People sometimes say Montessori is too rigid. They say that the materials have to be used in a certain way and children are restricted in their creative expression by virtue of that.
I have always wondered about this. I struggle with allowing freedom for the use of material in a very different way, other than as presented. I have had to balance the needs of the child and the consequences of the freedom given, to be creative with Montessori material. This has been a challenge.
“The child should be allowed to develop freely, in liberty. Two reasons exist for this approach: first, as we have seen, the child develops himself. Secondly, because of that self development, the child reveals to us the laws motivating his work, that is, the psychological laws of his life. So we must develop both a science and an art to respect the liberty of the child.” – Montessori, Maria (2008). The California Lectures of Maria Montessori, 1915.
Initially I would ask myself the question “Is there any harm being done?” and when I saw no immediate harm to the child, material or others, I would think it is justified to allow that freedom. But something still nagged at me. I do not think Maria Montessori came up with various presentations in a light manner. She had deeply studied children and their development and then refined her method over many years. Why then would she have presentations done in a certain way and not just let children explore the material in their own way?
As usual, children provided me with the answers. I have seen children who have very creative ways of doing their work but such children rarely finish the work they choose. This leads them to feeling dissatisfied. This lack of satisfaction or accomplishment later plays out as misbehaviour. The misbehaviour then isolates them from their peers and they are left feeling lonely and even more disappointed and demotivated from further work. So, is there harm being done? Yes! Just that the harm comes later than expected as neither learning has been successfully achieved nor commitment and will to complete a task has been developed in the guise of creativity.
Then there is another facet which is morality. I was recently observing a child choosing a story book to read to a friend. This child is just learning to read and finds it hard to make an effort to decode the text of the author. So, she takes the easy way out of making up her own story to tell with the help of pictures in the book. Again, no harm I think, or is there?
Looking at it from the author’s point of view and I see harm. The author wants to tell a particular story. When we use his/her book to tell a story, we are using his/her effort to tell our own story. Would that seem fair to you as the author? If someone has a story to tell, why not take the effort of writing it and illustrating it, when they are perfectly capable of doing so?
So, I would argue that we must encourage creativity but not at the expense of unfair treatment of another person.
While some children seem overly creative, there are others who struggle to come up with something of their own, even though they have had the opportunity and experience. Maria Montessori observed that imagination is like a muscle that develops on the child’s own timetable. It cannot be forced on a child earlier. Imagination as a tool to see something not sensorially experienced develops in the second plane (6-12 years) and it would do no good to force it upon a child who is lacking it in the first plane (0-6 years).
“If imaginative creation ‘comes late’, then this will be because the intelligence is not sufficiently mature to create until late; and we should “no more force it with a fiction than we would put a false moustache on a child because he will not have one until he is twenty.” – Maria Montessori. The Advanced Montessori Method. Vo. 1
Morality and creativity go hand-in-hand. There are no shortcuts to being creative! If we have taken the shortcut, we are bound to fall and get hurt. Maybe not just yet!
Anjum is one of the founders of Lodestar Montessori School. She wishes that everyone discovers Montessori the way she did. She lives in Singapore with her husband and son.