Montessori Moments

August 29, 2009

Five Children, Four Paintbrushes: An experiment in sharing

During school tours for prospective students and their parents, the question I am most often asked is: How do you get the children to share?

It’s an obvious question for parents to ask, considering there’s only one of each material on the shelves and up to 24 children in each classroom.  I wish I could distill what happens in a Montessori classroom down to a quick and easy solution for parents to apply at home, but I doubt that is possible.  Come to think of it, even I don’t really know how children in our classrooms have such an easy time sharing.  They just do…

Consider the case of the four paintbrushes… During summer school, I took five children outside to paint our volcano.  Our group consisted of a girl who just turned 3, another girl of 3.5, a boy of 4, another girl of 4.5, and a boy who recently turned 5.  They had all been students in the Montessori environment for one year, except for the 5-year old, who’d been there for two years.  I took four different paints, four containers, and four paintbrushes.  We set the volcano down on the grass, I put the painting materials on the ground, and I invited them to decorate the volcano.  Each child took a paintbrush, and the 4-year old piped up, “I don’t have a paintbrush!”

“Well,” I replied matter-of-factly, “Then you’re all going to have to share and take turns.”  I waited to see if this particularly energetic and impulsive 4-year old would snatch a paintbrush from the 3-year old’s hand.  However, all he did was look around at his friends to see what they were doing.  Suddenly, I heard the 4.5-year old girl say, “Here, you can use my brush.”

She handed the boy her brush and sat back to watch the others work.  The boy thanked her, and as he did so, the 3-year old girl said to the newly brushless girl, “Use my brush.”  The brush was passed from one girl to the other, and the children kept painting.  Moments later, the 5-year old said, “Could I please have the brown?”  The child who had been using the brown looked up and, without hestitation, handed the brown paint and corresponding brush and took the one that was no longer wanted.  “Could I use the purple, please?” asked the 3.5-year old, and the 4-year old boy immediately put his brush down and handed it over with a smile.  Somebody handed a brush to the 3-year old girl who had voluntarily surrendered her brush, and they continued in this way for at least 10 minutes, until they decided their volcano was ready.

I sat back silently throughout the activity, observing and marveling at their social skills and maturity.  What is it about a Montessori environment that teaches children to behave in this manner?  I doubt that my presence had much to do with it.  I simply pointed out that the situation called for them to share, and after that I stepped back and remained a silent witness to their interactions.   There were no threats or punishments, no rewards or praise.  There was simply an expectation on my part, and an understanding on theirs: If they wanted to participate in the activity, they would have to share.

This phenomenon can be witnessed daily in a Montessori classroom, and it’s one more example of the magic that occurs when the ground rules (limits) are in place, the expectations are set, the adult is willing to release the reins, and the abilities and potentialities of the children are respected and nurtured.

If you have experience in the Montessori classroom, I would love to hear your thoughts.  In your opinion, what are the aspects of the prepared environment that show the child how to share?

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