What do children get out of play and work?
How come children repeat a play sequence over and over?
Why do children repeatedly build a similar tower over and over?
Why does a child repeatedly read a book on the same topic?
The importance of work and play to a child’s development is widely recognized by educational theorists. Through these activities, a child develops holistically. Of upmost importance is that a child has repeated exposure to engaging learning opportunities. These learning opportunities must have a high degree of student choice to facilitate student engagement.
Learning opportunities must have a high degree of student choice to facilitate student engagement
The significance of discovery through play and exploration was key to Piaget’s Educational Philosophy. Piaget was a contemporary of Montessori, and his views informed her philosophy. Piaget believed that there were four main stages of cognitive development each building on top of the other. The sensior-motor stage, preoperational stage, concrete- operational and formal operational stage. The first stage between birth and 2 years Piaget labelled 'Sensorimotor'. Like Montessori, Piaget conjectured that children of this age learn primarily through motor activity such as grasping, throwing, moving and sucking (McInerney, 1998). Through doing so children begin to understand that there is a world outside themselves. With repeated motor activity the child develops an understanding of shape, size, cause and effect and those things or objects that stay the same.
At this early stage of life repetitive sensor motor activities help the child develop holistically. Montessori said that movement and psyche developed together. Through this process, the young child incarnates or absorbs their environment through adaption. This adaption and development comes through play which Montessori calls the child’s work (Montessori,1949). Key to this development was Montessori’s belief that the child’s work or play must be child-sized and realistic to help them develop key qualities of their psyche: personality and independence. The child’s work or play area must be one where the child could act for himself, talk and find ‘intelligent, constructive activities’ (Montessori, 1949, p.244) These activities must be such that they ‘staircase’ and as the child develops and succeeds in their work the activities presented by the teacher become more complex to help the child extend their physical, intellectual and spiritual education (Montessori, 1917)
Through hands-on learning in the contexts of work and play the child’s neural pathways develop. The increasing complexity of work in a prepared environment helps the child become ‘the constructor of man, independent in function, the worker and master of his environment.’ (Montessori, 1949, p.245). Healy (1994 as cited in Smilksteen, 2003) said 'Each learner must build individual networks for thinking; this development comes from within, using outside stimuli as material for growth... Explaining things to learners won't do the job; they must have a chance to experience, wonder, experiment, and act it out for themselves'
Repetition is an important learning tool for children. To experience and experiment a child needs opportunities to repeat activities of their own choice (Montessori, 2004). Repetition can be seen in very young children as an organic learning activity. Around the time a child is 2 months old they repeatedly ‘babble’, repeating sounds as a pleasurable activity. Through doing so a foundation for recognisable language is developed. The child repeats this activity as it captures their imagination, especially if the adult reciprocates by talking back or copying the small child. (O’hagen, 2001) Montessori labeled this repetition of exercise as ‘constancy’ something which helps build the inner will of the adult (Montessori, 1949).
The key to repetition and learning is to what extent the child’s imagination and attention are captured and the child can see the purpose of the activity (McInerney, 1998). Montessori’s educational methods developed an environment and a range of activities that allowed for the child’s imagination to be captured and the child’s requirement for repetition to be satisfied. (Montessori,1949).) Montessori saw the link between repetition and learning as vital. She gives the example of a small child who may fall over but through repetition learns to walk steadily. Through experiencing error and becoming friendly with it a child was free to ‘correct his errors through growth and experiences’ (Montessori,1949). The implication for this is that the teacher must provide a place in which the child is able to continually experiment within a safe prepared environment.
The provision for choice in Montessori philosophy links to the humanistic view of education a type of education that places high value on a child to own their work through choice (McInerney, 1998). Montessori said that a child intrinsically knows what they are interested in and what skills they want or need to develop. This leads them to choose work that will help them learn these skills even if faced with failure. (Montessori, 1917; Ward 2004)
Developmentally appropriate choices are important
Through developmentally appropriate choice a child is affirmed and encouraged to problem solve subsequent challenges, whether this is reaching for a small toy just out of reach in the case of a small child or working on a longer term project like that of an elementary child. Ward gives the example of a group of elementary children who wanted to make a 1-million chain similar to the bead material they had been working with. Through the adult’s questioning, brainstorming and helping the children evaluate their ideas the children picked a choice to help them reach their goal (Ward, 2004). Ward stated that this process allowed the children to have positive cognitive, emotional, social and physical success. Even if they had not completed their goal the children, through their own choices, would have still experienced growth, albeit in different areas, in these four aspects.
Montessori believed that it was very important that children were able to express themselves with the choices they made through providing the child with opportunities to explore without fear of punishment from the teacher or enticement of reward (Montessori,1949). A particularly challenging illustration is one she gave about two siblings in a Montessori classroom. This anecdote is challenging as it goes against common behavioural management techniques that a child must be redirected to a meaningful work by the teacher if unable to make a ‘correct’ choice.
A teacher is the facilitator of a safe environment where the child is able to explore with pressure or choose something that may not interest him. Montessori’s story alluded to above takes place in one of her classrooms. A younger sibling followed his brother everywhere in the class. One day though he saw the pink tower and for some reason became transfixed on it. His brother was taken a back, used to his sibling constantly following him around the room. (Montessori,1949). Montessori saw this moment as one of great significance where the ‘true child’ emerges (Montessori, 2004).This story has many possible ramifications for choice and the role of the adult in the prepared Montessori environment. The young child knew there were choices in his class, at first he was unable to either make an independent choice or captured by any one piece of equipment, however after repeated exposure and exploration of the prepared environment through his older brother as an intermediary the child felt free to choose his own work that met his own need. (Montessori,1949).
Montessori educators must observe the child and environment consistently to ensure they are meeting the child’s work and play needs. It is important that the environment and teacher provide adequate opportunities for exploration. Through doing this, the adult helps establish the foundation for a child to flourish and develop their identity.
McInerney, D & McInerney, V (1998). Educational Psychology 2nd edition. Sydney: Prentice Hall.
Montessori, M. (1917). Spontaneous Activity in Education, New York, USA: Frederick A Stokes
Montessori, M. (1949). The Absorbent Mind, Madras, India: The Theosophical Publishing House
Montessori, M. (2004). The Secret of Childhood, Hyderabad,India: Orient Longman
O’Hagen, M. (2001). Early years Practioner, 4th ed, England: Harcourt Publishing
Smilksteen, R. (2003). We’re Born to learn: Using the Brain’s Natural Learning Process to Create Today’s Curriculum. England: Corwin Press.