The Playground Effect

Posted by Greg MacDonald on

This is an excerpt from an article that I wrote for the NAMTA Journal.  I decided to post it here because the subject came up today.  It's a long post, but I've found that the image can be very compelling ...

A year or so ago, I was asked to speak about Montessori to a group of public school teachers in my home town of Melbourne, Australia.  I wanted to convey to them the character of a Montessori classroom in action, where most of the children go about their own work, virtually unsupervised by the teacher, while a small group are involved with the teacher in one corner or another of the room, working on one of the many subjects that are a part of the Montessori approach for elementary children.

And then the teacher moves on to another group while the group that he just left either continues with the activity just presented, or moves away to continue (or to begin) some new activity, again, virtually unattended by the teacher.

There is an atmosphere of calm and focus present.  The “unsupervised” children do not misbehave.  Generally, in fact, they seem oblivious of where the Guide might be, or what he is doing.

Law and order, and deep learning, are occurring.

But how to connect to the experience of these teachers, my colleagues, who may never of heard of Montessori, and for whom this concept of a classroom may be very foreign, even an impossible fantasy?

I looked back on my own time in public school teaching in Melbourne, looking for a connection, and I found the answer in a most unexpected place.

Inside my first (mainstream, traditional, public) school, in the classrooms, teachers were each assigned to thirty or more children, and it was their job to “teach” those children, and to make sure that the children stayed on task.

I can only speak from my own experience, and that experience occurred in another century, but I can state that I spent a large proportion of my time making sure that those children did in fact “stay on task”.

I was not only the “teacher”, I was also the “enforcer”.

Class started at nine in the morning.  I gave lessons (using a real blackboard and real chalk!) to the class and kept the children “on-task”.  At 10:30, the bell rang and the children left the classroom for recess.  They went outside to “play” in the “playground”.

We had a school policy in those days that a member of the teaching staff must be “on yard duty” for each recess, and during the lunch hour as well.  (Our Headmaster drew up a schedule so that we shared this responsibility, and so that we had at least 30 minutes free to eat our lunch.)


Over three hundred children in the playground and ONE staff member?

Why wasn’t there chaos?

(There wasn’t.)

Generally, there was little for the adult to do but to cruise the school grounds and to occasionally intervene if there was a need to do so.  But for most of the time, each of us just “wandered” around the playground, watching the children play.

There was no need for any of us to keep the children “on task” in the playground.

The children kept themselves on task, and they maintained order.

It was only as I looked back on this experience last year, with my Montessori hat firmly jammed onto my head, that I realized what was happening …

Although there hadn’t been a great deal of thought put into preparing the outdoor playground at my first school, general experience and examples from other schools had led to the provision of a grassy field area for large ball games like cricket and Australian football, and also for other games, like marbles and tag.  There was also a hard-top area for games like basketball, netball, four-square and Australian downball.

Balls, jump ropes, hoops etc. were available if the children wanted them.

What happened?

The children naturally formed cooperative groups, and they played!

No adults required!

The same is true today, in the playgrounds of schools around the world.

“What is going on here?”  (I asked myself.)  And I realized that what is going on is Montessori!

In the “prepared” environment of the playground, the children are free to spontaneously form groups and to pursue whatever activities they choose.

Those activities exercise their bodies, their social skills, their moral development, their creativity, the many facets of their Self Construction.

No supervision required!

No need to enforce “on task” behavior.. It occurred spontaneously!

Without knowing it, we were seeing the Montessori Method in action, every day, at our school.

The playground matched the physical developmental needs of the children.

It was a playground for the bodies of the children.

The adult’s influence was minimal.

The playground was, in essence, a developmentally appropriate prepared environment for the bodies of the children.  It offered developmentally appropriate motives for enjoyable physical activity, and as a by-product, it also provided opportunity for the exercise of each individual’s personality traits, the ability to socialize, etc.

I think of this as the “Playground Effect”, but we could equally call it “Montessori Principles and Practices in Action”.

Maria Montessori created a developmentally appropriate prepared environment for the minds of the children.  It offers developmentally appropriate motives for enjoyable intellectual activity, and as a by-product, it also provided opportunity for the exercise of each individual’s personality traits, the ability to socialize, etc.

What is a Montessori prepared environment?

It is a playground for the minds of the children.

And so the “playground effect” (which in many schools we can only observe outside, in the playground) can be observed in Montessori prepared environments, inside the building!

The Montessori approach works.  We can see it in operation around the world, in places where the name Montessori may never have been heard.

… Just observe the school grounds, the playgrounds, the children who are permitted to play together after school.

There is discipline there.  No need for adults to be keeping order or supervising.

The children “do it for themselves”!

The “playground effect” bears witness (as it always has if we’d only been able to see it) to the fact that children are capable of disciplining themselves.  The playground effect is a compelling demonstration of the validity of Montessori’s concept of “discipline.

This phenomenon is understood by many educators who are not Montessorians.  Here’s one of Alfie Kohn’s takes on it all:

When students are “off task”, our first response should be to ask, ”What’s the task?”                                                                  

(Kohn, Alfie (2006)  Beyond Discipline – From Compliance to Community  Alexandria, VA: ASCD Books  p. 19)

© Greg MacDonald 2019

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