Incorporating an Infant or Toddler into a Montessori Primary Classroom
I’ve been talking with a lot of Montessori families lately, and I’m finding that the question of how to provide for a Montessori work period for an older child, while also keeping an infant or toddler happy, is not an uncommon one. My youngest, one-and-a-half year old Elliot, has been in our Montessori preschool classroom since he was five months old, so I’ve had a bit of experience with this and thought I’d share what has worked for us.
First, some of the back story. If you’re not interested in all of that, you can scroll straight down to the big text for some tips for working with an infant or toddler in a Montessori Primary Classroom.
I set out to start our little, home-based Montessori school for two reasons: I wanted to continue to be my children’s primary caregiver, and I wanted my children to be able to attend Montessori at least from age 3-6. Financially, these two things just did not go together. If I wanted to pay for Montessori for my preschooler, I was going to have to go back to work outside the home, and this would mean regularly leaving my infant in someone else’s care. Being a trained Montessori teacher, I saw a simple solution: if there’s not a school that works for our family, why not make one myself?
This solved the problem of affording Montessori for my preschooler, but the solution for then-infant Elliot was less clear cut. If I was going to teach a group of preschoolers, where would he go? I couldn’t really see sending him off someplace. Not only did I simply not want to, but it wasn’t logical or feasible to pay someone else to care for him when I wasn’t making a salary. After thinking the whole situation over in my mind a great deal, I came back to where I had started: I wanted to be with my baby, and so I would. We would see how it worked, and make changes as needed, but from the outset, Elliot would be a part of things.
On our first class day last year, Elliot was five-and-a-half months old. He was not yet mobile, and he was taking a long morning nap, so I didn’t foresee too much juggling. I set up a little area for him ahead of time, placing some infant materials on a low shelf and bringing along a soft mat just for him to sit and relax (and later nap) on. I also made sure to have a sturdy wrap there with me, for both nursing and napping.
In the early days of our program, he would sit on his mat with a work of his own, or hang out in the wrap as we settled in, and would soon snuggle in to nurse (it was easy to nurse and “wear” him hands-free while teaching, too, especially given how much observing from the sidelines Montessori teaching involves), and eventually fall asleep for his morning nap. I would either keep him wrapped while he slept, or transfer him to his mat in a comparatively quiet corner of the room. Around the time he woke up, we were usually about ready to go outside anyway, and he was happy to join us and get some fresh air. It’s easy when they can’t get into everything!
Elliot was an early walker, and was all over the place by the end of April that first semester, so our original system stopped working as well. Fortunately, this was the same time we moved our classroom from a barely large enough room in another family’s basement, to the main floor of our family’s rental home. I set up the Sensorial, Math, Language, and Cultural areas in our dining room, with Practical Life and art in the adjoining kitchen. Our program was informal at this time, so parents had to hang around during class to prevent a scenario where I would be providing “child care” without a license. I set up a space for them to relax with their own younger children in our living room which shared a wall with the dining room, and could also be peered into from the kitchen.
I placed a long curtain in the doorway between the living and dining rooms so that no one could see from one to the other. While Elliot and his toddler friends could certainly have walked right through it (and occasionally did), their inability to physically see the classroom lessened the temptation a great deal. Most of the time, another parent was able to keep an eye on Elliot, but when this wasn’t possible, I could still see him and tend to him as well. When he needed my immediate attention, I also had my ergo for interaction in a front carry while limiting access to the preschool shelves. Most days, he still napped during this time and I would quickly put him in his bedroom once asleep, then take the monitor with me back to class. Outside time continued to be easy: either he was still napping, or he was enjoying the outdoors with us.
When summer came, I was grateful for the break! Without a physical separation between the classroom and our living space, there was no way to prevent Elliot from exploring the shelves when I was busy with regular around the house things outside of school time, and this was a source of frustration for both of us. He loved the sphere from our geometric solids (which had completely disappeared by the end of the year!) and the metal insets especially. In hindsight, I could have bought a couple of $15 tension mounted baby gates to close off the dining room outside of “school” hours, but I was hesitant to spend much money since I knew this particular set-up was very temporary.
We spent the summer shopping for a house, because it was clear that, if our program was to continue, we would need a dedicated, separate space for it. Fortunately, we were renting and ready for a home to officially call our own anyway, so this was not a massive undertaking. We found the perfect house, a mere city block from our rental, and moved in just before Elliot’s first birthday. Our little school was relocated to the daylight basement of our new home, making it easy to close the door and live our normal lives when we’re not having school.
I brought Elliot into the classroom for periods of time here and there while we were still making preparations for the new school year, and his impulse to roll up any rug he saw, or to hit the pink tower as hard as he could, and watch it come crashing down (to my horror!), was just too much. There was clearly going to be no way to allow him relaxed and peaceful mornings in this space without disturbing the peace for any preschoolers who may be in the room. No amount of redirecting can give a toddler the impulse control of a three or four year old, and Elliot deserved a work time without constant redirecting, too.
At this point, however, I was low on funds, having just bought the house and gone through the expenses associated with licensing our program. I managed to get a Super Yard from a neighbor, which I used to partition off a corner of the room at first. I scored a toddler table and chair on craigslist, repurposed a little shelf from one of our closets and arranged some materials on it, and we were in business. Once I began to generate a bit of money for our program, I was able to purchase a toddler safe mirror panel and a couple of sturdy shelves. This allowed me to remove the very useful plastic eyesore that was the Super Yard, replacing one half “wall” of what I have come to call “Elliot’s Office” with the mirror, and the other with the shelves. This allows Elliot to be physically in the room with us, but separate from the preschoolers and their shelves and work. I’m able to see him and be attentive to his needs, and to work with him for periods of time here and there, but he has a “yes” space where he’s no longer being constantly redirected.
This has not been a perfect solution, but nothing is perfect when you’re working with ever-changing children who have varying needs. We have managed to make it work quite well, and I have never regretted making this choice for our family. Of course Elliot’s space is small for an active toddler, so he gets understandably restless at times during the morning and I’ve found a few ways of helping both of us enjoy each morning. Here’s some of the strategies that have worked for us.
Tips for working with an infant or toddler in a Montessori Primary Classroom
Set appropriate expectations
To repeat what I said above: no amount of redirection will give a toddler the impulse control of a preschooler. Remember that you’re dealing with a toddler in an environment that is not entirely toddler-friendly. This will not always be easy, and the toddler will do things you wish he or she would not. That’s okay, because you’re loving, attentive, and gentle, and will be able to handle the situation with grace. Know your limits, of course, and don’t set you (or your child) up to fail. Be flexible.
Prepare the environment
Make sure that there are accessible, age appropriate materials for all age groups represented. Ideally, at least by the time your infant is mobile, have the materials for separate age groups in entirely separate spaces. A half wall composed of shelves or panels between your toddler or infant area and your preschool space is ideal, as it allows you to see and be seen by all. Ideally, both areas will have a space for quiet activity (resting, reading, etc). It’s best if the areas of each age group’s space that are adjacent to one another are ones that invite relatively quiet, peaceful work. This makes it less likely that children will disrupt one another.
Get down and explore each area from the children’s level to get a sense of how it will look and feel for them, too, and make changes as you see fit.
Observe, and make changes as needed
Once you’ve set your space up and begun to use it, take a few minutes each day to simply stand back and watch. How is the environment meeting each child’s needs? Are there needs that are not being met? What can you change to make things work more smoothly? The biggest changes are likely to happen early on, as you settle in, but keep an open mind and continue to observe regularly even once things are settled.
Vary materials to maintain interest
Toddlers especially need only a few activities available to them at a time. Too much material can be overwhelming, and can make it difficult for the toddler to learn to care for his or her space. When confined to a relatively small space, however, it’s easy for these few activities to get old very quickly.
After our first few weeks, I noticed that Elliot was sometimes reluctant to enter his area in the mornings. I have since started adding a new activity or a new point of interest to an old activity almost every day. I usually place the new activity right on Elliot’s table so that he sees it immediately. This makes him excited to enter his space, and encourages him to start engaging with something right away. I leave an obvious empty spot on the shelf where E can return his new work when he’s finished and look for something else. Not only has this made the transition to school time a more pleasant one for E, but it has increased the length of time he’ll work independently each morning. Of course a bit of variety is wonderful for preschoolers, too, along with plenty of consistency.
Vary activities to prevent restlessness
Elliot is usually happy to work independently for the first 20 minutes to 1 hour of our work time, depending on the day. The preschoolers, however, have a nearly three hour uninterrupted work period, so this leaves quite a bit of time after E’s initial period of independent play.
When I see that he’s becoming restless, I have a few favorite activities on hand that I offer one at a time until we’re ready to head outside. One is paper and crayons. These would be on his shelf, but without constant supervision, they really can’t be as they’re still either eaten or used to redecorate the walls. When E seems like he’s in need of a new activity, I just ask him if he’d like to draw, and he usually says yes. I tape a large piece of paper down to one of the tables in the preschool area , add some crayons, and help Elliot out of his “office” and over to the table for a change of scenery. It’s possible, but not easy for Elliot to get down from the chairs at the larger tables, and this means he’s not terribly tempted to abandon his art and take apart anyone’s work. He will draw happily for several minutes, taking breaks to observe the older children, and eventually he’ll hop down or let me know that he’s done. This is usually the time during each morning when I observe rather than give lessons, since I know I may be needed by E at any moment.
A visit to the restroom is always a nice change of pace and allows E some space, too, but my best tool of all is snack. After some art and a trip to the potty, Elliot is usually ready to eat. I walk with him over to the snack shelf where he grabs himself a napkin and, returning to his own work space, places it on the table. He sits and enjoys the photos on his walls and the entertainment provided by the older children while eating a snack, and then he’s usually up for another bout of independent play by the time he finishes.
If restlessness comes again before we finish up, I may set Elliot up at a big table with a simple spooning or transfer activity from the preschool shelves, hold him on my lap while I guide an older child through an exercise (not such a good idea during a formal lesson, but fine at other times), or put him in the ergo on my back. It’s usually not long from this point until it’s time for everyone to clean up and play outside – something that all age groups can enjoy together.
Plan play dates
If you’re working with more than your own children, or if you’re only working with your children, but you have friends nearby who are homeschooling, the occasional swap can make for a wonderful change of pace. Most of the parents in our program do regular volunteer hours to keep their tuition low, and most of them happen to have toddlers close to Elliot’s age, too. This works out wonderfully. In the fall, when the weather was nice, I was leaving my double stroller out one morning a week and another mom was using it to take her daughter and Elliot on a walk to the park for the first hour or so of class. This was a nice change of pace for him, and made for easy mornings for me.
Of course you have to observe to see what works for your individual child. I have laid off the play dates recently, because I noticed that, when I sent him off on a couple in the same week, both with different moms, Elliot was unsettled for days afterward. I realized this lack of consistency was probably stressful for him, which was why he was behaving oddly, and we’ve stuck with a regular routine ever since. I’m thinking some morning walks in the springtime will serve him well, but for now we’re relying on our other strategies to make Elliot’s mornings both predictable and enjoyable alongside his older friends.
In the next stage of our family’s adventure, we’ll be adding a brand new infant to the mix, so things will change again this fall. The fun is just beginning!
This arrangement is set up with the goal of meeting Elliot’s immediate needs and minimizing disruptions to the older children’s work time. My training is in the 2.5-6 age group, and this is the focus of our program. I have seven 2.5-6 year olds in my program each day, plus one Elliot. The older children’s tuition is what supports our program, and facilitating their work time is my job each morning. I do my best to incorporate Montessori principles with Elliot as well, and to make his mornings wonderful, but I know I fall short of the Montessori ideal with his space and time. I would like for his area to be much larger, and I’d love for him to be in the company of some children his age, too, but this isn’t logistically possible right now. This is a large part of the reason I limit my program to only half days. This allows me to keep his afternoon naptime sacred and the rest of our days open. It’s important to me that he get my focus and attention during much of the day, too.
I just want to make it clear that this is not a how-to for creating an ideal Montessori infant or toddler environment. It’s a collection of suggestions for creating space for an infant or toddler within and around an environment designed for older children.
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