Order enables us to put things into relationships, and in this sense, it is neither rigid nor compulsory. Montessori observed a characteristic of children through the age of six called the "Absorbent Mind." With this power, available only in those first six years, children take everything in fully and without discrimination (as a picture developed on film). As children take in the external "order" of their worlds with their wholly absorbent and indiscriminate minds, they begin to develop their own internal orders based on their experience with the world around them. Physical order leads to mental order. External order is not limited to the arrangement of a space or tidiness, but also includes sequencing (a logical sequence preferable). Order also relates to the child's communication, as each language has its own particular order - think of how silly the literal translation of Spanish to English can sound because of the internalized order of our language... "the shirt blue" instead of "the blue shirt."
Not only is each child born with a tendency for order, but also between the ages of six months and five years, children are in a sensitive period for the development of order. Montessori observed that during periods of sensitivity, a person more fully, clearly, and perfectly acquires the object of sensitivity through an irresistible impulse for a selective activity. So during this period, children are passionate about the ordering of the world around them, and they can be almost ritualistic in their love of the order of routine. This love of order is deeply connected to the child's sense of security, comfort, and stability. During this time of sensitivity it is important for children to find consistency in their environment, in their daily activity, in their routines, and (equally importantly) in the rules for their freedom and limitations (for what is and is not acceptable).
"So that's a heck of a lot of theory, Renee," you might be thinking, "and my child is in no way 'orderly'... you can come and observe it for yourself, you crazy philosopher!" Rest assured, I hear where you are coming from, and now I do have some practical ideas for fostering this tendency for order.
Because they are drawing from the external environment to construct their internal order, the environment is one of the best starting points for helping our children toward a clear internal order. Consider for a moment, that an extremely orderly/organized system to an adult, can appear to be a chaotic mess to a child. For the most clear example of this, think about a toy box. Imagine opening the lid and looking in - or take a moment and walk over to a toy box to actually look in. What do you see? Toys. Yes, good start. As an adult having toys all in one place is the accomplishment to end all accomplishments! But now consider what your child's life consists of... (a heck of a lot of toys, right?).
Now humor me, and think about what your life consists of... (hair-care regiments, bills, work papers, kitchen utensils, laundry, gardening tools, CD collections, books, clothes, hobbies, that spare bedroom full of stuff, all of your kids toys). Now, for the sake of this exercise, throw all of those things into a box... all of them... bills, hair products, pots and pans, formal wear, your iPad, that vase you got for your wedding, gardening gear... all of it. What do you see in the box? It's ok, step out for some fresh air, dab the sweat from your forehead... this is just an exercise... perhaps a very uncomfortable one, depending on how orderly you are. Now imagine what your child sees when they look into the toy box - chaos, their very distinct toys and activities (their livelihood) junked into a box. I just had a flashback to my high school bedroom during that exercise!
I know, you're thinking, "But, Renee, it is so much easier to throw my kids toys into one box when I clean up at the end of the day or before our guests arrive at our house." My response: "You have to clean up after your kids?" I jest. My life involves some cleaning up after my kid (and I only have one that is mobile, so I can feel your eye lasers, mothers of more than one mobile child! I'll be joining you very soon). When everything is in a jumble there is no inherent motivation for order - it all just gets heaped in and the bottom layer becomes visual noise for the higher layers and it can become impossible to see any one thing in the jumble. So, now we're going to play WWMD (What would Montessori do?).
- Use open shelving within the children's reach. Choose a simple shelf that can serve as a relatively neutral backdrop to your child's toys and activities. (suggestions for that big box in a moment)
- Weed through your child's toys. Is it appropriate for her age? Is it in good repair? Get rid of things that are neither, or put things away that will be used by another child down the road. Another (personal) criteria that I use in weeding, is that anything that makes noise that I cannot stand is a goner... I supplement the need for music with real music and real musical instruments that do not enrage me with their nuisance... sometimes I just remove batteries if a toy serves another non-annoying function. If you are not annoyed by your child's toys, keep them and do not tell anyone that I told you that you "have to" get rid of them - that's not how I roll... these are suggestions for order, not orders.
- Before you put any of the age-appropriate toys in-good-repair on the shelf, think about what your child actually plays with. By "actually plays with," I mean spends time using as it is intended - not just picking it up and tossing it aside to get to the next thing. This step will require a little observation, and is more of a process than a "do it, did it, done" type of step.
- The younger the child, the fewer things should be accessible at any time (for 2 and 3-yr-olds, a good rule is no more than 3 items per shelf). Begin putting the bare essential minimum of things that she loves and uses daily on the shelf (maybe the train set in its own special container, a puzzle, and a favorite truck). Observe to see how this changes the way your child plays - my prediction is that your child will spend more focused time with the few activities she loves.
- Keep the excess toys in a place that you can get to them to rotate with the ones on the shelf. As your child stops playing with one toy, remove it and offer something new. Maybe use the former toy-box for this purpose in a closet or in a different room.
- Group similar things together (just like you separate your hair products from your kitchen utensils). Baskets of similar things are a great way to offer a variety of things in an orderly way. We have a basket full of percussion instruments on the living room shelf, a tray of cars on the kitchen shelf, and a tray with a few dinosaur cards on Dominic's bedroom shelf. Don't overcrowd with too many of the same type of thing (one or two puzzles at a time). If you have to stack it, simplify it, and use the rotation strategy. A note about containers - if your child cannot see into it, she will likely ignore it altogether, so use shallow/open baskets and trays that easily reveal their contents.
- Have a specific place on the shelf for each thing - and STICK TO IT. Because they are so sensitive to order, they may struggle to clean up if they do not know exactly where to return a toy or activity. Your child will begin to internalize this order and might spontaneously clean up without you asking - or at least begin to restore order when prompted and assisted. There is also inherent motivation for order when the shelves are sparse, clean, and simple.
- Keep observing and adapting to your child's needs and interests.
If things are being misused or mistreated, remove them immediately as the offense is happening. Explain or show the correct way to use the item and let the child know that it will return when she is ready to use it the right way (young children do not respond well to lectures, so use concise and clear language: "The blocks are for building. You are throwing the blocks. I am going to put the blocks in a safe place until you are ready to build with the blocks." Then do exactly that - no giving in to pouting or tantrums - just assure your child that the toy will return, and try to direct the child to something else.) Keep the toy put away for a few days, and when you are ready to try again, ask the child if he is interested to try xyz toy again; state or show the right way to use it when you bring it back out to the shelf. Be consistent and remove it again if the same offense continues - for a very young child, a redirection may be effective instead of removing the blocks each time a block is thrown, for instance, "you are throwing blocks. blocks are for building. balls are for throwing. where is a ball?" Children feel secure knowing that you are saying things that you mean, and that you will help them when they need it. It also reinforces their sense of order to experience consistency - even when it is consistency that leads to the toys being removed from the shelf.
At one point we removed all of Dominic's toys one evening before bed. He was having a tantrum and refusing to put anything away (even with Ryan and I doing all of the cleaning - he would not pick up a single item), this was the culmination of several days of willy nilly cleaning up and lackadaisical reinforcement of our rule for cleaning up after ourselves. We put the toys away on a high shelf in his closet, leaving his toy shelf bare except for his lamp. The following day we returned one toy and reminded him to put it away as he finished. The following day we added another toy, and continued reminding him of our rules. Eventually all of his toys were returned to his shelf and he returned to the habit of putting each activity away as he finished it. He was probably about 18 months old. He was not miserable when he had limited toys, and quite the contrary, he was more successful with the skill we were trying to emphasize (cleaning up) because he was able to better focus on that task with fewer items to manage. Often children struggle to meet our standards because we are giving them too much all at once and then we give up entirely, thinking that they just cannot do it, or that they are too young.
I'd like to remind my readers that my certification is for children 3-6 years old, and my studies beyond that age range are more heavily focused in the first three years of life. While these young children are in a formative stage for order, children older than six have a higher propensity for clutter (is that the right word?), meaning they can more easily navigate more complex organizational systems by reading labels on boxes or understanding larger groupings. A child of this age could also be extremely helpful in designing a system for keeping her toys orderly if asked good questions to lead her toward a system - what things do you need to get to often, what toys do you play with less frequently, etc. For instance, an art box might be plenty organized for an elementary student - to find pastels, pencils, paints, glue, scissors, etc. in one container possibly further divided into baggies or smaller boxes. This would be hugely disorderly for a child under six. Likewise, rather than having one small lego activity on a shelf (which would be appropriate for a child under six), an older child would be better equipped to manage a large container of several distinct lego activities with the instruction booklets available to easily find the handful of pieces needed for this or that star wars vehicle construction project.
What systems do you guys find helpful? Have you noticed any signs of your child's sense of order? Is there anything particular that is totally boggling you?