7 Weird Ways Adults Misunderstand Montessori:
A reply to '7 Weird Things My Kid Does at Montessori Kindy'
A recent article on Kidspot gave the author a platform to share “7 Weird Things My Kid Does at Montessori Kindy”. The tone of the piece is a little confusing…and the title is definitely provocative (perhaps a very clever piece of clickbait!) The social media reactions of many Montessori educators and parents suggest that they are interpreting the article as mocking complaints about silly practices…yet the author’s child has been in Montessori for two years so presumably she is a fan of the approach. I can therefore only assume that the article is meant to be ‘tongue-in-cheek’; a harmless bit of fun-poking, the way you would gently and lovingly tease your best friend for their cute quirks. The trouble is, it perhaps doesn’t completely succeed in communicating the ‘harmless’, ‘gentle’ or ‘loving’ parts and, as a result, many of the commenters are taking it literally as a very straight-faced criticism of Montessori. I don't think the author herself genuinely misunderstands Montessori (I think she just has a good sense of humour!) but I do believe that her article is (however unintentionally) reinforcing many misconceptions about it for her readers.
So I decided to write a reply in the hope that it might help to explain why Montessori children do these "weird" things...and to show that they are actually wonderfully weird!
Before we get into the explanations of the individual points raised by Kidspot…let’s just start by saying that there are more than 22,000 Montessori schools around the world in more than 110 different countries. So making the blanket statement that a particular practice happens “In Montessori” is seriously underestimating the diversity of this approach! The specifics of Montessori are contextualized according to the culture in which it is applied. There are fundamental principles and practices that might be seen as ‘universal’ in Montessori, but these are expressed differently or given varying weight according to the context. For instance, every Montessori centre would have a way of welcoming children, because it’s a universal principle that we want our children to feel like valued members of a community, but only some Montessori environments would choose ‘handshakes’ as the specific expression of this idea. I’ll be writing from the perspective of my own Montessori experiences but my environment is not a carbon copy of the other Montessori classrooms around the world!
7 Weird Ways Adults Misunderstand Montessori.
1. They assume that hand-shakes are automatically ‘business like’.
The Kidspot article suggests that Montessori classrooms make children “line up like little businessmen and businesswomen” for a handshake at the start of the day. Let’s start by considering why handshakes are so common in business (at least in Australian culture). It is because handshakes achieve two goals simultaneously; they initiate a connection and they show respect. So from that perspective there is a similarity between the business world and the Montessori world because we are also using handshakes to invite a connection and to show respect.
A handshake is unique because it establishes some physical contact without imposing artificial or unwanted intimacy. Some children prefer to greet their Montessori teachers with a hug. Some. Not all of them. So it would be inappropriate for Montessori teachers to use a hug as a ‘standard’ greeting. A handshake is a nice balance – it offers a gentle touch but it respects personal space. If a child wants to move from the handshake to the hug (as so many of them do!) then this is warmly welcomed!
The handshake is also special because it is an individual greeting. When you wave at someone it is quite a broad gesture – you could be waving to a whole group simultaneously. Approaching a child to offer a handshake says, “I am here for you.” It is very personal (but, again, without being intrusive) and makes a child feel seen, known and welcomed as an individual.
It is important to remember, though, that a handshake at Montessori is not ‘formal’. In that sense there is nothing ‘business-like’ about it. The children don’t somberly provide a quick shake of the wrist while mumbling something about shifting the 2pm meeting back to 3. The handshakes are warm and friendly. They are the catalyst for eye-contact, a catch up chat and – more often than not – a chance for the child to express his or her own unique personality. Each child I know shakes hands differently, though there are some common themes that seem to crop up time and time again. Some of my personal favourites include ‘The Tango’ – where a child connects to your hand and then begins to dance and twirl – the ‘Fold In’ – where a child starts from the handshake and then folds into your arms for a cuddle – the ‘Arm Breaker’ – where a child uses all their muscles and energy to shake your hand as vigorously as possible - and ‘The Tigger’ – when a child bounces enthusiastically on the other end of the shake.
Adults all around the world have their own customs for greeting one another. Whether it’s a respectful bow, a kiss on each cheek or a warm embrace it is simply a particular culture’s way of saying “You matter to me and I’m happy to see you”. That’s what a handshake means in the culture of a Montessori community.
2. They assume that wearing a plastic bag filled with your own faeces would somehow be more ‘comfortable’ than learning to use the toilet.
Okay, that sentence might need some explaining! The Kidspot article states that Montessori centres make children “swap nappies for thick terry toweling underpants that feel gross when they’re dirty. The reasoning is that the more uncomfortable they are, the quicker they will learn to use the potty.” There are several things that trouble me about that. The first is that not all Montessori environments enforce this as a rule, so it’s misleading to make such a blanket statement. In my own Montessori environment, for instance, we make suggestions to parents and offer support with toilet learning but we don’t tell parents how to parent and we don’t undermine their choices by doing the exact opposite in the classroom. So we don’t have “thick terry toweling underpants” for our children unless that is what their parents send them in.
I do know of Montessori environments that use these and the Kidspot author is half-right in that they do feel different to nappies. Their purpose, though, is not to feel “gross”. Firstly, I’d argue that wearing fabric underpants is a lot more comfortable than wearing a piece of padded plastic (particularly because the underpants actually allow you to walk effectively rather than encouraging that bow-legged look that so many thick plastic nappies create!) Secondly, it is not that the soiled underpants feel “gross”, it is that the child feels something! Nappies are designed to ‘draw the moisture away’ so it is often difficult for a child (or an adult!) to even notice when they are wet. Nappies are also so heavy and bulky by their very nature that even bowel movements don’t get much of a reaction as a child has become desensitized to the feeling of bulk around their bottoms. So a child in a plastic nappy has very little connection to their own body signals. They therefore have little motivation to want to change the nappy (how many parents or carers have had to chase a child around while their nappy sags but they refuse to stop for a change!), and may show even less awareness of why they would want to start using the toilet. On the other hand, a child using the Montessori-style underpants will definitely feel it when the underpants are wet or soiled. This sensation gives the child a signal, helps put them in tune with their body, and gives an innate motivation to want to change into fresh clothes and to want to try using the toilet next time. It’s not about torturing or tricking children with “grossness”, it’s about allowing them to be in tune with their own body.
What the article definitely gets right is that we use the phrase toilet learning but we “don’t call it training, they’re not pets”. I’m usually a bit more diplomatic than this when I explain it to people. If I know someone well enough then I might jokingly point out that you train dogs, you don’t train people. But mostly I stick to explaining that we call it “toilet learning” because that is exactly what the child is doing – learning to use the toilet. Imagine how weird it would sound if we referred to “walking training” when we encouraged a child as they took their first steps, or “numbers training” as we happily helped a child to count. Children learn at an incredible rate and volume. They have to make sense of the world around them and they acquire so many new skills in their first few years. Recognising their body signals, and using the toilet, are concepts and skills to learn, not tricks to be trained for.
3. They think there’s something strange about letting children experience freedom of movement.
The Kidspot article references ‘floor beds’, which certainly are widely used in Montessori environments. A floor bed isn’t just “sleeping on the floor”, it’s a beautifully prepared and comfortable sleeping area that is low enough for a child to get on and off independently. Sometimes there’s a low bed frame, others choose to just use mattresses. It depends on the context. The binding principle is simply that children are able to choose when to be in bed and when to be awake. Something that we, as adults, take for granted. If you’ve ever been stuck in bed – perhaps when recovering from surgery, when your mind is alert but you’re not allowed to move around – you’ll know that it feels pretty awful. This is why, in Montessori environments, we don’t leave children ‘stuck’ in confined spaces like cribs or cots.
The author indicates that they’ve taken to using the floor bed at home (which, again, suggests to me that she must actually love Montessori and intended the article to be taken ironically). She goes on to state that her child still stays immobile in the bed and perhaps hasn’t noticed that there are no longer bars. I definitely hope this part is a joke because it would make me very sad to think that her child was actually so paralysed by learned dependence. I’ve never known a child who would do that – most are actually overly enthusiastic about getting in-and-out-and-in-and-out-and-in-and-out of the floor bed if they’ve transitioned to it from a cot. To understand why, let’s think about that word that is used to describe the confines of a cot; “bars”. If you were “behind bars” for a year or two then wouldn’t you celebrate when you were granted your freedom? Floor beds provide children with freedom and autonomy. They deliver the message, “We trust you to learn what your own body needs and to be in charge of your movements.” There are definitely challenges with using a floor bed, it’s not an absolutely perfect or smooth system, but there are also challenges with cots – most notably the excessive crying from a child who is wide awake but rendered completely stuck! A floor bed allows a child the dignity and liberty of moving from the sleeping space to move safely around their special environment.
4. They automatically think of cleaning as a ‘chore’.
In our adult lives the cleaning is usually an obstacle in the way of what we really want to do. Perhaps this is why the Kidspot article makes it seem bizarre that children would ever want to do it. We have to do the dishes when all we really want to do is relax…but we want to relax because we spent all day at work.
It’s different for a child. They look at cleaning as something fun to do when it’s a choice that they are free to make. This is because cleaning is, undeniably (and whether we like it or not!), a big part of adult life. Children see adults cleaning, tidying, working, mending. And they want to be like us! Children are driven by an innate and unquenchable desire to imitate the adults in their culture. This is how they become social beings and actualized individuals, it is how they develop a sense of belonging and a feeling of identity. We think it’s ‘cute’ when children play doctors or dress up in mummy’s shoes…so why is it so strange that they would also want to wash the windows like mummy does on the weekend or cook the dinner like daddy? Children love the ‘Practical Life’ work in a Montessori classroom, including the cleaning. I have seen children race to be the first to the vacuum cleaner, beg to be the one to mop the floors every day for the week and spontaneously engage in countless repetitions of cleaning the same table over and over and over (even when it was already ‘clean’ after the first attempt!) All the while they are building physical dexterity and coordination, strengthening their ability to follow sequences of steps in a complex task and learning practical skills that they will use throughout their life. But they don’t think about any of that. They just know it’s fun to make bubbles on the table or use the special squeegee on the windows!
5. They think that a child’s community should be completely separate from the adult’s community.
“Parents are also put to work” the article claims…before immediately contradicting this by pointing out that “mums and dads are asked to sign up”. So the easy answer would be ‘if you don’t like it, don’t do it’ but let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume that the author is generous enough to want to help but maybe doesn’t quite understand why it’s so important.
This practice is definitely not unique to Montessori, it’s pretty commonplace for schools to have various parent committees or working bees. It benefits everyone if a school has a sense of community and if parents and educators work in partnership. Volunteering for a parent group at a Montessori school isn’t just about “wiping down pencil cases” (as the article suggests), it’s about getting to know other parents who might be sharing your experiences. It’s about being physically on the school premises so you feel that you truly belong there, so you’re not just a visitor in a foreign land. Spending time helping the school also says to your child, “I care about this place – your environment is important to me.” This is a really comforting message and helps children feel safe and secure within their school environment. It shows the child that there is a relationship between ‘home’ and ‘school’, that they are not two disconnected environments in conflict with one another but two harmonious partners both contributing to that child’s life.
Supporting your school community is also great role-modelling for your child. We talk about wanting children to be generous and to care for others, so we need to show them what this looks like. Donating your time, energy and expertise helps to show your child that this is a part of your family values. That will make things a lot easier when you’re eventually asking your child to donate their time, energy and expertise to tasks that will benefit your home or family.
As the article itself says, “Say it with me – COMMUNITY!”…except I am saying that with sincerity not sarcasm!
6. They assume that children must be loud, chaotic and crazy in order to have fun.
The Kidspot article describes Montessori classrooms as “eerily quiet”. My Montessori classroom is certainly a bit “quieter” than the average early learning environments but guess what – that’s just what happens when children are engaged! There’s no “eerie” about it because it’s completely natural – something that the children are doing, not something we are doing to them. When they’re encountering experiences that are developmentally appropriate, stimulating, interesting, inspiring and enlightening they don’t need to run in circles shouting at the top of their lungs! They’re having too much fun to want to do that. We don’t force children to ‘be quiet’, we just offer them a range of different opportunities and some of these inspire quiet focus, while others provoke meaningful discussion and collaboration, but very few instigate random loud noise for its own sake.
In my own classroom it’s rare that I’d ever describe the room as “very quiet”. It’s more like a spectrum between “productive hum” and “peacefully calm”. The productive hum is still not a crazy clatter of cackling, but it’s the ambient noise of happy chatting, joyful giggles, and materials being moved and manipulated as children learn through play. The peacefully calm moments (moments, not days!) are the times when it just so happens that the majority of children are engaged with experiences that just don’t require too much noise. It’s not a monastery, it’s a classroom, so there will always be some speech and sound but what we don’t experience is sensory overload.
The assumption that all kids want to be loud and crazy also completely ignores the fact that humans experience a wide range of personality types and traits. We’re happy to understand that there are lots of quiet, introverted adults who prefer a night in with Netflix to a bustling party…so where do we think those adults come from? Is every child in the world automatically a boisterous extrovert and then on their 18th birthday 50% of them have a complete personality transformation and become more reserved? I certainly know that many children are very grateful for an environment that respects their quieter dispositions because they’ve told me! I can’t count the number of different children who have made comments about their other ‘non-Montessori’ environments like “It’s too loud at childcare”, “All the kids shout at swimming”, “I get scared of all the noise at Wiggly Worms”, “I have to put my hands over my ears at kindy”. I’m sure many of the children in those environments love the noise, but not all of them do and so I’m really proud to create a more peaceful sanctuary for those who prefer it that way (I’m one of them!)
7. They think manners are just delivered to a child one night by the Manners Fairy.
The Kidspot article correctly explains that “In the world of Montessori there is a big emphasis on being a nice person.” This is certainly true…and I can’t really think of a single way that this should be a complaint! We value values so much that we have a whole curriculum area devoted to them – it’s called “Grace and Courtesy”. Helping children develop social graces and courteous manners is as important to us as helping them to learn to count or name colours. Humans are social creatures. Every single day of our lives we will engage in social interactions. So learning how to engage in these interactions politely and effectively is quite simply one of the most important skills a person can ever acquire.
The trouble with the article is that it then gets oddly specific, going on to allege that being nice “means taking a moment to sing this song before you eat lunch:
"We love our bread
We love our butter
But most of all we love each other"
Now I enjoyed watching Madeline as much as the next person, but I don’t know of any Montessori classes that consist entirely of 12 little girls in two straight lines. So perhaps some Montessori classrooms are incorporating rhyming references to Madeline but I’ve never heard of it and it certainly doesn’t happen in mine! If it does happen elsewhere, though, I certainly don’t mind. It’s a bit twee for my personal tastes, but I’m not a member of every Montessori classroom community in the world – just my own! So I’m welcome to have a personal influence on the dynamics and traditions of my own community, but I’m not welcome to impose my preferences on other communities. Culture isn’t just something that happens at a national level; it’s something that develops in localities, neighbourhoods, families and classrooms. In Montessori we simply recognize that the classroom community is the child’s first experience with a social culture outside of the home, so we work hard to make it a pleasant and positive one. Yes this sometimes involves cute little traditions, and mealtimes are the perfect opportunity for this because it’s a time when the whole group comes together. At my own preschool we don’t say “Grace” before we start eating but we do have a tradition of enjoying soft relaxation music while we eat to create a beautiful atmosphere. At one of our sister centres they light candles that flicker gently in the middle of the table during the meal, mimicking the atmosphere of a lovely restaurant.
Children don’t just wake up one day halfway to adulthood and say, “I’m suddenly old enough to appreciate beauty, to show respect for others and to use manners.” They are capable of all of these things in the earliest years of their life. We trust our children, we see the very best in them, and so yes we ask them to be courteous to each other because we know that they not only want to do this but that they are very capable of it. Sometimes this consists of communal traditions, like saying grace, at other times it is just about learning how to politely approach a new person to say “Excuse me” and introduce yourself. We’re not waiting for the Manners Fairy to arrive, we’re using Montessori Magic to help children develop and express what is innately a part of their human experience.