My lifestyle this last year could be the envy of some and would probably horrify others.
Living closer to nature feeds my spirit. But so does feeding my physical being with a good dose of homesteading chores on our family’s Swiss Family Robinson-like lake cabin in the Adirondacks.
For seven weeks, I bathed in the lake, washed dishes with rain water, set mousetraps nightly, slept under a mosquito net, paddled a kayak and canoe, sailed on windy days, and played games at night. It’s not for everyone, but for my family, it’s one of our favorite places on earth.
I also spent enough time hauling seven-gallon water jugs, bags of laundry and groceries, and propane tanks up from our boat to the cabin, to reflect on chores existentially. I thought about how using “maximum effort” in doing purposeful chores benefits not only muscle, but brain and sensory development through resistance and movement in space.
I learned of the term maximum effort, from a wise Montessori toddler teacher. She explained that we develop a physical sense of where we are in space through experiences with our environment and the prepared Montessori environment nurtures all the senses.
As a seasoned guide of those 18 to 36 month olds, she regaled me with her observations of a child hauling one gallon water-filled milk bottles (dyed with a tint of green for interest) around the classroom for a morning, while another child sitting in a box was pushed across the floor by a friend and another wore a backpack laden with sandbags. I had to ask, why would children seek out such hard labor?
Moving heavy objects give children an opportunity to exert their maximum effort building greater coordination, concentration, and inner discipline.
The toddler seeks maximum effort unconsciously. Older children also need it, but it can take an undo amount of persuasion by an adult to get them to initiate it.
“As we observe children, we see the vitality of their spirit, the maximum effort put forth in all they do, the intuition, attention and focus they bring to all life’s events, and the sheer joy they experience in living.” (Dr. Maria Montessori, The Child, Society and the World p99)[
I have noticed however, that children of all ages think nothing of exerting great physical energy as long as they have a stake in it.
I remember my daughter looked forward to mucking out horse stalls; scooping and tossing horse stuff was a small price for her to pay as she was driven by her passionate interest in horses and a physical sense of satisfaction when the job was done.
That’s right: she’d work hard for horse poo.
I get it now. With my recently acquired muscly arms and increased confidence gained through a bit hard labor, I have to wonder if maximum effort continues to benefit us into adulthood.
There is something deeply satisfying in working really hard lifting or moving something heavy. Of breaking a sweat while completing a construction project. To know that others benefit from your sore muscles. Of feeling strong and capable.
Children must acquire that feeling too when they are exposed to opportunities to care for themselves, others, and their environment.
My weeks of living off grid gave me time to also reflect on Dr. Montessori’s thoughts on how exercises of modern living, chores once requiring more vigorous energy than using dishwashers and vacuum cleaners today, are imperative as steps to independence and self-regulation.
Montessori schools around the world prepare environments in which children freely choose to work with tools of daily living from the Practical Life curricula. In a typical day in an early childhood classroom visitors witness children sweeping, dusting, mopping, raking, washing, scrubbing, and more, in addition to children spontaneously returning their work materials back where they found them.
Parents touring my Montessori classroom would question, “How do you get the children to clean up after themselves?” My answer was always, “We don’t get them to, they choose to.”
The more complex and unabridged answer is that there is a fine balance of many elements at play in a Montessori classroom that entice children to clean including choice, interest, order, modeling by the adults, and developmental tendencies. This is in addition to children learning in environments specially prepared with the right child-sized tools and furniture. Ironically, one of the geniuses of Montessori is that a clean classroom is a secondary aim of the care of the environment curriculum while independence is the primary objective.
Montessori teachers give individual, short introductory lessons on how to take care of the environment including watering plants, raking leaves, and scrubbing tables. Lifting a heavy watering can and pouring with precision, pulling a rake and pushing a wheelbarrow, and pouring water from a heavy bucket into a basin are great ways to increase a child’s “maximum effort”. Chores further develop large motor coordination, and authentically nurture independence and self-awareness.
Dr. Montessori reminds us, “The child can develop fully by means of experience in his environment. We call such experiences ‘work’.” I have witnessed evident joy in young children in doing chores, but the older they are, the more resistant they seem to become.
By about age six or seven, many children begin to see chores as tedious and an unnecessary evil very much like the adults around them. But going back to my assertion about chores that require maximum effort, I contend that children and adults benefit from some physical toil in addition to the social responsibility of contributing to the upkeep of the environment.
This summer, my four nephews and niece ranging from 5 to 14 years of age, shared in the care of our family camp. I noticed it was the larger labor-intensive chores that the children would gravitate towards – moving boats, burying compost, and help with hauling that seemed to be less of a hardship while doing it than others.
Living without electricity or plumbing provides plenty of opportunities for appreciating modern conveniences. Washing linens in the lake, batting rugs on a line, and hand-washing dishes for a large family three times a day not only takes time away from playing, but is labor intensive! My sense though, is that the youngest family members took away a sense of genuine self-worth from their contributions.
I thought of when Dr. Montessori opened her first school, the Casa dei Bambini in 1907, she lent dignity to her underserved population by giving them the tools and know-how of how to care for themselves and their homes.
The vestiges of this legacy abound in Montessori classrooms around the world with lessons on hand washing using a pitcher and hand-washing basin, scrubbing cloths on a washboard and eventually hanging them to dry, hand washing real china plates and glasses, and sewing a button. The young child seeks out complex hard work and is intrinsically rewarded through these exercises.
Today, these exercises seem out of context and almost anachronistic as most families in developed countries wash their hands under a running faucet, use clothes washers if not dryers, eat off plastic and use a dishwasher, and replace clothing instead of repairing it.
Could it be that modern conveniences and approach have suppressed authentic opportunities for our children’s growth? Or is that the timeless genius of the Montessori method that has tapped into a key concept of building a robust neural network and harkens back to our ancestral cave-dwelling need to work our bodies as a condition necessary to our evolution?
-Tammy Oesting holds American Montessori Association certification at the 3-6, 6-9 and 9-12 levels and is coFounder with her husband Aaron Oesting of ClassrooMechanics, a professional development company for adults in Montessori environments. Check out their online on-demand assistants training course found at www.classroomechanics.com