The following article has been presented by Muriel I. Dwyer, director of Maria Montessori Training Organization in London, to Unesco-Unicef Cooperative Programme in 1981.
All we have said shows that the education of parents is even more important than the provision of nursery education because by the age of three the child has already become a man of his time, place and group – in other words, has already laid the foundations on which the rest of his life will be built.
This education of parents need not be as difficult as it sounds. In many developing countries there are now maternal and child welfare units doing fantastic work even in the most remote up-country areas. If this foundation was broadened to include the psychic as well as thy physical needs of the child, no new organization would be necessary. In more developed areas the media, particularly the radio and television, could and should be used in this important work.
Neither is expensive equipment necessary. The adults themselves, if well instructed and convinced, the natural environment, particularly the home, however simple, is all that is required.
It is attitudes and understanding that have to change and be broadened. The most expensive equipment in the world will not help if the attitude of the adults is unenlightened.
In this period 0-3 years it has to be stressed to parents that good nutrition is not only important for the physical well-being of their children, but also for their intellectual development. They must also have explained to them the importance of allowing the baby to be active, to explore, to do for himself whatever he is capable of, such as washing, feeding, and doing the kind of activities that he sees around the house. It is important to anwer his questions and allow him to speak, tell him stories, introduce him to different kinds of flowers, shapes, colours, music, etc., indeed, help him become acquainted with everything in his home and immediate environment.
During the period of 3-6 years the child has the potential to widen, deepen and consolidate what he has gained in the first three years. So what he requires is help to do just that.
At the time or in places where Man was only expected to adapt to the simple environment and society, the child was able to gain all he needed by running freely in the village, watching and participating in the life and work of the people who surrounded him.
However, for most people in the world this isolated experience no longer pertains. With modern means of communication it is now necessary for the village child also to adapt to the larger world – no one can tell where a child born in a remote village will, in fact, lead out his life.
So the children need to adapt not only to the here and now, the simple life, but also to the complicated life of the world in all its aspects. To do this he must be able to explore, get to know and build into himself the knowledge and abilities necessary for a full life in a wider context. For this he needs extra help, and thus we come to the day-care centres or pre-schools.
Day-care and pre-school education
These little ones have the potential to achieve great things, but this is only possible if their fundamental needs can find fulfilment.
If these little ones are crowded into huts or buildings, denied the possiblity to explore, be active, communicate, are immobilized and tyrannized by adults using sticks and other weapons, their health and development can only be damaged and retarded, and we must remember that this damage will be permanent.
We all know that this is happening – even being funded by governments and international organizations. In the name of women’s rights and economic progress, many children are being forced to spend long hours with insufficiently trained people, in deplorable conditions, and we should protest loudly no economic or other reason can be used to justify destroying even partially the potential of the next generation.
If the provision of good day-care facilities, which really means properly-trained adults with an efficient supervisory service to back them up, is impossible, then in the villages it would be far more beneficial to leave the children to run free, to go to the fields with their parents and if possible, just call them together for half an hour for milk or other food, if it is available. At least their spirits would not be damaged and they could continue to explore and be active in their natural environment.
If we are going to have day-care or pre-schools, the prerequisite must be that we have adults
- who love and respect children,
- who know the basic physical and psychological needs of children,
- who know how to provide purposeful means of activity from locally available materials,
- who have themselves explored the environment with all its shapes, sounds, textures, customs, etc., and
- who know how to give the children the key for their own exploration.
It is possible. I have seen it done in the poorest areas, in both city and countryside.
Expensive buildings, furniture, toys, are not necessary, but properly trained assistants and supervisors are. When this is done, where the children are provided with the means to fulfil their needs, then their progress is fantastic and our problem is to try to upgrade the adults so that they are not the means of retarding the children.
It is necessary here to say a few words about reading, writing and arithmetic. These now form part of life and they are necessary, even fundamental, for a full exploration of the environment which also includes the man-made environment and his achievements. The 3-6-year-olds are not only capable of acquiring these skills, but also love doing them.
Here, however, we must add a stern note of warning. Children of this age are not ready for formal education, formal teaching, and if it is imposed on them with its immobility etc. it is harmful to their total development. However, there is a world of difference between formal teaching and the knowledge and abilities that can be acquired through purposeful activities and exploration in a specially prepared environment.
Children of this age can and should be allowed, in freedom, to explore these and other achievements of Man.
Six-year-olds have already shown us that they are capable of achieving the following:
- Be almost completely physically independent (toilet, feeding, dressing, washing, bathing, nose, etc.).
- Be capable of carrying out daily routines.
- Be able to plan their own activities for a day within their capabilities and limits, safety and fitting in with the family or school routine being taken into consideration.
- Be able to conduct themselves with dignity in society and to be able to take initiative.
- Be able to obey a reasonable request with reasonable alacrity.
- Have a well-developed sense of responsibility.
- Be able to make a reasonable attempt at dealing with a personal problem and situation.
- Be able to express themselves clearly in speech. They also should have minds that are alive, interested and full of curiosity and they should have developed the necessary abilities to expand their fields of exploration.
In other words, they are capable of having enough self-confidence and the necessary abilities to go out and explore the wider world, and are able to:
- Read with understanding and with fair fluency.
- Know a fount of stories and poems.
- Have acquired a sound understanding of the four rules of arithmetic even into millions, and of other basic mathematical concepts.
- Be able to write a story with resonable spelling.
- Write a good hand.
- Have a basic knowledge of the natural life around them.
- Have a basic knowledge of science, music, art, and be able to use a simple library and suitable reference books.
May I once again underline that these are achievements made in freeedom through activity and exploration, not through formal teaching.
If this first period of post-natal life were used to its full; if the potentialities of the children were allowed to find a greater degree of fruition, not only would we have more balanced and harmonious adults but also the literacy problem could be solved with more ease.
If the children were permitted to become literate before six, when nature has given them a special sensitivity to language, then primary education could move on to fulfil the true needs of the 6-12-year-olds which include learning, how to find knowledge and the keys for exploration of the unseen.
One could even dream that in the cities at least, schools as we know them could disappear and be replaced by information centres, libraries, technical centres and exploratoriums. A revolution in education is essential if we are to prepare for the 21st century, and I feel that the Third World could well lead the way.
To close, permit me to quote from Dr. Maria Montessori:
A new figure has arisen to greet our eyes. Man, whose true nature is shown in his capacity for free development, whose greatness becomes visible directly mental oppresion ceases to bear upon him, to limit his inner work and weigh down his spirit.
Therefore I hold that any reform of education must be based on the personality of man. Man himself must be the centre of education and we must never forget that man does not develop only at the university, but begins his mental growth at birth and pursues it with the greatest intensity during the first three to six years of his life. To this period, more than any other, it is imperative to give active care. If we follow these rules, the child – instead of being a burden – shows himself to us as the greatest and most consoling of nature’s wonders. We find ourselves confronted by a being no longer to be thought of as helpless, like a receptive void waiting to be filled with our wisdom; but one whose dignity increases in the measure to which we see in him the builder of our own minds, one guided by his own inward teacher, who labours indefatigably in joy and happiness, following a precise time-table, at the work of constructing the greatest marvel of the universe, the human being. We adults can only help the work going on, as servants wait upon a master. We then become witnesses to the development of the human soul; the emergence of the New Man, who will no longer be the victim of events but, thanks to his clarity of vision, will become able to direct and mould the future of mankind.
The original article is available from Unesco. The copyrights to the materials above belong to their respective owners.