Why are my child’s shoes on the wrong feet?

This is a common question in any Montessori toddler or preschool classroom. It often comes at pick up time, when families express concern that their child’s teachers may have incorrectly put on their child’s shoes out of a lack of concern or care. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The foundation of Montessori education is based upon one simple call that the child sends to the adult world: “Help me to do it myself.” It took Maria Montessori, a revolutionary educator, to hear this call, and develop it into education system focused on the natural development of the child.

In the early years of development, children demonstrate an amazing propensity to “do it myself.” Through immense effort, the infant first masters the art of crawling, and then walking. The infant must take these first wobbly steps for themselves, which are also their first steps towards independence.

In a Montessori environment, once the infant has mastered the art of walking, they are welcomed to the Montessori toddler classroom. Within this setting, the toddler is presented with the challenges of toilet training, learning to dress and undress, to prepare food, eat in a community, and take turns.

Through repetition and practice, the toddler develops these practical life skills, which are a constant theme in the Montessori environment. While these undertakings may seem adorable to onlookers, it is also a profoundly moving stage in the child’s development, where they master the skills of independence, self-care, and awareness of others.

Learning to put shoes on the correct feet is an important part of learning to be independent and self-sufficient. This is a huge task for a two to six-year-old child, who may take weeks, if not months, to master the concept.

The ultimate achievement of this task may be accompanied by tears, giving up, tantrums, trying again, perseverance, and eventually success. However, these stages of problem-solving often happen unobserved.

For this reason, it is easy for adults to simply see that the “shoe is on the wrong foot,” as opposed to the immense learning process that went into the outcome. This is often why parents step in to “correct” the mistake, and put their child’s shoes on for them. In effect, deflating their child’s new-found sense of accomplishment.

By taking away a child’s ability to “help me to do it myself,” parents are infantilising their children, and failing to acknowledge their budding self-care and problem-solving skills. While this is a simple example, it establishes a pattern, where parents take on responsibilities for their child.

This can be seen when parents clean up after their children when they are capable, complete their child’s homework instead of helping, and finish their child’s sentences instead of waiting for them to get the words out.

By anticipating children’s needs, we as educators, parents, and role models, are not serving them. In fact, we are hindering their development. As Doctor Maria Montessori states: “Needless help is an actual hindrance to the development of natural force.”

To support and protect children’s independence and self-agency, we must create an environment that is focused on the learning process, not the outcome. We should not “correct” children’s mistakes by doing things for them.

Instead, we should encourage them to make mistakes, and learn from them.

By empowering children with the appropriate support tools, time, and patience, we encourage them to become capable learners and problem solvers. By allowing children to “help me to do it myself,” we are fully supporting their education, not only with our words, but with our actions. This is what it truly means to talk the Montessori talk, and walk the Montessori walk.

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