Unlocking Montessori – Key #3: Child-Led Learning

I’ll admit a little bias here: child-led learning is my favorite. Why? Because children love it, yes, but also because (shhh) it’s easy. 

Continuing our series on Montessori, the 3rd key to understanding this educational method is individual interest and child-led learning. Children are naturally curious and constantly exploring their environments. Montessori allows the child’s natural desires to drive their education. 

We know from developmental psychology that interest in a topic or activity not only determines how long the child will focus on the task, but also how much they will actually learn. Children who learn things they are not interested in rarely retain the information. This is why “teaching to the test” is so horrible – those kids aren’t actually learning anything. 

In contrast, think of your favorite topic. Are you a foodie? Could you tell me the perfect way to cut a mango? How’d you learn that? I bet it took practice. Or a history buff? Do you know about the War of 1812? Could you tell me the minut details of that all-but-forgotten American war? I bet you had to read a lot to learn about it. But whether reading history or practicing your pairing skills, neither of these seem like work to you if you are interested in learning. Skills and knowledge are much easier to learn and to keep if it is something you are truly interested in. Why do we assume children are any different? 

One thing children are universally interested in: their environment. Look how a child learns to mimic sounds, talk, wiggle, sit, tiptoe, run; children effortlessly learn at an amazing rate the first few years. They do so by following their interests and developmental stages — or “sensitive periods” (see below) — and practicing, practicing, practicing until they’ve got it. This curiosity doesn’t disappear with preschool … unless we smother it with worksheets and to-do lists, that is. 

“The ease with which a toddler learns gives us opportunities as well as responsibilities

Simone Davies, in her book, The Montessori Toddler

Our opportunity is to capitalize on their curiosity and innate desire to learn new things, and our responsibility is to cultivate an environment that supports learning for each unique stage of our child’s development.

[Side note on the Mommy Wars: EVERY child develops at a different pace. Developmental stages or sensitive periods are not based on age but on the individual child. Observe your own child to determine their interests and needs. These stages are not for where you think your child should be, but for where you have observed they are.]

The child’s interests and chosen activities (remember, Montessori also gives children a degree of freedom when deciding which activities to work on throughout the day) will change dramatically as they go through the various stages. Dr. Montessori herself pointed out that these drastic differences have been called “rebirths” by psychologists.

“I have found that in his development, the child passes through certain phases, each of which has its own particular needs. The characteristics of each are so different that the passages from one phase to another have been described by certain psychologists as ‘rebirths’.”

Dr Maria Montessori, The Four Planes of Education

In Montessori, the child’s developmental stages and interests are categorized into something called sensitive periods. Simone Davies sums up these periods in six categories:

1. Language 

2. Order 

3. Tiny Detail 

The Montessori Toddler

4. Movement Acquisition

5. Sensorial Exploration 

6. Manners and Courtesies 

The Montessori Toddler

If you’re like me, the moment you read those six sensitive periods you started thinking of your child to try to determine which stage/period they are currently in. It’s human nature to categorize (see sensitive period #2: order) and it’s why Facebook quizzes to determine “Which Italian food, Netflix series, or Disney princess is most like you” are so enticing. While I can’t vouch for the utility of Facebook quizzes, determining your child’s current sensitive period is crucial for a Montessori education. This is what will allow you to create a learning environment best suited to our child and most likely to pique their interests. Which, by now I hope we all agree, is ideal for engaged and fun learning. 

Now, the reality is some of our kids would rather just watch Netflix all day if we let them. If that is your child, you may have to entice them away from the screen. Luckily, this is not all that hard to do. Remember, children are curious creatures. Use that curiosity. 

You have observed your child and know which of the six sensitive periods or developmental stages best fits at the moment. You also know your child’s interests better than anyone. Now, inspire, using their interests and needs to guide your ideas as you prepare the environment (be it the kitchen, back yard, garden, or their own room). Create invitations to play, present materials in an enticing way creating “situational interest” — maybe by “presenting just enough information to pique curiosity” (1). 

“Are We There Yet” Bored children aren’t learning;
they’re just waiting for the lesson to be over

The Montessori Method presents activities when they are most accessible to the child. This means following the child’s interests and being aware of their current sensitive period. Trying to teach an activity or category of skill before the child is ready will only result in frustration. This is another reason why the modern school system is less than ideal. All kids are unique and learn at their own pace. Parents of multiple children can attest – my firstborn was very language-focused by his first birthday. He wasn’t interested in climbing or cruising along the furniture, but he had an impressive vocabulary and was constantly parroting new words. My second son was much more concerned about movement acquisition. He didn’t talk as much as a one-year-old, but boy was he moving! By letting a child learn skills and participate in activities that interest them, we are allowing the maximum learning to occur. If I had tried to push talking before my second was ready, or walking before my first was ready, we would have all ended up frustrated and disappointed. But by allowing each child to develop on their own schedule and encouraging their interests and sensitive period, we ensure their learning stays fun and enjoyable for everyone. 

“Our role as educators is to foster the right environments for learning, to seize upon moments when our children are eager to learn, and to pull back when they’ve had too much. The admonition to “look busy” does not apply to authentic learning, for if a child is either bored or bothered, she will retain nothing at all” 

— Ainsley Arment, The Call of the Wild + Free 

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