Updated: Jan 2
The idea of freedom and limits is fundamental to the Montessori philosophy but is often misunderstood. Some people hear this phrase and think the children are free to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Others hear about it and think that Montessori is too rigid. Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of freedom and limits and what it looks like in a Montessori environment.
What Does Freedom and Limits Mean?
What do we mean by “freedom”? Freedom in a Montessori environment most often refers to freedom of choice. From birth, children are offered the opportunity to make choices for themselves. Having the ability to choose offers the child a sense of respect and responsibility and also builds autonomy and self awareness. We can often see a reduction in tantrums or power struggles just by offering the child a simple choice between two options.
The other major freedom found in a Montessori environment is the freedom of movement. Children in a Montessori classroom are given the opportunity to move about the environment, rather than being limited to sitting at a desk all day. A child may decide to stand, work at a rug on the floor, or sit at a table to do their work. They may take a stroll around the room to observe their friends, or get up and get a drink of water or a snack as needed. Humans are designed to move and we believe this freedom of movement is meeting a fundamental human need.
However, all freedoms have a limit. In order for humans to feel safe and secure, they must understand the boundaries of whatever situation they are in. Would you feel safe driving your car through the city if there were no stop lights or turn signals? Imagine driving over a tall bridge with no guard rails. Those stop lights and guard rails provide a boundary that allows us to feel safe. Clear, consistent limits offer this same sense of security and safety to children. Only when someone feels safe and secure, are their minds truly free to explore and make choices.
Freedom and Limits in the Montessori Environment
When it comes to freedom of choice, we create the limit by only offering choices that we are ok with. For example, in a primary or elementary class, the children are free to choose any material in the classroom with which they have had a lesson. The freedom is choice, the limit is that they must choose from the materials they have had a lesson on. The role of the adult in this situation is to hold this boundary. The adult will also be observing closely and may have to tweak a specific child’s freedom and limits depending on those observations. For example, a child who struggles to make appropriate choices, may temporarily have this freedom reduced. As the child builds up their capacity to make appropriate choices, they may be offered more specific choices to choose from ("Would you like to work with the pink tower or the table washing work?").
When it comes to freedom of movement, the child is free to move about the classroom but they must do so safely and in a way that does not disturb others. In most Montessori communities, this means that the limit is that everyone must walk (rather than run) and they may not touch or disturb other’s work unless invited to do so. If a child is running around the room, they may temporarily lose that freedom and be asked to hold someone’s hand or practice walking. If a child chooses to sit near a friend but is constantly interrupting and touching their work, they may be asked to work somewhere else.
Freedom and Limits at Home
Creating freedom with limits is just as important at home. Many parents already have limits in place but may struggle to offer choices or to keep the limits consistent. Think about ways in which you can incorporate limited choice with your child. Before setting a boundary, be sure that it is one that you and any other adults in the household can stick to. Another thing to keep in mind is to only offer options that you are ok with. For example, do not offer a choice between an apple and a cookie for snack if you only want your child to have the apple. Instead, the choice could be something like, "Would you like to eat your apple whole or sliced?". Toddlers and young primary children will have more limited choices, often between two options. As children get older, they can be offered more options. If freedom and limits have been consistent, they may even begin to initiate appropriate decision making on their own.
How might you implement freedom and limits in your household?