Recent reports in the press that children of working mother’s do not do as well as those whose mothers stay at home and look after them has prompted me to reflect on the Montessori approach to childcare. I know that there is a course for studying specifically about the child between the ages of zero and three and that this includes the idea of putting the baby in an ‘infant community.’ How does Montessori practice reconcile itself with the fact that the baby will not be with his mother?
Montessori put great emphasis on the relationship between the mother and child during the first six weeks. At this time the baby has just emerged from the safe environment of the mother’s womb into a new and strange world. He needs to get used to this new world and understand how things work in it. When he first detaches from the mother his only familiar points of reference are his own body, particularly his hands and his mouth and his mother. He needs to adapt to the different atmosphere outside of the womb. The light, the sounds, the temperature - everything is different. He needs to get used to a new routine where there are times and places to feed, times and places to look after hygiene, times and places to feed.
The mother is the one constant thing for him in the these first six weeks and only she can be his guide. He needs her for food and he needs her for security. Maria Montessori referred to this period of time as the symbiotic period since, at this time, the mother also needs the child. The suckling at the breast helps the mother’s body to return to normal after the birth. So, at this time in particular, Montessori does not advocate that the mother and child are separated at all. Montessori said that the first three years of life are the most important in a human beings life. It is at this time that the child’s character is being formed. By the time the child has reached three he has laid all the foundations of his personality. He has taken in many impressions of the world and he has used this to form a language, which he now speaks. He has taken on the characteristics of his culture and has some idea of how to be in the world. He has developed the ability to be able to control his hands and his body and he is starting to be able to make decisions and act for himself.
The little human being is formed and now all these things can be refined and expanded. These first three years are vitally important. Montessori suggests that the child should be with the mother at this time but also suggests that a very special kind of expertise is required if we are going to help and not thwart development. The Assistants to Infancy course was originally devised to do exactly this - train people to help the mother with the first three years of life. Some people who have done this course do in fact work in the home with mothers. However, with the growth in the need for a ‘creche’ where working mother’s can send their babies when they go to work the Montessori approach has been adapted to provide this help in a setting where the mother can leave the baby. This is usually called an ‘Infant Community’ but in fact it is divided into two areas - one for the non- walking babies and one for the walkers. In this community the adults are trained to facilitate the natural development of the child and everything is geared towards the development of the child’s independence.