Can it be plastic?

The opening week of school several practical life materials in the room were broken: a soap dish at the handwashing work, a small porcelain bowl in the spooning work, and a glass carafe in the equal pouring work. Normally I replace these in my room at my own expense, but this year I decided to fill in a purchase order and ask the school to pay for the replacements. As I left for the afternoon, I turned in the completed purchase order.

The next morning I found the form returned to my box with a sticky note attached; it read “Can these be plastic?”

This is a question I answer all the time about materials in a catechesis atrium. Catechesis, which is founded on the principles of Maria Montessori’s work with children, relies on a prepared environment which orients children to the reality of the world around them and which provides children with an opportunity to engage freely in real work related to that reality.

Plastic utensils leave a child without that desired orientation to reality. A child who is given unbreakable objects is deprived of the opportunity to develop fine motor skills, care of their environment, and respect and responsibility towards the objects of their environment. Plastic bowls which can be handled roughly seem indestructible and therefore unworthy of care. However, surround the child with real, breakable, even fragile materials, and the child learns many valuable things.

They learn the material properties of an object or material. They learn to hold the items with care. They learn the consequences of stewardship and lack of stewardship. Part of what a child learns in the CGS curriculum thanks to our Montessori foundation is how to hold a material with two hands, how to carry a tray level with two hands, how to pour with a glass pitcher, and so on. When we as adults model holding and using items with care, the child sees us and learns to do so as well. It is not necessary to say “This is breakable; carry it carefully”; a child seeing the adult being careful becomes careful herself.

“But what about breakage?”, I am often asked. Rejoice in breakage! A broken item is a learning experience, resulting in that set of materials being taken off the shelf. That is the consequence of the breakage – there is no reprimand, just the feeling that something must be taken away until it is repaired or a replacement can be found. Breakage, which we too often try to avoid, is a good thing which provides a lesson in careful handling that cannot be communicated simply through lecture or admonition. Breakage immediately teaches the material properties of glass or porcelain in a way that no amount of language can convey. Breakage also makes way for new learning experiences. It provides for instance the perfect opportunity to teach a child how to use a broom or carpet sweeper, skills which children love to practice.

Do many items get broken in an atrium? Surprisingly not. In thirteen years of being a catechist in a school setting I don’t remember anything being broken until five years ago and only four things since primarily all by the same group of children as they have moved through the school. This last week, the breakage caused by two second graders having difficulty sharing a work was a lesson for a whole room of children still learning to handle materials and each other with care. I couldn’t have said anything that would have provided such an explicit lesson of the need for discipline in our movements and our behavior toward one another. In fact, I didn’t need to say anything to drive home the point of self-control, because the students involved immediately saw the consequence of their mishandling of the materials and apologized to each other and to me. They then settled into some of the calmest work I have seen them undertake since my son came to school one day, his long hair brushed back behind his ears, and they thought Jesus had come to watch them. The second breakage of the week was simply a new PreK student who is still learning to follow instruction, to carry a tray level, and to bend his knees when placing a tray onto a shelf. Having been asked four times to clean up, he only rushed to do so when his teacher arrived at the door. His apology to me? “If I had cleaned up when you told me, I wouldn’t have dropped it.” So, that breakage taught its own lesson too without my needing to say a word.

I think the final and best lesson about breakage is always found in the adult’s response, “Don’t worry. Now we can learn how to use the dust pan and broom, and now you know how you have to carry the (broken object) next time. And remember, you are far more dear to me than any (broken object) could ever be.”

A last word about the use of porcelain and glass in the atrium. The materials in the atrium should be so beautiful that a child LONGS to work with them. Earthenware condiment bowls touched with a golden glaze that glimmers in the light and makes the objects inside seem to glow or a crystal clear goblet in which the water sparkles as the child pours, these attract the child to work in a way that no plastic bowl could. Just imagine the sound of ice tea being poured into a glass on a summer’s day, and you know how enticing the sensorial properties of glass can be.

It’s no wonder that Montessori supply companies refer to sets of glass carafes and porcelain bowls as “consumables”. When we think of them this way then the fear of using them and the shame of breaking them is replaced by care for the environment and a love of stewardship. A whole other blog post awaits on the lessons we can model for children on consumerism, the need for stewardship, and the multiplication of mindfulness through the subtraction of unnecessary, unbreakable possessions.


2 thoughts on “Can it be plastic?

  1. “And remember, you are far more dear to me than any (broken object) could ever be.” Thank you. Sadly, I am sure that some children never get told this at home.

    How long does it normally (or ideally) take you to replace the broken object? To replace something immediately, surely, would undermine the precious nature of the object. (“Never mind. I have a spare in this cupboard here!”) But too long without the object could foster guilt in the child who broke it, and frustration in the others. Do you have a rule of thumb?

    • What a wonderful question! I don’t have a set rule. Part of the answer is to observe the child and see what he or she needs. Perhaps he or she needs to develop better muscular control before the object is replaced, so rather than replace the object, other works to develop skills and control would be set out to assure confident, successful use of the replaced object in the future. Sometimes a child needs grace and courtesy modeling before an object is replaced; this is often true if something is broken in a tug of war between two children. I think the key is never to tie in the child’s perspective the length of time before replacement to the child’s act of breaking the object. Instead link its return into the child’s new development. If asked by the child when it will come back, simply be truthful, “Perhaps your body wasn’t ready for the glass pitcher yet. Practicing with the pottery ones will make your muscles stronger and ready for it. Would you like to help your fingers get ready?” I find that most children are ready for object replacement in about a month, if I am careful to prepare them quietly for its return. Finally, some objects may not be able to be replaced. Many of my practical life bowls are single purchase Japanese raku. I buy them because they are so beautiful that they entice the child and create peace in the room. But when they break, they are not replaceable. This is when it is very important to tell the child that yes, the object was beautiful, but in your eyes, the child is the most beautiful thing of all.

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