Montessori principles at play

I have a “hands off” policy when it comes to playground play.

“If you can’t get up there yourself, then you shouldn’t be up there right now,” is my response every time I’m asked to “help” one of my children.

You could call it laziness, perhaps, but as I see it, just as babies need to be free to move so they can roll over, push up, and then crawl and walk, rather than being placed upright in a Bumbo chair, children need to acquire physical skills step-by-step, rather than jumping over the basic skills to do the more exciting ones. This attitude has also led to the observation that when my children explore the playground independently of me, I can see Montessori principles come into play.

Take R, my 6-year-old. She’s been a little monkey since she could crawl. Exploring her new school’s playground for the first time, she was entranced by the monkey bars. I’m sure you can figure out what came next.

“Eema! Help me on the monkey bars!”


I didn’t.

For a week, she would jump up to the first monkey bar and hang there, then drop to the ground. Over and over and over again. Then another week went by, and she could travel from the first bar to the second, then the third. And then she got stuck.

The fourth monkey bar is on an angle, as the whole set of bars turns 90 degrees. R couldn’t figure out how to manage the turn. Again, she asked me to help her do it. Again, I refused.

I’m not sure how long it took her – not more than a week or two, since we’ve had only about four weeks of school all together – but she obviously kept on trying.

This afternoon she greeted me with, “Eema! You have to see what I can do!” She clambered up the play structure and swung herself from one monkey bar to the next with ease, all the way around the corner and to the end.

Monkey bars monkey

“Hannah showed me how to do it!” R explained, “You know, Hannah with the ponytail?”

I did know. This girl is three years older than R, and happens to be a friend of our eldest.

Why am I telling you this story? First of all, because it is so exciting to watch a child’s learning process. But more importantly, because I realized I was watching two Montessori principles in action:

  1. Children choose work that interests them, and then work to master the task. Nobody told R to learn how to do the monkey bars; and when she realized that she couldn’t do them, nobody told her to practice. She returned to the monkey bars over and over again until she mastered them.
  2. Children benefit from mixed-age groupings. In this case, R learned the trick for rounding the corner from an older child who had already mastered the task and could actually demonstrate (which I don’t have the upper body strength to do.) The older child was happy to be able to teach and help a younger child. Everybody won.

I feel like there’s probably more there, like the need for the adults to sit on their hands and bite their tongues (yes, that again!), but I’m not sure what. So please, comment: what other Montessori principles do you see in action here?

A prepared environment

A few months ago, Montessori Dad and I looked at each other and said, “Our children have become lazy, entitled kids.”

And so it was decided that this school year each child would be responsible for emptying his or her lunchbox, washing the containers, and putting it all out to dry.

At this point, I’d understand if you were thinking, “What does this have to do with the title? You already have a kitchen sink and sponges and a drying rack. What’s to prepare?”

Remember when I blogged about what each of us sees from our own eye level? Or my post about how the small objects matter? Montessorians know that having the right-sized tools at the right heights is essential to being able to carry out any task properly. With kitchen counters 37″ off the ground and faucets placed 22″ from the edge of the counter, our kitchen was hardly set up for children ages 5, 7, and 9 to be able to wash dishes.

In the end I went to IKEA and bought this:

And this:

Also a couple of these:

Put together, they make up our lunchbox cleaning station. There are two small dishpans (one for washing and one for rinsing), two small dish scrubbers, a garbage bin lined with a paper bag for food waste, a dish drying rack, and hooks for storing lunchboxes.


Two dishpans on the top; bin for food scraps on the right; drying rack for containers in the middle basket; hooks for lunch boxes all around the top.

It’s only been three weeks – so I don’t want to get too smug too soon – but the children have been in charge of their own lunch containers since the first day of school. There were complaints at the beginning, but those have died down. It’s becoming a routine – and it’s easy for the children to do, thanks to our setup. Here’s a shot of it in action:

Washing her lunch container

My point is that once again Montessori has saved my sanity. I could have bemoaned my children’s lack of participation in household tasks – and I did for a while. But I stopped complaining and found a way to prepare the environment so that participating would be easy, practical, and maybe even a bit fun for the children.

This still results in work for me. Right now I’m the one to wheel out the cart, fill the dishpans, then later empty and rinse them, empty the food scrap bin, and wheel the cart away again. Maybe the children will take on these tasks someday; I’m not banking on it right now. But they’re taking on a responsibility that is new to them, and Montessori has made it possible.

What sort of prepared environment have you created for your children? Comment and let me learn from you!