When the visionary, perennially relevant Maria Montessori equated play with a child’s work, she was neither thinking of a senseless and unsupervised activity, nor of a simplistic series of tasks that are not worth an iota of thought. Her words of wisdom (she has truckloads of them) ring so true:
To let the child do as s/he likes when s/he has not yet developed powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.
I would add that betraying the idea of freedom in little ones plays a huge part in killing the innocence of children, although there are many more ways in which adults have done this.
The first female doctor in Italy who chose pediatrics and psychiatry as her specialties, Montessori pioneered a philosophy of education that still shines on in Montessori schools all over the world. She championed her deep belief in encouraging children to make creative choices in their age-appropriate tasks under the watchful, guiding eyes of highly trained teachers. The ensuing collaborative, hands-on, multi-sensory learning links the child’s cognitive, social and environmental aspects. Her insight into education was light years away from the mind-numbing slog that still plagues several school systems and jobs in the adult world, or even the joyless Calvinistic work-ethic that is supposed to save souls but damns them.
Essentially, Montessori promoted a leading out plus a bringing up process (etymologically, that’s what education is all about) that empowers a child to maximise his/her potential while nurturing a deep sensitivity to the world around us. I can imagine her rolling her eyes at the hours our students sit down during the school day or the immense – at times suicidal – pressure that students in some Far Eastern countries are subject to. Montessori also shot down the concept of education as a mere transmission of knowledge and would have surely trounced any Gradgrind in her sight.
Another point I’d like to emphasise is that education is not synonymous with schooling, though they should overlap and dovetail. Schools know this and go out of their way to advertise their holistic approach to child formation and development. Yet they all must contend with the demands of curricula and the realities of home background together with how childhood has changed beyond recognition over the past few years.
Though much more affluent, today’s kids are hot housed, spend hours in front of gizmo screens and most of them have little idea of what it means to play and argue with siblings since they don’t have any.
This means that they spend a great deal of their free time alone, online, or with adults who are not necessarily their parents since the latter are busy at work. Kids are also chauffeured wherever they need to go. Yet even as I look at material affluence around me, I also see an ever-growing gulf between the haves and the have nots. There’s also the massive emotional trauma of increased marital break-ups as well as happy or unhappy outcomes of adjusting to living in extended families living in an age that trumpets neo-liberalism and dehumanization; in my part of the world at least. It’s a highly complex and disturbing picture indeed, which leaves me more than disturbed.
The importance of what a child is exposed to in the first six years of life is crucial because brain development during these formative years resembles a super sponge that absorbs, registers and remembers.
But just as I risk going off at a tangent, I’m picturing the adorable and incredibly smart 6-year old grand-daughter of a former colleague who is like a big sister to me. Tales of what she says and does leave me utterly astonished. I look back at when I was six years old and can only say that I was an empty head in comparison. The importance of what a child is exposed to in the first six years of life is crucial because brain development during these formative years resembles a super sponge that absorbs, registers and remembers. Which is why this is the time in life when a desire and curiosity to learn should be instilled. Although first-rate childcare centres are playing an important role in this regard (though it’s good to keep in mind that they are not a staple), home background imprints a child long before stepping into a nursery, kindergarten and eventually a school.
I sometimes wonder whether we realise that marriage or cohabitation is the beginning of a culmination of sealing a loving relationship. Also, the beginning of family life; if a couple decide they want children. Think of the dedication and determination birds put in building their nests before they nestle. And influence of home – positive or negative – never ceases. If anything, it piles on and on. Any teacher will tell you that what a child trundles from home early in the morning and returns to after a day at school will always override whatever is taught (not necessarily learnt) in a classroom.
Did it ever occur to you to look up the root meaning of the word ‘school’? Well, it comes from the Greek scholē which originally meant both ‘leisure’ and ‘use of free time’. It subsequently evolved to mean ‘a group to whom lectures are given.’ I think the loss of the original meaning is one of our biggest losses as human beings. More so when schools adopt a ‘one size fits all’ programme.
At this point, I’d like to make an aside and mention good manners which are in short supply. Sadly, most of us deny that politeness makes daily life so much more pleasant. Once so many homes (and schools) do not deliver, where’s the solution? I suggest taking more than a few hints from the Japanese and triggering a nationwide courtesy campaign. If Japan is too exotic or too distant, look up the story of the Petite Syrah café in Nice that charges its coffee on the terrace overlooking the French Riviera according to how politely or rudely you ask for it. What a story!
Back to the home stamp on education, that parents are fundamental to a child’s education can never be overemphasized and should not be merely homework-related. This brings me to what today’s parents can do to help their children succeed in tomorrow’s super techy jobs which very few of us can imagine. While fear of the unknown is justified, allowing anxiety to overwhelm is a no-go avenue.
Here are some tips to boost confidence and success even in professions that are still to be conceived.
Encourage children’s curiosity
Not easy in our rehash, exam-driven curricula but vital to help children learn to love learning. So, rather than hammering on about exam results, encourage learning as a journey of discovery. What is learnt in this way is learnt for life. Proof of this is how we all remember meaningful lessons as against all the stuffing for examinations which is utterly forgotten the moment an exam is over.
Create a pleasant learning space at home
A comfortable, attractive and quiet place stimulates concentration which is key to any learning. Get to know what colours and textures your children love to be surrounded with. Most kids love to listen to music while getting their home tasks or revision done. Let them be, though it’s also a great idea to prod them to appreciate silence too. Nor should learning be confined to indoors. Get out and have them see, hear, smell, taste and feel the world – warts and all.
Praise their motivation and diligence
This is central to acquiring a strong work ethic and stands in stark contrast to vapid praise of intelligence that only spirals big headedness and entitlement. Also, let them learn the hard way from their own lack of motivation and diligence especially as they grow older. Hard knocks double up as wake-up calls to ingrain responsibility and resilience.
Encourage their creativity
This does not necessarily boil down to an art, music, dance, sport, or drama lesson after school. Though all of these are highly commendable, letting children dream and stare gives them a spark and an edge in their learning process because imagining and reflection ups critical thinking skills, pivotal to question a status quo. This means learning how (not what) to think as well as self-assessment – both of which are central to fast-emerging professions. Thinking creatively further hones a sense of aesthetics.
Turn something they find difficult into a problem-solving task
This is a wonderful way of boosting self-esteem and self-discipline. It also paves the way to turning challenges into opportunities in the working world as against giving up. What they find difficult also provides an eye-opener to a child’s strengths and weaknesses. While taking the path of least resistance makes a child lazy, pumping up that they can achieve anything, and everything is equally detrimental for the simple reason that no one can give of what they do not have. Aristotle’s belief that ‘knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom’ should resonate with all of us.
Teach them to cooperate
Children learn from their peers and more especially from children who are slightly older than them. Combine cooperation with problem-solving and you are putting them on the road of team building as well as getting along with different and sometimes difficult people. Even in our increasingly isolationist world, people need people.
Avoid extrinsic rewards
The notion of rewarding children is so rampant that countless teachers dig into their own pockets to buy ‘presents’ for their pupils and students. I find this truly appalling. While the occasional treat works wonders, turning it into habitual practice is counterproductive. Although far from shocking in our moral bereft society, pedagogy experts, educators and parents who go by this form of bribery are harming rather than teaching children. What they should be doing is building on intrinsic rewards which incorporate:
▶︎ A sense of meaningfulness
▶︎ A sense of choice
▶︎ A sense of competence
▶︎ A sense of progress
These facets lay the foundation for self-management to foster self-pride, self-dignity, and satisfaction of getting a job well done plus the confidence to face the unexpected with courage and stamina. Hopefully, also a moral compass.
How do parents get all this going?
By being there for their children whatever, whenever, wherever.
And being there needs to be glued with infinite patience and unwavering commitment. This entails more than the vaunted quality time. Even the acronym TLC grates on my ears. I believe in an overflowing cup. Look closely at Time – Love – Care. It’s no fluke that time comes first. For giving time does not count the hours, the minutes and the seconds when it is firmly in the driver’s seat of love and care.