Montessori and the Development of Independence – Autonomy


“We must clearly understand that when we give the child freedom and independence, we are giving freedom to a worker already braced for action, who cannot live without working and being active.” (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind)

Autonomy Support

A key component of the Montessori environment that supports development of independence is freedom of movement.  Dr. Montessori wrote that, “movement helps the development of mind, and this finds renewed expression in further movement and activity.” (The Absorbent Mind, p.142).  Children are free to choose from among a variety of meaningful works, and the organization of the prepared environment along with the variety of available works promotes both gross motor and fine motor movement.  

The ability children have to move about their environment means that children are able to self-regulate their need for physical movement (within the boundaries of respect for others and the environment), rather than being told when and how it’s appropriate for them to move.  This early practice at self-regulation aids in more advanced self-regulation later. For example, the child may learn from an early age that they need to move or stretch their body some before sitting down to a task, and this self-knowledge can help them as they strive to complete longer and more elaborate works.

Many classrooms have jumping games, yoga cards, and dancing activities on the line to help children move their bodies when they need to.

Along with a freedom of movement within their environment, children in the Montessori environment are able to choose their work freely, within the boundaries of works on which they’ve been given a lesson. This freedom of choice represents a trust that the child will demonstrate their needs so the guide may better help them find the appropriate work within the environment.  This freedom of choice also supports the child’s ability to do work that is consistent with and serves whatever sensitive period they are experiencing at that time.  By being able to do the work that calls to them, it is the child, not the adult, who meet their needs, and it is through this process of meeting one’s own needs that the child’s autonomy is supported.  It is the job of the guide, rather, to observe and learn from the child’s choices, and to guide them only if they have trouble finding meaningful work.  This makes it really important for the guide to wait and watch unless the child is doing harm to self, others, or the material.

The prepared environment itself supports a child’s autonomy in many ways.  The materials have a built-in control of error, which allows the child to focus not on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ of their work, but rather on the process, as they receive feedback from the material and are able to continuously explore and experiment guided only by their own will and developing understanding of the concrete concept (rather than receiving outside feedback from an adult).

Knobbed Cylinders

Knobbed Cylinders have perfect built-in correction of error.

In addition, the shelves for each content area are laid out in such a way that children are aware of a progression of materials.  This serves as motivation for future learning and exploration, as younger children see the older kids able to do complex work and this motivates in them the desire to work toward these sorts of tasks.  This progression allows them to gauge for themselves, visually, where they are in the progression of work toward their desired goal, so when they ask to do the “big kid” work in the classroom, the guide can give an answer that makes visual sense, “you’ll be ready for that lesson after these other works that come before.”  That is not to say that the curriculum is so rigid that every child must master every work before moving on, but rather that there exists a natural growth, supported by the materials in the classroom. 

The Practical Life area of the Montessori curriculum lends itself particularly well to the support of autonomy.  Practical life activities allow children to take care of their own needs, and this means they rely significantly less on adults in their environment.  Just as learning to walk and talk brought the child a great deal more independence, also learning to meet their basic physical needs (dressing themselves, preparing food, toileting, etc.) means they are free to strive to greater levels of independence in their ability to carry out complex tasks.

Buttoning Frame

“First in one way, and then in another, [the child] becomes ever less dependent on the persons about him; till the time comes when he wants also to be mentally independent. Then he shows a liking to develop his mind by his own experiences, and not by the experiences of others”  (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p.91).

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