By K.T. Korngold
Recently, at a neighborhood mother's group, another mother asked me what was it about my house that made it "Montessori." I thought about it for a moment, and realized that while I had taken for granted how Montessori philosophy can be applied to creating home environments, other parents might be curious about how they can make their home more compatible with their children's Montessori experience.
When I think of what Montessori has to say to me as a parent that is most meaningful, it is the understanding that even at a very young age children are capable and are eager to act independently. This they can do most simply in the routines and rituals of everyday life. By setting up a home environment that enables children to take care of their own self-care throughout the day, the home environment can help the child develop independence and a strong sense of self. We can support our children to be able to say: "I can do it!" and "I did it myself!"
When we design an environment for them that helps facilitate self-care, we encourage our children to be independent at an early age, and we even make our jobs a little easier in both the short and long run!
When you come into my home, the first thing you might notice is the rows of shoes. We are a no-shoe inside house. This tradition started when my oldest child, Sarah, was born, when we lived in New York City. By taking our shoes off when we came home, we reduced the dirt and germs we brought into the home of the newborn baby. The house stayed cleaner this way, and as Sarah grew and began crawling, then scooting on the floor, and also putting nearly everything in her mouth, we appreciated knowing that the street grime stayed outside.
Next to the shoe tray is a long low bench. Emma sits here, often for 20 minutes at a time, trying on the various shoes: her sandals, her sister's sneakers, Daddy's flip-flops, Mommy's slides. She loves to open and close the Velcro, untie the laces, and best of all parade around the mudroom. There is a low mirror, and a set of hooks for hats. Even at 16 months, Emma understood that she needed her shoes to go outside, and that shoes come off when we come inside. "Shoes" was one of her first words.
Like Goldilocks from the Brother's Grimm tale, she is learning a lot about her world from the daily shoe explorations. She learns about size: small, medium, large; about classification: sandals, sneakers, shoes, boots; she learns about fit: just right, too big, way too big; she learns about opening and closing. She learns about dressing and undressing herself.
Next to the low bench, we have a hand-washing stand (designed by Montessori Hand Made in Vermont.) Sarah, the oldest, still loves to follow the many-stepped procedure with its natural beginning, middle, and end. First, she gets water in the pitcher, then pours the water into the basin; then using plenty of soap to make lots of bubbles and lather, she washes her hands. Next comes the rinsing, and then the drying of her hands on the towel (neatly hung on a little hook). Finally, she pours the water out of the basin, and then, lastly wipes out the bowl so it is ready for the next time. She washes her hands first thing when she comes in from the camp bus or school, or from playing outside in the garden. Emma, who doesn't exactly follow the entire "process," adores washing and lathering her hands. She delights in seeing her reflection in the small mirror hanging above the wash stand. I observe her from a distance as she pours the water into the basin and then soaps her hands. We are going through bar after bar of soap. But again, she is learning more from this hand washing experience than any electronic toy from Toys R Us could ever teach her.
In our kitchen, where I choose to spend a lot time, I have set up various areas so that Emma can be with me while I'm cooking or planning a meal. In the pantry--where I store dry goods and oversized platters, baskets, pot and pans, and bottled waterÂ‚ I have set aside the lower shelves for the children. At the very bottom, juice boxes, applesauce in cups, and raisin boxes are neatly arranged in small baskets. Emma is free to wander in at any time, and choose a snack or juice from the shelves. A few shelves higher (at Sarah's level), there are crackers, dried fruit, cerealÂ‚ all neatly arranged in clear glass canisters with easy open lids. To the cry: "I'm hungry!" I simply reply, "Please fix yourself a snack from the pantry." Low and behold, they do!
Also in the pantry: napkins folded in a box, paper towels separated and stacked for easy clean up, child-size aprons on low hooks, and a small dust pan and hand broom for clean up. Even from an early age, Emma wore an apron rather that a bib. And now, she toddles into the pantry, grabs her apron, and wraps it around her.
When cooking, we are three cooks in the kitchen -- humming with activity (dicing, slicing, peeling, pouring, sifting) and proudly wearing our "cooking uniforms." I think the aprons send a message to the children that being messy is an appropriate part of the process of cooking (just as it is with art and gardening), but it is important to protect our clothes from being ruined in the process and it is important to tidy up afterwards.
Like her sister did when she was young, Emma has a low table for eating. We recently bought a new one, also designed by the talented team at Montessori Hand Made in Vermont. The table has beautiful chairs, one with arms, one without. The chairs are sturdy enough for me to sit on, but lightweight enough to be carried by a little one. (How they do like to move their furniture around!)
Emma also has a Learning Tower, (designed by a Montessori teacher/mother and available from Little Partners) which is placed in the center of the kitchen against our center island. Emma often eats her breakfast here, standing at counter top height. I can move the Tower against the sink for water play. Emma will spend an hour at the sink, doing "experiments" with water: pouring, ladeling, wisking. I find that water play is an excellent after meal activity as she gets cleaned up as I clean up. She's finding out about temperature (hot, cold, warm) and volume (liquid, mass). She is giggling and laughing and having funÂ‚ and I get to enjoy every minute of her laughter.
The Learning Tower enables a child to reach the counter top level in a safe way. In a Montessori school environment the counters, tables, sinks, etc. would be at child level. While I do have one lower counter in the house (for rolling out pasty and bread) the other counters are all standard height. The Tower enables Emma to stand safely and brings the counter to her. Unlike a step stool, she can't slip off of it.
Emma is learning about feeding herself. She uses a fork and a spoon. She is beginning to be interested in spreading with a knife. She loves pouring water or juice into a glass. (As is done in a Montessori classroom, I pre-measure the juice into the small pitcher so while she may spill, she will not overflow). And then there is the trip to the pantry to get a paper towel square to wipe up. Next the trip to the garbage to throw it away. Then back up to the table to do it again. Pouring is a fun activity for her: it has many steps, it requires moving around the kitchen. It teaches her hand-eye coordination. It is an extremely useful skill (every college kid needs to know how to pour her own milk). And it is entirely self-correcting. I don't have to tell her when she does it correctly. The glass is simply full.
One of Emma's favorite activities is table setting. I have outlined on a cloth placemat the shapes of a small fork, plate, knife, spoon and cup. This place mat is rolled up and placed along with the actual silverware and plate in a basket on a low shelf. Emma gets the basket, carefully carries it with two hands to the table. Slowly she begins the task of setting her place. The place mat is unrolled. The plate goes down, then the fork. Each piece in it's own place. I don't need to talk to her or correct her as she works. The outlines let her know when she is correct and when she needs to move or replace something.
By having the material be the "teacher" rather than the adult, the child can own their work and satisfaction with the job done. She doesn't need to turn to me (or an another person for that matter) for outside validation. She is beginning to create her own internal guide. She can do it and she can know when she does. She will set the table again and again and again, over and over and over. I do not interrupt her. I do not interfere with her or distract her. I let her complete her "work cycle" and take as long as she needs to do it. There is nothing more important to me than giving her this time to do this important work. Is she merely setting the table? I think she is setting something up within her that will be there for a lifetime.
The playroom is set up with different areas. We don't have a toy box. Everything is in its place. In the art area there is a caulk board with chalk in a neat little basket and a sponge for washing off the board. Other art supplies are neatly arranged in baskets and boxes. For make-believe we have a small wooden kitchen as well as a few baby dolls and dolls representing various countries of the world. Costumes are hung at child's eye level on hangers across a clothing rack. There is a child-size full-length mirror. Both older children and younger seem to take great pleasure from the dress up area. A favorite attraction is our collection of pastel colored scarves, which become headdresses, skirts, hiding places, doll accessories, and what ever else they might imagine. I avoid using costumes of a predetermined
character. I am interested in nurturing my children´s developing imagination, not in supporting Disney stock.
There is a quiet comfy area with a low bed, low bookshelf with small books, and fluffy pillows. Sarah has shelves and shelves of books ranging from fiction to history to picture books, dictionaries, and poetry. The only thing more wonderful in our home than a visit to the local bookstore is to revisit an old favorite book, and reread the dog-eared pages. Emma has a smaller collection of smaller booksÂ‚ easy for her to hold and turn the pages. We have plenty of books with photographs of the real world: parts of the body, things in the kitchen, flowers, pictures of children from around the world, plants, and animals. DK is a great source for this type of book.
In the music area we have an attractive basket that overflows with an array of international instruments, such as drums, whistles, bells, and shakers. There is a CD player, and a small music box. The girls can use the CD player themselves, and I put out one CD at a time for Emma. We will play the same CD for a week or so before I change it. The repetition and pattern give her a sense of order and adds to her pleasure in the musical experience. She begins to know what song she will hear next. She thinks, "that song that is coming next," and then it does. She is thinking, she is predicting, she is beginning to understand and make sense of her world.
None of us watch TV, although we do watch selective videos. Sarah and Emma really enjoy the music videos of Frank Leto and Raffi, and quiet videos such as Linnea in Monet´s Garden. They both adore watching themselves and request to see the old videos from "years ago." We limit video watching and computer time, and for the most part the girls seldom ask for it. Very rarely we'll see a movie. At age six Sarah is just beginning to be introduced to that commercial world and worldview. I know Emma will be exposed sooner than her sister was, but for now the kids are still enthralled with their own creations.
When she was a year old, we took her to a musical for children, based on the early reader series "Frog and Toad." Both children loved the show, and so naturally we bought the CD, which we played at home and in the car incessantly. One song has the Toad singing "Fro-aaaaa-a-og" and then Frog says "Blah!" What a surprise when 14 month old Emma showed how well she had been listening and following along. Although she could barely talk, she sang the words she could pronounce: "aaaaa-a" and then, quite dramatically, right on cue: "Blah!"
On low shelves with attractive activities in trays or small baskets, materials are beautifully set out. There are animal pictures and corresponding animal miniatures; there are fruit picture cards and corresponding plastic fruit; there are posting materials, such as clothes pins to place on a wooden shaker box or colorful soft fabric balls to press into the opening of a decorative tissue box holder. These materials are set out with the movement of the work going from the left side of the tray to the right side, to begin to train her eye to move from left to right, as it will need to when it scans across the page when reading. There is a set of insects in a golden gossamer bag. Emma enjoys reaching her hand in and then discovering what she has found. "Ladybug," I say " Ladybug." She reaches her hands above her head and wiggles her fingers in the motion we use for the ladybug song. "The lady bug she creeps along and as she creeps she sings her song, la la la la." The neurons in her brain have made a connection: the ladybug in the bag is the same as the ladybug in the song we sing. She has connected the object to the word to the song. Wow. That eighteen-month old brain is capable of so much. As Emma likes to say, "Oh my!"
At the end of the day, when my husband comes home, he says, "what did you and Emma do today?"
I say: "We walked Sarah to the bus. We put on our shoes and we took them off. We poured juice. We cleaned up the spills. We made lunch, we ate lunch, and we washed our dishes. Emma took a nap. We played in the sand. We played in the tub. We made animal sounds. We read a few stories. We sang a few songs. We learned about the world. We spent time together."
For me, being a Mom isn't about buying a lot of electronic toys or decorating my daughter's room as a fantasy castle. It isn't even about having exciting adventures, or giving my kids the opportunity to take every possible after-school activity or sport that today's culture seems to offer. What it is mostly about is time. Time being present with my children. Time to let Emma take her own time: to put on and pull off her shoes twenty times if she wants; time to figure out how to get her arm in the sleeve; time to scoop her own cereal. Time to let her set her own table, again and again and again. Time to cuddle with her on the low bed and read her favorite book over and over and over. It is a quiet way of spending time and letting her grow guided by an environment where she is safe to explore and learn about her world.
"It was perfectly ordinary home time," I would like to say to him "and it is simply extraordinary."
This article appeared in the Back to School 2003 issue of Tomorrow's Child
Copyright K.T. Korngold, 2003
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