March 17th, 2017



by Maria Kaminstein

In a random visit to a Greene Towne Primary classroom, one can see a boy and girl working side by side, tracing the puzzle map of South America, coloring in the countries, and if they’re older children, writing the names.  A boy is wearing an apron and is up to his elbows in suds as he washes all the snack dishes.  A girl carefully builds a tower with the precisely graded pink cubes, balancing the smallest one with great delicacy and care.  The tower comes up to her waist, and she is visibly pleased to have built a significant structure by herself.  Two girls are solving an addition problem with 4-digit addends, using the golden bead materials.  A boy serves apple pieces that he has cut himself, and another is composing words with the cut-out letters of the moveable alphabet. 


There are several striking features in this scene.  The first is that the children have, for the most part, chosen and set up this work independently.  Second, the children are surprisingly orderly.  They organize their materials methodically, work through a sequence of steps, and go back to correct errors (or not, depending on the child, but self-correction kicks in eventually).


Third, perhaps least noticed, but most powerful, there are no gender roles or stereotypes being played out in the work of the Montessori classroom.  Boys and girls engage in everything – building, cleaning, reading words, preparing food, solving problems, drawing pictures, exploring magnetism or buoyancy – without any consideration that some of these works might be for only boys, or only girls.  This lack of gender consciousness is almost unheard of in a typical pre-school classroom, where girls gravitate to housekeeping and boys take over the block corner.


What is the key to this absence of gender segregation in a Montessori classroom?  There are several factors, but one of the most important is that the work is real.  Children have a strong drive to participate in the life of their families and communities, so learning real skills is intensely interesting to them.  Parents see this daily.  Your children are vigilant and attentive when you chop vegetables or bake; build fires; use cash machines; play musical instruments; or fold laundry.  They are right there, under your arm, wanting to do it, too, and completely oblivious to whether the activity is masculine or feminine. 


Every activity in the Montessori classroom is, in some sense, real.  Tools and materials, concepts and skills are designed for easy accessibility, and children understand that they are mastering valuable work. 


When they are given the opportunity to, say, wash dirty dishes with soap and water, they aren’t at all concerned about whether this is “boy work” or “girl work” – it is real work, and therefore fascinating.  Writing a word that others can read is compelling; counting the beads on a very long chain holds out the thrill of challenge and discovery; and knowing the names of all the countries in South America is the beginning of understanding a bigger world.


Working together with friends – male and female – on equal terms and with equal interest is an experience that children do not forget.  They learn that everybody has different strengths and struggles, unrelated to gender.  As Montessori educators, it is our hope and belief that this important learning will last for a lifetime.