Lower School Blog: Friendliness with Error

Lower School Blog: Friendliness with Error

It is well to cultivate a friendly feeling towards error, to treat it as a companion inseparable from our lives, as something having a purpose, which it truly has. — Maria Montessori 

Montessori pedagogy values process over product. In Primary, children engage in many sensorial activities that do not involve paper and pencil. There is not much that they can take home to show their parents, especially when they are on the younger side. This lack of “product” is deliberate, as children learn by working with their hands and by repeating the same action many times for mastery. The reward is in doing a chosen activity, learning for learning’s sake.

Another reason for the emphasis on process over product has to do with protecting children’s intrinsic motivation. In our society, “Good job!” is an almost automatic response when a child does anything. These words have the best intentions behind them, but children can become dependent on extrinsic motivators like praise or rewards. They learn to seek adult approval instead of finding their own level of satisfaction. 

In the classroom, when a child excitedly comes to show us something, we might comment on a fact we notice and ask how the child feels about their work: “You worked so hard to put your shoe on by yourself,” or “You used so many bright colors in your picture.” These statements allow children to reflect on their own feelings so that the drive remains within. Intrinsically-motivated children are less concerned with what others think. When a mistake inevitably occurs, they are more curious about how to problem solve than worried about a teacher or parent’s reaction.  

Additionally, Montessori materials are autodidactic. The activities have a built-in control of error that allows children to find both the problem and the solution on their own. For example, if a child fills a bucket to the brim and carries it across the room, water might slosh all over the floor. The message to the child is that the bucket was too full, but also that accidents happen. We can clean up and try again with less water. Similarly, a child working with the knobbed cylinders tries to fit each cylinder into a corresponding hole. There is only one place each of them fits exactly. If a cylinder is out of place, there will be one left over that does not fit anywhere. The materials themselves give instant feedback without correction or assistance from a teacher. Children learn to recognize mistakes and develop confidence as they self-correct. They learn, as Dr. Montessori observed, to be friendly with error.

By taking a positive approach towards mistakes in the classroom, our whole community learns to do the same. As children develop friendliness with error, we accept that water will be spilled, bead chains will be miscounted, and yes, the occasional glass will break. While we guide children based on our observations, and are happy to help when they truly need it, we also step back from rescuing them from each and every struggle. A child who is learning to write with the movable alphabet will skip some sounds, and we do not jump in to correct spelling, because we want them to feel excited about self-expression. We know that children will learn through experiencing the material and making mistakes along the way. It is about the process.

Here are some ways to help nurture internal motivation and friendliness with error at home:

  • Set up for success. Give opportunities to be independent. Consider how your child can access what they need to complete tasks on their own, like a station to pour themselves a glass of water, or a low drawer with towels to wipe up spills. 
  • Provide the power of choice. Does your child want to wear the blue shirt or the red shirt? Clean up toys or brush teeth first? Hold your hand or walk by themselves? Set the table or wash dishes? Autonomy builds intrinsic motivation and engagement. 
  • Avoid praise, rewards, and punishment. Give meaningful feedback that focuses on encouragement and effort. 
  • Demonstrate how to do a task and then let your child try without interruption. 
  • Model how to handle your own disappointments. Turn your own mistakes into learning moments. Share stories with your children about difficulties you have faced, how you felt, and how you overcame them. To children, it can seem like everything comes so easily for adults. It is amazing for them to learn that we are all human and setbacks are normal.  
  • Step back. As the adults in children’s lives, we want to help them succeed. In the process, we can fall into a pattern of doing things for them—sometimes because we are in a hurry, other times out of love. It can be difficult to watch a child struggle to do something, like zip their coat or tie their shoe, that you can do easily. Remember how capable children are. Practice makes progress, and children learn best through their own efforts.

The Montessori method gives children the space to make mistakes without immediate intervention. Through the self-correcting materials and the focus on process, children explore, make discoveries, and learn to persist through challenges. These foundational experiences teach children to trust themselves. They will learn to follow their inner guide and to try new things with joy. 


Cecilia Aker, Persimmon Lead Teacher

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