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Montessori Birthday Traditions (and Annabelle’s 4th!)

Most lovers of Montessori are familiar with the popular Montessori birthday celebration, or “Celebration of Life,” as it’s often called. We marked my now four year old, Annabelle’s birthday with a celebration of life at school this year, but we also enjoyed two other, slightly less popular Montessori birthday traditions. I wanted to share these with you all, in case you should be unfamiliar with them, as I think they’re fantastic activities that not only make birthdays that much more special, but also help deepen the child’s sense of their place in history and in their family.

“…for all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.  This idea helps the mind of the child to become fixed, to stop wandering in an aimless quest for knowledge.  He is satisfied, having found the universal centre of himself with all things.”

Maria Montessori

Timeline of a Child’s Life

Timelines are an important part of the Montessori cultural curriculum, especially in the elementary ages, and nothing could be more relevant to the individual child than a timeline illustrating his or her life. In my training, this lesson is listed as part of the history curriculum, but it is so much more than a simple history activity. It allows the child to see the passage of time in pictures of him or herself, it provides a rich opportunity for discussion with the adult who helps the child, as well as with all of the children in the classroom (or friends who visit the home in the case of homeschoolers :), and it involves sequencing, measurement, writing, and much attention to detail.

Montessori Timeline of a Child's Life: Vibrant Wanderings

Annabelle’s birthday timeline. It hangs in one long, straight line, but I had to take multiple photos to show each part.

All that’s really needed for this activity is:
Paper: I recommend heavy duty paper, such as card stock.
Photos of the child: I recommend at least one from each year of the child’s life. We used two per year for Annabelle’s.
Some sort of adhesive for affixing the photos: I have used masking tape as well as poster tack with success
Something to write with: A red and a black crayon or colored pencil, plus a writing pencil with eraser is ideal.
A ruler: Recommended, but you can make do without.

Annabelle poses next to her completed timeline

Annabelle poses next to her completed timeline

First, you need to decide on a scale for your timeline. For Annabelle’s, each year was represented by one foot (one inch = 1 month). Simply make sure that you have enough paper to complete your timeline with your chosen scale, and that you’ll be able to hang it when it reaches its final height.

Next, you’ll take your first piece of paper and write the title at the top. This can be done by the adult if the child is not yet writing independently. Annabelle wrote her title herself. This is where the pencil with eraser comes in handy – many children will want to write themselves, but will become frustrated if they make an error. Writing in pencil that can be erased first, and then going over it with a marker or crayon helps eliminate frustration. Beneath the title, you can draw a line to signify the child’s birth and write the word “Birth” below it. Then, begin making another line for each month of the child’s life at your chosen intervals. I don’t usually number each individual month, but do help the child to write, 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, and so on. I use red for the lines marking the child’s birth and the subsequent years, and black for the months in between. We ended up taping four pieces of card stock together to create Annabelle’s finished timeline. Annabelle started out drawing all of the lines, with the help of a ruler and two guide marks per line, but eventually she decided that she’d prefer just to write the words, and she asked my help with making the rest of the lines.

With all of the lines made and the years labeled, you’re ready to add photos to their corresponding spaces on the timeline. This part is the  most fun for children, and for younger ones you can prepare the paper portion of the timeline in advance and simply invite the child in at this stage, helping them to sequence the photos and then affix them to the timeline. I used poster tack for the first child to make a timeline in our classroom this year, so that he could easily take his photos home without any damage to them if he wanted. For Annabelle’s, I had simply printed off photos on our printer, so we used loops of masking tape on the back of each photo to make it stick. Annabelle loved placing each image in the appropriate place.

With all the photos in place, you can simply admire and discuss your timeline before choosing  a place to hang it. They’re quite an impressive sight once hung, and inspire much conversation.

The Birthday Game AKA “How old am I, and how old is my family?”

Annabelle playing the birthday game

Annabelle playing the birthday game

This is a wonderful math activity that helps children form a more concrete sense of their own age, and to place that number in context by comparing it to the ages of other members in the child’s family. As a prerequisite for this activity, children should have begun work with the golden bead material.

To complete the activity, you need:

The ages of the child and her or his family members: for your own child, you probably have this info in your head. For children in a classroom, you’ll need to prepare by asking the parents for this info.
Golden Beads: plenty of units and ten bead bars. Have you seen this ridiculously easy DIY version from Montessori Mischief?
Labels: These can simply be handwritten on pieces of paper, or you can make and laminate a durable classroom set. You’ll want labels for the child’s age and all relevant family members (my age, my brother’s age, my mom’s age, my dad’s age, my grandma’s age, etc.). I usually just do parents, siblings, and grandparents, but I have extra labels made up with other family members, and some blank labels I can write on with wet erase markers if the child wants to make a specific person’s age and I don’t have a pre-made label.
A mat: Golden beads tend to roll around on the floor, so a mat of some kind is recommended. A piece of felt on the table works well, too.

First you’ll introduce the activity by telling the child that, since it’s their birthday, you’re going to play a special game called, “How old am I, and how old is my family?” Invite them to set up a rug or table mat and get out the golden beads. You may want to use some unit cups, or whatever else you like to use to keep beads from rolling around during an activity. Once you have gathered all of your materials, you can name the activity again, introduce the first label, and have the child use unit beads to “build” her age beneath the corresponding label. You can place the rest of the labels and build each family member’s age in turn.

Discuss as you go, noting that the older a person is, the more beads they get. After building all of the ages of relevant family members, the child can build other ages (how many beads will you have when you’re 100?), put the numbers in sequential order, write the ages on a piece of paper, or simply clean up.

Montessori Celebration of Life

Enjoying some muffins with friends at the conclusion of Annabelle's celebration

Enjoying some muffins with friends at the conclusion of Annabelle’s celebration

Just in case you’re not familiar with this one already, I’ll give a brief explanation. The Celebration of Life is a popular birthday tradition, usually carried out at group time in Montessori schools. For this activity you need:

A candle or something else to represent the sun
A globe
Month cards (optional)
A birthday child
A photo and a few details from each year of the child’s life - You can have parents write this information down for you and send the photos in advance, or, if they’re participating, you can just let them share out loud and show their photos during the activity.
A birthday snack (optional)

In Montessori classrooms, this celebration usually occurs at group time. I usually do it at the end of the work cycle, just before going outside. In the home, it can be done among the immediate family, or with a small group of friends assembled for a play date. Whoever is participating, you’ll want to start by gathering them in one place. Explain that you’re going to be celebrating a birthday, identify the birthday child, and note that they have been alive for four (or however many) years, which means the earth has traveled around the sun four times since they were born.

Place the “sun” in the center of your group and remind the children that the sun is at the center of our solar system, and that the earth travels around it just one time each year. If using month labels, you’ll want to place them around the “sun” in a circular pattern at this time. Next, you’ll have the birthday child take the globe and stand beside their birthday month (or anywhere around the sun if no month labels are being used). You, or the child’s parent (if you’re not the child’s parent) can show a photo of the child at birth and share a bit about where and how he or she was born before they begin their first journey around the “sun.” After each walk around, the child can pause while another picture is shown and a few details shared. Once the child finishes their symbolic journey, I like to invite the group to sing the traditional “Happy Birthday” song, after which the birthday child can blow out the “sun” candle. In our classroom, the celebration ends with the sharing of a special birthday treat, but this is not a crucial part of the celebration.

The celebration of life is undertaken for every child in our classroom, regardless of age or where they are in the curriculum. Timelines, I have typically done for the first time on fourth or fifth birthdays, depending on the individual child, and I introduce the Birthday Game to all children who have done work with the Golden Beads. In any case, there is at least one special way to celebrate each child’s birthday in the classroom. Do you have any other Montessori-inspired birthday traditions you can share? I’d love to hear all about them!

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