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What if My Child isn't Using Montessori Work Correctly?

I get this question a lot from parents so I wanted to really think deeply about how children use materials that are placed in their environment. This could be a toy or activity, a more traditional Montessori material, or even practical life work. What do you do when they just don't do it right? 

"So long as a child is actively interested in what he is doing and there is no harm in his activity, he is definitely working on his own development. Besides any new idea he may be grasping, he is developing concentration and self-discipline...Our part is to give help when we are asked. If we are careful not to interfere with a child's activities and interests as long as they are not harmful, nature will see to his development." Maria Montessori, Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents

"So never interfere when a child is working by himself. Don't be preoccupied about whether he is making mistakes, you must not correct him at this moment. The important thing is not that the child should handle the material well, but that this material has attracted the attention of the child." Maria Montessori, The 1946 London Lectures

I like to think about a child's work with a particular material as a cycle (similar to a cycle of activity.) If you observe closely most children work through these four stages with a material.  

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As a Montessori parent here are some thoughts to responding when your child doesn't use toys correctly. Instead of correction, we observe.

Exploration: This is checking out the toy/material. Exploring its properties. What can it do? What does it sound like, taste like, and/or feel like? Can you stack it? Can you throw it? Can shake it? The younger the child the longer I think they stay at this particular stage with any given material.

As adults we see this work as meaningless and this is where I think there is a lot of frustration from parents that "kid's aren't doing anything with the toy." We need to shift our perspective and learn to respect exploration knowing that our child is getting what he/she needs from that material in the moment. Exploration needs to be seen as a valid form of work. 

The only time I intervene during this exploration is if what they are doing is:
  • Dangerous - to themselves or another 
  • Destructive - to the material or something around them 
  • Distracting (usually not an issue at home with fewer kids) - to others working near them
It is important at this stage to observe to see if your child may need you to show them how to use the work again. It may be that another presentation might be necessary. If this is the case, pick a neutral time to do this, don't interrupt the work that is happening in this moment. 

Manipulation: Following exploration is manipulation. In this stage children move on to using the the material as intended or as you presented. This is the stage we all imagine when looking at children working in pictures on social media or from classroom. This is where, I think, a lot of people think is total success! They are doing it just right! But, work should go further than this. Some people think that it's after this stage that they should rotate work way or provide some new challenge, but so much is lost if we do that. 

Repetition: In Montessori we don't stop work when a child shows that they can do it "right." No, we look for repetition. It is through repeating their work that the child will find true mastery and eventually self perfection in the work. Maria Montessori encourages and praises repetition, and it is one of the basic freedoms of Montessori spaces. We want to encourage and protect this need and desire to repeat. 

Self Perfection: It is through the repetition that a child will eventually reach self perfection. They will have gained everything they need from the material. They may be ready to move on to something new, or a different challenge. Or, they may start the cycle over again with that same material. They may move back to exploration - and start to push the boundaries of what this material can do. In other words, they take the knowledge they now have about the material and go deeper. 

If we were to remove the material before this stage we are missing out on all that deeper learning. It isn't until you see your child no longer returning to the material that they are truly done with it. We need to allow this cycle to continue as many times as they need until they show us that they truly done. 

So, next time your child "isn't using work correctly" stop and think about this cycle. Take time to observe and see where they might be and what they might be getting from the work. Don't intervene if it's not necessary. And respect the work you see happening. 

"The great principle which brings success to the teacher is this: as soon as concentration has begun, act as if the child does not exist...the duty of the teacher is only to present new things when she know that a child has exhausted all the possibilities of those he was using before. The teacher's skill in not interfering comes with practice, like everything else, but it never comes easily." Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

As a Montessori parent here are some thoughts to responding when your child doesn't use toys correctly. Instead of correction, we observe.

Have you ever observed this cycle with your child? Do you find it hard not to intervene when your child is using toys/materials differently than you intended? 


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