MORE ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS IN A CASA DEI BAMBINI
Of course one day’s observations do not give even a bird’s-eye view of all the operations of a Montessori school, and this chapter is intended to supplement somewhat the very incomplete survey of the last and to touch upon some of the other important activities in which the children are engaged. If this description seems lacking in continuity and uniformity, it represents all the more faithfully the impressions of an observer of a Casa dei Bambini. For there one sees no trace of the slightly Prussian uniformity of action to which we are accustomed in even the freest of our primary schools and kindergartens. You need not expect at ten o’clock to hear the “ ten-o’clock class in reading,” for possibly on that day no child will happen to feel like reading. You need not think that the teacher will call up the star pupil to have him write for you. He may be lying on the floor absorbed in an arithmetical game and a Montessori teacher would not interfere with the natural direction, taken by the self-educating instincts of her children.
In planning a visit to a Casa dei Bambini, you can be sure of only one thing, and that is that all the children will be happily absorbed in some profitable undertaking. It never fails. There are no “ blue Mondays.” Rain or shine outdoors, inside the big room there always blows across the heart of the visitor a fine, tonic breath of free, and hence, never listless life. On days in winter when the sirocco blows, the debilitating wind from Africa, which reduces the whole population of Rome to inert and melancholy passivity, the children in the Casa are perhaps not quite so briskly energetic as usual in their self-imposed task of teaching and governing themselves, but they are by far the most energetic Romans in the city.
It is all so interesting to them, they cannot be bored or naughty. These hungry-minded, healthy children fling themselves upon the fascinating and informing wonders of the world about them with such ardor that they are always astonished when the long, happy day is done.
The freedom accorded them is absolute, the only rule being that they must not hurt or annoy others, a rule which, after the first brief chaos at the beginning, when the school is being organized, is always respected with religious care by these little citizens ; although to call a Montessori school a “ little republic ” and the children “ little citizens,” gives much too formal an idea of the free-and-easy, happily unforced and natural relations of the children with each other. The phrase Casa dei Bambini is being translated everywhere nowadays by English-speaking people as “ The House of Childhood,” whereas its real meaning, both linguistic and spiritual, is, “ The Children’s Home.”
That is what it is, a real home for children, where everything is arranged for their best interests, where the furniture is the right size for them, where there are no adult occupations going on to be interrupted and hindered by the mere presence of the children, where there are no rules made solely to facilitate life for grown-ups, where children, without incurring the reproach ( expressed or tacit ) of disturbing their elders, can freely and joyously, and if they please, noisily, develop themselves by action from morning to night. With the removal by this simple means of most of the occasions for friction in the life of little children, it is amazing to see how few, how negligibly few occasions there are for naughtiness. The great question of discipline which so absorbs us all, solves itself, melts into thin air, becomes non-existent. Each child gives himself the severest sort of self-discipline by his interest in his various undertakings. He learns self-control as a by-product of his healthy absorption in some fascinating pursuit, or as a result of his imitation of older children.
For instance, no adult shouted commandingly to the little-girl waitress not to drop her soup-tureen to brush the fly from her nose. She was so filled with the pride of her responsible position that she obeyed an inner impulse towards self-control. On the other hand, the buttoning boy did not refrain by a similar effort of his will from snatching the blocks from the arithmetical children. It simply never occurred to him, so happily absorbed was he in his own task.
I asked, of course, the question which obsesses every new observer in a Children’s Home, “ But what do you do when a child is naughty ? Sometimes, even if not often, you surely must encounter the kicking, screaming, snatching, hair-pulling ‘ bad ’ child ! ” I was told then that the health of such a child is looked into at once, such perverted violence being almost certainly the result of a deranged physical condition. If nothing pathological can be discovered, he is treated as a morally sick child, given a little table by himself, from which he can look on at the cheerful, ordered play of the schoolroom, allowed any and all toys he desires, petted, soothed, indulged, pitied, but ( of course this is the vital point ) severely let alone by the other children, who are told that he is “ sick ” and so cannot play with them until he gets well. This quiet isolation, with its object-lesson of good-natured play among the other children, has a hypnotically calming effect, the child’s naughtiness for very lack of food to feed upon, or resistance to blow its flames, disappears and dies away.
This, I say, was the explanation given me at first, but later, when I came to know more intimately the little group of Montessori enthusiasts in Rome, I learned more about the matter. One of my Montessori friends told me laughingly, “ We found that nobody would believe us at all when we told the simple truth, when we said that we never, literally never, do encounter that hypothetical, ferociously naught, small child. They look at us with such an obvious incredulity that, for the honor of the system we ransacked our memories for one or two temporary examples of ‘ badness ’ which we met at first before the system was well organized, and remembered how we had dealt with them. Now, when people ask us what we do when the children begin to scratch and kick each other, instead of insisting that children as young as ours, when properly interested, never do these things, we tell them the old story of our device of years ago.”
I have said that the real translation for Casa dei Bambini is The Children’s Home, and I feel like insisting upon this rendering, which gives us so much more an idea of the character of the institution. At least, from now on, in this book, that English phrase will be used from time to time to designate a Montessori school. It is, for instance, their very own home not only in the sense that it is a place arranged specially for their comfort and convenience, but furthermore a place for which they feel that steadying sense of responsibility which is one of the greatest moral advantages of a home over a boarding house, a moral advantage of home life which children in ordinary circumstances are rarely allowed to share with their elders. They are boarders ( though gratuitous ones ) with their father and mother, and, as a natural consequence, they have the remote, detached, unsympathetic aloofness from the problem of running the house which is characteristic of the race of boarders.
In the Casa dei Bambini this is quite different. Because it is their home and not a school, the hours are very long, practically all the day being spent there. The children have the responsibility not only for their own persons, but for the care of their Home. They arrive early in the morning and betake themselves at once to the small washstands with pitchers and bowls of just the size convenient for them to handle. Here they make as complete a morning toilet as anyone could wish, washing their faces, necks, hands, and ears, brushing their teeth, making manful efforts to comb their hair, cleaning their finger-nails with scrupulous care, and helping each other with fraternal sympathy. It is astonishing ( for anyone who had the illusion that she knew child-nature ) to note the contrast between the vivid purposeful attention they bestow on all these processes when they are allowed to do them for themselves, and the bored, indifferent impatience we all know so well when it is our adult hands which are doing all the work. The big ones ( of five and six ) help the little ones, who, eager to be “ big ones ” in their turn, struggle to learn as quickly as possible how to do things for themselves.
After the morning toilet of the children is finished, it is the turn of the schoolroom. The fresh-faced, shining-eyed children scatter about the big room, with tiny brushes and dust-pans and little brooms. They attack the corners where dust lurks, they dust off all the furniture with soft cloths, they water the plants, they pick up any litter which may have accumulated, they learn the habit of really examining a room to see if it is in order or not. One natural result of this daily close observation of a room is a greater care in the use of it during the day.
After the room is fresh and clean, the “ order of exercises ” is very flexible, varying according to circumstances, the weather, the desire of the children. They may perhaps sing a hymn together before dispersing to their different self-chosen exercises with the apparatus. Sometimes the teacher gives them some exercises in manners, showing them how to rise gracefully and quietly from their little chairs ; how to say good-morning ; how to give and receive politely some object ; how to carry things safely across the room, etc. Sometimes they all sit about the teacher and have a talk with her, an exercise in ordinary well-bred conversation. The teacher questions the children about the happenings of their lives, or about anything of more general interest which they may have observed. Of course, because she is a Montessori teacher she does as little of this talking as possible herself, confining herself to brief remarks which may draw out the children. Such conversation is of great help to the fluency and correctness of speech and to an early enriching of the vocabulary, all important factors in the release of the child from the prison of his baby limitations.
The main business of the day is the use of the apparatus, the different Montessori exercises, and these soon occupy the attention of all the children. With intervals of outdoor play in the courtyard garden, care of the plants there, the morning progresses till the lunch hour, which has been described. After this, or indeed, whenever they feel sleepy, the smaller children take their naps, and they do not go home until five or six o’clock in the afternoon, having back of them a peaceful, harmonious day, which has been actively, happily, and profitably employed, and which has been full of goodwill and comradeship.
From time to time it happens that a new brother or sister is introduced into this big family. The behavior of children who are brought into the school after the beginning of the school-year is naturally extremely various, since they are allowed then, as always, to express with perfect liberty their own individualities. Some join at once, of their own accord, in one or another of the interesting “ games ” they see being played by the other children already initiated, and in half an hour are indistinguishable from the older inhabitants of that little world, drawing their fingers alternately over sandpaper and smooth wood to learn the difference between “ rough ” and “ smooth,” or delightedly matching the different-colored spools of silk. Others, naturally shy ones, naturally reserved ones, those who have been rendered suspicious by injudicious home treatment, or those who have naturally slow mental machines, hold aloof for a time. They are allowed to do this as long as they please. They are welcomed once smilingly, and then left to their own devices.
I remember, in the Via Giusti school, seeing for several days in succession a tiny girl, not more than three, with wide, shy, fawn-eyes, sitting idle at a little table, in the middle of the morning, with all her wraps on. When I inquired the meaning of this very unusual sight, the Directress told me that, apparently, the child had something of the wild-animal terror of being caught in a trap, and had indicated, terrified, when her mother, on the first morning, tried to take off her cap and cloak, that she wished to be free at any moment to make her escape from these new and untried surroundings. So her wraps were not removed, she was allowed to sit near the door, which was kept ajar, and not a look or gesture from the Directress disturbed the reassuring isolation in which that baby, by slow degrees, found herself and learned her first lesson of the big world. I think she sat thus for three whole days, at first starting nervously if anyone chanced to approach her, with the painful, apprehensive glare of the constitutionally timid child, but little by little conquering her fear.
One day she reached over shyly for a buttoning frame, left on the next table by a child who had wandered off to other joys. She sat with this some time, looking about suspiciously to see if some adult were meditating that condescending swoop of patronizing congratulation which is so offensive to the self-respecting pride of a naturally reserved personality. No one noticed her. Still glancing up with frequent suspicious starts, she began trying to insert the buttons in the buttonholes, and then, by degrees, lost herself, forgot entirely the tragic self-consciousness which had embittered here little life, and with a real “ Montessori face,” a countenance of ardent, happy, self-forgetting interest in overcoming obstacles, she set definitely to work. After a time, finding that her cape impeded her motions, she flung it off, taking unconsciously the step into which, three days before, only superior physical force could have coerced her.
I watched her through the winter with much interest, her reticent, self-contained nature always marking her off from the other little ones more or less, and I rejoiced to see that all the natural manifestations of her differing individuality were religiously respected by the wise Directress. It was not long before she was trotting freely about the room choosing her activities with lively delight, and looking on with friendly, though never very intimate, interest at the doings of the other children. But it was months before she cared to join at all in enterprises undertaken in common by the majority of the pupils, the rollicking file, for instance, which stamped about lustily in time to the music. She watched them, half-astonished, half-disapproving, wholly contented with her own permitted aloofness. At least one person who saw her thanked Heaven many times that she had been saved from adult efforts to make her over according to the common pattern. Hers was a rare individuality, the integrity of which was being preserved entire. The Montessori school counteracts our present-day’s tendency to a dead level of uniform and characterless mediocrity.
This brief digression is an illustration of the way in which every thoughtful observer in a Montessori school falls from time to time into a brown study which takes him far afield from the busy babies before him. No greater tribute to the broadly human and universal foundation of the system could be presented than this inevitable tendency in visitors to see in the differing childish activities the unchaining of great natural forces for good which have been kept locked and padlocked by our inertia, our short-sightedness, our lack of confidence in human nature, and our deep-rooted and unfounded prejudice about childhood, our mistaken, harsh conviction that it will be industrious and self-controlled only under pressure from the outside.
It must be admitted that there is one variety of child who is the mortal terror of Montessori teachers. This is not the violently insubordinate child, because his violence and insubordination at home only indicate a strong nature which requires nothing but proper activities to turn it to powerful and energetic life. No, what reduces a Montessori teacher to despair is a child like one I saw in a school for the children of the wealthy, a beautiful, exquisitely attired little fairy of four, whose lovely, healthful body had been cared for with the most scientific exactitude by trained nurses, governesses, and nurse-maids, and the very springs of whose natural initiative and invention seemed to have been broken by the debilitating ministrations of all those caretakers. It is significant that the teacher of this school admitted to me that she found her carefully-reared pupils generally more listless, harder to reach, and harder to stimulate than poor children. But the least prosperous of us need not think that because we cannot afford nurse-maids our children will fare better than those of millionaires, for one too devoted mother can equal a regiment of servants in crushing out a child’s initiative, his natural desire for self-dependence, his self-respect, and his natural instinct for self-education.
The great point of vantage of a Montessori school over an ordinary school in dealing with these morally starved children of too prosperous parents, is that it catches them younger, before the pernicious habit of passive dependence has continued long enough entirely to wreck their natural instincts. Beside the beautiful child of four with the sapped and weakened willpower mentioned above, was an equally beautiful, exquisitely dressed little tot of just three, whose glowing face of happy energy provided the most welcome contrast to the saddening mental torpor of the older child, who, though naturally in every way a normal little girl, stood hopelessly apathetic before all the fascinating lures to her invention which the Montessori apparatus spread before her. The little girl of three, without a word from the teacher, regulated for herself a busy, profitable, happy, purposeful life, getting out one piece of apparatus after another, “ playing ” with it until her fresh interest was gone, putting it away, and falling with equal ardor upon something else. The older child regarded her with the curious passive wonder of a Hindu when he sees us Occidentals getting our fun out of dancing and engaging in various active sports ourselves instead of reclining upon pillows to watch other people paid thus to exert themselves. She was given a choice of geometric insets, and provided with colored pencils and a big sheet of paper, and, sitting before this delightful array, remarked with a polite indifference that she was used to having people draw pictures for her. The poor child had acquired the habit of having somebody else do even her playing.
In the face of this melancholy sight, I was comforted by the teacher’s hopeful assurance that the child had made some advance since the beginning of the school, and showed some signs that intellectual activity was awakening naturally under the well-nigh irresistible stimulus of the Montessori apparatus.
One exception to the general truth that the children in a Montessori school do not take concerted action is in the “ lesson of silence.” It originated as a lesson for one of the senses, hearing, but though it undoubtedly is an excellent exercise for the ears it has a moral [i.e. psychological] effect which is more important. It is certainly to visitors one of the most impressive of all the impressive sights to be seen in the Children’s Home.
One may be moving about between the groups of busy children, or sitting watching their lively animation or listening to the cheerful hum of their voices, when one feels a curious change in the atmosphere like the hush which falls on a forest when the sun suddenly goes behind a cloud. If it is the first time one has seen this “ lesson,” the effect is startling. A quick glance around shows that the children have stopped playing as well as talking, and are sitting motionless at their tables, their eyes on the blackboard where in large letters is written “ Silenzio ” ( Silence ). Even the little ones who cannot read, follow the example of the older ones, and not only sit motionless, but look fixedly at the word. The Directress is visible now, standing by the blackboard in an attitude and with an expression of tranquillity which is calming to see. The silence becomes more and more intense. To untrained ears it seems absolute, but an occasional faint gesture or warning smile from the Directress shows that a little hand has moved almost but not quite inaudibly, or a chair has creaked.
At first the children smile in answer, but soon, under the hypnotic peace of the hush which lasts minute after minute, even this silent interchange of loving admonition and response ceases. It is now evident from the children’s trance-like immobility that they no longer need to make an effort to be motionless. They sit quiet, rapt in a reverie, their busy brains lulled into repose, their very souls looking out from their wide eyes. This expression of utter peace, which I never before saw on a child’s face except in sleep, has in it something profoundly touching.
And then a veil of twilight falls to intensify the effect. The Directress goes quietly about from window to window, closing the shutters. In the ensuing twilight, the children bow their heads on their clasped hands. The Directress steps through the door into the next room and a slow voice, faint and clear, comes floating back, calling a child’s name.
“ El . . . e . . . na ! ”
A child lift’s her head, opens her eyes, rises as silently as a little spirit, and with a glowing face of exaltation, tiptoes out of the room, flinging herself joyously into the waiting arms.
The summons comes again, “ Vit . . . to . . . ri . . . o ! ”
A little boy lifts his head from his desk, showing a face of sweet, sober content at being called, and goes silently across the big room, taking his place by the side of the Directress. And so it goes until perhaps fifteen children are clustered happily about the teacher. Then, as informally and naturally as it began, the “ game ” is over. The teacher comes back into the room with her usual quiet, firm step ; light pours in at the windows ; “ Silenzio ” is erased from the blackboard. The visitor is astonished to see that only six or seven minutes have passed since the beginning of this new experience. The children smile at each other, and begin to play again, perhaps a little more quietly than before, perhaps more gently.
Who of us, without seeing this in actual practice, would ever have dreamed that little children would care for such an exercise, would submit to it for an instant, much less throw themselves into it with ardor, and emerge from it sweeter, calmed, and gentler ?
It makes one feel a sort of envy of these children who are so much better understood than we were at their age. And the fact that our own hearts are somehow calmed and refreshed by this bath of silent peace makes one wonder if we are not all of us still children enough to benefit by many of the habits of life taught there, to profit by the adaptation to our adult existence of some of the principles underlying this scheme of education for babies.
A Montessori Mother by Dorothy Canfield Fisher