Peter and Margaret had heard that children in Montessori schools were precocious learners. Their neighbor’s five-year old daughter, Jenny, began to read and write while she attended the local Montessori school. They didn’t know much about the method, but when the time came to enroll their three-year-old son Wyatt in a pre-school, they decided to give Montessori a chance.
To their dismay, Wyatt didn’t seem to do anything academic during his first year of Montessori, but he sure was active! He washed tables, sewed on cardboard, polished silver, traced and made drawings of geometric shapes, looked at picture cards, built a pink tower, stroked boards with sandpaper, and lifted little cylinders by their tiny knobs.
During Parent’s Night, Peter and Margaret visited Wyatt’s classroom and found his ability to trace the sandpaper letters quite adorable. He also showed them how he formed words like cat and flag with large plastic letters on a rug. All this was charming, but they wondered how he would go from these activities to writing phrases, like their young neighbor Jenny was doing, without first practicing with pencil and paper. After all, not once during that first year had Wyatt’s teacher exposed him to a workbook, a #2 pencil, or lined paper!
The boy’s parents were nervous; many of the non-Montessori parents in their playgroup spent several hours each week engaged in workbook activities with their young children, showing them how to connect dots and color large letters. Peter and Margaret wondered if they should do the same.
Wyatt’s teacher, however, asked them to refrain from offering academic work at home, assuring them that the boy was engaged in several purposeful activities in the classroom that would eventually lead him to write and then read. She encouraged them to involve Wyatt in hands-on activities at home; share fun experiences in nature; and help him build his vocabulary through conversations, poems, and stories about the real world.
One day, when Wyatt was about four-and-a-half years old, the family was having dinner at a restaurant. With a pencil he was using for coloring, Wyatt carefully wrote his name in cursive on the paper placemat. Oblivious to his parents’ surprised expressions, he went on to write in cursive the things he saw around him: fork, dish, napkin, and plant. From then on, he wanted to write words all day long!
His parents were thrilled, but full of questions for his teacher. How was it possible for Wyatt to develop this difficult skill if he never used workbooks or connected dots to learn the shapes of letters? How was he able to hold the pencil so confidently and with so much control, when youngsters normally press the pencil so hard onto the paper that they tear it? And above all, how could he enjoy the activity so much when most children have to be forced to practice their writing skills?
The answers to all their questions can be found in the seemingly unrelated work Wyatt did during his first year in the classroom. His arm and wrist gained strength as he scrubbed tables and squeezed sponges. He gained mastery over his fingers as he carefully pushed a needle through a piece of cardboard. He learned how to control a writing instrument by applying polish with a cotton-tipped stick. By holding little knobs with three fingers he learned how to grip a pencil. He gained fluidity of wrist movement by tracing shapes. Lightness of touch was obtained by stroking different grades of sandpaper, and he expanded his vocabulary by learning the names associated with beautiful pictures of trees, birds, fruits, and insects.
When Wyatt understood the concept of writing – that letters representing sounds are put together to form words – his hand was ready and willing to help him express his thoughts on paper!
This entire process – what we call indirect preparation for writing – was thoroughly enjoyable for Wyatt because all of the activities he was engaged in fed his psychological needs. In other words, the work he did in the Montessori classroom responded to the internal drives all young children have to learn through movement, to explore their language, and to experience the world through their senses. When a child’s education is designed with these sensitivities in mind, learning is easy and pleasurable.
By satisfying his present needs, Wyatt’s teacher guided him towards the fulfillment of a seemingly unrelated future goal (writing). This indirect approach to education is a thread that is woven throughout the Montessori curriculum, from the early years of Children’s House (pre-school) through the advanced work of Upper Elementary and beyond. The feeling of satisfaction and self-fulfillment it gives the children is priceless.
Wyatt can confirm this. I recently asked him: “Wyatt, who taught you how to write?” He happily replied: “Nobody taught me. I taught myself!” And the truth is, he did.