The Extension of Freedom and Responsibility in a Montessori Elementary Environment

In addition to the points discussed in my previous post about Freedom and Responsibility in the Montessori environment, the child in the Second Plane of development (Elementary) has some characteristics that are very different from those of a child in the First Plane. While the child in the First Plane is a “sensorial” learner who absorbs from the environment, the child in the Second Plane is developing a logical mind that questions what is right and wrong and searches for answers.

An inner change has taken place, but nature is quite logical in arousing now in the child not only a hunger for knowledge and understanding, but a claim to mental independence, a desire to distinguish good from evil by his own powers, and to resent limitation by arbitrary authority. In the field of morality, the child now stands in need of his own inner light. (Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential)


As one grows in consciousness that they are a member of a social community, the emphasis shifts from self-discipline (the ability to control one’s behavior) to responsibility to the members of one’s group, to the larger society, and to the natural world. While self-discipline is a prerequisite for responsibility, it is not the reason for acting responsibly. Children make decisions to act responsibly in response to their: 

– understanding of right and wrong,

– understanding of their place in the universe

– gratitude for the labor of life and human beings for all that is here for them to enjoy today

– understanding of the usefulness of laws

– hero worship.

These are all characteristics of children in the Second Plane, and these have a major impact on this shift towards responsibility.

Even with the capability of self-discipline and a decision to act responsibly, there must still be the opportunity to practice acting responsibly in order to secure the incorporation of this behavior into the child’s personality. The Montessori Elementary class provides many opportunities for this practice such as:

– allowing the children to “practice society”

– taking responsibility for the environment

– taking responsibility for one’s own educational process

– excursions outside of the school

– community service

Let’s take a closer look at the impact of the Second Plane characteristics, as well as the Montessori Elementary environment.


In the First Plane, children mostly accepted the adult’s ideas of right and wrong even when they were not able to conform to those ideas. Now, in the Second Plane, children try to logically explore what is right and wrong through their own experiences and discussions. Class meetings about infractions of the class ground rules allows for logical exploration concerning the appropriateness of those rules. For example, “tattling” about the actions of others is a way for children to check what adults think about right and wrong as well as a way for them to see if adults will be consistent and fair in the application of rules. 


The child in the Second Plane is in the process of developing a reasoning mind. Children are not just asking what is right and wrong –  they are also concerned with the other, really big questions about life. They want to know how everything began, why things are the way they are, and where they fit in it all. 

It becomes doubtful whether even the universe will suffice. How did it come into being, and how will it end?…What am I?  What is the task of humans in this wonderful universe?  Do we merely live here for ourselves, or is there something more for us to do?  Why do we struggle and fight?  What is good and evil?  Where will it all end?  (Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential)


The first two Great Stories that are given in the Elementary classroom (The God With No Hands and The Coming of Life) emphasize the fact that everything has natural laws to follow. These laws enabled the universe and earth to form, and for life to emerge and to continue. The next three Great Stories (The Coming of Human Beings, Communication in Signs, and the Story of Numbers) all show the long labor of human beings to build cultures and civilizations, and to make the discoveries and inventions that have constructed the life we enjoy today. 

The child can be taught who invented writing and the instruments wherewith we write, how printing came and how books became so numerous. Every achievement has come by the sacrifice of someone now dead. Every map speaks eloquently of the work of explorers and pioneers, who underwent hardships and trials to find new places, rivers and lakes, and to make the world greater and richer for our dwelling. 

(Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential)

Hopefully this knowledge fosters gratitude for God and human beings, along with a friendly attitude towards laws and a feeling of responsibility for the preservation of the natural world. The gratitude the child feels strengthens and sustains the child’s wish to be responsible. The child’s logical mind sees that laws assist in the process of protecting both the natural world and society. The logical mind also sees that the child has a place in the progressive development of life on earth and helps the child assume their  responsible place in that development. 

We owe [all components of the natural world] gratitude and some understanding of the part they play, so that we too may learn to do more effectively our share of work in the cosmic plan. Our proud civilisation and all the marvelous achievements of evolution have been made possible by the self-sacrifice of humble saviours of whose work we are unconscious, most of all by those who still continuously purify the air we breathe and the water that is needed for so many vital purposes. (Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential)


The study of different cultures and civilizations with the History Question Charts as a guide helps children see the different ways that groups of people are held together, protected and sustained by the values they hold and the laws they create. The children can see that it is reasonable and beneficial to have limits on what is allowable in a community. This understanding can help them decide to follow the rules of their own society, as well as inspire them to work within the law of their land to change and improve laws. 


The elementary age is a time of “hero worship”. The child wonders about all of those unknown persons who made great inventions and discoveries, and they strive to emulate responsible people who possess(ed) admirable qualities of intelligence, inventiveness, goodness and leadership. 


This is also a time when children, given the opportunity, form a little “practice society” in which they make rules and often choose a leader. This may be played out in the Montessori Elementary classroom as a whole, as well. The children are perfectly capable of making the ground rules for the class and of discussing infractions of the rules, deciding on consequences, and modifying the ground rules when it seems logical to do so; the teacher provides guidance for this process only as necessary.


Elementary children are capable of taking a great deal of responsibility for the care of their environment. The teacher may do demonstrations of how not to take materials and return them, how not to sweep the floor, etc., and have the children critique the performance. This seems to be a very effective way to bring to the children’s consciousness the right way to care for the environment. 

The actual clean-up of the environment follows a progression as the children increase in their development of responsibility. At first, the teacher makes a list of jobs to be done. Everyone does their task because they have to. The higher authority of the teacher sees that it is done, and done properly. At the next stage, the children and teacher together make the list of jobs and the children do the jobs because they feel that they are a part of the team. Finally, the children have such a good idea of what is necessary in caring for an environment that they do it together without a list. This calls for a high level of independent functioning and responsibility. The children no longer care for the environment because a higher authority says so. Rather, they do it because they are responsible members of their small community.


Children of elementary age are capable of (and should) take responsibility for their own educational process. They can keep a record of the work they have done and they can organize their work as a preparation for the individual conferences they have with their teacher. During the individual conferences, the teacher and child together review the child’s work; the child indicates whether they need more practice with a particular item or whether they are ready for the next lesson in the sequence; they discuss the balance among the various areas of the child’s work – including the child’s progress on the areas required by the state; they may agree upon deadlines for a child’s on-going project; and the child may request particular lessons for the near future. In this manner, the child takes ownership of their education and develops the ability to plan for and organize the use of their time. Feelings of ownership generate feelings of responsibility. 

The guide, in turn, takes the information from the conferences and plans lessons accordingly. They keep their own records of lessons given and of observations of the children during the school day. All of this, plus the teacher’s knowledge of the Montessori work for the elementary child is used to guide the children, as necessary, during their individual conferences.   


Expeditions made by the whole class (“field trips”) and the “Going Out” (or “field studies”) of small groups are a part of the Montessori elementary experience. The urge to go beyond the classroom and become acquainted with the world is one of the characteristics of this age of development. These excursions outside of the school may have many different purposes. They may be shopping trips to buy supplies for the animals and plants in the school environment, visits to the library to get more information for a topic of interest, excursions to museums to see examples of different kinds of crystals, visits to a local business such as a bakery to learn about the baking process, a trip to a symphony concert, etc. Taking part in a class trip or the “going out” of a small group requires responsible behavior. The attractiveness of the outing is a powerful incentive for acting responsibly. For as long as is necessary, whole class trips are preceded by the elementary style of the exercises of Grace and Courtesy. These will include the rules of the institution or place being visited as well as appropriate behavior in public places.


Providing opportunities for community service is an excellent way to help support children’s feelings of responsibility for others in their city, town, or local area. Children gain self-esteem when engaged in these activities. 

In conclusion, the final, hoped-for outcome of this type of education is that it will support the development of children who will grow up to be responsible adults: conscious of their freedom to choose and also conscious that their choices affect the environment, their families, their communities and the other peoples of the world. These adults will, hopefully, be grateful for all that has come before to make their quality of life possible and will have a feeling of responsibility to improve that quality for future generations.