A friend of mine was asking me about the Montessori method today, trying to figure out if it is a schooling style that would work well for her daughter, and I found myself at somewhat of a loss to describe how Montessori allows for children to follow their interests but still provides a structure. For that reason, I feel like I should address some of how to provide structure and still allow freedom.
The structure in Montessori is centered in a few areas: The times that things happen and the manner in which they happen. That said, as a Montessori teacher (or parent) you do not schedule every minute. Small children particularly respond well to set routines. They know exactly what is expected from them and they feel safe in an environment with those routines. If your child gets up every day at 8AM and then has breakfast, brushes teeth and gets dressed, that is a set routine. In your schooling, you should provide as much routine as is practicable. It helps if worktime, recess, lunch, nap or whatever curriculum your school has are at the same time every day. If it is for some reason not possible to have all of them at set times, at least have them in the same order. Life doesn’t lend itself well to specific time slots in my home, so rather than having set times for each type of activity, we have a check list of things to accomplish between 8AM and 2PM and whatever else you want to do during that time, excepting video games or watching TV, you do. It’s like having an extra long work time with lunch and recess folded in. I had to make some concessions to the homeschooling environment so it would be the most effective for my children. They led me.
All of that established allow the children to make their own choices about what they want to do during those time slots. Particularly during normalization, some children just want to sit on the sidelines and watch during work time, recess and any other activities you present. That is OK. Sometimes kids need some down time too where they choose to watch rather than participate. Provide a space in your classroom where kids can sit and do nothing if they choose. Our sit-and-do-nothing space is in the library area. It is also the space where a child can sit if they are having a tough time with respecting other children or the works and need some distance before they rejoin the group. So once you have the kids in the work room, let them choose whatever seems to interest them at the time. Same goes for once you have them outside. Allowing them to make the choices about what they want to do does not mean allowing them to do whatever they want though. You still need to enforce that they use the works appropriately with respect for the others around them and the work itself. Throwing things or knocking them down is inappropriate at all times. Leaving the work out when you have finished and wandering off to do something else is inappropriate. Yelling is inappropriate, unless you are outdoors.
The bottom line is that the kids need to know what is expected from them, and you have to be consistent with those expectations. If you want a peaceful and neat classroom, insist that the kids be respectful of each other and the works and then let them loose.