My experience with children dates back to the 1960s and, growing up in my neighborhood, most people did things the same way. There was a general wisdom that seemed to permeate where all children slept from 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. under one year of age. After that, they started to push the morning nap later until it became the afternoon nap. Children went to bed between 7 and 8 p.m. and, as my Aunt says, “We were happy to see them go.” Children were potty trained about the time they could walk and because many of these families had 6 to 10 children, mothers were thankful. My own mother remembers very little about potty training and says that we started taking off our own diapers to go potty and she really only knew we were potty trained because the diaper load decreased!
Now there is more info and knowledge about the brain and emotional intelligence and children are honored and respected as unique individuals from birth. Parents are making very personal decisions on how to raise their children and the good news is, great children coming out of homes representing a variety of parenting philosophies. Usually parents hear about a parenting “school of thought” such as RIE or Montessori or attachment parenting and it just resonates. It makes sense to them, but then later, actual implementation, sometimes combined with fatigue and stress, is difficult. It is often then that people come to me with questions about Montessori and RIE parenting and often they have questions about the difference between the two.
Montessori and RIE have so much in common. That is why they are often associated. Mostly, we share a respectful attitude toward children.
- We both honor, acknowledge and celebrate the beautiful unfolding of the inner spirit of children.
- We both believe that children were born with everything they need within them to grow into full actualized adults and we know they will be guided toward that which they need if we stay out of their way.
- We both see children as self-learners.
- We both believe in free gross motor development out of containers and children unhindered in movement.
- We both require an honoring and respectful attitude from the adults caring for children.
- We both believe in the power of observation to learn about a child’s capabilities, needs, and style of communication.
But I see more confusion around how RIE and Montessori differ. When I took the RIE course in 2012 it was immediately clear Montessori was not looked upon favorably by my trainer because she felt it was academically focused. Recently online, someone asked specifically about the differences and here was my reply.
Regarding free movement, self initiation, and exploring they are identical. We love free movement so much we don’t even like cribs! But we believe the child comes in asking one question “what is my place here?” and when we help him to see he is a valued and contributing member of the community, it helps his self esteem, his relationship with his own inner agency, and his confidence in his own abilities which lead to good things. We have a saying “open the door slowly” where the child begins knowing his family, his extended family, his neighborhood and his world is ever building in that way. And we feel the same way about freedom. The more a child is capable of moving, the more freedom he has obviously. When you crawl, you can move around but rather than an entire safe room, we might have a mostly safe space but also be okay saying “but you can’t touch daddy’s guitar” knowing that saying no occasionally is not a bad thing but is, in fact, a teachable moment and an opportunity for that baby to practice self control. That baby will crawl to that guitar, turn around and look at you, then crawl away. And this is the beginning of self discipline which we see as a good and important part of lifelong development. There’s so much more but that’s the big one as I see it.
To expand on this, though Montessori and RIE have more in common than not, especially valuing the importance of free movement and inner agency, we tend to see the means to the end quite differently. As a Montessori teacher I feel I am tasked to help a child answer the questions he naturally comes to me with. It’s like he’s hard wired to answer these questions:
- How does this world work?
- Where do I fit in?
- How much power do I have? How do I get that power?
- What do I do with this inclination to work, perfect, fit into my culture, learn my language, socialize and acculturate?”
- I’m so ready! What can I DO?
- How can you help me do it myself?
Montessorians answer nearly all of those questions with one response. Work! Maria Montessori discovered the mind/body connection 100 years before anyone else. She knew that sensorial experiences and the brain making the body work in purposeful ways was the way to build a child’s brain, his inner agency, and his relationship with himself. Within days, weeks, months of coming into my toddler class a child (15 to 36 months) may come skipping into the room ready to do, literally, hundreds of “works” such as:
- Putting away groceries, folding laundry, prepping snack, ironing, sitting on potty, changing clothes, scrubbing tables, watering plants, painting with watercolor, working with clay, sewing, cutting, doing puzzles, matching language materials and cards, working on dressing frames (zip, button, buckle)
Children are so busy building their mind body connection and feeling so self-satisfied and satiated there is no time for acting out or testing behavior. They leave so happy and fulfilled and that feeling usually stays with them all day. I know deep in my heart this is a wonderful environment to give a child and that they are not being academically pushed or forced to do anything they don’t want to. They are a valued part of the community participating in the activities that are making the classroom function. We say YES to their natural inclination to work and contribute. They don’t feel academically pushed in any, way, shape or form. They feel liberated to act on the environment in a powerful and purposeful way. They feel honored and respected. It’s a fabulous place to be!
RIE also promotes a “Yes” space (also called a no-free zone) where a child is encouraged to use his own agency to direct himself toward what is in his environment – open ended toys he can use in his own way. This is a “wants nothing” time where adults don’t have expectations of the child. They don’t expect to be entertained. They don’t need to stimulate. They don’t ask questions to test what the child knows. They don’t teach. They don’t give the message that all information comes from adults. They observe and take him where he is. Adults try not to get involved with interactions between children except to sportscast what is happening and turn it back to them. This is a beautiful thing and creates a wonderful environment for a child!
But here’s the difference from my perspective. Once a child is able to move, he naturally has more freedom to explore, gather, retrieve, and satisfy his curiosity. RIE proponents would give the baby a YES space where he could safely explore without restrictions and and limits.
But Montessorians would say that with this expanded freedom comes responsibility (which requires self discipline). We would give ever expanding freedom…but within appropriate limits. “You can explore these two cabinets with Tupperware and pots but not the others.” “You can use your toys on this shelf but you can’t take the books off this shelf.” We believe he is hard wired to WANT to know the rules and to begin to abide by them. He wants to do the things we’re modeling for him. He realizes we all have a role in the family and he wants to take his place. So we give him responsibilities. We give him a small shot glass with a few drops of water that he holds himself and brings to his mouth. We change him standing up so he can lift his leg and participate. These actions send the message we honor and respect his capabilities and know he can rise to the expanded expectations we have of him. And he is proud to do so. We provide a “toilet learning” environment at the time of his biggest interest (or sensitive period) – when his brain has established a connection to his pelvis. Toilet Learning & Cloth Diapers
For my own children’s birthdays I gave them a card, each year bestowing both a freedom and a responsibility. “This year your responsibility is: you are in charge of your hair and you may decide whether and when to brush it and may choose the style. This year your freedom is: you may chew gum.” This strengthened the concept that with freedom comes responsibility.
We also scaffold. We step back and provide only the support absolutely necessary. Our expectations expand as his abilities develop. But we have to stand back far enough to know what his abilities are. And they change every week! I can tell you from my experience – the further away you stand, the more they will surprise you. I always ask myself in my class “What am I doing and how can the children do it instead?” I used to dump out the daily laundry on the table and sit down and fold it as my own morning work. Children began to sit next to me and help. Occasionally a 15-month-old will sit down and fold a napkin perfectly! No one would have guessed she had this skill unless she was given the freedom to try. I used to put away dishes and groceries but now the children do it happily , effortlessly, proudly and unasked. I can go the entire morning without saying many words.
Montessorians link a child to materials which allow him to successfully participate in his family, classroom, community, and world knowing this is a natural drive of his. We are steeped in child development and observation and then we connect children to the work that is developmentally appropriate. Here is the tagline on my web site:
A child is born with an inner director urging him toward exactly what he needs to learn. He is an auto-didactic drawn toward necessary movements, information, skills and wisdom. Adults offering respect, connection, and freedom together with clear expectations, provide the best environment for a child.
Maria Montessori was a medical doctor, scientist and math genius . She never taught children but like any great scientist she observed them for years, noticing their natural inclinations in different periods of growth, and then created materials to meet those needs as well as educate them in the basic foundational academic skills they would need. Her curriculum started as a prepared environment for 3 to 6 year-olds at the time of the Industrial Revolution when parents were going to work in factories and children were being left unsupervised. Eventually she created elementary materials. She never did develop 0-3 materials but some of her followers did and captured the spirit of her intent.
Emi Pikler came out of the same roots as Montessori. World War II. Nazism. Genocide. Fascism. They shared the same collective unconscious and came to many of the same conclusions as they worked with and observed children. They both had the heartbreak of a world gone wrong and the children caught in the middle. They both saw the need for freedom at the core of the search for peace. And they both saw children as the hope for the future.