Nurturing the child’s natural tendency towards independence is part and parcel of the Montessori experience. To be independent, one must possess a degree of knowledge, skill, desire, and determination (appropriate to the task at hand). The child is absorbing lots of knowledge by age 6, he is acquiring and refining skills, he is born with desire and determination. It appears all systems go, however, the child’s road to true independence takes much thought and preparation.

It is time to humbly look at our adult actions and interactions with the child. As adults we often offer the child independence where he is not yet prepared, and withhold it, where he is more than ready. In a Montessori classroom, independence is given simultaneously as freedom and responsibility. Observation is the most important facet of the teacher’s role in a Montessori classroom.

Each child comes to us with a unique degree of skill. He will develop at a unique pace, relying on the amazing traits which with he is born, to guide him through. Teachers will introduce the child to the classroom, to fellow students and themselves. They will observe the skill level and mannerisms while the child is at play and maneuvering throughout the day. Based on these observations, the teachers will introduce the child to systems of procedure and the materials on the shelf. The child will be able to participate independently after being offered the actions, words and mannerisms to do so affectively.

To offer independent experiences too quickly, we set the child up for frustrating circumstances. The frustration might be self-derived, or a result of the reaction from others (not only can childless passersby form judgements or take offense, so do other children, and…… other parents). To wait too long, we risk missing an important moment for the child to work up to and arrive at his own excellence and efficacy.  Both scenarios deny the child independence and create obstacles to his development.

A child under six can handle a level of independence that matches his skill set and knowledge (not ours). He can identify that he is hungry, but not choose what he needs to eat (not consistently anyway). He can acknowledge being tired (sometimes) but not a beneficial bedtime. He can choose clothing to wear, but not necessarily appropriate to an occasion or weather (all the reasons in the world may not suffice). The child can use utensils to feed himself, but not a 6” carving knife. These are obvious examples of course. Some of the less obvious examples would be deciding when a playdate is beneficial or not, or how much independence is given in a public forum like the supermarket, mall, restaurant, grandma’s house (maybe grandma doesn’t mind, how about the sweet elderly couple next door)? Speaking of others, what about the nanny? How much independence are other caregivers ready to offer, handle and oversee? Much to think about!

Once again, independence can only match knowledge and skill set to be truly considered independence. Otherwise, it is “license” and may even put a child’s safety at risk.

My intention is not to paint a grim picture of where the road to good intention leads, rather to create a resolve in the adult, to best aid in the child’s preparation for life. Honoring the child’s developmental traits and characteristics, given by nature itself, while relying on the adult’s own instinct, knowledge and experience. As it is not a race to independence, it certainly is the desired endpoint. In the classroom, the teacher needs to discern carefully when a child is ready to use a material or carry out a procedure independently. There exists a plethora of activity in which to participate over the three or four years in the classroom. There are many that the child is ready for as soon as day 1, which help to acclimate and offer comfort and familiarity. As skills refine, the variety of work increases, begetting knowledge and confidence. When independence is withheld in any way or task, it is not a “punishment”, rather a protection of sort, in only offering the child that which leads to success.

In the weeks to come, I will expand on these traits and discuss detailed ways in which the Montessori classroom addresses them, and ways to compliment at home. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts, questions or concerns, and would love to address them in ways that might be of help to all!