"If teaching is to be effective with young children, it must assist them to advance on the way to independence. It must initiate them into those kinds of activities which they can perform themselves and which keep them from being a burden to others because of their inabilities. We must help them to learn how to walk without assistance, to run, to go up and down stairs, to pick up fallen objects, to dress and undress, to wash themselves, to express their needs in a way that is clearly understood, and to attempt to satisfy their desires through their own efforts. All this is part of an education for independence."
Maria Montessori – The Discovery of the Child pg. 57
The development of Human Independence is often difficult to study. As compared to plant and animal life where species develop almost independently from birth, humans are born helpless and require constant nourishment and care. This intense dependence creates a strong bond between the child and primary caregiver and this emotional enmeshment forms a basis for all future social, intellectual and environmental interactions. But, from the moment a child is "weaned" or, when his means for "subsistence" is greatly multiplied, it is clear that a child begins to have choice. As the child's world expands – not just with his newfound choices in nourishment but in all aspects of his life, many parents experience a new rubbing point. Without becoming aware of or adapting to this new expression of independence many parents become frustrated with their now "strong-willed" child. It is at this point that a parent is most successful when they pull back and begin the process of truly observing the child, "what is it that he wants," "what is it in this environment that is keeping him from naturally filling a need, " or better, "how can I break down the steps of what the child is trying to do and provide experience with this task in his own environment." This kind of observation is what Montessori teachers do; simply put, we watch your child.
Children are hard wired to construct their own life. They enter this world with all of the brain cells necessary to develop the knowledge and skills they need to survive and they do this by interaction and experience with their environment. Because the brain is the ultimate economist, at a certain point in the child's development, the unused, unnecessary brain cells begin to slough off to make room for stronger neural connections for the information and skills that are deemed necessary for survival. During the point of initial exposure, the child is curious and seeks interaction – Maria Montessori called this period of intense desire and curiosity – the "Sensitive Period." If unnoticed, and left unstimulated, the child stops seeking exposure, becomes disinterested and moves on.
This scenario is most commonly observed as we watch the child learning to eat. During the feeding process, the very young child wants to hold his own spoon and will often take the utensil from his caregiver and begin to attempt moving the food from the bowl to his mouth. Because this process is not yet refined, and can actually only become so with practice, it is initially very inefficient and messy. As the parent desires for the child to eat and become full so that they won't be hungry or have sleep interruption, many parents decide, at this point, to focus on continuing to feed the child. While this may be the most efficient way to feed the child, it doesn't really solve the problem. In the long run the child looses interest in feeding himself and may even begin to loose interest in food and move on to experimenting with other forms of independence such as throwing food or dropping the spoon, etc. If the child is led to believe that they are not capable of doing a task on their own, they abandon the attempt and move on to try to find other expressions of independence.
Although it requires patience, the child benefits when parents realize that the child must have exposure to and experience with almost everything in their environment. When a safe, accessible, easily understood environment is provided, a child can, for the most part, experience a surprising amount of independence and accomplishment. By setting them up for successful learning on their own, we have provided the child with the opportunity to make the "strong" neural connections necessary to survive. As a child struggles to put their own coat on, or to take their own coat off and hang it up, they are actually learning how to order their mind to take in more advanced information. As they watch others around them becoming independent, they desire to experience this for themselves. It is in these moments of trial and error, that the child begins to reveal himself. As they are shown how to do something, provided with support, and allowed to struggle a bit, the child learns that this world is here for them to experience at its fullest.