Work and Play and Purpose

I had the opportunity to visit a well-regarded preschool last month that is not of the Montessori variety. It was fascinating to sit on the floor amongst the moving children and settle in to observing. I had no particular expectations, and I began to run through my mental list of the characteristics of a positive environment for young children.

Was the environment aesthetically beautiful and rich with sensory explorations? Yes.

Were the group of children and staff generally peaceful and kind toward each other? Yes.

Were the adults attentive, seeming to enjoy themselves, and skilled in choosing when and how to engage with the children? Yes.

Did the children have lots of opportunity for free choice, self direction, independence? Yes.

Were children supported to use their words and problem solve to resolve conflict? Yes.

Did children put things away when they were done? Was there a place where each thing belonged, a sense of comfortable organization to the room? Yes.

Did the children seem engaged? Happy? Interested? Yes!

So what was different from Childpeace Montessori? Certainly there was a different sense of “curriculum,” of what was offered to the children to do and to think about. I couldn’t see choices available that emphasized skills and ideas about the practical needs of life, spoken and written language, math, geography, or music. Some concepts in these areas were referenced on wall posters, but not in the children’s hands or on the shelves. The activities available were all related to self expression, creativity, and movement. Nothing more.

Beyond the variety of activities offered, I slowly realized the more profound difference: a sense of purpose. At Childpeace, children are greeted with the pervasive sense that what they do matters. It’s most obvious in the variety of activities they can choose from that directly impact their community, from making food to washing dishes to polishing shoes. There are other activities that help a child clearly gain a skill, such as matching words with objects, or matching pitches. The child gets the lesson when (hopefully) the task is just a little bit too difficult to do. The child is encouraged to practice toward their sense of mastery, and the resulting sense is one of working to reach a clear goal, a clear purpose. This “work” of the children affords them dignity and competency and purpose. Even when our children choose activities of self expression, creativity, and movement, they are guided to be aware of others around them, to share their creations, and to finish up the activity by leaving the tools ready for others in their community. There is that thread of becoming aware that what you do has an impact. They internalize that what they work on makes a difference in the world -- for themselves, and for others.

The sense of purpose and love of work that we wish every teenager had, that we wish for every adult, has its roots in these early years of life. Dr. Steven Hughes, pediatric neuropsychologist, describes how “Montessori’s brain-based approach to education provides an unparalleled foundation for the development of academic, social, and executive functions critical for advanced problem solving and lifetime success.” In short form, Montessori kids are “good at doing things," he says. Childpeace is not only a positive environment for children, it offers them an unshakable sense of purpose.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School