Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Flower Dissection

"Once I tried to show some children how a flower should be dissected, and for this purpose I supplied all the necessary instruments: the botanist's needle, pincers, etc., just as is done in the university for the experiments in the natural science. My only aim was to see whether the preparations which university students make for botanical anatomy were in any way adaptable to the needs of little children. Even at the time when I studied in the botanical laboratory at the university I felt that these exercises in the preparation of material might be put to such use. Students know how difficult it is to prepare a stem, a stamen, an epithelium, for dissection, and how only with difficulty the hand, accustomed for years exclusively to writing, adapts itself to this delicate work. Seeing how skillful our children were with their little hands I decided to give them a complete scientific outfit and to test by experiment whether the child mind and the characteristic manual dexterity shown by children were not more adapted to such labors than the mind and hand of a nineteen-year old student.
My suspicion proved correct. The children with the keenest interest dissected a section of violet with remarkable accuracy, and they quickly learned to use all the instruments. But my greatest surprise was to find that they did not despise or throw away the dissected parts, as we older students used to do. With great care, they placed them all in an attractive order on a piece of white paper, as if they had in mind some secret purpose."
-Dr. Maria Montessori, The Advanced Montessori Method, 1917

For most people, a dissection set would not be something you would expect to find in a preschool classroom. Nevertheless, Flower Dissection is a classic Montessori lesson, which happens to fit in very nicely with our summer units of study- botany, arthropods, and pollinators. The children have been learning to identify the parts of plants and learning about the functions of the different structures. Flowers are particularly interesting to children because of their diversity and their beauty, and they are crucial to achieving an understanding of the life cycle of plants (and an understanding of how plant structures relate to their functions and plant adaptations). Like any Montessori work, entrusting the child with real, high quality, adult tools, which are appropriate for their development and to the work at hand, conveys an attitude of respect for the child and for the work with which they are engaged.

Dissection begins with selecting a suitable flower (lilies, tulips, daffodils, alstroemarias, and gladiolus work best).

Then, the child identifies and removes the sepals (which make up the calyx) and the petals (which make up the corolla); these structures are really just modified leaves. Together, they are called the perianth. It is particularly interesting to discuss the nectar guides (markings which are sometimes visible to humans that are believed to make the flower more attractive to pollinators and particularly visible under UV light). Additionally, the child will probably be surprised by the amount of nectar and pollen which is visible.

Then the child can carefully remove the stamens and identify the anther, filament, and pollen sacs.

Finally, the child can locate the pistil (and identify the stigma, style, and ovary). A quick cut through the center of the ovary reveals the seed-like structures called the ovules, which contains the unripe female sex cells and become the seeds when fertilized).

The duration and quality of the children's attention to this work is just as remarkable as Montessori described. Many of them were driven to repeat the activity several times with different types of flowers

and, as Dr. Montessori correctly observed, the children were keenly interested in carefully preserving the dissected structures. I am always amazed by how aptly her observations correctly describe the abilities and aptitudes of children educated according to her principles nearly one hundred years later (and by how radical her ideas may still appear).


  1. What a lovely description of the work! I was just thinking the same thing as you yesterday while reading one of Dr. Montessori's texts: It's amazing (and yet so obvious) that 100 years later, children develop in the same way they did when she observed them. Thank you for sharing such a great activity!

  2. Thank you for your kind comment! The Advanced Montessori Method is one of my favorite texts to re-read!
    I am such a big fan of your blog, and more than a little envious of your training at Bergamo. How is it going? I hope you will share details about what it is like to train there (for now, I will have to live vicariously).

    Thank you again!