To “Follow the Child”–it’s one of those Montessori phrases we throw around, but what does it really mean? In the 0-6 age group, following the child typically means observing the child in the classroom and using their interests and level of ability as a guide.
This may influence what work is presented to the child and when. For instance, a teacher who notices when the child has mastered the cylinder blocks will then present the knobless cylinders. If a child needs to improve their fine motor skills, we will make several materials available that use fine motor skills.
Following the child is one place where Montessori differs considerably from traditional education. Rather than following a strict curriculum, where every child learns the same things every day, we use a more flexible approach. If there are 20 children in a classroom, there may be 20 different paths being followed in terms of order and repetition of presentations.
What accounts for this difference in philosophy? In Montessori, we believe that the child instinctively knows what he or she needs to do. In my experience, I have seen this proven over and over again. A child will try a job, struggle with it, then return to it (sometimes dozens of times) in order to master it. All this without the interference of a teacher.
“Follow the child” does not mean let the child do what he wants. It is simply an acknowledgment that the child has his or her own pattern – that we need to take into account where the child is at, rather than impose our idea of what the child should learn now. This is an important point, and a primary reason why observation is so crucial in Montessori. Since each child has their own development timetable, we can’t know where they are at if we are not constantly observing them.