Montessori Northwest shared this image a month ago on Facebook and in our email newsletter. The response was overwhelming. There was a landslide of “shares” and comments in a wide variety of languages as all over the world Montessorians and those familiar with Montessori celebrated seeing the iconic Pink Tower reimagined in this way. The components and entirety of several other beloved 3-6 classroom materials could be intermingled seamlessly with cubes from the tower. Such a joyful affirming cacophony of excitement, as we all saw something we loved in a new way! This excitement gives us a glimpse into what a child might feel as they make a discovery like this for the first time. So, how can we guide children to explore without robbing them of their own discoveries? How do we get from Point A (the Guide’s initial presentation to a child) to Point B(eyond) (the child’s own exploration, discovery, and connections – like the reimagined tower and cubes we see here)? Well, this question takes us to the heart of Montessori teaching and the finely-tuned art of being a Montessori Guide.
Spontaneous discoveries by children through their own exploration are sometimes described as ‘variations’. A variation can be described as: a modification in the use of a material which is different from the presentation but still serves the same purpose for which the material was designed. Such spontaneous inventions are an important aspect of a child’s interactions with the materials. They are possible because of the intentional design of the sensorial materials (mathematical precision, for example, and isolation of both the sense and the perceived quality). And they result from discoveries initiated by the minimalist Montessori presentation – showing ‘something’ the child can do with the material, a ‘something’ which is just enough to stimulate open-ended exploration in harmony with the developmental purposes. The purpose of the Pink Tower, for example, is visual exploration of three dimensional change. We get to present the most obvious way they can be arranged – in the tower gradation from largest to smallest; but there are countless ways the cubes can also be arranged to support that visual exploration of three dimensional change. Looking at the reimagined tower, it is obvious that we are still looking at three-dimensional change – but taken to an exponential level!
We don’t want to rob a child of discovering these variations in their own time and pace. But we are 100% responsible for creating a psychological environment which encourages and nurtures these spontaneous explorations and discoveries. We want to stimulate the child’s scientific curiosity – I wonder if … I wonder what would happen if I … I wonder if I can …
Some ways to stimulate variations include:
timing the initial presentation of a material to the developmental interest of the child – an observable readiness, when there is the appropriate level of challenge, and therefore stimulus to repetition and exploration
extending exploration through following exercises, memory/distance games, and language lessons; memory games to the environment are particularly useful here – helping a child to notice similar and identical qualities in other objects; as well as knowing the qualities well enough to name them – these are all cubes, for example; some are larger and some are smaller, etc.
preparing the environment to allow for connections and discoveries between and among objects; of particular importance here are the mathematically precise, well-maintained materials. and real objects in the environment that can be matched to the sensorial materials
embracing creativity and exploration while deeply understanding and appreciating the purposes of a material: we can say something like “I wonder how else can you build it” for example; or “have you ever seen any other cubes in the room?” then quietly walk away and see what the child does with your hint
if a culture of variations is not yet alive in the classroom, a great trick to jump-start it is to simply take out a material yourself and explore with it. This will definitely attract attention! When you’ve had a bit of exploratory fun yourself, put the material away and see what happens! As a culture of variations builds, children will absorb other children’s variations and find their moment to take passive observation into engaged activity!
Stimulating each child’s own interactive relationship with the materials is part of our work. There is a delicate balance between the liberty for exploration and the license for misuse, and creating this balance is a joyful outcome of that work.
Ginni Sackett is an AMI Primary Trainer and has been a part of MNW for over 20 years. She is also a third-degree black belt in the Indonesian martial art of Poekoelan Tjimindie Tulen, enjoys exploring the charms of Portland, and loves spending time with her family, including her several grandchildren.