Before moving to Switzerland I was the administrative head at Rock Creek Montessori, a Montessori pre-school and kindergarten outside of Washington, DC in Maryland. There is a toddler room for children 18 months through 3 years and a primary room for children ages 3 though kindergarten. (Check out their website, www.RockCreekMontessori.com)
Both of my children went there. E started when he was 3 years old and declared himself “bored” at daycare. With H, I had transitioned to being a stay-at-home-parent and so he went into the toddler room for half-days when he turned 18 months old. It wasn’t until the next school year that I started working at Rock Creek.
The root concept of Montessori is that children want to learn. They are naturally curious about the world around them and they want to interact with it. The Montessori classroom is set up to foster independence. The materials are attractively arranged and at exactly the right height for children. They can’t help but want to touch and handle them.
To encourage independence and immersion into the work, the teacher gives the child a long and thorough lesson on the materials and then steps back and has the child do the work themselves. It might be messy. It might not be perfect. But they did it all by themselves.
Montessori carries this into the natural world. Many Montessori schools incorporate gardening and hiking as part of an outdoor classroom. I can’t count how many times I have laundered rocks or other hiking treasures hiding in coat and pant pockets.
Children carry over how they learn in a Montessori classroom into their everyday lives. They ask to help fold towels. They demand to set the table. They beg to stir the sauce for dinner. Our students were so empowered by the Montessori methods that by October the #1 question from parents was “How can I do this at home?”
So how do you make a Montessori home?
What your child is capable of doing? Watch what they do at home. If your child attends a Montessori school, make an appointment to observe them in the classroom. A typical 4 year old in Montessori can peel vegetables; cut carrots, strawberries, and apples; arrange flowers; sew on a button; and set the table – to only name a few! Start making a list of things that they can help with around the house.
What does your child like to do? What are they always asking to help with? Add these to the list you started.
Work with the intention of independence. Look at your list above of what they are capable of doing and what they are doing in school. Think about where these skills can fit in your house. What can you let them do independently. Can they help peel and cut the carrot? Can they set the table? Can they iron the napkins? Can they make the table center piece? Can you let them do all of this independently?
Prepare the environment and materials. Once you have thought through what they can do in the home it’s time to think about how they will do their tasks. You want to set everything up for the greatest chance of success and so they can work independently as possible.
If they are going to set the table, move the plates, silverware, napkins, and cups down to a drawer or cupboard at their level.
If they are going to peel and cut carrots for salad, you will need to make sure they can reach the counter comfortably, have a peeler that fits their hands (like this one), and a knife they can use (a serrated paring knife or one of these from Small Hands is great).
Books! Books! Books! Get plenty of books on all sorts of different topics and subjects that might interest your children. If you can, let them have their own book cases in an area of the house that can be for them. E has a case in his own special nook. H has his case in his bedroom. Both the boys have the two lower shelves of the bookcase in our living room.
Rearrange their dresser to that they can get their own clothes out in the morning. Dreading what combination of clothes they are going to put together? No problem! One mom gave me the great hint of rolling up complete outfits at the beginning of the week and then letting them choose which roll they will wear each day. No arguments and no stress. Start them early enough in the “getting dressed” process so they have time to finish dressing themselves in the morning before school.
Take time to teach. Just like a Montessori teacher has to give a lesson before the child can do the work, so must you. The Montessori teacher physically demonstrates and verbally coaches the student through the process the first, second, and maybe even third time. Then they hang back and observe as the child works independently. Occasionally (about every third time) they will sit in on the work and make suggestions for improvement. For example, while washing the table they might suggest making smaller circles around the edge of the table and bigger circles in the middle. In order to set your child up for success you also must take the time to teach them the task, observe, and make suggestions for improvement over the next several weeks.
Let go of perfection. Whatever your child does, it’s not going to be perfect. Just like nothing we do is perfect. The sooner you accept that, the happier you’ll be. Your child is going to try their best, however. Remember, all this is new to them. They don’t have the years of practice that we have to make things just so. Let it go and let them try. The more they practice the more skilled they will become.
Embrace messes. My children can make a mess like they are being paid six-figures to make that mess. Part of it is the joy of making messes. When they are doing a household task the mess happens because they are still learning. And on top of that they are still developing their fine motor skills.
Montessori in my home
I am all about using my kids’ Montessori education in my home. The minute my boys started asking to help with things I started celebrating. It is so much easier to establish the pattern of helping out and taking responsibility for chores early. If their job at age 3 is to fold washcloths and put them away, they won’t find it weird at age 10 when their job is to put the laundry in the wash and then fold it when it is dry.
I’m not saying that my children go whistling to work like Snow White’s seven dwarves every time there are chores to do. I get a symphony of groans, a good old-fashioned ‘No’ or two, and (my personal favorite) the I-have-homework-to-do dodge. However, they know how to do it, they know I expect them to do it, and they do, actually, enjoy completing it.
My son, E, is now 9 years old. He is great at folding towels and will soon learn how to wash clothes. He runs the vacuum whenever he’s angling for something or time on the iPad. He also makes his own lunch and baking has become a new interest.
My son, H, is 5 years old. He can handle folding washcloths. He loves the Swiffer Sweeper and Mop. He is a champion duster, shoe straightener, and bed maker. He begs to “do everything” for the pizza dough.
Other things they can do is dust (my goodness do they love any task that involves a spray bottle), feed the cat, wash dishes, and bring in the newspaper or mail from the mailbox. And since we are in Switzerland, E is viewed as old enough to go to the grocery story by himself to do a little shopping.
Montessori isn’t solely about teaching children how to do chores. I get kind of carried away on the practice life aspect of Montessori because my boys’ help makes a huge impact on my life. Montessori also teaches them about order and process and analysis. When they are interested in something, like nautilus shells or Napoleon Bonaparte, they know how to do the research, process what they have learned, and report it out – either verbally or in writing.
Performing scientific experiments is a major part of my boys’ lives. They don’t even fully realize it (well, E is starting to), but they know all about asking a question, forming a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis, and forming conclusions. Today E noticed that the Kindle was reflecting light onto the fridge. We talked about it and I suggested he take my pocket mirror and see if it reflected light in the same way. He told me all the ways he noticed they were different and we had a good discussion about reflectivity of certain materials. That is science.
You don’t need to do all this to bring Montessori into your home. I have and it has worked for us, but my family is not your family. Do what works for your family. If your child attends a Montessori school I highly recommend that you speak to the teacher. They know your child well and they can give you tons of suggestions on other Montessori resources to explore.
Frankly, the most Montessori thing you can do is to give your children the freedom to explore their environment independently, the proper materials to research with, and answer their questions with questions.
I will close with this thought. If you can do one thing Montessori for your child, say “yes” more often. Say yes to their requests to help. Say yes when they want to go to the zoo. Say yes when they ask you for one more story. My default a lot of times is a quick “no.” I am busy. I am in my own head. I don’t have the patience to say “yes.” But when I do say “yes” it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for my children and our family.
For Small Hands. www.ForSmallHands.com. Montessori materials for families.
Montessori Services. http://www.montessoriservices.com. More for schools, but it still has some great stuff for homes. This is the sister organization to For Small Hands.
Center for Montessori Education at Loyola. They offer training courses through many off-site partners across the United States and they have an on-site training program at Washington Montessori Institute. They also have excellent Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree programs in Montessori education.
Martha Lange. Martha is the founder of Rock Creek Montessori school. She also consults parents on how to set up Montessori homes. She is currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.