There is No "Outdoor Voice"

And Why Montessori Classrooms are So Quiet!

As a preschool teacher, the idea of "indoor" and "outdoor" voices is pretty well-established. And I get the idea of it - it's usually more socially acceptable to have louder voices outside than it is inside and we can "contain" the noise level of thirty 3-6 year olds by having an indoor/outdoor voice rule. But there's a problem: it's not true.

Not all inside spaces require quiet voices and not all outdoor spaces are loud (and furthermore, just because you are outside doesn't mean you automatically have to be loud!). Sure, libraries are quiet, but basketball stadiums are loud (and they are both "inside). A rally is often loud, but a redwood forest is quiet (and they are both "outside"). Now this may seem like a few exceptions to the rule, but when we have a blanket rule that doesn't really fit the child's experiences, it starts to feel arbitrary and imposed. And when things feel this way to children, they not only tend to rebel against these rules, but they also only stay within the rule when there is someone present to impose it. This teaches them to look outward (at the adult, the rules, and if someone is watching), instead of inward. Looking inward is what we are really trying to get at, isn't it? So instead of "indoor" and "outdoor" voices, what we should be spending our time teaching is how to "read the room." Because when we teach the child to pay attention to their surroundings, we give them a tool to understand and appropriately respond to new experiences and social situations. This helps the child develop social-emotional intelligence, self-regulation and social competence - all of which will allow the child to more successfully navigate new spaces. So let's consider a few ways we can do this.


1. "Read the Room"

If the child's voice level or energy level is greater than what seems appropriate, get down to their level and watch the world from their eyes. Point out the things you see that you are paying attention to so that they know where the clues are. 

  • In a quiet forest: "Listen, do you hear anyone else's voice? What do you hear? The birds? I bet there are actually a lot of people hear trying to listen to the birds or the stream. Our voices are going to be low so that everyone can listen to the forest. What do you hear?"
  • At a restaurant: "Can you hear what the people at that table are talking about? No? Isn't that interesting, we can hear their voices, but not their conversation. We don't have to whisper, but we can keep our conversation just to our table."
  • In a classroom: "Did you see Sarah look up when you and I were talking? She was concentrated, but our voice was loud enough that it distracted her! We should quiet our voice just a little so that we can still chat, but she can focus on her activity."

2. Their Age Matters

The child's ability to regulate their body, actions, and words is relative to where they are on the spectrum of developing "executive functions." These are the higher order abilities of the brain to do more complex tasks like planning, sequencing, remembering two things at the same time, and impulse control (to name a few). While there is some development of these abilities after the first year, there is a tremendous surge in there development between 3-5 years (see chart from Harvard's Center for the Developing Child, 2011) and this means two things:

  • The 0-3 child is at best learning that they should pay attention to these things (but can't quite stop themselves yet). This means we have to show them many times over and it will appear as though they aren't listening, but they are (they just can't get their body on board yet!). This means they need lots of language around the expectations and time - kids this age need more time.
  • The 3-6 child is in a place where there is tremendous potential to develop these skills. This means that we should be actively putting them in situations that allow them to practice impulse control and self-regulation, among others. This means giving them the freedom to be wrong. Let me tell you what I meant by that: a rule is a rule, right? If the rule is quiet voices inside, the second the child has a loud voice, they have broken the rule. Broken rules often have consequences (in this case, perhaps the consequence is leaving the space where they are being too loud). This brings the child away from the community we want them to be in! "Reading the room," on the other hand, is not a rule. A child can use a loud voice and then be clued in to what might be a better choice - they adjust, we acknowledge, they make a better choice, they stay with the community. That process of reflecting and adjusting is self-regulation.

3. Their Environment Matters

So we've established that where you are is going to be relevant to what the social expectations of the space are, but I'd like to go beyond that for a moment because the environment itself matters to how the child interacts with it. Let's consider this example: my 15 month old son climbing a structure. He's sure on his feet, appears well-regulated, calm, joyful, and independent. He is in a space built for the climbing his body and brain are pushing him to master at this moment in his development. 

But take those exact same actions and put them in my kitchen where the "structure" is a chair and desk and somehow in the 3 seconds it took for me to walk from the adjacent room, he is standing on top of my desk shaking the living daylights out of the computer. What was in one space completely appropriate, is NOT OK in another space. 

The point is that the child is developing along a predictable path of development all the time. It doesn't matter where they are or where we are, they are doing this development whether we like it or not. And the spaces that allow the child to do the development they are trying to do, makes them more competent, capable, regulated, and joyful... and THIS is why Montessori classrooms are often so "quiet" (I would say "peaceful" as the room is rarely silent).


4. Montessori Matters

Sometimes people will observe a Montessori classroom and wonder - "How will my 'spirited' child fit into this space!?" - but it is not the child that fits into the space, it is the space that fits the child. Every nook and cranny, every material on the shelf, every carefully placed plant in the Montessori classroom, is meant to be designed to meet the identified developmental needs and interests of the children in that room. The children are free to make choices for themselves, speak for themselves, move themselves, and interact with each other. The children are guided by the adults to understand how to share space with one another, what we expect from one another and how we can navigate difficult encounters. It is this dynamic - the prepared environment, the guiding adult, and the freedom to direct myself - that leads to such peacefulness. This is the foundation of Peace Education that Dr. Montessori spoke so often about and this is the kind of foundation we need for the next generation. 

We would all do well to look at the spaces our children are in - at home, at school, or out at the park - and prepare them to be more aligned to the child's inherent development, guide more (teach less), and give our children the freedom to make their own choices (and adjust to make better ones as needed).

May your voices be loud and soft...depending on where they are :)


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