THE POSSIBILITY OF AMERICAN ADDITIONS TO THE MONTESSORI APPARATUS
It may not be presumptuous for us, in addition to using the apparatus devised by Dr. Montessori, to attempt to apply her main principles in ways which she has not happened to hit upon. She herself would be the first to urge us to do this, since she tells us that she has but begun the practical application of her theories, and she calls for co-operation in the task of working out complete applications. It is my conviction that, as soon as her theories are widely known and fairly well assimilated, she will find a multitude of ingenious co-partners in her enterprise.
I am sure that everyone must have in his circle of acquaintances several persons who have an intuitive understanding of children that Dr. Montessori’s arguments and theories will seem to them perfectly natural and axiomatic. One of my neighbors, the wife of a farmer, a plain Yankee woman who would be not altogether pleased to hear that she is bringing up her children in part according to the theories of an inhabitant of Italy, has, by the action of her own wits, hit upon several inventions which might, without surprising the Directress, be transferred bodily to any Casa dei Bambini. All of her children have gone through what she calls the “ folding-up fever,” and she has laid away in the garret, waiting for the newest baby to grow up to it, the apparatus which has so enchanted and instructed all the older ones. This “ apparatus,” to use the unfortunately mouth-filling and inflated name which has become attached to Dr. Montessori’s simple expedients, is a set of cloths of all shapes and sizes, ranging from a small washcloth to an old bedspread.
When the first of my neighbor’s children was a little over three, his mother found him, one hot Tuesday, busily employed in “ folding up,” that is, crumpling and crushing, the fresh shirtwaists which she had just laboriously ironed smooth. She snatched them away from him, as any one of us would have done, but she was nimble-witted enough to view the situation from an impersonal point of view which few of us would have adopted. She really “ observed ” the child, to use the Montessori phrase ; she put out of her mind with a conscious effort her natural irritation at having the work of hours destroyed in minutes, and she turned her quick mind to an analysis of the child’s action, as acute and sound as any the Roman psychologist has made. Not that she was in the least conscious of going through this elaborate mental process. Her own simple narration of what followed, runs : “ I snatched ’em away from him and I was as mad as a hornit for a minit or two. And then I got to thinkin’ about it. I says to myself, ‘ He’s so little that ’tain’t nothin’ to him whether shirtwaists are smooth or wrinkled, so he couldn’t have taken no satisfaction in bein’ mischievous. Seems ’s though he was wantin’ to fold up things, without really sensin’ what he was doin’ it with. He’s seen me fold things up. There’s other things than shirtwaists he could fold, that ’twoudn’t do no harm for him to fuss with.’ And I set th’ iron down and took a dish-towel out’n the basket and says to him, where he set cryin’, ‘Here, Buddy, here’s somethin’ you can fold up.’ And he set there for an hour by the clock, foldin’ and unfoldin’ that thing.”
That historic dish-towel is still among the “ apparatus ” in her garret. Five children have learned deftness and exactitude of muscular action by means of it, and the sixth is getting to the age when his mother’s experienced eye detects in him signs of the “ fever.”
Now, of course, the real difference between that woman and Dr. Montessori is that my neighbor hasn’t the slightest idea of what she is doing and she has a very erroneous idea of why she is doing it, inasmuch as she regards the fervor of her children for that fascinating sense exercise as merely a Providential means to enable her to do her housework untroubled by them.
The set of Montessori apparatus was not intended by its inventor to represent all the possible practical applications of her theories. For instance, there are the devices for gymnastic exercises of the whole body which she recommends so highly, but which as yet she has been able to introduce but little into her schools. Here, too, what she would wish us to do is to make an effort to comprehend intelligently what her general ideas are and then to use our own invention to adapt them to our own conditions.
A good example of this is the enlightenment which comes to most of us, after reading her statement about the relative weakness of little children’s legs. She calls our attention to the fact that the legs of the newborn baby are the most negligible members he possesses, small and weak out of all proportion to his body and arms. This disproportion of strength and of size continues during early childhood, up to six or seven. In other words, a little child’s legs are weaker and tire more quickly than the rest of him, and hence he craves not only those exercises which he takes in running about in his usual active play, but others which he can take without bearing all his weight on his still rather boneless lower extremities.
Dr. Montessori suggests a little fence on which the children can walk along sideways, supporting part of their weight with their arms. She also describes a swing with a seat so long that the child’s legs stretched out in front of him are entirely supported by it, and which is hung before a wall or board against which the child presses his feet as he swings up to it, thus keeping himself in motion. These devices are both so simple that almost any child might have the benefit of them, but even without them it is possible to profit by the above bit of physiological information, if it is only by restraining ourselves from forbidding a child the instinctive gesture we must all have seen, when he throws himself on his stomach across a chair and kicks his hanging legs. If all the chairs in the house are too good to allow this exercise, or if it shocks too much the adult ideas of propriety, a bench or kitchen-chair out under the trees will serve the same purpose.
Everyone who is familiar with the habits of natural children, or who remembers his own childish passions, knows how they are almost irresistibly fascinated by a ladder, and always greatly prefer it to a staircase. The reason is apparent. After early infancy they are not allowed to go upstairs on their hands and knees, but are taught to lift the whole weight of their bodies with their legs, the inherent weakness of which we have just learned. Of course this very exercise in moderation is just what weak legs need ; but why not furnish also a length of ladder out of doors, short enough so that a fall on the pile of hay or straw at the foot will not be serious ? As a matter of fact, you will be astonished to see that even with a child as young as three, the hay or straw is only needed to calm your own mind. The child has no more need of it than you, nor so much, his little hands and feet clinging prehensilely to the rounds of the ladder as he delightedly ascends and descends.
The single board about six inches wide and three or four inches from the ground ( a length of joist or studding serves very well ) along which the child walks and runs, is an exercise for equilibrium which is elsewhere described ( see the chapter “ Some Considerations on the Nature of Discipline ” ). This can be varied, as he grows in strength and poise, by having him try some of the simpler rope-walking tricks of balance, walking on the board with one foot, or backward, or with his eyes shut. It is fairly safe to say, however, that having provided the board, you need exercise your own ingenuity no further in the matter. The variety and number of exercises of the sort which a group of active children can devise goes far beyond anything the adult brain could conceive. The exercises with water are described ( “ Some Considerations on the Nature of Discipline ” again). These also can be varied to infinity, by the use of receptacles of different shapes, bottles with wide or narrow mouths, etc.
Small, low see-saws, the right size for very young children, are of great help in aiding the little one to learn the trick of balancing himself under all conditions ; and let us remember that the sooner he learns this important secret of equilibrium, the better for him, since he will not have the heavy handicap of the bad habit of uncertain, awkward, misdirected movements, and he will never know the disheartening mental distress of lack of confidence in his own ability deftly, strongly, and automatically to manage his own body under all ordinary circumstances.
A very tiny spring-board, ending over a heap of hay, is another expedient for teaching three- and four-year-olds that they need not necessarily fall in a heap if their balance is quickly altered. If this simple device is too hard to secure, a substitute which any woman and even an older child can arrange for a little one, is a long thin board, with plenty of “ give ” to it, supported at each end by big stones, or by two or three bits of wood. The little child bouncing up and down on this and “ jumping himself off ” into soft sand, or into a pile of hay, learns unconsciously many of the secrets of bodily poise.
The identification of different stuffs, velvet, cotton, satin, woolen, etc., can be managed in any house which possesses a rag-bag. Perhaps the possession of a doll, preferably a rag-doll, might be valuable. Most dolls are so small that the buttons and buttonholes on their minute garments are too difficult for little fingers to manage, whereas a doll which could wear the child’s own clothes would certainly teach him more about the geography of his raiment than any amount of precept. I can lay no claim to originality in this idea. It was suggested to my mind by the constant appearance in new costumes of the big Teddy-bear of a three-year-old child, whose impassioned struggles with the buttons of her bear’s clothes forms the most admirable of self-imposed manual gymnastics.
Lastly, it must not be forgotten that the “ sets of Montessori apparatus ” must be supplemented by several articles of child-furniture – the little light table, the small low chair so necessary for children’s comfort and for their acquiring correct, agreeable habits of bodily posture. Such little chairs are easily to be secured but, alas ! rarely found in even the most prosperous households. We must not forget the need for a low washstand with light and easily handled equipment ; the hooks set low enough for little arms to reach up to them ; the small brooms and dust-pans so that tiny girls will take it as a matter of course that they are as much interested as their mothers in the cleanliness of a room ; in short, all the devices possible to contrive to make a little child really at home in your house.
A Montessori Mother by Dorothy Canfield Fisher