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As I look at the title of this chapter before setting to work on it, the sight of the word  “ Theory ”  makes me apprehensively aware that I am stepping down into very deep water without any great confidence in my powers as a swimmer. But I am convinced that my book can do no more valuable service than if by the tentative incompleteness of its account it drives every reader to the study of the system in Dr. Montessori’s own carefully written treatise.

It is always essential to an understanding of any educational system to comprehend first of all the underlying principle before going on to its application to actual conditions. This application naturally varies as the actual conditions vary, and should change in many details if it is to embody faithfully the fundamental principle. But the master idea in every system is unvarying, eternal, and it should be stated, studied, and grasped, before any effort is made to learn the details of its practical application. Any attempt to use the Montessori apparatus or system by anyone who does not fully grasp or is not wholly in sympathy with its bedrock idea, results inevitably in a caricature of the method.

The central idea of the Montessori system is a full recognition of the fact that no human being can be educated by anyone else. He must do it himself or it is never done. And this is as true at the age of three as at the age of thirty ;  even truer, for the man of thirty is physically strong and can fight any self-proposed mentor for his own right to chew and digest his own intellectual food.

It can be readily seen how this dominating idea changes completely the old-established conditions in the schoolroom, turning the highlight from the teacher to the pupil. Since the child can really be taught nothing by the teacher, since he himself must do every scrap of his own learning, it is upon the child that our attention centers. The teacher should be the observer of his natural activity, giving him such occasional short, light-handed guidance as he may for a moment need, providing for him in the shape of the ingenious Montessori apparatus stimuli for his intellectual life and which enable him to correct his own mistakes ;  by no means, as has been our old-time notion, taking his hand in hers and leading him constantly along a fixed path, which she or her pedagogical superiors have laid out beforehand, and into which every childish foot must be either coaxed or coerced.

We have admitted the entire validity of this theory in physical life. We no longer send our children for their outdoor exercise bidding them walk along the street, holding to Nurse’s hand. If we can possibly manage it we turn them loose with a jumping-rope, hoops, balls, and other such stimuli to their natural instinct for vigorous body-developing exercise. We do this nowadays because we have learned that little children are so devoted to those exercises which increase their bodily strength that they need no urging to engage in them. The Montessori child, analogously, is allowed and encouraged to let go the hand of his mental nurse, to walk and run about on his own feet, and an almost endless variety of stimuli to his natural instinct for vigorous mind-developing exercise is placed within his reach.

The teacher, under this system, is the observing supervisor of this mental  “ playground ”  where the children acquire intellectual vigor, independence, and initiative as spontaneously, joyfully, and tirelessly as they acquire physical independence and vigor as a by-product of physical play. An observation of the typical, joyfully busy child in a Casa dei Bambini furnishes more than sufficient proof that he enjoys acquiring mental as well as physical agility and strength, and asks nothing better than a fair and unhindered chance at this undertaking.

But even when this deep-laid foundation principle of self-education has been grasped, all is not plain sailing. A set of theories relating to such complicated organisms as human beings, cannot in the nature of things be of primer-like simplicity.

We all know how much more fascinating a place our kitchens seem to be for our little children than our drawing-rooms. Children like cooks and chamber-maids better than callers in the parlor, because servants are always doing something imitable ;  and they like kitchens and pantries better than drawing-rooms because the drawing-room is a museum, full of interesting objects it is true, but enclosed in the padlocked glass-case of the command,  “ Now, don’t touch ! 

The three-year-old child who, eluding pursuit from the front of the house, sits down on the kitchen floor with a collection of cookie-cutters of different shapes in his lap, and amuses himself by running his fingers around their edges, is engaged in a  “ stereognostic exercise.”  If he has time before he is dragged off to clean clothes and the vacuity of ordinary toys, to fit the right covers to the pots and to see which pan goes inside which, he is  “ developing his sense of size.”  If he is struck by the fact that the package of oatmeal, although so large, weighs less than the smaller bag of salt, he has been initiated into a  “ baric exercise  ;  while if there are some needles of ice left on the floor by a careless iceman, with these and a dabbling in warm dishwater, he invents for himself a  “ thermic exercise.”

Children from time immemorial have always done their best, struggling bravely against the tyranny of adult good intentions, to train their senses. They have always been  ( generations of exasperated mothers can bear witness to it ! )  “ possessed ”  to touch and handle all objects about them. But one’s three-year-old does not have that perverse fondness for the grease of the kettle, or that wicked joy in the destruction of valuable bric-à-brac which our muddle-headed observation has led us to attribute to him. Those are merely fortuitous, and for him negligible, accompaniments to the process of learning how to distinguish accurately different forms. Dr. Montessori assures us, and proves her assertion, that his sole interest is in the varying shapes of the utensils he handles, and that if he is given cleaner, lighter articles with more interesting shapes, he requires no urging to turn to them from his greasy and heavy pots and pans.

Bearing in mind, therefore, the primitive relatives of the Montessori apparatus to be found in our own kitchens and dining-rooms, let us look at it a little more in detail.

The buttoning-frames have been described  ( Chapter  “ A Day in a Casa Dei Bambini  ).  In the Casa dei Bambini there are these frames arranged for buttons and buttonholes, lacings, snap-fasteners, ribbon-ends to tie, etc. The aim of these exercises is so apparent that it is scarcely necessary to mention it, except for the temptation to see in them only an enchanting diversion for a child, which amuses him, far more than the most elaborate of mechanical toys. But we should not forget that there is no item in the Montessori training which is intended merely to amuse the child. He is given these buttoning-frames because they help him to learn to handle the various devices by which his clothes and shoes are held together on his little body. As for the profound and vitally important reason why he should be taught and allowed as soon as possible to dress himself, that will be treated in Chapter “Application of this Philosophy to American Home Life.”

It is apparent, of course, that the blindfolded child who was identifying the pieces of different fabrics was training his sense of touch. Our five senses are our only means of conveying information to our brains about the external world which surrounds us, and that to act wisely and surely in the world, the brain has need of the fullest and most accurate information possible. Hence the education of all the senses of a child to rapidity, agility, and exactitude is of great importance, not for the sake of the information acquired at the time by the child, but for the sake of the five, finely accurate instruments which this education puts under his control. The child who was identifying the different fabrics was blindfolded to help him concentrate his sense of touch on the problem and not aid this sense with his sight.

It may be well here to set down a few facts about the relative positions of the senses of touch and of sight, facts which are not known to many of us, and the importance of which is not realized by many who happen to know them. Everyone knows, to begin with, that a new-born baby’s eyes, while physically perfect, are practically useless, and that the ability to see with them accurately comes very gradually. Indeed, it comes even more gradually than once thought. Roughly speaking, up to the age of six children need to have their vision reinforced by touch if they are to get an accurate conception of the objects about them.

It appears furthermore that, as if in compensation for this slow development of vision, the sense of touch is extraordinarily developed in young children. In short, that the natural way for little ones to learn about things is to touch them. Dr. Montessori found that the finger-tips of little children are extremely sensitive, and that there is no necessity, granted proper training, why this valuable faculty, only retained by most adults in the event of blindness, should be lost so completely in later life.

Children learn more quickly and with less fatigue through their fingers than through their eyes—a peculiarity which extends even more vividly to child-memory, for it is established beyond question that a little child can remember the  “ feel ”  of a given object much more accurately and quickly than the look of it. It is easy to understand, once this explanation is given, the great stress that is laid, in Montessori training, on the different exercises for developing and utilizing the sense of touch.

One of the first things a child just admitted to a Casa dei Bambini is taught is to keep his hands clean, because we can  “ touch things better ”  with clean finger-tips than with dirty ones. He is allowed to take the responsibility of keeping his own hands clean, and encouraged to do it by the presence of the little dainty washstands, just the right height for him, supplied with bowl, pitcher, etc., just the right size for him to handle.

The education of the sense of touch, like all the Montessori exercises for the senses, begins with a few simple and strongly contrasting sensations, and proceeds little by little, to many only very slightly differing sensations, following the growth of the child’s ability to differentiate. The child with clean finger-tips begins, therefore, with the first broad distinction between rough and smooth. He is taught to pass his finger-tips lightly, first over a piece of sandpaper, and then over a piece of smoothly polished wood, or glossy enameled paper, and is told briefly, literally in two words, the two names of those two abstract qualities. He is encouraged to close his eyes during this exercise to concentrate his attention.

After the first broad distinction is learned between rough and smooth, there are then to be conquered all the intervening shades and refinements of those qualities. The children take the greatest delight in these exercises and almost at once begin to apply them,  “ feeling ”  whatever materials are near and giving them their proper names. It is as if their little minds were suddenly opened, as our dully perceptive adult minds seldom are, to the infinite variety of surfaces in the world. They notice the materials of their own dresses, the stuffs used in upholstered furniture, the surfaces of curtains, wood, steel, glass, etc. with exquisitely fairy-light strokes of their sensitive little finger-tips, which seem almost visibly to grow more discriminating.

The apparatus for continuing this training is varied, but always simple. A collection of slips of sandpaper of varying roughness to be placed in order from fine to coarse by the child  ( blindfolded or not, as he seems to prefer ) ;  other collections of bits of fabrics of all sorts to be identified by touch only ;  of slips of cardboard, enameled or rough ;  blotting-paper, writing-paper, newspaper, etc. ;  of objects of different shapes, cubes, pyramids, balls, cylinders, etc., for the blindfolded child to identify ;  later on of very small objects like seeds of different shapes or sizes ;  finally, of any objects which the child knows by sight, his playthings, articles around the house, to be recognized by his touch only.

There is one result on the child’s character of this sort of exercise which Dr. Montessori does not specifically mention but which has struck me forcibly in practical experience with it. I have found that little hands and fingers trained by these fascinating  “ games ”  to light, attentive, discriminating, and unhurried handling of objects, lose very quickly that instinctive childish, violent but very uncertain clutch at things, which is the cause of so much devastation. Little tots of four, trained in this way, can be trusted with glassware and other breakable objects, which would go down to certain destruction in the fitfully governed hands of the average undisciplined child of twelve. In other words the child of four has fitted himself by means of a highly enjoyable process to be, in one more respect, an independent, self-respecting, trustworthy citizen of his world.

Many of these different exercises can, like other fun-producing games, be played with other children. One child is blindfolded, and as children say  “ It,”  while the others sit about, watching his identification of more and more difficult objects, ready, all of them, for a shout of applause at a success, or at a failure a laughing pounce on the coveted blindfold and application of it to the child next in order.

A large number of the Montessori devices, if they were not called  “ sensory exercises,”  would be seen as merely fascinating new games for children. What is blind-man’s buff but a  “ sensory exercise for training the ear,”  since what the person who is  “ It ”  does is to try to catch the slight movements made by the other players accurately enough to pursue and capture them ?  Children have another game called, for some mysterious reason of children,  “ Still pond, no more moving ! ”  a variety of blind-man’s buff, which trains still more finely the sense of hearing, since the players are required to stand perfectly still, and the one who is  “ It ”  must detect their presence by such almost imperceptible sounds as their breathing, or the rustling caused by an involuntary movement. It could not be better devised for bodily control. Children who wriggle about in ordinary circumstances without the slightest capacity to control their bodies, even in response to the sternest adult commands for quiet, will stand in some strained position without moving a finger, their concentration so intense that even their breathing is light and inaudible. We must all have seen children happily playing such games ;  many of us have spent hours and hours of our childhood over them ;  but no one before this Italian woman-doctor ever analyzed them so that we plain unprofessional people could fully grasp their fascination for us ;  ever told us that children like them because they afford an opportunity to practice self-control, and that similar games based on the same idea that it is  “ fun ”  to exercise one’s different senses would be just as entertaining as these self-invented games, handed down for untold generations from one set of children to another. All the varieties of blindfold sensory exercises are variations on the theme of blind-man’s buff, which is so perennially interesting to all children. Any small group of young children will with a little guidance at first readily  “ play ”  any of the  “ tactile exercises ”  described above for hours on end. Any group of children, collected anywhere, can be converted into a half-hour’s Montessori school, though as a rule the younger they are the better it goes, since they have not fallen into bad mental habits.

Practice in judging weight is given by the use of pieces of wood of the same size but of different weights, chestnut contrasted with oak, poplar-wood with maple, etc., the child judging by slightly lifting them up and down on the palm of his hand. Later on this can be varied by the use of any objects of about the same size but of different weights, and later still by objects of weights disproportionate to their size, such as a bit of iron or a small pillow.

The difference between these carefully devised exercises and the haphazard comparison by the child in the kitchen of the bag of salt and the box of oatmeal, is an example of the way in which Dr. Montessori has systematized and ordered, graded and arranged the exercises which every child craves. The average mother calls him away from the pantry-shelf where he may upset the oatmeal box or spill the salt, thus  “ getting into mischief,”  and leads him, with mistaken affection, back to his toy animals. The luckier child of a busier, or more indifferent mother is allowed to  “ mess around ”  in the kitchen until he makes himself too intolerable a nuisance. He goes through valuable sense exercises, but he wastes a great deal of his time in misdirected and futile effort, and does, as a matter of fact, make trouble for his elders which is not at all a necessary accompaniment to his own life, liberty, or pursuit of information.

Dr. Montessori has neither led the child away from his instinctively chosen occupations, nor left him alone in the state of anarchic chaos among the bewildering variety of objects in the world. She has, so to speak, gone out into the kitchen beside the child, busy with his self-chosen amusements, and she has looked at him long and hard. As a result she is able to show us, what our own blurred observation had not distinguished, just which elements in his naturally preferred toys are the ones towards which the tendrils of his rapidly-growing intellectual and muscular organism are reaching.

A Montessori Mother  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

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