What are freedom and limits in Toddler Montessori classrooms and education?

People often wonder how we keep our Montessori environments so peaceful given that there are like some-teen (sometimes more) toddlers sharing the same space and roaming around the room freely.

In the Montessori tradition, there is a lot of emphasis on being respectful towards other people (child or adult), and yet a lot of emphasis on the individuality and the freedom of the child.   How on earth do we achieve a functional balance between the two?  Using this concept and experience called “freedom within limits”.

Limits are a construct that is a hallmark of what makes Montessori education so effective.  Limits could be defined (most simply, for the uninitiated and unfamiliar) as a set of agreed upon rules definitely for the children, and implicitly for all the people sharing a Montessori environment. (If the children aren’t allowed to yell, technically the adults also should not be yelling).

Whether you want to raise your children at home in the Montessori tradition, or send them to a program, it means there will always be a set of limits to follow.  Limits communicate what your behavior means to others.  Limits allow everything to continue flowing in a functional and purposeful way, as opposed to a dysfunctional and disruptive way.  Limits are what will keep everyone safe.  Limits are what will allow harmony to unfold and what will promote the good of the whole group of people sharing the environment together.

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WHY ARE LIMITS SUPER RELEVANT TO TODDLERS AND YOUNG CHILDREN, SPECIFICALLY?

To make this click, let me bring you into the reality of a toddler.  It’s basically this experience which I’m about to unfold for you.   Imagine if this was me, to make it as salient and empathetic as possible.

Imagine that I have arrived in this completely unfamiliar place.  I have no idea what anything in this place actually is, unless I happen to already have it in my home, or if I have directly encountered it before somewhere else.  The only other people I know in this place with any level of familiarity are my parents as I’m being walked in.   I don’t know or trust anyone else at this place.   I’m basically a foreigner in this group, in this unfamiliar location and culture I’ve never experienced before.  Suddenly, my  parents leave, for an indeterminate amount of time.    I have no idea when they’re coming back, or how long I’m about to be stuck in this experience.

If that doesn’t suck enough, turns out I have these glitches in your cognitive wherewithal and questionable control over your body and hands from time to time.  But  there are a few things I know I can for sure do with total competence… most of the time, anyway.  But what should I do in this place? Where are the bathrooms? When is the food coming out, and what is it like here? What if they use chopsticks and I suck at chopsticks?  Should I stand on a table and take a look around the room?  Should I pull my pants down and pee into the middle of circle time? Should I bite the rubber ends off of the stamps? (LOL, these are all things I have personally observed toddlers do!)

…………………………….

Could you imagine that?  Because that is pretty much exactly what it’s like being a toddler of about 18 months in a Montessori classroom for the first time ever.  Very limited skills, attention in and out, and minimal, minimal self-control.

………………………….

So now imagine for a moment that that there was no one or nothing around to establish any social limits or order within this foreign environment.  You would have no choice but to either watch others, or to just jump in and try things using trial and error.   If no one or nothing is there to guide the people as to what is optimal or ideal, and what is suboptimal, not OK, or dangerous, it’s pretty much guaranteed that there will be problems.

And that’s exactly why we have limits in a Montessori environment.  Because the children aren’t being controlled or herded by adults every second of every day in a Montessori toddler classroom.  When people become adults, there is no one else around controlling and monitoring our every move every second of every day.  That’s not what it means to be a functional adult on planet earth.   Being a functional, successful adult on planet earth means that despite a ton of freedom, you are capable of making good things happen for yourself, and for others you share your life spaces with.  If you can’t do that, there are social consequences or consequences for your own good.

THE ROLE OF LIMITS, AND WHY A CHILD WHO EXPERIENCES NO LIMITS WILL STRUGGLE

Limits basically exist as the “container” for what would otherwise be infinite freedom.  Freedom can be awesome, whereas freedom gone unchecked can be destructive in some instances.  Our goal using the Montessori method is to create as much freedom as possible within our environments for children to experience, without letting it spill over into “absurd”, “destructive”, or “failure” territory, if you will.  Let’s unpack this a little more.

Take the ocean, for example.  Even the very ocean of our earth has the shores of land as its limit.  But from shore to shore, the ocean is free to move however it desires, and do whatever it is an ocean does.  If the ocean ran beyond its borders (as in the case of a tsunami), it would, in this unchecked and overwhelming context, be considered a dangerous, worrisome, destructive force.

But it’s still the very same ocean that was designed to be the ocean.  The same ocean that gives us seafood, and where whales live, and which gives us waves to surf and swim in for fun.  It’s a matter of agreed upon borders of what is acceptable, safe, fun, functional, beneficial, and otherwise positive.

The same is true with freedoms and limits within the context of the Montessori method for raising and educating children.  There is nothing inherently wrong with giving children the complete freedom to be children.  It’s a matter of allowing them to reach every positive potential they show us they are capable of successfully reaching.  So long as what they’re doing is safe, constructive, productive, purposeful, functional, beneficial, and careful.  It’s about working within the classroom or the home to the benefit of both the individual and the group.

Limits for the group is important to consider because the child won’t be living in isolation their whole lives. Humans are designed to operate in relationship with others; and they will be expected to adapt to the cultural norms of the society in which they are raised.  So be it the classroom community at school, the family at home, or the local and global communities outside of the home in which we all live, the child is going to have to learn to live by agreed upon limits of their social environments.

This is why there are limits to every possible infinite freedom according to the Montessori method.  This is why we absolutely say “no”, and “that’s not happening in here”, “we’re not doing that right now”, “we don’t do that here”, “that’s not OK”, and “I know you really wish you could ______, but right now that’s not an option”.  Limits.  They matter.  They provide structure off of which the child can bounce and make productive decisions.

WHAT DO FREEDOMS AND LIMITS LOOK LIKE IN A MONTESSORI CLASSROOM?

An example of a freedom and limit in a Montessori classroom might be, “FREEDOM: You are free to eat food here when it is made available. LIMITS: If you want to eat here, we sit down at the table to eat, you can set a place for yourself at the table when you dine, and when you are finished, you are expected to clean up after yourself.  You may use flatware when it is appropriate to do so while feeding yourself; and if you want more of a particular food item, you may respond politely when you are served, or request more politely.  Someone will serve you, or you may be invited to serve yourself.  After you have cleared your place, you are expected to clean your hands and face.”

Without these limits, the possibilities of how and where to eat would be potentially infinite.  Should I walk around with food? Is it OK to  get up from the table and sitting back down over and over again, ad nauseum?  Do I leave all the things on the table when I’m done?  Will someone come around and magically clean it all up?  Where do I put the dirty dishes? Do they use silverware, hands, or chopsticks to eat here?  Do they pray, or wait for everyone before they eat here, or shall I just dive in?

OTHER DETAILS ON LIMITS:

~ They should promote safety, constructive/ productive realities, and allow others to coexist in shared spaces peacefully.

~ they should be clear and logical, and should not be arbitrarily created by the adults such that they make no sense in “the real world”.

~ whatever your limits are for your environment, you need to be consistent.

~ It’s possible to remind the children what the limits are without ever having to be punitive, harsh in tone, or mean-sounding.  A limit just “is the way it is”.  It’s not, “you’re a bad person if you dumped all the trash onto the bathroom floor; and if you’re going to litter the floor with trash I’m going to come get you in trouble”.  It’s more like, “the trash always goes in the trash can because we value a clean, beautiful, functional space here.  That’s just how it is here.”

~ The limits are typically location-contingent; but in general we try to give children limits from a Montessori classroom that will give them productive habits and encourage them to make choices that will be positive everywhere else they could possibly exist, from our classroom, to their next classrooms or schools,  to home, to the local community, to hopefully experiencing life globally.

~ If you’re doing an exceptional job at establishing limits, you will see them unfolding in the classroom by children who are able to express self-control and self-discipline.  People happily and freely choosing to follow limits when given every other allowable freedom is basically what peace looks like in action.  A cue that the limits are well-understood is that the children start to guide each other.

… and that is an intro to freedom and limits (:

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