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?

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?

Why physical milestones matter

Yes, I’m guilty of blog neglect. I apologize. I’m also guilty of hating to read post after post about how “I’d like to post more often but life got in the way,” so I’m just going to launch into the topic now:

Sometime last week I commented on a friend’s link on Facebook. It was about babies not getting much tummy time and consequently not meeting physical development milestones “on time.” I enthused about the rate of R’s development compared to that of my other two children and attributed it to her spending all of her playtime (most of her waking hours, in fact) on the floor.

Apparently these days talking about how some parenting decision has worked out really, really well for you is similar to wearing no panties to a bar notorious for its hookup culture. Ill advised, perhaps. Inviting abuse? Surely not. And I didn’t get abused; it was more like a light slap on the wrist.

“Who cares when your kid crawled or rolled over?” One woman commented, “I am so tired of this line of thinking. They’re not going to university not knowing how to sit up! We don’t need to push our children to achieve. They’ll do it in their own time.”

She’s right and wrong at the same time. Montessori philosophy agrees with her that children will learn and develop at their own pace, but there’s a caveat: they have to be given the right environment and the right tools at the right time. In the case of developing physical milestones, if we don’t give them enough spaces and opportunities for free movement, they won’t develop the normal milestones until much, much later.

Which brings me back to the question of why we should care that our children aren’t meeting milestones as early as they used to. In short, it matters because strengthening the muscles takes a lot of time and practice (as anyone who does resistance training can tell you,) and complete proficiency and strength in the basic exercises are a necessary foundation for the activities that come next, at which we do care if our children excel: paying attention, sitting at a desk, writing, reading.

I’ve been reading a blog called Pediatric OT, written by an occupational therapist who works with children who are having difficulty in school. I’ve learned a lot from her blog. One of the more unexpected points she has made is that in the absence of strong neck and spinal muscles, the eye muscles’ fine motor functioning is compromised and as a result, the child will have difficulties with visual perception that may present as difficulty reading, writing, and participating in team sports. And why would a child have weak neck and spinal muscles? It comes, says this therapist, from children being less active as babies and toddlers: when they are constantly supported in a swing, bouncy chair, bumbo, exersaucer, or carseat they don’t have to strengthen their core muscles – they already have a stable base from which to work. When we take that base away, though, their body is not strong enough to remain steady and support the neck and head.

And once again we circle around to the question, “why does it matter whether they crawl/roll over/sit up as young babies?” The answer, finally, is that it matters because rolling over, crawling, and sitting up earlier are indicators that a child has had plenty of time for free movement, and has spent that time strengthening her core muscles… and since she can crawl, she does, thus increasing her strength and endurance. Can you imagine all the hours and hours of exercise and strengthening our children are missing if their physical milestones are delayed by even a couple of months?

You may be thinking that a delay of a couple of months is fine, that it just pushes everything up by a couple of months – but it doesn’t. Our children’s physical strength isn’t developing as soon as it used to, but they’re expected to go to school and learn to read and write at increasingly younger ages. See the problem?

What does this have to do with Montessori, anyway?

A lot, actually. The Montessori curriculum involves a series of exercises, each building on the last, both physically and intellectually. Long before they learn to write, two- and three-year-olds are using a three-fingered grip to manipulate pegged puzzle pieces, use eye droppers and tweezers, and polish metal with a q-tip. This grip is practiced (and the hands and wrists strengthened) in increasingly challenging ways, for many months, before the child holds a pencil to begin writing. Montessori educators understand that in order to be able to write a literary essay in grade seven, the child must first have developed his visual discrimination (identifying different shapes and colours,) visual tracking (being able to move the eyes smoothly so as to keep focusing on a moving object or on text,) pencil grip, wrist strength and control, and so on. Children require a great deal of practice to develop the fundamental skills they need, and Montessori ensures that they get it.

Attacking the other end of the problem, that of children being expected to do academic work before their bodies are physically ready, well, Montessori solves that quite neatly as well: a child simply does not move onto harder work until she has the required knowledge and physical ability to handle it. This means that some (very few) children will learn to write and read at age three, and others will learn it at age five, or maybe even six… just as some babies will learn to crawl at six months, and others at eleven months. They simply need the time and opportunity to develop their muscles in a natural progression.

Neither of her siblings crawled at six months, but then they both spent much more time in "baby containment devices." The plural of anecdote is not data, I know, but it's a fascinating contrast nonetheless.

 

Aside

What does a Montessori mom do all day?

I’ve written a lot about the physical aspects of Montessori at home – what equipment you do and don’t need for children. It occurred to me today, as I ran errands with N and R, that you might want to hear a bit more about how Montessori philosophy affects our daily activities. Montessori parents have to run errands as all parents do; how different could it be?

Come on a virtual ride-along, and let’s see.

There were four items on our list this morning:

  1. Drop off purged clothing in a donation box
  2. Take expired medications and some old sharps (relics of IVF gone by) to the pharmacy for disposal
  3. Drop off Montessori Dad’s shirts at the dry cleaners (Pesach is coming, you know. Are your clothes ready for the holiday?); at the same time, return wire hangers for reuse/recycling
  4. Buy fruit and vegetables

With so many stops (all within a 1 kM radius of our home) and some sunny weather, I decided to take the bike. N helped me to put the bags into the bakfiets, and soon he and R were snuggled in among bales of clothing:

I biked over to the pharmacy first, where N carried the little bag of stuff to the pharmacy counter while I carried R. Then we hopped back on (and in) the bike and went looking for the clothing donation box, which wasn’t where I thought it was.

We have a great dry cleaner here who, in addition to using non-toxic chemicals in the dry-cleaning process, also has a covered drive-through area. You still have to get out of your car (or off your bike,) but it’s a few short steps to the back counter – totally safe (and dry) for leaving little ones in their seats, if that’s your style. It’s not mine (and not for safety reasons.) After parking the bike I gave N the wire hangers and showed him the bin for hanger recycling. He promptly dropped all but one hanger on the floor near the bike, so while I discussed stains and pickup times with the man at the desk, he went back and forth from the bike to the desk, carrying one or two hangers at a time. Finally they were all in the bin – no more to carry… so N took two out and started over again! That’s the Montessori toddler right there: repeating a task over and over to attain mastery.

But let’s move on. We needed some produce and so headed to the small supermarket up the street. Since I was wearing R, I gave N the task of pulling the basket:

You can see that most of the produce is way too high for him to reach. The bananas were sufficiently low, though, and he helped me choose a bunch and place it in the basket. N has a tendency to throw things, so first I modeled putting something in gently, then asked him to copy me. I did that with each item – I put in one apple, he put in the next:

An elderly gentleman took one look at the three of us and said kindly, “It might be easier to get one of those carts with the seat and put him in it.” I thanked him and said, “He’s learning how to grocery shop.” I know that we could be done a lot faster if I just put them both in the cart and did all the shopping myself, but that would transform N into a passive observer rather than an active participant in our daily activities.

(Lest I sound like a saint here, know this: I take the kids along on short shopping trips to small stores. When I go with a long list  to the huge, crowded supermarket, I go alone.)

We rode home and I gave N a small cookie to snack on (he had chosen his own cookie at the store.) R was still sleeping in the bike, so we wandered around the front yard and inspected the budding trees, the tiny baby daffodils, and the pebbles in the path. We picked and smelled some of the herbs (our parsley came back this year, the thyme never died, and I think even the rosemary is somewhat alive.) After a while, N sat down on the path and took in his surroundings, pointing and naming as many objects as he could identify:

When he was good and ready, N came up the steps and into the house. I was “good and ready” a full half hour before he was, but I refrained from picking him up and carrying him inside. “Follow the child. Follow the child.” I muttered, and rememinded myself that N needs time to concentrate on things that interest him without being interrupted (who likes being interrupted in the middle of something fascinating? Not me.)

And that was our morning. Four errands, three of which allowed for N to take an active part in their completion. When not in the bike, N walked under his own steam (and without hand-holding) and R was carried on my hip in the sling, which forces her to use her arms and legs to grip my body and her back and neck muscles to stay upright when I bend or lean over. Both children were included in the social niceties at each stop, and at the end N had a chance to spend time outside on his own terms. Life as a Montessori child isn’t just about all the pretty wooden toys and tiny tools; it’s about learning to take your place as a productive member of society – even when you’re just a toddler.

Montessori-ing my home: baby stuff

Have you ever noticed that babies seem to bring a lot of stuff along with them? A couple can be happily living in 450 square feet, and then they have a baby and – BOOM! – the entire place is full of baby equipment. Swing, bouncy chair, bumbo, exersaucer, gymini… and that’s just the living room.

We had all those things for K. It drove me nuts – my living room looked like Toys R Us had thrown up in it. By the time N was born I had become accustomed to a living room without baby paraphernalia and I wasn’t in a rush to put it back. The bouncy chair went into storage and the exersaucer went to the backyard (a sanity saver when I wanted to do some gardening and N didn’t want to be strapped to my back). Then K started school and after reading everything I could about Montessori and parenting, I concluded that my next baby would have a lot less stuff.

And so it is. We do still have the swing, but that’s it. Instead of the crazy primary-coloured gymini, we have a wooden arch that is very sturdy and holds a hanging toy (more about that in a moment). We also have a foam mat and a long, low mirror. Aside from that, we have adults who snuggle R and siblings who dote on her.

So what’s with the mirror and the mat? And the hanging toy? I’m glad you asked.

The movement mat

"Aw, geez. We're wearing the same thing. How embarrassing!"

According to Montessori, babies need freedom of movement. These days babies don’t get much of that, if you think about it: Swings, bouncers, strollers, bumbos – all those things keep the baby physically passive and largely immobile. As a result, babies don’t have enough opportunities to develop their muscles and proprioceptive sense (the sense that tells you where your body parts are in relation to each other). K’s school principal recently mentioned that many children don’t have the hand and wrist strength required to write properly because they don’t sleep on their tummies as babies, and thus don’t get enough practice pushing up with their arms.

(I’m not saying that we should go back to putting babies to sleep on their tummies; there are plenty of waking hours in which babies can practice those skills.)

Right. So recognizing babies’ need for freedom of movement, Montessori parents will set up a movement mat. It’s a semi-soft surface on the ground where a baby can gradually develop its movement skills. A new baby might lie on the mat looking up at a high-contrast mobile, or lie on his or her tummy to develop the neck, trunk, and arm muscles. The mirror holds the baby’s interest (look! another baby! in the same shirt as I’m wearing! what a coincidence!) and also provides visual feedback on the baby’s movements.

In our home the movement mat is also K and N’s play mat. The only addition we made to it was a cheap back-of-door mirror from Canadian Tire (as an aside, K and N love the mirror, too.) R spends a lot of time on her mat. At the age of three months she mastered the front-to-back roll and two weeks ago (four months) she started flipping from her back to her tummy faster than you can say “get the camera!” She also manages to rotate her body so that she can look in another direction, and to shimmy herself a foot or so away from where I’ve placed her. And – this one is scary, y’all – she’s started to stick her bum up in the air, as if she’s ready to start crawling (I’d better find the baby gate.)

Do we miss having the other stuff? Well, yes and no. It’s a bit of a different experience, not having so many places to “park” the baby when we need to put her down. But babies aren’t cars. We’re not really supposed to park them (even though sometimes we need to). Not having all those pieces of equipment is not only cheaper, it also forces us to accommodate the child’s needs rather than our own. If I really, really need to park her somewhere, on my back in a baby carrier seems to do the trick.

The hanging toy

I know, I know. That toy isn't wooden. But look at the concentration on her face as she tries to grab it!

R loves her hanging toy gym. I love it, too. It’s from IKEA, it’s made of wood (and most of it is a natural wood colour for the decor snob in me,) and the toys are wooden as well. In a traditional Montessori infant environment, babies begin with a progression of mobiles that encourage the development of visual discrimination. When they begin to reach for the mobile, it is exchanged for a hanging toy – usually a wooden ring on a length of elastic. The theory goes that the child can practice grabbing and manipulating the ring, and also learns cause and effect when she lets go.

That’s all fine and good, but I’ve found another wonderful reason to love hanging toys on elastic: they can’t fall and roll away. How many times have I given my babies something to hold and play with, only to have to pick it up for them every time it drops? Well, not anymore! R grabs, twists, turns, pulls, and chews on her hanging toys (oh yeah, there’s another advantage: she can actually put the toys in her mouth.) When she lets go they fly up into the air and then they’re dangling within reach again. It’s impossible to lose the toys.

I also can’t help thinking that what R does with her hanging toys right now is similar to a resistance band workout. I’ll bet she’s got some serious little baby biceps going on.

The high chair

R isn’t quite ready for this one yet, but when she begins eating solid food she’ll be sitting in a Tripp Trapp chair. This is a bit out of line with the classic Montessori approach of having a tiny table and a chair with arms that the child can access all by herself, but I like to have the kids at the table with the family. The Tripp Trapp is fabulous because it has an adjustable seat and footrest, so that the child can sit properly (and can use her feet and legs to re-adjust for comfort) at the correct height for their elbows to be just above table level.

So that’s it… three pieces of equipment for the baby. And what about toys? R has about eight of them. A skwish, Sophie the Giraffe, a homemade fabric ball with ribbon tags, three hanging toys that we rotate out, a very soft rabbit blanket (i.e. a stuffed rabbit whose neck is the center of a minkee blanket)… hmm, that might be it. I can’t think of another one right now. Anyhow, with seven toys in rotation R is perfectly happy and my living room is a little bit less cluttered.

So there you have it… the Montessori-flavoured guide to having a baby without buying every possible piece of baby gear.

Any questions?

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.

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.


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.

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