This article is an installment of my “Pedagogy on One Foot” series in which I explain critical concepts of educational theories relating to Jewish education. The title is inspired by one of my favorite teachers of all time, Rabbi Hillel. Learn all about my favorite educational theorists (and so much more) in Songleading for Kiddos.
Maria Montessori was a pioneering badass
Maria Montessori was Italy’s first female physician, as well as an absolutely badass feminist and scientist. One of her phenomenal works was her transformation of the approach to caring for people with developmental exceptionalities. This new approach allowed for the discovery and ‘unlocking’ of the special abilities of people who previously would have been relegated to asylums.
Montessori is renowned for her academic and scientific accomplishments relating to child education. Her work offers meaningful and practical insights into how children learn and grow. Her approach to supporting children’s development was revolutionarily holistic, as it supports cognitive, physical, social, emotional, creative, moral, and spiritual growth. Her interest and experience in spiritual development, which she often refers to as ‘cosmic’ education, particularly interests those of us nurturing Jewish kids.
She is well known for developing an educational approach in which the child is the leader of their learning, which is now referred to as “Montessori Education.” Maria Montessori posited that a teacher should be a facilitator (or a ‘guide on the side’) who leads experiences in an environment intentionally designed to meet the specific needs of the learner at their precise stage of development. This was a significant departure from the norms of child education at the time. The promotion and publicization of her methods began in America around 1910. (The second Montessori school ever was opened by Alexander Grahm Bell and his wife in 1911.)
And also a devout Catholic
While she kept her religiosity distinct from her work, she incorporated spirituality into her approach toward education. Her medical and scientific background, coupled with experience educating children with special needs (who, at the time, were labeled “mentally defective” and given woefully limited opportunities to excel), gave her a unique perspective on child development. A seven-year stay in India and annual spiritual retreats in a convent further formed her revolutionary approach to fostering spiritual development in children.
Montessori encourages the child’s initiative
Maria Montessori suggested that by working independently, children could reach higher levels of autonomy, intrinsically motivating and equipping them to reach higher levels of understanding. If you’ve ever observed a child interacting with their prized play objects- trains, crafts, dinosaurs… you may have realized that when given the freedom to choose their own activities, children are more likely to explore their materials thoroughly and make the most of their playtime. Consequently, it is critical that the rabbis, cantors, and educators who work with young Jewish children create opportunities for children to explore and express their particular interests.
Environment is a key “teacher” for young children
Adults can be aware of and even remember their environment. A child, on the other hand, absorbs their environment completely.
As young children absorb their surroundings, their worldview begins to take form. The things that young children see are not simply stored within their memory, they take place and form part of the child’s psyche. While a certain experience could have little to no effect on an adult, the same experience could be life-altering for a young child. A child’s unique stage of vital memory is not retained consciously but absorbs images into their subconscious mind, forming their inner being, personality, and worldview, unbeknownst to them.
This phenomenon has received a unique name from psychologists: mneme.
Include children in the sacred traditions
The first step to forming a Jewish spiritual identity is including children in the sacred traditions, and these steps of faith will be different in every Jew-ish place and space. However, if you can safely provide ‘real’ ritual objects (rather than toy versions), the initial steps of this journey will be richer and more meaningful.
We are created to evolve the cosmos
Montessori taught parents and educators how to cultivate environments that allow children to reach their full potential. She had high expectations for the education experience, and rightfully so, considering its importance. Montessori values respectful interactions and active participation of children in caring for themselves, their environment, and other living beings.
Montessori’s philosophy proposes that one of the essential roles of a human being is to work in partnership with the divine. As she said, “We are not created only to enjoy the world, we are created in order to evolve the cosmos”.
This foundational element of her philosophy particularly resonates with early childhood Jewish education, which seeks to instill Jewish values such as reducing waste, giving to those in need, acting with loving kindness, and protection of the physical self, others, and all the creatures who play a role in nature.
This concept can also be found in Jewish tradition and ancient texts, such as Pirkei Avot 2:21, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.” In contemporary texts, “It has become axiomatic that to be a Jew is to care about the world around us. To be a Reform Jew is to hear the voice of the prophets in our head; to be engaged in the ongoing work of tikkun olam; to strive to improve the world in which we live”-Rabbi Marla Feldman.
Religious environments are critical for Jewish children
With Montessori’s philosophy in mind, consider these questions:
- How can you make your Jewish environment safer and more comfortable for children?
- Ask parents in your community directly how your space could better accommodate their needs
- Use gates and clearly block areas where children are not welcome
- Cover outlets and wires
- Are you able to implement child-sized or child-friendly resources in your synagogue?
- Hang child-height mezuzot
- Provide appropriate-sized seating and materials
- Make the bathroom as accessible as possible to encourage young children’s independence
- Can you aim to utilize natural and beautiful materials?
- Use “real” ritual objects (not the bright-colored toy versions)
- Source materials from your natural environment
- Use natural wood (avoid plastic)
My home is a better environment because of Maria Montessori
Enlightened by Montessori’s perspective, I am confident that you will find ways to modify your practices regarding early education that will make your sacred space a better environment for little humans too.
Want to learn more?
I’ve been studying pedagogy for 20 years because I’m a nerd, and now I want to share the most relevant bits of what I learned with my new course, Songleading for Kiddos! In my “Pedagogy on One Foot” Module, participants will learn foundational elements of pedagogical concepts from:
- Howard Vygotsky
- Maria Montessori
- Jean Piaget
- Abraham Maslow
- Benjamin Bloom
- Howard Gardner