Lead, and I Will Follow
“Follow the child, they will show you what they need to do, what they need to develop in themselves and what area they need to be challenged in. The aim of the children who persevere in their work with an object is certainly not to ‘learn’; they are drawn to it by the needs of their inner life, which must be recognised and developed by its means.”
"Follow the child" is a statement that roots at the heart of Montessori education. What does it mean to “follow the child”? Simply put, this means that as practitioners we observe what the child is doing and follow their desired path of learning and level of development. A common misunderstanding about this style of learning is that this means we just allow the child to do whatever they want without thought or purpose to their actions. What it actually means is that a child is guided to learn through their personal interests and desires, whilst recognising the child as an individual and honouring their own natural progression and developmental path. Their development is respected and not rushed.
Following the child is one area where the Montessori education differs considerably from the traditional education. Rather than following a curriculum for all children where they have uniformed learning each day, we use a more flexible approach. In a Montessori environment, practitioners take into account the child's previous skills, abilities and interests, rather than imposing our idea of what the child should learn at that particular time. For example, if a child is thoroughly absorbed in an activity, they are allowed to explore this activity for as long as their interest is held and as long as they are gaining information from it. However, once a child displays a lack of interest in an activity, little will be gained by making them continue because "they should learn this"; it is more beneficial to allow them to choose work that will engage them! “Follow the child, but follow the child as his leader” (Montessori)
As Montessorians we believe that the child enters the classroom each day and is drawn to certain activities, and that each child instinctively knows what they need. A child may try an activity and struggle with it initially, and then return to it a little later with more success, ultimately repeating it many times before mastering it. All of which may happen naturally without the need for any interference from an adult.
The key to understanding the child is through observation -- Montessorians are constantly observing the children in the classroom. We pay close attention to their interests and to the activities that they are naturally drawn to, and we monitor their understanding and development of skills. From our observations we are able to follow the child and determine their specific developmental (learning) needs. This style of learning is compounded by the carefully laid out and prepared classrooms, which are designed specifically with the child in mind. A Montessori classroom permits the child to work independently and allows the joy of self-discovery and to self-construct.
Following The Child At Home
Parents often ask how they can maintain the Montessori approach to learning at home. You can provide your child with opportunities to learn at home by allowing them to try or help with things around the home such as cleaning, food preparation, washing or keeping things in order. Even though this may require extra time and patience you will be reinforcing their own sense of learning, self satisfaction and ultimately, independence. A guide to following your child at home can be broken down into this easy mnemonic:-
Follow - Observe - Listen - Lead - Organise - Work
Follow - Start by acknowledging and following your child’s interests and actively helping them to pursue them at home.
Observe – Take the time to sit back and observe your child in play. Look at what they are doing -- how do they approach their play? Where does it lead them? By ob
serving your child you are more likely to gain an insight into the purpose of their play. Perhaps their purpose has nothing to do with the direct aim of the activity they are exploring!
Listen – When a child keeps failing at the tasks or challenges you present to them, are you listening to their individual abilities, needs and skills? For instance, maybe they do not like building the enormous animal floor puzzle that you have just bought for them, even though you as the parent may think it’s a great activity to stimulate and satisfy their interest. Is it the picture on the puzzle that they are avoiding? Is it the puzzle itself? Perhaps they do not like the texture of the edges? Another example: listen to them when they become upset when they see you laying the table for a family meal. Stand back and think for a moment -- are they not hungry ? Do they not like the food? Do they not want to sit? Or maybe they wanted to help prepare the table for dinner themselves?
Lead - Maria Montessori redefined 'leading' -- not in the authoritative context but more as a leader in our capacity as role models for children. Children learn by example. For instance, you cannot expect your child to have a love of nature, or to run around the park exploring, or to not mind getting themselves covered in sand whilst digging at the beach, if you as parents are stuck indoors continuously or without sharing any of these interests yourselves.
Organise - ensure the environment is prepared. Children need freedom to explore and learn within their environment but at the same time they need a set-up environment and our guidance. The environment needs clear set boundaries that are consistent and manageable (be realistic!) so they are free to explore and function safely and happily.
Work – Once everything is in order, children are finally then ready to work and grow independently in an environment with the freedom to think for themselves. An environment that is full of personal choice so they can make decisions and choices with a sense of security and fulfilment. Then we, as practitioners and you as parents, will feel successful. In the words of Maria Montessori, “the greatest sign of success for a teacher … is to be able to say, 'the children are now working as if I did not exist'”.
Following the child the way Maria Montessori suggests in her philosophy can assist adults in managing certain difficult childhood behaviours and the various challenges that children may face as they are growing. By following the child and observing their behaviours, needs, skills and tendencies you will notice their inner need. For every action there is a reason and behind every reason there is the will. The only thing we need to do is to be able to 'see' it.