Montessori: Freedom Is Not the Same as Permissiveness (Part 1)

April 16, 2018
NAMC montessori freedom is not permissiveness. Young girl painting a rainbow
To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any power of control is to betray the idea of freedom.
—Maria Montessori
The Absorbent Mind.

Dr. Montessori was very clear: we should not grant children freedom until they have learned to follow the rules. But many Montessori teachers and parents are at a loss at how to set or enforce those rules. After all, aren’t we supposed to follow the child?

Following the child does not mean allowing the child to do whatever she wants, whenever she wants.
When a young child is unable to control her impulses and doesn’t know what she wants, or how to do what she wants, disorder and disruptive behavior occur. This usually happens because an adult was overly permissive and didn’t establish boundaries or rules.

And there are rules in the Montessori environment. Stop and think about the Montessori environments you have observed. What rules of society did you see?

  • Children walk in the classroom.
  • We talk with quiet voices.
  • Chairs are tucked in.
  • Work is kept neatly on shelves.
  • Mats are rolled and stored nicely when not in use.
  • The snack area is kept neat and tidy, with dishes done after each use.

Montessori: Freedom Is Not the Same as Permissiveness (Part 1)

So, how do children learn the rules of society? In the Montessori classroom, rules are learned through the carefully prepared environment. It is the environment that teaches children self-control and self-discipline. When there is consistency in the environment, there is consistency in behavior. The following table provides you with some examples.

Inconsistency in the environmentConsistency in the environment
Teacher is hard to find when child arrives at school.Teacher is always at the door to greet children when they enter the classroom.
Materials are placed randomly on shelves.Every work has its own unique place on the shelf.
There aren’t enough work mats.There is a work mat for every child.
Nonfiction books are shelved with fiction books.Nonfiction books are found on the shelves next to the corresponding materials.
The morning work cycle is disjointed and full of interruptions.The 3-hour work cycle is sacred, without interruption.
Children are free to run, sing, jump, and shout indoors.Children walk purposefully, speak quietly, and respect others while working.
Snack is eaten anywhere in the room or while walking around.Snack is eaten while seated in the designated snack area.
There is no dismissal routine.Dismissal routine is orderly and predictable.
There are duplicate materials on the shelves, so children don’t have to wait.There is only one of each material. Children must wait their turn and look for something else that interests them.

When the environment is consistent, structured, and predictable, the child is at peace. Stress is reduced because the child knows what to expect. She doesn’t have to look to the adult to tell her what to do or where to find things. The environment has limits and expectations. It is the responsibility of the child to accept and remain within those limits. She is in control because she is able to be independent. An environment that is inconsistent can breed stress, anxiety, and even fear of the unknown, causing the child to be dependent upon the adult to problem solve.

If the adult is constantly directing the child, the child isn’t experiencing freedom. When the adult is in control, the child is not free.

In the Montessori environment, “freedom” means that the child understands how to do things. If the child does not understand how to do something, she is not free to do it. New Montessori teachers often tell me they worry that they will not be able to stop children from taking work off the shelves before receiving presentations. The answer is simple — set your expectations before this happens: “We only use materials after I have shown you how to use them.” When children know the limits, they follow the rules. In our next blog, we will talk about how to set and enforce limits, which leads the child to independence and freedom.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate
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