Body & Mind

by Barbara Isaacs, Chief Education Officer, Montessori St Nicholas

Montessori was concerned with the health of the whole child, and early years settings would do well to follow a similar philosophy today, says Barbara Isaacsà ¢Ã¢ €š ¬ ¦

Looking through photographs and film footage of Montessori classrooms in the early 1920s, it is easy to identify a strong emphasis on childrens hygiene. There are rows of basins with children washing their faces, and others brushing their hair. This is far removed from what we understand by a Montessori favourable environment today, yet it is not surprising. Montessori, having trained as a doctor of medicine first, always had an eye on childrens health. Furthermore, she hoped that establishing habits of good hygiene in children would help to educate whole families, where conditions at home were not favourable.

In her first, Rome-based training course in 1913, she emphasised the importance of collecting data about the children attending nurseriesteachers were expected to not only record details about parents and their economic status, but to weigh and measure children at regular intervals too. These notes formed the basis of a recording system, to which teachers would later add details such as:

  • When does the child begin to show interest in activities?
  • What is she interested in?
  • How long does she stay engaged with the activity?
  • What is her level of perseverance?
  • Has the child engaged in the same activity several timesand how often?

Montessori recommends that we observe each child carefully to obtain answers to the above questions. Very early in her career she identified strong links between physical and psychological wellbeing. In other words, she recognised that it is important for the child to be well-nourished both physically and emotionally in order to thrive, develop and grow.


Promoting wellbeing

By physical wellbeing Montessori meant offering the child nutritious food, but also ensuring that she is not over-indulged. She also included the importance of movement. For her, this meant walking to nursery and learning by being activethat is having the time to learn to do things for oneself rather than being helped by well-meaning adults. She could see also the benefits of physical competence in supporting emotional wellbeing, as the childs self-esteem and capacity to embrace challenge grew with every achievement.

Psychological wellbeing is promoted in Montessori nurseries by giving children time and freedom to become autonomous individuals, and support from sensitive, attentive adults. Montessori acknowledges that this autonomy requires practitioners to respect childrens efforts, and encourage them to trust in their abilities. We demonstrate our trust and respect for children by giving them opportunities to repeat activities and gradually grow in competence through a series of attempts that dont always end in a perfect outcome. In other words, our focus needs to be on the process rather than the result. The process will develop physical skills as well as give opportunities for growing engagement, involvement, problem solving and creative thinkingthe very qualities of effective early learning described by the EYFS. We must believe in the childs capacity to develop these characteristics, and remember that the development will not be uniform.

I am convinced that many of Montessoris ideas in this sphere remain relevant and, to some extent, are at the forefront of our work with young children today. Maslows (1943/1954) hierarchy of needs highlights the relationship between physical and psychological experiences, and their interdependence as we progress towards the goal of self-actualisation. We also know from our daily work that if children feel unhappy, it is very unlikely that they will benefit from their day at nursery.

Here, effective communication between family and setting can have a significant impact on the childs learning and developmentthe child is not an island; her health is closely linked with the economic, social and cultural aspects of her family, and the community in which she lives. Bronfenbremmers ecological theory of human development (1979) is a very useful tool for nursery practitioners considering all aspects of the childs healthand it is particularly relevant at times of international and national disasters, and during family difficulties.

MCI offers distance learning Level 3 & 4 Diplomas.

This article first appeared in  Teach Early Years magazine