“Follow the child, but follow the child as his leader.” —Maria Montessori

As an adult who is parenting, grand-parenting or caregiving, it can be confusing to hear the recommendation, “Follow the child …” We’ve been led to believe we must be “the responsible adult in charge” of the child throughout their days. But that mindset really means we often lead based on our own needs.

It was Dr. Montessori who spent years observing the child, making discoveries about the child’s natural development that we all can benefit from greatly to this day. Following her practices and insights, we’ve learned that observation gives us the best understanding of the child’s needs and abilities. By doing so, we can better prepare ourselves and our environments to meet their needs. Therefore, following really begins with observing.

Maria Montessori was a scientist and physician. Because of her professional training, she conceived and based her discoveries on her countless hours of observation. With this, the Montessori pedagogical approach to educating the child was founded. Importantly, observation led Dr. Montessori to a greater understanding of the child’s skills, interests and challenges. 

As examples, below are few ways to look and listen for clues: 

First, imagine an infant’s cry. Whether soft or piercing, it serves as an alert. As the infant signals a need for attention, it’s up to the adult to determine the cause of the cry. Is the infant is soiled, wet, hungry, tired or perhaps in need of cuddling?

Initially, there may be some trial and error in play. Sometimes, a diaper can be changed unnecessarily or food prepared only to find there’s no interest in eating. But observe long enough and the reasons for the infant’s cry will become more obvious. With this awareness, confusion will lessen and a much welcomed clarity will take its place.

Next, learning to roll over as an infant takes practice. During their first attempts, rolling involves strength and determination. A little struggle is necessary and helps to build core muscles. In the meantime, propping or assisting the infant can impede their natural development. As tempting as it is to help the child, it’s most important is to simply observe nearby. Of course, we must be mindful of the child’s safety. But allowing the child time and space to practice pulling up, grasping at objects or beginning to crawl is most important of all.

The infant is guided by innate urges that instinctively encourage exploration and absorption of all that is in the environment. When they are happy, focused and engaged in something, do not interfere or interrupt (unless there is a safety concern). It’s during this activity that the most meaningful development, learning and self-construction is taking place.

Be prepared to follow … and lead.

When the child is free to safely explore a thoughtfully prepared environment and developmentally appropriate materials, the adult, through observation, will gain tremendous insights. In turn, these observations give the adult the information they need to follow the child’s lead and support their growth. And with this information gathered, the adult will be able to confidently prepare for and guide them to their next appropriate learning opportunity. In other words, “follow the child, but follow the child as their leader.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.