Grocery Shopping with Young Children

A few months ago, we stopped at a grocery store where they offered child-sized carts.  Of course, this was quite an exciting experience for N.  Now, every time we stop at a grocery store, as opposed to market where we do the majority of our weekly shopping, N asks if there are “little shopping carts”.  Unfortunately, the grocery store that we generally use doesn’t offer them and my answer has not been what she hopes to hear.  Until last week.

We made a quick pitstop at the grocery store for a forgotten item and saw a young boy pushing around a red, child-sized cart.  I wasted no time in asking where they were located and then promptly retrieved one to use… even though we were only purchasing one item.  It didn’t matter.  N was absolutely delighted with this new way to participate in the grocery shopping experience.

A few days ago, we returned for some planned items to finish up the grocery shopping for the week.  N carried the list, chose her two snacks from the bulk aisle, and helped check out and bag the items.  She returned to the car with a contented air about her.  As we left the parking lot, she melted my heart, saying “Thanks for going to the grocery store with you, Mommy.”  (Thanking someone for something is the one place she still mixes up her pronouns.)

I love grocery shopping with my child.  Whether it’s at market or at a supermarket, we generally have a wonderful learning experience.  Here are some tips for making grocery shopping with your young child a successful learning experience.

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  • Prepare ahead of time.  As often as possible, have a pre-set day and time that you head out to the store.  This helps to develop routine as your children know what to expect.  Choose a time when your child is not hungry nor tired.  Budget enough time that you don’t feel rushed and can allow your child to take in this rich sensory experience.
  • Make a list.  Try to write your list in front of your child.  If you want your child to write, modeling the skill you find important is the best way to get them interested.  (I also try to offer list paper for N to write on from time to time.)  A list will also create a sense of order as you read off what needs to be retrieved next while shopping (and limit impulse buys!).

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  • Provide child-sized materials.  There aren’t really many materials you need to go grocery shopping, but, depending on how involved you’d like your child to be, there are a few you could consider.  We offer N a wallet (purchased secondhand) with a member rewards card in it to scan at the checkout counter as well as her own cloth grocery bag to carry a few items in.  Of course, we also have access to child-sized carts now.  If your store doesn’t have them, you could always ask management if that’s something they would consider.  Before, we always just let N help to push the small adult-sized ones.
  • Let them retrieve items.  Retrieving items that they can reach is a fantastic opportunity for children to refine their movements.  It’s generally also a wonderful gross motor exercise.  Yes, they may drop items (N dropped a few potatoes on this outing), but that’s part of the learning experience.  Messes and clean-up happens in grocery stores.  In addition, it instills in children the idea that you trust them with something so vital to your life and that they are a valued, working member of your family.

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  • Provide them with choice.  To limit the number of times I am asked to purchase off-list items, I provide N with a choice of two items from the bulk bins when we do our routine shopping.  We’ve discussed ahead of time which items are appropriate choices for her.  If your child is younger, you may wish to show them two, preselected items and let them choose one to eat as a snack in the car or upon arriving back at home.

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  • Talk about your experience.  We do a lot of stopping and talking during our grocery shopping.  We talk about what produce we see and what we smell.  We discuss the shapes and letters on signs and labels.  This is a banquet of a language experience.  Take advantage of it!
  • Extend the learning.  Look for books on grocery shopping or visiting market.  This one by Anne Rockwell is a current favorite of one of N’s friends.  While I haven’t played it myself, I’ve heard that many families really enjoy the game, Shopping List. It seems like a fun game to extend the grocery shopping experience.

Those are a few suggestions for making the most of your shopping experience with children.  But don’t let it stop there!  Invite your children to help you put your groceries away.  Invite them to cook, taste and eat what you’ve purchased.  The cycle of purchasing (or producing), preparing, and partaking in the food experience is practical life at it’s finest.

 

 

Montessori on a Budget – Part 2

Last time, in Part 1 of this series, I shared some ideas for implementing Montessori in your home that cost nothing more than your time and commitment.  If you missed that post, you can read it here.  While writing that post, I sometimes felt like I was misleading readers by titling the post “Montessori on a Budget” because, really, most people want to know how to afford the materials that they see being utilized in Montessori homes.  I get it.  I’ve been there.  But if there is one thing I wish I would’ve learned earlier, it’s that Montessori is less about materials and more about a way of living.  I think Brittany Peters summed it up best with an Instagram post, saying “Please do not consider Montessori in the home as a list of to-buys but instead a list of to-be’s.”  And if you’re still really wanting to know how to find affordable materials, then I regret to inform you that you’ll have to wait until Part 3 of this series. 😉

Here, in Part 2, I’d like to focus on experiences for your child.  As a minimalist, I realize I may be a bit biased towards prioritizing experiences over materials because experiences don’t clutter my home.  However, I recognize that experiences also provide my daughter with unique sensory input, language and vocabulary opportunities, and cultural education, which is valued in Montessori homes and schools alike.

Experiences encompass a wide range of time commitments, planning, and cost.  However, for the purposes of this post, I will focus on experiences that I’ve found affordable for my household.

Here are the top five experiences I’ve shared with my daughter this year so far:

  1.  Market – This is a sensory treat for sure!  N gets to see so many different types of food, she observes the exchange of money for goods, and often chooses a healthy treat for us to prepare together once we return home.  Our only expense is the food itself, which we would need to budget for anyway.

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  1. Library – This is an excellent resource to take advantage of if you have one close by.  Of course, the books are the reason we go, but the experience itself is worthwhile.  N experiences the whole process of checking out books, keeping track of them at home and returning them (though she can’t quite reach that book drop yet!).  She even has her own library card, of which is is quite proud.  This experience is absolutely free, assuming you don’t wrack up any overdue fees.

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  1. Touch-A-Truck – N LOVES vehicles of all kinds, so this was a wonderful experience for her.  From my understanding, it’s generally organized by the community or a local school and costs only a few dollars to get in.  I had never heard of them before, until Amy at Midwest Montessori mentioned taking her children to one.  N was able to explore farm machinery, construction equipment, a school bus, and community rescue vehicles.  A simple Google search for my area turned up a few dates and places for us to choose from.
  2. Parks/Playgrounds – these are wonderful gross motor outlets since we don’t have a lot of gross motor equipment in our home.  But N also has the opportunity to get outside, observe other people, get dirty, and explore.  And they are free.  🙂

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  1. Community garden – we spent $35 for a community garden seasonal plot this year, started all of our plants from seed and easily recouped our costs in the food we harvested.  Our plot provided N with real work to involve herself in as a way to contribute to our household.  She genuinely enjoyed cutting flowers for flower arranging, shelling peas, pulling weeds and adding mulch.  It was one of the outings she requested most, even on days we didn’t plan to visit our plot.

Other ideas that we have experienced or are planning in the near future:

  • Local Fairs – this could include county/farm type fairs as well as cultural and art fairs.
  • Camping – we do tent camping, making things quite inexpensive.  Often tents can be borrowed from friends or family if you don’t have one.
  • Zoo – check around your area for smaller, local zoos in addition to the larger, more well-known ones.  The Baltimore Zoo, Philadelphia Zoo, and National Zoo in Washington DC are all accessible to us, but we also find just as much enjoyment in the smaller area zoos such as ZooAmerica and Lake Tobias Wildlife Park.

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  • Theatre – depending on your child, they may enjoy high school and university programs, plays and concerts.
  • Nature Center – many state or national parks have nature centers geared toward children.  Often these nature centers also have themed days with hands-on experiences for children.
  • Local Attractions – some of these might be open to the general public and some might not be.  Our local veterinary clinic holds kid-oriented Saturday programs once a month where kids can experience something animal related.  We have gotten to know a bird rehabilitator who specializes in birds of prey.  We visit her facility routinely to get a look at and help care for birds that many people don’t get to see up close and personal.  In the photo below, since N loves vehicles and machinery, we took her to an event to watch a large apple be placed on top of a building.  Start asking around about child-friendly experiences.  You might be surprised at what you discover.

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  • Aquarium – this is a fantastic experience for children and adults alike.  Depending on your child’s tolerance level for stimulation, I would suggest going on a weekday shortly after school starts.  You’ll miss both the summer rush and the school field trips.
  • Pet Store – what’s not to love!  It’s a mini zoo that’s completely free!  (As long as you don’t walk out with a new pet!)

I realize that not all of these experiences are exactly inexpensive.  For us, visiting the zoo was the most expensive outing.  There are, however, options for lessening the cost of some of the above ideas if you are willing to be flexible or have the time to do your research.  Often, tickets to zoos, local attractions, theaters, and fairs can be purchased for a discounted price using memberships or subscriptions you already hold.  We’ve used AAA membership and our grocery store bonus card to get discounted tickets to our local fairs and attractions, as well as to a zoo and nearby aquarium.  Some experiences offer specials if you subscribe to their Facebook page.  My favorite way to make many of these affordable, however, is to find out when a particular venue is offering a family day.  We have visited a zoo, local attraction, and an aquarium, all for no cost, using this option.  The downside to this money-saving method, though, is that these days are often offered only in the off-season (i.e. winter), sometimes making the weather challenging, and can be very crowded as many other families take advantage of the cost savings as well.

One more option to consider for making experiences affordable is to simply ask for them to be given as gifts.  We have family members that genuinely enjoy giving gifts but, given our minimalist lifestyle, are somewhat limited in this.  Providing a list of experiences they can purchase tickets for or memberships to, and even join us as they are experienced, is a nice compromise for all.

What other money-saving tips do you have for experiences?  Are there other experiences your children enjoy that you find easy on the budget?  I’d love to hear about them!

 

 

Bedtime Books

{This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small percentage if you purchase an item through my link.  The fees I receive through these links go directly towards my daughter’s home education or our adoption expenses.}

We’ve read bedtime books to N since the day we met her.  We started out with the classic Goodnight Moon and ensured that books were part of her bedtime routine each evening.  It wasn’t long until she could recite entire books.  In fact, it wasn’t unusual for her to bring a bedtime book over to our room in the morning to plop down and “read” to herself while she was still waking up.

As I was perusing our books this evening, I thought I would share our top 5 favorites over the past year.

Time for Bed is a classic.  The illustrations are lovely, and the narration has a calming, lilting quality to it.  I particularly enjoy the rhyme, as it makes it easy for even young children to “fill in the blank” if given the opportunity to help read.

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I Would Tuck You In is a fun mix of scientific trivia and comforting reassurance in a parent’s love.  We discovered this book at our local nature center’s library and had to purchase a copy for ourselves.

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I’ve mentioned A South African Night before, but I can’t help but add it here as well.  It opens and closes with the routine of people in Johannesburg, but gives an account of animal activity in Kruger National Park at night.

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In Going to Sleep on the Farm, a little boy asks his dad how various farm animals go to sleep, before finally falling asleep himself.  N loves the combination of animal sounds, repeating text, and rhyme, as well as talking about the different ways animals sleep.

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I Just Want to Say Goodnight is an endearing book about Lala, who just isn’t quite ready to go to bed and procrastinates by saying “goodnight” to everything from the dog to the marching ants to a rock.

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While these are our favorites, I’d love to add to our bedtime collection!  What are your bedtime favorites?  Any recommendations for the 3-4 year old range?

 

Puzzle Progression

{This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small percentage if you purchase an item through my link.  The fees I receive through these links go directly towards my daughter’s home education or our adoption expenses.}

Right off the bat, I want to say that if you haven’t yet read Nicole’s posts on the Evolution of Puzzles at The Kavanaugh Report, you should head off and do that!  She clearly lays out how her daughter progressed through puzzles and has many links to puzzles if you’re looking into purchasing some.  In addition, she also outlines what she looks for in a puzzle for her home, which is quite similar to what we look for in puzzles for N.

I can remember reading these posts a year ago with some envy.  No matter which puzzles I introduced to N, I couldn’t seem to get her truly interested.  At first, I thought that perhaps the puzzles weren’t interesting because I wasn’t offering puzzles that hit her developmental level.  But, after a time, I resigned myself to the fact that she just wasn’t interested.  Which was ok.  Follow the child, right?  I still offered puzzles routinely, but they generally would receive only the initial exploratory use and then be left on the shelves, largely unused, until I removed them.

Suddenly, just over a month ago, that changed.  As I was going through our materials in storage, deciding which to purge and which to put into deep storage for a younger child, N noticed a 12-piece vehicle jigsaw I had picked up secondhand and asked to work on it.  I consented, figuring that she would disassemble it and then lose interest.  That wasn’t the case.  She worked intently, with very little assistance, until it was completed.  And then proceeded to complete it three more times!  It was the start of a very intense interest that I’ve struggled to keep up with while attempting to balance our minimalist values.

When I first introduced puzzles to N around the age of 2 (she joined our family around 20 months of age), I offered simple shape and size puzzles to ensure any developmental gaps would be filled and also to help her feel a sense of success.  It didn’t take her long to master these, but I’m glad I offered them, nonetheless.  We then quickly moved onto a shape sorter and knobbed puzzles with pictures and more complex outlines.  These were more difficult for her, as it took some time for her to learn to refine her movements so that the pieces were turned just exactly right.

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Pictured: 1) Montessori Insets Shape Puzzle Set     2)  Animal Knobbed Puzzle    3)  Shape Sorter

As N mastered turning the larger knobbed pieces correctly, I introduced smaller knobbed puzzles with pictures under the pieces.  (Approximately at 26 months.)  These presented a new challenge for N.  Since there were more pieces to match, she often would try to match anything with a similar color.  She also needed to refine her pincer grasp.  As these puzzles were something she worked on in therapy in a rather non-Montessori fashion, she did not enjoy working with them at home.  I occasionally set these puzzles out, but N found them more intriguing for language development than anything.  In my experience, these puzzles are not difficult to find affordably in secondhand stores.

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Pictured:   1) Farm Peg Puzzle    2)  Tool Peg Puzzle (No longer available for purchase.  We found ours on eBay.)

Around this same time, I introduced two-piece jigsaw puzzles.  These required N to coordinate both hands together.  Out of all of the puzzles I presented up to this point, these piqued N’s interest the most.  While the pictures aren’t as realistic as I’d like, I found it quite difficult to find two-piece jigsaws in general.  (If you have any recommendations, please pass them along!)

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Pictured:  1)  Heads and Tails 2-Piece Jigsaws    2)  Things that Go 2-Piece Jigsaws

After N mastered the two-piece jigsaws and the small knobbed puzzles with pictures under the pieces around 30 months, I introduced two different types of puzzles to see where her interest led.  I first introduced tiny knobbed puzzles where the picture under the piece did not match the piece exactly to move her toward focusing on the shape of the piece rather than just the picture.  N enjoyed these to some extent, but mostly because she likes all things vehicle-related so we talked about the vehicles in the puzzle.  I then tried jigsaws with 3-6 pieces, which were never a hit, perhaps because they were not realistic enough or perhaps because they were a bit busy, visually (not pictured).  Very shortly after this, I also introduced puzzles with no pictures under the pieces.  The puzzles with only four pieces to place were far too easy and should have been introduced earlier.  She had absolutely no interest in these.  The puzzles where several pieces worked together to make one picture (shown in the next section) frustrated her because they slid around and there was no clear place for each one.  I set them aside for later.  The homemade width puzzle was likely the closest to her ability level at this time, as it held her attention the longest.  However, this is the also the point at which N’s interest in puzzles declined even further and her ability to complete them appeared to plateau.

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Pictured:    1)  Hape Emergency Peg Puzzle  (alternative)    2)  Vintage Transportation Puzzle (alternative fruit puzzle)    3)  Vintage Tea Set Puzzle (alternative vegetable puzzle) eBay is a fantastic place to look for these vintage puzzles using the search terms “Judy Instructo Puzzle”.  The prices are generally reasonable, but the shipping can be expensive.  4)  Narrow-to-Wide Homemade Puzzle (Etsy alternative)

Like I said, just over a month ago, all of that changed.  She started with a 12-piece jigsaw and has quickly progressed to 24-piece jigsaws over the course of five weeks.  We really like T.S. Shure puzzles for their realistic pictures, but also find that some Melissa and Doug puzzles are not too “cartoony” for our taste.   Just in time for a recent trip, we discovered a few board book type puzzle books with real photos that we cut the pages out of to use on the plane.  They are lightweight and can easily slide into N’s small backpack, making them perfect for travel .  I also reintroduced the picture puzzles, which are now a touch too easy for her.  She masters one in the course of a day or two, repeating and repeating it until she can complete one in less than two minutes.  We particularly like Judy Instructo puzzles, but nearly all of those are vintage and have to be purchased via eBay or found secondhand.  The Beleduc layered body puzzle provides a unique challenge, but these can be expensive, unless you find them secondhand.

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Pictured:    1)  12-Piece Construction Jigsaw     2)  Jigsaw Board Book Pages (similar 6-piece version)    3)  T.S. Shure Ocean Life Set of 4      4)  Vintage Judy Instructo Frog Puzzle      5)  Vintage Judy Instructo Penguin Puzzle    6)  Beleduc Boy Layered Body Puzzle 

Following the child is an amazing thing.  N’s current interest in and ability to complete puzzles was totally self-initiated.  I had made up my mind that N just wasn’t a puzzle person.  It’s a good lesson in ensuring that I don’t box her in or label her.  She forms her own identity.

 

Getting Dressed at 3 Years Old

Independence.  It’s one of the cornerstones or Montessori.  And letting your child be involved in getting dressed each day is one of the simplest ways to foster independence in the home.  Even babies can help choose their outfit for the day when given a choice between two pre-selected options.  And it’s fascinating to see preferences emerge in children so young.  (And, as a side note, it can also be informative as to which clothing your child finds comfortable and which gets passed over routinely.  It’s how I discovered some of N’s clothing restricted leg movement.  She would only choose it if everything else was in the laundry.)

We began involving N in the dressing routine a year ago.  Below is a (very dark and poor quality) photo of N’s attempt at independent dressing a few months after we began.  Despite having two legs in one hole and an arm out the neck hole of her tank top, she’s quite pleased.  I sincerely wish we had started much, much earlier.  But, alas, what you don’t know, you don’t know.  Full disclosure: We actually began, not because of a desire for her to exercise independence, but because of toilet learning.  We wanted her to be able to push down her shorts and underwear when the time came.  At the time, we didn’t understand the importance nor process of independence in children.  As our understanding grew and developed, we implemented small changes accordingly.  Now, a year later, N can get dressed almost independently.  We’ve learned quite a few little things along the way that helped to make the process less frustrating for N.  Some were through trial and error.  Other tips we found through great blog posts.  You can read some great tips here and here.  Our setup is far from ideal, but we found ways to work with what we had.  Here’s how dressing at 3 years old looked in our home this morning.

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N chooses her underwear and hands them to me.  At this point, I still gather one leg hole and the waist together for her so that she gets started correctly.  She uses a small dressing chair that I picked up at a consignment sale to sit in while she put on her underwear and pants or shorts.  In the beginning, we used a small stool that my husband had made until I found the chair.  Really, anything that your child can remain seated on with their feet firmly on the floor will work.

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Then she chooses her next item of clothing.  Often she wants to choose her socks next, but this morning it was her shirt.  N has access to the bottom three drawers of the dresser as well as a small closet for jackets and dresses (not pictured).  Out-of-season clothing and sheets for the bed are stored in the top two drawers.  She is able to handle having all of her in-season clothing to choose from at this age, especially since we keep her clothing to a minimum.  She has approximately 4 long-sleeved shirts, three tank tops, three t-shirts, 5 jeans/pants, 5 shorts, two jackets, and three dresses.  All of this is available at the moment since we are having irregular early-summer weather.  We simply discuss how warm or cold it is supposed to be for the day, enabling her to choose accordingly.  For younger children, you may want to just set out two outfits for them to choose from, or three tops and three bottoms for them to mix and match at will.

I do gather her shirt into a loop for her, though I can tell that she is nearly ready to begin attempting to do the whole process herself.  We’ve found that it’s best to provide clothing for N that is somewhat loose or has a generous amount of give (but isn’t too spandex-y) to make her attempts at dressing and undressing more successful.  Large neck holes are important for us, as well as looseness in the armpit area.

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  Socks were next this morning.  This was the part of dressing that took the longest for N to be capable of.  It took a lot of trial and error for us to find what worked for her.  We tried having her put them on in the dressing chair, but found (due to her challenges related to strength and balance) that bringing her foot up that high while she tried to focus on opening the sock and inserting her foot was too much all at once.  So we moved to the floor.  We also had to figure out the best way for her to get the sock open wide enough for her foot.  While she now does what I would call the typical “thumbs-in-fingers-out pinch” to open the sock, at first that was pretty difficult for her.  We discovered that if we helped her to turn her hands outward so that her four fingers on each hand were inside the sock and pushing it open, that worked to get the sock open wide enough.  As she practiced each day, she didn’t need the extra-wide hole to aim her foot at, and she discovered how to coordinate foot movements with hand movements to be successful.  This took a long, long, l.o.n.g. time.  She needed plenty of time to practice.  At this point, putting the socks on is the easy part, and I’ve noticed she is working at keeping them straight so that the heel doesn’t end up on top.

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Next were the shorts.  I no longer hand them to her, but give a gentle reminder to put her hands on both sides of the button or bow.  She sometimes struggles to get everything centered and ends up with both legs in one hole, but that’s part of the process.  She just comments on the situation, takes them back off and tries again.  Over time, I’ve discovered that leggings are not the best idea for N as they are too stretchy and she just gets stuck, tangled up, or things end up inside out when she tries to readjust.  We also prefer that bottoms do have a bow or a button to serve as an indicator for the front, but try to find buttons that are not-functioning as N is not ready to button her own pants yet.

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And sometimes she is still distracted by something during the dressing process.  This morning, her own belly button was the distraction.  We allow for these distractions as part of the process.  Often the distractions have to do with her own body parts, which provide fantastic opportunities to discuss function and proper terminology naturally and without shame.

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After seeing the progress of one year, I’m excited to watch her independence in this area unfold over the next year.  I anticipate button and zipper closures will be something she’s interested in mastering, but look forward to following her lead!

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Montessori on a Budget Series – Part 1

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Montessori Inspired Bird Discovery

I admit it.  I love birds.  I’m fascinated by them, really.  It’s probably half of the reason I took up falconry as a hobby lifestyle.  So, while I’m not surprised N has shown an intense interest in birds, in this case I can’t really be sure if I was following the child or if the child was following me.

Whatever the case, I’ve decided to run with it and have been pleased with N’s response.  It’s not unusual to hear her yelling about the robin in the yard while she’s eating breakfast, or stopping to listen intently to a blue jay.  And she routinely checks to be sure the birds have seed in the feeders.  There’s language development, sensory experience, and practical life rolled into this discovery.  Perhaps that’s why she’s been so exuberant about it.  It’s meeting her needs in more than one sensitive period.

I started with practical life.  It seemed logical to not only satisfy her desire to scoop and pour, but also to bring the birds closer to her so she could observe them.  We put out a small feeder for bird seed and a suet cage where she could watch from the kitchen table.  We made it a habit to talk about the birds we noticed and what they were doing.  I was surprised at how quickly she picked up on the names of several different kinds. After the birds were coming routinely, and N understood the cycle of putting out bird seed, we got the idea to place the seed container in a place she could access it independently.  While she can’t quite reach the feeder to take it down and fill it, by next summer she will be able to.  Shortly after setting up the bird feeders, we added a field guide to birds for us to look through and identify the various birds we saw.  While N isn’t overly interested in this book right now, we do use it to model searching for birds when we don’t know what a particular visiting bird is.  She is, however, very intrigued by the binoculars we’ve set out for her to use.

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Next, I added a small tray with the Safari Ltd Backyard Bird TOOB.  N had received this as a Christmas gift, and I had yet to set them out.  I painted several of the birds to make them more accurate replicas.  A little craft paint I already had on hand and a half hour of painting did the trick.  I paired the bird figures with a set of picture cards for N to match if she desires.  She has no difficulty with picture-to-picture matching, but remains more interested in object-to-picture matching at this point.  We use them often in three-period lessons for language development, but N also brings them to me routinely to play our “I Spy” sound game.

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Around the same time, I introduced our bird song book.  We use Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song, though there is also a version specifically for Eastern and Central North America as well as an Around the World version.  To be honest, I hesitated with this one.  I’ve been reluctant to introduce anything electronic because N tends to just “zone out” and push buttons without purpose.  We began by pairing it with her TOOB figures when one day she asked “What does a Blue Jay say?”  I got out the book and asked her to retrieve the Blue Jay figure.  When she returned, we matched it to the illustration in the book and then played the sound.  In turn, she brought all of the figures, matched them and, together, we listened to the songs.  This has now become a favorite activity, repeated several times in a day.  Though I’m a firm believer in allowing her access to everything in her work room, this is the one item she must use with us.

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The one item I actually purchased (everything else was either gifted to N, items we already owned, or borrowed from the library) was the Match a Pair of Birds game.  N had been distinguishing between the male and female cardinals that would visit our feeders, so I felt like this was a good extension of that interest.  We haven’t actually played it as a memory game yet.  Instead we currently use it for language development and matching.  I’m sure memory won’t be far off!

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Of course, I couldn’t complete a bird theme without some actual bird items.  The nest and eggshell is from an abandoned robin nest we had been watching.  It was in a prime location for easy viewing, and I had been hoping that N would get to witness the entire nesting cycle.  But, alas.  The robins built it too low to the ground and something was disturbing the nest and snatching eggs, so it was abandoned.  The good news is that I think they began nesting in a nearby bush which will still give N glimpses of nest life.  I also added a red-tailed hawk feather molted from one of my past hawks.  We’ve examined the shaft and vane together, and she delights in rubbing it along her cheek.

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We’ve also been enjoying About Birds by Cathryn Sill (if you haven’t checked out her series, definitely do).  The detailed and realistic illustrations are absolutely stunning!  It’s a book that has simple enough text that N enjoys it now, but also contains additional information about each page in the back so that I know it will grow with her.

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I love how Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? pairs with our Bird Songs book.  Not only did it spare me the embarrassment of attempting to mimic the bird songs in the book if I didn’t know how they actually sounded, but it also added a new auditory aspect to our reading and reinforced the visual aspect of bird identification.

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Here are a few other bird books in N’s basket.

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                             1. Mama Built a Little Nest       2.  Egg to Robin

3. A Nest is Noisy                        4.  Birds, Nests, and Eggs

What bird activities do your children enjoy?  I think a hummingbird feeder might be next on the agenda for us, but I’d love to hear other ideas as well!

Montessori: How We Got Here

A little over three years ago, I began a major purge of my home.  I had recently read Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste by Bea Johnson (check it out from your library or visit her website) and was completely inspired to overhaul our life.  I desperately wanted the results she described in her book: a smaller environmental footprint, a tranquil home, and time to do what I really wanted.  I was a worn out second grade teacher and wife.  I was constantly organizing my classroom, coming home to plan lessons to make learning exciting for my students, rushing through supper, cleaning up, squeezing in some “me” time and maybe a little time for my husband, and falling into bed exhausted.  And the weekend didn’t bring respite. I planned more lessons, picked up the clutter that accumulated around our house over the week, tracked down misplaced school papers or materials, and went out to purchase more with my own money.  Ultimately, after stepping back to examine this rather pointless cycle, I decided that I wanted to say “no” to good or okay things (like more material items) to make room for saying “yes” to the most important things… family, friends, and relationships.  Little did I know that this would be one of the first steps that sent me on the path towards the Montessori method.

A year and a half ago, our daughter entered the picture.  (Take note that we had made significant progress towards producing less waste, living a simpler life, and owning fewer material items.)  As the first grandchild in both my and my husband’s families, there was much rejoicing.  And with rejoicing tends to come gift giving.  Suddenly, there seemed to be a continuous trickle of plastic toys, electronic noise-makers, and fashionable toddler clothing entering our home.  And it was all oh-so-tempting.   The smiling plastic rotary phone didn’t break if she threw it in a fit of anger.  She could keep herself occupied for long stretches of time with that sunny yellow plastic chair with the built-in child’s remote and TV guide.  And let’s not mention how absolutely adorable N looked in the tiny second-hand Sperry’s.

But a few things just didn’t sit well with us.  We had come to value natural materials due to their ability to either be repaired, recycled, or composted as part of our move toward a zero waste lifestyle.  So, the plastic didn’t really fit well (though I’ve since decided that plastic was invented for a reason, and there are some circumstances where it’s the best material for the job).  The electronics… well, we noticed a distinct shift in N’s ability to connect with us when an electronic toy was near.  She was borderline obsessive.  And the clothing, while cute, was restricting for N who was already struggling with gross motor delays.  Around this same time, we began a few therapies for N, recommended by her medical team to assist us with N’s global developmental delays.  To our dismay, the therapists tended to interact in very “baby-ish” ways with N, didn’t allow her to explore the materials they brought for her to work with unless it was in the way they had designated, and brought lots of “motivational” prizes to entice N to reach the goals set for her.

So, I began to research.  I began with what was easiest: searching for toys made of wood or other natural materials.  Somewhere in my mess of tabs with Etsy shops, Google searches, and Pinterest boards, I stumbled upon the Kavanaugh Report.  Hmmm… this looked promising.  She had posts with wooden puzzles (occupational therapy related… check!), gross motor toys (physical therapy related… check!), and a lot regarding independence and self-care (adaptive skills… check!).  So much was lining up with our work toward zero waste while at the same time providing “therapy-type”, non-electronic options for us to implement with N.  But, what was this “Montessori” she kept on mentioning?  I had heard of it briefly in my graduate and undergraduate studies, but it didn’t warrant more than a quick chapter in a textbook apparently.

Now, I’m the type of person that has to know a subject pretty thoroughly if it impacts my life in any way.  So, more research.  The more I learned, the more I became convinced that this was the educational method for our family.  I read blogs and websites, checked out books from the library, downloaded several for evening reading, and even visited a local Montessori school.  With our limited knowledge, we started implementing a little here and a little there.  Offering a water pouring station in the kitchen and open, orderly shelving in the living room.

But I needed to know more.  When the opportunity to take Junnifa Uzodike’s Montessori e-course on supporting the development of the toddler came up, I was thrilled!  I told my husband that it was all I wanted for Christmas and my birthday combined.  He could grant me the gift of knowledge.  And he tried to surprise me.  He really did.  But a confirmation email came to my inbox the night he signed me up.  It didn’t matter.  It’s been, hands down, the best Christmas gift I’ve received to date.  (I highly recommend this course for anyone with a toddler.  My daughter was at the tail end of the toddler age range, but I still benefited and continue to benefit from the knowledge I gained.  The next course begins on April 17!)

Montessori had started out as an avenue to wooden toys.  Then it became a supplement to therapy.  But this course transformed our parenting.  We got a true understanding of what it means to support our daughter’s development in a way that’s respectful of her as a whole person.  And here’s the kicker.  Very little of it had to do with materials.  The vast majority of what I learned changed how I thought of and interacted with N.  Intangibles.

I didn’t have to alter how I wanted to run my household to implement Montessori.  I didn’t have to buy all kinds of new materials.  I didn’t have to fill my schedule with extra-curricular classes for N.  In fact, I didn’t have to change anything at all, except my mindset.  My trashcan remains generally empty so that we all can take pride and care in each item that enters our home.  My house remains simple and orderly so that N can move through her environment without overstimulation or distraction.  My schedule remains open and slow so that N can participate in daily living as fully as she wishes.  And here we are.  We’re a Montessori family, living simply, and giving each other time, respect, and understanding, the gifts that aren’t bought and don’t clutter.

Early Sound Games

I admit it, I’m a little late to the game with sound games for N.  Typically, sound games with the Montessori method start around age two and a half.  I didn’t begin until a few months before N turned three.  To start with, I didn’t know a lot about how Montessori children were taught the alphabet, so I was a bit intimidated.  And the little that I did know had me waiting for some magical revelation that she was ready for and interested in sounds and/or letters.  I imagined her drawing out or repeating sounds in words (“m-m-m-ommy” or “d-d-dog”) or pointing to letters and asking what they were.  She has yet to present with either of these imagined, perfect signals of readiness.  It was a case of “a little information” can be a dangerous thing.  Okay, well not dangerous.  I wouldn’t have ruined my daughter’s opportunity to learn to read and write, but waiting for what I was hoping to see would have placed unnecessary, additional pressure on both of us.  I was already feeling pressure surrounding N learning the alphabet.  Two of her 18 month old friends were already gleefully singing the “ABC Song” and enthusiastically naming letters on shirts, signs and fridge magnets.  While I know that every parent makes an individual choice regarding how and what their child learns, I also know the traditional methods at an early age aren’t for our family.  But still, it was starting to wear on me to see younger children seemingly able to know more and do more than N in so many areas.  (I could say a lot here about the American idea of knowing more, doing more, doing it earlier and better to define success for children, but that warrants its own post.)

After Nicole from The Kavanaugh Report and Amy from Midwest Montessori provided more information to help me understand sound games and the basis behind them (you can read the helpful posts on how to implement sound games here and here), they encouraged me to go ahead and begin.  I was assured that if I presented them correctly, I couldn’t go wrong.  And thus far, they’ve been absolutely correct!

For a few weeks, I began by playing “I Spy” with N using a single object.  I used random household objects (a few pictured below), but I always made sure to use objects that I was certain she knew the names of.  It was important that she know the name well and could expressly say the object name routinely.   It wasn’t enough that she knew a name receptively.  She had to be familiar enough with the object that she could name it out loud without much thought.  With a single object, she couldn’t really be wrong once she understood the concept of the game.  We made it very informal, playing in the kitchen while we were putting away dishes or while N was taking a bath, using whatever objects were within easy reach.  At first, she wasn’t very interested.  She’d play the game and name the object, but I could tell there wasn’t desire or enthusiasm present.  Following her lead, I’d simply try a few times throughout the week, never pushing and always keeping it light and pressure-free.

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One day, as we ran errands in the car, N said “Mommy, play ‘I spy with my little eye’.  Please!”  I couldn’t comply while I was driving, so I asked her if she’d like to play as soon as we got home.  Despite the ten-minute drive, she didn’t forget.  No sooner had we walked through the front door then N was “reminding” me to play the game.  Things just took off from there.  We moved to using two objects (which she gets correct about 80-90% of the time), and have recently attempted using three objects.  Today, she actually began bringing me objects to play “I Spy” with as soon as breakfast was complete and cleaned up.

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While I’ve seen beautiful posts on acquiring a beautiful collection of mini objects for use with sound games and later language work, I have yet to decide if that’s a good fit for us. For now, we have been using smaller household objects, as well as a few other language or open-ended materials we already have.  Schleich animals have worked perfectly for sound games, as have these lovely First Fruits Collectible Wooden Magnet Set” target=”_blank”>First Fruits magnets (pictured above and below) which were gifted to us and used for a long time as vocabulary building tools.  There are also First Vegetables and First Grains and Legumes magnets, which I routinely drool over (because N can’t eat fruit, so vegetables and legumes are more relevant to her) and would work just as well for these sound games.

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I am so looking forward to where the next few months bring us with sound games.  It’s been such a joy to watch her progress in this area.  Not once has she been frustrated, and never has it been so easy to observe her readiness for the next step.  If you have a toddler approaching the age of 2.5, I encourage you to look into sound games.  They are easy, fun, and require no special materials to get started.

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13 Books Featuring Children of Color

Several years ago, when I used to teach a diverse second grade class each year, I became aware of the importance of representation in books.  As I browsed through my class library, I realized that 98% of the books I had available for my students to read (or would read aloud to them) featured white protagonists.  The handful of books I had that featured people of color were mostly books on slavery, the Obamas, Michael Jordan, or Jackie Robinson.  I began searching for books where my students of color could see themselves reflected, not as a sidekick, slave, supporting figure or special circumstance, but as the main character, the norm, the hero.  But it wasn’t until I realized that we would be adopting transracially that my search got really serious.  And I was shocked at how difficult it was to find these books.  Granted, I do have pretty rigorous requirements for the books we choose to read to her: realistic, beautiful illustrations, and preferably written by a person of color.  Yet, over the past two years, I’ve managed to compile a list of books in which N can see herself and people like her depicted in a positive light.

If I thought finding children’s books for N was hard, finding books that feature American Indians/First Nations and Asian children as protagonists was even harder.  The infographic below shows why.  Since I am committed to a home library where N can not only see herself reflected, but a diverse range of children and experiences as well, I will continue my search and share as my list grows.

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Huyck, David, Sarah Park Dahlen, Molly Beth Griffin. (2016 September 14). Diversity in Children’s Books 2015 infographic. sarahpark.com blog. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/picture-this-reflecting-diversity-in-childrens-book-publishing/

The following books are ones that we’ve enjoyed recently or have in our collection for use when N is developmentally ready for them.  I also recommend checking out other books by some of these authors.  We particularly enjoy Angela Johnson, Spike Lee, and Rachel Isadora!

IMG_5309  1. Firebird     2. Flower Garden     3. The Blacker the Berry

4. Full, Full, Full of Love     5. Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters     6. When I Am Old with You

7. Brothers & Sisters: Family Poems     8. Come On, Rain!     9. Bippity Bop Barbershop

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The four pictured above are N’s favorites at this time.  A South African Night is especially dear, holding a treasured place in our hearts.

1. Honey, I Love     2. Please, Puppy, Please

3. A South African Night     4. Max and the Tag-Along Moon

If you are interested in reading why ALL children should read diverse literature, this blog post at Barbershop Books makes several good points.  “The stereotypical ways in which people of color are represented in modern-day children’s literature, or are all together missing, bear some responsibility for the prominence of racism in American culture. Reflecting on the importance of who gets seen, when, where, and doing what has led me to conclude that children’s books represent one of the most valuable pieces of real-estate in the fight against racism.”  Maria Montessori placed a great deal of emphasis on peace education.  I believe that seeing diverse children reflected in books is an important way to communicate that everyone has value and is worthy of respect.

Do you have any favorites?  I’m always up for checking out recommendations!