Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Setting Up a Montessori Class: The Montessori Prepared Environment

"The first task of education is to furnish an environment with will permit the child to develop the functions given to him by nature." - Maria Montessori, Education for a New World

What is the classroom environment? What does that include? It includes everything in the space and of the space at that time. Any living creature develops in the context of its environment, and the environment provides the conditions for life: it protects, nourishes, and stimulates. Most animals are born into the environment that is suitable to them, according to their natural rhythm, and the environment provides all of their needs. Humans, however, are born into a constantly changing environment, because we build our own environment.

Dr. Maria Montessori called the environment that humans build beyond nature the supra-nature, meaning 'built upon' nature. In each environment of the supra-nature, humans create the prepared environment that is just right for whatever goal the human has in mind. And the environment changes according to the work we have to do. In order for the child to do her work, the environment that she will need are very different, however. Can the child prepare for herself the environment that she needs to do her own work? No. The adults have the responsibility to prepare the environment for the needs of the child, according to their tasks and work.

It is the adult's greatest responsibility to ensure that the child's environment is appropriate for life in the course of development. The adult must first understand what the task of childhood is. What tools does the child need? When does she need it? After that, the adult must ensure that the child has the freedom to pursue their work in that environment, according to her rhythm and natural timetable. Only with this freedom can the capacities be developed. The child, in her task of self-construction, is incarnating the building blocks of herself out of the items in her space. We must be aware, not just of her physical needs, but her social, emotional, and intellectual needs, at each stage of development.

The task of preparing the environment for the needs of the child is a continuous, ongoing task. The first educational environment is the home, in which place we have a great understanding of the physical needs of the child and less understanding of the psychological needs. What does the early environment need to be, apart from sustenance? The baby is the spiritual embryo who will absorb everything in the environment; therefore, we must take care that the environment has the most quality materials. The spiritual preparation for parenthood much begin much before conception. Dr. Maria Montessori thought it was critical for high school children to study the needs of infancy, since they would soon have to provide for them.

As adults, we have a responsibility to prepare the social environment, so that children have a place in it, not just the newborn baby. Even the adolescents need a place in our society and require experience with the context of larger society, not just the bubble of adolescence. It is not enough to be surrounded by adult community; there is so much to consolidate. They need a prepared environment, or their development will suffer. All of that energy which would have supported life is now displaced through other channels, trying to find a way to complete the work of development in stunted and detrimental ways. This is all part of the preparation for life.

Where can we obtain lessons for what is right for natural development? Observing the womb, the only 'natural' human environment can give some clues. How does that environment protect, nourish, and stimulate the germinal cell? The fertilized egg travels to the uterus where it embeds itself in the uterus. Without that transition, life cannot continue. All the while, the womb is protecting, nourishing, and stimulating the germinal cell. The fetus takes what it needs, when it needs it, according to its timetable, not the mother's. And the environment grows in response to the needs of the fetus, until the fetus reaches the point of need for another place which will meet its needs better. The way that the newborn realizes its human potential will depend on the environment. If the environment is deficient, creative constructive development cannot follow.

What are the implications of the prepared environment? It implies a conscious, deliberate, scientific effort based on an understanding of the needs of the developing being. We must consciously understand the needs of the developing child as only the adult can do. Preparing the environment presumes we have an understanding of the tasks at every stage of development for children to consciously and deliberately complete the task of creative constructive environments. As their development changes, so must the environment.

To prepare the environment for the Casa, or the House of Children, what do you need to know first? The needs of the child will depend on the child's task at this stage of development. What is the task of the child from three to six Gaining functional independence and consolidating everything that have learned so far-- movement, language, will, intelligence, unifying knowledge. A child of this age is an explorer using the movements to explore consciously and deliberately. He has special powers in this creative constructive environment. He is motivated by the horme. He is no longer the unconscious creator; he is an active conscious creator moving along these sensitive periods. He lives in a community of workers, in this specially prepared workshop. It is not a school: This is why we call it the house of children, or The Children's House, the Casa dei Bambini. It is better to call it the casa as a home workshop rather than the classroom, because we need a new word for the specifically prepared environment without the baggage of the traditional educational language.

The crucial element of the Montessori environment is the set of values that the guide brings to the room. The environment is useless without ensuring the freedom for development. This is our work. Beyond ordering the classroom, it is a preparation on a spiritual level for the guide, providing emotional and social values for who we are in the world and preparing the world for them. Compassion cannot be ordered. This can only be brought by the guide.

Jeannot Jonte Boucher is a Montessori educator and parent in Dallas, Texas.  

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