What it Means to “Follow the Child”
By Olynda Smith, Certified Montessori Instructor and Veteran Educator
The concept of “following the child” was a revolutionary idea when Dr. Maria Montessori introduced it. Now, a hundred years later, it is still revolutionary. It is also often misunderstood. When this perspective and practice is fully incorporated in your home, the results are magical. Power struggles decrease, and love of learning increases. Confidence and connection soar. Below you’ll find three principles, a real-life example and invitations on how to bring this concept into your home to support your child’s learning and happiness.
At first it seems that this Montessori idea supports letting young children do whatever they want without any interference. Most adults, upon hearing about the freedom suggested in the concept of “follow the child”, imagine complete chaos to be the result. But if they do visit a Montessori classroom, or home, they will nearly always find, instead of chaos, a sense of peace, happiness and deep care and respect. To solve this discrepancy you have to see that the practice of following the child can only exist when deeply interwoven with a few other Montessori ideas.
The Prepared Environment
If you have created in your home, or classroom, a true “yes space” then it is easier to give children the freedom to follow their own inner guidance about what to do. A simple example is that if you don’t have a bowl of chocolates sitting out on the table, you don’t have to have a power struggle with your three year old about how many they can eat. Healthy freedom exists within boundaries. Your home environment, ideally creates some of those boundaries for you.
We will continue to have tips about simple, Montessori inspired spaces for your child to explore in your home. But for now, know that without an environment suited towards peace, learning, fun and respect then the freedom given will usually do more harm than good.
The Inner Guide
“To care for, and keep awake, the guide within each child is therefore a matter of the first importance.” Maria Montessori
Following the child is, at the heart, about having a profound respect for each child and their own path to learning. It was Montessori’s belief that each child has within them an “inner guide” that attracts their attention to what they should be learning at that moment.
Each child has their own timing for the things that all children will learn in early childhood. You will know when they are ready to learn all about numbers when they begin to delight in number-oriented activities. In addition to these “core subjects” each small child has their own special “electives” course set within them. One child is deeply attracted to anything with wheels, the other desperately needs to be working their hands in play dough or sand. If we want to follow the child we observe what each child chooses to do, what brings them joy and we provide more options for that kind of activity in their environment.
Supporting Their Path to Learning
When you have this perspective you watch your young children in a new way. You will see that there are things that they feel intensely drawn to do. The assumption becomes that those activities are in some way supporting your child’s learning. With that assumption we come along to support their efforts, even if we don’t understand them, by finding a way for the child to do those things that they are attracted to doing in a safe way. Without this perspective we may impose our rules in a way that stops them from following their deep inner calling. This will nearly always result in power struggle and strife for everyone involved.
We still do need to have rules and boundaries! We want to guide them in showing care and respect for the environment and other family members. The question becomes “How can I support the activity that this child is craving within the boundaries of our rules.”
I’ll give you an example:
For a short time I ran a very small Montessori toddler and parent group in New York City. On the first day the parents and children came to the environment I had prepared for them. One child began to pick up things and throw them. His mother tried to convince him to stop, but the child was intent.
With the perspective of “follow the child” I could see that this child needed to thow. It wasn’t bad that he was throwing, it was just that he needed to throw. So I quickly made an activity (or work as we call them in Montessori spaces) that allowed him to throw in a way that was safe and that wouldn’t disrupt the class. I went to the child and said “I see you need to throw. Come. Throw here.” And I showed him the hallway and the basket of soft balls I had created for him. I demonstrated throwing and then retrieving the balls and placing them in the basket. He threw and threw and dutifully replaced the balls and threw them again for 30 minutes. Then he was ready to see what else was available - and treated all the other materials with respect.
Watch your children as they choose activities around your home.
What are they drawn to?
What do they do repetitively?
Can you create more opportunities for that kind of work?
Notice if there are things you are always asking them not to do. Can you find a way to allow them to do those things in a way that is safe and within the rules of your home?
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