In the Montessori elementary classroom we tell many stories. And one of the important stories, one of the five Great Stories, is the Story of the Coming of Human Beings. In this story, we do not concentrate on when and how human beings appeared on the Earth. We focus on some special characteristics of human beings. We call them three gifts: the mind that thinks, the hand that works and the heart that loves. It is the utilization of these gifts in concert with one another that allowed humans to adapt to and transform their environment to satisfy their needs, both spiritual and physical.
None of these adaptations would be possible without movement. The human brain controls the motor centres and organizes sensory input. Basic coordination happens in the first 6 years of life, which we call the first plane of development. But during the years between 6-12, the second plane of development, enormous refinement and expansion of movement can occur. Some of it is developmental, that is, connected with maturation, but most of it occurs through training.
In the Montessori elementary we aid the child towards abstraction in the subject areas through a process that can be called ”guided reenactment”. Guided reenactment is the process by which we guide the children in the use of the materials so that they can walk the same walk towards abstraction that our ancestors must have done: through experimentation, exploration, questioning and reasoning. They come to the generalizations themselves through their own activity. The materials are designed in such a way that they pave the way towards abstraction without removing the necessary challenges to the intellect. In this way the children can move through thousands of years of human endeavour in a very short time.
But some important aspects cannot be changed. The need to manipulate objects with the hands is essential for healthy development. Movement is necessary to help the brain organize information.
When we think about human history and human fundamental needs, we need to consider all that human activity that produced innumerable forms of shelter, clothing, transport and food dishes, and also the activity that produced all the different forms of art, music, dance, writing systems and other inventions. Art and music are therefore not seen as optional subjects in a Montessori classroom, but fundamental needs, as important as the sciences, math and literacy work.
We teach the children how to use their hands and the various tools of human expression. We also look at these forms of expression from a historical viewpoint with our history presentations. We look at how the work of the hands has been essential for both physical survival and spiritual well-being.
Montessori writes in Education and Peace:
…But handicrafts, which produce beautiful objects, and which society is now attempting to revive, could well b entrusted to young people. Let us hope that the art of fine craftsmanship is not lost simply because machines exist. May young people be given the possibility of continuing to lovingly produce beautiful things! (Chapter 9)
Another major theme in the history work is migration. And for most of human history, migration was accomplished by walking. Our ability to walk is also one that we want to develop in the Elementary. Not that the children are not already walking, but Montessori believed that encouraging the children to go on very long walks was important for development. Hiking and camping were activities which she also felt strengthened the child’s understanding of community and their appreciation nature.
Our children are not confined to desks. Things have places; people need to move. Much of the grace and courtesy work in the elementary is working on how to move in a space that is shared by so many. Going Out, which are small trips organized by the children into nature and society, gives the children an outlet for both their need to move and their insatiable curiosity about the world. There are many aspects of the Montessori classroom that can counteract the negative effects of a sedentary modern lifestyle.