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Montessori for Elementary: Balancing Freedom and Responsibility

HuntersWoodsPH | Learning and Education

I’m taking a short Montessori course for parents who are homeschooling their elementary kids and sharing what I learn here in the blog. This is the third article in the series. You can start from the beginning here.

To me, one of the most attractive things about Montessori is the freedom inherent in its system. Freedom to go as fast or as slow as you need to in a lesson. Freedom to choose which lessons to dive deeper into and which ones you might only want a passing acquaintance with this time around.

 

Freedom from exams and homework! Not gonna lie — that’s a big thing for me because it stops learning from becoming a chore, something to get through as quickly as possible, and instead learning can remain something internally satisying that your kid can love his whole life. And of course it’s a freedom for parents too — I don’t need to review lessons with my son to prepare for an exam or get a tutor to do it for me if I’m too busy.

 

Freedom from big bags! Freedom to enjoy childhood and spend after-school time playing or reading or building things without having to dread whatever’s scheduled the next day. Freedom to travel! This is another big deal for me because I like travelling and I treasure being able to take my son with me. He doesn’t have to worry about missing a lesson because, well, he won’t miss a lesson. Presentations are done 1:1 or in very small groups, so he can always catch up after the trip — or even do it in advance — and he can always do mastery work on the road.

In the course that I’m taking right now, freedom is singled out as the aspect of Montessori that distinguishes it from other educational approaches. Some important points about freedom:

  • As humans, we are the beings in this planet who have the most freedom and ability to shape our environment — as compared with, say, plants or other animals — and so we want our kids to have this sense of agency and, at the same time, grow to be aware of the possible consequences of such freedom.
  • The more developed a person is, the more freedom that they have (ex. a 1-year-old vs. an older kid).
  • The youngest kids tend to want things to happen their way, but the elementary child’s reasoning mind helps them to modify and control their urges and impulses.

 

One thing that’s really worth pointing out is that freedom does not mean license to do whatever one wants. If you simply do whatever you want, you are being a slave to your impulses — and that is not true freedom.

 

Responsibility is the other side of the coin.

  • Responsibility is the understanding of being accountable for one’s actions.
  • The goal is to support the child as they develop responsibility and inner discipline.
  • In developing responsibility, children will make mistakes and adults need to be ready for that and to be patient.

 

Freedoms given to a child in a typical Montessori environment (always with healthy exceptions, such as when these freedoms infringe on those of others) include:

  • Freedom to choose work — This includes what time of day they can do their best work, not necessarily right at 8 AM.
  • Freedom to work alone or with others
  • Freedom to think for themselves — Even ideas and thoughts that are different from the norm are not instantly shut down but are instead discussed and even celebrated.
  • Freedom to communicate
  • Freedom to move — Kids can get up, get a snack, use the bathroom, work on the table or on the floor, and otherwise move without asking permission.
  • Freedom to go out
  • Freedom to reflect — Kids do not need to constantly be working. They can be daydreaming or spacing out, which might not seem productive externally, but are actually moments of internal industriousness.
  • Freedom from interference — When kids are in the zone, try to wait until they look up and are out of the zone before you engage them in conversation. If you are in another room, don’t just yell — check, because they might be focused on something.
  • Freedom from rewards or punishments — We want kids to develop internal rewards. Of course, kids need to understand consequences and good behavior can be reinforced; the trick is in the phrasing, which is something the course tackles in more detail later. But basically, if, as adults, we are constantly providing external discipline, how will kids learn how to use their freedom responsibly?

 

Kids also have responsibilities: to themselves, to the environment, and to society.

Homeschooling parents have freedoms of their own:

  • Freedom to respond to the developmental needs of the child — You can tailor the curriculum based on where your child is developmentally.
  • Freedom to follow the child — We are able to, for example, go deep into a topic that interests our kids, without having to feel the time pressure of moving on to the next thing on the schedule.
  • Freedom to learn alongside the child — I think we have all felt this: in the process of guiding our kids, we also learn so much!

 

And aside from the responsibility to plan and keep records and prepare the environment, which should be fairly obvious, homeschooling parents also have:

  • The responsibility to foster a stronger relationship with our child — At the end of the day, we aren’t there just to fill their mind with knowledge; we are there to be a parent.
  • The responsibility to spark our child’s interests — We all, kids included, learn better when we are interested and engaged. Tell a story, not a lecture.
  • The responsibility to cultivate a culture of work and industry — Our kids will be key members of society someday. We need to raise them according to the kind of world we want to have.
  • The responsibility to cultivate a sense of responsibility to the home — practical life!

 

When it comes to our kids, we will always need to find the delicate balance between freedom and responsibility — we should expect that we will have to continuously monitor results and make tweaks where necessary — but it will all be worth it.

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