A Foundation of Freedom and Responsibility in a Montessori Environment

In Montessori theory, freedom and self-discipline are two sides of the same coin. The person who is self-disciplined is able to be responsible in their actions. The person who is free to act must be self-disciplined in order to use that freedom responsibly. The long-term goal in regards to freedom is a self-disciplined adult who can function independently, while at the same time being a responsible member of a group. 

The degree of freedom a child can handle and the child’s self-discipline build up together in the four planes of development. Many different aspects of the environment – the Guide’s actions, the social setting of the class, and the freedom allowed by the adult for the child to engage in purposeful activity within that environment and social setting – should work together to support the strengthening of the child’s will which, in turn, enables the child to act in a responsible manner.

The ability to make an appropriate choice for oneself is an essential ingredient in acting responsibly. It is an ability that must be built up over time. Children need to be allowed to exercise choice frequently during the day – every day – in order to build this skill. No one can be truly responsible if one is the prisoner of one’s whims. Choice is not superficial curiosity. Choice is a skill that needs knowledge of the possible choices along with self-discipline and the opportunity to act independently, so appropriate, responsible choices may be made.

In the Montessori environment, knowledge of the possible choices comes from presentations by the Guide and observation of the activities of the other children in the environment. The ability to choose comes from repeated experiences of being able to choose. The child is helped by having limited choice at first. As the child’s ability to choose increases, the number of choices available also increases through presentations of new materials and activities by the Guide. Totally free choice is a point of arrival. It is built up through progressive degrees of freedom that are related to the child’s increasing strength of will that enables the child to act responsibly.

Freedom to choose allows children to reveal themselves. They reveal their interests and their needs. This enables adults who observe to gain information that will help them serve the children’s needs for development because they will have an idea of what lessons to give next, what kinds of experiences to provide, and how much freedom the child can be given.

The ability to choose, along with the freedom to choose, the development of the will, the development of self-discipline, independence and responsibility, and the wish to act responsibly as a member of one’s social community, are all tied together. Montessori, when properly implemented, constitutes a total package of situations and experiences that interact to support the normal development of the individual child within a social context. Many of the conditions that provide for freedom and enable responsibility to develop in First Plane children are also appropriate for children in the Second Plane. 

At whatever age children enter a Montessori environment, they should be free to choose any material or exercise once it has been demonstrated to them. There is, however, limitation to their freedom. They are free to use the materials in a way that will fulfill the purpose of the materials for the child’s development and in a way that will not damage the materials. For example, the red rods help Primary children see a regular increase in one dimension. Pretending to use the longest rod as a horse on which to ride does not help children learn about regular increase in dimension and it puts the rod in danger of being damaged; therefore, this use of the material is not allowed. 

There is another limitation to freedom. One is free to behave in a way that respects the rights of others and protects others from disturbance or harm. The question is how does one help children develop enough self-control to allow them this degree of freedom and independence?  There are many means to help this development in a Montessori environment:


The physical environment of a Montessori class needs to be a calm, aesthetically inviting environment. It should contain materials appropriate to the developmental needs of the children and it should be furnished with child-sized furniture that is light in weight so the children can be independent in their use of the furniture. 

The amount of materials in this environment and their arrangement is of the utmost importance. The optimum amount to have is the amount that can be arranged in a sequential, orderly fashion that will contribute to the development of order in the children’s minds. When this is the case, it is possible for the children to make choices. The consequence of having too many materials is that the children will be overwhelmed and, therefore,  will have difficulty making choices. In addition, they will have a difficult time concentrating on the things they do choose. If, on the other hand, there are too few materials, there will not be enough choices for the children and they will be bored. Boredom contributes to a breakdown in behavior. 

The optimum amount of materials contributes to successful, independent functioning in the environment, it helps children build mental order (The condition of your surroundings reflects the condition of your mind.) and it helps them strengthen their wills through the practice of frequent choice making. Dr. Montessori said, “Conscious will is a power which develops with use and activity.”  (Montessori,
The Absorbent Mind, 1969, p. 254)


The physical environment is set up, as much as possible, for the independent functioning of the children. Besides being furnished with furniture in an appropriate size for the age of the children, the materials are available in such a way that the child can easily obtain the materials they need for the choices they have made. In the Toddler and Primary environments, color coding and/or grouping the materials necessary for an exercise on a tray makes it as easy as possible for children to get their materials without being dependent upon an adult. The adult does arrange the environment so this independence is possible. 

This amount of pre-arrangement is not necessary for the Elementary child. While the adult still arranges the materials in a logical manner — everything for experiments in one area of the room, the math materials in another — the child must gather the necessary materials for a given activity. 


In general, most of the materials in the Toddler and Primary environments are designed for individual use and there is only one of each of those kinds of materials. If a child has been presented a particular material and it is on the shelf, the child is free to choose it. However, if someone else is using it, the child must wait until it has been returned to the shelf before taking it. This helps children practice patience, which, in turn, aids the development of self-control/will that is essential if children are going to exercise responsibility.  

While children still have to wait until materials have been returned to the shelf in an Elementary environment, many of the materials are designed to be used by two or more children together. It is the natural tendency of children of this age to work together in groups and it is important that they exercise their logical minds by discussing the work at hand.


Dr. Montessori found that children had natural, internal time cycles. The Montessori movement has come to refer to this as the ‘work cycle’. These are three hours in duration. Environments, where complete work cycles are available on a daily basis, support children’s development of skills, knowledge, and self-discipline because they give the children the time necessary for this development to occur.


The psychological/emotional ambiance of any home or classroom environment must protect children from corrections, belittling, rewards and punishments, unnecessary help, and physical or psychological harm. In the First Plane, children are developing their self-image. While inappropriate behavior must be stopped, the correction of little mistakes in well-intentioned activities leaves a little scar on the psyche that says, “Incompetent.”  The build up of these little scars over time undermines the child’s feelings of competence. It is for this reason that a “control of error” is built into many of the Montessori materials. In this way, mistakes can be a private matter. Children can develop positive feelings towards the revelations provided by the ‘control of error’ because those revelations help the child to eventually have success with the materials. 

The point of helping children develop feelings of competence is that they will then more eagerly choose to work and to accept new challenges. As said before, the act of making choices — whether it is the initial choice of work or the choices one makes in response to the revelations of the control of error — strengthens the will. The stronger the will, the more the child is able to make appropriate choices, that is, the more the child is able to act in a responsible manner. 


External rewards are, at best, irrelevant in a Montessori environment. At worst, they are harmful. Montessori materials and activities are designed to fulfill the developmental needs of children. Being able to work with those materials and engage in those activities gives children internal rewards – the feeling of satisfaction that come when an internal need for development is met. It is natural for children to wish to experience this internal satisfaction again and again and so they continue to choose those materials and activities that bring about this desired feeling.

Giving children external rewards, whether objects, food, or approval, trains them to work for something external, rather than for the satisfaction of their internal needs. The children lose their ability to act independently and take on a “puppet” quality, almost as if someone is pulling their strings to get the desired outcome. The satisfaction of internal needs is one of the ingredients in helping children travel along the path to self-discipline, independence and responsibility. External rewards divert children from that path. 

Thanks to these exercises, a wonderful integration takes place in the soul, as a result of which the child becomes calm, radiantly happy, busy, forgetful of himself and, in consequence, indifferent to prizes or material rewards. (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, 1969, p. 263-4)


Unnecessary help is also harmful to the children’s development of feelings of competence. If, at home, a parent continues to dress and undress their child when the child is quite capable of doing it, the message is that “you are to remain incompetent, don’t grow up”. The child’s self-image suffers. If the adult rushes to clean up a child’s spill when the child is capable of doing it, the message is that “you are incompetent”, and, in the child’s mind, the work now belongs to the adult and not to them. 

With this multi-faceted approach, the Montessori classroom is designed to support the development of the will over time. Guidance from the Montessori materials and the Montessori-trained Guide provide the pathway for the strengthening of a child’s ability to use freedom responsibly, even at a very young age, which sets them up for a more successful future.