Strep and bronchitis and ears, oh my!

Yep, we’re very sick here. N and I are on antibiotics. I’m also on puffers. R is apparently not too sick despite her phlegmy cough. K seems mostly okay but for a runny nose.

I won’t be blogging again until our health has improved substantially.

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Playing with fire

About a month ago we hosted a birthday party for K. She requested a camping party, so we emptied the living room of furniture and turned it into a campground: tents, nature objects for a scavenger hunt, and a fire.

Yes, a real fire. No, we didn’t have a screen in front of the fireplace. That would have defeated the purpose – dinner was roasted hot dogs, and dessert involved s’mores. The kids needed access in order to cook that stuff.

The point of this story is that it was really a non-story: fifteen children and one toddler attended party with open fire – no injuries occurred. (For the record, we also had kids using pointy metal sticks to roast their hot dogs and marshmallows, and miraculously everyone still has two healthy eyes.)

For some reason this surprises people, especially when I mention the toddler who kept walking back and forth right in front of the fireplace. More surprise becomes evident when I mention that we didn’t even talk about fire safety rules.

As Montessori Dad says, “it’s basic evolution.” Fire is hot. It’s too hot to get close enough to be burned. Anyone who couldn’t figure that out within seconds was weeded out of the gene pool a long time ago.

This brings up a larger point: that of trusting the children to respect the tools and materials we use every day. Respect the fact that fire burns. Sit near it, warm yourself, roast some dinner, but don’t put your hand in. Respect the fact that scissors can cut, and learn to carry them safely when not in use. Respect the fact that ceramic dishes and real glasses are beautiful and fragile. Hold them carefully, put them down gently, don’t throw them.

The dishes thing is the one I hear about most often. When other people hear that I give my children real dishes and glasses they invariably say, “I couldn’t do that with my kid. He would just throw them.”  Well, he will just throw them until you teach him how to care for the dishes and hold them properly. Believe it or not, you can trust a baby to not throw a ceramic dish.

(Another aside: a week or so ago we had a babysitter helping me with dinner and bedtime. I reminded N to take his plate to the sink. He held it correctly – “fingers on the bottom and the thumbs on top” – and began walking to the kitchen. The sitter placed one hand on the edge of the plate, I suppose to make sure N didn’t drop it. What happened? N let go of the plate. He’s not stupid. If someone else is going to hold the plate, why does he need to? The next night I asked him to take his plate to the sink and he did it without dropping or tilting the plate.)

It comes down to trust. When we shelter our children from everything breakable, hot, sharp and pointy, we’re telling them, “We don’t trust you to handle this correctly. We don’t think you can learn how, and if you did learn we don’t trust you to remember and do it carefully. You can’t possibly be competent. We’ll just do it for you.” What a message to send our children.

The thing I love about Montessori is the trust and respect it affords every child. In K’s classroom and in our home, the message is: “We know that you can learn to do this correctly and safely. We trust that once you’ve learned how, you will handle the materials with care. We know that you are competent and responsible.” And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The children use real glass and china, tiny beads, knives and scissors, all day long. And they do it safely and responsibly. They feel capable, they feel proud, and they feel respected.

And that’s why I let my kids (and yours, too!) play work with fire.

N, 11 months old. Yes, there was an adult very nearby. No, he didn't get too close to the fire at any point. The adult never had to step in at all.

When work isn’t a four-letter word…

My kids love to work.

That probably sounds odd to many of us – “work” usually means “the stuff I HAVE to do before I can get to the stuff I WANT to do.” Not so in Montessori. Almost everything we do is work: creative work, academic work, practicing new skills, maintenance work. The children choose their own work in school. Painting is work, as is practicing long division, as is preparing the snack. Work is fun!

In our home, it helps that I enjoy crafting and building, because I’m frequently heard saying, “I really want to finish my work on that blanket I’m sewing,” or “I don’t get as much time to work on my carpentry as I’d like.” My work is something I wish I had time for. Even Montessori Dad is often eager to get to work on some of his volunteer stuff.

Apparently the kids absorb it, because K is forever asking if she can do a particular job (imagine my surprise when she offered to clean the floor after N vomited. I declined her kind offer – we’re trying to keep everyone healthy and that means restricting access to one another’s body fluids, but that’s another story for another time.) Her latest passion is the dishwasher.

Overheard four nights ago in my kitchen:

“Mummy, can I put the soap in the dishwasher?”

“Of course you can, but please let me finish loading it first.”

“But I want to load it. I want the dishwasher to be my job!”

“Okay, then. It’s your job.” Your job ’til you move out of the house, kid!

K is inordinately proud of her new job. She even got out of bed last night, distressed because she’d forgotten to turn on the dishwasher. She finished the task, returned to bed and promptly fell asleep.

And as goes K’s interest, so goes N’s. He now takes his plate from the table (real china, of course) to the kitchen, dumps the remaining food into the green bin, and places it in his play sink.

I pray they’ll never grow out of this. As a fellow Montessori parent once said, “Montessori education just pays off in so many ways!”

DIY Toddler bed tutorial

A few posts back, I showed you the toddler bed I made for K. A couple of months ago I decided to make one for N, since R will soon be needing the crib.

No, N’s not sleeping in his new bed. He still doesn’t understand the whole “you need to stay in your bed” thing, and frankly I think he’ll learn that lesson much more quickly when he’s a bit older. But for now he’s excited to have a bed just like K’s, that he can climb up and sit on to flip through his board books. Here’s a pic of the bed:

Jealous? Don’t be – the whole thing took me about 3 hours to build, and I’m going to take you through the process. Ready?

First, the stuff you need:

Tools

  • handheld cordless drill/screwdriver
  • countersink drill bits (optional)
  • carpenter’s square (or other way to check for a 90 degree angle)
  • staple gun and LOTS of staples
  • ruler or measuring tape
  • sewing machine (optional)

Lumber (take this list to Home Depot or Lowe’s and have them cut the boards for you)

  • 2 – 1 x 10″ boards, 8 feet long. Cut each one into a 52″ length and a 29 3/4″ length.
  • 2 – 2 x 2″ furring strips, 8 feet long. Cut 50″ lengths of each.
  • 3 – 1 x 4″ furring strips, 8 feet long. Cut them into 27″ lengths – you should end up with 9 of them.
  • 1 – small piece of plywood (24 x 48″). Cut a piece 29 3/4″ x 22″.

Other materials

  • 1″ upholstery foam. Scraps will do, as long as it’s at least 5″ wide and you have enough to stretch along 200 linear inches or so.
  • Quilt batting. I used one and a half packages of 70″ x 100″.
  • Fabric to cover the bed. You’ll need a strip of 16″ x 135″ (I sewed a few strips together to make a long one) and a 35″ x 38″ piece for the headboard.
  • Screws. I used #8 screws that were 2″ long.

Got all that? Good! Follow along, now:

Building the frame

Lay the two 52″ long boards on the floor. On each one, measure and mark a line 3″ from one edge (long edge). Position a 2 x 2 x 50″ furring strip so that its top runs along the line. Predrill 5 holes (evenly spaced) along the 2 x 2, then screw it into the long board. It will look like this:

Set those two long pieces aside.

Take one 29″ board and predrill three holes on each side, about 1/3 of an inch in from the end. Take one long board and stand it on edge so that the 2 x 2 rail is close to the top. Stand the 29″ board on edge, align it at a 90 degree angle with the other board, and screw the 29″ board into the end of the long board:

Repeat with the second long board.

Take the plywood piece (22 x 29 3/4) and predrill three holes on each side. The holes should be within the bottom 9 inches of the board – you’ll be using them to attach the headboard the same way you just attached the footboard. Square up the corner and screw the headboard to the open ends of the long boards. You’ll end up with a frame that looks like this:

Congratulations! The woodworking is done! That means it’s time for…

Padding the frame

Take the upholstery foam and staple it around the top edges of the frame, like this:

Open up the quilt batting so that you’ve got just a double layer of it. Cut into a strip about 18″ wide. Beginning at one side of the headboard, wrap the batting around the frame lengthwise, stapling it inside the top and bottom of the bed frame. Take another doubled piece of batting and use it to wrap the headboard. It will end up looking like this:

Adding the fabric

First prepare your long strip of fabric. You can either cut an 16″ wide strip out of a really long piece, or you can be cheap like me and sew a few strips together.

Staple the end of the fabric to the back of the headboard (so that it’s ready to wrap around the sides). Begin wrapping the fabric around the frame, being careful to stretch it a bit so that it doesn’t end up wrinkly. Staple the top edge, then turn the frame on its side to staple the bottom edges. Be sure to pull the fabric tight and place your staples very close together so that the upholstery doesn’t look bumpy.

Now, the headboard. You can either sew a bit of a slipcover for it, or just wrap it and staple. I chose to sew a cover – I draped a piece of fabric over the headboard, pinned it where I wanted the seams to be, sewed it, and then put it on. Staple the ends on the front below the level of the 2 x 2 furring strips, pull tight down the back, and staple to the inside bottom edge of the headboard.

The ends where the headboard meets the side rails are tricky. I still haven’t figured out how to do it perfectly, so I’m no help to you here. Do your best. When in doubt, staple everything at the back of the headboard.

This is how mine looked at this stage:

You’re almost done!

Take the 9 pieces of 1 x 4″ furring strips, and lay them across the bed so that the ends are resting on the 2 x 2 rails. Spread them out evenly.

Now you can place your crib mattress on top of the rails, add bedding, and voila:

Happy building!

The one about the kitchen sink

Over winter break, K started preparing her own snacks independently. There was one hitch, though – we found that she can’t reach the faucet handle, so she needed someone to turn the sink on and off for her when she was rinsing her fruit. Such a simple thing, but it’s an impediment to being completely independent at snacktime.

I posted about this problem on facebook and several people recommended a high stepstool or a learning tower so that K would be able to reach the existing handle. The thing is, our sink is very large (read: deep) and she’d still have to reach about 20 inches back just to get the handle. A step stool isn’t going to cut it for a kid who’s only about three feet tall.

Today I was in Canadian Tire. It just happens to be where I bought our faucet, so I figured I could comb the aisles for possible solutions and then check in the faucet aisle to make sure they fit. I arrived in the plumbing department and I saw it. The perfect solution to my problem:

Clear vinyl tubing.

I bought a small roll of it ($7 plus tax), came home, and pushed the end of the tubing onto the faucet handle. I cut it about 12 inches long. Perfect! It’s a tight fit, so the tubing won’t get pulled off, and the extra-long lever has the added advantage of requiring even less force than usual to turn the water on.

But that wasn’t all. No, that was not all. I grabbed some decorative pebbles that just happened to match the accent tiles in the backsplash (matching is easy when you have a favourite colour) and pushed them down the tube. Now it’s functional and pretty not entirely ugly. Win!

Hannukah “Play”, Montessori-style

I have always been in favour of what I call “child labour” (letting children do actual household tasks) and have often viewed most toys as superfluous, unnecessary, and even insulting to children’s abilities and intelligence. Recently, though, I’ve come to see how having one child in a Montessori school has affected my parenting decisions for the other children at home. Here’s the most recent example:

It’s Hannukah (as we all know by now), and while perusing our local Jewish newspaper I saw an ad for a sale on a wooden hannukah playset. It looks like this:

I considered buying one. I thought that N would definitely love putting the candles into the menorah over and over again, and he might actually like to spin the dreidel. I went so far as to put “buy wooden hannukah set” on my to-do list. Then I laughed at myself, because the Montessori parent in me knows that this is a ridiculously unnecessary toy.

N wants to put candles into a menorah? Good. Let him practice with real candles and a real (metal, unbreakable) menorah. Does he want to hold and look at a dreidel? Great. I happen to have a large wooden dreidel (too big to be a choking hazard to anyone) that he can hold and play with. And what use is wooden hannukah gelt? It’s not shiny like the real thing, and you can’t eat it. No, better to give him one or two pieces of real gelt to look at, and later show him how to unwrap it and let him taste the chocolate. As for the wooden latkes and frying pan, why would he need those when he’s allowed to help me wash potatoes, mix the batter, and eat actual latkes?

This is a very real, concrete example of the Montessori attitude towards pretend play. In Montessori, children don’t have to pretend to work in a kitchen, or to plant a garden, or put candles in the menorah. They don’t have to pretend, because they can really do it. They might want to repeat the task (put candles in, take them out, examine them, put them in, take them out…). They might not do it with great skill. But they will do the task over and over again until they have mastered it. No toys, just real objects and tools that are appropriately sized for children’s hands.

As for N, this morning he pointed at the menorah and put his hands over his face, imitating the way we cover our eyes when lighting shabbat candles (we don’t cover our eyes for hannukah candles, but I suppose candles are candles, at this age).

“Do you want to practice lighting hannukah candles?” I asked, and in response he put his hands over his face again and then peeked out, smiling.

I gave him a box of candles and set him up on the window seat so that he could reach the menorah on the windowsill. He picked up one piece of the menorah (it comes apart) and tried to walk away with it. “N,” I said, “the hannukiah stays here so that everyone can see it when we light the candles.” He put the piece back. Then he reached for the candles and began to place one in each holder. When all of the holders were full, he covered his face and giggled.

N repeated the task over and over again for about half an hour. Some candles got broken, but gradually he learned to be more gentle with them. The focus and pride on his face was an excellent reminder that, given the tools and the opportunity, our children will master the tasks that make up our lives, no toys required.


Family Breakfast

I’ve read, as I’m sure you all have, about how important it is for families to sit down to dinner together every day. In my house that almost never happens. The kids need to eat before 6, and getting home by then is pretty hard for Montessori Dad. What’s a mom to do?

Well, we all wake up at the same time, and we all need to eat before we leave the house. We all sit down and eat breakfast together every day. Here’s how it works:

We don’t do anything fancy. Generally we’ll alternate having oatmeal or cold cereal on the menu. I set out bowls, spoons and mugs the night before, and if it’s a cold cereal day then I’ll put that out too. I cut up some kind of fresh fruit and put it in the fridge. For oatmeal days, I start the steel-cut oats the night before, then leave them to soak overnight. I prepare a tray of toppings and a small jug of milk and put those in the fridge where K can reach them.

In the morning, I just have to turn on the oatmeal for 10 minutes (I do it right when I get up, and by the time we’re all dressed the oatmeal is done). K’s job is to take the tray of toppings out of the fridge and bring it to the table. When N sees this happening, he goes to the play kitchen (also where we keep the kids’ dishes and cutlery), gets himself a spoon, and then stands patiently by his chair until we help him in. Both K and N seem to take pride in doing their parts to get ready for breakfast. And of course, everybody loves their oatmeal.

The topping tray is a very lightweight tray from the dollar store, with dollar store ramekins to hold each item. I also put the serving spoons and tongs on it in advance, and there’s a little cloth mat that absorbs the stray nuts and crumbs. Here’s what tomorrow’s tray looks like:

We have different toppings every day. The tray above is what I call “apple pie” – apples, raisins, walnuts, and cinnamon sugar. We also do “banana nut” – brown sugar, pecans, and bananas. “Cranberry almond” is pretty much what it sounds like – dried cranberries, slivered almonds, brown sugar.

And, in the spirit of montessori-ing my home, I put the tray of toppings and the jug of milk on the lowest shelf in our fridge so that K can reach:

To give you a sense of size, that’s a 500 mL (2 cup) jug. It’s maybe 5 inches tall.

Mmm… oatmeal and toppings. This post has made me want to go to sleep so that I can wake up and eat breakfast. Yum.

The Perils of Montessori Parenting

I love using montessori philosophies at home. K is completely able, for example, to chop produce with a sharp knife and she uses real glasses and china dishes without breaking them. I can trust her to use her art materials appropriately.

As a result, my house is not “childproof” in the traditional way. There are real glasses and dishes in the cupboard of her play kitchen. Art supplies, including paint, are kept within easy reach. My home isn’t childproof – my children are “homeproofed”.

But then I’ll occasionally have reminders that not all children have been raised the same way. One little boy – about K’s age – came over to play. He was rummaging around in the play kitchen, removed a glass from the cupboard, and proceeded to throw it on the floor. This was not an infant, folks. He was at least 3 years old at the time. Anyhow, he looked shocked and surprised when the glass shattered – he had never before handled a fragile object. He didn’t even seem to know that such breakage was possible. We didn’t make a big deal of it, we just made sure everyone was safe and we cleaned up the glass. But it did make me think.

A few days ago a dear friend left her daughter with us for the afternoon. The kids all went down for naps, and I put our little friend to bed on the couch in the playroom. When I went to wake the kids up I was greeted with the sight of a cloth diaper, scribbled on with blue fineliner. Now, it wasn’t a big deal – this was the absorbent insert of a cloth diaper, easily bleached and not generally seen anyway – but I told her mum about it. Her response was completely reasonable: “Why was a fineliner left unattended in a room with a two-and-a-half-year-old?” Good question. The long and short of it is that I didn’t think to check for that kind of thing before putting the kid to sleep. My Montessori kid knows that markers are for drawing on paper only, so I wouldn’t even worry about her using it for other purposes.

(As an aside, I would worry about N getting into something like that, which is why it was placed out of his reach.)

This isn’t to say that her level of responsibility negates the possibility of mess and disaster. In fact, that’s one of the major perils of having a young Montessori kid. Early on in the school year I learned that K may have the skill and coordination to perform a task, but not the judgment to know when to use those skills. Take pouring, for example: there was a period of time where K would climb up to the bathroom sink with a couple of containers, fill them up, bring them to her play kitchen, and pour. And pour. Everywhere. Needless to say, she got to use her newly acquired “wiping up” skills quite frequently.

And yes, she wants to stir things and doesn’t remember to do it gently, and she removes snacks from the fridge and spills them all over. But these are generally exceptions to the rule. On an average day I can trust K to go about her business, ask for help when she needs it, and use household objects responsibly.

But man, oh man, there are definitely days when I wish I’d kept her just a little more helpless. Thank goodness they’re few and far between!

K chopping strawberries for the family

K brushing (gasp!) raw chicken breasts with mustard glaze

What makes our Montessori school Jewish?

This post is in response to a reader question from long ago. I promise I’ll get to the other reader questions soon!

The answer to this is quite simple, although a bit hard to express. Basically it goes like this:

Our Montessori school is Jewish in the same way our home is Jewish.

The rhythms of the calendar are those of the Jewish calendar. Friday is Shabbat – everyone wears white shirts (to make it special, not because there’s anything significant about white shirts); they bless the candles, the challah, and the wine; lunchtime is a special treat – pizza.

As holidays approach, the entire school prepares. For Passover all of the students were involved in cleaning the classrooms, checking for chametz (leaven), and collecting kosher-for-passover foods for the Pesach food drive. On Purim the regular school day was disrupted for a giant party, everyone dressed in costume (our principal dressed as the Montessori movable alphabet), and they made mishloach manot bags to give to one another.

The classrooms themselves are full of Jewish objects and symbols. Among the practical life exercises you’ll find materials for putting candles into candlesticks (or into a menorah at Hannukah) – great for developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. The metal-polishing activity, a staple of any Montessori classroom, often involves polishing a kiddush cup or candlesticks that the class uses to celebrate Shabbat. Around the holidays there is a display of relevant objects (for Rosh Hashana there was a shofar, a pomegranate, a jar of honey, and a machzor) for the children to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Hebrew books mingle with the English, and the usual Montessori language arts materials have their direct counterparts in Hebrew materials.

Both English and Hebrew are spoken in the classroom all day – English by the Montessori teacher and Hebrew by the Jewish studies teacher. Children move easily between general studies and Jewish studies, guided by their mood that day. There is no artificial division where half the day is Jewish and the other half is secular. The whole day is Jewish, the whole day is Montessori.

Judaism works its way into every discipline. The upper elementary students were studying Renaissance art, and they were very interested in the Sistine chapel and how it was painted. They researched the logistics of painting a ceiling and then set out to try it by painting the undersides of the tables in their classroom. Each child had to choose a scene from the Torah, sketch it, explain to the teacher why it was significant and what details would be emphasized in the drawing. Then they all lay down on the floor under their tables and painted their favourite Torah scenes.

Sometimes I wish there was a bit more rote learning (I can explain in another post if you like, about how I think rote learning contributes to religious experience), or a bit more emphasis on religious – rather than just cultural – Judaism. But all in all, I’m happy that our school reflects our life. Judaism is a part of it, infusing everything, and not something that is separate from our everyday life.

Demystifying Montessori – part 3

The preamble:

A few weeks ago Montessori Dad and I attended a parents’ information breakfast at K’s school. The topic: “Your tuition and the economics of eduction”, or as we termed it, “why our school costs so damn much”. It gradually turned into a discussion of how to attract more students, which in turn became a discussion of what makes us different from the other Jewish day schools in the city. It dawned on me that even some of the parents with kids in our school really didn’t seem to understand that it’s not just another private school – it represents a significant shift away from the average educational model. If parents of montessori students don’t understand that, why would we expect anyone else to?

I came home on a mission – to figure out what the average person knows or assumes about montessori. I turned to Facebook and posted the question in my status. Four friends were kind enough to answer. I want to use their comments and questions as a jumping-off point for a bit of an explanation about Montessori – what it is, what it isn’t, and why I’ve chosen it.

Disclaimer – I am writing about montessori from my point of view. I am by no means an expert, although I have borrowed some books from the library and I do intend to read them :p Please take everything I say with a grain of salt. As Mr. December always says, “trust but verify”.

So, how does the actual teaching and learning take place in a Montessori classroom?

When you walk into a Montessori classroom, you’ll see something like this:

There are child-sized tables and chairs which seat various numbers of children, the classroom is broken up into several smaller areas by low shelving, and the shelving is home to numerous trays and boxes filled with objects and tools. These trays and boxes contain the basis of the curriculum, the Montessori materials.

(Quick sidenote: the materials are grouped into different areas that correspond to curriculum areas, but this is just to provide a sense of order and facilitate locating the materials. The kids are free to take the materials to any place in the classroom while they are using them.)

There are a few different curriculum areas, and the materials are grouped accordingly. The curriculum areas are:

  • Sensorial – in which the children learn to differentiate shape, size, weight, length, pitch, tone, colour, etc.
  • Math – in the youngest classroom this begins with number recognition, proceeds through the introduction of zero, and ends somewhere around the division of four-digit numbers (with no remainders).
  • Language – letters, phonics, writing, grammar
  • Sciences – a lot of zoology, biology, nomenclature, nature study
  • Social Studies – map puzzles, types of water and land formations, international flags, etc.
  • Practical life – skills such as pouring, spooning, washing (clothes, dishes, hands), cleaning, polishing, etc.

There is also a curriculum area called “grace and courtesy”, but I’m not going there right now.

Anyhow, each tray or box contains all of the materials needed to complete one activity from the Montessori curriculum. If it’s something that involves liquid, it will not only contain all of the requisite pitchers/bowls/cups but also a small sponge for cleaning up spills. When a child chooses a material, she also takes either a placemat or a floor mat. All of the work is contained in the area of the mat, which helps the kids to delineate their workspace. Everyone knows not to walk across a mat.

When it is time for a child to learn a new lesson, the teacher will invite the child to work with her. The teacher then demonstrates the proper use of the materials, step by step, from taking the work off the shelf all the way through the task to cleaning up and putting it away. Then the child tries the activity.

The teacher watches, but doesn’t correct – she doesn’t need to, because the materials are self-correcting (a very basic example – in one pouring activity, the child must fill a small jug to a black line, then pour from that jug into two glasses up to the red line on each. If the water isn’t at the line, or if some water has spilled, then the child knows that he has to try again). If the child asks for help, the teacher will model some strategies or demonstrate the task again, but otherwise she is a silent observer for the child’s first use of the material.

After the initial lesson, the child is free to choose the same material as often as he wants, as repetition cements the learning.

What are the other kids doing while the teacher is working with one child? Why, they’re working on their own tasks. The group-friendly tasks (division, for example, or some of the language and geography materials) might be presented to a few kids at once. Also, older children sometimes work together with the younger students to help them cement a recently presented skill.

So… yes, the children learn from experiencing a task, and from touching, seeing, lifting, carrying, hearing, and sometimes smelling the materials. But it’s not a “trial and error” kind of experiential learning. Rather, the youngest kids (ages 2.5 – 5) are using what Montessori termed their “absorbent mind” to learn a structured sequence of actions that gives them the skills and knowledge they need.

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