You may have noticed that my beaver, Paddlefoot, holds my office door open. He's not just a doorstop; he is a welcoming friend to all who pass my door. My littlest friends, the pre-two-year old sibs of enrolled students, are fascinated by the beaver sitting against my door. I catch myself staring at the toddling tots as they cautiously approach Paddlefoot and size up whether this furry, buck-toothed rodent is real. With their imagination’s a swirl, some will walk away only to come back relatively soon to explore some more. Others creep closer and touch Paddlefoot with the encouragement of Mom or Dad.
This time of the year, Lower Elementary students share their own stuffed-pet friends with each other. They bring their fluffy friends into class where these cute, cuddly creatures provide an inspiration for telling stories and creative writing.
As part of the occasion, I was invited to introduce Paddlefoot to the LE students. It was fun to tell them about New York's state animal that weighs around 40 pounds and let the students know that beavers have a reputation for being affable and practical jokers. At one point, I stopped mid-sentence, opened my eyes wide and said, "Paddlefoot, what did you do?" After lifting him off of my lap, the students could see that he left something in my lap. The students erupted into giggles and the teachers rolled their eyes when the mischievous Paddlefoot misbehaved during his visit.
When I asked the class the question, “Why do beavers dam streams to make ponds?” Here is the answer I got from an eager second grader: “Beavers build their lodges in the middle of the pond to protect themselves from natural predators.” My response was, “Wow, great answer. How did you know that?” Whereupon he said, “I just watched a nature program about beavers.” Gotta love the television! It does teach sometime.
Here is proof that stuffed animals can inspire six-to-nine-year olds’ writing. One of the third graders stopped by my office the other day and asked if he could read his stuffed-pet-inspired story to me. Delighted, I said, "How exciting and what a treat. Have a seat and please do share your story with me.” Reading from his beautifully illustrated paper, the main character — the stuffed animal of my reader, Leapy — with his friends Jumpy, James Bear, and John were in a battle in their battleships. At one point, my friend had to stop reading so that he could demonstrate how the battleship caused the enemy ship to crash. Using both hands, he maneuvered them in a way that made the story even clearer. He could tell that he was entertaining his audience.
The idea that young people can be intrinsically motivated to exercise their imagination, work hard, AND enjoy the whole experience is part of what a Montessori education is all about. You might read Daniel Pink’s newest NYTimes bestselling book Drive to hear him explain what motivates people and read the endorsement he gives to the Montessori philosophy. How wonderful it is to see students (and adults, for that matter) eagerly busy enjoying hard work just for the sake of mastery of a skill.