Sarah Adams, founder of ThePreparedEnvironment, is a Montessori teacher who has been teaching in the public school system in Vancouver for 17 years.
Sarah dispels the myth that a Montessori home is supposed to duplicate a Montessori preschool, while getting to some of the core premises of the Montessori philosophy and how parents can bring those values and practices into their home.
Montessori education was developed by Maria Montessori, a doctor in Italy, over 100 years ago. Dr. Montessori's first school and the materials she created for her program were designed for children that were believed to be unable to learn. Montessori classrooms follow very specific order in teaching the materials, but the philosophy of Montessori can be brought into your home without any specific materials. The general Montessori philosophy is that children naturally learn. We don't have to fill them up with information, we just have to provide an environment that can stimulate them, allow them to follow their interests and work as independently as possible.
We can do this at home by providing low furniture, access to their shoes and jackets, and including them in our daily activities e.g. cooking, taking care of plants, doing laundry, getting dressed, etc. You will often see with a toddler they are frustrated when we do things for them that they are capable of doing themself.
In a Montessori classroom you will see trays with everything a child needs to complete an activity. For example, a jug with water, a cup and perhaps a cloth to wipe up any spills. At home, you don't need to have this set up. Instead, when it's time for water allow the child to pour their own, either from the sink with an appropriate stool or from a jug. At home, they can even practice pouring in the bath!
Another important principle of the Montessori philosophy is "The Prepared Environment", which means anywhere that you and your child may be where everything is set up for them to complete an activity without frustration. All the materials they will need are available and in good working order. There are no barriers to the activity. At home this might look like having an uncluttered area, where everything they will be using is at the child's level to get out and put away on their own.
There is no "right way" to have a Montessori home. Dr. Montessori developed classrooms and an education system, she did not apply it to homes, or necessarily expect people to have a classroom at home. Her programs were based on observation of the child. So sitting back and watching your child to try to see what their motivation is, jumping in when necessary and holding back when it's going ok, is part of how you can support your child at home as well.
As adults we have to zoom out to see where our child is and where we want them to be, then look at the steps to get from here to there. You wouldn't expect a toddler to make pancakes, but they might be able to pour in the liquid. Gradually, as they are able, they take over more of the steps until when they are 7 or 8 they can do a lot of it by themselves.
There are times in every child's life when it is easy for them to learn certain things. We call these "sensitive periods". When you observe your child becoming very interested, almost hyper-focused on something, they may be entering a sensitive period for that type of learning. When a baby is in a sensitive period for language you may see them watching your lips when you talk, trying different movements with their tongues, making all kinds of sounds. You can capitalize on these sensitive periods by providing many opportunities for learning. When teaching something specific, Montessori teachers will either teach or move, not both at the same time, because children will only focus on one or the other.
Another difference between a Montessori school and home is that a classroom is set up for children specifically, where a home is set up for the whole family. Safety always must come first. You wouldn't see a baby gate in a Montessori school because the space was designed for children, but in a home it would be perfectly appropriate. Sharpies don't need to be available when the child is unsupervised at home, but art supplies would be available all the time in a classroom. People often see Montessori classrooms or materials on social media and all the materials are wood. They feel that's what they need to have in their home, but consider that the materials were designed over 100 years ago and plastic wasn't the everyday material it has become. Wood was what was available. There are certainly many benefits to wood, including longevity and biodegradability, but there's nothing "wrong" with your children using plastic materials, second hand toys and repurposed materials.
Montessori materials scaffold to teach a skill, meaning there will be a series of materials teaching one skill that get progressively more difficult. People are not expected to have that in their home. An example of how you can scaffold with a single toy is only having some of the pieces for a shape sorter to work with at first and then adding more. Or playing a memory game with less cards to match to start with or starting to match with the cards facing up. Or the above gradual entry into pancake making!
Another belief of Dr. Montessori's was that children's imaginations come from reality first and so we want to provide them with things that are based on reality and want to give them information about the world that makes sense to them. When you're purchasing toys look for things that are realistic, this way you can introduce vocabulary and talk about the parts of things in a realistic way. For example, "This is the elephant's trunk and tusks. Look he has 4 legs and toenails!" Buy more timeless, classic toys rather than fads. Things like toy animals, cars, building sets.
There are 5 general types of toys that Sarah recommends you have for your child.
- Building - even a baby can start with building blocks
- Imaginative - cars, animals
- Puzzles - generally only 1 purpose - very good for fine motor skills and problem solving, but you only need one or two of these as they are not open-ended enough to allow for creativity and multi-purpose use
- Musical Instruments
Sarah suggests generally avoid battery operated toys as, in the words of educator Magda Gerber, creator of the RIE philosophy, "passive toys make active babies and active toys make passive babies" meaning that if the child presses a button and the toy does everything else, the child is passively watching the toy, not interacting. When a toy does all the work it will not grow with your child. When your child has an open-ended toy they will use it in a more sophisticated way as they grow up. For example, a block set may be taken in and out of a container at 10 months, stacked and knocked down at 18 months, then used to create an imaginary world for toy animals or cars at 3 years and up.
In a classroom it would be expected that a child would complete an activity and put it away so another child could use it. At home a child may combine materials together in imaginative play and use them together. It may interrupt their play to put each thing away in it's place every time. What might work better is to have certain times, eg. before meal time, when the child (maybe with some guidance and help from you) cleans up their space.
Remember there is no one right way to do things at home. Everyone's home and family will be different. What's important is to observe your child; reflect on what they are learning and how you can prepare their environment so it will work for them and for the rest of your family.
Follow Sarah @the_prepared_environment for more tips, challenges and fantastic book recommendations!