Unlocking Montessori – Key #2: Freedom

Montessori Key #2: Free Choice & Perceived Autonomy 

For this second key to understanding Montessori, I want you to think about the last several weeks of quarantine. Even if you are an introvert who works from home, somehow being under lockdown feels stifling and has given many feelings of anxiety or even depression. Why is that? Psychology suggests that perceived autonomy has dramatic effects on an individual’s mental well-being even if the actual circumstances are identical. 

Did you catch that? In the simplest terms, if you think you have more control over your own actions and activities, you are generally happier and mentally healthier.

In fact, studies show when a person is allowed a measure of control over their tasks (tested this with examples such as choosing the category of puzzle they will solve or whether or not the room is quiet for the task), they perform better and are more persistent at their task. Those who perceive they have more control are also more likely to engage in further tasks. 

For us COVID stay-at-home-ers this means as lockdown orders lessen, it is likely our moods will improve, even if we decide to continue practicing social distancing etc. 

For education and Montessori, this means a child will engage in his or her tasks more diligently and happier than if – as in traditional public schools – the child is told what and when and for how long they must do each activity. 

“Montessori classrooms are based on personal choice and freedom within limits imposed by being constructive for oneself and society” (1)

Of course, freedom without any structure could have negative consequences. For example, anyone who has tried to order from Starbucks knows the damage of choice paralysis: when there are just SO MANY OPTIONS it can be difficult to know which is best and, even once you make a choice, there is lingering doubt that the Mocha Frap with coconut milk may have actually been the better choice. 

This free approach to learning is made possible by the carefully prepared environment found in Montessori classrooms (and homes). 

1. Order. 

To follow the Starbucks theme, it is easier to narrow down your choice when looking at the menu organized by type of drink. Do you want a cold drink or hot one? A coffee based, or milk based. The fraps are here; the hot teas there. 

In a Montessori classroom or home, children know where activities and materials are stored and can navigate the space to work independently with things that pique their interests. 

In Montessori, children are allowed “freedom within limits”(2). They understand the clear boundaries of the classroom or home but, within those, they are allowed to move about and complete tasks as they choose. Expert Simone Davies says Montessori has “a few rules for children to live by to learn respect and responsibility for themselves, others, and the environment around them. Within these limits, children have freedom of choice, of movement, and of will.” (2) 

2. Accessibility.  

Have you heard of the Starbucks secret menu? My sister was a Starbucks barista in college. There is a practically infinite number of drink combinations that are not listed on the menu. Typically, people don’t order these because, well, they don’t know they exist. These drinks are available, but not seen. For Montessori, low, open shelves and easily-accessible materials are critical for fostering a child’s sense of freedom and ability to choose their own tasks. 

3. Tiny Furniture. 

(If you are a part of the minority of people who hate coffee and have never been to Starbucks, I applaud your ability to function without caffeine and I apologize for my continued Starbucks analogy.)

I want you to imagine two scenarios. You’ve ordered your drink, and now turn and survey the cafe, looking for a place to sit. 

In the first scenario, the cafe is crowded. The only free spot is one of the raised barstools and it’s bolted to the ground. You can sit, but your legs dangle and you are near the door which whooshes open and closed every few moments. Less than ideal for studying. You didn’t get to choose your seat and you can’t even adjust it in the slightest. 

Now let’s try that again. This time, let’s see the cafe as it would appear Montessori-style. You turn, having chosen your drink, and see several options. There are tables if you’d like to work on your laptop, and outdoor lounge chairs if you’d like some breezy weather; there’s also a few armchairs with footstools. You take one of these, but turn it slightly so you are shaded from the sun coming through the window. You don’t feel like reclining though, so you move the footstool to the side. You’re comfortable and mentally ready to begin your studying. 

Dr. Montessori is generally thought of as the first to use child-sized furniture in the classroom. The innovation of using child-sized furniture allowed the child to adjust their learning environment as it suited them (not to mention it was just more comfortable! Short person here and dangling legs is not fun).  This also incorporates the idea of freedom of movement, “the child-sized furniture […] allowed both for education of movement, and for choice regarding where and how one sits to do work” (1). 

There is a great quote from Dr. Montessori herself that sums up this second principle on why autonomy is so important for the child learner:  

“Life is based on choice, so they must learn to make their own decisions.” 

Maria Montessori

(1) Lillard, Angeline Stoll  Montessori; the Science Behind the Genius
(2) Davies, Simone The Montessori Toddler
(3) Montessori, Maria The Child, Society, and the World: Unpublished Speeches and Writings

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