A line of children on their way across the school's parking lot.

Returning to the Atrium

“To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.” – Dr. Maria Montessori

On the first Tuesday of the school year, Mrs. Cogburn and I brought the Pre-K and Kindergarten students to the Atrium – many for the first time. The Atrium is where we teach the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. The aim of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, besides teaching children basic Christian doctrine, is foremost about cultivating opportunities for prayerfulness. As we say to the children: “The Atrium is where you will learn to pray. Prayer is listening for God’s voice.”

Mrs. Cogburn and I spent the morning putting together new practical life works for the children to use to increase focus and prepare for liturgical and religious works. We met the children outside as they were playing after a long, busy, and hot morning. They were exhausted but curious about where we were going.

As you can imagine, creating a peaceful, quiet, and reverent atmosphere with seventeen 4-6 year olds is challenging. Honestly, Mrs. Cogburn and I forgot just how challenging it is! We worked with the students outside the Atrium first, showing them how to walk and sit in the Atrium. We reminded them that we use quiet voices in the Atrium.

Then, we went into the Atrium.

Quickly we realized that we had not done what we typically do well with our youngest students. Most were not ready to be in that space, and we had not adequately prepared them. We also gave our returning students too much freedom. A barely controlled chaos reigned, and I knew we would have to rethink our introduction to the Atrium for this week.

For teachers who teach young children all week, you would think we would have planned better! But sometimes, as adults, we forget what it is like to be children. We forget the desire children have (whether they recognize it or not) for clear expectations, boundaries, and yes, rules. We might look at a child’s carefree play and negative reaction to our imposed boundaries as an innate distaste for rules. Our experience in the Atrium reminded me that could not be further from the truth.

The early years of the lower school are bordered by school and classroom rules. A young student’s life is patterned with the day-to-day procedures of running a classroom with children who (thankfully) cannot, and should not, make all the decisions for themselves. Misbehavior and pushback are not always what they appear.

An important rule of the Atrium is that children may only use a work they have been taught to use. In the Atrium last Tuesday, I watched child after child go to materials they had not been taught to use. They were drawn to these materials like a magnet and nothing was going to stop their discovery and play short of me telling them they could not use the materials. All responded in a variation of: “When will you teach me this work?” or “Can you show me this work now?”

In short, “Help me to do it myself!”. Children desire connection and relationship. Boundaries become the place of interaction and growth. Not so much for adults. If we think children push back against boundaries, we tend to push back more! Adults easily forget that we also have a Teacher who has set the sturdy walls of the Church around us so that we may grow safely in community.

May the children remind us how to live in community with God. May we become, as Christ says, “like little children” (Mt 18:3) – less eager to run outside “the walls of [the] playground” (Chesterton, 138) we have been given and more eager to stay and say to our God in all humility, “Help me to do it myself!”