“Stand by…”

In her foreword to Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents – A selection of Articles, Paula Polk Lillard reflects on her own Montessori journey and also on Montessori’s ideas for a new type of education which advocates and celebrates the child’s capacity for self-formation, agency, solidarity and justice. She draws our attention to the spiritual nature of human beings and highlights Montessori’s description of the young person at the end of the fourth plane of development (at the age of twenty four) ‘as the one who is adapted to his or her time, place and culture, and “able to exercise in freedom a disciplined will and judgement, unprevented by prejudice and undistorted by fear” (Montessori 2007:viii).

I hope you will agree with me, that this would be our wish for each and every child we have come to know in our work. We also recognise that this journey begins from the moment of birth, if not before,  and that parents have a very important role to play in the  ‘unfolding of the human being’ their children are to become. During the past year, all teachers, including us, Montessori guides and educators, have come to reflect and value the contribution we can make not only to the lives of children, but also to their families.  As we have found in our book club readings, this slender and wise volume of selected articles, written by Montessori for parents is an invaluable guide for us all in its constant reminders of the power of the child. 

I love the way in which Montessori explains the work and play of the child.  Both are integral to what we have come to understand to be the nature of human beings; to paraphrase Montessori’s guidance to parents  ‘as children play, they construct the human they are becoming’. So how is it possible that for so long the Montessori community has denied the child’s play in favour of work?  How could we have misunderstood the nature of play in children’s lives? In this denial, we have come to devalue the child’s efforts in self-construction (their work) so evident in their quest for independence and understanding of their world. 

Montessori (2017:3-4) urges us “In creating an environment suitable for the child, our first lesson is to stand by. …Stand by, remain silent, ….the children are in their own world, you must observe simply by looking, you must not wish to judge, correct, or teach.” 

This is the real challenge for all of us adults, we need to learn to  ‘stand by’ and walk alongside the child – offering help only when asked for.  In the early years we should try our best and be cautious when offering physical help in feeding, dressing, problem solving and we should offer learning by opening the doors to sensory experiences both inside but above all in nature.  In childhood we should stand by as children grapple with issues of what is right and what is wrong and learn to understand who they are and what their role may be in their families and communities, by celebrating their innate sense of solidarity and justice.  In their adolescent years we must believe in the strong foundations laid in their early childhood and in the young person’s need to find their own place and voice alongside peers.  As Perry (2019:151) so wisely puts it,  “children …need to be kept company in all their moods, from tears to smiles and fears and anger”. 

Montessori often describes the child’s state of well being in terms of calmness, concentration, collaborations; Perry reminds us that these states of focused engagement, are accompanied by the child’s emotions which reflect their sense of self, whilst Davy (Montessori Musings Webinar 16.3.21) reminds us of the importance of the bodily experiences.  In other words, we need to consider the whole child – as we stand by and walk alongside them.  Yet we must not misunderstand our role as being passive, we need to

  • create the environment,
  • be respectful and trusting,
  • give children opportunities to discover and  learn from the activities we have prepared,
  • provide them with time and space to engage, try out, repeat and persevere on their own or with their friends,
  • stand by and really listen to the child’s voice and the ‘family story’
  • share  with the child our values and honour Montessori’s vision of the child as an empowered being, capable of changing the world
  • and above all share in their curiosity and joy of being.

And what about the discussion about work and play – let’s leave it to Montessori (2017:45)

…young children do not have to go to school to work. Playtime for them is a time of learning by practice. Every new movement which a little child makes is tried first of all tentatively and then repeated until the first clumsiness is gradually refined to an exact movement.  Every plaything (she) he uses is a tool for her (his) work.

We will reflect on the final three chapters of Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents at our Book Club on Tuesday 23 March at 7 pm UTC. Register here.

Barbara Isaacs, March 2021


Montessori M.  (2007) To Educate the Human Potential Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

Montessori M. (2017) Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents, a Selection of Articles Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company

Perry P. (2019) The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) UK: Penguin Life

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