Trust the Expert!

I was on the one hour commute to work, scrumptiously reading the book ‘Creative Development of the Child. Vol I’ that was a compilation of the lectures from 1939 of Dr. Maria Montessori. As I was reading through it, I couldn’t help but be in awe at the intensity and depth of trust, respect and admiration that was seen in the way Dr. Montessori related about children. Completely enraptured and inspired that morning I walked into the classroom with renewed confidence in the child. As I stood back and observed the classroom, I was filled with a new sense of wonder for these little busy beings.  They were busy constructing – not just blocks and towers – they were constructing themselves! Even though we understand ‘play’ and ‘work are synonymous for the child, I like that Dr. Montessori chose to call play ‘work’, for doing so she elevated play to a higher and more sacred realm. No one but the child can do this self-constructive work, and therefore we must trust the instincts of the child.

When I think of this, I am often reminded of the mysterious development of the Porthesia caterpillars. As soon as these tiny caterpillars hatch from their eggs, they are seen to move to the ends of the branches where they can feed on tender leaves. How do they know where to find their feed? Did someone instruct them and tell them their digestive system could only handle tender leaves? No! This caterpillar possesses an inner sensibility for light that attracts it to move towards the tip of the branch. But then sooner or later, when their digestive system can handle more mature food, this sensibility disappears. You and I would never worry to trust the little caterpillar with its sensibility for its own construction. How much more ought we trust little children with their inner drive for development!

A particular child was moved to my room from the Toddler room. And for a few weeks, I had been telling my manager that I didn’t feel he was ready to be in our room. At this point, I had to ask myself, ‘am I going to trust in his expertise?’ The magic moment suddenly happened. After a whole day of what seemed like aimless loitering, he took the ‘Pegging activity’ out from the shelf and began exploring it. He would try to open the peg and it would slip off his hand. But he wouldn’t stop; he was relentless. He sat there for over eight minutes repeatedly trying to master this skill of opening the peg. And then finally, he did it! Within a few more minutes he was able to open them and slide them onto the rim of the basket at the same time. I was totally blown away as I observed the child at work.

Twenty some years from now, this little boy will be a full grown man, and won’t spend a second thinking about the great pegging challenge that he faced when he was only three. He will probably never look back to that three year old with sufficient gratitude for working persistently at developing his finger muscles, for working at his hand-eye coordination, or for the sense of confidence and self-esteem that he achieved through that seemingly purposeless work. But so many skills he will enjoy as an adult will be as a result of the persistence he displayed that day. Let us therefore not take the child at work lightly!

“Adulthood is the result of years of toil and struggle. He who constructs the adult person… is the child who by the virtue of his own life and through years of constructing his own personality, becomes a man or a woman.” –Maria Montessori

Sid Mohandas is a Montessori practitioner from the UK. He received his training at Montessori Centre International (MCI), London.