Last week I wrote a little about the self-proclaimed gender-neutral preschool in Stockholm, Egalia. There, the teachers make an effort to use gender-neutral pronouns and to help the children realize their capabilities in many areas. As a former Montessori teacher, as I read the article, I was a little surprised at the stir caused by this topic. For over 100 years, the Montessori method has been promoting gender equality without even trying.
Over 100 years ago, Dr. Maria Montessori, Italy’s first female physician, developed a method of education by working with “defective” children (her term, not mine). In institutions designed for children with special needs, Dr. Montessori observed them and designed a method of education to meet their needs. What started as something to do for a female physician who couldn’t find a job anywhere else has turned into a world-wide education movement that has benefited generations of children of all abilities across all socioeconomic classes. I could go on for hours about the magic that is Montessori, but today I’m going to focus my few hundred words on how Montessori education is gender neutral.
Because Dr. Montessori was first and foremost a scientist, she based her methods on hours of observation. What she learned is that all people, regardless of status or ability, have sensitive periods and human tendencies that guide development. She didn’t buy into the “children learn through play” theory of her contemporaries; rather, she realized that children learn through work.
Work? For 3 year olds? Yes. Real and purposeful work for 3 year olds. This translates into instead of playing with fake food in a pretend kitchen, Montessori had the children preparing real food for their peers to eat. Instead of dressing up dolls, the children learned the skills needed to dress themselves. Instead of building with a random set of blocks, children are shown different sets of blocks designed to focus on a particular attribute.
This approach lends itself to being gender neutral because the activities appeal to all children. The materials in the classroom are sequential, and each child moves through materials at her own pace. Most lessons are individual for the 3 and 4 year olds, and as the child matures, more group lessons are given. Children are drawn to activities that speak to them, not to activities that are dictated by a teacher. Since dramatic play is not a factor and free-form block building is not included in the curriculum, a lot of gender bias is automatically eliminated. Montessori materials are designed for a particular purpose, and once the child has a good grasp of the concept, she’s shown the next material in the sequence.
Every child is shown how to wash a table, how to wash a window, how to button a shirt. Every child is shown the geography puzzle maps and the land and water forms that illustrate geographical features such as lakes and islands. Every child is introduced to the alphabet phonetically and given the tools with which to write at an early age. Every child is prepared for mathematics by being introduced to the base-10 system first.
The Montessori materials are brightly colored and appealing – there’s the Pink Tower, the Red Rods, and the Brown Stair. Not once in 15 years of teaching did a boy tell me he didn’t want to do the pink tower because it was pink. Not once did a boy tell me he didn’t want to do flower arranging. Not once did a girl say no to hammering nails. They didn’t say no because the work was appealing and purposeful.
My daughter, who will be six soon, has spent the last three years in a Montessori classroom. She’s a girl who likes to play with dolls, who isn’t interested in sports, and who likes to wear dresses. I asked her if there was boy work and girl work at school, and she looked at me like I had two heads. “Well, is there any work that’s just for boys? Or work that’s just for girls?”
Her answer? “No, mom – the work is for all of us, we all use the same things.” Isn’t that a great way to start an education?