Oh, Sweet Serendipity: Maria Montessori’s Dutch Grave!

1st November is traditionally celebrated as All Saints’ Day, whereas 2nd November – All Souls’ Day. The days are particularly festive and solemn in Poland. I miss the Polish tradition in the Netherlands, where there’s just a handful of people visiting their deceased nearest and dearest. Yesterday, on 1st November, not at my father’s or grandparents’ graves, I really wanted to light a candle in their memory at any Dutch grave.

On entering a cemetery in Noordwijk where silence reigned, I was somehow drawn to a tombstone I was shocked to find here, in the Netherlands. It’s the resting place of Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952), a great child educator, doctor. Though Italian, she died in the Netherlands, where she’s buried. My candle was the only one at her grave. Absolutely in awe of that obvious case of serendipity, standing near Montessori’s grave, I was contemplating the engraving in Italian about children, peace and people in the world – so idealistic, if not utopian in a restless world of today.

A teacher of the 21st century paying tribute to the teacher of all times – as banal as this analogy may sound, Montessori’s ideas and ideals are invariably adapted to fit contemporary classrooms. So many schools worldwide have been based on the Italian educator’s philosophy of teaching and, foremost, of developing the young bodies and minds. Her holistic sensory approach towards the child’s development is well received in institutions which care about hands-on experience, autonomous teaching and freedom of individual expression. Oozing with charisma and determination herself, Montessori knew that investing in  children’s education and making sure they’re equipped with life and social skills  is instrumental for their well-being.

The prepared learning environment together with the natural environment facilitate mutual respect -  basis for any Montessori’s classroom. Let me give just a few of her thoughts to show how true and universal her findings appear:

“The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.” – We learn best when we touch, when we feel, when we hear, etc. Our senses are all involved in discovering details around us from the moment we are born. With time, it is becoming easier and easier for us to adapt to new environments or to grasp new concepts provided that the sensory exposure has started earlier.

“The things he [the child] sees are not just remembered; they form a part of his soul.” – When we build a building, we lay the  foundations first  for the building not to collapse. Similarly, the child needs solid foundations in his childhood to ooze with self-confidence in his adulthood. If any brick of the foundations or of the overall structure isn’t solid enough, the adult may fail as not appropriately prepared to face life.

“Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the great possibilities of the future.” – We, by being young children’s educators, are responsible not just for them but also to them. Respect the child and the child respects you back. Prepare the child’s environment, introduce learning materials and stimulate the absorbent mind accordingly.

“But an adult, if he is to provide proper guidance, must always be calm and act slowly so that the child who is watching him can clearly see his action in all their particular.” – We set an example, we guide the child through his sensitive periods of auto-education (self-education). The child is in the centre of learning and we must never lose patience with him; we encourage and observe.

“It is the child who makes the man, and no man exists who was not made by the child he once was.” – We very often meet people who behave as if they lost their sensitivity, as if they forgot the true meaning of the word “respect.” So often, too often – this behaviour defines a world of politics. “Has he/she ever been a child in his lifetime?” is a question we ask ourselves seeing absurdities and silliness of (inter)national governing bodies.

“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” – Education is about social and life skills, to which we’re coming back here and there. Seeing adults incapable of solving some problems is sad. Pods of desks at school promote project work aimed at extroverted students and introverted students are lost somewhere there, in a group. The essence of the individual approach towards students has been lost somewhere as well. Too many students in one classroom, too much material to cover, too many mixed-ability groups, too little time for the child’s individual and free expression. At home, parents help their kids do homework, not with the child but for the child. It’s counter-productive, it’s non-developmental. Taking this line of least resistance may result in creating feeble and dependent grown-ups, which we don’t want, do we?

And finally: “The greatness of the human personality begins at the hour of birth.” So, what you start with is what you develop with. Your enormous potential, once unlocked, develops. However, your greatness, started at birth, doesn’t finish at death. If you manage to inculcate the environment in which you live, work and function with the love for the ideas you cherish, then ideas outlive you. This is Maria Montessori’s case: her philosophy continues to thrive and educational institutions across the globe promote the child who always remains in the centre, as well as always close to nature because the link between the child and the environment  is simply natural.

So, holding Maria Montessori’s ideals in considerable respect, I found it right to light a candle at her grave situated just ten kilometres away from me. Oh, serendipity, sweet serendipity!