The Guide walks about the room, slowly and with calm focus so that she will not distract or disturb the children in their work. She repeats this routine a few times a day, deliberately choosing a different route each time, in order to make herself available to the child that might need some scaffolding in reaching the next level in an activity or to inform herself of the work being done. The Guide is careful to observe indirectly so that no one feels monitored or intruded upon – she has developed a deep respect for the child’s concentration and work. She also recognizes that the children themselves take cues from her on how they show respect for the concentrated work of others, or not. She makes mental notes of the children’s needs for fresh lessons with points of interest, of readiness for the next step in a work or a new work.
Occasionally, she finds a child using a material in a manner not reflecting the aim of the lesson presented on that material and she makes note to herself to continue observing this child and his work from a distance. She means to ascertain if it is exploration that will benefit him in reaching the essence of the material, or if the child stands in need of a new, clarifying lesson with the material or perhaps even disruption of the present work and a return of the material to the shelf.
When she observes misuse of the material that calls for gentle but firm intervention, a calling to the child to engage with the material in a safe, respectful and knowledgeable manner, she does not hesitate to intervene in these instances. Her long years of experience in guiding a Children’s House have strengthened both her instincts for appropriate action and her instinct to wait and observe a bit longer. She recalls the early years when this instinct and skill that must accompany it was not so keenly developed and she was sometimes confused on which, if any, action to take. Luckily, she recalled from her readings in Montessori books that encourage a ‘wait and see’ approach. She recognizes that the adult is often the biggest obstacle to a child’s ability to concentrate.
Rounding the corner near the easel activity, she takes note of Sandra, a capable, intelligent and happy five and a half year old girl who has been in this community for two years. She is a soft- spoken, introverted girl who began her Montessori experience in another Montessori Children’s House in another city. She had been cautious about connecting with her new peers and the Guide remembers helping her cultivate an interest in developing friendships through engineering group work that engaged her with others. The girl now stands in quiet confidence and utter focus as she creates her painting. The Guide settles herself in her chair and references her daily lesson plans for a brief moment.
Rising from her chair, the Guide again glances at Sandra and her easel work and observes the beginning of a vivid, colorful scene that the girl is developing – unaware of the Guide’s interest. That the girl loves horses has always been a part of Sandra’s persona in the community. She enjoys reading about horses, talking with friends about horses and her interest often spills over into long, involved and colorful stories about this love affair, at first in Moveable Alphabet work and now in spontaneous cursive writing with pencil and paper. Emerging on the easel paper is the barest hint of a picture evolving of a horse in a meadow bursting with vivid flowers. The Guide stands very still, entranced as she always is when observing this intimate view of the child’s interior thoughts and imaginings. She is always in awe of a child’s ability to use the simple paints and brushes of the easel activity to create truly beautiful pictures that she understands are actually private diaries of the child’s thoughts.
She recalls the prospective parent observer who questioned the parent liaison of the school, after observing in this community, “Why didn’t the Guide comment on the painting the child was doing at the easel? She just looked and kept on walking. And why is none of the children’s art work posted about in the room?” She makes a mental note to include this question in a possible topic for a parent gathering on “Children and Their Creative Urges.”
Sandra continues to paint her picture, and the Guide moves on to give a lesson to a three year old on stitchery with yarn on burlap. The child she has invited to this lesson is a new boy to the community. He is quite rambunctious but a very likable fellow as all children are to the enlightened Guide. She is very fond of him already, which is the ground to her work with any child, appreciating his enthusiastic nature and quick ability for developing friendships with the other children. He is interested in many things and this is reflected in his ripping through the lessons he has had at a fast pace – nothing seems to hold his attention for any length of time that will allow him to sink into a focus and love of the material that might result in concentration.
She has chosen this particular lesson because she has seen it, time and again, call to the furtive, busy mind of very active children – calling them to a slow and steady rhythmic activity, resulting in a concentration probably no one has expected for the child’s abilities. But she knows that for every child there is something in the environment that will ground him and hold his attention so that his energies are channeled into a calming and centering focus – and she knows it is always the resulting concentration that is transformative. She fervently hopes this is the one to grab Jack’s attention and interest. Very often it is sewing activity that serves this purpose, especially for boys – perhaps because it is not part of their usual repertoire of activities, she muses.
Together, she and Jack walk to the shelf and she introduces him to the burlap sewing activity. She fetches the basket that holds the blue embroidery needle in its container – its large eye will accept the thickness of the yarn they will use – and a small pair of scissors in a cloth pocket. She shows him the supply of prepared burlap rectangles nearby and invites him to choose one (there are 3 rectangles, each bound in a different color tape and having 5 tracks of pulled threads for guiding the child’s sewing). Jack selects a red bound rectangle and places it in the basket. Next, he is invited to select a tiny ball of yarn from the nearby container. There are several choices of colors and he selects red again – a clear indication to her of his energy and enthusiasm. She has discovered that the more choices the child is given – even in selecting the color of tape and yarn – the greater is his investment and interest in the work at hand. He places the yarn on the basket. She shows him how to hold the basket firmly with his fingers opened fully under its base and the thumbs of both hands tightly wrapped around the rim of the basket to steady it. She reminds him to look at his destination, his table, as he carries the basket and walks there. She takes her seat on her guide’s stool, next to the boy at his selected table.
Jack sits in his chair, his bottom against the back of the chair, feet flat on the floor and hands in his lap – he reflects the care she has taken in preparing him for receiving new lessons with attention. She calmly repositions the basket to the top of the table and begins removing the items, one at a time, naming them. “Burlap, needle in container, scissors in pouch, yarn ball,” she says as she places them in a row across the table, near the basket but leaving a space for his work at the bottom section of the table.
Next, she takes a moment to briefly survey the room and ascertains that the children are engaged in absorbing work and that the assistant is aware that she will be engaged in a lesson. The assistant acknowledges her gaze with a smile and continues the work she is doing with a child and his sandpaper letters. The Guide notices that Sandra is still involved in her painting.
Picking up the burlap rectangle, the Guide lays it flat on the table in front of Jack. She runs her finger along the 5 tracks that he will fill with yarn. Next, she opens the container for the needle, removes the needle and places it on the table next to the burlap rectangle. She carefully replaces the cap on the needle container and puts the container back into the basket. She then releases the scissors carefully from the cloth pouch, lays them on the table next to the needle and returns the pouch to the basket. She fetches the ball of yarn and holds it in her non-writing hand, searching for the lead end with her free hand. Finding it, she slowly unravels the yarn, letting the ball gently turn within the cup of her fingers and thumb as she measures a length from one end of the front of the table to the other end. Resting the length of yarn on the table, she fetches the scissors, placing her fingers within the appropriate apertures, and snips the yarn at the ball end. All of these movements are done with careful and slow intention that will allow Jack to make mental pictures of the process for his own use.
Now that the yarn is prepared, the Guide takes a moment to create an intimacy with Jack by looking at him with a brief smile and eye contact – calling him to remain engaged and with her in the activity. She knows that he will cherish this time that she will give to him alone and she counts on this to create a zone in which they will share in this gift to him.
Turning back to the work at hand, the Guide picks up the end of the yarn with her writing hand. Then she picks up the large eye needle and deftly, with calm attention, inserts the yarn through the eye. When a bit protrudes to the other side, she pulls the yarn gently through so that about two thirds of it remains unthreaded. She will not show Jack how to knot the yarn just yet – that will come in a progression of the lesson once he is fully engaged in the work and shows readiness for it.
She picks up the burlap rectangle and inserts the threaded needle from the underside of the material into the first hole of the prepared track to the left. She will do the sewing from left to right, which she knows is an indirect preparation for writing and reading left to right, but she does not mention this to the boy. She pulls the needle through the opening on the upper side of the rectangle, reining it in with slow deliberation, letting the boy watch as it snakes through the hole and lengthens on the upper side. She is careful to leave a two- inch length of yarn on the underside because there is no knot to hold the thread securely at this time.
She takes a moment for all of these movements to be taken in by Jack’s observing mind. Now she places the burlap rectangle flat on the table and, using the point of the needle, counts five holes aloud and plunges the needle down into the fifth hole. She turns the burlap to access the pulling of the thread through the hole, being very careful to not include the two- inch end. Eyeing the underside of the rectangle, she repeats this step from the bottom side, again counting five holes in a row, plunging the needle through to the upper side. She takes her time in repeating these movements until there are 5 uniform stitches to observe on the top surface of the material.
At this point, she has ascertained by his close attention and the slight movements of his fingers in his lap that he is ready to take over the work. She sits on her stool and observes as he takes up the needle and thread and counts to five holes and begins his own sewing. She stays for several stitches to observe and lend whatever support or clarity is needed. Already, she is pleased to note the calm that begins to consume the boy and without a word, she slowly slips away to observe him from a distance. She wants to be ready to re-enter his work when he reaches the end of the first track, to show him how to be sure to leave enough thread to keep the stitches secure and to return the ball of yarn and select another color if he so chooses. She takes a moment to survey the room and Sandra’s easel work.
The easel paper is alive with vivid meadow flowers and a very engaging horse figure in the middle. It is a joyous painting, worthy of a frame and exhibit! And as she observes, she watches as Sandra, who stands a bit back from the easel, observing her creation, takes up a brush and begins dragging it through the paint. The Guide watches holding her breath, as the girl continues obliterating the picture with her brush strokes turning the paint into a muddy brown that now covers the original work.
She has seen this before, but it is never easy to observe. She thinks of the Tibetan Monks she once observed at a ceremony in which they painstakingly painted a sand mandala, taking many hours to do so, and then blithely blew the sand away – impermanence! She recognizes that the need is hers to preserve this child’s beautiful, creative work, but the child is complete within her self – she has expended her creative efforts in the picture, and having been satisfied, destroyed it. She did not need the product; she was happy with the process.
The Guide reluctantly turns from the easel scene and her gaze falls on Jack. He sits immersed in his sewing activity, completely unaware of the rest of the world about him. She notices he has already selected green yarn for his next track – a calm and centering color, she thinks.