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"Will You Be My Friend?": How that works for Toddlers and Primaries
"Will You Be My Friend?": How that works for Toddlers and Primaries

by Denise Merkel, Director of Education

Attachment to other people is the first stage which brings all humans to work for a common ideal. Dr. Maria Montessori

What is the role of friendship in the lives of children under the age of 6? How do they learn to make and keep friends? Where does one enroll for Friendship 101? Why, at a Montessori school, of course.

Humans need social interaction to thrive, but they also require autonomy. Montessori's philosophy and curriculum are ideally suited to meet the social needs of children by acknowledging that friends play a different role at each stage of development. Each Montessori classroom is designed so that children can maintain independence and yet still connect meaningfully with each other, enabling the children to interact with their peers in the best ways possible. Each class's intentional balance of ages and genders creates an environment in which the children tend to be comfortable with their classmates, which is the first important step, creating opportunities for mentorship and acclimation to others' slightly different needs and outlooks. The Toddler and Primary programs in particular also include lessons in Grace & Courtesy and, for moments when discomfort arises, conflict resolution - which help children manage their emotions and develop empathy for others, thus constructing the tools needed to find and to keep true friends.

Friendship at the Toddler level is rudimentary. The small size of each Toddler community and the focus on individual activities are specifically designed for their little psyches and this stage of social development. They are "social embryos," building skills while becoming acquainted with people they recognize. They enjoy the company of another child sitting nearby and working in parallel spaces (when they aren't too absorbed to notice others). They learn the names of their classmates, might notice whose coat is whose, or be able to tell another child when their parent has arrived. They learn patience by waiting for their turn to use the easel or to do a puzzle. When they prepare food for the morning meal, they begin to grasp the idea of putting others before themselves. The early seeds of compassion sprout when they fetch a tissue for a crying classmate. But since they can really only manage one relationship at a time, adults are still their best friends.

Children in Primary show more interest in people outside their families – they are "social rookies." Grace & Courtesy lessons teach them how to give a compliment, how to accept one, how to ask permission and how to say, "No, thank you." Older children volunteer to tie the younger ones' shoes. They learn to work for the common good by tightly rolling up all the mats and putting them neatly in the basket. They discover that they can work together with other children on addition with the Golden Beads. These friendships are based on respect, acceptance, empathy, and sometimes just simple silliness or proximity to whoever is passing by. The open nature of the classroom allows friendships to form across age and gender lines.The 3-6 year olds are learning to make friends but also still need uninterrupted periods of time to focus on tasks by themselves. The spacious classroom and the three-hour work period allow them to work alone and to bond with others all morning (and during lunch and in the afternoon).

Montessori believed that children learn best in a physical and social environment tailored to their needs at each stage of development. And we at Aidan believe that, too. We know that the Montessori materials are designed for exploration and discovery at an appropriate pace and depth. Montessori communities are also constructed to help children at any age develop their emotional intelligence. Learning how to make and then to keep friends is a skill that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

For more thoughts on Friendships, listen to our Family Harmony podcast, Episodes 10 & 11.