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An Open Letter to Teacher V

A new item was introduced to the school outside deck area recently.  It is a pump, a real one, and the old-fashioned kind that gives children the opportunity to push down on the lever and observe the effects as water flows through a series of tubes.  This is a tool, not a toy, and as such requires a specific method of interaction.  As with most new items in the curriculum (and some old) the children need repeated directions, explanations and demonstrations in order to use the pump correctly: lift the handle slowly, push down slowly and carefully, return the handle to the down position when finished.  A teacher asked me recently: what was wrong with letting children pump the handle as fast as they wanted, letting the water splash all over the deck?  After all, they were young and needed to experiment.  I have thought about her question- tossing back and forth her reasoning, which, under certain circumstances, held a modicum of truth- but not in this case.  Here is my response to her:

* Maria Montessori left a legacy of directions for us to follow which included: helping children help themselves, create an environment that encourages children to respect themselves, each other and the environment, offering and maintaining materials with a specific lesson to be gained therein, including the ability to self correct meaning that if the child made a “mistake” the materials would show the error, not the “teacher”, and the self-sufficiency aspect of cleaning up after yourself, among others.

* In the case of our pump, the correct procedure for using it holds the potential for children to observe, visually and physically, the correlation between the suction created when the handle is lifted and the pressure that is exerted when the handle is pushed downward, forcing the water out.  Maintaining the full range of motion for the handle allows the water to flow evenly through the tubes, otherwise, the water sloshes out of the tubes and all over the deck.  Maria refers to this as the “control of error”- the children can observe the “error” and correct it themselves.

* If the children use the pump incorrectly (brief, rapid pumps), it will, over time, become broken.  Additionally, when water is spilled all over the deck it creates a challenging clean up job for the child using the pump.  Certainly there is lesson in this but Montessori had a better method: enable the child to complete a process from beginning to end successfully thereby enjoying newly gained abilities.  In the case of the water pump, successful pumping allows them to collect water in a bucket or watering can to practice care of plants, washing something, working with the land and water forms exercise, etc.

* Montessori was also careful to differentiate between toys and materials.  Toys may be used indiscriminately, materials may not.  Materials have the function of giving the child a specific lesson while being used, which she called the “direct aim”.  The direct aim of the water pump is the movement of water from a tub to a container.  The “indirect aim” is the control of movement.  The “control of error” is the successful transfer of water without spilling.  This is why, teacher V., we implement Montessori’s method- to enable the children to be successful, respectful, self-sufficient, and happy with their self- acquired skills.

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