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.

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!

How I sweat the small stuff

If my post about having child-sized tools and furniture convinced you, you may be trying to figure out where to get child-sized items that aren’t plastic and that are actually sized correctly for your kids. You could just go with a Montessori-oriented shop like Michael Olaf or For Small Hands, or you could save some money and collect things from a variety of other sources – if you know what to look for.

What’s wrong with the plastic stuff? For starters, it’s often garish and ugly (there. I’ve exposed my bias.) It’s also often not even the right size for a young child. Take the ubiquitous IKEA plastic tumblers. Sure, the cups are small – no, wait, they’re short. The diameter is pretty much the same as many regular glasses, which means that a child won’t be able to drink from it one-handed until maybe age eight, by which point you really don’t need plastic because of reason number three: kids need to learn how to handle fragile objects. I’ve written about it before, so I’ll just mention that N broke a glass for the first time last week. He was horrified and amazed, and has been noticeably careful with glasses and plates since then.

I find a lot of good stuff at IKEA. Not in the children’s section (they do have some cute china dishes, but they’re a bit too small even for a baby.) The shot glasses and espresso mugs are just the right size for a toddler – don’t forget that it’s not just the height of a glass, but its diameter/circumference that makes it appropriate for a child.

Dollar stores, dollarama in particular, tend to have a lot of smaller versions of adult tools. I suspect it’s because a smaller pitcher or colander requires less material and is therefore possible to sell for a dollar and still turn a profit… but it’s a boon to us Montessorians. Among the dollar store finds we use every day are small pitchers and jugs, a hand broom and dustpan, miniature spray bottles, a small colander, a little wooden tray, small bamboo cutting boards, and K’s tiny hairbrush.

I’ve noticed that places like Mastermind and Scholar’s choice sometimes have child-sized tools, but you’ll want to check carefully to see how functional they actually are. Likewise, specialty stores (Lee Valley Tools comes to mind) sometimes have good-quality child-sized versions of adult tools. K recently received a gift of a pocket hammer (perfect size for a child) and safety goggles, a child-sized garden spade and a set of kid-sized hand tools for the garden. The stuff is out there if you keep your eyes open. Oh, and your imagination. It doesn’t have to be marketed for kids to be the right size and weight for a child. Some of the nicest child-sized things I’ve found have been in regular kitchen stores: “cocktail” forks and spoons, pretty shot glasses, small plates.

As for furniture, IKEA has some great kids’ furniture that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, or you can build it yourself – there’s a fabulous website called Ana White that has tons of free plans for furniture, and most of it only requires a few basic tools.

Know what I’m still looking for, though? Child-sized cutlery with a knife that can cut something harder than a banana. Honestly, how am I supposed to teach my kids to use a knife if the only knives they can handle properly are completely useless? I might have to resort to grinding down the pointy tips of some paring knives if I can’t find something soon. It definitely helps to be a DIY-er when it comes to the small stuff.

If you’ve found a great (and preferably inexpensive) source of kid-sized items, please share it in the comments!

It’s the small things.

I’ve heard people say things like, “why bother with a toddler bed when your kid is just going to grow out of it?” or “I don’t want to spend money on a kid-sized table, because the kids are going to be too big for it in a few years.” At first glance there seems to be nothing so terrible about those statements, but the more I observe children at home or at school, the more I’m convinced that Maria Montessori was right: children need their own tools and furniture in order to be able to operate independently.

Not convinced? Try this: take a tall, cylindrical glass vase (at least 16″ high and 8″ across.) Fill it partway with water. Now drink from it without spilling. Difficult, isn’t it? Even if you didn’t spill on the first go, keep drinking from it for the next fifteen minutes. I’m willing to bet that if it didn’t feel way too heavy at first, it will soon. I’m also willing to bet that you’ll start spilling or even drop the vase after a while. And no matter what, you have to admit that it’s uncomfortable and awkward to drink from such a huge glass.

This is the kind of thing our kids face every day in our adult-sized world. They sit on a chair and their legs dangle (then again, so do mine – I’m kind of short.) They try to eat without spilling food everywhere, but it’s hard when the tabletop comes up to your armpits. They want to pour their own juice but the jug is too heavy and too big for their hands to manage.

Some of the “magic” of Montessori lies in this simple concept. Once children have tools and materials that are the correct size for them to handle – wonder of wonders! – they can do many things just as well as adults can. When adults suggest that a child just can’t pour without spilling, it means that they’ve never seen a child pouring with an appropriately-sized vessel. When Montessori Dad suggests that R will soon be able to use K’s adjustable junior chair he’s forgetting that K still needs it: when K sits in a regular dining chair she spills food all over the table and herself, but in her Tripp Trapp she eats as neatly as we do.

And so our house is full of small things. Small beds, small table and chairs, shot glasses for the babies to drink from, small pitchers (a creamer and a milk-frothing jug), small colander, small cutlery. The kids are thrilled to have their own versions of the things we use everyday, but I think it goes beyond “this little glass is so cute!” Having child-sized (real, not toy or plastic) tools and furniture is an acknowledgement that our children are people. They have the same need as adults do to work, eat, groom and dress independently and with their dignity intact.

After all, we would never want to live in a house where everything was too big to be comfortable. Our home is not just ours – our kids live there too. Shouldn’t our furnishings and household objects reflect that?

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!”

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!

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

Demystifying Montessori

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 Montessori Dad always says, “trust but verify”.

Here are two of my friends’ comments in response to the question, “what do you know about Montessori?”:

“Something about making choices and centers for play. I do remember I didn’t totally agree with the philosphy behind it when I originally learned it in college. But other than that, I have no idea.”

“No idea… something about “accidental/experiential” learning vs being taught? I just know(/think) that it’s expensive. ;-)”

The first thing that struck me when I read these responses was the use of the words “play” and “learning”. When K arrives at school, her teachers ask “what work would you like to do today?” or “what materials will you work with first?”. At Montessori, what the children do is called “work”. “Learning” is not a word that is avoided, but it’s more common to ask, “what work did you do today, tell me about it?” than “what did you learn today?”

The repeated use of the word “work” when it comes to toddlers and preschoolers puts many people off. Work has an unpleasant connotation in our society: it’s the thing we have to finish doing before we can play. But Maria Montessori saw work very differently, as the productive activity undertaken by people in their day-to-day life. Cooking, playing music, gardening, woodworking – these are all forms of creative work. Reading and researching new ideas is academic work. Setting the table, tidying up, fixing things – these are the work of maintaining and beautifying our environment.

Kids love work. Why else would there be so many replicas of adult tools? Toy lawnmowers and vacuums, play kitchens, tiny watering cans and even toy laptops are ubiquitous. Children have an innate desire to imitate the adults in their life and contribute to the productive work of their family. In our society, we shelter them from real work for a variety of reasons: it would be too messy, they can’t handle the tools, it will take so much longer if I let them do it. Maria Montessori, however, believed that given the right-sized tools and taught at the appropriate times, children can learn to do productive work and will participate enthusiastically.

Here is a rundown of some of the work that K has done at school that transfers to her life at home:

  • wiping up spills
  • pouring liquids without spilling (accidents happen, but they’re rare)
  • spooning food from a serving dish into individual plates
  • setting the table
  • putting her plate next to the sink at the end of a meal
  • spraying and then wiping down the furniture
  • stirring and whisking
  • washing and cutting fruits and vegetables (with close supervision, but little interference)

She is, I’ll remind you, three years old. This is the age where “I can do it myself” and “I want to help” and “let me do it” are the commonly heard refrains (sometimes spoken, often whined). Nothing pleases K more than being “allowed” to pin diapers to the clothesline or crack eggs for challah. She even seems to prefer these activities to “play” most of the time. Of course she has a dress-up box and crayons and dolls and stuff, and she does like to play as well, but she’s eager to work. Thanks to Montessori, she knows how.

Working in their classroom also gives the students a sense of ownership and responsibility. Snack is not just put out for them – they are responsible for preparing it, planning and making signs to explain how much everyone can take, and cleaning up after themselves when they’re done. If something in the classroom gets dirtied, the kids clean it up. In the older classes they plan their own field trips (more on that later), including recruiting parent chaperones. The teachers do nothing for the kids that they are capable of doing for themselves.

Have I mentioned that I believe strongly in child labour teaching independence? Some effort on the adults’ part now will reap huge rewards later… I hope!

Next time on “Demystifying Montessori”: choice and experiential learning

If you have any comments or questions about this, I’d love to hear them… and answer them in another post.


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