30 June 2009

Montessori, Evolution, and Spirituality

I have always been interested in education, and for many years I dedicated my time to working with children through facilitating virtues classes. But it wasn’t until my daughter, Sasha, was born that I began to take interest in educational philosophies. I wanted to know what I could do to encourage her, challenge her, but not overwhelm her. I wanted to know how children learned. Throughout Sasha’s three years I have found three perspectives on education that have defined my own approach: Montessori, Evolution, and Spirituality.

The three above perspectives have given me a new lens through which to view child development and have helped me create an environment for my daughter that encourages learning. I am not an expert in the field of child development and have only had a glimpse of what all three perspectives offer, on so many levels and in so many ways, to this field. With regard to this paper, however, I will only be addressing the topics that pertain to the experiences I’ve had with my daughter. I will be referring to what I’ve learned about my role as a guide and about providing an environment that encourages self-directed learning, includes a range of activities, and is filled with beauty, natural elements, and purpose. Finally, I will be discussing what I’ve learned about how to prepare my daughter for the world.

As a new mother I had no idea whether I was providing my daughter with an encouraging and stimulating learning environment or not. Sasha had tireless energy and an insatiable curiosity. She was constantly on the move. Nothing held her attention. I felt overwhelmed and drained by the end of the morning when she went down for her nap. I spent hours looking for activities and toys that would stimulate and challenge her and increase her attention span and concentration. When I finally found something and introduced the new toy or activity to her, she would fiddle with it, figure it out, and be done with it in about two minutes. This was to be the case for about one year, until I found Montessori.

The Montessori Method

Maria Montessori, a physician, anthropologist and educator, developed a child-centered approach to education. The Montessori method fulfills the developing needs of children by exposing children to a broad range of experiences, honoring their learning preferences and choice of activities, respecting the pace at which each child learns, encouraging active, self-correcting learning, and providing multi-age classrooms. The teacher has the role of a guide, who is trained to “follow the child” by observing the activities the child is naturally drawn to, and patiently encourages and directs his or her development. Montessori addresses the entire child and his or her physical, intellectual, creative, and spiritual development.
The first thing I learned was that children purposefully choose the activities they want to engage in, rather than randomly select them. I introduced a few Montessori activities and put them next to the toys Sasha already had. From that point on Sasha stopped playing with her plastic toys and only engaged in the Montessori activities. The reason, I learned, is that children will choose those activities that meet specific developmental needs. If children are given the freedom to do so, they will choose purposeful activities over trivial ones. I realized that I had been choosing all of Sasha’s activities when I should have been letting her choose.

The next step, then, was providing her with a variety of activities to choose from. Dr. Montessori explains that children learn through all five senses, so I found activities that stimulated her senses. One activity I had was a basket full of interesting objects to explore. Every week or so I would change the objects. At the age of one, Sasha loved her “nature basket.” There were beautiful, smooth polished stones that she could feel; there were acorns, feathers, and other interesting things to touch, feel and smell. Another activity stimulated her hearing and consisted of shaking little bottles filled with rice, beans, or sand and matching the two bottles that made the same sound. I filled the room with these and many other sensory-rich experiences.

I made the necessary adjustments and set up our home so that it was child-centered. I tried to see the world through my daughter’s eyes. Everything in our house was out of reach, which made Sasha completely dependent on the adults. I set up our home so that she could move about independently of me. She had small chairs and a table, low shelves with a range of activities and toys that I made and bought, low shelves with snacks and water that she could reach when she desired. I put a few stools around the house so that she could easily have access to things that were out of reach. With a room full of varied and accessible activities Sasha now had the possibility of exploring these areas according to her natural inclinations. She had control over her own learning, and I was now able to begin my observations.

I learned a great deal about detachment from the principle of “following the child.” I say “detachment” because sometimes I tend to interfere with my daughter’s activities, imposing my will rather than trusting her natural choices. There is a balance between guiding her and giving her the freedom to choose, but for now I’m focusing on trying to understand the underlying lessons in all the activities she engages in. For example, when I sit down to play with Sasha I notice that all she wants to do is have a picnic (her latest fascination). She loves to lay down a blanket, bring her basket full of fruits and vegetables, and sit down with me and her teddy bear for a picnic. I’ve come to understand that there are great lessons for her in this activity. For example, during our picnic Sasha handed out slices of apple to me and her bear; She was practicing being considerate and learning to share. She was practicing Math when she counted how many “people” were having a picnic and then counted how many slices of apples she had. She learned that she needed one more slice so that everyone could have a piece; She was learning generosity, detachment, and kindness when she gave the only two pieces of apple to me and her bear and left none for herself.

The first time I introduced a Montessori activity to Sasha she was one year and five months old. It was really the first time I had seen her focus and be completely immersed in what she was doing. The activity consisted of scooping uncooked beans from one bowl and putting them in another with a spoon. In this simple activity she was developing her fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and was accustoming her eyes to movement from left to right (the order of her scooping) which would later prepare her for reading and writing. I learned that the most important part of engaging in an activity was the process of doing it–not the end result–because it was this process that would help her acquire skills.

My daughter suddenly was engaged in working on an activity for more than two minutes. The issue wasn’t that she couldn’t concentrate on anything, as I had once thought, it was that she was concentrating on everything! The challenge was providing her with enough varied activities to choose from. And I had found them. Sasha was increasing her concentration, developing important skills, and having fun at the same time. And I was learning about the powerful tool and art of observation. I was loving Montessori. But there was something missing: I didn’t know why this method worked, and I was longing to get to the root of the issue of how children learn.

An Evolutionary Perspective

Some time later I was introduced to education from an evolutionary perspective by my Professor, Gary Bernhard. While reading his book, Primates in the Classroom (1988), I found the answer. What I came to understand is that over hundreds of thousands of years, through evolution, human beings have developed specific ways of learning which have influenced how children learn today. Children have been learning through observation, imitation, play and exploration. What children saw and experienced throughout the day was what they became as adults.

Toys versus Tools

Children need to understand how the things they do in life relate to the adult world. The children of our ancestors built their own “toys” which were actually replicas of adult tools. Their form of play consisted of creating their own miniature version of the adult world, experimenting with the various tools, observing and playing, and imitating the adults. As a result, by a very early age (around six years old) children were already very useful and helpful members of their society. I couldn’t help but contrast that scenario with what happens today where children are generally not exposed to the working adults and are not taught to be part of daily activities and chores until they are around six years old when they begin school.

I realized through Sasha’s eagerness to do things by herself and to help out with household activities that the desire to be useful continues to be a strong need in human beings today. I took a look at some of my daughters toys (the non-Montessori ones) and realized they had no connection to the real world. Her toys had no resemblance to real-life tools. The plastic, push-the-button toys were designed mostly for entertainment, and only a few minutes of entertainment. I realized that if I was to continue to raise my daughter using the conventional methods and toys, she would have no connection with the adult world. For what was I preparing her then? I wanted to help her have a glimpse of how society functioned and how she could fit into it and be useful even at her age.

Dr. Montessori explains that children need this sense of purpose and that when given the option between toys or tools, children choose tools (Montessori, 1967). That is not to say that children shouldn’t have toys, but that we need to look at the quality and purpose of the toys.

The Montessori method encourages toys made of natural elements, such as wood. When I compared natural toys with plastic ones, I found a world of difference. Even adults are attracted to these natural objects. There is something comforting in the feel of the wood; there is weight, texture and smell. A child who has plastic toys has no way to assess the material they are made of, which makes for a learning experience that isn’t as rich. I noticed that Sasha was more careful with her beautiful, heavy toys. She didn’t just drop them on the floor when she was done. She learned the gentleness that comes with taking care of something beautiful.

In order to help my daughter prepare for and have a sense of purpose in an adult world, something which children naturally desire, I decided to include her, as much as I could, in the workings of life. Any process I, or other adults, were involved with, I did my best to explain to her and to let her participate in. For example, when we go to the grocery store she takes her own little shopping cart and loads it up with some of the things on our list. We talk about the food we see and where it all comes from. We talk about the farmers who help us by growing the food, and, depending on the season, we plant things together. We talk about the people who pick the fruits and vegetables and those who transport the produce to the stores. When we have the chance, we go apple or blueberry picking. Finally, we talk about the people that unload all the produce at the grocery store and how they put all the food out for the customers to see and buy. And when we pass by the grocers who are putting produce in the displays, I point the grocers out and tell her we must thank them for all the work they do. She begins to understand, not only to be appreciative of people and their work, but also that what she used to think magically appeared somewhere was actually the result of many people, doing many different jobs.


Movement is an essential requirement in the learning process. Our nomadic foraging ancestors were constantly on the move because it was required for survival. Dr. Montessori also discusses the importance of movement and explains that it is essential for learning because a child is made up of both mind and body, and to think of one without the other is to “break the continuity that should reign between them” (Montessori, 1995, p.141). Formal schooling was introduced only about two hundred years ago, when children who once roamed freely were required to stop the movement so necessary for exploration and learning, and stillness and quietness were suddenly the new standards of children’s behavior. If children learn by actively participating in acquiring their knowledge, and if they do so through imitation, exploration, play and observation, then the assumption that learning is best done in a quiet, still environment is an incorrect one. “There is no necessary gap between the processes of social development that satisfy biologically based needs and the processes of intellectual development that prepare children for life in the modern world” (Bernhard, 1988, p.138).

I took a look around my house and realized there were many barriers that restricted my daughter’s movement. The things that apparently were created for our children’s protection, (cribs, playpens, strollers, security gates, etc.) were restricting her ability to move and explore. How could I be protecting my daughter when I was depriving her of these experiences? I decided to get rid of the restrictive objects. Not surprisingly, I soon found my life to be chaotic. I was constantly after my daughter getting her out of trouble. But many lessons came from this disruption in my life.

House-Proof the Child

I removed all dangerous objects, such as poisons and household cleaning supplies, and then stepped out of Sasha’s way to let her explore. This action required a lot of my attention, energy, and time, but Sasha was in heaven. She was able to go to all the once-inaccessible places, open the once-locked, forbidden cupboards, explore to her heart’s content. The security gates and playpens, I realized, were for my own comfort. They made it possible for me to contain and deprive her of valuable lessons in the name of “safety.”

When it came to other dangers that I couldn’t remove, such as the stove, I decided to teach Sasha about them, rather then keep her away from them. I talked to her about fire and things that are hot, and how fire burns and hurts. I realize now that not only was she learning that fire was dangerous, she was also learning that not everything in a house is safe. She was learning to recognize dangers and learning how to avoid and handle them. I was giving her discernment so that if she was ever alone, she had the tools to know how to act.

I decided that if I was going to remove the gates and teach Sasha “freedom with responsibility” (an important Montessori principle), I would also return the beautiful, delicate objects that I had once removed so she wouldn’t break them. By removing these objects I had been depriving my daughter of beauty and art, and of learning self-control. Instead, I showed her how to look at and care for these beautiful things. On one occasion I let her hold a delicate, ceramic frog made in Costa Rica. She knew she had to sit down and handle it with care. Her eyes were filled with awe as she took in the smoothness and the beautiful, bright colors. When she was finished she carefully handed it back to me. I could tell that she was proud that she had taken such good care of it. I sensed then that by giving her responsibilities, Sasha felt important and trusted.

A Spiritual Education

As a member of the Baha’i Faith I believe peace is not only possible, but inevitable. Humanity will come to recognize the principle of the oneness of mankind, “a spiritual truth which all the human sciences confirm” (UHJ, 1985). If I am to prepare my daughter to be an adult in this day and to contribute to the process of unification, it is through a spiritual education.

I am teaching my daughter to become aware that she is a spiritual being and that she must act on this awareness. In other words, it is not sufficient to know we are spiritual beings, we must act as spiritual beings by using the tools of the virtues. I’m teaching Sasha awareness of the virtues, of their power and beauty. I’m teaching her how to express the virtues in various situations and which virtue is applicable to which situation. I hope that the virtues are built into a strong foundation in her life, rather than simply embellishing her character.

Some ways to help my daughter put the virtues into action are to teach her
to be friendly when she sees people who dress or look differently; when she sees someone who is sad, to comfort that person; when she sees someone who is lonely, to befriend him or her; to teach her about all religions and that they all come from the same God, with the hope that she will consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of love and fellowship; to teach her about the cultures of the world so they won’t seem foreign to her, and so on. In this way I’m teaching my daughter to have a vision that is world-embracing rather than confined to herself, to love the world, not just her country. I am teaching her that her worth lies in service and virtue, and that through pure and goodly deeds she can contribute to building a new civilization that will bring about peace. I’m teaching her to think “at all times of rendering some service to every member of the human race” (Abdu’l-Baha, 1982, p. 3).

Raising my daughter has been an inner spiritual journey for me as well. Because children learn through observation, I’ve learned that teaching through example is more effective than teaching through words. I have to model the virtues I’m teaching her.

World-Proof the Child

In writing this paper I’ve come to another realization about equipping our children for the real world. In the same way I prepared my daughter to explore the house safely, so must I prepare her to explore the world. Even if I wanted to, there is no way for me to put up a “security gate” and child-proof the world to protect her. There are innumerable things that I don’t want her exposed to, but my job is to give her the tools to recognize dangers and the spiritual foundation and discernment to recognize right from wrong.

Because of my daughter’s ceaseless energy and curiosity, I became just as energetic and curious about a “solution.” When I found the solution I realized it was I who needed fixing. Our children are wired to survive, and while they don’t have much knowledge of the world, they know exactly how to get it, if we only give them the opportunity. Children can’t learn about the world if we create an artificial, restraining environment around them.

I recently read a comment by a developmental molecular biologist, Dr. John Medina, who said that the brain is not interested in learning; it is interested in surviving. So what does it take to survive in this new global community? If I believe, as I do, that mankind is moving forward toward a unified society, then I know that educating children to be tolerant, to find the commonality in the human family, and to become champions of Justice is a means for survival in this new world.

I’ve learned that in a child-centered environment, where children participate in daily chores and general workings of life, adults are sending the message that children are useful and trusted. There is great responsibility and self-esteem that comes when one is trusted. A child who has not been given this opportunity is having nothing asked of him. What must a child think of a world that requires little of him?

In implementing an evolutionary perspective to my daughter’s education I have learned that I must expose her to the workings of the world, to give her a larger context in which to view her learning, to give her an opportunity to be actively involved in the adult world, and I have come to understand that she learns best through play, exploration, observation and imitation. In implementing the Montessori method I have learned about the art of observing and becoming detached enough to allow my daughter to choose the activities she is naturally drawn to, to trust that children choose the activities they need for further development, and of the importance of providing an environment filled with beauty and art. In implementing a Spiritual approach to education I have been able to distinguish between the less desirable goal of raising children for the purpose of fighting their way to the top of a competitive society, and the more desirable goal of raising children to know that they are noble human beings who can contribute to and bring forth an ever-advancing civilization.


Abdu’l-Baha (1982). Selection From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha. Wilmette, IL: Baha’i Publishing Trust.

Bernhard, J. Gary (1988). Primates in the Classroom. Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press

Medina, John (2008). Brain Rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Montessori, Maria (1995). The Absorbent Mind. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

The Universal House of Justice (1985). The Promise of World Peace. Retrieved on 3/10/09 from:


  1. Hi there! I would really like to re-post your article on Montessori education to the Association for Baha'i Educators website (www.bahaieducators.ning.com). Would that okay with you?
    Thank you.

  2. http://www.latrobe.edu.au/educationalstudies/downloads/educationintheageofhermes.pdf


    How do these archetypal energies frame our ways of imagining education. In recent times we have seen the fantasy of education as the transmission of culture (a fantasy which
    belongs to the ʺoldʺ gods ‐ Uranus, Kronos and Zeus) and the pursuit of meaning (an Apollo
    fantasy), successfully resisting the fantasy of education as a context for growth, creativity and
    relationship (Demeter, Dionysos, Eros). Most recently, we have found our education systems
    dominated by two distinct fantasies, which are sometimes compatible and sometimes not. On
    the one hand we find schooling legitimised only through its capacity to train students in
    useful skills. At the same time we are urged to remember that the only value an education
    has is its exchange value. The conflict between these views, which is rarely acknowledged, is
    representative of a conflict between two different ways images of life, and goes way beyond the classroom. One of them we associate with a modern, and the other with a postmodern
    consciousness. In the language of Greek mythology, which is the conventional language of
    archetypal psychology, we find Prometheus – god of the industrial age – on one side, and
    Hermes – god of the information age – on the other.
    We can find Hermes in the postmodern mindʹs preference for dealing with reality
    aesthetically rather than rationally, its tendency to deal with images rather than with ideas,
    its readiness to give credence to subjective experience, its inclination to be more interested in
    impressions and interpretations than in facts.

    The ancient Greeks would have put it another way. They
    would have warned us of the dangers of monotheism. If we give all our worship to one god, not only do we sentence ourselves to suffer the pathology of that god, but we find ourselves
    under attack from all the others.

  3. I enjoyed reading this. I have 2 - soon to be 3- daughters in Montessori school and we are also Baha'is. Thank you for sharing this! I'm going to send this link to several friends and family also.