By Wanda Whitehead
Freedom is the opportunity to have choice. Children’s emotional, social, and academic development improve when they are empowered through choice. At the same time, children need to have appropriate boundaries and limits to feel safe and secure.
Montessori’s “freedom with discipline” (where the word discipline means to teach) for the primary ages of 3-6 years and “freedom with responsibility” for children ages 6 and up align with these basic developmental needs. As a parent or teacher, we can craft a safe environment that has opportunities for choices that are developmentally appropriate for the different stages of childhood. What is left for the adult to do is find the right balance between allowing self-determination (freedom) and limits (providing boundaries) for a child to thrive in. Montessori’s keen observation of child development really helps guide this decision-making.
In the Montessori classrooms, movement (which is indisputably linked to cognition) is encouraged. Students are given large, unregulated blocks of time in which the flow of learning and choice in activity can be self-determined. Students are free from the extrinsic control of the grading system. Montessori classrooms are a stark contrast to the regulated, conventional classrooms where students are confined to desks, with rigidly scheduled days, receiving all sorts of external controls on what they learn which is often based on the simple brain function of memorization.
In the Primary Montessori classroom, the environment is set up by the teachers who are keenly aware of the developmental stage of their students. The choices in the environment are all great tailor-made options. Students enjoy the freedom of choice within the limits of their own sense of order and mastery over their environment. The self-discipline of taking an activity off the shelf, using it in the manner they have been taught, and cleaning up by placing it back on the shelf as they found it is learned through the teachers or guides. Students are given lessons in grace and courtesy of working and playing in a community of peers and then guided through the steps. Again, this is a learning of self-discipline and provides the limits for their freedoms. Self-care skills and skills for care of the environment also support the child’s development of self-discipline. This careful combination of choice and limits are core in the Primary Montessori classrooms.
The Elementary Montessori classroom, just like the primary classroom, is created by teachers who understand the developmental readiness of their age group. The level of responsibility for learning increases slowly as the child’s self awareness, self-discipline, and comprehension of the vast knowledge to be attained grows. With choice comes the development of unique interests and the joy in the pursuit of learning. Students can dive deeper into areas that excite them utilizing the skills they have learned from previous experience. Ultimately, it is expected that the children will use their time in a productive way, balancing their subjects and being responsible for their learning. They learn to self-regulate their choices in the social areas, too. What we see daily in our classrooms is this process of growth in each child as they navigate their choices and their responsibilities for self, others in their community and their environment.
At the Middle School level, choice and responsibility take on new characteristics. The focus is on the freedom to express whether through public speaking, debate, theater or simply in discussions of subject material. At the same time students take on more responsibility for their elective courses, their culmination projects for each study unit, their micro-economy projects, and community service activities. This process of learning and practicing freedom with responsibility, enables students to find their place in the community and the world.
A key caution, especially in today’s world, freedom of choice before a level of self-discipline or responsibility is reached can result in a child’s sense of entitlement, a kind of “I want what I want” approach to life. Young children usually make a choice that is ego-centric which is very appropriate. They are also just l beginning to understand the difference between needs and wants. The child must develop a sense of care and concern for others before making decisions that might impact others. The domain of influence of a choice needs to be considered carefully.
For example, a child age 3-6 can make a choice between a couple of shirts to wear to school or a choice between two different appropriate breakfast foods. The child would not be ready to make a choice that affects a parent’s ability to get to work on time or whether the family should go to the park when it is a work/school day. If a child is often given a choice that is outside their area of maturity of thinking, the child can come to expect to have “power-over” others. The domain of choices available to a child needs to reflect an appropriate potential in that child for self-discipline and responsibility for outcomes.
Another important aspect of learning responsibility for the freedom of choice is the actual experience of the consequence of choice. What great feedback the natural consequences of a choice can be for learning! As adults we need to allow those experiences for the children around us when they are not life-threatening. The child’s own observation of consequences as well as the supportive reflections of the adult can provide a foundation for the next choice-making opportunity.
Adults can model their own process of choice-making by verbalizing their thinking for children to hear. The weighing of pros and cons and the consideration of what the consequences might be is helpful for the child to witness. Feedback, both positive and negative, is essential for the honing of the thinking process and skills of choice-making. We can reason then, that through freedom to choose and the experience of consequences come critical experiences for the development of self-discipline and responsibility.
Montessori education provides such tremendous opportunities for a child to grow and thrive because of the inherent balance of freedom to choose and the limits of self-discipline and responsibility for each developmental stage of the child.
About the author: Wanda Whitehead is Casa di Mir Montessori School founder and Director of Education, and former head of school (1989-2018).