Montessori spirituality

Part two: Spirituality made visible

By Aline D. Wolf

Several aspects of Montessori’s work as seen in classrooms are essentially spiritual.

One of the things I think of first is the environment.  Montessori insisted on order and beauty in the children’s envi-ronment.  Such attributes are recognized today as the conditions that are essential to spiritual growth.  The spirit cannot flourish in chaos.  You feel more in control of your life, more centered, more peaceful when your surroundings are in order.  When she called for order in the environment, Montessori set the stage for spiritual growth.

But there is more to the environment than simply keeping each piece of equip-ment in its proper place on a nicely painted shelf.  Everything that comes into the classroom—each person, the clothes worn, the objects carried in, the music, the pictures on the wall—all become part of the environment that is absorbed by the children.  To keep the classroom environment consistent with Montessori ideals requires constant vigilance.  Classrooms, even Montessori classrooms, where children wear sweat-shirts displaying monsters and t-shirts advertising Disney films, have lost their essential tranquility.  Such gimmicks not only rein-force the idea that we must buy all the latest fads, they also prompt behavior that is associated with these products—often of a peculiar or violent nature.

A few years ago I visited a school in California where no child was allowed to come to school with a jacket, T-shirt, lunch box, or notebook that displayed a violent or ugly scene or that advertised a trade name, TV character or movie.  It was a welcome change to see clothes that were not screaming with commercials.  Several students had made their own designs for T-shirts—designs that indicated what was important to them rather than what was important for a corporation to advertise.  Perhaps one of the first steps for teachers, as spiritual nurturers, is to eliminate commercialism from their classrooms.  Children need advocates who can say a firm “No” to blatant advertising.  If we are trying to create a space where children’s spirits can thrive, we must attempt to shut out the clutter of the commercial world.

Instead the classroom environment should reflect the spirituality of Montessori education, so that any visitor can recognize that this is a peaceful room; this is a place where we reverence nature, where we care for the earth, where our plants bloom with kindness, where we have a quiet corner, a peace table or a peace rose, where the pictures on the wall are beautiful and serene, where objects from other cultures are honored and repre-sentations of the universe are prominent, particularly the photograph of Planet Earth taken from space, and where there is a mirror hung at the child’s eye-level with a sign that says, “Peace Begins With Me.”  The appearance of the classroom, the teacher’s tone of voice, the selection of songs, stories and activities can all reflect the spiritual nurturing that occurs there.  A print of Picasso’s “Child With a Dove” is very appropriate to hang on the classroom door.   Outside the school a Peace Pole with the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in four different languages can be planted in a prominent place; or a sign can proclaim “This is an Earth Care Area.”   Such visible reminders can introduce the spiritual-oriented activities within the building.

One other thought on environment.  A few years ago I spoke with a beautiful young Montessori guide who told me that in August after she finished painting her shelves and arranging all her materials, she sat down in the center of her classroom and meditated for a lengthy period of time, trying to prepare herself to be part of a loving and peaceful environment.  Because she felt this effort gave her a special strength, she continued to meditate on weekends whenever she spent an hour or so rearrang-ing and freshening her environment.  This young woman was aware, I think, of the sacred responsibility of the teacher to be a model and a presence to the children.

Teachers are be the biggest, most prominent and influential element in their classrooms.  Therefore it is vital that their manner reflects the order, the beauty and the peaceful-ness of a true Montessori environment.

The second area where I see inherent spirituality in Montes-sori’s work is in the way she gave even very young children meaningful experiences of silence.  She didn’t enforce silence as the old traditional schools had done, neither did she use it to restore order to an unruly class.  Silence was not a punishment but a reward that came to the children when they made a special effort to achieve it.

Maria Montessori was perhaps the only educator to highlight the value of stillness.  She wrote, “Silence often brings us the knowledge which we had not fully realized, that we possess within ourselves an interior life.  The child by means of silence sometimes becomes aware of this for the first time.”  Rather than enforcing silence, she presented it as a special challenge—something to be achieved in what she called The Silence Game.  This game, I feel, is a very important element in a training course. It not only allows children to experience complete stillness, it also teaches them that silence is not automatic in our lives; we have to make an effort to attain it.

Also important in preparing an environment is the designation of a quiet corner.  This is a space where one child at a time can go to observe nature, or simply to ponder.  Stillness is very rare in our society today because more and more noise is invading our lives—noise that crowds out any opportunity for spiritual reflection.  In many homes the TV and radio play constantly.  In addition we have the sounds of lawn mowers, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, washers and dryers, computers that beep and buzz, video games that bang and squawk and heightened soundtracks in movies and television that assault our eardrums.  Many of today’s children have never known the tranquility of silence.  This does not mean that children do not like stillness; it means that they may never have had the opportunity to relish it.

A quiet corner, separated from the rest of the classroom by a low barrier such as a bookshelf or a fish tank, invites a child to sit and look out a window at nature, examine a lovely plant or observe the fish in a fish tank or  carefully handle a beautiful seashell.  An outdoor quiet space adjacent to the playground with a bench and a lovely trellis can also be an option for a child when the class is outside.

The third area where I see a particular spirituality in Montessori is in her great emphasis on training the senses.  You may be wondering what is spiritual about the Red Rods or the Sound Boxes or the Pink Tower.  There are two reasons I see them as spiritual.  First they invite the child to put objects in a specific order—and order is calling the child from chaos to calmness and creating a sense of serenity.

But the other reason is even more compelling.  In The Montessori Method she wrote, “Aesthetic and moral education are closely related to sensory education.  If we develop the capacity of appreciating fine differences in stimuli, we refine the sensibil-ity and multiply the pleasures of life.

“Beauty lies in harmony, not in contrast; and harmony is refinement; therefore, there must be a fineness of the senses if we are to appreciate harmony.  The aesthetic harmony of nature is lost upon anyone who has coarse or untrained senses.  Strong stimuli, do not render acute but rather blunt the senses, so that they require stimuli more and more accentuated and more and more gross.”

Montessori wrote these words about 1909 but they describe exactly what is going on today, particularly in the entertainment world.  Disaster movies and TV programs now portray one enormous catastrophe after another.  Whenever I go to a movie, I am almost blown out of my seat by four or five previews showing buildings collapsing, airplanes and rockets crashing and violence spilling all over the screen, all with blaring digital sound.  Audiences who have never appreciated fine details are, as Montessori said, requiring stronger and stronger stimula-tion.

In the book, Data Smog, David Shenk wrote, “The degree to which today’s televi-sion programmers and movie produc-ers . . . ap-parently feel compelled to turn up the heat is a serious threat to intel-ligence in society.  It reduces our attention span.  It makes us numb to anything that doesn’t lurch out and grab us by the throat.”

In contrast, Montessori teaches us to appreciate fine differences in detail—the kind that lead scientists to new discoveries, the kind that help us to appreciate fine art and fine music and minute details that lead us to great awe as we notice the wonders of nature.

The fourth area of Montessori’s work where I sense a great deal of spirituality is in nurturing each child’s sense of awe and wonder.  Basically wonder is nourished by opportunities to observe the intricate workings of nature.  Whenever possible, a spiritually aware teacher can direct the children’s attention to an object of wonder and marvel with them at the miracle it represents.

With as many outdoor delights as possible, teachers can help to keep alive the child’s clear-eyed vision—their true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring.  Such observations of nature can awaken children’s natural curiosity that leads them to seek factual knowledge.  Youngsters who have climbed up to see a bird’s nest, watched worms moving without any legs, observed the metamorphoses of tadpoles or turned over an old log in the woods to find life swarming beneath it, will be more eager to classify vertebrate and invertebrate animals when studying cosmic education than children who have never had such experiences.  Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, insisted, “It is absolutely essential that before we begin to think, before we so much as begin to set our thinking in motion, we experience the condition of wonder.”

But how can we give children this experience with nature, particularly in our urban schools?  In an ideal world, every school would be located on several acres of ground with beautiful trees, a field to explore, a pond to observe, a sunny garden and even room to care for a few farm animals such as chickens or sheep.  Such schools do exist.  Recently I visited a semi-rural Waldorf school in California where each class had a vegetable garden complete with a scarecrow the children had made.  The eight year-olds, with their fathers, had built a chicken coop with a little door in the back through which the children retrieved eggs every morning.  Their compost pile was covered with a sign in a child’s handwriting, “Do not disturb.  A miracle is taking place.”  These children were obviously in awe of nature’s way of turning food scraps and leaves into plant-nourishing fertilizer.

Most teachers or guides, however, are not fortunate enough to have the luxury of undeveloped land surrounding them.  Nevertheless, if nurturing wonder is a priority, a teacher in an urban school can call children’s attention to the marvels of nature in whatever outdoor space is available, no matter how small.

For example, you don’t need several acres for cloud watching.  All you need is a warm day when clouds are moving and a clear space where children can lie on the ground and watch.  They will delight as they see clouds that look like turtles, ships or giants in the sky.

Let the children revel in this experience.  Later talk to them about how clouds give us rain that flows into streams, rivers, gulfs and oceans.  Remarkably, some of the water evaporates and rises again to form clouds.  What a wondrous journey gives us the water we need for life on earth!  How awesome that nature recycles water for us!  What are all the things we need water for?  Could we live without water?

Interesting discoveries are often made, not when we have new landscapes to look at, but when we have new eyes to look at what we see every day.  Fostering children’s sense of wonder means helping them to slow down and to linger in their observations of all that surrounds them.

Here is another activity for young school children.  Draw the blinds in the classroom or take them into a room with no windows such as an inside hallway or auditorium.  Ask, “How many of you saw the sky this morning?”  Probably all will raise their hands.  Then give the children paper and crayons and ask them to draw what the sky looks like today.  Is it white, light grey, dark grey, black, pale blue, bright blue?  Are there no clouds, a few clouds, many clouds?  Is the sun shining?  Can you see the moon?

Next take the group outside and let them actually observe today’s sky.  Then return to the classroom and ask the children to make a new drawing of the sky they just saw.  The differences in their “before” and “after” drawings will help them to learn how to observe more carefully something that they see every day, but don’t always look at with complete attention.

A common activity for fall in the small schoolyard is planting bulbs (daffodils, tulips, crocuses) that will bloom in the spring, and planting seeds in the spring (marigolds, asters, mums, zinnias) that will be blooming when the children return to school in September.  When children plant, they come into intimate contact with the soil—a firsthand experience of Mother Earth.

Many teachers have planting activities for the children, but the spiritually aware teacher adds another dimension.  He or she calls the children’s attention to the miracle of growth, asking them questions such as:  What made the beautiful color of this flower?  Could you make a bulb that would grow into a flower?  Can you make yourself grow five inches in two weeks?  How did the little seed do that?

Trees are one of nature’s greatest gifts to us, but one that children often take for granted.  “There is no description, no image in any book,” Montessori writes, “that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all the life to be found around them, in a real forest.  Something emanates from those trees that speaks to the soul, something no book, no museum is capable of giving…and which no one can bring into the school.”

A setting in the woods is an ideal place to have children ponder the vitally important role of trees on our planet.  If it is not possible to take the children to a woodsy area, the trees in the schoolyard, or even one special tree in the neighborhood, can be the focus of this experience.  After a short period of silent reflection, a teacher can ask the children to name the gifts that trees give to us.  The list can be impressive: beauty; cool shade on hot days; pine cones; many kinds of fruit; various nuts; rubber; cork; resins; maple syrup; wood for building and for burning to keep warm; pulp for everything that’s made of paper, including newspapers and books; leaves that make oxygen for us and then fall to the ground to make fertilizer; roots that keep our fertile soil from washing away (as areas without trees often become deserts).  Trees protect us from dust storms.  They offer a leafy home to owls, birds, squirrels, insects and children who like to climb on their branches.  Even when a tree has died, it still provides a home and nourishment for many insects that live in the forest.  Trees have many tasks on our planet; they perform them well.

The child’s sense of wonder can also be nourished inside the classroom with activities that have been thoughtfully prepared to arouse curiosity.

The many rainbows that appear in children’s drawings tell us how fascinated children are with this beautiful array of colors that in many religious faiths symbolizes hope, promise and blessing.  How perceptive of young children to choose this symbol for their spontaneous art work!  Something as simple as a crystal hanging in a sunny window can build on this fascination and lead to interesting speculation about the rainbows it forms in the air.  Children will try to catch them with their hands and they will be disappointed on cloudy days when the rainbows do not appear.

A spiritually aware teacher can ask: Where do the colors come from? Are they really hidden inside light?  Where does light come from?  Is it a gift to us? What would happen if we had no light?  Could we see anything? Could plants grow?  Would we have any food?

Planting activities in the classroom can serve two purposes related to the child’s spirit.  The actual sprouting of a seed can fill children with wonder, and caring for that seed, and the plant that results, can teach children a sense of responsibility toward the world of nature.

“Solicitous care for living things affords satisfaction to one of the most lively instincts of the child’s mind.” Montessori tells us.  “When a child knows that a little plant will dry up if he does not water it, or that an animal needs him to bring it food and water, the child begins to develop a sense of responsibility for other living things.”  With careful nurturing this youthful concern can grow into a deep respect for the interdependence of people and nature.  If wonder becomes a fundamental attitude in a child’s life it will confer on him or her a spiritual character, because wonder constantly reminds all of us of the mysteries of reality.”

Some teachers have a weekly routine in which any child may tell of helping the earth, such as:

“I turned off the water while I brushed my teeth.”

“I used both sides of my paper.”

“I turned off the light (or TV) when no one was using it.”

“ I put my orange peel in the compost or in the worm box.”

Some classes recite a Pledge to the Earth, such as:

“I pledge allegiance to the Earth

And to all life that it nourishes—

All growing things,

All species of animals

And all races of people.

I promise to protect all life on our planet,

To live in harmony with nature

And to share our resources justly,

So that all people can live with dignity,

In good health and in peace.”

It is vital for Montessori teachers to understand that in almost all contacts with students they inculcate ideas of either careful stewardship of nature, or passive acceptance of thoughtless habits that are cumulatively endangering the earth.  Careful stewardship reflects a spiritual way of life.  The spiritually aware teacher can constantly re-enforce this caring attitude with books, songs, ongoing projects, gentle reminders, and by displaying a large photograph of our planet Earth that was taken from space.

Political boundaries, the causes of so many wars, cannot even be seen in this phenomenal photograph.

The next area that I want to discuss with you is how Montess-ori’s concern for peace is rooted in spirituality.  After living through the horrors of World War I, Maria Montessori became a peace activist and lectured in many European cities.  She constantly focused attention on the fact that no attempt to solve social, moral and political problems would succeed, if it concentrated only on adults whose ideas and prejudices were long since ingrained in their decision-making.  Montessori felt strongly that strategies for peace must begin with the children who are more open to the behaviors that will lead to a peaceful society.  “Preventing conflict is the work of politics;” she wrote, “establish-ing peace is the work of educa-tion.”

Peace education is not only to be taught; it is most effec-tive as an ongoing experience in the classroom community.  Such a community values each member as a unique individual; it encom-passes the habits of respect and fairness; it encourages the peaceful resolution of conflicts; and it gives each person a sense of belonging to a group whose combined efforts can be greater than that of any one member.

For example, if your class sits in a circle for group sharing, leave a space for anyone who is absent.  This shows that each child is important; the circle or community is incomplete unless each child is present.  You can also arrange the individual school pictures of each child in a circle, hiding one of them and asking the group “Who is missing from our community?”

Whenever you have a group activity such as painting a mural, putting on a little play, singing in a chorus, or collecting money for the Rain Forest, remind the children that these are possible only in their community.  One child could not do any of them alone.

If children, like adults, feel peace in their hearts, they can more easily relate peacefully to those around them.  However, with so much stress and violence in our lives today, some chil-dren feel very little, if any, of this inner calm.  Not all of the youngsters who come into our classrooms are secure and serene products of stable family situa-tions.  Over a million children each year see their parents divorced.  Other stresses arise from parents who are themselves tense and over-worked, from parents with drug or alcohol problems, from a variety of baby-sitters who may not relate well to children, from sibling rivalry, neighbor-hood bullies, racial tensions, and simply viewing the violence on the nightly news.  Many frightening scenes are portrayed regular-ly on television with little or no reassurance for children who may be watching.  One way of healing their troubled spirits is to use centering exercises on meditation for the whole class, preferably at the start of the school day.

One primary teacher told me how she does this.  She says, “Our daily centering begins with children sitting, lying down or standing together.  We close our eyes so that the outer world is shut out while we focus on the inner.  Breathing comfortably, but purpose-fully, helps to focus us.

“Then we are ready to begin our inner voyage.  One of the children’s favorite centering experiences is descending (in slow motion) flight after flight of stairs from the top of a tall stone tower.  After descending each flight, we reach and pass by a door, which we do not open.  Finally, after slowly walking down many flights, we reach the bottom door.  We slowly unlatch the door, and enter a room.  We look around the room, and stay there as long as we want.  Finally, we leave the room and close the door.  We slowly and comfortably open our eyes and then anyone who wants to share something from the experience, is free to do so.  The children have shared their rooms in true wonder-ment.  One child’s room was full of stars; another experienced a garden that never stopped; yet another child found himself surrounded by soft colors.”  “If children never learn how to turn inward they may be affected adversely by unrelieved stress.  It’s not, however, simply a question of shutting off the external world.  I tell children to think of something quiet (My pillow, my little turtle).  I tell them to think of something inside themselves—to turn their eyes inward.  The desired effect is to change their atten-tion, however briefly, from the hectic, external world to the more peaceful world of mind and thought and fantasy.”

One of Montessori’s strongest efforts for peace was her emphasis on geography for young children.  From the classroom globe, to maps of each continent, the children’s interest spreads to books (or picture books) of life in foreign countries, to objects from different cultures that are displayed on their classroom shelves.  Many teachers invite residents or visitors from foreign countries to share their customs with the children—their native dress, samples of their food, descriptions of their homes, schools, holidays and examples of their art, songs and games.  Children who grow up with a knowledge of, and respect for, other cultures are more likely to be peace loving citizens than those who have no understanding of cultures other than their own.

This article is adapted from a speech delivered by Aline D. Wolf to the International Association of Montessori Educators Nov.  10, 2005

Next: Nurturing the Spirit of the Teacher