I have never really cared for the term “baby-proofing,” since it conjures up images of protecting your home from your child, as though children were inherently destructive beings out to ruin our most treasured possessions. Still, the idea of adapting a living space with the children who will share it in mind is an important one. Mama Mo over at Attached at the Nip wrote a post recently about how there are “two levels of baby-proofing.” As she pointed out, just about every parent, at the very least, slaps some outlet covers on and locks up poisons or moves them out of reach. The idea of actually removing everything that you don’t want your infant exploring, however, requires an entirely different level of preparation. Here at our house, Annabelle’s newfound mobility has had us very busy adapting our environment to meet her needs.
One of the most important aspects of Montessori philosophy is the concept of the “Prepared Environment.” The prepared environment is one that has been well-thought out and is suited to the needs of the developing child, with built in opportunities for independent learning and exploration. The term itself usually refers to Montessori classrooms, since every item in them is something that the children are not only allowed, but encouraged, to interact with. As Dr. Montessori herself explained: “The first aim of the prepared environment is, as far as it is possible, to render the child independent of the adult.” This is not because the adult in question has no interest in interacting with the child – in fact every Montessorian I know treasures interactions with the children in their lives. However, a strong parent-child connection and a strong sense of independence are not mutually exclusive, and children can only develop true independence when they are given opportunities to guide their own activity.
While the prepared environment of the Montessori classroom is not available to many children, they can benefit from a home environment carefully adapted to meet their needs. In striving to create this type of environment, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Safety is top priority for the environment of children of any age. This means different things to different people, but certainly anything that poses an immediate danger to the child should be removed or placed well out of reach.
Respect for the Child is perhaps the most important underlying concept to Montessori philosophy. In the preparation of the home environment, this means removing anything that the child is not free to touch and explore from areas where he or she spends their time. The goal is for the child to feel confident and successful in his or her environment, and this is hard to accomplish whilst constantly being redirected away from things that are mommy’s or daddy’s. Fragile knick knacks, and rare books, for example, don’t belong on low tables or shelves. If the child can reach it, they should be allowed to touch it, feel it, smell it, pick it up, and carry it around. This is how they learn. Children have plenty of opportunities to hear “no,” out and about – they need a refuge from the rest of the world in their home just as much as adults do.
Order, beauty, and simplicity are not always easy to maintain in a house where children live, and this is admittedly the most difficult for me. Still, young children have a very strong sense of order and it is, as Dr. Montessori explained, “one of the needs of life which, when it is satisfied, produces a real happiness.” Montessorians believe that keeping the home environment orderly helps infants to develop a sense of security within it, since they become accustomed to finding everything in a certain place. Just as a predictable order of activities (routine) can be beneficial, so can a predictable physical order within the home. Beauty and simplicity invite the child to interact with the environment, rather than overstimulating or distracting her.
Opportunities for purposeful activity also invite children to interact and in so doing to learn and develop themselves. Carefully chosen toys (or un-toys) can be placed in shallow baskets or on low shelves that appeal to the child and aid in their development. If you’re not sure where to start, the Michael Olaf catalog lists some wonderful materials for each age and stage. Many items similar to these can be improvised and made at home for those of us whose budget doesn’t allow for as much as we would like.