We teamed up with the incredible duo at Funky Fresh Supply Co. to create an original series of Baan Dek t-shirts. While we're providing complimentary shirts for all of our students, we know there are a lot of people in the community that want to show their support too! As of today, they are now available to o, directly through the website: http://gofunkyfresh.com/baandek Be sure to check out the different designs and colors! Thank you so much for your interest.
We’ve been puzzling over a little bit of a paradox, one in which we occasionally find ourselves entangled. It goes something like this: As adults, why are we so surprised when a child accomplishes a task we didn’t think they could accomplish? Or, conversely, why are we so unsurprised when they fail at that exact same task? This simple observation led us to another series of questions, which we hope to address here. Namely, what are our expectations of childhood? And, more precisely, what’s at play when we make such assumptions?
Clearly, having lived through childhood, which says something in itself, we often reflect upon our own upbringing, trying to remember both our successes and failures. We attempt to measure their importance, especially in terms of inheritance, considering what we think is important to pass along. We want to optimize the journey for our children, while, at the same time, limiting their exposure to those painful lessons that we learned — the hard way. It’s a tricky path to orchestrate, let alone navigate. Sometimes we find ourselves narrowing the path, before they start out.
Protecting our children from making the same mistakes that we made somehow provides us, as adults, with a sense of encouragement and comfort. We’re relieved when our child doesn’t crash their bike into the back of a parked car the way we did, or stick their impatient fingers into the oven to test if the apple pie is done. In a certain sense, when they avoid these seemingly unnecessary encounters, we perceive this as an accomplishment. We chalk it up to us helping them. After all, we know best, because we’ve lived through it. We’ve experienced these things, and we don’t need our children to experience them too. Yet, it’s not always about us. Which is to say, we truly don’t know what value our children will find in their mistakes, or in their discoveries. Surely, these types of lessons, and the heart of their takeaways, are different for everyone. They were different for us, despite the best efforts of our parents. And, who are we to judge?
As with so many things, Maria Montessori offers insight. In the closing remarks to her 1913 Rome Lectures, she writes, “Surely we cannot claim that people can learn to be active when we accustom them to inactivity, that they can be prompt in their choice when we hinder them from choosing because we wish to choose ourselves.”
While her examples directly reference the constraints of a desk at the turn of the twentieth century, and a classroom full of equal-aged children, working on the exact same task at the exact same time, they also apply to the cultural, historical, parental and societal expectations that we have of children. What are our expectations of childhood?
Expectations can be easily administered, or they can be extremely difficult to apply. It’s the balance that’s the most difficult: knowing when to take off the training wheels, and when to allow your child the courage to ride without the knowledge of your hand at their back. Prescriptive measures can be half-measures, unless they’re fully endorsed by the person trying to utilize them.
What’s most apparent from Montessori’s comment is the tendency, as adults, to offer a topdown approach to the world. Not only through education, but also the way we perceive children learning to engage with their own possibilities. We think that we were there before, and we know what limitations should be put into place. Limitations, however, like just about anything, can be overcome.
At this point, we thought it might be helpful if we illustrate the thread with a concrete, visual example. Sometimes, seeing a reference, and putting it into context, can help us better understand the situation, offering us the necessary vocabulary to converse.
You’ll notice a two-year-old student in a toddler environment, completely engrossed in the washing hands activity. Everything is just her size. From the apron to the pitcher, from the table to the cloth, even the small bar of soap is suited to accommodate her stature. She’s intently observing as the soapy film slowly floats to the surface, almost magically leaving her hands as she continues to submerge them in the shallow bowl, the depths of which she views through her fingertips.
Trying to make sense of the science, she’s absorbed in the process, experimenting with different gestures and movements. Increasing, and then decreasing the amount of surface-area-to-volume ratio, she’s experimenting with outcomes. Needless to say, part of this process is figuring out what works and what doesn’t work, and trying to examine the precise reasons why. The limits that are reached are the ones that she discovers herself. She’s setting her own expectations.
As she finishes with the washing hands portion of the activity, having exhausted her attention and interest for the moment, she decides to wrap up the work by carefully putting it away, making it neat and ready for the next person. As she goes to empty the dirty water in the bucket, the bowl slips out of her slippery hands. Instead of crashing onto the floor, it actually gets stuck on the outer rim of the bucket. The water sways back-and-forth, threatening to overflow the edges. Of course, our natural tendency is to want to jump in and help prevent any accidents. Instead, we observe, watching the process unfold.
Carefully maneuvering herself so as not to spill the water, she manages to wiggle the bowl free without spilling a drop. “Phew”, we think to ourselves. As we intently look on, with a certain level of concern, we watch as she fastens her hands to the side of the bowl. She firmly grasps the lip, positioning herself to effortlessly empty the contents in the bucket below. Without any hesitation, she accomplishes the task. We wipe our brow and exhale a sigh of relief. “She did it,” we think to ourselves. But: Why are we surprised by her success?
Why did we somehow expect that she was going to drop the bowl or spill the water? What is at play in our expectations, not only of the environment but also of the individual? Why do we feel apprehensive as we witness the execution of the activity?
It’s easy to be consumed by the nervous thought of the bowl breaking on the floor, or the thought of the child slipping on a droplet of water. Yet, by wanting to protect her from making mistakes, are we overlooking the power they can usher in? Why can’t we be just as consumed by the thought that she will accomplish the task that she set for herself?
Surely, it’s not just the thought of physical harm that ails us. We’re also worried about her confidence. “We don’t want her to be overwhelmed or unhappy”, we exclaim, in a moment of justification. “If she fails, we don’t want to see her cry.” Of course, we want to support her, and encourage her efforts. What’s the best way to do this…
At the same time, we convince ourselves, we don’t want to interfere with the totality of the process. We know, deep down, that there’s as much to be gained from her failures, as there are from her successes. That’s the way we learned to see the world. Surely, this isn’t just a matter of putting a positive spin on an old idea: making mistakes is important. We like to think it’s something much more. It’s allowing children the opportunity to create their own set of expectations.
Originally published on Medium.
A few days ago, we happened upon one of our toddler students, working on washing her hands. Keeping in mind that one of the overarching purposes of this activity is to teach children the necessity of the daily routine, and its importance, we were just besides ourselves, at the level of concentration and patience on display. She's not yet three.
As you watch the video, you'll notice how she explores the science behind the soap, watching it lather on her hands, as she slowly scrubs back and forth. Ever mindful of her surroundings, and her relationship therein, she surveys the room. Paying attention to her task, but also cognizant of what else is happening, she doesn't lose her focus. When she places the bar of soap in the water, the bubbles somehow, magically disappear. You can see her mind seemingly light up as she figures this out, reiterating her exploration through experimentation.
What is at work here is more than anything we can see. It's her, in the process of coming to understand and relate to the world, in her own rich and meaningful ways. Discovering the science of interactions, the mathematical precision that underlies so much of what is at work, she is committed to the task at hand. Literally, she is washing her hands. As she sets the soap aside, she dunks her hands into the basin to see them emerge clean.
Everyone has a different idea of what Montessori is. For some, Montessori is a radical new approach to learning, to following the interests of the child, knowing that everyone learns independently and at their own pace. For others, Montessori is one of the few educational systems that adopts the importance of social success, where children are encouraged to collaborate, instead of compete. When you combine these two notions, the idea of individually improving yourself based on your own needs within an environment that lovingly supports and guides your development, the power of Montessori truly starts to take shape.
Here's an example, one that helps to highlight the brilliance of Montessori:
A few months ago, one of our older students in the toddler classroom spontaneously, which is to say of her own volition, decided to help one of our younger students with his shoe. He was having a bit of trouble getting them on and needed a little help. As he sat down on the stool, she carefully, and with a compassion all her own, helped him adjust it just so. She was kind, patient and assertive, remembering what it was like to need help. More than anything, she was mindful of not taking away any latent confidence.
For this soon to be three year old student, it wasn't about doing the "right thing", as if there was some sort of a prescriptive social norm, where nothing less would be acceptable. She wasn't looking for a compliment from her teacher. Or, praise from her fellow students, as if she'd just outsmarted them in some sort of underlying, existential competition to win affection. On the contrary, it was a natural, generous, unrehearsed act. The sort of measures that make you think hard about academic and social dynamics.
Fast forward a few months. Immediately, you'll notice a similar scenario. This time, however, the one-time recipient of the help now assumes the position of the helper. Observing a younger student struggling to get on her shoe, this two year old boy now exerts the same goodness to his younger peer, as was once exerted towards him. As we warm heartedly watch on, we can't help but wager a guess at a definition of Montessori: it's exactly what's depicted in these photos.
Then we remember an inspiring quote from Maria Montessori. In a lecture presented in San Remo, Italy in 1949, she extols, "The child who owns nothing and promises all, who is to be found everywhere - in the homes of the rich and the poor, in all races and all nationalities; the child who knows nothing of political parties or of any other social distinctions and discrepancies; who, wherever he is born, appears with the same characteristics; who comes from we know not where, and is always a miracle, so complex in its promise for the future."
Everyday we witness something that just blows us away. Today, as we were observing the classroom in action, we happened upon a three year old student, working on a sewing exercise. Immediately, we were struck by her concentration, and this seemingly inherent sense of drive, purpose, and determination.
As we watched, she carefully, methodically, and with a tender sense of care and patience, proceeded to tackle the activity, despite any perceived difficulties. You'll notice how she struggles to remove the needle, but instead of turning to her teachers or friends for help, she refocuses her abilities and manages to accomplish the task on her own.
Imagine the feeling of confidence that she just earned from herself. Next time she chooses to work with this activity, she'll feel that much more prepared, assured of her movements and her achievements. She'll get that much better. Mastering a new work, of course, takes practice and perseverance, something that was demonstrated here, with remarkable ease and agility.
Upon reflection, only having the opportunity to re-watch the final moments of the exercise on video, we notice the preparation and hard work that allowed this to happen. Notice the tray, for instance. It's positioned just so, right in front of her. The scissors are neatly aligned. She's sitting at the table, with her chair tucked-in. The cut threads are properly placed, waiting to be disposed upon completion. And, the needle, yes a needle!, had already been threaded.
Her perseverance is an inspiration.