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Montessori Secret Revealed: Making Mistakes is a Good Thing

How many times have you had the opportunity to try something new but were too afraid of failure?

And then a great opportunity is lost.

But who knows what could have happened if you had just tried? Yes, you might have made a mistake or two, or even failed completely.

BUT… you most certainly would have come out of it learning something new.

Mistakes are part of our everyday lives. Whether they are big mistakes or small ones, they all have one thing in common: they teach!

Mistakes are important for us to grow and develop. How will a child learn to perfect their balance if they don’t topple over a few times?

And yet we spend most of our time teaching children how NOT to make mistakes.

Erasing their errors, constantly correcting them.

Now, just close your eyes and imagine for a moment that from the age of 2 you were taught that not only is it okay to make a mistake, but making mistakes leads to new and exciting discoveries. Wouldn’t this have changed the way you see and experience the world?

Isn’t it sad that society sees failure as such a terrible thing and we are always protecting our children from making them. We are surrounded by mistake-proof products. The sippy cup that doesn’t spill, the snack bowl that will not allow a morsel to fall out, toys made of unbreakable plastic.

But this is not so in the Montessori classroom. Our environment is filled with real, natural materials and real experiences.

As Montessori guides, we strive to create a space where it is safe to make mistakes. We know that the materials carry in them the ‘control of error’ and the child’s error will be made obvious to them without any interference from an adult.

Think about it this way, we see a child building a tower, and as an adult we know that the blocks have been placed in such a way that in a few more minutes this tower is going to topple to the ground and the blocks will be scattered everywhere.

The traditional approach would be to interrupt the child, point out their mistake and correct them by showing them exactly what to do.

But on the flip side, the Montessori approach would be to observe without interference as the tower topples and the child tries over and over to get it just right.

This way, they learn what they did wrong and how to fix it. And if they don’t figure it out on their own, they know you are there to support and they can ask you for help.

That’s when we step in and ‘guide’ the child.

“Have you tried it this way?”

“What do you think will happen if you try this?”

Traditional classrooms are structured to prevent mistakes, whereas a Montessori classroom is designed in the exact opposite fashion. Dr. Montessori believed that mistakes are important because they allow the freedom to experiment, explore and discover.

So, then the question becomes ‘do I just not say anything when I see the child doing something wrong?’.

Keep this in mind – when you observe a child you will be able tell when they are doing something intentionally to disrupt or when it is part of their learning process.

For example, a child is purposely pouring water all over the tables and floors, making puddles and stomping in it – this would be intentional.  You will notice a lack of concentration during this act.

On the other hand, a child is doing a pouring activity and they overfill the jug till the water spills over into the tray and maybe onto the table too. You may have noticed a level of focus on the activity and perhaps they are testing the limits, what happens when I pour it all the way to the top?

In the first instance, the child is distracted. There is no concentration in the activity.  Whereas in the second instance, this child is truly focused in what they are doing, making new discoveries through their mistakes and learning something by doing this. The parent or teacher can then guide them on how to tidy.

We guide – not correct.

Have a look at this picture. I just taught my niece how to use a stapler.

Now this is a child who is always pushing the limits. She might have done it the way I showed her once or twice.

After that she went overboard stapling in the same spot over and over.  But just look at the expression on her face – pure joy, totally loving what she’s doing.

Now why would I want to interrupt that just to correct her.  At the end of her activity she realized that some of the pins fell out and having too many pins in one spot made it hard to open her card.

She noticed this by herself and when she later repeated this activity, she did it differently. If I stopped her, she would have missed learning something new.

When children are empowered to make mistakes and correct themselves, they will hopefully grow up to be adults who are not looking for guidance and approval from anyone else but themselves. They take pride in themselves when they get it right.

I once observed my four-year-old nephew carrying a tray with 2 bowls and a jug made of glass. The previous week he had accidentally dropped a glass bowl and it shattered. I watched him from across the room as he very slowly and carefully walked to the table. I was a little nervous too. When he finally made it to the table, he set the tray down very gently, let out a sigh of relief and his face suddenly glowed with an expression of self-satisfaction and immense pride in himself. He didn’t need anyone to tell him he did a good job… he knew he had.

Mistakes are a very powerful way to learn. Through them children grow to become confident, strong people who don’t back down from a challenge. This is because they trust themselves to have the answers. This is yet another amazing Montessori gift that we are giving our children – the ability to be fearless and believe in themselves.

We always talk about freedom in a Montessori environment, don’t we?

So, let me leave you with some beautiful words by Mahatma Gandhi:

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”

Jenny Amar

Master Trainer

Sunshine Teachers’ Training.

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