Toys and Montessori

One of our parents (thank you, Melissa Murphy!) recently sent me an article entitled, "Why I Got Rid of the Toys."   It's a mom's first person, before-and-after account of discovering the Montessori method.  It's highly recommended reading.

Dr. Maria Montessori was not averse to experimentation.  In fact, she welcomed it, for she had no theoretical preconceptions.  And one of her first experiments was to bring toys into the classroom.  The toys were beautiful and expensive, different from anything the children from the impoverished San Lorenzo district of Rome had ever seen.  As expected, the children gravitated to them.

And then, a strange thing happened.  The children lost interest.  Not immediately.  But once the "newness" factor had evaporated, once the child's own imagination had been exhausted, the toys could be found gathered together in a corner.

Why did that happen?  The answer goes to the heart of Montessori's philosophy.  When a child engages a toy, he or she always has a goal.  One might say, "He might just want to use his imagination."  That is true, but we should look a little deeper.  There must be a goal to imaginative play, or no one would commence using imagination in the first place.   What would Vygotsky, a well-known contemporary of Montessori, have said? Is it self-expression?  Self-examination?  Freedom?  The joy of creation?  The ability to do something in play that's impossible in real life?

All of the above are important parts of the interior lives of children.   So why did the toys eventually go unused? For the same reason that most retired seniors don't spend all their time boating or playing golf.  Many crave something meaningful in their lives.  At a time when individuals often have the means to do anything they like, these same individuals desire to give something back to life.  They often teach, act as mentors, develop programs for others, volunteer at hospitals.  The list goes on.  Why don't they spend all day playing tennis? Because amusement and deep satisfaction are two different things.  There is often a restlessness that eventually comes with amusement.  We might take a two week vacation and wish it would go on forever.  But if it did, rest assured, eventually you would want to do something much more meaningful.

And so it is with children.  While toys are perfectly fine and can provide hours of amusement and diversion, and sometimes even teach children important concepts, those same toys eventually meet a dead end.  If you recall moments from your youth, you might have experienced that as ennui, an "is that all there is?" feeling.  That's because mankind is built to build.

In a Montessori classroom, one activity prepares the child for the next rung of the ladder, each step a little higher.  Sometimes the goal is known to a child ("I want to do what Johnny is doing and this will help me do that."), or sometimes the goal is not known ("I want to count numbers because I want to count numbers.").  And each time as the child climbs further up the trail, the vista becomes a little grander, he feels a little taller, more confident, more helpful to those still climbing behind him.  This ever expanding, ever widening experience stays with us our whole lives.  We seek jobs that will allow us to _________.  Grow, yes?  If it was only money that kept us in a job, would that job not become boring and stultifying?  Don't we all look to keep growing?

And that is the limitation of certain toys.  Their growth potential is finite, and their finality is open-ended.  That sounds paradoxical.  But problems with toys are many.  A toy often has little application to real life, which leads to ennui.  A child often does not have a way to know if she has played with the toy correctly, which leads to ennui.  A child may use his imagination and desire to share that with others, and when finding no others to share with, the child finds only ennui.  If any of these conditions are the case, the toy will eventually fall into disuse.

Not so with Montessori materials.  The direct aim of Montessori materials is known to a child, either consciously or intuitively.  The materials are self-correcting, and so the child knows if it's been done right or not.  And finally, Montessori materials are inherently self-satisfying.  Simply doing the work well brings joy to the child, even if no one is playing along side or whispering "good job" in her ear.

If that sounds impossible, visit your nearest Montessori classroom, observe the children, and then decide for yourself.  However, for an adult to truly see what is going on in the interior life of a child, requires very careful observation.  And that is an art which is part science, part intuition.  And its greatest practitioner was a remarkable female physician who started a school for destitute children in Rome 108 years ago.

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