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the subtle art of creating an environment

A few days ago while Knox was laid up with the fever I made food coloring paint for Quin in bottles. The paper I gave her was flimsy. Very quickly she became absorbed in squirting the paints into a tray.


I haven’t been doing too much arts and crafts with the kids, since Knox has been the ultimate minimalist and it often feels that I spend more time setting up the activity than it occupies him. Quin, on the other hand, seems slightly more interested. As I watched her experimenting with the squeeze bottles, I noticed how the paint would quickly disperse into the other colors, turning the whole into the predictable mud. She seemed interested, however, to see the initial brighter color contrast on the already muddy background.

It made me wonder about the subtle differences in working material which drives behavior. I constantly think of the ‘genius’ that is Aelita Andre, after having seen a mesmerizing video of her at work. I do not question that she is gifted, but I do question how much our cautiousness and stinginess as adults hamper children’s natural expressions. For example, if I gave Quin acrylic and canvas to work with, would this better quality material increase her concentration?

But it is so expensive! and how to protect the room/her clothes??? It may be that I will never discover what she would be like working with this material. And this aspect of her at this age will never be explored.

This is true also for the beautiful heavy wooden letters, and those custom-made sensory tables (just the right height, just the right size) vs the hodge-podge of items I can make with cardboard and home goods items. It is one of the reasons why I value my children going to a well-established classroom more than my paltry at-home resources. At the very least, I can supplement their experiences with things I think the school lacks, but I cannot create everything they have.

Our capacity as child carers are hobbled by our resources, a lot of which includes our own memories of childhood. If we do not remember in ourselves the delight of smearing nobbly salt paint across a glassy surface, it is rather hard to see the act as anything but a damn nuisance and mess. And what more, we ourselves do not encompass the spectrum that is the individual interests of diverse personalities.

So as I loved my bare feet on dewy damp grass, I feel rather annoyed to find my son crying over getting his toes wet. The necessity of offering diverse experiences, resources, and environments thus becomes crucial to being able to find the right medium for a child. To observe children without too much assumption of what they do or do not need, and then tailor the approach accordingly.

I feel that it is as presumptuous to say that children should not have letter instruction before the age of 7, as it is to dictate that toddlers should all sit in chairs to learn else they should be left behind in the academic track. Both of these perspectives fail to consult the child. And while it may not be possible for us to ‘interview’ the child, what we do have is the power of observation.

I say the above because I was recently recommended to look up Nathan Mikaere-Wallis. I enjoy finding new people. There is never enough to learn. I could only find reviews on his speeches though. I found most of the points on ages 3~7 salient, though not too new to me, his mentioning the unnecessariness of children learning to read before age 7 I personally found annoying. The reason that he gave was that reading skills plateau later on so that a child who read at 3 does not perform better than a child who learns at 7. And besides, it takes precious time away from social skills.

Now the reason why I was annoyed was that both my husband and I were early readers. He at age 3 and I at age 4. It is something we still love today. It was not forced on us. It was simply something available in our environment (being read to) that we picked up on. While I cannot say that I am the most evolved creature in my social graces, neither can I say that, if I were kept from being able to read at that age, I would today be more socially adept.

This perspective of not teaching children to read and write before age 7 is problematic in that it reverses the issue – the problem is not that children are diminished by the instruction, rather that the standards for children’s education should be set at the more general one (most children are able to grasp reading and writing at age 7), while at the same time still offering all children the rich resources for them to pick and choose according to their innate time-schedule.

It shows that we still have the problem backward: we consider children products, whom we must mold with the most efficient resources to the most efficacious result in a short time (we will begin reading and writing instruction in first grade. Most of them will learn it within the year. Why waste resources on writing and reading material for the lower grade then?). It is silly that those that who speak for the children must scare parents from giving their children too much pressure, by making up a bogus reason for it being detrimental for them, instead of simply saying: “If he’s not ready, these are the signs that he’s not ready, and it doesn’t mean he’s stupid. Your pressuring expectations are what kills his neurons.”

I feel that having read Montessori’s texts on children seem to have increased my expectations of what childcare texts should look like. For often I get the distinct feeling, in reading modern texts on childcare, of being considered rather dim-witted and thus must be spoken to in very simple terms, particularly if I’m considering the study of such a profession. With Montessori, multiple re-reading only serves to remind me of the wonder that a child is, and what a worthy and careful work it is that I as an adult must consider.

For example, this passage on The Small Child’s Interest in Small Objects (a sensitive period) from E. M. Standing’s Maria Montessori: Her Life And Work

We adults miss many such things in our environment because, the contents of our minds being immeasureably richer, we tend to project our own synthesis into what we see. the above trait in children so young may surprise some people, for it is commonly supposed that children under two are attracted only by rather violent stimuli such as flags, bells, gay colours, singing, bright lights, and so forth. Certainly it is true that they are attracted by these things; but Montessori maintains that these are not the characteristic objects of their interest. Supposing, she says, by way of an illustration, that a man was sitting absorbed in reading a book, and then a band went by in the street, or a voice began shouting, and the man looked out the window. You might argue that the was more attracted to such sounds than his book, whereas in reality he is more interested in the latter less obvious and less violent stimulus. Similarly with these small children, the deep formative current of their mental life is not so easily discernible as their reactions to more obvious stimuli.

(bold emphasis my own)

also this:

Montessori discovered – or rather the children showed her – that the best age to learn to write is from three and a half to four and a half. The child, at the beginning of this period, is not interested in writing sentences, or even words. As a matter of fact, paradoxical as it may seem, he is not interested in writing at all. What interests him are certain purely sensorial aspects of the matter – the shape of the sandpaper letters (especially when he feels the contours with his two writing fingers). He is also interested by the fact – again a purely sensorial one – that each letter has a corresponding sound. He is at a stage when the world of touch means enormously more to him than to us. Indeed, it commonly happens that a child at this age who cannot recall the phonetic sounds of a letter by looking at it, will at once remember if he runs the tips of his fingers over it, touch conveying more to him than sight.

People who maintain that children should not be taught to write till they are six or seven years old have not realized that there exists this purely sensorial aspect of language. They are thinking of it rather in terms of writing and reading whole words or sentences, or even of the ideas they represent. That is why they are so astonished when they see children of 4 1/2- 5 1/2 composing long words like “Panama” or “Atlantic” with the movable letters, even before they can read. It was the children who had had the opportunity of learning the shapes of the individual letters by feeling them, and who knew their corresponding sounds, who “exploded” with such a dramatic suddenness into writing and still do when the right circumstances are present at the right age.

and this:

It may seem strange to the reader that a child can recognize (and name) the various regular polygons – pentagon, hexagon, octagon, etc. – before he can count properly. The reason is because, at that age, he can recognize these figures sensorially, by their look, without counting their sides or angles at all. In fact as soon as the child can count, and becomes interested in counting and comparing the number of sides, he has passed beyond the purely sensorial stage: and – says Montessori – “when we have passed to a higher stage we are no longer able to take what is accessible in an earlier.”

and finally:

When persons unacquainted with the Montessori system hear of these prodigious labours, or see them with their own eyes, they are so astonished that they sometimes change their tune altogether and go to the opposite extreme. They say, “I think it must be dangerous to push the children on to these precocious efforts. ” Such a criticism is of course unfounded; because no one is “pushing” the children at all. They are quite free to stop at any moment and change their occupations; or just take a rest if they feel like it. Such critics do not realize that working under the urge of a sensitive period is a vital function, and therefore does not tire one any more than does one’s breathing, or the beating of one’s heart.

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