Monday, June 22, 2015

Creating the Montessori Prepared Environment

Context: Following are my thoughts regarding Dr. Maria Montessori's writing on the Prepared Environment for the child in the classroom. We call the classroom the "Casa", an abbreviation of  "House of Children". This information has also been passed to me through the oral tradition via my training supervised by the Association Montessori Internationale. It is clear that the preparation of the environment has many intangible and even spiritual considerations. 

What is the environment?
We often think of life developing in the context of an environment, but the environment also develops in the context of life. Considering the early beginnings of the earth, which developed in the context of water and rocks, life changed the context of water. Life, moving to land, changed the soil and the context for other organisms to grow. Life and environment are connected inextricably. The preservation of life on earth depends on the integration of life within its environment. Looking at animals and plants, each is adapted to a specific environment which supports their life and well-being.

Human beings are different, not being confined to one specific environment. Man does not just adapt to his environment-- he transforms the environment and everything in it, adapting it to meet his needs for comfort, shelter, beauty, and everything else. Man, therefore, lives in a supra-natural environment. In doing so, Man the Adult has an important role in the evolution of the environment. Man has even created new forms of animal and plant life by influencing the evolution and breeding of individual species to serve his purposes. Man, by nature, is also a builder. Man the Adult builds outside of himself, creating his environment. Man the child builds within himself, creating the adult. It is Man the Child who prepares the adult to take his place in the cosmic scheme. Since Man lives in a supra-natural environment, if Man the Child is to find the conditions for life and development, it must be provided by Man the Adult. Man the Adult must consciously, intelligently, and lovingly create the prepared environment in which children can find the conditions for Life and fulfill their task of creating adults.

The Prepared Environment
The prepared environment must protect, nourish, and stimulate. Calling it a Prepared Environment means it is prepared for a specific purpose. The home or the hospital, for example, are designed around the specific needs of the place. A Prepared Environment means we consciously build this place to serve very specific needs. In nature, we find bird and other animals building very specified shelters, instinctively and passed on from generation to generation. Over a hundred years, these animal dens will be built nearly identically. It is not a conscious, deliberate process, as is the case with humans.

Lessons from Nature
"The fiercest and most savage of beasts turns tame and gentle with its young. How tender are lions and tigers with their cubs, how fierce timid doe in protecting her dam!... It is as if parenthood gave them special instincts, which override the normal… Hence if life is to be conserved, and the species to survive, the first necessity is parental defense of the young… So if we study the different forms of life, we find the necessity for two kinds of instinct, of two ways of living; and if we make this assertion of human life, it becomes necessary to study children, because of the effects they have upon adults."[1] 

In nature, much of the prepared environments come about as special environments to receive their young. They prepare not just the physical environment but also the behavior of the adult of the species; in other words, the adult animals exhibit a different nature in the care and protection of their young. Children impact us as adult, changing our nature in order to protect them. From the adult, we must then alter the adult psychological nature, to accommodate and make a special environment for the survival and well-being of the young. For man, who lives in a supra-natural environment, we too have to acknowledge that our needs are different from the child, and the environment must be further modified for the child. Dr. Montessori observed that there is no world into which the child fits, because the child lives in the world of adults. Therefore, we consciously undertake the effort of preparing the environment for the child-- not just in the place, but in all of our dealings with children from the basis of our own natures, as well.

Lessons from Embryology
"Behavior is affirmed in each individual by experiences carried out on the environment, and therefore the first task of education is to furnish an environment which will permit and aid the child to develop the functions given him by nature."[2] 

The one prepared environment available for comparison is the womb. As a corollary the Prepared Environment, the womb is prepared in anticipation of the needs of the developing being. The motivation for development comes from the developing being, not from the one who prepares it. It is not the environment which causes the fetus to develop; it is
something innate within the fetus which causes it to develop. The environment provides the raw materials for the development in a form that is accessible to the developing being. The quality of the raw materials determines, through the prepared environment, determines how well the developing being realizes its potentialities. An environment that is prepared for one stage of development cannot satisfy the needs of another stage of development. After a certain time the womb, which was such a perfect place for the first nine months, becomes detrimental to development if the child is there too long. As we create an environment to serve the developmental needs of the child, we must keep all of these lessons in mind.

Dr. Montessori writes again and again, in many ways, that the environment is key, as the first task of education is to furnish the environment to give him the functions given by nature. If we are to render education as an aid to life, we must focus on Prepared Environment.

The Montessori Prepared Environment
The task of the child is the creation of the adult. We know that the child goes through planes of development from birth to adulthood. The child's needs and tasks change; therefore, Prepared Environment for each stage provides the scope for the individual at each point. The environment must expand to keep pace with the developing individual. The Prepared Environment must protect, nourish, and stimulate, so the Adult furnishes the qualities to allow the child to develop their potential at whatever point. In order to create such an environment, we need an adult who understands the nature of the child and how to foster it. In creating Prepared Environments for the child, Dr. Montessori writes:

"It is necessary to create surroundings for the child that answer his needs no only from the point of view of his physical health but also from the point of view of his spiritual life. The child must be able to act freely in such an environment. There, he must find motives for constructive activity which corresponds to his developmental needs. He must have contact with and adult who is familiar with the laws governing his life and who does not get in his way by overprotecting him by dictating his abilities, or by forcing him to act without taking his needs into account." [3]

Summarily, the environment must provide (1) freedom, (2) motives for activity, and the presupposition of (3) an adult who understands and fosters natural development. Without these three here, the gains of the child will not be lasting and complete. As social beings, it can be said that the Prepared Environment is a social environment, and everything else is a context for the social development of the child.

The Context of Montessori Environments, Birth to Adulthood
The Prepared Environment has to serve the needs of the child at each point, so Dr. Montessori discussed the Prepared Environment at each stage. At first, the Nido is necessarily the most compact, contained environment for a child in the first year of life. From 12-30 months, the Toddler space is a little larger for the child who has walking capacity, to develop language and movement. At about 2 1/2 years, the child can move into the Primary environment, which expands from the size of the Toddler environment. In the Elementary, in 6-12 years, we are not just giving the world to the child, but the whole universe. The environment expands exponentially, because the child has a reasoning mind and imagination and reasoning. In the 12-18 years in the Erdkinder and Montessori high school, the environment is still gradually growing into integration into the whole of society, doing internships and such, into the phase of 18-24 years, university. Ultimately, the adult is able to see himself in the whole of the cosmos, as a citizen of the world.

Casa Dei Bambini, the House of Children
Who is the child at 3-6 years?
"The environment should give the child the possibility to develop according to the laws of nature."[4]

For the Primary environment, we start preparing the environment by examining the needs and capabilities of the child, aged 3-6 years. In terms of the child's accomplishments to this point, the child has absorbed his environment totally, globally, and without consciousness. The child has created all of the organs of his psyche: the intelligence, will, language, and movement. At this point, the child now needs to classify and categorize his impressions, as well as explore his environment and grow in consciousness. The child needs to use, develop, and refine the organs of his psyche, being the intelligence, will, language, and movement to create an integrated personality.

With the powers of The Absorbent Mind and the Sensitive Periods, the child needs a safe, secure environment within which the child can explore and orient himself to the larger world. The child needs tools that will support his need to order his impressions, perfect his coordination of movement, and his ability to use language for communication. The child needs opportunity to engage in purposeful activity that will support the growth of independence, and a social community of peers that will support the growth of independence. The child must have freedom to follow the natural path of development, along with love, respect, and trust.

General Guidelines from Dr. Montessori
She writes that the child needs a Social Environment that is physically and psychologically scaled to the developing child. The Casa is not a place with Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, and Math: it is a space for children to live as part of a community. Yes, it has the physical qualities of being proportionate and scaled to the child, but the ideas are also psychologically scaled to the child. It will be an environment where the child finds objects and motives for activity. The Prepared Environment will be associated with a trained adult who understands the needs of the child and who has prepared himself so that he is not an obstacle to the child's development. This environment will be a place where the child has the freedom to follow the natural path of development. Therefore, we prepare the environment in the context of the needs of the child.

Aspects of the Prepared Environment
Material Aspects
The build environment will include the elements of the location and features, articulations of the space, as well as furniture and furnishings. The social group also constitutes a feature of the environment, and it should be a mixed age group of peers and the prepared adult. The means of development in this context is the materials in the room.
Non-Material Aspects
The psychological environment will provide order and consistency in relationships and routines, the rhythm of the room, the challenges to the will, and all the supports for independence. The social environment, non-materially, will support community life and motives for the activity. The spiritual environment will provide love and respect to the child, a sense of beauty, and a sense of belonging: as well as freedom. All of these offer a psychological framework for relating to the environment. All elements of the psychological environment foster independence.

The Built Environment
The indoor space of the built environment is comprised on the indoor space, where the furnishings must conform to the child's size, energy (that is, movement), and the child's psychic faculties (that is, independence). The environment must be beautiful, as beauty invites activity and care. The environment must be functional in every way; the child must be able to use everything he comes across in the house and do the ordinary tasks of everyday life. The built environment also contains a built-in control of error in choice of material and in arrangement of the environment.

The outdoor space of the built environment is also comprised of the care of living things. It gives children a sense of community beyond the human community. Dr. Montessori writes, "When he knows that some animals have need of him, that the little plants will dry up if he does not water them, his love binds together with a new thread." The outdoor space gives children a work that brings children in connection with the products of nature. It gives children a variety of activities to engage, with opportunities to experience new things and challenges. The outdoor environment is limited, however, just as the indoor environment is limited in size to the child's psychological environment.

The location is ideally in the child's community. In building and creating the physical structure, we have the opportunity to find a location that is safe and secure, as well as accessible to children. The building would ideally reflect the culture of the surrounding place and culture. Only then can the child become a person of his time and place, when the Casa is harmonious with other elements. Among the articulations of the indoor space, within that living room, there should be space for the materials, storage for the child's belongings, for the adult and the adult to do their work, so that the adult does not impinge on the child's space. We take this so much for granted, but the proper preparation of the space is critical. We must be vigilant and vocal, because they cannot advocate for themselves. 

The garden is not just for function, but it is for beauty. There should be space for education and gross motor activities. It is built with the understanding of the child's needs and what the child needs for development. Once the building is in place, then we think of the furniture, which must be appropriate to the child's size. The child must have the ability to move the chair around. We use materials which invite care; we add things to the environment that give feedback to the children which will make noise or damage if they are not carefully handled. She talks about how the furniture and furnishings will reflect the culture of the child, in each place, so in some places, there may be more furniture for working on the floor in areas where that is common.

The Social Group
Within the build environment, we consider the children who will populate it. The children must all be in the same plane of development. If the environment does not meet the needs of children moving on to the next Plane, the environment will be almost toxic to them. The group should be large, to contain many strengths and challenges. The class should contain 30-35 children in a mixed age group. The range of ages is critical to a sense of community. Part of this social group is the adult who has prepared himself to serve the child, not to be an obstacle to the child's environment. We must always keep in our focus that the environment belongs to the children.

Means of Development
The means of development in The Prepared Environment are the Exercises of Practical Life, the Sensorial Materials, Language, Math, and Culture, which will be Geography, Botany, Zoology, Music, and Art. Each of these materials provide the keys to movement, the social world, and the intellectual world. The built environment is the biggest circle in the concentric model, followed by the social environment, and then smallest in influence is in the Keys to the World. The keys are useless without access to the social environment or the built environment.

Elements of the Casa
Dr. Montessori says that the children are like actors in a living scene, "It ought to be a real house… a set of rooms with a garden of which the children are the masters. They contain not only didactic material… but also a complete equipment for the management of the miniature family." She speaks about the central room for "intellectual work", a sitting room as a parlor where the children amuse themselves with conversation, games, and music. She speaks about the dining room with low cupboards accessible to all the children. She says the plates are always of china, and the tumblers and water bottles of real glass. Knives are always included in the table equipment. The dressing room gives each child their own cupboard or shelf. Dr. Montessori speaks about the child's space:

"There is no limit to the equipment of the "Children's Houses", because the children themselves do everything. They sweep the rooms, dust and wash the furniture, polish the brasses, lay and clear away the table, wash up, sweep and roll up the rugs, wash a few little clothes, and cook eggs. As regards their personal toilet, the children know how to dress and undress themselves. They hand their clothes on little hooks, placed very low so as to be within reach of the child, or else they fold up such articles of clothing, as their little serving aprons, of which they take great care, and lay them inside a cupboard kept for the household linen."[5]
The adult has so much influence on various features of the environment. Mario Montessori writes:

"The child absorbs the environment but only the environment which they experience. His interests are created by your interests, his likes on your likes and his fear on your fear.. The children take everything from their environment, religion, customs, fears. They take their guide of life from what is around them… If there is an interest you want to arouse, put the possibilities in the environment."[6]

The Non-material Environment
With all of the material aspects in place, we bring our focus to the Non-material environment. We need a framework to tie this all together, and that is the non-material environment. The framework for the active human life is the psychological environment of order and routine that we set in place. It is a culture of expectation for care and respect that we show the children and they show each other. Otherwise, there is nothing to tie this together.

The Psychological Environment
We consider order in terms of the items on the shelf. This creates order in things to other things. However, the order in relationships of people to things, when we handle different relationships, is just as important. Our expectations for interactions between children and between children and adults, and adults and adults, we find disorder. We discuss ways of honoring each other's strengths, greetings, and so many other interactions. We discuss routines of changing clothes, customs of washing hands, breakfast-- every routine must be considered with care. Without my setting the tone, the children cannot anticipate what is going to happen. The children need to understand expectations at any time. Every protocol must be considered and communicated to the children, for the non-material framework for the community to thrive. Starting in a brand new environment, it is critical to communicate each of these, which teachers in training must understand how actively each of these routines and protocols must be prepared. The guide also slows the rhythms down to the pace of the child. Plan the day to reflect the needs and pace of the child.

The Social Environment
Dr. Montessori writes, "The end is that the child should act together with other children, and practice the gymnastics of the will in the daily habits of life… It is by means of free intercourse, of real practice which obliges each one to adapt his own limits to the limits of other that social habits may be established."[7] This requires a culture of respect, maximum effort, friendliness with error, and stewardship. This environment must give him practice at living in a community, considering what this child is contributing to the community. We convey to the child that we are each doing our very best and learn from our mistakes. It is part of how the children learn to interact with each other to create an active care not just for the material environment but also in care for one's own peers. We understand, through stewardship, that we have limited resources and space in the environment which we all share.

Motives for Activity
"The purpose of nature is to lead the child to become a human being. Therefore, all the activities which he sees performed by the adult in the environment are attractive to him," from Mario M. Montessori.

The motives for activity must be purposeful and have a spiritual interest. There are two kinds of these activities-- cultural activities and activities of everyday life. Even when we include elements of culture where these exercises are not performed in the home life, seeing the class community perform the activities gets children interested in them. Singing, dance, art, and celebrations in the class are cultural activities, but the activities of everyday life are also endowed with an importance in the routine of the Casa. It is all part of the non-material part of the environment.

In viewing this all, love for the child expresses itself in giving the child freedom to act for himself in the environment. This is love in action for the child to work at his own development. The child needs love, respect, and acceptance, and all of these are incorporated into the love in practice in the Prepared Environment. Love in action, in this respect, is the careful preparation of a space which will promote the child's growth and development.

In summary, the built environment contains the social group, and within that is the means of development. The non-material environment permeating all of this is the order and consistency, the relationships and culture of respect. Transcending all of this is the spiritual environment of love through which all of this is made available to the child.

Ongoing work of the adult: Mario's guidelines
Mario M. Montessori wrote about the ongoing, dynamic work of the adult in keeping the space in a state of preparedness. We link the child to the environment in showing the exact technique of doing things, and maintain the room in meticulous order. We only put out the necessary and sufficient things, to keep it from getting cluttered. He said, "It is absolutely necessary that everything be beautiful." He said that nothing should be put into the environment until their use has been explained. We respect the child's pace of development, and we provide a limited environment appropriate to their development.

Responsibilities of the Adult
We keep ourselves in a constant state of preparedness, so that we do not become an obstacle to the child's development. We establish contact between the child and the environment, fostering interaction with the environment. The child should not just be experiencing things in the environment, but the child also needs to be able to take this activity and explore this environment. The child must have the freedom to use his abilities in the service of his community. This is how we know the children develop a sense of belonging; the child can extend independent action in the environment.

"In going about his dedicated labors on behalf of the child, the adult must realize above all else that his task concerns a revelation of the child's soul."[8]

Often, we discuss education as a formative activity, but our work is a revelatory activity. Our work is to create the conditions to reveal the beauty of what is hidden and yet to be uncovered, the full human potential of the child. It is a change in perspective about the child.

Characteristics revealed by the child
Naturally, we work hard and are extremely observant. We are not destructive and are incredibly meticulous. Given the right environment, the environment reveals the child's great capacity for concentration and control of his movements. The child loves silence and delights in obedience, is self-motivated, and non-competitive. Here, the environment itself shows a revelatory capacity as well, because the correct environment can show the true nature of the human person.

Significance of the Prepared Environment
For the individual, the prepared environment provides the conditions for life and the freedom to follow the natural path to development and realize his human potential. For society, the prepared environment provides a context of the whole for knowledge, of the whole for action, and this whole expands though the planes of development and grows to encompass the cosmic whole. For mankind, it helps us understand our true nature, helping us to create environments that support our true nature. The Prepared Environment helps us realize our human potential ever more fully and help us assume our cosmic task consciously, deliberately, and intelligently.

1 Montessori, M. (1967). The Absorbent Mind (p. 34). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
[2] Montessori, M. (n.d.). Education for a New World (p. 34). Kalakshedra Publications.
[3] Montessori, Maria. Education and Peace  (p. 77). Kalashedra Publications.
[4] Montessori, Mario M. (1946) Unpublished Lectures, London.
[5] Montessori, Maria. Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook, (p. 37-47)
[6] Mario M. Montessori, (1946). Unpublished Lectures, London.
[7] Maria Montessori, Basic Ideas of Montessori's Educational Theory, (p. 90)
[8] Montessori, Maria. Education and Peace, (p. 70)

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