Montessori is both adult-directed and child-centered because of the concept of Freedom within Limits.
The adult guide’s role is to prepare the structure from within a child can freely explore. This is very important because young children are not ready to handle total freedom—it would result in chaos. Children need adult support to thrive; this is why schools exist!
However, teachers have a serious responsibility. They must draw limits and present new opportunities. Metaphorically, a Montessori guide closes many doors and gradually opens one at a time.
Freedoms within adult-curated limits meet children’s basic needs. For example, they have a biological necessity for physical movement. This freedom must be respected. If not, learning will be severely impeded.
Freedoms = Respect
The entire concept of freedom within limits can be understood through the lens of respect. The freedoms we offer our students are based on respect for the child. Development is best supported when we meet children’s unique needs. These needs can be explained through various freedoms.
The Freedom to Choose
Students in a Montessori classroom have the right to choose which material they will work with. Once they begin, they are free to continue working as long as they choose.
Self-selected work is highly motivating for people of all ages. Not only do we choose what we like, but we also gravitate towards activities that challenge us just the right amount.
Maria Montessori observed that when children are in a sensitive period, they will repeat an activity with intense focus. Repetition is an indication that the work is in line with the child’s specific development. It also suggests that optimal learning is taking place.
Freedom to Move
The right to move in Montessori classrooms is in stark contrast to traditional education. You won’t find Montessori students seated at desks all day. The children are free to move about as they wish.
Young children require two hours per day of physical movement. Half of that time is ideally spent doing vigorous exercise. Neglecting this need will affect focus and impede learning. It will also result in many of the behavior problems seen in schools today.
Freedom to Socialize
Montessori students are allowed to talk to each other as they work. There is no requirement to remain silent. Socialization supports the young child’s development. Unnecessarily stifling the natural desire to socialize distracts from learning.
Limits = Respect
Just as freedoms can be explained as respect, so can limits. The limits we place on our young learners require them to respect themselves, others, and the world around them.
Respect can be defined as treating someone or something like it is important. Self respect then, means doing your best. Respect for others means that all members of the classroom create an environment where others can learn. Respect for the world is broken down into taking good care of the materials and acting in the best interest of the community and the world at large.
Every freedom is balanced by a limit. Guides impose limits to help children learn best, just as they provide freedoms for the same reason.
Limited to Available Materials
While children have the right to choose their work, they must select from materials they have been introduced to. The role of the guide is to introduce the materials at the appropriate time.
Materials Must Be Used for their Intended Purpose
Each work is carefully introduced. The students must use the materials as they have been introduced.
Within each material, there is often a succession of works. Children may complete any activity they have been introduced to. However, they are limited to the works the material is intended for.
This is one reason guides should recommend that parents not purchase Montessori materials for use as at home toys.
What Is Begun Must Be Completed
While students may change activities as they choose, they must complete a full work cycle before moving on. The work available should already be accessible so that children are capable of completing the cycle independently.
Just as teachers should not interrupt a concentrating student, nor should the students disrupt each other’s flow of work.
While students can chat and even work together, they may not approach someone who is already working.
While students are free to socialize, this freedom exists within the limit of maintaining an atmosphere where others can focus.
Montessori is the Perfect Balance Montessori strikes the ideal harmony between freedom and limits. While other educational philosophies tend to be either child-centered or adult-led, this approach understands that the two are not in opposition. In fact, freedom and limits are interdependent.