Montessori philosophy

Helma Trass and happy children

ImageIt’s been an exciting week here in my little corner of the world.

Last week, Helma Trass — founder of Canada’s first Montessori school, who studied under Maria Montessori in the Netherlands — visited one of our local schools for a presentation to parents. She is now 87 years-old, and despite being one of Canada’s most influential Montessorians, she continues to be passionate about spreading the word about the Montessori method “before her time is finished.” Her excitement about the wonderful experiences children from all backgrounds can have in a Montessori environment was catching.

Helma shared quite a bit about her early experiences in her Canadian classroom. Many educators were fascinated by this first Montessori school, and she welcomed journalists, researchers and public school principals into her classroom. They were amazed at the results the children were showing — even those who had scored relatively low on IQ tests (an aside: IQ testing is out of vogue now, but it had me wondering what have we replaced these measures of expectation with? Early grading? Diagnosis of ADHD and autism?). Helma still feels today that if she could achieve this in her little classroom as a young woman, with a heavy Dutch accent, that it is the perfect example of the child as teacher.

I expect I’ll remember for a long time to come her deep, accented voice firmly saying “First, the child must be happy.”

Another experience I had this week, which perfectly book-ended Helma’s talk, was the opportunity to sit and observe a work period in a Casa class room. I was quite moved by what I took in there. The hush, the focus, the work, the care, the peace. That particular classroom is simple and filled with natural light, the guide is soft-spoken and smiling, and the children are happy.

Family life, Montessori philosophy

Watch and learn


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about observation. Observing the child was a large part of Maria Montessori’s work — it’s what lead to the development of her whole educational paradigm. It’s an important aspect of the Montessori classroom teacher’s role, so it must also be important for those of us who are using Montessori principles in the home.

But it’s not a big part of the online discussion and it even takes a back seat to action in otherwise brilliant books like Montessori From the Start . Unlike a sensory bin or a mathematical provocation, observing is tough to “pin”. It doesn’t require a lot of action, it doesn’t fill time, and it doesn’t keep our child entertained. But Montessori knew it was worth it.

And I think observation can be just as tough to understand, and even harder to implement.

I’m far from an expert, but here’s my simple, two-step program for better observing your child:

  • Quiet. Stop encouraging, stop instructing, stop directing. Everything you say can potentially distract a concentrating child and redirect their hard-won attention back to you.
  • Try to watch without judgement. Early childhood is all about experimentation, and it’s not about outcomes. It’s not about what you can “get” your child to do. It’s about letting them the freedom to try and to learn. My very, very favourite online example of what this looks like is little Elise pouring herself a drink in this video on Itty Bitty Love. (And kudos to Anne for posting such a perfectly-imperfect video!)

Something else that helps me to really understand observation is to observe myself. I try to be aware of when I feel like I need to direct what should be happening, or the need to “help”. I notice when I feel that familiar old fear creeping in that has to do with expectations and plans and shoulds and shouldn’ts. And then I just sit with those feelings and I observe where they come from and what happens if I don’t immediately act.

When I do manage to be still and observe, the rewards are huge. I feel amazed by my child, and grateful for his inner light. I feel relieved to see that he doesn’t need me to be some kind of super-mom-teacher, he just needs the space and the time to learn to do it himself.

What have you observed?