Discover the true meaning of freedom in a Montessori environment and how it nurtures children's development. Learn about the importance of structure, limits, and authoritative guidance to foster internal freedom and self-motivated learning. Explore the different aspects of freedom, such as choice, movement, time, exploration, and communication, within the context of a Montessori prepared environment. Gain insights into creating a balanced and empowering environment that supports children's growth, independence, and success

Freedom in a Montessori Environment

Freedom. This word means different things, to different people, in different places. Stepping back, what does freedom mean in relation to the Montessori environment — universally, developmentally, and practically?

What Does Freedom Mean in a Montessori Environment?

In short, in the Montessori Method it means the given freedom to safely work in an environment designed to encourage age appropriate academic exploration and assimilation. 

Misconceptions about Freedom in Montessori

A general misconception of the Montessori Method is that the children are limitlessly “free” to do whatever they like. This is far from correct, and limitlessness is actually the opposite of freedom. It is chaos, unproductive and dis-regulating, for the child (and adults too). 

This misconception of freedom is often also applied incorrectly to Montessori’s quote “follow the child” and, when taken out of context, has sometimes even been used to justify disorder within an environment.

Freedom comes through structure and discipline

For a child to be “free, ” to learn to grow and to reach their fullest developmental potential, they must do so with guidance in an environment explicitly prepared for the task.  

A child is not developmentally prepared to lead a following adult. 

Not at home and not in the classroom. 

Creating an Environment for Freedom

It is the work of the adult to create situations, within which the child is set up for decision-making success, thereby learning how to be “free” — how to make productive independent choices within the established structure and limits.

It is an intense personal preparation of the guide, and of the environment, that allows the adult to observe a child without judgment. Eventually, this preparation allows the adult to “follow” the child’s development, as the child journeys through the prepared environment’s structured offerings – physically, academically, and emotionally. 

The time this takes depends on the child, the prepared environment’s structural strength, and the adult’s skill in determining when to step in and guide, and when to step back and observe. This comes with experience, both for the child and adult.

The Dance of Observation and Guidance in Montessori

It is like an evolving dance. It changes tempo. New steps are added, while old steps are abandoned as a child develops, a prepared environment evolves, and a guide gains experience. And while children of the same developmental plane may be doing the same dance with the guide and the environment, they each have their own unique versions.

Types of Freedom in a Montessori Environment

What types of freedom exist in a Montessori prepared environment? We know that internal freedom develops through external structure, in children and adults. So how do we encourage the development of the child’s internal freedom and self-motivated learning, while at the same time not ruling over the child in the environment? How do we encourage the subtleties of each child’s dance while encouraging freedom to emerge within the dance’s structure?

Adults must behave in an authoritative (not authoritarian) manner. By taking a nurturing and authoritative position in our role as guide, we create a safe emotional space where children feel empowered to explore academic, social, and physical risk. 

Limits and Boundaries

Children seek limits and boundaries, especially from the adults who care for them. Clear expectations and consistent limits make children feel physically and emotionally safe. They set up a system within which the child can explore — like “in bounds” and “out of bounds” when playing a game, only this is the game of life and learning! 

We can use the Montessori environment and materials to set these boundaries up physically, but we ourselves must set up the emotional boundaries.  If we were to simply follow the child’s every whim, never establishing limits for behavior or focus, that would be taking a passive, and dare I say neglectful, approach — thereby not providing the child with the emotional safety they seek and need for achieving engaged concentrated work. Success within age appropriate limits builds children’s confidence as well as skill sets.  

When we collaborate with the child in developing and instituting physical and emotional limits within the learning environment, everyone understands and respects those boundaries more. The child may push the boundaries to find the edge; this is normal. It does not mean that the established boundaries are incorrect. Children test emotional borders to make sure they are secure, before feeling ready to safely relax into learning and fully explore the environment.  

Then, when a child outgrowing a boundary feels nurtured by an authoritative adult, they will talk to the adult about it, or often prove their case for the adaptation or evolution of the boundary. Rather than chaotically defy the boundaries, as is a common behavior dynamic between children and authoritarian or passive adults, a child who is truly free has the confidence to express their needs and wants within the mutually agreed upon boundaries of a developmentally appropriate prepared environment. 

What is Freedom of …

Choice

Freedom of Choice is: 

  • The freedom to choose between designated and assigned appropriate works. 
  • The freedom to choose the order in which one completes designated and agreed upon works. 
  • The freedom to explore appropriate choices within a set of previously agreed upon parameters.

Freedom of Choice is not:

  • The child is not free to not choose to work. 
  • The child is not free to prevent others from engaging in concentrated work. 
  • The child is not free to choose to use materials in destructive or inappropriate manners or to engage in lessons they have not yet been taught. 

Freedom of Choice Examples: 

  • You may choose when you do spelling in the work cycle, but you may not choose to not do spelling. 
  • You may choose when you would like to get a new math lesson, but you may not choose to not get math lessons.
  • You may choose between these 3 research projects, however you may not yet choose this work until… (you are a 3rd year, you complete these other works, etc).
  • At home: I hear you want to wear shorts to school today. The problem is it is very cold outside and shorts are not appropriate for going out in this cold wet weather. Would you like to choose whether to wear the yellow or the green pants now, and then when you get home you can change into shorts to play indoors. 
  • You may choose to brush your teeth before or after breakfast. You may not choose to not brush your teeth. 

Movement

Freedom of Movement is:

  • The freedom to move one’s body, as needed, in appropriate ways for a specific environment. 
  • The freedom to independently physically engage with work, including taking out and putting back works when complete.

Freedom of Movement is not: 

  • The child is not free to move in ways inappropriate for a specific environment.
  • The child is not free to get up and leave a lesson impulsively without posing a request or reason.

Freedom of Movement Example: 

  • It appears your body needs to make some big movements right now. Is that correct? Running (rolling around on the floor, jumping…) isn’t appropriate in the classroom because this space is too small for big or fast movements. Would you like to join me outside for a few minutes where we can run and jump and stretch our arms wide?
  • If a child gets up and leaves a guided lesson impulsively, watch a moment to see what they do, or wait a moment until they return, depending on the situation. I see you got up to….. I’m glad you came back! Do you think next time you need to get up from a lesson to… that we could talk about it first? I was very confused why you just left when we were right in the middle of working on… It made me feel like our work together wasn’t being respected. Perhaps we can make a code word for when one of us needs to leave a lesson for a moment unexpectedly? Or if I am teaching something you don’t understand, rather than just walk away, you could say to me, excuse me, and then explain that you need a break from this challenging work. 
  • If a child keeps getting up from an independent lesson to do any and everything under the sun except the work, this can be a sign they are challenged in the work or simply having trouble concentrating. I’ve noticed that you are getting up from this work to do many things unrelated to the lesson. Is there a way you think I could support you right now to help you complete this work? Is the… (room too loud, chair uncomfortable, math problem challenging, eraser frustrating…) Then offer a solution…(Perhaps I could bring a pencil sharpener to your rug?) Or offer: Would you like me to sit here with you while you finish in case any questions come up? 

Time

Freedom of Time is:

  • The time to concentrate and work on tasks within a specific block of time, aka the work-cycle. 

Freedom of Time is not:

  • The child is not free to not work during the work-cycle, nor to engage in tasks inappropriate for the work period, or specific environment, that prevent concentrated efforts on designated tasks. 

Freedom of Time Example:

  • Right now we are in the work-cycle. This is the time for working on our lessons, not the time for gymnastics. Let’s check our daily schedule and see when an appropriate time for gymnastics would be today. When we discover an appropriate time, we could even write gymnastics time on your work plan if you like!

Exploration

Freedom of Exploration is:

  • The freedom to explore the lesson, experiences, and materials, within the prepared classroom environment that that child has been taught. 
  • The freedom to experiment with Montessori materials in safe, appropriate, purposeful, and creative ways that may lead to interdisciplinary learning – even if it is not exactly the way the material was intended to be used for the initial presented lesson. Montessori spoke on this being acceptable. As long as the child is using the material in a purposeful concentrated way, the adult is not to intervene and should allow the child to come to their own conclusions. 
  • The freedom to sensorially explore an environment within the designated and pre-agreed upon physical and behavioral boundaries and limits of the space. (Such as within the boundaries of a garden, park, playground, museum exploration room, etc.)

Freedom of Exploration is not:

  • The child is not free to independently do lessons on the shelf that they have not yet been taught. (They should ask a guide for the lesson first.)
  • The child is not free to explore materials in disregulated, destructive, or inappropriate ways. 
  • The chid is not free to explore an environment in ways that defy or disrespect the environment, the beings within the environment, or the designated and pre-agreed upon physical and behavioral boundaries and limits of the space.

Freedom of Exploration Examples:

  • I see you’ve chosen the body functions of the bird lesson. It sure looks exciting doesn’t it! This is a second year lesson and you are a first year. Would you like to put that tray back on the shelf and bring back the anatomy of the bird? We could do that work together, and then perhaps you could fill the outdoor bird feeder? Because did you know that digestion is one of the body functions of a bird? You will learn that next year when you and your friends do this work! 
  • Excuse me. Swinging the bead chains like a lasso is not appropriate. (& physically intervene if necessary) Yes, it does swing like a lasso. Is that how we respect our materials? What will happen to our bead chains if we swing them around? What could happen to our friends over here by this rug if the end of the bead chain whipped them in the face? You may use this work appropriately, or you may put it away for today. (Then later in the day you could revisit the topic and ask the child if they are interested in lassos and if so, perhaps they would be interested in doing some lasso research and perhaps learning to swing a lasso outdoors in a safe and appropriate way.)

Communication

Freedom to communicate is:

  • Within the work cycle: The freedom to respectfully talk with peers in a kind collaborative manner about projects, lessons, and works. 
  • Within the environment: The freedom to socially converse with peers about shared interests and topics at appropriate times and places, and using appropriate words, tones, and language. 

Freedom to communicate is not:

  • The child is not free to be disruptive or distracting to peers during the work-cycle by incessantly talking about non lesson related subjects. 
  • The child is not free to discuss hurtful, insensitive, or age inappropriate topics to peers using tones or language that is violent, harmful, or insensitive. 

Freedom to Communicate Examples:

  • This conversation about legos sounds very exciting! During the morning work period it is time to talk about our lessons and the tasks on our work plans. Lunchtime and recess are great times to talk about Legos and games, so let’s pause this conversation for a little bit and come back to it at lunch. I look forward to hearing more about what you built!  
  • No thank you. The words you are saying right now are very hurtful to… (so-and-so). I need you to stop talking right now. You may not use that type of language in this environment. You may stay here and talk about a different topic using respectful words, or you may choose to walk to the peace corner and take a few breaths. When you feel ready, we can explore why those words are hurtful. I would like to help you find different words you could use to communicate these thoughts and feelings you are having in ways that benefit you and our community. 

Clear expectations, firm limits, and consistent consequences established in collaboration with the child in an authoritative and nurturing manner create a recipe for developing the child’s true internal freedom. 

Remember, real freedom comes through structure. 

Freedom evolves and grows with the child along with increased responsibility as their physical and socio-emotional abilities mature. It is part of our role as guide and preparer of the environment to keep these limits as sacred, as golden keys we hold to help the child unlock their natural development. 

As guides we must walk the tightrope of knowing when to push the child forward into more challenging work and situations, and when to let the child concentrate on mastery independently. 

It is our work to prepare our own minds. We must practice stepping back, to become observers of both our own actions and those of the child.

In guiding the child toward freedom, it is our task to embody qualities of both the scientist and the saint, as Maria Montessori put it. In other words, to observe the child within the prepared environment as a scientist would, but also like a saint would, without attachment and judgment. It is no small feat, but with defined respected boundaries and open nurturing communication between guide and children, true freedom will emerge and all will grow, learn, and thrive for life!


Kelly Johnson

Kelly Johnson (BFA, MA, AMS 6-9, RYT 200) seeks to guide humans of all ages on a joy-filled journey to slow down and reconnect with their natural world through creativity and observation. As an artist, author, nature journaling guide, Montessorian, and children’s garden facilitator, dividing her time between Neptune Beach, Florida, and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Kelly wears many hats. She spends her days making art, writing and illustrating her books and the activity packed Wonder Wednesday blog, creating resources for and consulting with Montessori teachers and schools, studying pedagogical philosophy, teaching nature journaling courses and workshops, and sparking wonder through gardening. 

Kelly brings 25 years of teaching experience, and a lifetime of creative expression, academic exploration, and hands-on gardening experience to each of her endeavors. 

Visit Wings, Worms, and Wonder: the online home of Kelly’s 5 Books, the Wonder Wednesday Project Blog, Montessori Workshops and Consultations, Nature Journaling courses, and more! Join the nature inspired fun everyday on Instagram @wingswormsandwonder.


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