Baby at work

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

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

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

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

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

“Dah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any questions?

Do you see what I see?

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

The classrooms aren’t designed for the parents.

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

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

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

The view at age two:

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Saga of the big-boy bed

Bed or crib? Apparently, neither. He prefers to run around and rattle the bars of his prison.

We’ve been trying for the past couple of weeks to transition N to his toddler bed. He loves the bed: he hurls himself into it delightedly, pulls up the covers, and sucks his thumb. You’d think he could just stay in there and fall asleep, wouldn’t you?

Alas, as good as N was at going to sleep happily in his crib, he isn’t transferring those skills to the new bed. He gets up and runs around (we finally closed off the kids’ room with a baby gate.) He climbs into K’s bed and disturbs her. He opens and closes the bedroom door, thus darkening the room and causing K to panic (“I can’t see! It’s too dark!”) He rattles the baby gate. He babbles.

Okay, so it’s clear that he’s not ready for the responsibility of the big-boy bed, right? Mr. December and I reluctantly put N back in the crib to sleep… and he started screaming. “Bed! BED! BED! BEEEEHHHHD!” And suddenly we’re in a no-win situation: put him in the crib and he screams, keeping K awake and causing her to be exhausted and miserable the next day; put him in the bed and he fools around, keeping K awake and causing her to be exhausted and miserable the next day. You can see the bind we’re in.

This is not, strictly speaking, a Montessori-related problem. If we were “classic” (read: “hardcore”) Montessori parents, N would have been sleeping on a mattress on the floor from day one. He would understand that bed is the place to sleep, and we would be fine with him moving around his room quietly until he was ready to fall asleep. Oh, wait – that IS the state of affairs (his understanding and our acceptance of moving around until sleepy.) The only complicating factor is that N shares a room with his big sister.

It leads me to wonder – what do hardcore Montessori parents do when their children share a room? Does the situation even come up very frequently? Is Montessori parenting a phenomenon of the middle and upper classes? Does every young child of Montessori parents have his own bedroom? Or am I missing some semi-obvious way of teaching a very young child (20 months now) to respect his sleepy sibling?

It is an often-heard criticism of Montessori that it’s an expensive program and only available to the rich. It’s also incorrect. There are some (albeit not many) public-school Montessori programs. In fact, Maria Montessori developed her philosophy while teaching working-class Italian children. Nothing about Montessori requires affluence, because although there are many beautiful – and expensive – Montessori materials, you can just as easily apply most of the philosophy without them.

Which is all fine and good, but I’m still stuck with the problem of how to keep N from pestering K until he’s ready to fall asleep. They have to share a bedroom, and that won’t change unless we move or renovate (maybe in a couple of years, but not now.) Do I put her in a loft bed that he can’t climb? Sit in their room until K falls asleep, since N won’t get out of bed if he thinks we’re watching him? Get one of those puppy shock collars that zaps him every time he leaves his bed? (I kid! I kid! … okay, I considered it for a millisecond, but you know I’d never do that. Put down the phone. There’s no need to call CAS.)

Advice, anybody? What would Maria Montessori do?

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?

Do as I say, not as I do.

Last week we attended a different music class than our usual (it was a make-up for one of many illness-related absences.) Since it’s the same program with the same syllabus, I expected the class to be more or less the same as our usual: Parents and caregivers singing and playing instruments, kids exploring and eating instruments, everyone participating in the music. Oh, how wrong I was.

I’ll expose my personal scars for a moment: as a child, I attended a Jewish day school where most of the students were… shall we say… excessively materialistic and disrespectful. It’s an ugly combination. So you know, I had all of three friends in elementary school.

Back to music class. As soon as I walked in, it was deja vu all over again. The way these moms were dressed and groomed, the way they snapped their chewing gum, and the way they spoke made me flash back to middle school. You’ll understand, then, why I was perhaps looking to find fault with them.

It wasn’t just me, though. Throughout the 45-minute session the teacher had to ask the moms to stop talking to each other and start participating at least ten or twelve times. This, in a program that clearly states its emphasis on adult participation as a way to model music-making for young children. This, in a program that costs a lot of money. Why would you spend that kind of money on a music program if you’re not willing to participate as required?

More importantly, what do you think your children are learning about music in this class? If you’re acting “too cool” to sing and play, why would your child want to do it? Besides, the child can hardly hear the singing (just the teacher and me) over the constant chatter. What a waste of everyone’s time. The whole experience made me picture this in my head, so I came home and made it:

What does this have to do with Montessori? Everything. The basis of the Montessori approach is that children want to participate in the activities and work that surrounds them – in other words, they want to do what the grownups are doing. Students at K’s school respect their teachers the way their teachers respect the students. They put things away in their places the way they see other students and teachers tidying up after themselves.

This is one of my major challenges in applying Montessori principles at home. I am not a tidy person. I’m creative and ambitious, and I flit from one project to another as the mood strikes me. Needless to say, I don’t always clean up after myself. So how will my children ever learn to do it?

I’m trying very hard. I put dirty clothes in the hamper, dirty dishes in the dishwasher, and I put my computer away whenever I’m done using it. I hope that my efforts will pay off, both in terms of teaching my children and in terms of keeping my home a pleasant place to be. But boy, is it difficult. It requires constant vigilance.

After all, a parent leads by example whether she means to or not.

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!

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