This article is also available in Spanish
by Ginni Sackett
The holidays are approaching – ushering in a frequently scary season for Montessori teachers. We often have conflicted feelings around holidays and events that occur in the larger culture – afraid that these distract children from their work, disrupt the calm and productive atmosphere in the environment, and are just plain bothersome to us. I’d like to propose changing those feelings and finding ways to see these popular culture events as positive elements in the environment and exploring ways to channel them in support of each child’s development.
All human cultures have holidays. Here are some developmentally appropriate reasons to accept and embrace holidays in the lives of young children.
- Holidays are an expression of universal human needs and tendencies and they occur predictably as a universal expression of human existence across time and space
- They are an important part of the cosmic human experience – holidays structure our orientation to and interpretation of our experience as a species and as individuals; they order and regulate our relationship to the human and non-human worlds, to both everyday and profound experience, to the known and the unknown
- Holidays are extremely significant for human social, emotional, and spiritual life and they are closely connected with our culturally-derived definitions of the sacred (the English word comes from “holy-days”)
- Holidays tend to be highly ritualized: individuals as well as social groups become strongly connected to and dependent upon the repetition of holiday-specific events and activities to regulate their lives
- Holidays are culturally specific – they are often seasonal events that repeat according to a predictable time schedule from year to year, associated with specific seasonal conditions
- Strong emotional attachments develop around these events, part of the deep-seated feelings of love and attachment for one’s time and place created by the Absorbent Mind
So, these are the universal human realities we’re up against when we try to ignore the holidays occurring everywhere else in our children’s lives. Strategies such as acting as if they aren’t happening, or telling children not to talk about them, mean that we aren’t acknowledging the significance they hold in children’s lives. In fact, I would suggest that when we react against holidays in these ways, we are passing judgment onto the culture our children are adapting to and onto the child for wanting to adapt to that culture. And that kind of unspoken, negative judgment just doesn’t seem like a desirable foundation for a positive relationship between a developing child and an adult guide (or the guide and parents either!).
In a culture such as we have here in the United States, we also often react against holidays because so many of the ways they are ‘celebrated’ go against the characteristics and needs of children. But we don’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water! Instead, we are in the perfect position to offer a balancing experience which can focus and relieve children of the burdens of holiday hype.
Here are some ways to start that:
- First, do your homework: what holidays typically occur in the lives of your own community of children? Find some information about the origins of those cultural events – there’s a good chance that there will be a concrete, sensorial context that helped previous humans come to terms with some aspect of life on this planet. For example: Halloween was once new year’s eve, marking the end of the harvest and the start of a new year in northern and temperate biomes; Christmas is one of many festivals that just happen to occur around the return of light after the winter solstice – another profound and potentially scary time for those humans living above the tropics; Valentine’s Day is a remnant festival marking the mating of birds in southern Europe and like Easter is one of many festivals that celebrated the promise of the Spring Equinox.
- Next, find ways to incorporate these concrete, sensorial origins into the life of the children’s community – applying all of the principles of Montessori education, child development, and work which inspire Montessori environments. Stories, songs, specific vocabulary, language cards, carefully chosen artifacts, question games, food preparation, expression and art, geography, zoology, and botany can all provide ready opportunities to structure the holiday experiences which are happening in our children’s lives outside our protected classrooms
- Create some parent education opportunities to share Montessori perspectives that match the universal development of their children
- Create your own rituals in the classroom around these annual events so that children experience the positive role of holidays in human life, but in ways that are calm, happy, and productive for everyone (including you!).
When I began to apply these strategies in my own Casa, I discovered that holidays aren’t scary or disruptive at all; in fact, the time between Thanksgiving and the winter holidays became one of my favorite times of the year. I also discovered that – once that negative judgment was eliminated from our environment – children not only enjoyed our cultural cycles but they actually were able to naturally and spontaneously settle into wonderful, normalized work right up to that last day before winter break.
Let’s not leave our children at the mercy of commercialized and hyped-up American holidays. Let’s do what we do best: prepare and provide a safe and supportive environment that channels those scattered and frantic energies and actually help children not only survive but more importantly enjoy these seasonal events in harmony with our universal tendencies and needs.
Ginni Sackett is a former Director of Primary Training of Montessori Northwest. Ginni is currently living in Amsterdam and working at the Association Montessori Internationale headquarters.