One of the most meaningful ways to teach empathy is for the child to have the opportunity to witness members of her community caring for infants. As she watches the caregiver soothe, nourish, and physically care for babies, she absorbs the empathetic gestures seen, making them her own.
“How do your children transition to first grade?”
I wasn’t surprised by the question which typically comes up during a tour. I was surprised, though, that this Dad was worried about first grade readiness. His baby wasn’t even born yet.
Immediately, my mind sifted through to the barrage of information, research, affirmation, test results, lesson plans, teacher qualifications, school accreditation checks and balances which I typically share with Primary aged families. I looked into the father’s eyes then glanced over to his wife; what could I tell these soon-to-be parents that would help guide them in their decision making process on how to provide best for their infant in a way that would prepare him or her for the rigors of later academics and life itself?
My thoughts turned back to our current Kindergarten students; what attributes do these individuals convey that best prepares them for elementary success? Each armed with unique gifts, resourcing abilities, temperaments, family cultures, weaknesses requiring scaffolding, testing abilities, self-regulatory capacity. Looking outside my office door, the eldest student answered the father for me.
Together the Expectant Parents and I watched as the six-year old began negotiating with two of his peers deciding who would get to play chess with him and who would watch- they both wanted to play. Michael tried several tactics to please both of his buddies, but neither seemed happy with the solution.
Michael did not give up, finally giving up the chess game for a work which could involve all three of them. Later that morning, he was able to return to his first choice of chess once his friends’ needs had been met. Many things struck me about the interchange we witnessed- at the core, what struck me most was Michael’s ability to know himself and his desires, appreciate and respect the desires of his friends, stay in tune with the group throughout the discussion and then comply with a group request of togetherness without conforming by giving up his own desire.
He was able to say, “OK. Right now we’ll do what you want. It seems really important to you. Later I will do as I desire.” – something that some adults have difficulty managing.
So where is this foundation laid?
We think early on- at infancy- from the moment of birth and first through our everyday care-giving routines.
A RIE baby attains a strong sense of value and respect beginning with how he is cared for during eating, sleeping and diapering routines. At play, his concentration and motivation are carefully observed and the environment is prepared to follow his interest and regard, which he shares with his primary teacher by touching base and refueling. The discovery is open-ended and while the routines may be predictable enabling security, the timing is set by the child.
On the other hand, parents are advised that in order to be wise, they must put children on adult centered schedules, feed by the clock rather than body cues, wear their babies on their bodies throughout the day or place them in positions the child can not get herself in and out of. With the best of intentions, well-meaning parents and educators ask an individual child to conform to their expectations; in her efforts, the baby adapts and develops a need even for that which is preset for her. It can be difficult not to ask a child, though, to conform to an adult schedule or activity which allows for us to ensure that everything that needs to be done for baby and adult is taken care of. However, it can be difficult for the child later to know what she wants and resource herself in getting needs met, to regulate his own body, to feel secure without the presence of outside support, to trust herself.
Learning to comply- a necessary skill in becoming a contributing member to society- or learning to conform- requiring the input of another to move forward starts with our regard of babies. An infant regarded with love and respect by his primary caregivers develops the skill to read and understand his community and wants to contribute to its success. Eventually he complies- sets his impulses-or will aside (self-regulation) in order to help the group, to which he feels he belongs to, be successful.
A RIE baby complies- she wants her family to succeed.
Being true to yourself while being sensitive to the needs and desires of others is not only a vital life skill, it also assists the child in transitioning to new environments. To collaborate, cooperate, comply takes time and a degree of sophistication.
If we are to communicate peace, gratitude, understanding, compassion, LOVE…
what better way than with our own two hands.
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
-Vincent Van Gogh
Montessori Practical Life 101 invariably includes the outline for FLOWER ARRANGING. This pivotal work links all cornerstones of the Montessori environment from toddlerhood through elementary- first as a sensorial experience and, later as an in-depth research into the functions and parts of flowers themselves.
The appeal of the arranging and the giving of flowers is universal- for centuries flowers have marked important milestones in our daily lives; expressed feelings of love, gratitude or sadness; or been admired as an appreciation for natural beauty.
In the classroom, a vaseful of fragrant flowers provided an open invitation from which Dr. Maria Montessori took full advantage:
The process of flower arranging is predictably sequenced with precision and care- as are all of the practical life activities- to best support the development of coordination, concentration, order and independence. The child puts on an apron, selects a vase, fills it with water and chooses the perfect flower to cut and place inside the vase. He then carries the vase and a small doily to a table in the room and lays down the vase carefully on the top corner of the table. There is often another child at work sitting there at the table who looks up. The two make eye contact and exchange a moment of silence.
Montessori Guides revel in the work’s ability to assist the child in control of movement, eye-hand coordination, and strengthening hand muscles. The lesson also opens the door for extensions: labeling parts, estimating days of survival, dissecting ovaries, or integrating composting.
Flowers are a fragrant, colorful, and fragile enticement to insects and birds. After all, this is how the process of pollination continues. It’s easy to see how flowers lure children of all temperaments to come near and investigate their beauty by looking, touching and smelling.
But the flower arranging work has a more important indirect aim than simply admiring nature’s work of art. It is an opportunity for little hands to contribute to the beautification of the environment. It is a tender moment when a young heart lays down a symbol of friendship, love and peace on a table for someone else to enjoy. It is a brief yet integral step outside of oneself and one’s own needs.
Flower Arranging provides the mechanism from which the children in the classroom express their empathy and love for their community and its members.
I smelt the violets in her hand and asked, half in words,half in signs, a question which meant “Is love the sweetness of flowers?
– Helen Keller