After observing toddlers or primary, prospective parents invariably comment upon how civilized it is, and how the children get along so well and are so respectful of each other and their teachers. “How do Montessori children know how to wait for a turn, respect someone else’s space, walk in the classroom instead of run, ask politely for help or offer to help someone else?” they want to know. “It’s not magic,” I respond. “They have learned each of these skills, and many more, in the lessons of Grace and Courtesy.”
These lessons are a regular feature of the toddler or primary classroom, especially at this time of year when new children are being introduced to the classroom. In the primary, these often happen at group time, first thing in the morning. One of the first skills introduced is simply “How to walk around a rug.” The teacher will unroll a small rug on the floor in the middle of the circle of children, and invite them to watch. With elaborate care, she will place her foot just beside the rug with every step she takes. Each time she comes to a corner, she will accentuate going all the way around and not cutting the corner by stepping over it. She will then announce, “Now you know how to walk around a rug,” and invite several children, one at a time, to have a turn.
When the group time is over and children are excused to move about the classroom and choose their own activities, she can observe the results of her handiwork, as the children pay special attention to walking around each rug they encounter. If anyone forgets and steps on someone else’s rug, she has only to remind them: “Do you remember when I showed you how to walk around a rug?”
It seems so simple, doesn’t it? And yet, consider this — without this one skill, children who knew no better would blunder into and across each other’s spaces, causing a disturbance and hurt feelings.
Another early lesson is “How to watch someone’s work.” Again the teacher will role-play this important skill, emphasizing her closed mouth and the placement of her hands by her sides or behind her back.
With the introduction of just these two skills alone, the teacher has eliminated a large percentage of the frictional elements that plague the average “preschool.” In this same way we teach each of the social skills that allow a group of children to function independently but also respectfully: how to excuse yourself when stepping in front of another; what to do when you come to the water pitcher and someone else is already there getting a drink; how to serve the carrots that you have just peeled and sliced; how to blow your nose; how to walk in a line; how to wait rather than interrupt. The list goes on and on.
Last year as I was substituting in a primary class, I noticed a social skill that the children lacked. In one area of the classroom, two shelves jutted out, creating a narrow passage between them. Children coming from opposite directions would bump into each other coming through. Rather than admonishing these children for their lack of social awareness, I made a mental note instead. The next morning I gathered the whole group around the space in question. The assistant and I role-played what to do in this situation. We each picked up a tray and entered the narrow space from opposite directions. I made a deliberate show of stopping, stepping back, and inviting her to go first. Following this group time, as children went about their independent activities, I noticed any number of them looking for an opportunity to pass through this same narrow space. If someone was coming from the opposite direction one of them would stop, move back, and in a little piping voice say, “Oh, excuse me. Please go through first.”
In this way, the children gradually build the social skills of polite society. As they find activities that meet their inner need for self-development and as their space and autonomy are respected, a sense of calm and purposefulness settles over the classroom. Perhaps it is magic, after all.