Annabelle's closet, designed for independent dressing.

Our Montessori Home, Sans School

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

Adorable, yes, but a serious person worthy of respect.

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…”

Maria Montessori

Annabelle's closet, designed for independent dressing.

Independence

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.”

Maria Montessori

The shelf in Annabelle's bedroom.

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.

Annabelle's shelf in the living room.

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.

Annabelle's kitchen shelf.

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!

  1. 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?
  2. I’m still looking for more ways to include the word “Montessori” in this short paragraph. If you have ideas, let me know! ;)

14 thoughts on “Our Montessori Home, Sans School

  1. Anna

    I love what you have done with and for Annabelle. It mirrors to some extent how I have things going on my own home, although my children are older and go to a traditional, independent school.

    However, I have found that as the kids get older there are pit-falls that are harder to avoid. You may find them interesting!
    1. Older that five and the order that you crave and that the younger child needed is lost. Instead, all of my three children wanted to hold onto each and every piece of tat that ever came thier way. We have learnt to compromise – they are getting better and better at cleaning thier rooms and I am learning to respect their need to keep what looks like useless and broken junk.
    2. The public parts of the house are kept “my way” and we all contribute to keeping them tidied and ordered.
    3. Young children are not very interested in dolls. Either a sibling comes along, or they are already a sib and that seems to ignite an interest but not all children ever like dolls. Livi loves them passionately and has loads. Abi never liked them and Johnny only until he worked out that he would never be a mummy! Dolls and preteneding toys like kitches etc, are brilliant for the 5-11 year olds but are marketed for the 3-5’s. It drives me insane.
    4. two children generate more than double the mess!! Just so you know!!!!

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      That is definitely all interesting! I look forward to seeing how things change and evolve as Annabelle grows and as we add another child to the mix.

      I have seen the same as you mention with dolls, and am hoping Annabelle’s comes in handy when she needs to play through the feelings associated with becoming a big sister, but am okay with the fact that it’s not the hot toy right now. I think dolls are one of those things that we adults *want* children to love, because the image of a child snuggling a doll is just so sweet. As with many things, what we want and what the child wants are not necessarily in line, so it’s helpful when we can give them the space to be and to do in their own way. One school I taught in did have “doll washing” in the practical life area for a bit each year and the children loved that.

      As for more than double the mess… I’ll just hope for the best! That is one bit I’ll admit I’m not looking forward to. We’re back in a routine of doing laundry once or twice a week and that’s plenty, but I keep remembering when Annabelle was a newborn and I had to do laundry *at least* every other day. I’ll learn to love it one way or another!

      Reply
  2. Deb @ Living Montessori Now

    Wonderful thoughts, Melissa! I love the way you’re watching your child’s reaction (and soon, two children’s reactions … congratulations!) to see how to approach Montessori and schooling for your family. I always love reading your well-thought-out posts with ideas of how to use Montessori principles in a natural way at home. Thanks so much for linking up with Montessori Monday. Wishing you many blessings in your New Year of exciting changes! :)

    Reply
  3. The Monko

    Really loved reading this post. It sounds very similar to what we are doing with Goblin. Integrating some Montessori and some Waldorf ideas but mainly living with and responding to our child. (Goblin hasn’t shown much interest in his Waldorf doll either – I made it myself and I’m really proud of it but I’m trying to be grown up and objective about his indifference!). I love Annabelle’s wardobe.

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Thank you! It’s always neat to hear from parents who are on the same page. I’m impressed by mama-made Waldorf dolls, and often wish I had worked on my sewing skills a bit more in my less busy years! I’m sure the doll will be a treasured item, if only for the love you surely poured into it.

      Reply
  4. Zoie @ TouchstoneZ

    I love this post. First of all, the philosophy of trust and unconditional love that are so inherent in the Montessori philosophy strike me in the deliberateness of how the environment is created. There’s a sense of ease, choices, and personal power there that supports freedom for a child to grow.

    Secondly, I was admiring the neat, uncluttered shelves and rooms. Actually, I’ll take another nostalgic moment right here… sigh

    Okay, now the reality when they get a bit bigger is that it’s all strewn everywhere all at once and then you have two and three strewing. I’ve let it go (except the stepped-on legos in the middle of the night. OUCH!) and am patiently working on strategies that will support them to care for and put away their things. Honestly, I have to get better at this myself. Having ADHD, cleaning up after myself slips from my mind too easily. Modeling, normally my goto parenting tool, is hard to come by when it comes to organizing and picking up after myself.

    I’ll be interested to follow along on your journey through multiple children and as they grow bigger. I feel I’ll continue to learn a lot.

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Thank you, Zoie! I love your description of the aspects of Montessori philosophy that resonate with you. You put it beautifully.

      Mess and clutter are two things that are hard for me to live with, which is funny because I’m quite skilled at creating them myself. I’m trying to break the habit as I model tidiness for Annabelle, but it is tough and I know it will become harder as she gets to a point where she needs my supervision less and less. It will be an interesting balance – my need for order with her need for activity and lots of things to work on. I’m curious to see how that goes as well! :) And of course I took photos of our shelves *after* the nightly tidying up – I’ll admit they don’t look like that all day!

      Reply
  5. Rach

    A wonderful post Melissa. I was dying to hear about how you approached montessori at home. I approach things similarly, though your shelves are filled with things that are a lot more appropriate I would say. I love the way you are so patient and respectful of A and I aspire to be likewise. On the doll note, B seems to love her “doll” (actually a monkey) and imaginative play. Probably a little dose of natural inclination, and a double dose of copying me. Yes I talk to the animals….whoops my secret is out!

    Reply
  6. Neptune

    Hello

    I stumbled on your blog through this post. I am so glad to have find it, as it summarize exactly how I feel about Montessori at home, better then I could ever express.
    I’ll be looking forward to read more!

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      I’m so glad you found us, and now that I have found you! Your blog is beautiful, and I know I’ll find many beautifully expressed things by you there :)

      Reply
  7. mj

    I love this post, it is exactly how I feel about my daughters independent development. Does anybody who is close to you question some of your methods? And if they do, how do you respond? I have an especially hard time explaining to my mother-in law in an interesting and thoughtful way about why my daughter has very few toys and why I am not as hands on as my mother in law was with her children, when I mean hands on, I mean not always guiding my daughters behaviour into what I think she should be doing, if my daughter wants to explore in her room, I let her explore in her room, if she wants to work beside me, I figure out a safe and similar activity that she can do etc… My mother in law believes I should always sit down with my daughter and do activities with her to teach her how to focus and concentrate and we do that, only when my daughter is interested in doing so though. Also, these toy dilemas we have, I dont know how to explain to my mother in law without sounding ungrateful that we just dont agree with most childrens toys, especially the ones that light up and play music and talk but my mother in law thinks the more toys, the merrier!

    My daughter as I have observed is more of a practical-life, imaginative play, book reading kind of toddler, their are very seldom toys that catch her interest so when grandma takes her toy shopping, almost all of it just ends up in the closet for donation.

    It is just so hard trying to explain things and having people actually listen and take me seriously.

    Reply

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