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19 09, 2013


By |2018-12-17T11:37:43-06:00September 19th, 2013|Experiential Learning, Parenting|0 Comments

Not too long ago, I visited with some friends who had just adopted a 20-month old daughter from Korea. We went to the local playground, where the girl squatted down, as only a flexible toddler can, to examine a pile of pebbles on the ground. She picked one up, held it between thumb and forefinger, and, staring intently, she slowly turned it round and round to view it from different angles. She carefully replaced the pebble, scanned the remaining pebbles most deliberately, and then picked up another, which she proceeded to examine with equal scrutiny.

Ever an observer of children, I was fascinated by the child’s sense of wonder and sheer pleasure at the shape, look and feel of the pebbles. Totally engrossed in her observations, this little girl was in that state of intense concentration that Mihaly Cskikszentmihalyi calls flow, that focussed, don’t-know-time-is-passing state when we do our most creative and productive work. Left to her own devices, I believe she might have studied those pebbles for a quite a long time. But her new parents, eager to interact and to show her all the great things in the playground, lacked patience for her explorations. She knew very little English, so Dad took her hand and led her off to the swings.

This story could now go in many directions. I could point out something we all know — that children are fascinated with pebbles and sand and water and sticks and cardboard boxes — and they do not need most of the toys that we purchase for them. Just this week, a group of boys in After Ancona was having a grand imaginative time tucked under the bushes in the playground collaborating on what they could build with the sticks they found there.

Or I could point out that Montessori teachers believe in following the child, letting him choose his activities and giving him the the time to become engrossed. Maria Montessori called that intense focus absorption. Rather than draw a child away from what he’s interested in to pursue an adult agenda, why not help him to embellish or extend his own? When children select the right materials for themselves, they become absorbed in serious exploration for long periods of time. From those experiences grow concentration and problem-solving — critical faculties for learning. And locked in a pebble or a pile of sticks is a world of scientific studies.

IMG_1238Concentration, absorption, fascination with everyday materials – these are not only for preschoolers. Around the country, educators are rediscovering what progressive educators have always known: that authentic, hands-on, child-centered investigations are critical for building creative capacities in our kids. All were at play — along with creativity, problem-solving, collaboration and cooperation – when our 3rd/4th graders began the Global Cardboard Challenge ( last Friday. The projects spilled out of the classrooms and into the corridors as our eight and nine-year-olds worked non-stop for five hours designing, building and decorating arcade games and other constructions. On Flex Days to come, they will critique, refine and field test their products, and this is just the first of many such design challenges to come at Ancona.

There’s nothing wrong with leading a child to the swings, but in our fast-paced and material world, it’s critical that we provide him the time and the places for wonder and flow.

5 09, 2013


By |2013-09-05T12:00:19-06:00September 5th, 2013|Parenting|2 Comments

Maybe more than any other generation of parents, today’s moms and dads seem bombarded with worries about whether they are doing a good job or making the right choices about their children. If parents only do more for their children, will they somehow insure success or greatness?

In an excellent New York Times essay on parenting last month, psychologist Madeline Levine reported on research indicating that on average, children do better academically, psychologically and socially when their parents hit a “sweet spot” between being too permissive and not involved enough or too controlling and overly involved.

“Reasonably supporting a child’s autonomy and limiting interference results in better academic and emotional outcomes,” she said.  And while Levine was advising parents, I couldn’t help but think about the genius of Maria Montessori, who designed her classrooms 100 years ago with that exact purpose in mind — supporting a child’s autonomy and her developing sense of self.  Montessori based her educational theories on her own keen observations of children, but it’s reassuring that social science research bears out our most fundamental beliefs about education and the young.

Autonomy and motivation go hand-in-hand.  This is true for children, and it’s true for adults, too.  Daniel Pink describes this well-researched phenomenon in is his book Drive.  When adults have autonomy, they engage creatively and productively with their work, and they strive for mastery.  So do children in a Montessori classroom.  Given the freedom to choose her works, a child will return to an activity over and over again, until she’s mastered it.  And, having mastered the basics and with perhaps a little guidance from the teacher, she’ll transform the work and proceed on a path of her own design.  

Some parents think that constantly praising their child or her work will result in “self-esteem,” but actually, the opposite is true.  “This may seem counterintuitive,” Levine says, “but praising children’s talents and abilities seems to rattle their confidence.”

(“Wow,” a child may think.  “I really must have no talent if my mom wants me to believe this mediocre painting is so great.”)

I learned this from Ancona’s wise Montessori teachers when I first came to teach here.  They did not praise the children’s work, because they knew that the best appraisal is the child’s own, and they did not want to usurp the child’s own satisfaction with her work.  Nor did they wish to set her on the path of working primarily for the external praise, because sooner or later, that motivation will flag.

“If pushing, direction, motivation and reward always come from the outside, the child never has the opportunity to craft an inside,” Levine says.  And what a loss that would be!

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