I have really come to enjoy posting bits and pieces from our lives for Montessori Monday, but as I put together my thoughts on The Schooling Dilemma, I realized I may be painting a bit of a confusing picture.
I explained that I admire, fully support, and am quite frankly in awe of parents who choose to homeschool their children using the Montessori method. I support homeschooling, I am a Montessorian to the core, and I strive to implement Montessori philosophy in my home, and in my interactions with all children. While I suspect I will always be guided by Montessori philosophy, I will never homeschool my children using the Montessori method. That is unless I decide to open a school in my home that includes children unrelated to me. We shall see 1
I discuss this in context a bit more in The Schooling Dilemma Part 3 (which has some incredibly thoughtful discussion from other parents, by the way! I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation), so I won’t repeat myself here, but feel free to refer back if you’re interested in the subject. What I did want to explain here is the role Montessori plays in our home, since I imagine it often looks, based on the way we’ve organized our home environment, like we are, or are soon to be a Montessori homeschooling family.
The key principles that translate to home life, in my opinion are: respect for the child, independence, and the prepared environment. I’ll explain a bit about what each of these means in our home.
Respect for the Child
Annabelle, despite her young age, is very much a person and we feel that she is entitled to more or less the same rights that we enjoy. We try to model kindness, gentleness, respect, and many other things for her, but we refrain from forcing her to do things, from saying please and thank you to eating certain foods. We try not to make decisions for her, such as what to wear, what to eat, or what activities to engage in. We strive to treat her with the same consideration and respect that we extend to one another. We do our best to take her seriously, to empower her, and to be a help to her when needed. We respect her opinions, needs, wants, and preferences, her bodily autonomy, her rights as an individual, and her process. By no means are we perfect, but we try.
“A child’s parents are not his makers but his guardians. They must protect him and have a great concern for him like one who assumes some sacred trust…”
As any parent of a toddler, past or present, can attest, these young children are fiercely independent beings. While they still rely on their parents and caregivers for many things, they are learning to manage an increasing number of tasks on their own, and as they exercise their new found independence, the phrase ‘by myself’ becomes an important part of each toddler’s vocabulary. Honoring the child’s drive for independence is one of the many important ways that we can put our respect into action.
We try to do this by organizing our home in a way that gives Annabelle the ability to meet her own basic needs. She has snacks within her reach, stools to help her reach the sink and toilet, and her clothing hangs low enough in her closet that she can find what she needs on her own.
“Any child who is self-sufficient, who can tie his shoes, dress or undress himself, reflects in his joy and sense of achievement the image of human dignity, which is derived from a sense of independence.”
The Prepared Environment
The term ‘Prepared Environment’ is meant to refer to Montessori classrooms, but the concept translates beautifully to the home. A prepared environment is simply a space designed with the children who will use it in mind. Care is taken to ensure that the child can do as much as possible independently, with everything they need easily within their reach and displayed such that it is easy to find. Everything is set up for the child’s success, so that the adult seldom needs to intervene in the child’s decision making process or activity.
This is incredibly beneficial in the home, because it makes it much easier for the parent to say “yes,” and eliminates a host of power struggles. If everything within the child’s reach is intended for his or her use, there is a multitude of appropriate options for purposeful and engaging activity, and there is minimal need for adults to intervene or redirect.
An important component of the prepared classroom environment is the Montessori materials – the instruments of the child’s learning. Since we’re not homeschooling with the Montessori method, we do not have a complete, or even nearly complete set of Montessori materials. Many things, however, cause our home to resemble a Montessori classroom. First, I find value in the method of organization that Montessori schools employ2.
In Montessori classrooms, the materials are organized on shelves, neatly and in a logical manner. They are easy for the child to see and to access. There are core pieces of material that remain in the classroom at all times, but other activities are rotated in and out to maintain the children’s interest. This way of setting up the environment appeals to me on many levels, and so we do something very similar in our home. Annabelle has a shelf in each of the rooms where we spend long periods of time, and a selection of her carefully chosen toys can be found on each one. From time to time, I will put items that aren’t seeing much use away in a closet and replace them with others I think she will enjoy. Sometimes I make a bad call, and Annabelle asks for something I have put away, or has no interest in something I put out. I do my best to observe and listen to her, and change things accordingly.
Then there’s the issue of the toys we choose. In Montessori, the lines between work and play are blurred. Most of the activities children engage in are referred to as “work,” which more than anything reflects a respect for what the child is doing. Today, it looked like my daughter was only goofing around when she would climb onto the small table in her dining area and then slide back down again. Perhaps it would even have looked to some like she was being “naughty”. What I saw, however, was her perfecting her motor skills. I saw great pride in her face when she made it safely to the floor and declared, “Annabelle down by self!” Because this sort of activity is formative for the child, Montessorians are inclined to call it work. Unfortunately, people often make the mistake of thinking that we don’t allow children to simply play. In reality, what Montessori children do all day is chosen by them and is inherently pleasurable. The neutral observer would likely refer to it as “play,” yet we Montessorians choose to reflect our view of the same activity as important, formative work by calling it just that: work. By any name, it is a crucial part of child life.
Dr. Montessori herself observed that many traditional “toys” were of no interest to the child, apparently because they did have certain qualities that called to and helped him or her in the formative work of childhood. If it interests you, I discuss this issue of “work” and “play” in the Montessori classroom in greater detail in the article Waldorf and Montessori on Play, Fantasy, Toys, and the Social Life of the Classroom.
With all this in mind, I try to choose mostly toys and activities that provide opportunities for Annabelle to concentrate, work, and further her development. I leave plenty of space for imaginative play and open ended activity, but from what I have observed so far, it’s that which I would call work that she is most interested in. Perhaps her most expensive play item is a beautiful Waldorf doll that we got for her, together with her grandmother, but this gets very little attention, I suppose because it doesn’t provide an opportunity for purposeful activity. I still think it’s an important item, and believe it will become all the more valuable as Annabelle works out the complex role of sibling in the months to come. I have ordered her some diapers for it so that she can get some fine motor and self/infant care practice using the doll as well, but the point is – I see a definite preference for toys and activities that allow Annabelle to practice some skill on which she is working. This is why it often looks like we have shelves filled with Montessori work. These are Annabelle’s toys, to enjoy as she pleases, but they have been chosen based on observation and on Montessori principles, and what Annabelle does with them is her work.
All that is to say that we consider many aspects of Montessori philosophy when we’re choosing things for Annabelle’s environment. We don’t choose toys for looks or entertainment value alone, but try to choose items that will be interesting, challenging, and helpful for our daughter’s development. I discuss our criteria for choosing toys in A Montessori-Inspired Checklist for Choosing Toys.
Our home, then, is organized much like a Montessori environment, but it is not outfitted with a full range of Montessori materials. I don’t give presentations on each activity, and I don’t make a point of setting aside time for a “work cycle.” I live here, with my daughter. I do my best to provide her with interesting, useful, and enjoyable activities and plenty of time to do what interests her, and I stay out of her way. I am thrilled to spend time with her when she wants company, or to quietly observe or do my own thing when she is busy at work. I’m happy to help her when she is struggling with something, and to wait patiently while she works on other things by herself. I’m not homeschooling her, but I am striving to respect her and provide her with as many opportunities as possible to learn and perfect her skills.
Of course all of this is my ideal. I certainly make mistakes at times. I get in my child’s way. I intervene or speak in ways that aren’t in step with my values. I’m human, but I wake up and try again. So far it seems to be working!
- Is this the place where I should admit to hoarding small shelves, tables, chairs, and the like, just in case I should find myself designing a home-based Montessori environment? ↩
- I’m still looking for more ways to include the word “Montessori” in this short paragraph. If you have ideas, let me know! ;) ↩