That Old Chestnut

In chapter III of The Child, Society and the World, first edited in Germany in 1979, we encounter three challenging topics in Montessori’s writing   – Social development – Religious education and Fantasy and Fairy tales. They are based mostly on Montessori’s 1946 London lectures, and also include her 1937 lecture on religious education at the Maria Assumpta Convent in Kensington in London. All three sections are filled with pearls of wisdom but also leave the reader with some significant unanswered questions.

On Social Development

In this discussion, Montessori links the child’s social development with emerging social skills and awareness of the needs of others as demonstrated by the child’s capacity to help less able peers.  She celebrates the young child’s capacity to co-operate with others and to persevere, to finish tasks and through social cohesion to create a harmony in our environments.  This is ascribes to the freedom offered to children and the emerging discipline which arises from this freedom and independence, and we very much value and celebrate them as essential components of the Montessori pedagogy.

However, what about the human tendency for gregariousness and our natural sociability – we are innately social creatures?  We were reminded of this human characteristic during the recent months. The enforced isolation of the corona virus has had a severe impact on the mental health of so many. Each one of us has missed elements of social contact and we have used all our creativity to remain connected – as witnessed by so many far-reaching global projects – initiated by young children, teenagers as well as the oldest in our communities. We have seen so much of human generosity, kindness, consideration and respect for each other, willingness and need to help, to go beyond the line of duty to protect and to support fellow human beings.  

And what about the awareness of each other when babies are together, and the curiosity a two year old shows in other toddlers and the four year olds’ admiration for their friends and more able peers.  The children who have returned to nursery since lockdown all talked about the joy of being back with their friends. In nursery we have the privilege of witnessing development of the first deep friendships and joy of being with other children as well as fun when experiencing mischief – a shared experience of something the children know is inappropriate.  Nursery also offers children the opportunity to experience widening of social relationships far beyond the immediate family when they establish meaningful relationships with practitioners and families of the friends. Today, we need to think about social development as something far beyond the normalised state facilitated by the child’s capacity to concentrate.  Being social is a human characteristic and needs to be acknowledged as such as we search for a more humane way of living on this planet.

On Religious Education

This section provokes an exploration of what religion means, its intricacies and inter-twined meanings with culture and spiritual development.  Montessori advocates that the early family experiences of religion are a significant influence on the child’s development during the absorbent mind stage and that, as the child matures, the child’s sensory experiences are replaced with more formal instruction. The editors of the book remind us that “… after 1920 … Montessori had no wish to see her teaching in any way restricted to a particular faith or creed. She wanted to live and work ‘For all the children of the world’, for humanity and for the ‘Nazione Unica’, to which all people and all communities would have to contribute.”  (From Geneva Peace congress 1932).

On Fantasy and Fairy Tales

In a course lecture in London in 1946, the 76-year old Montessori said “Now everyone who knows my name says that I am against fairy tales. They say that I say they are dangerous to the child’s mind” (2008: 45). Standing explains that Montessori was by no means against fairy tales but that they should be kept for children of 7 or 8 rather than younger children to whom we might do “serious and even permanent injury by relating such stories” (Standing, 1998: 336). In the 1946 course lecture, Montessori explains that she believes fairy tales are very important literature and beautiful stories for children “but not in place of this concentration on work”. She shares an anecdote in which a teacher reads a fairy tale to the class with all but the oldest children wandering off to do practical ‘work’ and concludes that children under the age of 6 are more interested in real world, concrete experiences.

So far so Piaget!

But let’s think about our experience with children under the age of 6. What of those moments, in the book corner or on your sofa at home or at bed-time, where you are curled up with one or just a few children, reading, the story of the ugly duckling who didn’t fit in? Or Cinderella who is bullied by her mean step-sisters? Or Goldilocks who takes things from others without asking?

As children develop from egocentric little beings to empathetic individuals, fairy tales offer a safe space to explore lessons of right and wrong and the consequence of actions and their impact on others. As children become more than familiar with the stories, they learn the structure of a good story with a beginning, a middle and an end, develop a sense of rhyme and repetition and experience vocabulary more interesting and diverse than what your basic reader has to offer – all strong building blocks of early literacy development. The structure of fairy tales is always the same: the hero or heroine, generally an ordinary character, overcomes what appears to be an insurmountable challenge or evil, teaching critical thinking skills and resilience.

Sure, we may resist the Disneyfication and the traditional flavour of these tales where the girl is forever cleaning and can only be rescued by the prince. But this can easily be overcome through a conversation that challenges some of the issues or through reading more updated and culturally diverse retellings of the stories. Standing frequently quotes G.K. Chesterton to support the position on fairy tales in the first plane of development and warns how the introduction of imaginary beings at too early an age can lead to imaginary fears (Standing, 1998). So let’s close this section with a quote from that same G.K. Chesterton:

Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.

From G.K. Chesterton, The Red Angel ([1909] 2009)

In Conclusion

Revisiting Montessori’s writing can be joyous and enlightening as you returns to her thoughts and ideas with experience under your belt; there will be lightbulb moments as you develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of what she advocated. But, equally, there can be moments of deep frustration as your practical understanding of children challenges the theory.

Fancy discussing these chestnuts further? Join us at our Book Club on Tuesday 18 August at 7 pm (BST). Register here.

Barbara Isaacs & Wendelien Bellinger, August 2020


References

Chesterton, G. K. (2009) ‘The Red Angel’ inTremendous Trifles e-book, available from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/8092/8092-h/8092-h.htm (date accessed 14 August 2020)

Montessori, M. (2008) The Child, Society and the World Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

Standing, E.. M. (1998) Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work New York: Plume

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