Saturday, September 1, 2012

Montessori at Home

Montessori in the home is simple.  A couple aspects to consider for children under three ought to be, using clear and precise language, and preparing an environment that fosters independence and activity that builds concentration/work.  Montessori said, "never give more to the mind than you give to the hand," when talking about children under six, as they are sensorial learners (they learn by using their senses to take in information), and this is foundational in choosing appropriate activities for young children.

Designing the Home Environment
I’ll be the first to admit that keeping a beautiful and clutter-free environment for our children is challenging, especially since I've been rather untidy my entire life, and especially because we live in relatively close quarters... we have a tiny house!  The way I address this is: 1. starting with my sons' bedroom - if no other room is clean, that one MUST BE.  I put very little "stuff" in their room - a place to sleep, a place to dress, a few toys, a few books, and a rocking chair.  2. in the rest of the house we try to keep the children's things uncluttered and within their reach.

In the dining room we have a shelf with their dishes, child-sized real plates, bowls, cups, and silverware, and to the side a basket of spill towels, and a shelf with their art activities (their sketch books, a small basket of pencils, a box of crayons).  They also have child-height tables and chairs for eating snacks, and doing art activities, along with chairs that sit right up to our table for dinner and other family meals and activities.  In the kitchen we have a learning tower that allows them to work with us at the stove and sink while preparing dinner, and Dominic now easily reaches the water dispenser on the refrigerator if he needs a drink (you might consider a small step stool if your child is too short).  In the living room we have a shelf that has no more than 3 toys per linear shelf (9 toys at a time) and a tiny walker wagon with 10-15 library books for them to choose from.  I also have one side-table that I put out one library book that links to one of their toys (right now it is Block City by Robert Louis Stevenson, and the bucket of their building blocks, a farm book with a farm toy would be great, a book of puzzles next to a puzzle, etc).  In the restroom, we have a small baby bjorn potty chair, a step stool to climb onto the toilet, and are still hunting for a better step stool to reach the sink for hand-washing (the top step is barely too high, the bottom step is just barely too low), they also have a small shelf unit that has their bath toys, pajamas, underpants, and cloth diapers.  For a long time we kept our sons' clothes on an open shelf in their room so they could independently change or get dressed in the morning.  We’ve used a dresser for a few months now because Liam was interested in throwing all the clothes to the floor a few times a day, which Dominic never did, so this process of preparing the environment is ongoing - we may move back to open shelving as Liam starts wearing underpants regularly.

The rest of their toys are on high shelves in their closet or in an otherwise empty dresser for rotation - they do not have access to the stored toys until another toy gets put out of rotation.  I also have a hutch in the dining room that has the rest of our art supplies, a couple special paper options (including card stock for making cards and gift tags, watercolor paper, black card stock for using metallic pencils and pastels), craft paint, water color boxes (an artist friend who teaches finds Crayola to be the highest quality water colors for children - the price of professional watercolors is absurd and the quality is not *that much better* in her opinion, HEB watercolors are comparable), painting aprons, and my personal art supplies are there as well.

As far as the home environment is concerned - less is always more when it comes to quantity, and higher quality is always better when it comes to aesthetic.  Montessori always said we ought to give the best to the smallest.  Hang REAL artwork at your child's eye-level (cheap frames from somewhere like IKEA are great and glass-free, or just mount printed pictures on a neutral colored board or cut out a mat from a cereal box!).  Give opportunities for control of movement by offering real child-sized drinking glasses, real plates, real child-sized silverware; breakable is fine for children... the only way they learn to be careful is by having opportunities to exercise care!

You'll know it is time to rotate toys when a child is just dumping them all on the floor without engaging in further play or if every toy is being used as a projectile.  For Liam, who is teething again and putting everything in his mouth, we pulled out some of those plastic baby chain links from the garage and put a couple around the house to offer as teething rings: "The horse (or lego man, or train, or pencil, etc) is in your mouth, do you need a teething ring?" he immediately spits any unwanted object out of his mouth, and he knows right where to find the teething rings.

Work of the Child
First and foremost, Maria Montessori was all about children doing real purposeful work.  So... let your child assist you in the real work of the home!  Young children love to contribute and even LOVE the repetition of tedious work - rolling up the hand towels, dusting tiny tchotchkes and shelves, clearing the table one dish at a time, wiping up spills, cleaning windows, stirring sauce at a simmer, etc.  In our home, this means some things don’t always look perfect (... that’s a surprise to you isn’t it?).  In our home, this means some simple tasks take longer than if I did them myself.  

Some ways we involve Dominic (3 yrs) and Liam (20 mos) include:  
  • keeping a basket of spill towels on the floor in the kitchen/dining room so they can wipe up little spills - this is Liam's, favorite practical life work right now;  
  • inviting Dominic to fold the diaper inserts in thirds, to roll the hand towels, and to roll the kitchen and spill towels when we do laundry - sometimes he is all over this, other times he just throws our unfolded laundry in the air while we’re folding (so we’ll hand him the towels and underwear and let him go to town as we complete the more serious folding);  
  • setting a small laundry basket in the boys’ room so they can easily put slam-dunk their clothes when they take them off;
  • pulling a learning tower up to the stove while cooking dinner; I usually do the majority of the chopping and prep (though we do have child-safe knives they can use), while Dominic sprinkles the spices, grinds the pepper, and stirs the food with Liam observing on the tower;
  • allowing Dominic to make my morning coffee in our single-serve coffee maker - he turns on the coffee maker, scoops the grinds into the filter, puts the filter in the maker, situates the coffee cup while he waits for the maker to be ready, presses the brew button, pours the cream, adds the sugar, and stirs it for me... and LOVES THIS.
  • Other ways to involve children could include: hanging a thin rope between two dining room chairs or buying a folding drying rack to let a child hang some laundry to dry (her own underpants, socks, or shirts), placing a tray with a cup and small pitcher of water to allow children to pour their own drinks (this was too much for Liam, so we’ll bring this out again in a few months).  

For art, try to keep activities as open-ended as possible - demonstrating just the technique (holding the brush/pencil, the lightness of putting the bristles to the paper, etc) so they can freely explore different media.  I've really enjoyed buying an inexpensive spiral-bound sketch book from HEB for each child and putting the date on their work as they are doing it - it's an easy way to "archive" their work and to see their progress; the paper is higher quality than printer paper, which we had used in the past.  I have had very limited success attempting craft projects (the kind that are supposed to produce a specific product) with my children because their interest is not as great as mine, and they tend to work longer and more intently when they are just “doing art.”  Because Liam is into everything these days, I keep the paints up higher, and offer them when I am available to sit with them at the table until Liam finishes.  If Liam is napping, Dominic is completely capable of watercoloring independently, though.

Because of the innate interest in working with the family, toys are not nearly as high-priority as society would want you to think.  When bringing new toys into the house (because it is such a small house and we do not have space for loads of toys), we ask the questions: 
  1. is it more entertaining and less interactive, 
  2. does the toy annoy me either in sound or appearance (adults live in this house, too, after all!), 
  3. is there more than one way to play with it or use it at home, 
  4. do we already have something that serves the same function?  
If even one of the answers is 1. yes, 2. yes, 3. no, 4. yes, the toys do not come into the house, or if they are the same as something we already have, we choose between the old one and the new one to avoid over-crowding (and then donate the duplicate).  We prefer toys that encourage active independent and creative play or activity that is engaging for me as a parent in interacting with my children: we like blocks, train tracks, a couple farm house sets, lots of "little" legos and lego people, puzzles, a few babies/stuffed animals, and TONS of books that have realistic fiction or non-fiction subject matter (more on book selection in another post!).

I've really loved taking the kids to the library to play and look at a book or two while I comb the shelves at a distance and choose a variety of books for them to check out that I think will suit their current interests - this will be my way of fending off "junk" reading as long as possible.   For screen time, we just don’t do it 99.5% of the time.  On occasion we like Planet Earth and Blue Planet (the latter available on Netflix), as both are EXCELLENT nature documentary series by the BBC and appropriate for children over 2.5.  Liam is not yet two, and we follow the American Pediatric Association’s suggestions regarding screen time; after much research about detrimental affects of screen time in young children (language delay, learning and concentration disorders, etc), we just don't feel that it is worth the potential problems - Dominic only watches if/when Liam is asleep or out of the house.

Beyond every-day family involvement and activity, clear and precise language will help your child's own communication and independence tremendously.  Naming things as accurately and clearly as possible helps him to hear every sound, and see each sound formed in your mouth.  It can be so tempting to hear a child's cute attempt at a word and run with it as the way to say that word (and we do this sometimes at our house, too).  Some suggestions from my time working as an assistant in a Montessori environment: 
  • instead of "boo boo," say scrape, cut, or bump; 
  • instead of any other words, say the correct words for parts of the body; 
  • instead of bird, maybe say cardinal or scarlet tanager, etc.  
Not only does this approach grow the child's vocabulary, but it can diminish frustration in communicating needs.  This approach can also incite curiosity about things that we love - for me, that is birds or plants, for you, it might be cars and articles of clothing... share what you love, of course!

To share a personal example, for a while, one of my sons called every animal “woof,” and we just affirmed what he was seeing, “Oh, you see the rhinoceros?... Yes, there is a cat. ... Those squirrels are running around the tree!”  It was terribly cute to repeat “woof,” when he saw animals, but in the interest of helping him to better understand the world around him, we offered more vocabulary rather than giving in to pointing out every “woof” we came across at the zoo.  Words that describe sensory experiences are also great for enriching a child’s vocabulary: cold, soft, wet, scratchy, humid, sticky.  Along those lines, I love cooking with Dominic and letting him smell and name the spices we add to our food.

While this is a lot of information in one post, it is actually simple to implement, especially if it is addressed in phases.  As always, feel free to post comments/questions/disagreement below or in an e-mail to me!  This is a favorite topic of mine and brevity is not my forte!

1 comment:

  1. fascinating! I've naturally gravitated to the toy rotation bit simply b/c Sam has way too many toys and never plays with them much anyway. I really need to get rid of some, but most were given to us for free and I know Sam and future kids will love them (like doll houses with a million pieces, a mismatched train set and blocks)