You know those moments when you discover something new and you were left both excited and astonished? You said to yourself “How did I go THIS long without this wonderful, awesome new thing?!” Well, I have had many of those moments over the past year when it comes to parenting, such as when I learned about RIE parenting, and thought it would be helpful to share my take on how to incorporate the Montessori Method into toddler-play (and lifestyle) at-home, as well as useful discoveries I have made in the toddler toy department.
Starting off with what it means to do things the “Montessori” way… Maria Montessori changed the face of education for many, as well as the way in which we view children’s learning experiences. Best understood by referencing her own words, Montessori said:
“…we discovered that education….is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.” [Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, translated by Claude A. Claremont]
If we replace the term “teacher” here with parent, what this means for us is that learning about the world in which our children grow just simply happens for them. And the “motives for cultural activity” that she mentions simply means opportunities that we parents set up for our children in which our kiddos learn. Example being when I recognized that my toddler, who was 24 months at-the-time, got very excited when watching an episode of Sesame Street featuring Elmo and a Monarch butterfly. When I replayed the episode a couple of days later, he again exhibited both joy and interest. So, I did a quick internet search for anything butterfly-related. I found a neat butterfly set that included a dozen plastic butterflies, all of which are actual species and are labeled accordingly in the collectors case they arrive in. I also found two fantastic books with beautiful illustrations—Butterfly Colors and Counting and A Butterfly is Patient. I also got a wooden jigsaw puzzle. And I even bought myself a beautiful butterfly shirt to wear because I know that would be a big hit in the toddler department. All of these items are both appropriate to introduce now (with adult assistance/supervision) and can be utilized for many years. And we plan in a year or so, to get a live butterfly garden so we can witness metamorphosis right in front of our faces.
Transportation is another area in which my toddler loves to explore, as it is for many boys and girls. While on walks in our neighborhood, my toddler often asks if he can “see” cars or trucks parked in neighbor’s driveways. Sure, I usually say, and up the driveways he goes again and again to feel tires and touch license plates as he reads aloud the letters and numbers displayed on them. We’ve actually gotten to know quite a few neighbors this way…an icebreaker-opportunity, if you will. And we plan to soon check out a car show, too.
We’ve introduced the Disney movie Cars since he has such an interest and bought lots of diecast metal cars and trucks for outdoor play. I even built a three-foot long ramp out of some pieces of lumber I found lying around: a few nails, a 1×4 and two 1x1s. My toddler drags it around the patio-area and sets it up where he wishes to play.
My toddler has had great first-hand opportunities to “see” and hop up in some pretty cool vehicles: a school bus, postal truck, and tractor. Even a short visit to a firehouse when the firemen are experiencing a lull is a great opportunity for learning, as is just sitting on a parked motorcycle (minus the key and engine revving, along with adult supervision) for a few minutes.
Hands-on experiences are so important. Practical life trays are another great way to incorporate both hands-on experience and Montessori activities into your home. Basically, you place a tray down with 2-3 small bowls, which can be filled with a variety of household items—buttons, dry beans, and even water—and using small tongs, a scooper, or even something like a turkey baster, your child can transfer the items from bowl to bowl. My toddler loves water transfer and will sit on the kitchen floor doing this for 20 minutes or more. Again, adult assistance/supervision is a must (for many reasons, safety being first and foremost), but these activities allow for improving fine motor skills.
Lastly, kitchen help…and I’m not talking about a maid. I admit that I had to adapt, as did my husband, when it came to allowing our toddler to “help” in the kitchen. I snagged a deal on a pretty nifty stool called the Learning Tower, which was one of many that are marketed in the US, and our kiddo started using it almost immediately. When I cook pancakes on our griddle, he stands beside me with a spatula in-hand to assist. He has a basic understanding that he must be careful as it is hot and allows me to use my hand to help guide him as he flips the flapjacks. Although quite heavy, he slowly and carefully pulls the wooden stool on his own over to the sink where I sometimes set up a small dish-washing station, so he can practice using a washcloth to clean dishes.
And when considering which stool, or kitchen helper as it’s commonly called, to get, we went with the Learning Tower because we have two toddlers who eventually may both want a bird’s eye view of what goes on up on the counter at the same time. We are still a year or two away from incorporating a children’s knife set to teach him “how-to” do food preparation. Our goal is not to rush experiences but to embrace them when they happen to occur. And we just got a Pikler Triangle, which is set up in our living room and used as a climbing-and-sliding apparatus every day.
Maria Montessori said “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” For us, this means standing back and letting our toddler give it a shot. Whether it be letting him pull his younger sibling in the big red wagon on an evening walk or sharpening his own crayons as he colors in his geometric shapes coloring book, we do our best as parents to facilitate self-directed learning with the hopes that we will raise independent human beings with curious minds.