A young child, on his first day of school, noticed the “coloured globe” within minutes upon entering the classroom. He approached it and proceeded to correctly name all of the continents. Upon recognizing this interest I quickly set forth, guided by Maria Montessori’s wisdom, to follow the child. Several months later he can point to and name, not only the continents, but all of the countries of North America and recognize and name most of the flags corresponding to each country.

Each day the puzzle map of North America is pulled out to his workspace and a flurry of flags scattered along the mat. “This is… Guatemala and here is its flag!”, “Panama!”, “What’s this one?” are the words that leap from his mouth. The same process, each day; he names the countries, matches the flags, and asks about those that he does not know.

Suddenly on one particular day, he states that he would like to trace the puzzle map of North America onto paper. At first I wonder if this would be appropriate for such a young child as I am unsure of his ability to hold and use a writing instrument. Brushing aside my hesitation and continuing to follow the child I help him to gather the necessary supplies. Through this work I discover that he has the dexterity to manipulate a pencil and, with a bit of aid holding each countries puzzle piece, he is able to trace with delight and accuracy. 

All at once after tracing Canada, United States of America, and Greenland, he halts. He then states that he must now erase his work and proceeds to do so with haste. Confusion envelops me and I question him, “Why do you need to erase it?” The child responds to me matter-of-factly, “Because I am finished and want to put it away.” Deep down I can feel the conflict rising as I have formed an attachment to his work and thought it was something he could be proud of. Desperately I attempt to save the work, “But I can hang it up and you could finish it tomorrow.” In which he responds, “No, I’m done. I can erase it and put the paper back for someone else to use.”

This child has awakened me. I am reminded of Maria Montessori’s observations of young children and how they often engage in work not for the sake of an end product, but for the process that it involves. A child truly lives in the moment and it is through their work that they are able to engage, connect with the material and “build themselves” through these experiences. The process involves concentration, attentiveness, manipulation of the materials, order of thoughts and ideas, curiosity, and mistakes. Even with older children, the questions are often more important than the answers.

The young boy in my class was constructing himself; bringing his mind and body together, absorbing his environment and experiences to form his personality. In this instance, it did not matter that his work was not finished. He was finished.

Parents of young children may observe their young ones involved in something that seems very practical. Perhaps it’s putting on a shirt, or helping to wash dishes. They finish the task, from an adult’s standpoint, and then do it again. The child may take off the shirt and put it back on again or the dish that is clean goes back into the sink to be washed once, twice… four times more. This is where we must remember that the child is not thinking: I must make this dish clean, but that this is fun and I am nurturing my whole being by having the freedom to do it again (subconsciously of course).

The task can sometimes be frustrating for the adult who expects clean dishes. Feel free to show the child another day, how to make the dishes clean. For now, it is ok if one dish gets cleaned 10 times, or 10 dishes get cleaned but there’s still food stuck to it. You can tuck your child in at night, knowing that you have given your little one the opportunity to construct themself that evening. Now that your little one is in bed, it looks like you have some dishes to clean.