“Let them fill their own pails!” Maria Montessori

Dr. Montessori, one of the first Italian women to become a physician, became interested in child development when she noticed some of the children she treated had learning problems. She developed a method of teaching children from her observation of children in many different settings, not just school or her medical office.

One of the most memorable observations for me was a description of children filling their small play pails with sand or stones in Central park in New York City. Dr. Montessori noted that as soon as the children filled their buckets then turned them over and emptied them. They then started to fill them again, dump then and fill them over and over. When it was time to go home, parents or care givers often picked up a play shovel or used their hands to scoop up sand or stones so the buckets could be filled more quickly. Very frequently the children started to scream or cry as others put sand or stones in their play pails.

Dr. Montessori’s lesson from this was they the children wanted to fill their own pails. They wanted to be independent.

When I was president of International Pacific College in NZ, one of my responsibilities was to welcome students to the college in an opening ceremony. One of our goals at IPC was to encourage group work and student centered teaching. I thought that Montessori’s observation symbolized one of our central goals. So at the first opening ceremony I gave each incoming student a stone. I then told them why I gave them the stone, repeating Montessori’s story about children in Central Park in New York City.

Immediately after the opening ceremony I realized that by telling the incoming students why I gave them each a stone I contradicted her point! So at the next opening ceremony I asked the new students to write on a 3 by 5 note card why I gave them each a stone. “Why a stone and not an iPad or an iPod or a laptop computer?

As you read the reasons students wrote you will see the power of Montessori’s insight.

• The stone symbolizes how we should be in our studies—strong, determined, hard working.

• If I place a stone on a path it can be a way to lead others along where I have traveled—if we all leave our stones as pointers, others can follow us.

• I will be hard like a stone. I will not be bothered by the weather or small disappointments.

• I remember the story in the New Testament about hypocrisy. I will not cast the first stone.

• “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” Is a very common proverb—almost a cliché. But I want to take advantage of all the new experiences at IPC.

•If you polish a stone every day, it will shine. I will shine if I accomplish a few small goals every day.

• The word for stone and will in Japanese is the same. My stone will remind me that if I have a strong will to do something, I can do it!

• I consider the stone I received a milestone—an important symbol of a new stage in my life in a new country.

• When we drop a stone in a pond, we can see many, many ripples. I hope each day I can produce a few ripples in my life to help me grow.

• I will polish my stone every day as I hope to polish my English a bit every day.

• A stone is hard and therefore represents my strength in going overseas to develop new ways.

• Stones are shaped by their environment. I too want to be shaped by the new environment at IPC.

•Each stone, like each person is strong and special and beautiful in its own way.

• Individual stones are small but alone not that strong . But many stones bound together in concrete are very, very strong. In the same way, if each of us works together with others in our studies and in our activities, we will be bound together and be very, very much stronger than if we only act alone.

• Some stones from different continents have the same chemical composition and appearance—they are international, they cross boundaries as we are trying to do at IPC.

• When I look at the surface of my stone, the internal properties are not revealed. And so with people—I have to look beyond the surface to understand the internal properties of people.

• Each stone is precious in its own way. Each person is also precious in her or his own way.

• A stone seems worthless but without it, the rivers would be more polluted. We too are each important in our own way.

• John gave us stones to play with. It means we will have fun at IPC with parties!

• A stone represents land, the land of New Zealand. John gave a stone personally to each of us as a personal warm welcome not just to IPC but to NZ.

I was blown away by the richness and range of comments which all support Montessori’s observation. When I met students at events after they graduated many of them took out the stone that I had given them. They said they put it in their pocket or purse every day. Many parents come to our opening ceremonies and I had always given them stones also. When I met them I was astonished at the number of them who like the students carried the stone with them every day.

Small events, huge consequences!