When I first read Montessori’s writing, one of her mentions stood out among others; That of the story of French physician Jean Itard and his work with Victor, the wolf-boy of Aveyron . Victor was presumed to have been abandoned at 2-3 years of age and grew up in the woods and in the wild with no contact with human beings, except once when he was caught and displayed… When Itard finally got a chance to work with him, he took him into his home, and made a project of trying to reeducate Victor. He was never very success but he did throw light on the importance of childhood in the development of human traits and culturally and chronologically relevant behaviours in human beings, such that could not be recaptured at other times of a person’s life.
Have you ever met a baby? And then a 3 year-old? And then a 6 year-old? The acquisition of skills within that time is at an exponential rate. – Language, movement, musical and artisitic abilities, memory… There is no boundary. Montessori called that the absorbent mind of the child. The absorbent mind is extremely unselective and it absorbs not just things of intellectual consequence, but also behaviour.- The way he sits, eats, how he speaks, what he says, mannerisms and courtesies. Is he a child who hands things to an adult and expects us to take it off him, or does he know to say, ‘Could you hold that for me for a second please?’ (Oh yes, I have heard it! From a 3 year old!)
The young child absorbs some behaviours and is encouraged or discouraged in some others by the response he receives. In a supportive and orderly environment, he displays the ability to ‘obsess’ (colloquially speaking), that is to do one or two things repeatedly, until he achieves mastery or solves the mystery of a particularly tricky puzzle.
This urge to repeat is natural, and if undisturbed, the child begins to acquire the characteristic of concentration and perseverance through being allowed to make efforts for himself and by absorbing resilience and responses to obstacles from adults around him. The ability to concentrate, persevere, problem-solve and have open minds, are the makings of achievers in all arenas. These are common qualities of many historically recorded geniuses.- Their efforts to uncover truths is systematic. They persevere (despite obstacles), and they persist (concentrate on their goals).
These characteristics of the strength of will in young children and their influence on adult life was observed in the Stanford ‘Marshmallow’ experiment in the 1970s.
A scientific experiment of the relation between strength of will and achievements in later life was carried out. Individual children were led into an empty room where a treat of their choice (marshmallow) was offered. If they could wait 15 minutes before eating it, they would be rewarded with a second. 20 years later, the same children were found and those who had been successful at deferring their gratification had higher SAT scores and were described as more competent or achieving well, than those who were unable to wait.
Will has 2 sides. Self-control and making visible effort. Doing or not doing, both requiring perseverance and the ability to concentrate on the task and the goal. The Stanford experiment 40 years later, found that these characteristics, found at that age stuck.
At some point in the recent history of man, someone very influential became very worried that children were neglected and unstimulated and the result we are left with is learning toys galore and children being pressured to do things and appear lively and stimulated. I beg us to rethink this.
Young children need to be allowed periods of quiet and solitude, particularly in our time of quick meals and attention-deficit cartoon characters, to discover and develop the ability to concentrate and be left to their own devises to solve the little problems of daily life, in order that they may be equipped to solve the big ones when the day arrives. As the half-term comes to an end, perhaps instead of planning what to do with the kids, maybe they can be given a chance to figure it out themselves and you can have a chance to put your feet up and pretend the occasional cry or scream to be music. It can be our holiday too!