Conscientious educators and parents tend to spend a lot of thought, time and effort 'preparing the environment' for the child. We think of clever, creative ideas to entice and engage these little explorers. We observe the child for his/her specific needs and interests, search online for beautiful ideas and concoct our own unique provokations, activities, presentations and lessons. All of this can be absolutely wonderful. It certainly comes from a positive place and it can provide the child with a range of experiences that inspire, engage and delight the mind, body and soul.
But sometimes...less is more! Less input from the adult can actually provide more for the child.
Sometimes the child does not need our provokations, our presentations, our lessons...or even our attention, direction or intervention! Some of the most meaningful, engaging and powerful explorations can be entirely devised and directed by the child.
This concept of 'less is more' was certainly included in my training, but it is the child who has truly shown me its value. Time and time again I find myself in real situations where a child (or group of children) will devise experiences so engaging and enlightening that I wish I had thought of it myself. But I didn't, and many times it is precisely the fact that it wasn't directed by an adult that makes it so special. So these moments serve as powerful reminders to me that I must not allow my own adult ego or intentions to prevent the child from undertaking truly free and spontaneous explorations.
The rest of this post provides an illustration of one such experience. In the spirit of this message I will try not to intrude with much language of my own; I will, for the most part, let the pictures do the talking. I will only offer a few words here and there to clarify what is occurring in the image or to express when/how there was some adult involvement.
As you observe these images I ask you to remember;
Don't let what you're trying to teach get in the way of what the child is trying to learn!**
This little learner had spent the weekend at the beach with his grandmother. He arrived at Montessori at 9.00am with a bag full of shells. Here's what he did...
First he set about simply exploring the shells. He arranged them in various baskets and bowls then collected the magnifying lenses so he could examine them in greater detail.
Adult intervention: None. I didn't have to guide this in any way - my only influence was indirect, in the sense that I had previously prepared the environment in a way that placed the baskets, bowls and magnifying lenses in positions that any child can independently access for any purpose.
Would I have necessarily arranged the experience like this? No. My layout would probably have been much more orderly (and much less sandy!). But I didn't need to impose my own order on this situation - this little person was developing his own structure through exploration, and my intervention would have been a hinderance not a help (even if I was well-intentioned!).
Next he collected a paper, clipboard and paper and began tracing the shapes of the shells, cuttlefish, 'sea grapes' and stones. He would place the object on the paper, draw around its edges and then decorate the interior.
Adult intervention: None. Again, the pencils, paper and clipboard were already accessible in the environment. So this little lad independently thought of the idea to trace/draw and then accessed the materials.
While observing each individual treasure this little learner began placing them in various patterns and arrangements. Soon enough the form above took shape - and he then recorded this creation by illustrating it with his paper and clipboard. (The drawing in this photo was completed later than some of the other illustrations, but appears in the larger photo above because I didn't take the photo until after all the drawings were complete).
Adult intervention: None. Just silent amazement! I was engaged elsewhere in the classroom while this element was happening - I just returned to observe the pattern being completed and then saw the beginning of the illustration. I was blown away by the lateral, artistic use of the natural materials - but I didn't express this externally because that would have detracted from the innate motivation and intense concentration that this young man was experiencing.
During his explorations this little man realised that there were lots of different sizes in his collection - from the tiny 'sea grapes' to the large pieces of cuttlefish and everything in between! He decided to investigate further by collecting a basket of 'centi-cubes' that were on the shelf as part of a measuring activity. He used the centi-cubes to measure some of his objects, counting their lengths in centimetres.
Adult intervention: Minimal. I was approached when two of the centi-cubes were really firmly stuck together and I did assist by demonstrating how to 'wriggle' them a little to loosen them up.
Next he noticed that some of the shells had small holes in them. He began sorting through the shells and placing the shells with holes into a separate basket. Once he had a sizeable collection he collected some thread and began making a shell 'necklace'.
Adult intervention: Minimal (and sneaky!). I observed that he was looking for thread but I anticipated that the thread on the shelf would be a little too thick for the small holes in his shells. So I quickly fetched a thinner, more rigid string from the art cupboard and placed it on the shelf so he could find it independently.
The careful fine motor motions of threading the shells continued for a long time. When he had used up his original supply he went back to the main pile of shells to check again for more with holes. Eventually there were many shells on the end of the thread and it had become quite heavy. He tied the two ends together to create a 'necklace' shape. He did not, however, wear it or even 'keep' it. He put it aside while he moved on to the next step in his work but he never actually returned to it. He was truly focused on the process not the product.
Adult intervention: None. All I did was notice at the end of the day that the shell necklace was still in the classroom, and I placed it inside the special 'Family Pocket' that belongs to this young man so that he can collect it another day if he would like to. (Okay, and I sneakily tightened the knot so it wouldn't fall apart in the meantime!)
When the necklaces were complete this little man decided it was time to replace his shells back to the carry bag they had arrived in. So he collected them all and then contemplated the pile of sand that was left on the mat. A friend arrived to help!
Adult intervention: Minimal. The two boys were discussing how to clean the mat and arrived at the idea of taking it outside. I observed them beginning to lift the mat and then just gently gave some guidance about how they could hold the opposing corners to ensure that the sand would be caught in the middle while they were moving the mat. The boys did the rest (including coming up with the idea of taking the beach sand down to our sandpit).
When the mat was folded and back in the basket there was still a little pile of sand on the ground. Our spontaneous explorer immediately noticed this and picked up the portable vacuum to clean the carpet.
Adult intervention: None.
And by the time the shells were packed away and the sand cleaned up...it was 11.10am. More than 2 hours after the exploration began. 2 hours of non-stop and entirely self-motivated focus, concentration, exploration and joy! 2 hours of scientific observation, art, fine motor work, measuring, counting, creating and cleaning!
So what did I, the adult, have to do in this situation? I just had to sit back, observe, enjoy and stay out of his way! If I had interfered, intervened or even interacted too much then it may have broken the 'flow' of attention and exploration that this little human was experiencing. My primary involvement was incidental - I had, prior to this moment, prepared the environment in such a way that a broad range of tools were available to the child. I had also provided lessons with some of the tools and materials that were used in this shell exploration - but none of these lessons occurred during this specific experience.
**I can't recall whether this is a direct quote or if it's just an amalgamation of several different phrasings of the same concept! I have tried to locate a source but can't find it in any of my books or online. If someone recognises it as a direct quote and knows the source then please let me know in a comment so that I can attribute it correctly!