Maria Montessori based her life's work on observation. She was a scientist and physician first and foremost. When she was assigned to find out what was "wrong" with the children in the government projects of the San Lorenzo district in Rome, she discovered through her observation that the only thing wrong was the environment and the lack of guidance from a prepared adult. She offered practical life lessons (sweeping, preparing food, flower arranging) and the once-destructive children began to maintain their environment. The children even began to bring to their apartments a small flower arrangement. The parents of these "problem children" took notice and asked Dr. Montessori if she would teach them to read. She was not trained to be an educator, but told the parents that she would try it. She saw in the children a need to work with their hands, a need for order, a need for respect, and a need for self-control, which brought about the activities of practical life, and she began to observe the children to discover their innate abilities in academic subjects, developing a holistic curriculum that is now celebrated across the globe.
Over the past week I have been working on my student teaching in a Montessori classroom, and I am so often reminded of how natural school can be for children in a carefully prepared environment with the assistance of thoughtfully prepared adults. I've observed conflicts resolved, spills cleaned, gentle encouragement in academic areas, genuine concern for hurt feelings, loads of hard work on subjects as varied as buttoning one's own shirt (3 yr old) to tireless work with the addition strip board (5 yr old). Not only have I observed these things, but I've observed them happening without the intervention of adults. There is certainly intervention by adults happening in the environment at times, but I've noticed each of those things in the daily independent or group work of the children. These things are discussed in training, but many of them struck me as utopian and unlikely. I could not have asked for a better opportunity to peek into the daily life of one classroom and to work one-on-one with these children who are making the theory a reality for me. My mind is enlightened and my heart is filled when I am in the company of such beautiful and underestimated beings who are flourishing in their daily work and play. I am grateful and humbled.