There are a couple of things we always talk about at Baan Dek. The first, which is a powerful lesson of life, is to never hold children back. The second, which is just as meaningful as the first, is to try our best to act as collaborators, to participate in their early learning adventures. We would love to take this opportunity to elucidate.
Let’s start with the first lesson, on never holding children back. Knowingly or not, most of us fall into this category. At one point or another, we have prevented a child from exceeding our expectations. Which is to say, as adults, it’s easy for us to make assumptions about what children are capable, i.e.: they shouldn’t use glass, they’re not ready for silverware, etc. Yet, we’re so surprised when they actually accomplish a task. Why are we, as adults, the ones setting the expectations?
Children are capable of much more than we think. Our motto is: Let’s not hold them back. Let’s give them more than we think they can do. Or, rather, to speak more carefully, let’s create a safe, nurturing environment in which they feel confident enough to explore their own limitations. As adults, and especially as Montessori guides, this is where our responsibility lies. Let’s not give children what we think they can do, let’s allow them to show us of what they are capable.
We have a wonderful, somewhat related example that transpired over the summer. We were working with a student on crafting a bird house. Once the edifice had been adequately constructed, and the four walls had been tightly fastened together, this soon to be five-year old boy proceeded to paint it. However, he decided not to paint the outside, but rather, the inside.
Our reaction was one of, “What is he up to?” “Why is he choosing to do this?” “Is he willfully veering off the task at hand?” Come to find out, as he later explained - and at our chagrin - “since the birds will live inside the house, I want them to see the beautiful colors, too". Our expectations of children are so often aligned with our judgements of what we think they are capable of, and the ways in which we think they should execute upon these ideas. Often, they are in no relation to what that child can achieve.
The second example, which is just as meaningful, and directly tied to the first, is to try our best to act as collaborators. If we become active, supportive participants in the journey of education, at a remove from judgements and assumptions, and of making decisions and completing tasks for children, everything starts to look just a little bit different.
In the Absorbent Mind, Montessori writes, in a rather candid passage: “To recognize this great work of the child does not mean to diminish the adults’ authority. Once they can persuade themselves not to be themselves the builders, but merely to act as collaborators in the building process, they become much better able to carry out their real duties; and then, in the light of a wider vision, their help becomes truly valuable. The child can only build well if this help is given in a suitable way.”
One of the advantages of a mixed-age classroom is that other children, especially at this age, have an entirely different set of expectations of other children. Whereas an adult might inherently make an assumption, based on the child’s age, demeanor, etc, other children are less likely to make those exact same assumptions. They have a unique way of making connections.
We have a visual example, illustrated through a series of photographs, that we would love to share with you. Namely, when a younger student, who had just entered the Primary classroom, after having graduated from the Toddler environment, observed an older student working with the "taking care of plants activity", she was completely mesmerized. She patiently observed, taking mental notes.
Then, something magical happened. The older student, who had been carefully demonstrating how to use the activity, almost as if the other student didn't exist, identified, or sympathized with her new friend's interest and decided to mentor her on the exercise. With the precision of language with which she was first introduced to the activity, the primary student gracefully, and with a certain eloquence, showcased the work.
When the activity was complete, and both students were completely satisfied by the experience, the older student empowered the younger student to return the work to its proper place. She had, in effect, become a collaborator in the process. Not only had she served as a role model, without exhibiting judgments or assumptions, she had inspired her new friend in the "building process" with the assurance that only someone who believes in you, can provide.
That sense of empowerment and collaboration. There's nothing like it.