Friday, June 4, 2010

Cultivating Independence in Children

Now that I'm safely on the summer side of the school year, I have a bit more time to reflect on the end of the school year. I experienced one of my most memorable teaching moments of all time: I stood back while my third graders planned and executed their very own field trip.

First, they collected and developed ideas (just like we do in writing and research!) about where they wanted to go. They brainstormed lots of ideas, including going back to the Houston Arboretum or the zoo, to our pen pals' school across town, to Rice University, downtown Houston to see the "highest" and "lowest," etc.

Then ended up picking the latter option, and they set out to plan the entire trip. For example, they had to figured out how to get from our school to their first destination on the city bus. They also had to create an itinerary for the day, decide how much money to bring, debate between a picnic or a restaurant lunch, keep an ongoing "To Bring" list, and call the bus company to confirm the schedule.

During the field trip, they had to use a compass and a map to navigate the streets of downtown Houston, pay cashiers, ask security guards for directions, hold doors for people, and solve issues that came up along the way.

It was no small feat--for them or me. I had to stand back and let them take charge, even though it inevitably meant that the process was slower, less efficient, and more riddled with error. But it was in the slowness, the inefficiency, and the errors that the real learning took place. That's when the children really activated their critical thinking, made predictions, tested out ideas, demonstrated persistence, and collaborated with each other.

We missed the first bus, headed the wrong direction on McKinney street, and couldn't find the Smoothie King for our afternoon snack. But they had more fun on a field trip than they have ever had before. Because they planned it. Because they got their hands dirty in the creation and execution processes.

As teachers and parents in a fast-paced, drive-through society obsessed with the product at the expense of the process, it is so easy to do everything for children. It's faster. It's cleaner. It's more efficient. We've got things to do and places to go.

But, as Maria Montessori said so long ago, our children need to do for themselves. That's how they learn. That's also how they build true self-esteem--the kind of self-esteem that stays rooted in storms, not the kind of "Oh, you're so smart/pretty/amazing!" self-esteem that blows over as soon as someone expresses a contradictory opinion of them.

It's challenging, but it's possible. It takes time, mindfulness, and a commitment to truly cultivate independence in our children. But it can be done. It has to be done.

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Anonymous said...

Wow--that is so cool! Have you read NurtureShock? I just finished it and it had some very similar observations about how to praise children to create "real" self-esteem.

Aamba said...

I've been reading some on the blog

It's a very different philosophy from my mother's and my own instincts. She advocates allowing kids to discover things for themselves and not to be too overly coddled.

I know my parents coddled the heck out of me and I wonder if that contributed to me being a meek and nervous type.

Anyway, I aspire to parent with a more relaxed attitude like at that blog, but my desire is to never let my (future) children leave the house!

fresh365 said...

This is a great post Sara! Often times I think we just drag kids along and do things for them, but I love the idea of cultivating independence!

eeg said...

Reading this makes me happy for the future. Yes, it's more difficult to let children make their own choices (and mistakes), but the results are worth the patience and effort. In my class of 2 year olds we try our best to operate this way- even if it means pants sometimes end up backwards! :)
I applaud you for giving this so much thought! You are in the right profession.

Aimee said...

How did you get into Montessori teaching? I've just heard a little about it, but it sounds so appealing. I'm nearly done with an English BA-- would I have to start another 4-year degree from scratch?

lisa said...


Kids are capable of so much more than they are taught/allowed to do. This is what they need.

janetlansbury said...

Thank you for this valuable story. I blog about a child-rearing approach (taught to me by infant expert Magda Gerber) that encourages parents to begin cultivating their child's independence from the very beginning -- in infancy. When parents respect infants as competent, capable, unique individuals and allow them uninterrupted time (in between sleep, feedings, diapering and cuddles) to freely explore (and even problem-solve), they are amazed by their infant's capabilities. This is the cure for hoverers! And it brings tremendous joy.

Several Montessori teachers follow my blog, because Gerber's approach (which focuses on the first 2 years of life) is a wonderful 'lead-in' to Maria Montessori's philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Great idea. I will have my kids plan a summer field trip. looking forward to see it come together for them.

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