Sunday, November 27, 2011

Montessori at Home

So what the heck is Montessori anyway? 
It is super hard to describe all that Montessori is! Liam's toddler room teacher said that the best way to describe it, is to see it in action, visit a Montessori classroom. From my experience, it will be transforming. But here is my best definition:
Montessori is an educational formula, or suggestions of ways to help a child develop based on Maria Montessori's observations of children (that have been validated by many recent research studies. PS My next book to devour is Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius). A Montessori school embodies her key concepts or principles. Here is an article that offers a quick summary of the 5 basic principles of Montessori.

Our experience with Montessori

We were first introduced to the world of Montessori by my lovely (and newly married!) cousin Therese, who was at the time, going to school to become an accredited Montessori teacher. She would talk about all the neat 'toys' they had for the kids and the theories about development and she kept telling me how much Liam (and I) would love it. She was also pointing out how some of the things that I was doing with Liam were already very Montessori-like. I had no idea what she was talking about, since I was just raising him how I was raised. Letting him (safely) explore the cupboards, pulling everything out to examine it. Letting him help out with anything and everything I was doing, from laundry to dishes. Knowing that making a 'mess' was actually part of a child's development and that it was ok. I was just letting him do the things he liked to do and giving him the opportunity to play with the things that he seemed drawn to. I was just doing what I thought was normal parenting, what my mom did with us (thanks Mom!). Turns out, my mom, like me and many other moms out there, without knowing it, used a few of Montessori's key principles. Why? Well, most of Montessori's principles are based on common sense and simple observation of children.  My mom once said that her goal was to raise well rounded independent children and I think that is the a very important aspect of Montessori. Encouraging independence. Sometimes it is easier than others.  Liam and I (and most other kids) demanded independence. My mom likes to say my favourite phrase when I was young was "No! I do it MYSELF!", now I smile whenever one of my kids says that.

Any child who is self-sufficient, who can tie his shoes, dress or undress himself, reflects in his joy and sense of achievement the image of human dignity, which is derived from a sense of independence.
   -    Maria Montessori 

Allowing and guiding your child to be independent is very difficult. Letting go, letting them do it themselves, trying and failing and trying again, waiting for them to put on their shoes, it is very hard to do. Parents just want to DO things for their kids. They dress them, they carry them, they undress them, and then they plop them down infront of a toy to play. But I've learned that children are not dolls, they are not incapable, they do not just want to be entertained, they are human beings who want to learn and grow up. If you do everything for them, when they have the ability to do it themselves, they miss out on the opportunity to be independent. Yes, yes, eventually they will learn to tie their own shoes, but if they are 6 years old before they can put ON their own shoes they have missed at least three and a half years of being able to do it themselves (that's also why god invented velcro).

If teaching is to be effective with young children, it must assist them to advance on the way to independence. It must initiate them into those kinds of activities which they can perform themselves and which keep them from being a burden to others because of their inabilities. We must help them to learn how to walk without assistance, to run, to go up and down the stairs, to pick up fallen objects, to dress and undress, to wash themselves, to express their needs in a way that is clearly understood, and to attempt to satisfy their desires through their own efforts. All this is part of an education for independence." 
- The Discovery of the Child, Maria Montessori 

While I was pregnant with Adeleine, Therese gave me a book called "Montessori from the Start: The child at home, from birth to age three" and I began to devour it. There were so many common sense ideas in there that were simple to implement and we started to use them immediately. The concepts influenced the design of our nursery and Liam's new room. That book was a quick education on child development as well as a guide to making our home more child-friendly (note that this is very different from child-proof). It encourages parents to change the way they view their children and their play (work). It gives practical suggestions on how to change their environment to encourage growth and development. Amazing amazing book. Flipping through it today makes me want to read it again because I'm sure there are a ton of things we could still do. So much MORE!

The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.
 - Maria Montessori

Some of the things we were able to implement immediately after reading this book were:

Child friendly cupboards and drawers. We went beyond making our kitchen and bathrooms safe (taking out all medications and potentially poisonous items), we made sure that any cupboard or drawer accessible at the child level was theirs to explore. We put all sharp or otherwise dangerous objects in ONE cupboard and put a lock on it. All other cupboards and drawers and all the objects in it are free for exploring. It is encouraged and often used. Liam once (ok several times) took out all my canned goods and made a train all the way across the kitchen floor. He often used the lettuce strainer as a push toy when learning to walk. Adeleine delights in taking out the contents of drawers. If you look at these activities as a child being 'bad', misusing objects or making a mess, you have missed the point.  Exploring their environment and all the objects in it (not just toys) is a very important part of learning about the world and at the same time encourages development of motor skills. 

Low hooks and shelves. We installed very low shelving in Liam's room. Like, really low shelves. Shelves so low a 2 year old can reach them in order to pick out his own books. We also have a set of hooks about 3 feet off the ground so that Liam can get and hang up his own coat. There are lots of low shelves with toys in baskets in the basement. Anything that is his, we put at his level so he doesn't have to ask us to get it, he can just do it himself.

Child sized cleaning tools. Liam has his own little mop, broom and tiny dustpan. When I mop, he helps. He can also help clean up floor crumbs with his sweeper and dustpan. Does he use these things everyday? Nope. But when he does, he's developing motor skills and a sense of self-sufficiency and purpose.

Using breakable things. When the kids are old enough not to play the "Uh oh!" game, where they purposely drop things on the floor (Adeleine LOVES this game right now), we give them real place settings. Not plastic. Real glass cups, real breakable plates, real metal forks - all small of course. They are at a grown up table (both kids use the Stokke chairs so they can eat with us) eating grown up food, using grown up place settings. It teaches them how to use these things properly and they learn very quickly what breakable means and to watch your elbows when your glass is near the edge of the table. You would think we lose a glass or a dish every night - not so. We have lost maybe 2 little plates and 3 glasses in the last 2 years. But, we can go to a restaurant and Liam (at the age of three) can confidently use everything at the table. I've seen six year olds whose parents bring plastic glasses to restaurants because they can't trust their child not to break something. It is because those children have simply not been given the opportunity to learn how to use breakable things.

Child friendly bathrooms. Step stool high enough to reach the taps. Toothbrush, toothpaste, towel, soap all within a child's reach. Liam can go to the toilet, then wash and dry his hands all on his own. He doesn't need adult help. He does however still need a reminder to use the soap. 

Nursery and child room design. Neutral colours that won't distract from the contents of the room. Beautiful things on the walls (Liam has a Redwood tree, a map of the world and a tree design). A place to sit and work (he has a little table with two chairs). A place for books with low shelves (as mentioned above). Accessible clothing drawers. We also have a plant for him to care for (we have a GIANT plant. It is ridiculous. I would not recommend a giant plant since it takes up so much space, a small one is fine) and he trims of the dead leaves and waters it (Liam learned to use scissors when he was just three - don't gasp, he's fine with them). 

Sometimes very small children in a proper environment develop a skill and exactness in their work that can only surprise us. 
 - Maria Montessori

I could go on and on, but most of the stuff is common sense stuff really - make your home accessible and child-friendly and your kid will be able to safely explore and do things for themselves.  There are so many ways of preparing the environment and these are just a few of the things we have implemented. There are tons of articles on how to create a Montessori environment at home, but here is one I'm inspired by.

After we went through Liam's pre-school room experience at daycare we switched him to a Montessori school. AWESOME!!! I'll post more about that later. Now, I'm off to re-read Montessori From The Start.

One last personal example of using Montessori principles without knowing about Montessori: At a very young age, Andrew's grandma used to let him play with the spices. Not just smell them and put them back, but touch, feel, mix and use them in cooking. He would choose the spices. He would make a mess. He would make terrible tasting food that was thrown out instead of eaten. But eventually he learned what spices tasted like in certain foods and what ones went together well. As an adult, just by tasting, Andrew can identify spices used in restaurants and recreate that exact taste at home. He can flavour food like no one I have ever met. He has an incredible natural skill.  He was simply given the opportunity to work with spices. Neat eh?



  1. love it, carrie! you did a great job of describing the basics of Montessori and why its principles are so important to raising an independent child. keep up the good work!

  2. ps: that site you linked to is AMAZING!

  3. Thanks Therese! I love that site too. I just moved his plates and cutlery to a low drawer like in her picture. Liam was thrilled and set his spot at the table that evening! Yay for independence and good little helpers!


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