One of the most important messages of Montessori education, the essence of the Montessori approach, is definitely the principle known as “follow the child.”
In this post, we’ll try to explain this principle in detail and give some practical examples of what it means in real life.
Also, we asked 8 Montessori moms to share what following the child means to them. You’ll find their answers at the end of the post.
Let’s dive in.
What “follow the child” really means
“Follow the child” is one of the key principles of Montessori education. It encourages parents to observe and respect their children’s own pace and interests, rather than impose their ideas about what and when they should learn.
The problem is that this concept is often misunderstood.
Some people think it means letting the child be the boss in the family or do whatever he or she wants (which is, of course, 100% incorrect). Others have a vague idea about its meaning but don’t know how to apply it in practice.
The full quote of Maria Montessori can help us understand what she meant: “Follow the child but follow them as their leader”. She believed that the adult should take the role of an active observer and guide.
The principle teaches that children can communicate their developmental needs. All that parents (or teachers) should do is to listen and act accordingly. As Dr Montessori explains:
“(Children) will show you what they need to do, what they need to develop in themselves, and what area they need to be challenged in.”
The beauty of this concept is that it encompasses many other Montessori principles such as allowing freedom of movement, fostering independence and encouraging observation of the child.
Following the child = Observing the child
The best way to follow children is to observe them first. If you observe your child carefully, you’ll notice that he or she is showing you everything you need to know.
It may be in the form of their deep interest in some activity or topic. If a child keeps repeating certain activity, it means he’s trying hard to understand the concept and master the activity.
Sometimes the child may insist on something – like trying to put their clothes on by themselves. This kind of behavior is always a cue to step back and let them struggle and learn.
A child needs to work towards independence and discipline through self-sufficiency.
Following the child in practice
Quite often, following our children simply means to be patient with their own pace.
This advice may look very simple and yet, it is the hardest part for adults. We tend to be more focused on the goals while children usually live in the moment. This may lead to unnecessary tensions.
Walks in nature are a typical example. Parents are often focused on reaching the destination while children just enjoy their company, the walk and the little things around. They are slow. They keep stopping. It makes us impatient.
Sometimes a simple attempt to look at the world through the eyes of a child can help us with that.
Not to mention that it can be very enriching for a busy parent to slow down and enjoy the little things for a while. Even if it means changing the direction of our walk or studying the ants in the grass for 15 minutes.
(Of course, we’re still talking about doing so on a Sunday walk, not while running errands or getting to a doctor’s appointment.)
Get to know the sensitive periods.
As a toddler parent, you’ll notice that there are periods when your child is deeply focused on a certain type of activity.
It can be various things – transporting toys from one place to another, climbing the stairs, reading the same book over and over, or learning new vocabulary.
These periods of deep focus on one thing are called sensitive periods or schemas.
Maria Montessori identified eleven different sensitive periods occurring from birth through the age of six: order, movement, small objects, grace and courtesy, refinement of the senses, writing, reading, language, spatial relationships, music, and mathematics.
You don’t have to learn all the sensitive periods by heart (after all, they may occur at slightly different times for each child) but it is good to have at least a basic idea about what they are.
This way, you’ll be able to notice them and create the right environment and choose the appropriate activities for your child.
Do not help unless necessary.
In her book The Discovery of Child, Maria Montessori describes a scene she witnessed in one of the Children’s Houses.
There was a big group of children who were playing with a water basin. A small toddler at the back could not see and was not able to push the other children aside to make a room for himself. He stopped and looked around for a while.
Then he decided to grab a chair, bring it near the group of children and stand on it so that he can see what’s going on. Just when he was about to stand up proudly and join the other kids, the teacher rushed towards him and took him in her arms saying: “Poor baby, you’ll see too.”
Dr. Montessori described the situation as following:
‘The teacher hindered the child from educating himself, without giving him any compensating benefit. He was on the eve of feeling himself to be a conqueror and instead, he found himself borne aloft in two arms as if he was impotent. From his face, there faded out that expression of joy, of anxiety, of hope which had interested me so much, and there remained only the stupid expression of the child who knows how others will act for him.’
The fact is, children are often disturbed by adults trying to help.
So next time you’ll feel an irresistible urge to assist your little one with something, remember Maria Montessori’s well-known quote: “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”
How Montessori moms follow their children
We’ll conclude this post with practical insights by eight inspiring Montessori moms who shared their thoughts on what “following the child” means to them and how they practice this idea in their homes.
We asked them a simple question: Can you give a specific example of how you follow your child/children?
Here are the answers:
I observe my child’s interests and try to provide opportunities for her to explore those interests.
But it’s also my job as the parent to keep her healthy and safe. For example, if she loves to chop fruits for a snack then I will provide her with opportunities to do so safely. I will provide child-safe cutting options and model how to safely use them.
I also try to tune into her needs even when she can’t express, or isn’t entirely certain of what those needs are. For example, if she is feeling restless and grumpy, I will suggest we get outside to reset and burn off some energy. If she says no, then I will still insist we get out, but once we are outside she can do as she pleases.
Following a child doesn’t mean that we let children do whatever they want all day. It means that we observe the children and guide them while nurturing their inner light. It helps us connect to the spirit of the children deeper.
When I was teaching in the primary classroom, one year I had a student who was on Autism Spectrum. This child didn’t talk much and was extremely reserved. It was really hard to get him interested in the materials and connect with him initially due to the lack of interaction.
For days, I observed him, thinking how I can get him to talk to me, to connect with me. He enjoyed the window washing activity and every day he would do that activity first. I would observe his expressions, his body language, and what he is focusing on.
Then one day, I saw a smile on his face and I followed his gaze. He was watching the bird making a nest on the tree and that’s why he loved that window washing lesson. The next day, I simply put a backyard bird book next to the window washing activity. When he went to grab the lesson, he saw the book and that really excited him. He took the book with his lesson and I simply went to him and said, “Should we find the bird in the book too?” That made him really happy.
We went on to create a whole bird unit in our classroom and I was able to connect with him. That child is now in Middle School and I am so glad that I was patient to observe him before approaching him.
As a teacher, it means that I support each student at their developmental level rather than the level of their classmates and I encourage each child to do their best.
Each child is seen as an individual. We give lots of time for repetition of activities and children are able to practice and refine new skills at their pace rather.
At home, it means that I observe my daughter and provide activities that she will enjoy and be interested in. She has choice and freedom within boundaries.
We need to ensure that we have a safe and prepared environment so the child can practice making decisions that will work for them and their class or home.
I follow my child and assess her requirements based on observations. I provide opportunities for her to learn, grow, and develop. My daughter absolutely loves nature, she enjoys collecting bits of nature like leaves, acorns, and feathers.
I created nature boxes to display in our space solely for her to admire, adore, discuss, play with, explore, and do anything she wants with them. She has meticulously collected each one in the wild, brought them into the home, and set them in her boxes.
When my daughter was around 18 months, she was particularly interested in practical life activities.
Anytime I would wash, clean, sweep, cook, pour, or transfer items, she would want to do it too! I observed a strong intrinsic motivation to master these skills. I created activities surrounding these interests and invited her to participate in the process.
Currently, my daughter is 2.5 years old and really enjoys learning new skills, developing her independence, confidence, and being a contributing member in our family configuration.
Part of this journey is not only to “follow the child,” but also to learn how to trust ourselves in the process. Babies and toddlers are brilliant and capable of reaching their potential if given the opportunity, particularly in a supportive environment! It’s important to remember that every child is unique, with their unique interests and timeline.
I follow my children by offering them different concepts of learning at different points in their development. I fully involve them in activities of everyday living and give them the time, guidance, and patience they need to do something.
When my son was younger, it took me a while to figure out how to present the toys and activities to him.
I was constantly trying to present them in the “undone” state – in trays and baskets. But he always wandered away and didn’t even attempt the activity. Once I put the puzzle together, he was attracted to it immediately and would attempt to solve it over and over again.
For me, having the puzzles undone made them much more enticing. But thanks to my observation, I realized he prefers them the other way round. Maybe it had something to do with the sensitive period of order, maybe he just wanted to see the end result first.
Through our careful and unbiased observations, we follow the child’s interests and abilities by specifically preparing their environment and guiding them through it.
Both in my Montessori classrooms and at home with my two boys, this looks like seeing a child’s need for independence at every age.
That can look like preparing a way they can easily get a drink of water as a toddler or guiding them in making their own meals as an elementary student. The adult always remains the leader, it is simply the child’s needs we follow.