Educating the Whole Child in the Montessori Environment

June 17, 2016
NAMC montessori educating the whole child girl on playground
The essential thing is to arouse such an interest that it engages the child's whole personality.
—Maria Montessori
The Absorbent Mind, p. 206.

We hear a lot about how Montessori focuses on educating the whole child. But what does that mean? How is whole child education different from that of mainstream contemporary education?

Whole Child Education and the Montessori Environment

A child’s mind must be educated before he is instructed that the true purpose of education is the cultivation of the intellect rather than an accumulation of facts.
—John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693)

Dr. Maria Montessori was a woman ahead of her time. During the industrial age, the role of the school was to create workers who would work for the betterment of the state. In fascist Italy, children were taught to be citizens of the state, with each gender having very specific roles to fulfill. Obedience to authority was demanded without opposition. Dr. Montessori refused to allow the government to turn her educational methods into a fascist state education system, and was, as a result, exiled.

NAMC montessori educating the whole child children by pond with ducks

Dr. Montessori believed in peace, and she firmly felt that in order to have a peaceful society, the whole child — physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual — must be addressed. She contended that the end result of education was not war but “… the imparting of knowledge as the unveiling and developing of spiritual energy.” (Montessori, The Child in the Family) In other words, the primary goal of education is to develop the skills necessary to lead a productive, happy, and fulfilling life.

Whole child education does not compartmentalize knowledge.

Instead, it shows how knowledge has been gleaned across the generations. It shows the connections and relationships between subjects. It does not emphasize rote memorization but the internalization of how and why. Whole child education engages the child by appealing to his natural curiosity and showing the purpose behind learning. Exploring science and social studies by going out into the community not only makes the content come alive, it adds true value. Something as simple as planting a garden requires mathematical, botanical, and nutritional knowledge.

NAMC montessori educating the whole child boy carrying basket of strawberries

Whole child education understands the connections between body and mind.

Learning takes place through movement and incorporates all the senses, creating pathways and synapses in the brain that cannot be undone. It incorporates purposeful movement and does not dictate that children sit still and silent. It also incorporates both left brain and right brain learning, and it values each equally. Intelligence is not preferred over physical or spiritual development, and the emotional health of the child is at the forefront. Most importantly, learning is not something that ends at grade 12 or at age 18; it is a lifelong quest for personal fulfillment.

The holistic approach to education is not new, nor is it unique to Montessori. Socrates, the father of holistic education, believed that freedom in education developed and educated the human mind and soul. Socrates believed that truth would be discovered only through inquiry, discussion, and argument.

When we focus on the child as a fully formed human being rather than a blank slate, we appreciate and respect the talents and knowledge intrinsic in each child.

We can encourage and not dictate. And we place value on effort, not just on right and wrong. Most importantly, we recognize and celebrate the uniqueness of each child in his place in the world.

NAMC montessori educating the whole child girl writing in notebook

One of the challenges for today’s educators is that contemporary education tends to focus on preparing children to be competitive workers of the 21st century. The flaw here is that they are trying to prepare for jobs that don’t exist yet. Contemporary educators are using outdated methods to try and ready children for jobs that we cannot even imagine.

We are no longer educating workers who don’t ask questions. In order to prepare today’s children for tomorrow’s jobs, we must prepare them to be problem solvers, using their intellect to think and be creative.

Education is about more than just getting into college, yet that seems to be the goal of contemporary standardized education. In his book Educating for Human Greatness, Lynn Stoddard says that the qualities parents want most for their children are “initiative, integrity, imagination, an inquiring mind, self-knowledge, interpersonal skills, and the ability to feel and recognize truth on different levels.” (“How does whole child education work?”) Montessori’s holistic approach to educating the whole child does just this.

Works Cited
Educate the Whole Child: A Different Way to Think About Education. “How does whole child education work?”
Montessori, Maria. The Child in the Family. ABC-CLIO Ltd, 1989 (first published in 1929).

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate
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