Friday, June 24, 2016

Following the Child through Observation in the Montessori Environment

NAMC montessori following child through observation. smiling young girl

Since the teacher’s task was to free each child to learn, and since each child, responding to the inner laws of his own organism, had different needs and a different developmental timetable, the teacher could not function effectively without an awareness of the infinity of variations in child behavior. Under the Montessori rubric, the teacher incapable of observation could not teach.
—Rambusch, 1965

When I first read this, I was struck by the frankness of the message. Rather than putting observation on the back burner and attending to it when we found time, was Rambusch actually suggesting that we observe first? The simple answer is “yes.”

Observation in the Montessori Environment: How do we follow the child, if we don’t observe him first?

A NAMC student recently asked me for advice on how to encourage a child to work on math activities. She was having trouble helping him, as he refused to even go into the math area. I asked her tell me what she knew about the child’s interests and the choices he was making during the work period; she quickly told me that he was very interested in dinosaurs. I was happy to explain to her that based on her observations, we could find a solution. I suggested that she consider ways of incorporating the child’s interest into the math activities — creating dinosaur math. Together, we brainstormed a number of activities she could present: activities related to geologic age, size comparisons, measurement, graphing, and more — all focused on dinosaurs. Because the teacher had observed what captivated the child, she was able to use his fascination to expand his learning in an engaging way.

NAMC montessori following child through observation. boy playing with dinosaur figurines

“Wait,” you say. “There is no dinosaur material on the Montessori math shelves.” This is true. However, Montessori tells us that the teacher’s guidance and knowledge of the children is as valuable as the materials. “[We] must know how to call to the man which lies dormant within the soul of the child. I felt this, intuitively, and believed that not the didactic material but my voice which called to them, awakened the children, and encouraged them to use the didactic material, and through it, to educate themselves.” (Montessori, 1970)

By observing the interests of the children, we validate their strengths.

By seeing how and when they concentrate, we can reflect how best to attend to their needs and thus help them engage more fully with the environment. We verify what we already know about the child while making new discoveries along the way.

To observe it is necessary to be ‘trained’ and this is the true way of approach to science…. He who has been ‘trained’ to see, begins to feel interest, and such interest is the motive-power which creates the spirit of the scientist.
—Maria Montessori
The Child in the Family, p. 132.

Observations are not what we throw together at the end of the day. They must be the driving force that constructs all learning in the Montessori environment.

Works Cited
Montessori, Maria. The Child in the Family. Oxford: Clio Press, 1970.
Rambusch, Nancy. Introduction. In Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook. New York: Schocken Books, 1965

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Friday, June 24, 2016.


  1. This is pretty interesting and supports what I just learned in the Classroom Guide manual. In order to teach a child fully in any material we need to first observe what truly motivates them.

  2. My son demonstrates a strong interest in cars - I found it to be a fantastic way to incorporate his toy-cars in teaching him colours, counting, sorting, etc.


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