What does it mean to be free?

In my last post I talked about the different ideas or abstractions we each hold related to the ideas of “freedom” and “discipline,” and how these directly affect our interactions with children and our view of education and/or parenting.  In this post I want to elaborate a bit further on what the Montessori idea of freedom is, then briefly touch on how it’s related to discipline; in my next post, I’ll place the emphasis on the Montessori idea of discipline and how its foundation is freedom.

Let me start by stating emphatically what the Montessori idea of freedom is not: freedom is not simply letting any child at any time do whatever he or she wants.

I’m going to quote at length here Maria Montessori herself, because she says it so much better than I could.  Then I’ll try to explain it a bit and provide some examples.

“Freedom is understood [by most institutions] in a very elementary fashion, as an immediate release from oppressive bonds; as a cessation of corrections and of submission to authority.  This conception is plainly negative, that is to say, it means only the elimination of coercion.  From this comes, often enough, a very simply ‘reaction’: a disorderly pouring out of impulses no longer controlled because they were previously controlled by the adult’s will.  ‘To let the child do as he likes,’ when he has not yet developed any powers of control, is to betray the idea of freedom.

The result is children who are disorderly because order had been arbitrarily imposed upon them, children lazy because previously forced to work, children disobedient because their obedience had been enforced.

Real freedom, instead, is a consequence of development; it is the development of latent guides, aided by education.  Development is active.  It is the construction of the personality, reached by effort and one’s own experiences; it is the long road, which every child must travel to attain maturity.” – The Absorbent Mind, pg 185

In other words, real freedom is not simply being able to do whatever one wants at any given moment, whether that be throwing a tantrum or murdering someone without consequences.  Real freedom is being master of one’s self, understanding the balance between acting on one’s good impulses yet also being able to inhibit them at the appropriate time or for the good of others.  It is possessing one’s self, being self-aware and self-controlled, not because you are being imposed upon from without, but because you have truly come to understand what is good for you and what will aid your development, and you have the self-mastery to be able to choose and act upon those things.

To put it another way: freedom is the ability to see, know, love, and choose the good.

And this kind of freedom is HIGHLY ordered and HIGHLY structured and HIGHLY disciplined.  Remember the images of different ideas of “freedom” I put in my last post: freedom of the girl at the party, of the kids making a mess in the living room…. well, the image of freedom that fits the Montessori ideal would be this one:

This bee is free – free actually, to do what he wants, and freely doing it.  What he wants is to do what bees do, which is a highly structured and disciplined process!  The process of a bee pollinating a flower is complex and intricate, but this structure and “discipline”, if you will, does not get in the way of the bee’s happiness.  It is the bee’s happiness; the bee is free to be itself.

If you saw a bee that was flying all over the place, from flower to flower or plant to plant, never stopping long, looking rather sporadic, you wouldn’t think “Now THAT is a truly free bee!”  You would think, “Geez, something is wrong with that bee… I wonder if it is sick?  I wonder if something is wrong with the plants that is making it act that way?”

Maria Montessori believed it was the same with children.  A child who was mean, or selfish, or lacked self-control, or was wild, was not a free child.  This was a deviated child, a child who had encountered some kind of obstacle in the path of his normal development.  She observed that children who were allowed to grow in accord with the natural laws of their development were in fact calm, ordered, peaceful, and able to concentrate for long, long periods of time.  She called these “normalized” children – children who had developed normally.  In fact, she called this the “true child” and claimed that we had so many prejudices and misconstrued ideas about children because most of our experiences of children were experiences of deviated children.

So in order for a child to become “normalized,” that is, on the normal path to development, we have to understand exactly what IS the normal developmental path for a child and create an environment that fulfills these natural needs of the child.   This is the other meaning of “freedom” – freedom for the child to develop according to the natural laws behind his development.  Otherwise, the child encounters obstacles to his development that lead to all sorts of deviated behaviors… to go back to the example of the bee, most of our schools (and sometimes even our parenting) are the equivalent of locking the bee up in a mason jar during the most important developmental stages of its life.  Then, if we were to finally let it out – it would act crazy, because it would have never had the opportunity to develop into what it was supposed to be.  This is exactly like the child that we pin to a desk for the first 18 years of its life, forcing him to do exactly what he’s told by the adult and punishing him for any signs of rebellion, then release into the world and expect to be a productive and disciplined member of society.  It’s just not going to happen.

OK, so in the Children’s House (the name of the classroom for children ages 2.5-6), there are certain development laws that we must follow in order to create an environment in which the child can be free to develop normally and therefore, create self-discipline (details on that later):

  1. Freedom to choose their own work
    1. In the Montessori classroom, every child is free to choose their own work or activity, with only a few limits: 1) They can only choose a work they have been shown how to do (so it’s up to the teacher to guide the child to works that are developmentally appropriate for that child), and 2) They must use the work in the way it is meant to be used.
    2. So in other words, a three year old who has very little self-control or self-discipline may only be allowed to choose from two works, each of which have very few steps involved, whereas a 5 year old child who has already developed a lot of virtues of self-control and responsibility could have the entire classroom open to her.  As the three year old develops more capacity for self-control and self-discipline, his options expand.
    3. Either way – in the case of the 3 year old with only 2 options available or the 5 year old with every option available – it is still the child’s choice.  The teacher never forces the child to do a specific work.
    4. The child can also choose not to work, and as long as he or she is not being disruptive or destructive, this is fine.
  2. Freedom to move
    1. Young children have to MOVE – this is how they learn, how they experience their environment, how they develop self-control and fine and gross motor skills.
    2. In the Montessori classroom the children are free to move about the room, choose which location to work, whether at a table or on a rug on the ground.
    3. Also all of the works involve movement – however, this is not RANDOM movement, it is PURPOSEFUL movement, so while the children are fully living their developmentally appropriate need to move, they are doing so in a way that calls them to build unity between their mind and their body; they’re not running around with no control, instead they are pouring water and trying not to spill even a drop, or they are carrying a tray with multiple objects on it and trying to ensure that not a single one moves, or they are working with a math manipulative that involves walking from one side of the room to the other multiple times while holding a certain abstraction in their memory…. all of the movement in the Montessori classroom invites the children to develop coordination, self-control, self-awareness, and fine motor skills.
  3. Freedom to speak and express themselves
    1. Whereas in many school classrooms the children are only given specific times of the day when they can talk (recess or Center Time, for example), in the Montessori classroom they are allowed to talk throughout the day.
    2. The limits are those that are demanded by mutual respect for others: talking must be done in a quiet voice so as not to distract or disrupt others who are working; when someone else is speaking, we are listening; and all of our language must be appropriate, respectful, and kind.
  4. Freedom to work, uninterrupted, for as long as needed
    1. In a Montessori classroom we place a high value on what is called the “Uninterrupted Work Cycle” – this refers to a 3 hour period of uninterrupted work.
    2. This does NOT mean that each child must be working for 3 hours straight!
    3. What it means is that for 3 hours, there are no scheduled extra-curricular activities, no forced transitions, nothing that would cause the adult to hurry the child along.
    4. In many schools kids get 15 minutes at a time to complete work before moving on to the next thing (whether that be another subject, another class, another activity, or whatever).  Or think about home life, how often we are rushing our children along so we can get out the door in the morning or “hurry up and eat” or whatever!  The adult pace is VASTLY different than the child’s pace.
    5. In the Montessori classroom every morning is protected for 3 hours – during that 3 hours the children are free to choose their own work and work on it for as long as they need to.  I have seen children pick a work and stick with it for an hour, hour and a half until they complete it and feel like they have explored it as much as they need to.  This is the time when the children are really building their concentration, self-awareness, and connection with reality.

Alright I know this is getting really long so I’ll end it here.  In my next post I’ll talk more about how self-discipline in developed in this context, but hopefully you can already see how the freedom in the Montessori classroom is very different than a free-for-all, even though the children are indeed truly free and not imposed upon from without.  I can speak from experience how truly marvelous it is to see very young, previously “wild” children spontaneously and happily become calm, ordered, peaceful, and sweet when they are allowed the freedom to be themselves – to be their true selves, their selves that long for the dignity of real work, real responsibility, and free choice.


“Free choice is one of the highest of all the mental processes.  Only the child deeply aware of his need for practice and for the development of his spiritual life can really be said to choose freely.  It is not possible to speak of free choice when all kind of external stimuli attract a child at the same time and, having no will power, he responds to every call, passing restlessly from one thing to another.  This is one of the most important distinctions that the teacher must be able to make.  The child who cannot yet obey an interior guide is not that free being who sets out to follow the long and narrow path toward perfection.  He is still a slave to superficial sensations which leave him at the mercy of his environment.  His spirit bounces back and force like a ball.  Manhood is born within him when his soul becomes aware of itself, when he sets himself a task, finds his way and chooses.”  The Absorbent Mind, pg 246


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