It occurred me recently that Montessori is sometimes mistaken for setting up photogenic activities trays. It is also sometimes considered to be just another expensive way of educating children (judging by the fees of private Montessori kindergartens and schools in Europe). Or a new trendy parenting style.
I will be honest with you. While we do have some Montessori materials in our home (an object permanence box for exemple), they are not the essence of our Montessori-way-of-living. I don’t believe that a child needs to attend an expensive Montessori school in order benefit from this method. Much can be done in our homes. And if following a trend is the motivation for integrating Montessori in one’s life, it can be disappointing. Montessori is not something new. It’s a pretty old philosophy actually.
So what is Montessori about? What does it mean to integrate this method in a family’s life?
I believe that it starts with trusting children and seing them as capable, resourceful and whole. Then the following steps and benefits might comme naturally:
1. Creating an environment that fosters children's independence and autonomy.
"The first aim of the prepared environment is, as far as it is possible, to render the growing child independent of the adult."- Maria Montessori
Imagine you are about 1.70m tall and you have to climb 1.20m to be able to sit on a couch. Imagine you cannot speak the language of the people around you and you desperately try to make them understand that you are terribly thirsty or hungry. Imagine all your belongings, including clothes and toys, are kept in a 5m high closet and you are not allowed to choose what you want to wear. It sounds like a nightmare, doesn’t it? Well, very often this is just everyday life for a toddler. And it’s probably exhausting and frustrating to live in a place like this.
Adapting our home so that a child could access what she needs, take care of herself and be able participate to her family's life is not necessarily expensive nor it requires special skills. But we need to see a child as a capable and trustworthy person (even when she spills her glass of water all over the kitchen).
In a Montessori- inspired environment, a toddler can wash hands independently, dress up alone, prepare her own snacks and pour herself a drink. Through these actions, the child can also learn to recognize her body’s signals: hunger, thirst, feeling cold, etc…
"The essence of independence is to be able to do something for one's self"- Maria Montessori
2. Montessori is about empowering children.
In my view, this second principle follows on from the first one. When they live in an environment that encourages their autonomy, children can be in charge of their own body. They learn how to attend to their own needs .
When they are newborn we do everything for our children because they can't do much. And then we take upon this habit and carry on doing things in their place, although they are very much capable of taking care of themselves. In the beginning it might seem that we earn time by doing so. But not on the long term. A child that learns how to put her shoes on at a time when she is interested in doing things by herself will probably continue doing it with pride and joy.
“To give a child liberty is not to abandon him to himself.”- Maria Montessori
By adapting a little bit our environment we can make accessible water and food so that she can drink alone when she is thirsty or prepare her own breakfast. A very young child can learn how to pour herself a drink.
“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” - Maria Montessori
Following the Montessori way of designing a child’s wardrobe, a little one can access her clothes, dress herself up and put socks and shoes on.
These are small things but they are extremely rewarding for a child. Being able to do something for one's self gives a sense of control and builds self-confidence.
3. It enables children to take part to their families’ lives.
Toddlers are eager to participate to whatever we do around the house. Most of them love to help cooking, cleaning and learning how to grow their own vegetables and plants.
If they have access to real tools, they can really take part into their family’s life. The tools need to be size-adapted but real (no « kiddy » versions)
4. It provides a feeling of predictability and order
Despite of what we commonly think, children love order and consistency.
« A place for everything and everything in its place » - Maria Montessori
In a Montessori-inspired learning environment materials and toys are stored in baskets or displayed on trays on the shelves. The child knows where to find something she needs and where to put it back.
Only a few materials are displayed at one time and they are rotated. This brings a sense of order and simplicity that welcome focus as well as exploration and play.
“To assist a child we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely.”- Maria Montessori
Not to be forgotten, by simplifying the number of choices (less toys and materials that are out on the shelves) we also make the clean-up and tidying-up much easier and quick. And the child can participate or do it alone.
5. It brings beauty to our homes
By choosing natural materials (wood, wool, silk, cotton, ceramic…), beautiful textures and colors for the furnitures and the toys we honor the senses.
“The child should live in an environment of beauty. »- Maria Montessori
These beautiful and fragile objects become precious to the child who learns to take care and respect the environment in which she evolves.
Montessori-inspired activities and the neatly prepared trays do belong to this pedagogy. But in my experience, they can effectively serve a child when implemented in a prepared environment where the child is empowered and free and where the Montessori philosophy and values (respect and trust to name just a few) are part of the very day life.
“Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future."- Maria Montessori