Updated: Feb 11, 2020
For many the name Montessori may well conjure up images of select or even elite education, however, the origins are very much rooted in the practices of inclusion and social reconstruction. A post war Italy found itself struggling to meet the needs of children from the hardest of circumstances. Enter a female doctor who had been working with children with a range of learning needs who had found themselves to be the outcasts of society. It is in the melting pot of circumstances that an approach was developed that has shaped teaching and learning for young children right around the world. Whilst there is a great deal that could be discussed about the approach and a fair level of criticism that could be explored, this post will seek to explore seven key features of the Montessori approach that could positively impact children's ministry.
Play as the most important work of the child was a key belief of Maria Montessori. The connection between play and learning and personal growth are inextricably linked within the method. Play can take many forms.The form of play seen within a Montessori setting involves a child independently playing with key ideas and concepts. Play is a fantastic platform for the development of talk and vocabulary, imagination and idea forming and building as well as finding out what children know and believe. Creating opportunities for independent play within children's ministry can be a fantastic way to allow children to connect with God and the big ideas they are explore big ideas.
#2 The Environment
The biggest task for the Montessorian is to create an environment that enables and promotes learning. In the Montessori setting the physical environment is drawn on to assist and provide teaching. The environment is key in enabling independent play. Materials are constructed to provide specific input. The Berryman Godly Play Approach is probably the most well-known way in which Montessori's ideas about the environment have been applied to children's ministry. Whilst in some settings this approach sees great success it may not be for everyone. There are still principles connected to using the environments that can be applied to all children's Ministry settings. Whist this within itself could be its own post (and probably will in some point in the near future) there are four key ideas about the environment that we can take from Montessori and apply to all settings:
1 - Thinking about the children in every element of the space. Montessori was one of the first people to design and have made child size tables, chairs and shelves. There are reasons that are linked to physical development for this but most importantly it shows the child that they are thought of an cared for. When creating your space consider how the child can be incorporated in all aspects of the space.
2 - Care for one another. Everyone in a Montessorian setting has a responsibility for the environment. Grace and courtesy are taught and shown by looking after the environment together for everyone to enjoy.Luke 16: 10 talks about those that can be trusted with the small things can be trusted with the big things. Trusting the children to look after the children's ministry setting may well result the care seen on the small scale multiplied on a big scale.
3 - Engaging the senses. The sensorial (great word!) materials seek to draw on the senses to engage, enliven and develop the senses. Whilst modern neuroscience has debunked the idea of Kolb's three learning styles drawing on and engaging the senses has been shown to be an effective way to create memorable learning experiences. In children's ministry drawing on all of the senses to tell and explore stories is a great way to get children to dig deeper into the word.
4 - Using the outdoors. It was essential for Montessori that the children knew all about the natural world of their own locality. The idea of free-flow movement between indoor and outdoor environment is rooted in the Montessori tradition. Exploring creation is essential in children's ministry it can inspire praise, prayer and helps solidify the idea of creator God. From small window boxes and planters to dedicated prayer gardens and praygrounds there is huge potential in drawing on the outside in children's ministry.
Montessori famously once said:
“The secret of success is found to lie in the right use of imagination in awakening interest, and the stimulation of seeds already sown.”
(Montessori 1948, p.1-2)
The challenge here is to know the children well enough to know what they know, understand, believe and are interested in. Put simply nothing can beat the power of the personal! designing resources, opportunities or experiences that enable children to imaginatively explore is an important starting point to develop a sense of theological literacy. Objects, artefacts, experiences and story can all provide a great launch pad into child led exploration. The key for the children's ministry leader is to know when to ask questions that can prompt in further exploration. Our short video on questioning can be found here.
The role of the environment and resources in the Montessori method have already been discussed above. A common practice in a Montessori setting is the use of mats. These are collected and unrolled in an available space and then the materials are selected and collected by the child and worked with for a period of time determined by the child. Once the child has finished with the material it is returned to its place in the space and the mat rolled up and returned. This lone working including taking responsibility for the resources is designed specifically to develop independence, involvement, self-governance and ownership at an early age. These times are also accompanied with shared and community based opportunities. Fostering opportunities for independent exploration whilst part of the wider community of church and children's ministry would make for an excellent and important feature in all ministries.
Montessori highly valued movement. She said:
“One of the greatest mistakes of our day is to think of movement by itself, as something apart from the higher functions. … Mental development must be connected with movement and be dependent on it… Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of the mind comes about through his movements. … Mind and movements are parts of the same entity.”
(Montessori 1967 p.141-2)
Hands-on, experiential activity is important as it can lead to deep level thinking and learning. Praise times can often require high levels of movement but some models of ministry result in a relatively sedentary experience. Considering how we can develop opportunities for movement and engagement of the senses during teaching and learning moments is really important.
The first Montessori nursery was called Casa Dei Bambini, literally translated as 'children's house' or 'house of the children'. There was a clear intention to mark the space as the meeting place of a child-focused community. It was important to Montessori that children are involved in the 'real' activities of everyday life. The children don't pretend to cook and wash-up in a Montessori setting, they really do prepare lunch and tidy away after themselves. By undertaking real-life together in the microcosm of setting the transition between the home,the setting and the wider world is natural and easy. There is a challenge here for us to ensure that our children's ministries are authentic communities where children engage in real spiritual life.