Primary 3-6: What About Socialization?

One of the major criticisms of Montessori preschool – one I’ve heard dozens of times – is that it doesn’t allow for enough social interaction because of the nature of individual work. Is this true? And more than that, if Montessori doesn’t allow for much social interaction between children, is this a negative or damaging thing? Let’s explore it a little more closely.

At this age, a child is changing, growing, and learning at a rapid, sometimes astonishing, pace. Every part of the child’s life is affected: social, emotional, physical, and intellectual. However (and this is key), the Montessori method addresses those changes differently than traditional education does. It’s important to elaborate on those differences, so that we keep the “Montessori mindset” as we observe the children in our care.

What is socialization? Is it when children talk or play with each other? Or is there something more to it? Here’s a common definition of socialization:

“The process whereby individuals are made aware of the behavior that others expect of them as regards the norms, values and culture of their society. Agents of socialization include the family, school, friendship groups, religious institutions and the mass media.”

Ah, so socialization is a process that includes many different experiences over a long period of time. It’s the development of consideration for the needs of the entire community. Playing with other children is just a small part of socialization – and a classroom of similarly-aged kids might not always be the best place for kids to learn the norms, values, and culture of our society.

If you peruse general information on social development in the 3-6 child, you’ll most likely come across a list like this one:

Social Development in the Preschool Age Child

* invents games with simple rules
* still confuses fantasy with reality
* has learned to share, but doesn’t always want to
* expresses anger and jealousy physically
* is not emotionally ready for competition
* often excludes other children in play; often plays alone
* sometimes can be very bossy
* likes to make own decisions
* prefers company of one or two children at a time
* begins to have a very basic understanding of right and wrong
* plays contentedly and independently without constant supervision
* understands and respects rules – often asks permission
* enjoys both giving and receiving
* sometimes needs to get away and be alone

The above list is one I compiled from several different traditional, non-Montessori sources. What stands out here? Why, it seems as though the 3-6 Montessori classroom, with mostly independent work, is actually the perfect place for a child of this age. Children this age are not ready to compete, and often prefer to work alone or with one other child. Sharing is still something that takes a great deal of effort, and there’s still that “let me do it!” toddler-style independence that seeks autonomy in both decision making and actions.

There’s so much going on in a 3-6 classroom that is just below the surface. A knowledgeable observer (teacher, parent) will be able to recognize things like concentration and work diligently not to interrupt a child who is concentrating. It may appear as though they are isolating themselves from the group (or that they are indeed anti-social), but that is not the case. They are developing the ability to concentrate on work, and are actually creating their personhood as they work. This creation is a task suited almost entirely to independent work.

There is definitely socialization in a Montessori classroom, but it takes forms that are different from what people are used to seeing. For instance, there will be a great emphasis on community, and on things that children can do to serve the community. A child may take a work off the shelf, complete it, and put it back neatly without ever speaking to another child or adult – but socialization has taken place! How is this possible? The child, in putting the work back correctly, has shown care for the other members of the classroom. Their needs have been taken into account by the considerate actions of the child.

Montessori classrooms have different kinds of periods throughout the day, just as most schools do. During worktime, the emphasis may not be on child/child interaction, but there are other times when this occurs naturally. For instance, children may take a break from independent work to have a snack with a friend. At line time they will become familiar with group dynamics, and at lunch or recess they will have chances to talk, play games, and otherwise engage with other children.

Generally, when people decry the lack of child interaction (playing, really) in a Montessori classroom, it is because they do not yet actually understand what is taking place – they only see what seems to be missing. These conversations can be “teachable moments” for other adults as they begin to learn about how a child’s character is developed and strengthened through independent work.

As educators, we should always be observing the social interaction between children. We will commonly see children pass through different phases: for a few months, a child may work completely alone, and then suddenly want a work partner every day. Children generally know what they need, and we show them great respect by honoring their choices and not forcing them to do something that they don’t want to do. A Montessori school, with its perfectly prepared environment, is the ideal place for a child to develop their own self – which they can share with others at different times and in different ways.

If a child seems unable to interact with anyone in any situation, that should be a signal to parents and teachers that some intervention or therapy is necessary. Otherwise, there can be much freedom in allowing child to decide their own level of social participation in the classroom. Some children are naturally more social than others. In other cases, special situations (being new to the classroom, or family issues like a move or a new baby) can cause changes in a child’s social development. It’s important that regardless of a child’s natural gregariousness, everyone feels welcomed and valued in the community.