When we began our Montessori journey, I made a common mistake. I confused the Montessori method with materials. I saw children joyfully working with lovely toys and tools that developed their focus and refined their movements. Wanting desperately to have the beautiful items I saw in Instagram feeds and on blogs for my daughter, I went on a shopping spree. I purchased items from Amazon and Ebay, from Home Goods and Target, from thrift stores and yard sales. Thankfully, my aspiring minimalist side urged me to take a closer look at why I was purchasing “stuff”. I’ve been working toward minimalism long enough to realize that when I buy a whole bunch of material items, there’s usually a deeper issue I’m attempting to control. Yes, these materials were beautiful. No, there’s nothing wrong with purchasing items for your children. The prepared environment is, in fact, an important piece of the Montessori method. Maria Montessori designed many materials to be beautiful and attractive. Families fall all over the spectrum with what materials they choose to buy for their children. For us, we are on a tight budget and try to keep our material items to a minimum. And what I really wanted for my daughter was the joy, focus, and satisfaction I saw in the children featured on Montessori-related social media. Thankfully, the Montessori method is so much more than materials. In fact, some of the most important aspects of the method aren’t about materials at all!
Here are 5 ways you can implement Montessori in the home that don’t require acquiring materials:
Foster a sense of order in your home. Children, particularly children under the age of five, crave order. This includes both order in routines to anchor the day and order regarding placement of materials in your home. It can be difficult to keep to a routine for so many reasons. For us, medical appointments, unforeseen errands, and a side business cause more shifts in routine than we would like. We have decided to anchor N’s routine around mealtimes and sleeping. Her morning routine is always the same (snuggles, toilet, making her bed, lotion, dressing, preparing breakfast… in that order) and never rushed, which means we take care to make appointments accordingly. Sometimes she flies through the routine, sometimes it moves quite slowly. Lunchtime is another anchor point in our routine. She and I wash our hands, prepare our lunch together, pray, and then eat together. Lunchtime is followed by a period of reading. Supper and bedtime anchor the last portion of our day. Again, the routine is always the same, though the parent helping with the routine may change. We do our utmost to honor these routines, ensuring that N is not rushed and nothing is skipped for the sake of “time”. Find ways to incorporate routine and rhythm into your child’s day.
It’s been far easier for us to maintain order of the material items in our home. Well, it’s only been easier after we purged and simplified our belongings. If reducing the amount of material items you own isn’t an option, do your best to maintain order in the areas that belong to your child. If your child has a lot of toys and materials, consider rotating those materials. Less materials out at once will make it easier for both you and your child to know where to return those materials to. Have a designated place for each material, and help your child to return items until they can do so independently. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Modeling can work wonders. In the photo below, N had observed that we always placed the bin of flower arranging debris outside after the activity was over. Today, she simply picked it up, opened the door and put it outside, all the while repeating “This need to go outside” to herself. External order fosters a sense of internal order, not only for the child but for the caregiver as well.
Involve your child in the daily household activities. In our home, we clean, cook, do laundry, grocery shop, care for pets, and complete outside chores together. Yes, it’s ideal to have child-sized tools for your child to use, but the real merit lies in meeting the child’s inner desire to do real work and be a valued member of the household. For me, it can be a challenge to involve N in the household chores because it means letting go of control over time and messes. I’ve often had to repeat to myself the Dr. John Trainer quote “Children are not a distraction from more important work. They are the most important work” as a reminder of my role as a parent. When I’m tempted to leave N out of an activity because I don’t want a mess, I’ve found it helpful as well to step back and ask myself if the cleanliness of my house is more important than the learning experience of my daughter. Will it matter in a month if she pulled the wrong plant in the garden? Will I even care in a day if she drug my freshly washed shirt through the yard to hang it on the clothesline? Will it hurt anything at all if the water gets spilled on the floor instead of poured in the potted plant? Or will all of these experiences enhance her opportunities to learn if handled as just that… opportunities to learn? Learning to complete household tasks with joy will serve your child well for the entirety of their life.
Learn to observe your child. I had always thought of myself as a pretty observant person. But after completing an observation assignment for the Montessori Toddler E-Course I was taking, I realized I wasn’t fully observing. I was seeing expression of emotions and shutting that expression down because I was uncomfortable. I was seeing expression of developmental needs and redirecting because I didn’t see materials being used the way I expected. “There is only one basis for observation: the children must be free to express themselves and thus reveal those needs and attitudes which would otherwise remain hidden or repressed in an environment that did not permit them to act spontaneously.” (Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child) Stepping back and observing has been one of the most difficult aspects of implementing Montessori in my home that I’ve had to learn. But it’s also been the most rewarding, allowing me to truly “follow the child”. Because of careful observation, I’ve been able to introduce sound games at the right time, prepare activities that pique her interest, offer opportunities to kitchen independence as she’s become ready, and resisted pressuring her to move forward developmentally before her own time. It’s cyclical. Observing her has allowed me to meet her interests and developmental needs, which frees her to express and reveal further developing needs for me to observe and meet. And, with a bit of creativity, most of those needs don’t require me to purchase any materials.
Offer opportunities for independence. Whether it’s offering your baby the opportunity to drink from a cup, providing time for your toddler to attempt to get dressed, or stepping back to allow your child to pack their school lunch, opportunities for independence abound in the home environment. You will likely have to slow down and be okay with messes, but the rewards are worth it. (And messes just provide new practical life opportunities on how to clean up!) Some good starting areas for independence opportunities include dressing, eating, meal preparation, and bathroom-related tasks. If N wants to give a task a try, I step back and let her, even if I don’t think she’s quite able to complete it yet. I clearly remember the words “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed” running through my head on repeat as N attempted to zip her jacket for a full five minutes (which felt like forever) before she finally asked for help.
Sometimes, when it comes to independence, you have to make adjustments. This is, again, where having child-sized materials or accessible furniture can come in handy, but often you can utilize what you already have in the home. For example, we don’t have the best clothing set-up for N. I’d rather have an open wardrobe than a dresser, but because we already had the dresser, we’ve simply moved all of her in-season clothing choices to the bottom three drawers where she can reach them in order to choose her outfit each day. I’d also love for her to have her own kitchen cabinet/counter combo, but we’ve made do with an emptied out lower drawer and an IKEA table we already owned. The keys for offering independence are simply to provide time, worry less about mess, and get creative with what you have.
Protect your child’s concentration. Like the ideas above, this just takes some awareness and self-control to implement. Many children struggle with short attention spans and attention deficit disorder for a variety of reasons. As parents, however, there are countless opportunities throughout the day to protect our children’s concentration and allow them to develop their ability to focus as best as they can. For starters, cut out or carefully limit the amount of screen time and electronic toys your child has access to, especially if they are babies or toddlers. The duration of video clips or light/sound effects on children’s programs and toys tends to be amazingly short before a button needs to be pushed again or a new video clip begins. This conditions children to need a new stimulus quite often. Some other ideas I’ve heard mentioned for protecting concentration include waiting until an activity is finished to announce mealtime, not interrupting when a child is working even if that work is being done incorrectly (as long as it’s being done safely), and not stepping in to “help” unless the child asks for help.
I, personally, have had to work at protecting N’s concentration in two areas: photos and outings. Sometimes N will be working diligently on an activity, and I’ll think “Oh, that’s so wonderful! I need a picture!” But getting a good photo of some activities would mean getting down into her space and essentially interrupting her work. So, often I have to be content with just enjoying the moment from where I am and snapping a mental photo. On outings, there are so many things I want N to see. And it’s incredibly tempting to force her attention in a certain direction if I think she might miss the sight… like a bear standing on its hind legs on the farm, or a sea turtle swimming by at the aquarium. But, generally, she’s absolutely enthralled with something else. Lord willing, there will be many more opportunities for her to see those things in her lifetime. She is, after all, only three. Who knows? If I protect her concentration at this age, perhaps later in life she will be patient and focused enough to sit and wait for those sights.
Next time, I’ll share a few ideas for implementing Montessori on a budget when it comes to outings and experiences. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them!