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When my son turned one, I had no idea what to do with him. He’d only recently become interested in “toys” and not having any background in early childhood education, I was at a loss as to which toys and activities would be best, not only for entertainment, but also to nurture his burgeoning little brain.
Being on an ever-elusive journey toward minimalism and aesthetic beauty, I knew I didn’t want a lot of plastic and battery-operated toys (to each their own). I preferred the look and potential longevity of natural materials but still didn’t know where to start. I wanted our home environment to be enriching and challenging, but in no way was I going to set up a “homeschool” situation (again, to each their own).
Around that time, I stumbled upon an article of one mom’s experience “Montessori-ing” her son’s toys, and I was hooked. I loved everything I was reading about Montessori and have since fallen down a really big Montessori wormhole. I love the emphasis on simplicity, observing your child(ren), and parenting with respect.
The 2020-21 school year looks different for so many families and even more so for parents whose children will not be in any sort of preschool/Mother’s Day Out program this fall. You may feel your child will fall behind on skill development or you may be at your wits end scrolling through Instagram and Pinterest, cherry-picking different activities that seem like your child may like, only to end up dumping one more sensory bin in the backyard.
If I may, I believe Montessori is the perfect solution for parents who’ve chosen not to put their children in preschool or Mother’s Day Out this fall, who want a laid back yet enriching home environment, don’t want to miss out on learning, and want to truly engage with their child in a meaningful way.
What Is Montessori?
I think it’s important to understand how Montessori came to be in order to implement it in our homes and parenting. Dr. Maria Montessori was the first female physician in Italy at the turn of the twentieth century. Soon after starting her medical practice, she began studying children in the worst slums of Rome, children deemed “defective” by society. Dr. Montessori applied the same objective and scientific observation from her medical training to see what how the children engaged, how they learned, and how she could facilitate that learning. (Read The Secret of Childhood for more in-depth explanation.)
She experimented and immersed herself in the world of these children, changing up educational materials and their environment. Eventually, the majority of the children passed the state exam with higher marks than children without disabilities. She was hailed as a miracle worker. (Read The Montessori Toddler for more information.)
Her approach is not what we think of as “traditional education” where a teacher stands at the front of the classroom and provides a top-down approach to learning. Instead, in Montessori, there is a relationship between the adult/teacher, the child, and the environment to facilitate learning. The child is, in essence, in charge of his or her own learning, and is supported by the adult and the environment.
Materials (or activities or toys) are laid out on shelves, only a few at a time, and the child is encouraged to work through the materials at their own pace. The activities and materials are age- and developmentally-appropriate. How do you decide what activities to put out? By observation.
Observing the Child
One of the most helpful things I’ve learned from Montessori is to observe my children, what they seem interested in, what is challenging for them, and conversely, what’s too easy for them. This requires not only noting what they seem to be into at the moment, but also a lot of self-restraint: In Montessori, the children are encouraged to discover and complete activities on their own with very little help from an adult as a way to gain mastery of the skills they’re working on.
More than I want my children to be smart, I want them to be filled with intrinsic motivation. And through Montessori, I’ve learned that a lot of the behaviors us parents may deem as “annoying” are actually developmentally expected. For instance, the need to climb. This is a real need for toddlers development so rather than continuing to admonish my son for climbing up on the fireplace, I take him outside so he can climb his playset or the rock wall around the garden.
Preparing the Environment
Preparing the environment is a huge component of Montessori and one quick #montessori search on Instagram or Pinterest is sure to yield millions of images of beautiful, neutral playrooms and toys. The basic idea is that the adult prepares the play environment by making sure everything is organized, accessible, and complete. For example, puzzles should have all their pieces and rather than having all the pieces put together, Montessori would encourage the pieces to be placed in a small dish or basket so the child has the motivation to put the puzzle together for himself or herself — it’s not done for the child.
In my house, we have a 2×4 cube bookshelf from IKEA that I use for our Montessori activities. I switch them out every week or so (which is on the frequent side due to all the time we spend at home). There’s a fantastic free 44-page activity guide on The Montessori Notebook that has ideas arranged by age.
Another aspect of Montessori that I love is the emphasis on “practical life.” This means involving your children in the everyday things you do around your house. To wit: There’s a reason parents scoop up the Melissa and Doug mini cleaning sets the second their child tries to sweep with their adult-sized broom. Montessori believed children want to help and want to be engaged in their home and family life. Yes, it’ll take a lot longer (but where do you have to be?), and yes, it may not be perfect (fix after they’ve left the room; never in front of them!) but you’re building such valuable skills surrounding what it means to live in a family and take care of our belongings.
It’s important to have child-sized implements for them to engage in practical life activities (hence why the aforementioned Melissa and Doug cleaning sets are so wildly popular). I’ve got child-size kitchen implements and gardening tools, and my son can reach all of them without my help. And my heart swells with pride every time he gets up from his child-sized table and chairs to throw his snack wrapper in the trash without my asking.
Giving It a Try
There are a lot of misconceptions about Montessori, so I’d challenge you to suspend them for a minute and do a little of your own research. Montessori life has led to so much peace, joy, and learning in our home over the past year.
Yes, the materials can get expensive — aren’t most toys expensive?! — but the longevity of sturdy toys will outpace that of the plastic, battery-operated ones. Montessori would advocate for fewer, better things anyway. Check local consignment sales/stores and the Facebook marketplace. I can’t tell you how much of our activities are second-hand or DIY. Even just simply reducing the number of toys or activities that your child has access to (whether they’re Montessori or not!) can make a huge difference.
The thing I love most about Montessori is that my son (and soon my daughter) is learning to do things by himself and gets the complete satisfaction of doing so. I love tapping into his natural desire to learn and watching what interests him at any given point in time. And learning how to communicate respectfully with my children has truly changed our parenting, which I can only imagine will affect my children’s parenting one day, and their children’s parenting. Montessori has been such a gift, and I highly recommend you give it a try!