A DAY IN A CASA DEI BAMBINI
I had not seen a Montessori school when I first read through Dr. Montessori’s book. I laid it down with the mental comments, “ All very well to write about ! But, of course, it can’t work anything like that in actual practice. Everyone knows that a child’s party of only five or six children of that age ( from two and a half to six ) is seldom carried through without some sort of quarrel, even though an equal number of mothers are present, devoting themselves to giving the tots exactly whatever they want. It stands to reason that twenty or thirty children of that tender age, together all day long and day after day, must, if they are normal children, have a great many normal battles with each other ! ”
After putting myself in a complacent frame of mind by laying down these fixed preconceptions, I went to visit the Casa dei Bambini in the Franciscan Nunnery on the Via Giusti.
I half turn away in anticipatory discouragement from the task of attempting, for the benefit of American readers, any description of what I saw there. They will not believe it. I know they will not, because I myself, before I saw it with my own eyes, would have discounted largely the most moderate statements on the subject.
My first glimpse was of a gathering of about twenty-five children, so young that several of them looked like real babies to me. I found afterwards that the youngest was just under three, and the oldest just over six. They were scattered about over a large, high-ceilinged, airy room, furnished with tiny, lightly-framed tables and chairs which, however, by no means filled the floor. There were big tracts of open space, where some of the children knelt or sat on light rugs. One was lying down on his back, kicking his feet in the air. A low, cheerful hum of conversation filled the air.
As my companion and I came into the room I noticed first that there was not that stiffening into self-consciousness which is the inevitable concomitant of “ visitors ” in our own schoolrooms. Most of the children, absorbed in various queer-looking tasks, did not even glance up as we entered. Others, apparently resting in the intervals between games, looked over across the room at us, smiled welcomingly as I would at a visitor entering my house, and a little group near us ran up with outstretched hands, saying with a pleasant accent of good-breeding, “ Good-morning ! Good-morning ! ” They then instantly went off about their own affairs, which were evidently of absorbing interest, for after that, except for an occasional friendly look or smile, or a momentary halt by my side to show me something, none of the little scholars paid the least attention to me.
Now I myself, like all the American matrons of my circle of acquaintances, am laboring conscientiously to teach my children “ good manners,” but I decided, on the instant, nothing would induce me to collect twenty children of our town and have a Montessori teacher enter the room to be greeted by them. The contrast would be too painful. These were mostly children of very poor, ignorant, and utterly untrained parents, and ours are children of people who flatter themselves that they are the opposite of all that ; but I shuddered to think of the long silent, stare which is the only recognition of the presence of a visitor in our schools. And yet I felt at once that I was attaching too much importance to a detail, the merest trifle, the slightest, most superficial indication of the life beneath.
But, on the other hand, I was forced to consider that I knew from bitter experience that children of that age are still near enough babyhood to be absolutely primeval in their sincerity, and that it is practically impossible to make them, with any certainty of the result, go through a form of courtesy which they do not feel genuinely. Also I observed that no one had pushed the children towards us, as I push mine, toward a chance visitor, with the command accompanied by an inward prayer for obedience, “ Go and shake hands with Mrs. Blank.”
In fact, I noticed it for the first time, there seemed no one there to push the children or to refrain from doing it. That collection of little tots, most of them too busy over their mysterious occupations even to talk, seemed, as far as a casual glance over the room went, entirely without supervision. Finally, from a corner, where she had been sitting ( on the floor apparently ) beside a child, there rose up a plainly-dressed woman, the expression of whose quiet face made almost as great an impression on me as the children’s greetings had. I had always joined with heartfelt sympathy in the old cry of “ Heaven help the poor teachers ! ” and in our town, where we all know and like the teachers personally, their exhausted condition of almost utter nervous collapse by the end of the teaching year is a painful element in our community life. But I felt no impulse to sympathize with this woman with untroubled eyes who, perceiving us for the first time, came over to shake hands with us.
She lingered beside us some moments, chatting with my companion, who was an old friend of hers, and who introduced her as Signorina Ballerini. I noticed that she happened to stand all the time with her back to the children, feeling apparently none of that lion-tamer’s instinct to keep an hypnotic eye on the children which is so marked in our instructors. I can remember distinctly that there was for us school-children actually a different feel to the air and a strange look on the familiar school-furniture during those infrequent intervals when the teacher was called for an instant from the room and left us, as in a suddenly rarefied atmosphere, giddy with the removal of the pressure of her eye ; but when this teacher turned about casually to face the room again, these children did not seem to notice either that she had stopped looking at them or that she was now doing it again.
We used to know, as by a sixth sense, exactly where, at any moment, the teacher was, and a sudden movement on her part would have made us all start as violently and as instinctively as little chicks at the sudden shadow of a hawk . . . and this, although we were often very fond indeed of our teachers. Remembering this, I noticed with surprise that often, when one of these little ones lifted his face from his work to ask the teacher a question, he had been so unconscious of her presence during his concentration on his enterprise that he did not know in the least where to look, and sent his eager eyes roving over the big room in a search for her, which ended in a sudden flash of joy at discovering her.
What could be these “ games ” which so absorbed these children, far too young for any possibility of pretense on their part ? Moving with the unhampered, unobserved ease which is the rule in a Montessori schoolroom, I began walking about, looking more closely at what the children were holding. One little boy about three and a half years old had been intent on some operation ever since we had entered the room, and even now as I drew near his little table and chair, he only glanced up for an instant’s smile without stopping the action of his fingers. I leaned over him, hoping that the device which so held his attention was not too complicated for my inexperienced, unpedagogical mind to take in. He was holding a light wooden frame about eighteen inches square, on which were stretched two pieces of cotton cloth, meeting down the middle like the joining of a garment. On one of these edges was a row of buttonholes and on the other a row of large buttons. The child was absorbed in buttoning and unbuttoning those two pieces of cloth.
He was new at the game, that was to be seen by the clumsy, misdirected motions of his baby fingers, but the process of his improvement was so apparent as, his eyes shining with interest, he buttoned and unbuttoned steadily, slowly, without an instant’s interruption, that I watched him, almost as fascinated as he. A child near us, apparently playing with blocks, upset them with a loud noise, but my buttoning boy, wrapped in his magic cloak of concentration, did not so much as raise his eyes. I myself could not look away, and as I gazed I thought of the many times a little child of mine had tried to learn the secret of the innumerable fastenings which hold her clothes together and how I, with the kindest impulse in the world, had stopped her fumbling little fingers saying, “ No, dear, Mother can do that so much better. Let Mother do it.” It occurred to me now that the situation was very much as if, in the midst of a fascinating game of billiards, a professional player had snatched the cue from my husband’s hands, saying, “ You just stand and watch me do this. I can do it much better than you.”
The child before me stopped his work a moment and looked down at his little cotton waist. There was a row of buttons there, smaller but of the same family as those on the frame. As he gazed down, absorbed, at them, I could see a great idea dawn in his face. I leaned forward. He attacked the middle button, using with startling exactitude of imitation the same motion he had learned on his frame. But this button was not so large or so well placed. He had to bend his head over, his fingers were cramped, he made several movements backward. But then suddenly the first half of his undertaking was accomplished. The button was on one side, the buttonhole on the other. I held my breath. He set to work again. The cloth slipped from his boneless little fingers, the button twisted itself awry, I fairly ached with the idiotic habit of years of interference to snatch it and do it for him. And then I saw that he was slowly forcing it into place. When the disk finally shone out, round and whole, on the far side of the buttonhole, the child drew a long breath and looked up at me with so ecstatic a face of triumph that I could have shouted, “ Hurrah ! ” Then, without paying any more attention to me, he rose, sauntered over to a corner of the room where a thick piece of felt covered the floor, and lay down on his back, his hands clasped under his head, gazing with tranquil repose at the ceiling. He was resting himself after accomplishing a great step forward. I did not fail to notice that, except for my entirely fortuitous observation of his performance, nobody had seen his absorption any more than they now saw his apparent idleness.
I tucked all these observations away in a corner of my mind for future reflection, and moved on to the nearest child, a little girl, perhaps a year older than the boy, who was absorbed as eagerly as he had been over a similar light wooden frame, covered with two pieces of ribbon which the child was tying and untying. There was no fumbling here. As rapidly, as deftly, with as careless a light-hearted case as a pianist running over his scales, she was making a series of the flattest, most regular bow-knots, much better than I could accomplish at anything like that speed. Although she had advanced beyond the stage of intent struggle with her material, her interest and pleasure in her own skill was manifest. She looked up at me, and then smiled proudly down at her flying fingers.
Beyond her another little boy, with a leather-covered frame, was laboriously inserting shoe-buttons into their buttonholes with the aid of an ordinary button-hook. As I looked at him, he left off, and stooping over his shoes, tired to apply the same system to their buttons. That was too much for him. After a prolonged struggle he gave it up for the time, returning, however, to the buttons on his frame with entirely undiminished ardor.
Next to him sat a little girl, with a pile of small pieces of money before her on her tiny table. She was engaged in sorting these into different piles according to their size, and, though I stood by her some time, laughing at the passion of accuracy which fired her, she was so absorbed that she did not even notice my presence. As I turned away I almost stumbled over a couple of children sitting on the floor, engaged in some game with a variety of blocks which looked new to me. They were ten squared rods of equal thickness, of which the shortest looked to be a tenth the length of the longest, and the others of regularly diminishing lengths between these two extremes. These were painted in alternate stripes of red and blue, these stripes being the same width as the shortest rod. The children were putting these together in consecutive order so as to make a sort of series, and although they were evidently much too young to count, they were aiding themselves by touching with their fingers each of the painted stripes, and verifying in this way the length of the rod. I could not follow this process, although it was plainly something arithmetical, and turned to ask the teacher about it.
I saw her across the room engaged in tying a bandage about a child’s eyes. Wondering if this were some new, scientific form of punishment, I stepped to that part of the room and watched the subsequent proceedings. The child, his lips curved in an expectant smile, even laughing a little in pleasant excitement, turned his blindfolded face to a pile of small pieces of cloth before him. Several children, walking past, stopped and hung over the edge of his desk with lively interest. The boy drew out from the pile a piece of velvet. He felt of this intently, running the sensitive tips of his fingers lightly over the nap, and cocking his head on one side in deep thought. The child-spectators gazed at him with sympathetic attention. When he gave the right name, they all smiled and nodded their heads in satisfaction. He drew out another piece from the big pile, coarse cotton cloth this time, which he instantly recognized ; then a square of satin over which his little finger-tips wandered with evident sensuous pleasure. His successful naming of this was too much for his envious little spectators. They turned and fled toward the teacher and when I reached her, she was the center of a little group of children, all clamoring to be blindfolded.
“ How they do love that exercise ! ” she said.
“ Are you too busy and hurried,” I asked, “ to explain to me the game those children are playing with the red and blue rods ? ”
She answered with some surprise, “ Oh, no, I’m not busy and hurried at all ! ” and went on, “ The children can come and find me if they need me.”
So I had my first lesson in the theory of self-education and self-dependence underlying the Montessori apparatus, to the accompaniment of occasional requests for aid, or demands for sympathy over an achievement, made in clear, baby treble. That theory will be taken up later in this book, as this chapter is intended only to be a plain narration of a few of the sights encountered by an ordinary observer in a morning in a Montessori school.
After a time I noticed that four little girls were sitting at a neatly-ordered small table, spread with a white cloth, apparently eating their luncheons. The teacher, in answer to my inquiring glance at them, explained that it was their turn to be the waitresses that day, for the children’s lunch, and so they ate their own meal first.
She was called away just then, and I sat looking at the roomful of busy children, listening to the pleasant murmur of their chats together, watching them move freely about as they liked, noting their absorbed, happy concentration on their tasks. Already some of the sense of the miraculous which had been so vivid in my mind during my first survey of the school was dulled, or rather, explained away. Now that I had seen some of the details composing the picture, the whole seemed more natural. It was not surprising, for instance, that the little girl sorting the pieces of money should not instead be pulling another child’s hair, or wandering in aimless and potentially naughty idleness about the room. It was not necessary either to force or exhort her to be a quiet and untroublesome citizen of that little republic. She would no more leave her fascinating occupation to go and “ be naughty ” than a professor of chemistry would leave an absorbing experiment in his laboratory to go and rob a candy-store. In both cases it would be leaving the best sort of a “ good time ” for a much less enjoyable undertaking.
In the midst of these reflections ( my first glimmer of understanding of what it was all about ), a lively march on the piano was struck up. Not a word was spoken by the teacher, indeed I had not yet heard her voice raised a single time to make a collective remark to the whole body of children, but at once, acting on the impulse which moves us all to run down the street towards the sound of a brass band, most of the children stopped their work and ran towards the open floor-space near the piano. Some of the older ones, of five, formed a single-file line, which was rapidly recruited by the imitativeness of the little ones, into a long file. The music was martial, the older children held their heads high and stamped loudly as they marched about, keeping time very accurately to the strongly marked rhythm of the tune. The little tots did their baby best to copy their big brothers and sisters, some of them merely laughing and stamping up and down without any reference to the time, others evidently noticing a difference between their actions and those of the older ones, and trying to move their feet more regularly.
No one had suggested that they leave their work-tables to play in this way ( indeed a few too absorbed to heed the call of the music still hung intently over their former occupations ), no one suggested that they step in time to the music, no one corrected them when they did not. The music suddenly changed from a swinging marching air to a low, rhythmical croon. The older children instantly stopped stamping and began trotting noiselessly about on their tiptoes, imitated again by the admiring smaller ones. The uncertain control of their equilibrium by these littler ones made them stagger about, as they practiced this new exercise, like the little bacchantes, intoxicated with rhythm, which their glowing faces of delight seemed to proclaim them.
I was penetrated with that poignant sympathy in their intense enjoyment which children’s pleasure awakens in every adult who has to do with them. “ Ah, what a good time they are having ! ” I cried to myself, and then reflected that they had been having some sort of very good time ever since I had come into the room. And yet even my unpracticed eye could see a difference between this good time and the kindergarten, charming as that is to watch. No prettily-dressed, energetic, thorough-going young lady had beckoned the children away from their self-chosen occupations. There was no set circle here with the lovely teacher in the middle, and every child’s eyes fastened constantly on her nearly always delightful but also overpoweringly developed adult personality. There was no set “ game ” being played, the discontinuation of which depended on the teacher’s more or less accurate guess at when the children were becoming tired. Indeed, as I reflected on this, I noticed that, although the bigger ones were continuing their musical march with undiminished pleasure, the younger ones had already exhausted their interest, and, without spoiling the fun for the others, indeed without being observed, had suddenly stopped dancing and prancing as suddenly as they began and were wandering away in groups of two and three out to the great, open courtyard.
I suppose they went on playing quieter games there, but I did not follow them, so absorbed was I in watching the four little girls who had now at last finished their very leisurely meal and were preparing the tables for the other children. They were about four and a half and five years old, an age at which I would have thought children as capable of solving a problem in calculus as of undertaking, without supervision, to set tables for twenty other babies. They went at their undertaking with no haste, indeed with a slowness which my impatience found absolutely excruciating. They paused constantly for prolonged consultations, and to verify and correct themselves as they laid the knife, fork, spoon, plate, and napkin at each place. Interested as I was, and beginning, as I did, to understand a little of the ideas of the school, I still was so under the domination of my lifetime of over-emphasis on the importance of the immediate result of an action, that I felt the same impulse I had restrained with difficulty beside the buttoning boy—to snatch the things from their incompetent little hands and whisk them into place on the tables.
But then I noticed that the clock showed only a little after eleven, and that evidently the routine of the school was planned expressly so that there would be no need for haste.
And then I fell to asking myself why there was always so much need for haste in my own life and in that of my children ? Was it, after all, so necessary ? What were we hurrying so to accomplish ? I remembered my scorn of the parties of Cook’s tourists, clattering into the Sistine Chapel for a momentary glance at the achievement of a lifetime of genius, painted on the ceiling, and then galloping out again for a hop-skip-and-jump race down through the Stanze of Raphael. It occurred to me, disquietingly, that possibly, instead of really training my children, I might be dragging them headlong on a Cook’s tour through life. It also occurred to me that if the Montessori ideas were taken up in my family, the children would not be the only ones to profit by them.
When I emerged from this brown study, the little girls had finished their task and there stood before me tables set for twenty little people, set neatly and regularly, without an item missing. The children, called in from their play in the courtyard, came marching along ( they do take collective action in this case ) and sat down. I held my breath to see the four little waitresses enter the room, each carrying a big tureen full of hot soup. I would not have trusted a child of that age to carry a glass of water across a room. The little girls advanced slowly, their eyes fixed on the contents of their tureens, their attention so concentrated on their all-important enterprise that they seemed entirely oblivious of the outer world. A fly lighted on the nose of one of these solemnly absorbed babies. She twisted the tip of that feature, making the most grotesque grimaces in her effort to dislodge the tickling intruder, but not until she had reached a table and set down her tureen in safety, did she raise her hand to her face. I revised on the instant all my fixed convictions about the innate heedlessness and lack of self-control of early childhood ; especially as she turned at once to her task of ladling out the soup into the plates of the children at their table, a feat which she accomplished as deftly as any adult could have done.
The napkins were unfolded, the older children tucked them under their chins and began to eat their soup. The younger ones imitated them more or less handily, though with some the process meant quite a struggle with the napkin. One little boy, only one in all that company, could not manage his. After wrestling with it, he brought it to the teacher, who had dropped down on a chair near mine. So sure was I of what her action inevitably would be, that I fairly felt my own hands automatically follow hers in the familiar motions of tucking a napkin under a child’s round chin.
She did not tuck that napkin in. She held it up in her hands, showed the child how to take hold of a larger part of the corner than he had been grasping, and, illustrating on herself, gave him an object-lesson. Then she gave it back to him. He had caught the idea evidently, but his undisciplined little fingers, out of sight there, under his chin, would not follow the direction of his brain, though that was evidently, from the grave intentness of his baby face, working at top speed. With a sigh, that irresistible sigh of the little child, he took out the crumpled bit of linen and looked at it sadly. I clasped my hands together tightly to keep them from flying at him and accomplishing the operation in a twinkling. Why, the poor child’s soup was getting cold !
Again the teacher did not tuck that napkin in. She took it once more and went through very slowly all the necessary movements. The child’s big, black eyes fastened on her in a passion of attention, and I noticed that his little empty hands followed automatically the slow, distinctly separated, analyzed movements of the teacher’s hands. When she gave the napkin back to him, he seized it with an air of resolution which would have done honor to Napoleon, grasping it firmly and holding his wandering baby-wits together with the aid of a determined frown. He pulled his collar away from his neck with one hand and, still frowning determinedly, thrust a large segment of the napkin down with the other, spreading out the remainder on his chest, with a long sigh of utter satisfaction, which went to my heart. As he trotted back to his place, I noticed that the incident had been observed by several of the children near us, on whose smiling faces, as they looked at their triumphant little comrade, I could see the reflection of my own gratified sympathy. One of them reached out and patted the napkin as its proud wearer passed.
But I had not been all the morning in that children’s home, perfect, though not made with a mother’s hands, without having my mother’s jealousy sharply aroused. A number of things had been stirring up protests in my mind. I was alarmed at the sight of all these babies, happy, wisely occupied, perfectly good, and learning unconsciously the best sort of lessons, and yet in an atmosphere differing so entirely from all my preconceived ideas of a home. All this might be all very well for Italian mothers so poor that they were obliged to leave their children in order to go out and help earn the family living ; or for English mothers, who expect as a matter of course that their little children shall spend most of their time with nurse-maids and governesses. But I could not spare my children, I told myself. I asked nothing better than to have them with me every moment they were awake. What was to be done about this institution which seemed to treat the children more wisely than I, for all my efforts ? I felt an uneasy, apprehensive hostility towards these methods, contrasting so entirely with mine, for mine were, I assured myself hotly, based on the most absolute, supreme mother’s love for the child.
I now turned to the teacher and said protestingly, “ That would have been a very little thing to do for a child.”
She laughed. “ I’m not his nurse-maid. I’m his teacher,” she replied.
“ That’s all very well, but his soup will be cold, you know, and he will be late to his luncheon ! ”
She did not deny this, but she did not seem as struck as I was by the importance of the fact. She answered whimsically, “ Ah, one must remember not to obtrude one’s adult perspective into the world of children. He is so happy over his victory that he wouldn’t notice if his soup were iced.”
“ But warm soup is a good thing, a very good thing,” I insisted, “ and you have literally robbed him of his. More than that, I seem to see that all this insistence on self-dependence for children must interfere with a great many desirable regularities of family life.”
She looked at me indulgently. “ Yes, warm soup is a good thing, but is it such a very important thing ? According to our adult standards it is more palatable, but it’s really about as good food if eaten cold, isn’t it ? And, anyhow, he eats it cold only this once. You’d snatch him away from his plate of warm soup without scruple if you thought he was sitting in a draught and would take cold. Isn’t his moral [i.e. psychological] health as important as his physical ? ”
“ But it might be very inconvenient for someone else, in an ordinary home, to wait so interminably for him to learn to wait on himself.”
“ If it’s too much trouble to give him the best conditions at home, wouldn’t he be better sent to a Casa dei Bambini, which has no other aim than to have things just right for his development ? ”
This silenced me for a time. I turned away, but was recalled by her remarking, “ Besides, I’ve put him more in the way of getting his soup hot from now on, than you would, by tucking in his napkin and sending him back at once. To-day’s plateful would have been warm ; but how about to-morrow and the day after, and so on, unless you, or some other grown-up happened to be at hand to wait on him. And on my part, what could I do, if all twenty-five of the children were helpless ? ”
I seized on this opportunity to voice some of the mother’s jealousy which underlay all my admiration and astonishment at the sights of the morning, “
If you didn’t keep such an octopus clutch on the children, separating them all day in this way from their own families, if they were sent home to eat their luncheons, why, there would be mothers enough to go around. They
would be only too glad to tuck the little napkins in
The teacher looked at me, level-browed, and said, with a dry, enigmatic accent which made me reflect uneasily, long afterwards, on her words, “ They certainly would. Do you really think that would be an improvement ? ”
A Montessori Mother by Dorothy Canfield Fisher