Friday, June 10, 2011

Human Tendencies: Exploration

Maria Montessori observed over the course of her life's work that children in every culture and in every time exhibit basic human tendencies.  These tendencies are for exploration, orientation, order, communication, abstraction/immagination, exactness, repetition, self-perfection, self-control, control of error, work/purposeful activity, and movement.  If you take a moment (or 20 minutes) to observe a child it is impossible not to see one of these tendencies in action.  Perhaps you will say, "what?  Order?  Self-control? WORK?!  Renee, you've never met my child."  In this series I hope to give some insight into the most basic driving tendencies of childhood that help our children adapt to their time and place as well as ways to foster our children's development by utilizing these innate tendencies.

Exploration is a tendency our "helicopter" generation of parents is likely stifling.  Initially this tendency would have been necessary for survival - to explore the environment for food, to seek shelter, to find water. With basic needs met, the child can explore for the sake of exploration rather than for the sake of survival.

Exploration, of course, lends itself to discovery.  Within the house, discovery of the cookies on the highest shelf behind a wall of non-cookie items or discovery of the sharpie that was left within reach.  Outdoors, the range of discovery is boundless.  The cooler temperature of the shade trees, the insects that live under stones and boards, the movement of the wind in the trees, the changing of the seasons, the life cycle of plants in a garden, birds, sticks, pebbles, rain... boundless discoveries, I'm telling you.  I've never noticed any boredom in children who are allowed to freely explore outdoors!

Exploration is both deeply satisfying and deeply enriching.  With summer upon us, here are some considerations for allowing your child space to explore outdoors:

  • A safe area that can be "supervised" from a distance.  Other tendencies (self-perfection, exactness, control of error) will help your child to largely self-regulate in regards to his own safety.  I am not saying put the kid outside and go take a bubble bath with your martini - although that seemed to work fine for my grandmother's generation of parents!  Be close enough without being an interruption - become a part of the furniture, as Montessori might say.
  • A rich environment to explore.  A gated expanse of concrete would hardly offer much opportunity for exploration.  Consider elements that will appeal to all the senses.  
    • For the auditory sense, helicopters/planes, trains, the nearby high school band practices (for you fellow urbanites), birds, rustling leaves, wind chimes, running water, etc.
    • For the gustatory sense (taste), an herb garden with a variety of flavors to sample and fruiting trees and vines to get a simple snack.  Of course, you should present these to your child, so he is not eating poisonous leaves/berries/etc - show him the specific plants and how to identify them; it may be helpful to have a clearly delineated herb container/garden.
    • For the visual sense, varieties of trees and flowers, bird and butterfly habitat, flowing water, perhaps a fish pond or some backyard animals, a "bug box" to allow a closer look at insects, snakes, frogs, and lizards (as a temporary observational tool... not as a permanent "pet" habitat).  
    • For the olfactory sense (smell) flowers, herbs and compost.
    • For the tactile sense, a variety of textures of leaves, sticks, gravel, sand, soil, water, flowers, etc.  The opportunity to go barefoot enhances tactile awareness as well.
  • Finally, give the children a little space to just be - did I already mention that... it can use more than one mention.  Don't get fussy about getting "dirty" or playing with sticks or crawling under shrubs.
In a later post I will offer more bountiful ideas for "purposeful activity" or "work," but the tendency I'm focusing on is related more to a richness of surroundings and freedom to meander.

That said, purposeful activity is an excellent opportunity for observing this (and all of the) tendencies.  Consider a watercolor painting - the first attempt is almost certainly ends in a shredded, sopping wet, sheet of grey-brown paper.  As the child explores the activity, she may discover that subtle and light colors can be achieved with more water and less paint, or that rich bold colors often require far less water.  She might explore possibilities for brush stroke - fluid strokes or staccato taps of the brush to the paper.  She may discover that her yellow flower turned orange when she added a red center!  She may discover that her sopping wet painting from yesterday is now a permanent part of the wooden table she left it on to dry - or that she can only successfully lift a painting that has not become wet enough to soak through to the table - or that the paint runs when she lifts the painting immediately.  Other tendencies are certainly at work in this process - repetition of the activity, order of the steps for painting, control of error in realizing the outcome was more of a wet pulp than a painting, self-perfection in noticing (self-perceived) imperfections and working toward improvement on the next try, self-control in physically mastering the strokes and steps.  Some of these things will simply not come to fruition if the exploration is blocked.

Allowing a child to experience these things - some exciting, some frustrating, some beautiful, some dare-I-say ugly to the adult eye - is a far greater opportunity for learning and development than a parent-child lecture about "how to draw a flower" or grabbing the child's hand and directing it from the water jar to the paint cake to the paper to the water jar.  Would it be easier, cleaner, "prettier," on the first try for you to do it for your child?  Almost certainly.  Will the satisfaction and wonderment be that much greater when she discovers independently the technique that works best for her after multiple attempts and repeated striving?  Absolutely.


  1. oh, I so badly want to send this post to a family member with little ones- but it would be taken as an attack, rather then helpful suggestion (or plea!).
    Very well done!

  2. Very nice. It sometimes saddens me a little that what I perceive as "common sense" (give your child room to explore, a chance to figure out that this or that works better way A than way B, that dirt and sticks are not death-traps etc.) has to be pointed out, taught, intentionally sought, these days. However, since it does ... well done :D.