Natural Structure                                            


Chapter 3


Natural Structure Education


            “For we let our young men and women go out unarmed in a day when armor was never so necessary.  By teaching them to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word ... They do no know what the words mean ... they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.”(1) – Sayers


          “When a child utters his first word, there is no need to prepare anything special for him, since his prattling is heard as a sound of joy within the home.  But the work of tiny hands which are the first stammerings of a man a work require ‘incentives to activity’ in the form of objects which correspond to his desire to work.”(2) – Montessori


          The loss of the ‘lost tools of learning’ has caused no small problem for students in general, and particularly for those who study mathematics, the sciences, engineering and technology.  Many years ago we both found ourselves confronted with these difficulties while working toward degrees in these areas, and as a result had to rediscover the lost tools for ourselves in order to succeed.  They have served us well ever since, whenever we needed to gain mastery of a new area of knowledge.  Upon reading Dorothy Sayers’ essay, we recognized the tools she wrote about as the skills we had had to develop on our own in those years, and had no doubt that her insight was excellent.  Years later, as homeschoolers, we set out to devise a P-12 curriculum for our children that would spare them the same difficulty.  As we progressed we began to use various manipulatives, and in observing the progress our children made we recognized the value of hands-on learning.  We began to tailor our curriculum to include a number of these beneficial materials.

          In due course of time and research we encountered the writings of Dr. Maria Montessori.  We were excited to find that her method confirmed much of what we were doing, and delighted to discover that there was a Catholic educator from whose work we could proceed.  Her descriptions of children’s learning and behavoir and our observations of our own children as they worked with the materials we had provided were amazingly similar.  We had noticed that our children would concentrate intensely on some activities, asked to work on them on ‘days off’ and showed a definite preference for simple and realistic items over the typical stylized and exaggerated materials.  Dr. Montessori’s writings explained why this was so. 

          The activities and materials our children preferred were similar in nature to some of those Dr. Montessori used in her method.  For example, in her first year of preschool, Lizzie loved to trace over letters we had written for her.  She loved this work so much that we had to make copies of master worksheets in order to keep up with her demands for ‘more letters’.  She did not, however, care at all for bought workbooks with lots of the colorful and cartoon-like illustrations and busywork activities that workbook publishers seem to think are so interesting to children.  Although we did not realize it until reading Dr. Montessori’s works, Lizzie was essentially performing the same task accomplished in tracing Sandpaper Letters over and over with the fingers.  We knew we had found what our children needed.

          In implementing several more elements of the Montessori Method in our homeschool, we began almost immediately to see results resembling Dr. Montessori’s description.  The concentration, repetition, calm, and desire to work were apparent in a matter of days.  When Eddie was beginning his sensorial work, we ordered a hooked mass set that came fitted in a wooden block as an inexpensive substitute for the cylinders.  When they arrived the smallest weight was missing and we called the company to see about correcting the situation.  By the time the problem had been explained we had to tell the representative we would keep the set anyway, and arranged for a complete set to be sent.  Eddie had discovered the ‘cylinders’ and had begun using them, exactly as he should and with no demonstration.  He did not want to let go of them!

          We knew Dorothy Sayers was right, as was Maria Montessori, which then presented us with a dilemma.  How could these apparently incompatible works be combined?  Dorothy Sayers’ curriculum is often interpreted as very structured and regimented.  Dr. Montessori’s method relies on flexibility, free choice of work with subtle guidance and limits, and proceeding at the child’s pace.  They seemed – on the surface, at least – to be almost diametrically opposed.  Convinced that there was a solution to this problem, and looking carefully below the surface of each, we began to realize that some critical elements were shared.  Both rely heavily, classical education in the division of the Trivium and Dr. Montessori’s method in the sequence of work, on the natural development and interests of the child.  Both also claim to produce the abilities to think clearly and learn on one’s own.  In this light we realized that they could indeed be combined, and in fact complemented each other perfectly.  Dorothy Sayers’ outline provided the overall framework, while Maria Montessori’s method provided the day-to-day detail.  This is simply an application of the Montessori method which is based upon the concept of free choice within limits.  Dorothy Sayers provided the content and Dr. Montessori provided the method of our curriculum.

          This brings us to the final requirement for what we now call Natural Structure.  In the late 1980’s we were introduced to homeschooling by a doctoral dissertation advisor and professor while living in Worcester, Massachussetts.  He and his wife were homeschooling their children, and we were impressed by both the idea of homeschooling and by the children themselves.  We realized that homeschooling is an excellent educational option.  Ten years later we found ourselves homeschooling our own children for both academic and religious reasons, convinced that it was the best option for our children.  Natural Structure had to work in the homeschool.  In the following chapter we will explain how and why it does.  For the moment we will consider the ‘what’ and ‘what not’ of the matter.

          Dr. Montessori demonstrated in her work that a rigidly structured educational environment which forces the child physically and mentally into artificially controlled behavior is couterproductive to the proper development of a child.  It very frequently causes a number of behavioural deviations which ‘normalized’ children do not display, several of which are so common that they are considered to be inherent child behavior in our culture.  It is important to note that, perhaps in response to this problem, an error of the opposite extreme has appeared.  There is a school of thought which claims the child should be allowed freedom without limits.  According to this theory no action or behavior of any child is to be considered wrong.  His behavior should not be checked nor his choices limited for any reason save physical safety.  This is directly opposed to Dr. Montessori’s writing and practice which emphasized free choice within limits.


          “Let us leave the life free to develop within the limits of the good, and let us observe this inner life developing.  This is the whole of our mission.  Perhaps as we watch we shall be reminded of the words of Him who was absolutely good, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me.’  That is to say, ‘Do not hinder them from coming, since, if they are left free and unhampered, they will come.’”(3)   (emphasis added)


          Maria Montessori encountered this problem personally.  In one rather amusing incident, while visiting a Montessori school, she corrected a child who was behaving in an unacceptable and disruptive manner.  The child’s mother immediately informed the doctor that she must not correct him, as that was not the Montessori way!

          This brings us to an interesting point which we will consider in depth, as it is critical to Montessori and Natural Structure.  An attempt has been made to generalize or secularize the Montessori method “... especially in the United States.  For here a number of schools use Montessori only as a teaching method.  Here also, many people maintain that this is what Dr. Montessori meant.  They disregard what she most valued: the contribution the child can give humanity.”(4)  Dr. Montessori believed that understanding the nature of the child as God created him, and encouraging the development of the child as God planned for him, would result in men and women who matured and lived as He intended.  The religious beliefs of the family must be at the heart of the curriculum.  We now see an agnostic or New Age ‘spiritual component’ substituted and an intentional blurring of world religions in the name of ‘culture’ or ‘multi-culturalism’.  A New Age, or pantheistic, element is alien to the Montessori method.

          The Montessori method, especially in its original form, is unfamiliar to most Americans.  Substituting a vague New Age spirituality for Catholicism may not appear to be all that important to many people.  As a society we have long ago unwittingly accepted a theory of education that has its roots in pantheism – the Kindergarten system of German educational reformer Friedrich Froebel.  Froebel’s theories emphasize play and imagination.  The understanding of the concepts of play and imagination according to Froebel, versus the understanding of these concepts according to Montessori, is very important to grasp if one has any hope of providing a true Montessori education.  Froebel’s system greatly influences the education commonly found in our schools, both public and private, as well as the design of countless educational materials, and has influenced the beliefs most individuals hold regarding the needs of children.  It contains several elements incompatible with the Montessori method and the true nature of the child.  The most important of these dissonant elements is the diametrical opposition of the roots of the two systems – pantheism and Catholicism.  In considering this difference it is obvious why, in our morally relativistic society, Froebel’s theories have prevailed.


          “Froebel’s religious philosophy was very largely pantheistic and Nordic; whereas Montessori’s is Catholic and Latin ... The German defenders of Froebel against the Montessori system, support their statements by appealing to a pantheistic philosophy ... It is the breaking down of all distinctions and forms, the flowing together in the universe – soul, body, matter, spirit, you and I, God and man – in one great whole.  As opposed to this view, historical Christianituy presents a universe with definite and abiding forms, eternally distinct, and distinct from is Creator.  The dogmatic teaching of traditional Christianity, with its doctrine of the Incarnation, of the visible Church with its sacramental system, of Heaven and Hell, of spirit and matter, and many others – all combine to form an objective body of truth, external to the individual, hard as adamant, to be taken for what it is, or not at all.  The Gospel is essentially the Good News’, and news is something which comes from the outside, to be accepted and believed – or rejected.”(5)


          Dr. Montessori’s method is based upon the comprehension of a pre-existing real world - a material reality by which the child is formed and which the child works to master.  Froebel’s theories, in contrast, are based upon the concept of a shifting reality (relativism) in which the child, through pretending and imagination, actually creates his own ‘reality’ and lives within it – in a world that exists only in his own mind.  In truth this fantasy world is the manifestation of a type of behavioral deviation – called a fugue – which is caused by a lack of appropriate activity, and which disappears with normalization. In our culture these fantasy worlds in which children often live are considered normal and are even encouraged by well-meaning adults who take great pains to accommodate them in the mistaken belief that this is good and healthy for the child.


          “Adults, even though they punish or patiently tolerate the errant and unruly actions of these disordered children, actually favor and encourage their fantasies, interpreting them as the creative tendencies of a child’s mind.  Froebel invented many of his games to encourage the development of a child’s imagination along these lines ... Toys furnish a child with an environment that has no particular goal and, as a consequence, they cannot provide it with any real mental concentration but only illusions ... ‘divided’ children of this sort are regarded, particularly in school, as being highly intelligent, even if they lack order, neatness, and discipline.”(6)


          Distinguishing toys from educational materials is considerably more difficult now than it was in the past.  The advent of ‘educational toys’, the profitability of which encourage manufacturers to find an educational purpose to advertise in every possible product, has made it necessary to evaluate each item carefully according to its own merit.  A good example would be a game that was advertised years ago as educational because it helped children learn to count.  Unfortunately, the highest number a child would need to count to was two, making the claim rather ridiculous.  The game did appear to be a fun activity, and perhaps marginally helpful with motor skills, but educational it was not.  A toy may be distinguished from an educational material by determining whether or not its use will help to achieve a specific developmental or academic goal.  If this material is used as it is intended, will a desired, specific goal be achieved, such as color recognition or improved memory skills?  If the answer is no, then the material should be considered only for its entertainment value, and should not be included in the choices the child is offered for learning.

          Dr. Montessori refers to children who have a great abundance of toys as ‘pampered children’.  These children were first encountered in Europe and America.  Despite the view that possessing many toys is beneficial, and the giving of such abundance an act of love for the child, the effect on the child reveals something quite different.  ‘Pampered children’ did not immediately respond to the materials as the poorer children had, and they showed very little ability to concentrate.  Instead of choosing a material and working peacefully, they fought over the materials - and once they had ‘won’ a material they abandoned it almost immediately.  In each child, eventually, normalization began with the use of one particular material which captured the attention of that child, allowing him to calm himself and proceed to other materials after mastering it.  In our very affluent society the vast majority of children would be considered ‘pampered children’ by Dr. Montessori’s definition.  This means that these difficulties can be expected in the majority of cases, and that encountering them should not discourage anyone.  A little time and perseverance should be all that is needed.  “There are spiritual difficulties connected with prosperity which explain why the words of Christ strike home in every heart: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit! ... Blessed are they who mourn!’”(7)

          In the homeschool the issues of play and imagination together with the effect of too many toys require some consideration.  In Montessori classrooms where normalization began, usually after a few days of chaos, the child’s toys were at home and unavailable.  Even when a small selection of toys was made available in the classroom until no longer chosen, the large number of toys belonging to the child himself was unavailable.  We found our best solution to the problem to be to allow each child to choose one toy to take into the classroom each day.  All other toys were made unavailable until later.  The toys were quickly forgotten as work began.  An alternate solution is to have a small basket of toys as one of the displays being offered.  This is a very difficult limitation to impose, since we have all been led to believe that a child needs an abundance of toys to be happy.  Keep in mind that Dr. Montessori found conclusive evidence in her observations of children that too many possessions can become a spiritual obstacle, especially for a child.  This reflects the teaching of the Church which has been expressed so well by saints such as St. Paul, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Francis of Assisi.

          Dr. Montessori’s method was deeply rooted in her religion.  She wrote several books over the years regarding religious education, including the beautiful and reverent work ‘The Mass Explained to Children’.  It is obvious from all of her writings that this was most important to her, not just as a separate subject area, but as something which must permeate education as it permeated her writings and her life.  E.M. Standing, her long-term friend and collaborator, converted to Catholicism from the Quaker religion two years after meeting her and described Maria Montessori as a combination of scientist and mystic.  We can glimpse the fruit of her faith in his descriptions of her as a doctor and lecturer.  He tells us of a time when she was called to the home of a very poor family where twin infants lay dying.  Sizing up the situation immediately, she lit a fire in the fireplace, sent the exhausted mother to bed to rest, and began feeding and caring for all of them herself until all were well again.  Mr. Standing makes it clear that this was her normal manner of treating indigent patients.  As a lecturer, her students claimed that she inspired them to be good; they found spiritual stimulation and nourishment in her lectures.

          Religious education was an integral part of the curriculum in Dr. Montessori’s schools, and great emphasis was placed on the Mass.  She specifically stated that a copy of Raphael’s ‘Madonna of the Chair’ was to be prominently displayed in all classrooms where her method was taught.  The children grew wheat in their small gardens that was later used to make altar breads, and Mass was celebrated in a child-size chapel.  Her last public statement was a message to be read at the inaugural meeting of the Catholic Montessori Guild in England.  She died the next day.  Clearly the idea that religion could be removed from her method, as so many claim today, would not have pleased her.

          Perhaps one of the surest signs that something is of God is opposition by evil.  So abhorrent was Dr. Montessori’s work to the Nazis that they ordered all of her schools closed and had her burned in effigy over a bonfire of her books in both Berlin and Vienna.  At the time of the Spanish Civil War her life was in danger because of her Roman Catholic faith and her writings on religion.  With the help of the British government, she barely escaped to Holland.

          Is it any wonder that in a society where God has been expelled from school that the essence of Montessori would be denied and corrupted?  Maria Montessori believed that good would come of her work if the original principles remained firm.  Even in her lifetime, she was concerned about the direction in which those who misinterpreted her work were taking her method.  She responded to the possibility of the corruption of her method by study and prayer.  Study and prayer are what we must employ in order to implement her method well.  Having clearly illustrated the need for the primacy of the spiritual aspect in this method, we now move on to some details of the work.  We will begin with the daily work in Natural Structure, which is work accomplished by the authentic Montessori method.

          It may be helpful at this point to study one surprising, from the prevailing educational point of view, aspect of the Montessori method.  This particular example most clearly demonstrates the fact that what is commonly perceived to be the child’s proper process of learning and development – reflected by the order of skills as they are commonly presented – does not follow the actual natural and spontaneous development and needs of the child.  In common practice writing is taught after, or at least at the same time as, reading.  The first and primary language skill, after speech, is considered to be reading.  In addition, the skill of reading is often taught using a whole word method rather that a phonetic method – the value of which (or lack thereof, except in specific circumstances) is made obvious by this example.  In Montessori education reading is preceded by the phonetic writing of whole words, not copied or traced.  Phonetic writing is done by ‘sounding out’, and consequently first spellings typically include words such as ‘snack’ spelled ‘snak’ in a language like English that is not completely phonetic.  This phonetic writing of words naturally follows the use of Sandpaper Letters, which the child uses to lightly trace a textured letter - traditionally cut from sandpaper - while pronouncing the appropriate sound aloud.  Dr. Montessori explained how and why this came to be.


          “A child who looks at, recognizes, and touches the letters as if he were writing is prepared at one and the same time for reading and writing ... The muscular sense is the most highly developed in childhood.  Writing is therefore very easy for children ... The process involves motion, which is always present and easy for him.  Writing develops easily and spontaneously in a little child in the same way as speech, which is also a motor translation of sounds that have been heard.”(8)


          “This was the greatest event to take place in the first Children’s Home.  The child who first made the discovery was so astonished that he shouted out loud: ’I’ve written, I’ve written!’ ... It was only after some six months that they began to understand what it is to read, and they did this only by associating reading with writing.  They watched my hand as I traced letters on a piece of white paper and came to realize that I was communicating my thoughts as if I were speaking.  As soon as this was clear to them, they began to take the pieces of paper on which I had written something and carry them off to a corner and try to read them.”(9)


          We have chosen to describe this aspect of the method in order to emphasize the importance of proceeding with work in the order natural and spontaneous to the child.  This natural progression is no less important in high school than preschool.  The material becomes more complicated, but the method does not change.  The child’s natural method of working is not always without some unexpected difficulties, however.  For example, when the children began to read books, they tore out pages and took them to a corner to try to read them, just as they had done with the slips of paper on which Dr. Montessori had written.  Reading material needed to be provided for them in this form for a time.

          Another very important aspect of this method is free choice of work.  Of course, this does not mean that you must let your child do entirely as he pleases, free to decide that he doesn’t care to learn his multiplication tables or his catechism.  It does mean that your child is free to choose from whatever work you decide to make available to him at any given time.  If he is not progressing in an important area over a period of time, you may have to make his choice for him – but this should be exceptionally rare.  At some point you may find yourself facing a situation where your child has to complete a specific amount of work in a given time – for example to fulfill a state requirement – but you want to accomplish this with as little infringement on his natural and spontaneous development as possible.  A balanced solution can be – for example – to insist that work be done daily toward accomplishing the required task, but allow as much freedom in when, where and how this is done as is possible.  So how do you teach in a Natural Structure homeschool?


          “’Wait while observing.’  That is the motto for the educator.  Let us wait, and be always ready to share in both the joys and the difficulties which the child experiences.  He himself invites our sympathy, and we should respond fully and gladly.  Let us have endless patience with his slow progress, and show enthusiasm and gladness at his successes.  If we could say: “We are respectful and courteous in our dealings with children, we treat them as we should like to be treated ourselves’, we should certainly have mastered a great educational principle and undoubtedly be setting an example of good education.”(10)


          “By his passive attitude he [the teacher] removes from the children the obstacle that is created by his own activity and authority.  The children can thus become active themselves.  The teacher is satisfied when he sees them acting by themselves and making progress.  Without attributing anything of this to himself he can be inspired with the thoughts of John the Baptist: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’”(11)


          It can be hard to believe that this is all that is required, but in essence it is.  You have already been doing this for your child since he was born.  You observed him, and when you saw that he was ready you helped him to take his next developmental step.  He learned.  He walks and talks and feeds himself.  You didn’t do it for him, but you showed him how to do it himself and you gave him the environment and encouragement he needed to grow.  Natural Structure is the next step in the journey you began together years ago.  You will simply need to demonstrate how to do the work, make the materials available for him to use, and be there with him to guide and encourage.

          The classical aspect of Natural Structure is the framework supplied by Dorothy Sayers.  Through the second grade - Part I of Natural Structure - basic skills are mastered.  Beginning with the third grade, the Trivium of classical education – Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric - begins.  The Trivium extends through the tenth grade, and comprises Parts II – IV of Natural Structure.

          In Part II (Grammar, grades 3-5) emphasis is placed on narrative and lyric works, recitation, memorization and observation.  Both prose and verse can be memorized, as well as historical lists of dates and events.  Geography can include maps, ethnic customs, plants and animals of the region, capitals and major cities, and major topographic features.  Collecting, identifying, and categorizing – especially of a scientific nature – should be encouraged.  This refers to an organized collection, not a box containing a collection of ‘junk’ which is counterproductive.  These collections should not be viewed as academic subjects, but as a development of natural interest and a source of material that will be used when your child begins Part III (Dialectic).

          In Part III (Dialectic, grades 6-9) emphasis is placed on essays, argument, criticism, discursive reason and the development of the capacity for abstract thought.  Material for essays, logical argument and debate can and should be found in all areas of study.

          In Part IV (Rhetoric, grades 9-10) emphasis is placed on appreciation of literature, self-expression in writing, and the ability to speak and write, i.e. express oneself, clearly and well.  “The doors of the storehouse of knowledge should now be thrown open for them to browse about as they will.”(12)

          Grades eleven and twelve begin the study of subjects as subjects, i.e. subjects for their own sake, and constitute the Beginning of the Quadrivium – Part V of Natural Structure – which is work at the level of the medieval university.

          As you have seen, Natural Structure combines the classical curriculum and the Montessori method.  (You may also notice, if you are familiar with them, that some elements of Ignatian education and Charlotte Mason’s method are present as well.)  Natural Structure does not require use of a specific curriculum.  We hope that the syllabus and materials suggestions in this book, which have been designed to facilitate the use of Natural Structure, will be helpful.  They were developed and tested according to the following considerations.


          1.       The format of curricula facilitates the ability to prepare lessons and materials in the manner necessary for the free choice and independent work required by Dr. Montessori.


          2.       Content is in accordance with the requirements of classical education.


          3.       Curricula allow for ready tailoring of materials and work to the interests and abilities of an individual child.


          4.       Subject matter was chosen to provide a progression of work, rather than define work according to a grade level.



1. Dorothy Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning, Methuen and Co. Ltd., London, Reprinted in Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, Douglas Wilson, Crossway Books, Illinois, p. 152 (1991)


2. Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, Ballantine Books, New York, NY p.86 (1972)


3. Maria Montessori, Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, Schocken Books, New York, NY p.134 (1965)


4. Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, Ballantine Books, New York, NY p.x (1972)


5. E.M. Standing, Maria Montessori Her Life and Work, Penguin Books, NY, p. 350 (1984)


6. Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, Ballantine Books, New York, NY p.155, (1972)


7. Ibid. p.147.


8. Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, Ballantine Books, New York, NY p.198 (1972)


9. Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, Ballantine Books, New York, NY p.131 (1972)


10. Maria Montessori, Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, Schocken Books, New York, NY p.132 (1965)


11. Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, Ballantine Books, New York, NY p.132 (1972)


12. Dorothy Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning, Methuen and Co. Ltd., London, Reprinted in Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, Douglas Wilson, Crossway Books, Illinois, p. 162 (1991)



Copyright 1998, 2000, 2001, 2010   All Rights Reserved

Edward G. Walsh, Ph.D., O.C.D.S and Nancy A. Walsh, O.C.D.S.