I had an interesting discussion with a nanny at the playground after school one day earlier this week. The weather was beautiful and as a result, my boys had pretty much thrown their lunch boxes on the floor inside the door, turned on their heels, and ran directly back outside, making a beeline for the playground down the street. A long time after we had arrived, the nanny brought the three kids she has looked after for the past few years (we have had many, many discussions as a result) and as she sat down on the wall next to me, she lamented over how they would have made it outside much earlier had the kids not had so much homework. She went on to say that the youngest (a spunky four-year-old who gets along so nicely with Emil) had pages and pages of it! I think my eyebrows raised in shock, but I smiled knowingly, even though it was all an act. Emil has no homework. And neither do Milo or Oliver. And I’m so, so relieved.
When Milo attended public school for kindergarten, he used to come home at the beginning of each week with a big packet of worksheets, all stapled together, to be completed for the following Monday. He had all week to work on it, and at first didn’t seem to mind. He would do all the worksheets at once, usually the day after he received them. But as time wore on, he started to fret and complain about it. And he brought to our attention, on more than one occasion, that the packets were sometimes repeats of previous weeks… as in, the exact same packet of worksheets. At the time, we just encouraged him to complete them anyway, to get through the busywork so he could move on to what he wanted to do. But as we moved forward throughout the school year, we found ourselves really struggling to support the homework policy. Doing the packet of work seemed like checking a bunch of boxes, or coloring within the lines of a drawing sheet over and over again. It seemed to me that we were training our kindergartener for a lifetime of drudgery, of unquestioning, boring, uncreative, uninspiring busywork. I began to realize that this is why kids sometimes dread going to school. And to top it all off, what Milo really wanted to be doing at the time was read, a skill he had recently grasped and wanted to spend every extra moment perfecting. To be taking him away from learning, real actual learning, to complete a bunch of worksheets, just killed something inside of me. It seemed so backwards. It was one of the reasons we really started to question the status quo of public school learning.
There is within every human being a deep and unrelenting desire and need to learn. We are born with it; we cannot escape it even if we try. We learn to crawl, to walk, to speak the language that is spoken around us. We learn to read the facial expressions of people around us. We learn how to dress and feed ourselves. We learn to leave bees alone once they sting us once. We learn how to carry a glass of water without spilling it. We learn, without trying, because we are curious, because we are human.
There is typically no homework for the Montessori child. The reasons are many, but mainly this: Dr. Montessori believed that if we do not dictate the work of a child in class, then it does not make sense to dictate the work they choose at home. Montessorians understand that children spend all day in the classroom learning, and they need their afternoons and evenings to “pursue their personal interests, interact with their families, and relax” (read more here). It is during this after-school time when children can breathe a sigh of relief and just be home. Imagine how you feel, if you work outside the home, when you open your front door and step inside. If you have more work to come home to, there might be that feeling of dread, or that the work day is still not over. But if you step inside knowing there is no more work looming over your head, you feel that sense of relief that you are home, you can relax, you can just be. Children need that feeling, too!
And something happens when we give our children the freedom to choose how they spend their time after school. There will be days when my boys all come home tired and choose to go to their own separate spaces: one with a book on the couch, another building with legos or magnatiles on the floor, and the other doing origami at the kitchen table. Other days, they tear around the back yard together, leaping and running, or playing frisbee or soccer together. Then they move on to something else, like playing store together and creating their own paper money which resembles real money, counting and exchanging and buying things from each other. All of these things they choose to do they are actively engaged in and learning from, because they have chosen it themselves. And it is a miraculous thing to watch unfold.
Also? They do homework. They get out pieces of paper and write out math problems for themselves to solve. They challenge each other to solve the other one’s math problem! Milo helps Oliver when he gets stuck on a problem. I kid you not, they love to learn. All children do. I have also heard of older Montessori students asking for homework if a particular subject or lesson has caught their interest — and in this case, of course I love the idea of them focusing their attention on the subject just because they are enthusiastic about it. I am so completely and totally in love with this Montessori method, and to have opened my mind to a different way of learning. I have learned so much about trusting my children and their natural capacity to develop as, well, humans. It is just a marvelous thing.