Dr Maria Montessori strongly believed that an adult’s pace of life is not the natural pace of childhood, and too often, children are expected to speed up rather than have the adults around them slow down.
I was aware of this before I had my son Lincoln, so I came into parenting with strong beliefs about what I did and did not want to do. One of the things I wanted to avoid was over-scheduling as I didn’t want Lincoln to be involved in so many organised activities that he wouldn’t have time to just be himself in his own environment.
Lincoln is now three and a half, and while this is still central to my beliefs, I often surprise myself with how easy it is to get caught up in the idea of scheduled classes and the need to experience as much as possible. I have not actually gone as far as to enrol him into more than one scheduled activity on top of his Montessori Preschool, but the temptation is often there, and I have done my fair share of investigating options!
Part of the difficulty lies in the knowledge of what Dr Montessori identified as the ‘absorbent mind’. These first six years of Lincoln’s life are the most critical and lay down the foundation for his personality and later learning and so I feel torn between wanting life to move slowly for him and wishing to experience as much as possible. An example is how keen I have always been for him to be exposed to a second language while he is still in the sensitive period for language acquisition (up until 6 years of age). I look at Lincoln now, though and realise that this isn’t what he needs at this moment in time, and I just have to hope we find a way for it to work for us when he is four or five.
To clarify, I am not against scheduled classes, but the tendency to have children signed up for so many at a time or to think that every experience needs a class to go along with it. I have to remind myself that if something interests Lincoln, he will find a way to pursue it whether or not I sign him up for classes. I only have to identify what an expert he is in all things Thomas the tank engine without having ever taken a single ‘Thomas’ class to prove my own point to myself! Yet, even with my strong beliefs I still worry. Is he getting the best deal from me as a parent? Is he missing out? Would his active body and brain be better served by a parent who took him from one class or one place to another?
For me, the problem of too many organised activities is not just a concern about the actual time it takes and the rushing from one thing to another, though this certainly is an issue for me. I also wonder about the messages Lincoln will receive about time and activity if he is always feeling ‘taught’ and that activities need to be organised by adults. I always feel extremely fortunate that Lincoln is capable of keeping himself occupied and needs very little if any, adult input into his play. I attribute this partly to his nature but also to the amount of time we have spent at home where he has always been able to ‘potter around’ with his own activities and toys. I find it interesting that when our pace gets more hectic, and we lose some of this at home, it does not take long for that ability to be independent to start to decline. Therefore I can balance my concern over him missing out on experiences by realising that he would be missing out on far more valuable and spontaneous experiences if he had less time with his family, at home and around his own belongings.
There is also the huge value I put on time outside in nature. I know Lincoln could happily spend all day at the beach or long amounts of time wandering around in the bush, and I think a timetable full of classes would limit both the ability to do these things and the amazing opportunities for development that these provide.
While too many scheduled classes play a large part in the tendency to a fast-paced life, they are not the only culprit. Free time can still be hurried if you try to squeeze too much into it. The temptation to do as much and see as much as possible still comes in here. We have many places we love to visit – the bush, beach, farm, zoo, marine reserve, miniature trains, and it always feels like there is not enough weekend or days off to fit them all in. I am discovering that it is more valuable to return to the same destination several times than to merely do a ‘taster’ of everything and explore nothing in depth. Weekly walks to the local bush reserve at our preschool have confirmed that for me and I have adopted that into our home life too. Whenever I feel our pace picking up too much, I think of Maria Montessori’s description of elephants (1978). She marvelled at how they instinctively slow the whole herd down to the pace of its youngest members, and just bringing this image to mind is enough for me to do a check-in on who is setting our pace. On a more practical level, I have always had three times in and out the car rule for when we have outings, and I try very hard to stick to it. I find any more than this affects my feelings of how hectic the day is and must feel even worse for Lincoln. I think that it can be easy to pass on to your child the wrong sorts of messages about time and how to use it. I really want to avoid the idea for him that time is something that we always cram things into.
Having made a decision to be a conscious parent, I will always worry that I am not giving Lincoln the best of me or allowing him to be the best. However, I believe that not overscheduling will lead to a less busy but more fulfilled lifestyle for us. I suppose that, yes, there is a chance he will miss out on an opportunity, but there is absolutely no chance he will miss out on the most important thing – his childhood.
Montessori, M. (1978). The Secret of Childhood. Orient Longman: Bombay.
Author: Tessa McTaylor, Little Earth Montessori, Kapiti, New Zealand
First Published: Montessori Voices, December 2011