Teach Me to Do It Myself, Part Two: Creativity in a Montessori Environment

Smurfett recently posted a comment on my last blog post entitled, Montessori Child: Teach Me to Do It Myself. Below is her comment and question:

Perhaps you can help me w/ this concept. My friend is opposed to Montessori because she doesn’t like an adult telling the child how to use a tool. Her child is a toddler. So for example, when her child plays with a puzzle, she doesn’t want an adult showing this child how to solve a puzzle. Or when a child works with a tool, she doesn’t see why we need to show the child how to use the tool instead of just letting them “discover” it themselves. She wants the child to enjoy the process of discovery. When she puts it this way, I have a hard time refuting it even though I’m not comfortable with her logic.

This question deserves a dedicated blog post.  So here it is.

I’ve seen many discussions on the topic of the lack of creativity because of the guided environment presented in a Montessori classroom.  Much of the “guiding,” and teaching on the “proper,” use of materials, happens out of absolute necessity.  Some of the guiding happens due to the direct and indirect learning aims of the work itself.

Here are some examples.

Smurfette references a tool.  To your friend–tongue and cheek of course–I would ask this:  is a Sharpie marker a tool?  I recently had to teach my 9 and 7 year olds how to use one properly.  It was an honest mistake on both of our parts.  They had permission to use that specific tool.  But I never demonstrated how a Sharpie pen or marker could bleed through paper, right on to the dining room table.  I did make a mental note for next time I think I’m sharing a benign tool.

One thing I feel compelled to mention and highlight is how badly  my children felt about the permanent design they left on the table.  If I had given a quick three-period lesson on the best way to use a sharpie marker, their feelings would have been spared—along with the dining room table!   And I could have set my children up to succeed using the tool, rather than fail.  My son still hesitates to use Sharpie markers.  Thankfully, there are tools he can use in their place.  But my real concern is that he lost a little bit of trust in himself; he doesn’t “feel safe,” using them.

A child’s security and sense of independence in their work environment is a cornerstone of Montessori’s teachings.

In her question, Smurfette also mentioned what could be a very simple activity:  A puzzle.  For the purpose of this part of my reply and the general concept of creativity, I’ll focus on that type of an activity.

Here is one of the first questions that a Montessori teacher would ask when presenting any work or activity.

“What is the *purpose* or direct aims of the work and are there any indirect aims?”

In other words, what are ALL of the possible things a child could learn when working with the material.  And as a Montessori teacher, there is a second question that needs to be asked, depending on the needs of the specific child.  Montessori’s research teaches us to analyze if there is a particular part of the work that requires what Montessori defined as “Isolation of Difficulty,” (this site has a nice list of Montessori terminology and definitions).  At the toddler level, the concept of isolation of difficulty takes into consideration care of materials in general and in the environment (think Sharpie marker).  And specific to puzzles, lost and damaged puzzle pieces are a real heart breaker.  Furthermore, if difficulty is not isolated (meaning work is presented in the simplest steps possible), Montessori observed that children become frustrated and walk away from the work

Here’s a specific puzzle example very near and dear to my heart.

My niece came for a visit about a year and a half ago and found the puzzle map of Asia out on the floor in the corner of a room designated for “Work in Progress, Yet Not Quite Completed,” in our home.  Next to it were several pieces of colored construction paper punched out very carefully and thoughtfully into the the shapes of some of the countries, yet all of the pieces of the puzzle were intact in the puzzle frame.

She immediately picked up the map and turned it over, dumping all of the pieces out onto the floor.

That is the way you complete or work a puzzle, right?

Most Montessori teachers would agree–perhaps because we are the ones then tasked with putting that puzzle back together–that there are other, more directed ways to use Montessori puzzle maps.  Especially that particular puzzle map, which I gradually put back together over the course of the weekend (these are not easy maps to solve in a traditional puzzle sense, note that there are NOT guides of any type under each piece of the puzzle–the Asia map puzzle is pictured in this post).

That leads us back to question #1 and question #2 above.  The direct aim for the work that my then 5 year old son was completing was not completed by using the puzzle map the way we might put together a 1000 piece Ravensburger puzzle on a rainy Saturday.

But my niece didn’t know that.  Nor was she able to put the puzzle back together.  Furthermore, her attempts at trying to put the puzzle back together left her frustrated (this speaks to isolation of difficulty) and walking away after about one and a half minutes.  On her subsequent visits, she’s never asked about that puzzle map again.  She does, however, ask about other materials that she knows how to use because she has the confidence necessary to use the material successfully.

As for creativity while using a Montessori puzzle, that’s where I think it gets interesting.

Montessori’s research teaches us about 4 planes of development.  Simply stated, there are specific and unique psychological characteristics that can be observed within each of these 4 planes of development.

It has been my experience (albeit limited), that during each of the 4 planes of development, children exercise creativity in different ways.

For my then 5 year old son, within his specific plane of development, he chose to label the name of the continent using his “signature,” “animal lettering,” utilizing animals that are found on the continent of Asia.   The key was for me to direct him to meet the aims of the work, but not squash his creativity.

Two years later, I still think his animal letters are pretty creative.  But he still can’t put that puzzle together in one sitting if we were to dump it all out.  Neither can I:)  But when asked, he can recognize quite a few of the countries in Asia and even name a few of the capitals and recognize a few of the flags as well as a provide information about the many people and cultures found on the continent of Asia.   This is due to his creative use of the materials and his general thirst for knowledge.

My 9 year old is still using the puzzle maps as well, working with me to come up with creative ideas to utilize them as a tool for her more advanced studies.  Yesterday she pulled out the South America map and proclaimed that she wanted to study Chile.  She also wants to use some old crayons creatively but hasn’t been able to come up with a way to do this.  The answer for next week is a chilean rainstick, painted with melted crayons.  This activity is just something I’ll provide to get her moving in a forward direction next week.  From there, her own creativity will kick in as she researches the history of the Chilean Rainstick and other interesting facts about Chile.  And I’ll follow my child, wherever she leads me, guiding her along to facts and information pertinent to her interests and learning needs.

Interested in learning more about the direct and indirect aims of Montessori Puzzle maps?  You can receive a link to a free Montessori Geography Album by signing up for the mailing list on Living Montessori Now.

The album, written by Karen Tyler at Worldwide Montessori Online, will tell you about direct and indirect aims for using the puzzle maps along with other geography activities for 3-9 year olds.  In my opinion, many of the activities are creative all on their own.  But feel free to add your own creativity too, just like my son and daughter did and continue to do with our Montessori Asia Puzzle Map.


  1. Karen Higgins says:

    I really liked your explanations/rationale. It is hard for non-montessorians to ‘get’ the idea of setting a child up for success rather than failure by initially showing them how to use a piece of material correctly and then stepping back and letting them ‘discover’ for themselves. There are so many indirect aims to all of the Montessori apparatus that creativity is actually actively encouraged but in an indirect way.
    Thanks for this,
    Karen ( Montessori Lecturer)

  2. smurfett says:

    My friend could argue that you can let your kid “discover” that a sharpie bleeds through themselves. And the fact that it left a permanent mark on the table means that they will have learned that lesson really well. But, your explanation about feeling “safe” makes me pause. Would all children feel this way? Or is it that children who are taught this way feel bad about causing “damage”, whereas other chilren wouldn’t (I’m thinking a child in a art-based preschool who’s allowed to just do whatever they want as long as it’s not dangerous).

    Another friend explained it to me thus: a teacher can show you concepts, but it’s for to you to actually “get it”. So there’s nothing wrong w/ the showing part. I liked her explanation and it makes sense to me.

  3. Great explanation of the need to properly present materials, which ultimately encourages many creative extensions. I love reading about your children’s work. They sound like wonderful Montessori children! Thanks so much for linking to my blog! 🙂


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