natural development is brought about by freedom of movement, which enables him to interact with the environment, adjust to it and achieve harmony. There is a dynamic relationship between the physical, intellectual, emotional and social aspects of his/her life and according to Montessori this process is cyclical and interconnected.
We strongly believe that an opportunity to use our senses can only make us more ‘complete’ beings. They transcend into all our learning, and every subject. That is why sensorial development is given so much importance in a House of Children. As Montessori says:
“To teach a child whose senses have been developed is quite a different thing from teaching one who has not had this help.”