Joyfully Taking Care of Our Responsibilities: A Lesson I’ve Learned From My Preschool Students
“Indeed there are powers in the small child that are far greater than is generally realized.” (Maria Montessori)
Some of us find that our responsibilities feel like a heavy burden. Perhaps we need to reframe our responsibilities as privileges. What if, instead of saying, “I have to…”, we start that phrase with, “I get to..”. How lucky we are that we have things to care for, a home to clean, a loved one to assist, a friend to reach out to! We must look at our responsibilities as privileges, not mundane tasks to be completed over and over again.
Sometimes, I find this sort of reframing refreshing. It fills me with hope and purpose. Other times, I find this sort of reframing impossible. It’s usually impossible when I am tired, not feeling well or sad.
Luckily, I have wonderful co-workers who lift me up. If you don’t know about my co-workers, you should know that they are incredibly honest, sometimes rude, and sometimes very noisy. They tell me when I am wrong (with glee), and will definitely notice if my socks don’t match. My coworkers are a mixed age group of preschoolers and kindergarteners aged 2.5–6. I am an AMI certified Montessori teacher, working in a primary classroom.
If you are familiar with this age group, you would know that they are fastidious about order. Perhaps not about the order you have in mind, but the order they have in mind. They like things to be how they have always been. Materials, once in place, should always be returned to that place. Routine is very important. Knowing what comes next is very important. Routine gives young children a sense of security and orientation to their classroom community. (That’s why little ones get so upset if a beloved comfort animal goes missing, and why they enjoy being read the same story over and over!)
You may not think that young children can be joyful organizers and cleaners, but Maria Montessori knew otherwise. The founder and creator of the Montessori method, which is a developmental approach to school, based on a child’s natural instincts, knew that children have a strong sense of order. She also knew that they like using the tools and cleaning implements that they see their parents use. She believed that children should have the same cleaning supplies in their environments, albeit in a smaller size, so that they could be responsible for cleaning their classroom. She called this type of work practical life and it is one of the cornerstones of Montessori education.
In Montessori classrooms, children scrub, wash, pour, cut, peel, slice, wash windows, sweep, use tools, repair, sew, polish and care for plants and flowers. These activities are undertaken joyfully, and, generally, without any direction from the teacher. A child will receive an individual lesson on how to scrub a wooden table, and will then be able to do that whenever he likes or whenever he sees the need arise. Younger children (2–4) enjoy these activities just for the fun of it, but older children (4–6), will look at a table in the classroom, see that it is dirty, and take it upon themselves to clean it. They do this work joyfully, as a service to their classroom and their classmates, because they know that they are part of a community, and because they value the community of which they are a part.
This afternoon, in my classroom, one child noticed that some dishes and trays around the room were dirty. She proceeded to fill a bin with water and use soap and a scrubbing brush to clean them. She then noticed that the dustpans were quite dirty. As she scrubbed them, she exclaimed, “Why, this is the cleanest they’ve ever been! Look! Look at how clean this is! I am going to clean ALL the dirty things. Mrs. Carrillo, please find me more dirty things and I will clean them!”. This 5 year old girl clearly inspired her friends, because no sooner did they see her joy in cleaning dirty things, that they decided to clean too. One set up work to scrub a table that had something sticky on it. Another reached for a spray bottle to clean the chairs. Yet another began taking items off of shelves so she could dust and wash the shelves. Another child wet a cloth to wash the chalkboard. Pretty soon all of the children were assisting with cleaning, and doing so with pride. I overheard them say to one another, “The cleaners are supposed to come tonight, but they won’t have now.” “This is the cleanest classroom ever and WE’RE doing it.” “Tomorrow everyone who went home will see how clean this is.”
Their joy in their sense of responsibility was palpable. They knew they were doing important work. They knew they were helping their community of friends, those who were there and those who would be back tomorrow. They were excited to give the adults (the cleaners) a break from their hard work. They had reframed the task of cleaning as a privilege. They had recognized that responsibilities do not have to be burdens that drag us down, but rather, freedoms that lift us up. We are valuable. We are important. We are responsible.
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