Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Mathematics of Santa

The basic premise of the Montessori Method is that children possess an innate desire to learn. Given the appropriate environment, children are able learn with no more effort than their natural curiosity.

In her book, The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Maria Montessori stated, “education is not something that the teacher does, it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being.” She also noted her observations of children as they "absorbed" culture through a large variety of classroom experiences. Montessori education intentionally designs environments that create new areas of interest for children while simultaneously capitalizing on their existing interests. Simply put, Montessori children learn because they are interested -- because they are curious! Just recently, a friend shared the following holiday narrative regarding the precious gift of curious Montessori children. Enjoy the story, and happy holidays!

The Mathematics of Santa

“Daddy, how does Santa get presents to all the children of the world?”

My son Rylan, a 4th grader, is very inquisitive. He asks a lot of questions and this year, because he’s learning multiplication and long division, he’s particularly curious about the mathematics of Santa.

“Daddy, how many presents does Santa have to make so all the kids around the world can have one?”

It’s one of those questions that you know you’re going to get asked, but never really formulate a great answer for.

“Daddy, how does Santa eat all those cookies and drink all that milk and not get full?”

Oh boy, another tough question.

“Daddy, is Santa magic?”

This is by far the best of the three questions. It’s also a question that poses an easy way out for me. I could say that Santa gets around the world, with all those presents, and eats all those cookies…simply because he’s magic. And it could be true and right and fit nicely into his schemata of Christmas.

But I know that because he will always be a Montessori kid, his curiosity will not be quenched. “By Magic” is simply too easy an answer and I don’t want him to be a kid who grows up to be focused on easy answers.

“I don’t know Rylan,” I hear myself say. “What do you think?”

And we’re off- like the starting bell at a race-track, the words “What do you think?” are the real magic.

“I think he has a very fast sleigh. Hang on, I’ll be right back.” Rylan scurries off. I can hear him rustling around in his bedroom, obviously trying to find something. He comes racing back, beaming and holding his prize -- a globe of the world.

“Daddy, I think he starts at the North Pole. I need something to measure with.” I go and get him a measuring tape out of the kitchen drawer.

He begins twisting the tape this way and that, muttering to himself about how many inches it is from the North Pole to California. I quietly slip away and grab him a piece of paper and something to write with.
“Daddy, do you think Santa only leaves the North Pole once, or comes back for more presents?” I’m quietly marveling at his brilliance. I can tell how far he’s come in solving the problem by the questions he’s asking. I love this kid.

“Daddy, how many kids are there in the world?” I don’t know the answer to this. I don’t even think there is an answer to this. Just then, my 9th grader Lucas walks in. Of course, Lucas knows better, but has fun entertaining his little brother. Quickly he is roped into the Mathematics of Santa as Rylan repeats to him many of the same questions; growing visibly more excited.

Lucas is completely computer literate and is discharged by our tiny Christmas General to go find out how many kids there are in the world. Soquel, my six-year old daughter, sits nearby watching and listening with a marvelous smile on her face. Her tough questions will come one day soon, but for now, as long as Santa can get her dollhouse down the chimney, none of these things matter beyond just the story itself.

For an hour, my boys work together talking, debating, measuring, calculating, and most importantly questioning. Who knows if the answers they got were remotely close to being correct. It doesn’t actually matter. We all know that Santa is magic anyway. But on this day, I realized that Montessori is magic too.
It would have been so easy to dismiss his questioning mind with something vague and ephemeral like “Santa is just magic”. But his background in Montessori has ensured that his curiosity will overcome any ignorant justifications from adults. He learned the word “Why” at 2, and I’m so glad he hasn’t forgotten it.

Over dinner, Rylan recounts to us his mental adventure into the Mathematics of Santa. We hang his pages of calculations on the fridge and the globe takes center stage on our kitchen table. I’ll tuck those things away in a few weeks for him to discover and remember one day. But for now, Christmas has come early this year and Montessori has given me the best gift of all: curious children.