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The carefully graded advance, from the simpler to the harder exercises, which is so essential a part of the correct use of the Montessori, as of all other educational apparatus, seems to most mothers contemplating the use of the system, a very difficult feature.  “ How am I to know ? ”  they ask.  “ Which exercise is the best one to offer a child to begin with, how can I tell when he has sufficiently mastered that so that another is needed, and how shall I select the right one to go on with ? 

Perhaps the first answer to make to these questions is the one which so often successfully solves Montessori problems :  Have a little more trust in your child’s natural instincts. Don’t think that a single mistake on your part will be fatal. It will not hurt him if you happen to suggest the wrong thing, if you do not insist on it, for, left freely to himself, he will not pay attention to anything that is not suitable for him. Give him opportunity for perfectly free action, and then watch.

If he shows a lively spontaneous interest in a Montessori problem, and devotes himself to solving it, you may be sure that you have hit upon something which suits his degree of development. If he goes through with it rather easily and, perhaps, listlessly, in all probability it is too easy ;  he has outgrown it, he no longer cares to occupy himself with it, just as you no longer care to jump rope, though that may have been a passion with you at the age of eight.

If, on the other hand, he seems distressed at the difficulties before him, and calls repeatedly for help and explanation, one of three conditions is present. Either the exercise is too hard for him, or he has acquired already the bad habit of dependence on others, in both of which cases he needs an easier exercise ;  or, lastly, he has simply had enough formal  “ exercises ”  for a while. It is a mistaken notion about the Montessori Children’s Home to conceive that the children are occupied from morning till night over the apparatus. They use it exactly as long, or as often, or as seldom, as they please. It must be kept in mind that the wonderful successes attained by the Montessori schools in Rome cannot be repeated by the mere repetition of sensory exercises, thrust spasmodically into the midst of another system, or lack of system, in child-education. The Italian children of five or six, who have had two or three years of Montessori discipline, and who are such marvels of sweet, reasonable self-control, who govern their own lives so sanely, who have accomplished such astonishing feats in reading and writing, are the results of many other factors besides buttoning-frames and geometric insets, important as these are.

Perhaps the most vital of these other factors is the sense of responsibility, genuine responsibility, not the make-believe kind, with which we are too often apt to put off our children when they first show their touchingly generous impulse to share some of the burdens of our lives.

For instance, the Montessori child is trained, through his feeling of responsibility for the neatness and order of his schoolroom, to notice litter on the floor, just as any housekeeper does, without needing to have her attention called to it. It is her floor and her business to keep it clean. And this feeling of responsibility is fostered and allowed every opportunity to grow strong, by the sincere conviction of the Montessori teacher that it is more important for the child to feel it, than for the floor to be cleaned with adult speed. As a result of this long patience on the part of the Directress, a child who has been under her care for a couple of years, will  ( to go on with our chosen instance )  pick up litter from the floor and dispose of it, as automatically as the mistress of the house herself, and with as little need for the goad either of upbraiding for neglect, or praise incommensurate with the trivial service.

With this caution that a Montessori life for a little child does not mean his incessant occupation with formal sensory exercises [ordinary toys are also provided, outdoor games, etc.], let us again take up the description and use of the apparatus.

The first thing which is given a child is usually either one of the buttoning-frames, or what are called the  “ solid geometric insets.”  This latter game with the formidable name resembles the set of weights kept beside their scales by old-fashioned druggists. No other Montessori exercise is more universally popular with the littlest ones who enter the Children’s Home, and few others hold their attention so long. This combines training for both sight and touch, since, as an aid to his vision, the child is taught to run his finger-tips around the cylinder which he is trying to fit in, and then around the edges of the holes. His finger-tips recognize the similarity of size before his eyes do. This piece of apparatus is, of course, entirely self-corrective, and needs no supervision. When it becomes easy for a child quickly to get all the cylinders into the right holes, he goes on to other exercises, although his interest in it may recur from time to time, during many weeks. [There are three such games:  one where the cylinders vary in both width and length, one where they vary in width only, and another where they vary in length only.]

One of the exercises which it is usual to offer him next is the construction of the Tower. This game could be played with the nest of hollow blocks which nearly every child owns, and it consists of building a pyramid with them, the biggest at the bottom, the next biggest on this, and so on to the apex made by the smallest one. This is to learn the difference between big and small ;  and as the child progresses in exactitude of vision, the game can be varied by piling the blocks in confusion at one side of the room and constructing the pyramid, a piece at a time, at some distance away. This means that when the child leaves his pyramid to go and get the block needed next, he must  “ carry the size in his eye ”  and pick out the block next smaller by an effort of his visual memory.

The difference between long and short is taught by means of ten squared rods of equal thickness, but regularly varying length, the shortest one being just one-tenth as long as the longest. The Long Stair is constructed by the child with these. This is perhaps the most difficult game among those by which dimensions are taught, and a good many mistakes are to be anticipated. The material is again quite self-corrective, however, and little by little, with occasional silent or brief reminders from the adult onlooker, the child learns first to correct his own mistakes, and then not to make them.

Thickness and thinness are studied with ten solids, brick-like in shape, all of the same length, but of regularly varying thickness, the thinnest one being one-tenth as thick as the thickest. With these the child constructs the Big Stair. Later on  ( considerably later ),  when the child begins to learn his numbers, these  “ stairs ”  are used to help him. At that time the large numerals, cut out of sandpaper and pasted on smooth cardboard, are placed by the child beside the right number of red and blue sections on each rod of the Long Stair.

After the construction of the Long Stair and the Big Stair the child is usually ready for the exercises with different fabrics to develop his sense of touch, and for the first beginning of the exercises leading to writing ;  especially the strips of sandpaper pasted upon smooth wood used to teach the difference between rough and smooth. At the same time with these exercises, begin the first ones with color which consist of matching spools of identical color, two by two.

When these exercises of the tactile sense have been mastered, the child is allowed to attempt the more difficult undertaking of recognizing all the minute gradations between smooth and rough, between dark blue and light blue, etc.

The training of the eye to discriminate between minute differences in shades, is carried on steadily in a series of exercises which result in an accuracy of vision in this regard which puts most of us adults to shame. These color-games are played with silk wound around flat cards, like those on which we often buy our darning-cotton. There are eight main colors, and under each color eight shades, ranging from dark to light. Several games can be played with these sixty-four spools. The first is to arrange them in the correct order of their colors, later, the child can, as in the pyramid-making game, pile them all on one side of the room, and make his graduated line at a distance, holding each color in his mind as he crosses the room, a feat which almost no untrained adult can accomplish.

The color-games played by a number of children together with the different-colored spools are various, but resemble more or less the old-fashioned game of Authors. One of them is played thus. Eight children choose each the name of a color. Then the sixty-four spools are poured out in confusion on the table around which the children sit. One of them  ( the eldest or one chosen by lot )  begins to deal out to the others in turn. That is, the one on his right asking for red, the dealer must quickly choose a spool of the right color and hand it to his neighbor. Then the child beyond asks for blue, and so it goes until the dealer makes a mistake. When he does, the deal goes to the child next him. After every child has before him in a mixed pile the eight shades of his chosen color, they all set to work as fast as they can to see who can soonest arrange them in the right order. The child who does this first has  “ won ”  the game, and is the one who deals first in the next round. Children of about the same age and ability repeat this game with the monotonously eternal vivid interest which characterizes an old-established quartet of whist-players, and they attain, by means of it and similar games with the color spools, a control of their eyes which is a marvel and which must forever add to the accuracy and precision of their impressions from the world.

We are now come to the  “ geometric insets,”  whose mysterious name has piqued the curiosity of more than one casual reader of accounts of the Montessori system. They are as simple as all the rest of Dr. Montessori’s expedients. Anyone who was ever touched by the picture-puzzle craze needs no explanation of the pleasure taken by little children of four and five in fitting these queer-shaped bits of wood into their corresponding sockets, the square piece into the square socket, the triangle into the three-cornered hole, the four-leafed clover shape into the four-lobed recess. There can be no better description of the way in which a child is initiated into the use of this piece of apparatus than the one written by Miss Tozier for McClure’s Magazine:

 A small boy of the mature age of four, who has been sitting plunged either in sleep or meditation, now starts up from his chair and wanders across to his directress for advice. He wants something to amuse him. She takes him to the cupboard, throws in a timely suggestion, and he strolls back to his table with a smile. He has chosen half a dozen or more thin, square tablets of wood and a strip of navy-blue cloth. He begins by spreading down the cloth, then he puts his blocks on it in two rows. They are of highly-varnished wood, light blue, with geometrical figures of navy-blue in the centre ;  there is a triangle, a circle, a rectangle, an oval, a square, an octagon. The teacher, who has followed him, stands on the other side of the table. She runs two of her fingers round one of the edges of the triangle. ‘ Touch it so,’ she says. He promptly and delightedly imitates her. She then pulls all the figures out of their light-blue frames by means of a brass button in each, mixes them up on the table ;  and tells him to call her when he has them all in place again. The dark-blue cloth shows through the empty frame, so that it appears as if the figures had only sank down half an inch. While he continues to stare at this array, off goes the teacher.

  Is she not going to show him how to begin ? 

  An axiom of our practical pedagogy is to aid the child only to be independent,’ answers Dr. Montessori. ‘ He does not wish help.’

 Nor does he seem to be troubled. He stares a while at his array of blocks ;  yet his eye does not grow quite sure, for he carefully selects an oval from the mixed-up pile and tries to put it in the circle. It won’t go. Then, quick as a flash, as if subconsciously rather than designedly, he runs his little forefinger around the rim of the figure and then round the edge of the empty space left in the light-blue frames of both the oval and the circle. He discovers his mistake at once, puts the figure into its place, and leans back a moment in his chair to enjoy his own cleverness before beginning with another. He finally gets them all into their proper frames, and instantly pulls them out again, to do it quicker and better next time.

 These blocks with the geometric insets are among the most valuable stimuli in the Casa dei Bambini. The vision and the touch become, by their use, accustomed to a great variety of shapes. It will be noted, too, that the child apprehends the forms synthetically, as given entities, and is not taught to recognize them by aid of even the simplest geometrical analysis. This is a point on which Dr. Montessori lays particular stress.”

Now it is to be borne in mind that although, for the children, this is only a  “ game,”  as fascinating to them as the picture-puzzle is to their elders, their far-seeing teacher is utilizing it, far cry though it may seem, to begin to teach them to write. And here I realize that I have at last written a phrase for which my reader has probably been waiting in an astonished impatience. For of all the profound, searching, regenerating effects of the Montessori system, none seems to have made an impression on the public like the fact, almost a by-product of the method, that Montessori children learn to write and read more easily than others. I have heard Dr. Montessori exclaim in wonder many times over the popular insistence on that interesting and important, but by no means central, detail of her work.

It cannot be denied, however, that the way Montessori children learn to write is spectacular. The theory underlying it is far too complicated to describe in complete detail in a book of this sort, but for the benefit of the person who desires to run and read at the same time, I will set down a short-cut, unscientific explanation.

The inaccuracy and relative weakness of a little child’s eyesight, compared to his sense of touch, has been already mentioned  ( in the chapter  “ Something About the Apparatus and About the Theory Underlying It  ).  This simple element in child physiology must be borne in mind as one of the determining factors in the Montessori method of teaching writing. The child who is  “ playing ”  with the geometric insets soon learns, as we have seen from Miss Tozier’s description, that he can find the shallow recess which is the right shape for the piece of wood which he holds in his hand if he will run the fingers of his other hand around the edge of his piece of wood and then around the different recesses.

It is hard for an ordinary adult really to conceive of the importance of this movement for a little child. Indeed, so fixed is our usual preference for vision as a means of gaining information, that it gives one a very queer feeling to watch a child, with his eyes wide open, apparently looking intently at the board with its different-shaped recesses, but unable to find the one matching the inset he holds, until he has gone through that blind-man’s motion with his finger-tips.

If, instead of a triangle or a square, the child is given a letter of the alphabet and shown how to follow its outlines with his fingers in the direction in which they move when the letter is written, the muscular habit resulting are of the utmost importance.

But before he can make any use of this, he needs to learn another muscular habit, quite distinct from the mastery of the letters of the alphabet, namely, the mastery of the pencil. The exceeding awkwardness naturally felt by the child in holding this new implement for the first time, has nothing to do with his recognition of A or B, although it adds another great difficulty to his reproducing those letters. He must learn how to manage his pencil before he engages upon the much more complicated undertaking of constructing with it certain fixed symbols, just as he must learn how to walk before he can be sent on an errand.

Dr. Montessori has solved the difficulty by another use of the geometric insets. This time it is the hole left by the removal of one of the insets which is used. Suppose, for instance, that one chooses the triangular inset. It is set down on a piece of paper and the triangle is lifted out, leaving the paper showing through. The child is provided with colored crayons and shown how to trace around the outline of the triangular-shaped piece of paper. The fact that the metal frame stands up a little from the paper prevents his at first wildly unsteady pencil from going outside the triangle. When he has traced around the outline  ( At first he traces only the outline of the inside figure. Later the square frame is also outlined. )  with his blue crayon, he lifts the frame up and there is the most beautiful blue triangle, all the work of his own hands ! He usually gazes at this in delighted surprise, and then it is suggested to him to fill in this outline with strokes of his pencil. He is allowed to make these as he chooses, only being cautioned not to pass outside the line. At first the crayon goes  “ every which way,”  and the  “ drawings ”  are hardly recognizable because the outline has been so overrun at every point ;  but gradually the child’s muscular control is improved and finally carried to a very high degree of perfection. Regular, even parallel lines begin to appear and the final result is as even as a Japanese color-wash. It is evident that in the course of this work he makes of his own accord, with the utmost interest animating each stroke, as many lines as would fill hours and hours of enforced drudgery over copy-books. When, after much practice, the muscles have learned almost automatically to control fingers holding a pencil, that particular muscular habit is sufficiently well-learned for the child to begin on another enterprise.

Among other things which occupy him at this time is getting acquainted with the look and feel of the letters of the alphabet. The children are presented, one at a time, sometimes only one a day, with large script letters, made of black sandpaper pasted on smooth white cards, and are taught how to draw their fingers over the letter in the direction taken when it is written. At the same time the teacher repeats slowly and distinctly the sound of the letter, making sure that the child takes this in.

After this, the little Italian child, happy in the possession of a phonetically spelled language, has an easier time than our English-speaking children, who begin then and there their struggle with English spelling. But this is a struggle to which they must come under any system, and much less formidable under this than it has ever been before. The next step is to put these letters together into simple words. There is no need to wait until a child has toiled all through the alphabet before beginning this. As soon as he knows two letters he can spell Mamma. There is no question as yet of his constructing the letters with his own hands. He simply takes them from their separate compartments and lays them on the floor or table in the right order. In handling them throughout all of these exercises the children constantly make that blind-man’s motion of tracing around the letter. The rough sandpaper apparently shouts out information to the little finger-tips highly sensitized by the tactile exercises, for the child nearly always corrects himself more surely by touching than by looking at his sandpaper alphabet. Of course, a strong muscular habit is being formed as he does this.

A pleasant variation on this routine is a test of the child’s new knowledge. The teacher asks him to give her B, give her D, P, M, etc. The letters are kept in little pasteboard compartments, a compartment for all the B’s, another for all the D’s, and so on. The child, in answer to the teacher’s request, looks over these compartments and picks out from all the others the letter she has asked for. This, of course, seems only like a game to him, a variation on hide-and-seek.

All these processes go on day after day, side by side, all invisibly converging towards one end. The practice with the crayons, the recognition of the letters by eye and touch, the revelation as to the formation of words with the movable alphabet, are so many roads leading to the painless acquisition of the art of writing. They draw nearer and nearer together, and then, one day, quite suddenly, the famous  “ Montessori explosion into writing ”  occurs. The teacher of experience can tell when this explosion is imminent. First the parallel lines which the child makes to fill and color the geometric figures become singularly regular and even ;  second, his acquaintance with the alphabet becomes so thorough that he recognizes the letters by sense of touch only, and, third, he increases in facility for composing words with the movable alphabet. The burst into spontaneous writing usually comes only after these three conditions are present.

It usually happens that a child has a crayon in his hand and begins the motion of his fingers made as he traces around one of his sandpaper letters. But this time he has the pencil in his fingers, and the idea suddenly occurs to him, usually reducing him to breathless excitement, that if he traces on the paper with his pencil the form of the letters, he will be writing. In the twinkling of an eye it is done. He has written with his own hand one of the words which he has been constructing with the movable alphabet. He is usually as proud of this achievement as though he had invented the art of writing. The first children who were taught in this manner and who experienced this explosion into writing did really believe, I gather, that writing was something of their own invention. They rushed about excitedly to explain, to anyone who would listen, all about this wonderful new discovery :  “ Look ! Look ! You don’t need the movable letters to make words. See, you just take a pencil or a piece of chalk, and draw the letters for yourself . . . as many as you please . . . anywhere ! ”  And, in fact, for the first few days after this explosion, their teachers and mothers found writing  “ anywhere ! ”  all over the house. The children were in a fever of excited pride. Since then, although the first word always causes a spasm of joy, children in a Children’s Home are so used to seeing the older ones writing and reading, that their own feat is taken more calmly, as a matter of course. It really always takes place in this sudden way, however. One day a child cannot write, and the next he can.

The formation of the letters, so hard for children taught in the old way, offers practically no difficulty to the Montessori child. He has traced their outline so often with his finger-tips that his knowledge of them is lodged in his muscles ;  so that when, pencil in his well-trained hand, he starts his fingers upon an action already so often repeated as to be automatic, muscular habit does the rest. He does not need consciously to direct each muscle in the action of writing, any more than a practiced piano-player thinks consciously of which finger goes after which. The vernacular phrase expressing this sort of involuntary, muscular-memory facility is literally true in his case,  “ He has done it so often that he could do it with his eyes shut.”  It is to be noted that for a long time after this explosion into writing, the children continue to go through the three preparatory steps, tracing with their fingers the sandpaper letters, filling in the geometric forms and composing with the movable alphabet. These are for them what scales are for the pianist, a necessary practice for  “ keeping the hand in.”  By means of constantly tracing the sandpaper letters the children write almost from the first the most astonishingly clear, firm, regular hand, much better than that of most adults of my acquaintance.

It is apparent, from even this brief account of this remarkably successful method, that children cannot learn to write by means of it without considerable  ( even if unconscious and painless )  effort on their part, and without intelligence, good judgment, and considerable patience on the part of the teacher. The popular accounts of the miracles accomplished by Dr. Montessori’s apparatus have apparently led some American readers to fancy that it is a sort of amulet one can tie about the child’s neck, or plaster to apply externally, which will cause the desired effect without any further care. As a matter of fact, it is a carefully devised trellis which starts the child’s sensory growth in a direction which will be profitable for the practical undertaking of learning how to write, a trellis invented by Dr. Montessori, which those of us who attempt to teach children must construct for ourselves on her pattern, following step by step the development of each of the children under our care.

And yet, although the Montessori apparatus does not teach children by magic how to write a good hand, in comparison with the methods now in use, it is really almost miraculous in its results. A child of four usually spends about a month and a half in the definite preparation for writing, and children of five usually only a month. Some very quick ones of this age learn to write with all the letters in twenty days. Three month’s practice, after they once begin to write, is, as a rule, enough to steady their handwriting into an excellently clear and regular script, and, after six months of writing, a Montessori tot of five can write fluently, legibly, and  ( most important and revolutionary change )  with pleasure, far beyond that usually felt by a child in, say, our third or fourth grades.

He has not only achieved this valuable accomplishment with enormous economy of time, but he has been spared the endless hours of soul-killing drudgery from which the children in our schools now suffer. The Montessori child has, it is true, gone through a far more searching preparation for this achievement, but it has all been without any strain on his part, without any consciousness of effort except that which springs from the liveliest spontaneous desire.

Reading comes after writing in the Montessori system, and has not apparently as close a connection with it as had been thought. A child who can form letters perfectly with his pencil and can compose words with the moveable alphabet may still be unable to recognize a word which he himself has neither written nor composed. But the gap between the two processes is soon bridged.

It begins with the recognition of single words. At first these are composed with the movable alphabet. Later, when the child can interpret readily words composed in this way, they are written in large clear script on slips of paper. The child spells the word out letter by letter, and then pronounces these sounds more and more rapidly until he runs them together and perceives that he is pronouncing a word familiar to him. This is always a moment of great satisfaction to him and of encouragement to his teacher.

After this has continued until the children recognize single words quickly, the process is extended to phrases. Here the teacher goes very slowly, with great care. There is a danger here that the children will fall into the mechanical habit  ( familiar to us all )  of reading aloud a page with great glibness, although the sense of the words has made no impression on their minds. To avoid this the Montessori Directress adopts the simple expedient of not having them at first to read aloud. She carries on, instead, a series of silent conversations with the children, writing on the board some simple request for an action on their part.  “ Please stand up,” “ Please shut your eyes,” and so on. Later longer and more complicated sentences are written on slips of paper and distributed to the children. They read these to themselves  ( not being misled by their oral fluency into thinking they understand what they do not ),  and show that they have understood by performing the actions requested. In other words, these are short letters addressed by the teacher to the children, and answered by silent action on the part of the children. The child’s attention is fixed, not on pronouncing correctly  ( which has nothing to do with understanding the sentences before him ),  but on the comprehension of the written symbols. As for the teacher, she has a check on the child. If he does not understand, he does not perform the right action.

A Montessori Mother  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

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