Spring is in the house…

… and that’s the only place it is, since the weather here is still in “the dead of winter” mode. Yes, it’s March 5, everything is still covered with snow, and up until yesterday I was wearing long underwear beneath my jeans. Like so many people in Canada and the U.S., I am completely done with winter. Unfortunately winter isn’t done with us. Can the courts issue a restraining order against the weather? I’ll have to check into that.

In the meantime, though, I’ve decided to nudge spring along a bit. Last week we created a mini greenhouse and planted some vegetable seeds. Have a look:

family greenhouse

Not only are we getting an early start on our vegetable garden, but the kids get a glimpse of how rain happens. We haven’t added any water since we planted the seeds – it just evaporates, condenses on the top of the greenhouse, and then falls.

Image 1

… and just in case you want to create your own mini greenhouse… here’s a picture of the materials waiting to become the next greenhouse. It’s simple: a paper egg carton and a clear plastic box, plus some potting soil and seeds. Wait a week and… artificial spring!

Image 3

Aren’t these little sprouts a sight for sore eyes?

Image 2

 

Self-discipline: Montessori and the… ahem… aggressive child.

I am neither proud nor ashamed to admit that I have a child who sometimes tantrums at school, in the process sometimes biting, kicking, and shoving other children. It’s difficult, and we’re working on it. I wouldn’t even be mentioning it here, except that I led a school tour this morning and the prospective parents raised the question of discipline.

“How is discipline handled? Do they do time-outs or is there some other system in place?”

It’s an interesting question. My memories of school are that misbehaviour was punished. (At this point there are those of you who are saying, “well DUH!” stick with me. You might learn something.) I suppose the philosophy there was that the child could control her behaviour if only she wanted to control it. Really, that’s the only circumstance under which punitive discipline can possibly work.

Montessori teachers understand that, given the right environment, all children want to function well socially. Everyone wants to have friends and be happy. So when a child pushes or bites or tantrums, that’s an indication that the child lacks certain skills or abilities to cope in another way. The teachers don’t punish the child; they remove her from the situation, allow her to calm down, and then discuss what happened and what the child could do differently the next time. If a classmate was hurt in the scuffle, the aggressor might help that classmate to feel better, often by getting him an ice pack or a drink of water.

And then, the Montessori teachers do what Montessorians do so well… they watch.

The next time the teachers see this child’s social behaviour begin to deteriorate into aggression, they will quickly step in with a reminder: something simple like, “If you’re starting to feel upset, please take a walk around the classroom.” Over time the teachers will need to step in less frequently as the child become more self-aware and can remind herself of how to cope with rising frustration.

A wonderful benefit of this approach is that a child who is immature or for some other reason has difficulty regulating his own behaviour is never made to feel like a “bad child.” Every student is working on something – some children need more coaching to be able to carry a bowl of water without spilling; another is still learning how to set out his work so that it doesn’t encroach on someone else’s work mat… and one child is learning how to cope with frustration in a way that doesn’t involve pushing or hitting. There’s no particular shame in needing any of those lessons – each child relies on the teacher to help them improve their skills and form their identity.

The word “discipline” is from the same word as “disciple” and both come from a root word that means “to teach.” Yes, our teachers discipline our students… they teach the children to discipline themselves.

A great resource for Montessori parents.

Our school has fabulous information evenings for parents where we get to see and try the Montessori materials for ourselves. I’d like to think that everyone who is interested in Montessori is lucky enough to be able to participate in that sort of thing, but I realize that’s probably not the case. For everyone who has ever wondered how Montessori goes from introducing numerals to multiplying four-digit numbers, or what exactly is happening when a child practices the wood-polishing exercise, this link is for you.

InfoMontessori is a website with a wealth of information on the Montessori primary (Casa) program. The best feature of the site, I think, is the Montessori AMI Primary Guide. Follow the links to each of the curriculum areas and you’ll find a list of all of the activities that are standard in a Montessori Casa classroom. Each activity name is also a link to the step-by-step instructions of how the material is presented as well as the goal of the exercise. There are also videos on the main page of Montessori guides demonstrating the presentation of various materials.

Oh, and before you click over, go to the bathroom and then get yourself a drink. InfoMontessori will keep you reading for hours.

Baby at work

There are some household jobs that I just can’t do with a baby in the room. Cleaning the toilet, for example. Loading and unloading the dishwasher has been on the list as well; my babies typically try to climb up on the open door and get inside. Sometimes, though, I just have to get it done. Yesterday was one of those times.

So there I was, loading the dishwasher, and there R was, trying to get inside it. After saying “no” and pulling her out of the appliance several times, I decided to see whether she could be redirected to a more productive task.

“R,” I said, “do you want to help me load the dishwasher?”

“Dah!” She chirped. (No, we don’t speak Russian at home. “Dah!” is the R version of “Yeah!”)

I took some of the dirty spoons from the sink and placed them on the open dishwasher door. “Look,” I said, and picked up a single spoon and placed it in the cutlery basket. “Can you put the spoons into the basket?”

“Dah!”

We worked side-by-side for a few minutes. Actually, R worked. I kept stealing glances at her and marveling at her focus and concentration. It always amazes me, this capacity for focused work that even a one-year-old has. I continued to pass her the cutlery (minus the sharp knives, of course) and she continued to work.

Lest this sound like more sanctiMommyous bragging, I made sure to take a “reality check” picture. Yes, R worked diligently, but look where the cutlery ended up:

I had to place the cutlery in the basket after R finished her work, so clearly the point of the exercise wasn’t for her to lighten my load by helping with the cutlery. No, useful child labour doesn’t kick in until roughly age four. The point is that as a parent I often have two choices – admonish the child for misbehaviour or channel their interest into purposeful work – and this time I chose the latter. The result? Ten quiet, peaceful, purposeful minutes with my baby, and a baby who already knows the satisfaction of being a contributing member of the family.

Isolation of difficulty, or “why are so many of the materials so plain?”

N is into puzzles. Really into puzzles. He ran through all of the puzzles we had from K’s toddlerhood in just under an hour, because hey, where’s the challenge? I mean, the lion puzzle piece fits into the lion-shaped hole with the same illustration. It’s a good thing that he loves repetition, because even though he figured out each puzzle in under two minutes, he was happy to do it over and over again.

When he started (and quickly finished) our wooden number puzzle a few days ago, I decided to extend the activity a bit and link the puzzle pieces to the fabric numbers I made way back when. Remember these?

So I pulled out the felt numbers and showed one to N. “This is number two. Your puzzle has a number two. Can you find it?”

He did. And so I silently marvelled at my son’s genius. Two years old and matching numbers! Hmm… better check it to make sure it’s not a fluke.

“N, this is number six. Can you find the six in your puzzle?”

No. No, he couldn’t. He did, however, find me the eight. I realized, belatedly, what he was matching: the colour! He was able to match the two because it was the same colour in both the felt numbers and the puzzle. When faced with different shapes and colours, N’s default was to match the colour. As you can see in this picture, that would be a rare match indeed.

That, in a nutshell (okay, a very large, slightly verbose nutshell,) is what isolation of difficulty is all about. Montessori materials are designed so that all of the components of a given material are identical except for the one feature that the material is supposed to teach. That’s why the pink tower blocks are all the same shade of pink. The tower might look prettier with multicoloured blocks, but the entire point of the material is for the children to practice their size discrimination. The sandpaper numbers, unlike my felt numbers, are all the same colour and grit of sandpaper on the same colour background; the only difference between them is the shape of each number, which is what the child is learning from the material.

So there you have it. Many materials are intentionally simple so that the children aren’t distracted or confused when learning new concepts. One day the children will be able to identify scents from varied objects or put a large number of different fruits and vegetables in order from large to small, and within that, in rainbow order. At the beginning, though, Montessori allows children to master each concept completely. You have to walk before you can run, as they say, and you have to recognize shapes before you can jazz ‘em up.

Any questions?

Do you see what I see?

I recently learned that many of the parents who take tours of our school say, “why are the walls so plain? Why don’t you put up some posters or something? Aside from the fact that the teachers strive to keep the classroom looking peaceful and uncluttered, there’s a very important reason why the rooms look so plain to these parents:

The classrooms aren’t designed for the parents.

I tried something yesterday. The kids and I chose a couple of spots in our home and took the same picture, standing on the same spot, from each person’s eye level. Now, I didn’t choose the most Montessori-inspired spots, and I definitely didn’t clean up before the photo shoot (maybe I should have, but then it would never get done.)

When I stand in the living room and look out our front window, this is what I see:

This is what a four-and-a-half year-old sees:

The view at age two:

And here’s what the crawling baby looks at all the time:

It’s a pretty different view, wouldn’t you say? We did something similar facing our changing table, above which is hung a beautiful watercolour microcalligraphy print. Here are the four vantage points from tallest to shortest:

 

I don’t think our home is particularly unique in that the adults are the ones who have the most beautiful view. Looking at these pictures, though, I suddenly understand exactly why the baby loves to pull clothes out of their bins – there’s nothing to look at otherwise!

If you get down on your child’s level, what do you see? Does the child have interesting objects to look at and touch? Or is he relegated to the view of bellybuttons and the undersides of furniture?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons from summer camp

My kids aren’t going to day camp this summer. The little ones are too young and I also like having the flexibility to sleep in, hang out, and not rush the children to go anywhere.

It comes at a price, though… having three little kids at home all day can result in a very, very messy house, and since my oldest doesn’t nap anymore, there’s no kid-free time to clean it.

In keeping with Montessori philosophy, our home is a place that we all need to keep clean so that it is ready for us to use and enjoy. That means everybody does their part, everybody cleans up their own messes, and everybody can be productive. Even the babies. But how to implement it in a way that won’t make the little ones rebel?

Good thing this Montessori Mom learned a few tricks at summer camp:

1. Cleanup after breakfast

Young children crave order and repetition. My young kids seem happy to have a set morning routine: Wake up, get washed and dressed, eat breakfast (oatmeal from the crockpot – mmm!) and then, just like at camp, you go back to your bunk and clean up before you go outside to play. We call it “Nikayon” (Hebrew for “cleaning”) just like we did at camp, and everyone gets a task.

N and K love scrubbing the toilet. I let them, although sometimes I make a big fuss about it being “my turn” just to keep them interested. They like it when I let them get into an empty tub and scrub it with baking soda. We also have a sticky roller on a long handle that they enjoy pushing around to pick up dust and crumbs. Seriously, they fight over these tasks. It’s very cool.

Nikayon time also includes tidying up the toys in the living room and picking up everything from the bedroom floor. Beds get made. Our nanny does the kitchen cleanup while I finish off the bathroom. The place is clean… and then we go out.

2. Mealtime routine

At summer camp there is always some kind of system for clearing the table, usually involving a dishpan of soapy water, a slop bucket, and a scraper. It’s a fabulous example of Montessori’s “prepared environment”; the children are able to clear the dishes because all of the necessary tools and facilities are readily available and easy to use.

We’ve taken to filling the plastic sink in the children’s play kitchen with soapy water. When they are finished eating they carry their plates to the kitchen, scrape them into the green bin with a rubber spatula, and put their dishes in their sink. The table is clear and the dishes are ready for the dishwasher regardless of how long it takes for me to get back there and load them all in.

3. Get outside

At summer camp you’re only in your bunk to get dressed and to sleep. The rest of the time is spent outdoors. Same deal here: we clean up and then we leave the house, even if just for the backyard. Remember: they can’t mess up the house if they’re not in the house! Seriously, keeping the kids outside as much as possible really helps cut down on the indoor chaos.

4. Daily activities

We have tons of games, crafts, and toys here at home. Every day we try to bring out one new thing for the kids to play with in the morning. We’ve done a water table, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, bikes, and we usually set up some kind of beading craft. Even just handing them the garden hose counts, as this morning’s mud bath proved. Prepare the environment and then get out of their way, and the kids will do fascinating – and fun – things. It works at school, it works at camp, and it works at home.

5. Rest hour

Or as we say at Jewish summer camps, “Menucha.” It doesn’t matter how old you are, how tired you’re not, or whether or not you ever sleep during the day. After lunch we have rest hour, which means everybody is quiet and in their own “bunk.”

More often than not, rest hour turns into “rest couple of hours,” which is fine by me. Sometimes even I get to do some napping.

 

And that’s how things are at Camp Jewish Montessori Mom. I have to run – I’m in the mood for some water sports. Happy camping!

Yes, that’s me… the ultimate happy camper!

Montessori parenting really is different

We have a toddler shabbat program at our school now. Like the dozens of other toddler shabbat programs in Toronto, this one gives very young children – accompanied by their parents – the opportunity to set the Shabbat table, say the blessings, enjoy some challah and grape juice, and sing with friends. The children also have about thirty minutes of time to work with some very basic Montessori materials.

It is during this work period that I’ve been fascinated by the contrast between how most of the parents interact with their children, and how the Montessori-trained staff do.

Constant narration

In the current parenting culture, we seem to believe that we have to talk at our children nonstop. This used to irritate me when people did it to my kids, although I couldn’t articulate why other than a vague comment that “it’s insulting to a kid’s intelligence when you make their every experience verbally explicit.” Honestly, many experiences in life are more potent when you just shut up and experience them. Right?

Montessori philosophy pretty much agrees with me on this one (and it’s about time I was right about something, because so far today I’ve been wrong about many, many things. Just ask my four-year-old.) The child is supposed to learn from working with the materials, not from listening to an adult describe said work. When the adult comments or exclaims on the child’s efforts, they shift the focus from the work to themselves, breaking the child’s concentration.

Praise

Oh, I could write a book about the evils of constant praise, but many people already have. May I just say that I hate it? In a single afternoon, many weekends ago, I heard the following:

  • “Good waiting, you guys.” (I figured the fact that waiting patiently will get you a snack was reinforcement enough, but some parents apparently disagreed.)
  • “Good using your words!” (again, isn’t the reward of using your words that people understand and respond to you?)
  • “Wow, great jumping!” (It’s a bouncy castle. Kids love to jump in those. Just what was this parent hoping to achieve by praising something that the kid does – and enjoys – naturally?)
  • “Good eating snack, everybody!” (Has it come to this? We’re praising our kids foreating? You have got to be kidding me.)

Why exactly do we praise kids for every single thing they do? And what do you think happens to kids when they grow up and discover that nobody is going to praise them for taking out the garbage, showering, or fulfilling their job description?

The Montessori attitude seems to be that self-esteem comes from achieving mastery. Of course, praise that flows naturally from a place of delight with a child’s efforts is always okay. But when giving positive feedback, Montessorians generally stick to the facts, as in, “Wow. You poured water into all six glasses and didn’t spill a drop!” or, “You read that whole book without stumbling over the hard words.”

Can I just say, on a personal note, that I feel really validated by this approach? I want my kids to have self-esteem because they know that they are competent, capable, and talented – not because their mom thinks they’re cool.

Respect

Sure, we pay lip service to respecting our kids, but do we really? I know that I fail on this count multiple times a day, rushing them along when they actually need to finish what they’re doing, etc. But do we even respect the importance of what we believe our kids should be doing?

That sounded convoluted. Sorry. Maybe I’ll just skip to the anecdote.

When the mothers (and they are all mothers, although fathers are certainly invited and welcomed) arrive with their toddlers, the children immediately gravitate to the Montessori materials and begin working. What do the mothers do?

Oh, come on. Guess.

Yep. They talk. Loudly. About everything from their kids to their clothes to what’s for dinner. And this feels okay, because the kids are doing what they’re supposed to do, and the moms are doing what moms are supposed to do.

It would be okay in any other drop-in setting, in the sense that nobody would think to ask the moms to stop talking while their children played. But imagine that people kept coming into your workplace while you were trying to concentrate on an important project. And imagine those people, while not demanding your attention, were conversing loudly about things that had absolutely nothing to do with you and your work. Wouldn’t you stick your head up and say, “Excuse me, but I’m trying to work here!”? Wouldn’t you expect them to respect your right to a quiet workplace?

Montessorians respect children’s work, including their need for an appropriate workspace, materials, and yes, silence. We can talk loudly while the children play because they’re “just playing.” But if we take into account all the skills that our children are developing when they work so intently with the Montessori materials, it very quickly becomes very clear that we need to respect and support their work. And that means keeping the environment conducive to focus and attention.

Expectations

I often (about five times a day) say that the key to happiness is lower expectations. It’s true inasmuch as expecting my house to be a mess and at least one of my kids to be unhappy at any given moment helps me to face the chaos that is parenting with my sense of humour intact. And yet, my time observing the toddler program has reminded me that we (as a society) place very low expectations on young children.

Over the six-week program I’ve heard mothers exclaim “I had no idea s/he’d be able to do that!” over the following:

  • a fifteen-month-old using ice tongs to transfer pom-poms from one bowl to another… for upwards of fifteen minutes
  • five toddlers, all under the age of two, resisting the urge to drink their grape juice until after the blessing was said
  • a child (again, under the age of two) carrying a ceramic bowl containing water, without spilling or dropping it

And those are just the things the mothers exclaimed about. Other things, like the fact that all the toddlers drank from glass cups without any being broken, were taken for granted within the classroom but might surprise non-Montessorians.

In short, very young children are capable of a lot more than we think they are. My kids surprise me with this every day: yesterday K insisted on carrying a cafeteria-style tray laden with food – and real china plates – to our table at Aroma. I said “no” again and again until she wore me down with her insistence that she could do it. She did it. No tipping, no spilling. I was amazed. I also apologized for doubting her.

All of this makes me wonder, what else are our children capable of?

Imagine how the landscape of parenting in North America would be different if every parent allowed their child the time and space to focus on their interests, respected the child’s “work” (be it play, reading, or practicing new skills,) and had high expectations of their child’s ability to function competently in the world. How would our children be different? And how different would our schools look?

I can only imagine. Well, except for that last question. The answer to that is staring me in the face every morning at 9  a.m.

What abilities have your children surprised you with? Do you tend to praise? Over-praise? Or under-praise (like me)? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

What I learned from talk radio

I was listening to talk radio the other day, as I often do when I’m stuck in the traffic nightmare that is the bottom of the Allen Road, when I learned something about Montessori.

Not that they were talking about Montessori, you understand. The focus of the show was on special-interest schools within the public school system. And it wasn’t the content of the show that taught me something; it was the way one caller explained her experiences.

This caller was a teacher in a TDSB school, and told a story about a kid who did some research into a slightly controversial position on global warming and then presented his findings to the entire student body.

“He was really interested in this issue, so he researched it – we allowed him to do the research.” She explained to the host.

“Excuse me?!?!?” I said aloud, because I’m weird like that and have been known to talk to the radio at times, “You ALLOWED him to research something of interest? Well, isn’t that just so GRAND and GENEROUS of you to allow a student to LEARN something that he wants to know!”

And there it was, in stark relief: in a conventional school, the teachers are the gatekeepers of knowledge. They decide what and when and how the students will learn. Students who don’t keep up with the group are seen as lazy or uninterested in learning, which is about as far from the truth as you can get. Everybody is motivated to learn something. Montessori schools support this: the children are given the tools to learn anything, they’re given the resources to access knowledge, and the teacher acts as a guide.

In a Montessori school, the child from the anecdote would be given large blocks of time to focus on the issue. He’d have to find old weather statistics (probably on the internet) and then delve into history to see how the stats lined up with developments like the industrial revolution. He would probably take a look at some botany books to see how plants would interact with climate changes. He might, depending on his academic level, need to learn a bit about statistics and formulae in order to understand the relevant research. All of this would, of course, require copious reading (probably far beyond the amount needed to fill in the “reading logs” that are ubiquitous in schools these days.) It would also require, and be fueled by, the child’s genuine interest and curiosity.

The “three r’s” aren’t an end in themselves. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are the tools that we use every day to understand our world and our experiences. At Montessori the children master these tools and practice using them at the same time, freely, just as they will need to do in the “real world.”

So thank you, talk radio, for reminding me that our children don’t need our permission to learn. As Montessori teachers have known for years, our children just need the proper tools and some guidance. They’ll take care of the learning.

 

Parachute clip dressing frame (tutorial)

N has a new obsession these days: parachute clips. They’re on every highchair, carseat, and stroller; they’re even on K’s backpack, which N has adopted as his own for the purpose of practicing. He’ll crouch down, intently focused on inserting one side of the clip into the other. As soon as both clips are done he’ll come barreling towards me, thrust the backpack into my hands, and order, “puhn-ih,” which as far as I can tell means “open it.”

This would all be very entertaining except for the fact that K’s backpack is now MIA because N drags it around everywhere. Yesterday I decided that it was time to make N a dressing frame.

A what?

Dressing frames are found in every primary Montessori classroom. The children use them to practice opening and closing all kinds of buttons, snaps, clips, velcro, and zippers so that they will have the skills to dress and undress themselves. Typically, dressing frames look something like this:

I made my dressing frame out of an old IKEA picture frame, some ribbons from my sewing stash, and three parachute clips that I bought at Fabricland. It’s extremely simple.

Step one: remove the backing, picture, mat, and glass from the picture frame. Push the little metal tabs back so that they don’t stick out.

Step two: cut six lengths of ribbon, each about 3/4 as wide as the frame. Singe the ends of the ribbon by passing them close to a candle flame (this will stop the ribbons from fraying.) Note that I made the ribbons extra long because N doesn’t yet have the strength and coordination to pull on the ribbons while connecting the clips – if the ribbons are too short for him to clip them comfortably, he’ll just give up. Feel free to experiment with the best ribbon length for your child.

Step three: separate the parts of the three parachute clips. attach each piece to the end of one ribbon by looping the ribbon through the slot in the clip and then gluing down the end. I used fabric glue, but you can use whatever works for you.

Step four: Connect the clips to each other (so that you don’t accidentally glue the ribbons to the wrong sides) and glue the loose ends of the ribbons to the inside of the picture frame.

At this point, you may want to further secure the ribbon ends. I used a piece of wood trim for each side of the frame. Using wood glue, I glued the trim down over the ends of the ribbon and clamped it. After an hour, there was no way the wood trim – or the ribbon – was coming off.

And that’s it. Trim the ribbon ends, double check that all the glue has dried and is holding well, and your dressing frame is ready for action:

Any questions?

Previous Older Entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 44 other followers