In recent months we have taken numerous repetitive fifty-mile trips from home traveling, at times, through areas of saltwater wetlands bordering the north side of the San Francisco Bay. When I am the passenger in the car, I survey the landscape at sixty miles-per-hour and my gaze is drawn upward where a red-tailed hawk is perched stone-still on the downward arching power line. I wonder what the hawk is studying with such great concentration. Is it looking for prey or is it studying us as we scurry across the road at high speeds? This aerial view allows it to see the “big picture” below. On one given day we counted a total of seventeen red-tailed hawks, two kestrels and two northern harriers all properly socially distanced on power lines! What a grand view they all have as they witness each new sunrise and the rhythm of each new day unfold.
Dr. Montessori used this same “big picture” strategy when presenting new concepts to children. She intentionally designed her learning materials to begin with the presentation of “the whole”. Once the whole is introduced then “the parts” are presented. In this way, the child has a reference for how each “part” relates to “the whole”.
Geography, for example, begins with a presentation of the land and water globes. As young children hold, in both hands, the blue and tan sphere representing the planet Earth, they sensorially take in “the whole” before exploring “the parts”: the seven continents, and later the diversity and beauty of “the parts” living on each continent.
Mathematics begins with numeration 1-10 introducing the whole decimal system soon after. Language begins with the exploration of all the sounds that comprise our language and then gives the child the tools to explore and express themselves using all those sounds. Like language, the tone bells introduce children to the sound of the eight notes of the scale and then gives them the tools to explore and express themselves with these musical notes and later introduces the accidentals, the sharps and flats. Practical Life is set up so that children are empowered to independently care for their whole environment, whether that is in a classroom, a home, outdoors, etc. It is always adapted and reflective of each child’s respective culture.
While working at home with children this same “whole” before “parts” approach may be helpful as new concepts are being introduced. Montessori guides are trained to limit what we share verbally as we present new material intentionally leaving room for children, like the red-tailed hawk, to absorb, ponder and make discoveries for themselves. We discipline ourselves to allow the children to have the “aha” moment in their own time. We patiently re-present the material until we observe that the children are making the discoveries and connections for themselves. Auto-education is the term Dr. Montessori used to describe her approach. This same respectful approach can be practiced in the home. The adult’s role, like the red-tailed hawk, is to observe the “big picture”, the child’s overall development and present new material when the child appears ready.
Red-tailed Hawk photo by Marc Ricci