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?







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!

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 – part 3

The preamble:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demystifying Montessori – part 2

If you haven’t already read my first post in this series, you may want to.

In order to address the issue of choice in the Montessori classroom, you first have to understand the structure of the day.

Dr. Montessori believed that, given long stretches of time in which to work, children will gradually lengthen their attention spans. In her opinion, shepherding the children along to a different activity or a different subject every 30 minutes made it impossible for the kids to become engrossed in any one task. It makes sense to me – if I’m in the middle of a really good book, or sewing a project, I loathe being disturbed.

This observation resulted in the establishment of the three-hour work period in Montessori schools. That means that for three (sometimes two and a half) hours, the children work with the materials of their choice. Snacks or short breaks are taken on an individual basis, when each child is ready.

So here we are, at the question of choice. Many (uninformed) critics of Montessori complain that the children have too much choice and too much freedom. I see how it can appear that way, what with the children entering the classroom and gravitating to the work they want. On closer inspection, though, it’s pretty obvious that what we have here is choice within a rigid structure.

When the child has their choice of materials, they are not really free to choose any material. Each child is restricted to the materials appropriate to his or her level – that is, the activities that have already been presented by the teacher. Sometimes the child will choose materials that she has not yet learned. If those materials are the next in a progression of skills, the teacher may present it to the child. If not, the child is redirected to other materials.

And out of the materials on his or her level, the child must choose from among the ones on the shelf. If another child is already using a material, it is (obviously) unavailable. Some materials are for work in small groups, but most are not. Children can (and do) watch each other work and offer encouragement, but they can’t step in and do the work for a classmate.

So imagine that a kid is doing his work, and then he wants to do something else. While that’s certainly his choice to make, he doesn’t get to abandon the task at hand – if he does, he’ll find the teacher gently guiding him back to the materials and encouraging him to put everything back the way he found it before moving on.

When they get hungry, the kids can go to the kitchen area (every classroom has one) and sit down at the snack table… if there’s a seat available. Otherwise they must wait until someone else has finished before they can sit down. When they do sit to eat, they have to first spread out a napkin on the table, and then they can take as much as they want – up to the amount written and drawn on the small board. And of course, when they’re finished eating the kids must clean up after themselves and leave the snack table usable for the next child.

There is a “peace corner” in every classroom. It’s usually a small space with comfy chairs and a small selection of books. The children are free to sit in the peace corner, read, or even doze off.

The argument goes that by being given an opportunity to govern their own time (within a structure), the children learn self-regulation (apparently this has been proven by studies, but I haven’t read them yet). They are also able to delve deeply into their work when they are so inclined, and able to rest and refresh themselves when they need to.

Maybe the strangest effect of this approach is the one we discovered when we took our first tour of the school. As we watched the children quietly working, replacing materials and choosing others, negotiating with other students, and taking breaks without disturbing the other kids, the principal whispered, “You probably haven’t noticed it – I just realized it myself – but both teachers are out of the room and the kids are still doing their own work.” And they were.


Do you have any thoughts or questions about this? Need clarification? Leave a comment and I’ll respond to it in a future post!

Montessori-ing my home (the particulars and the pictures, part I)

… but first, a confession:

When I show you pictures of my creations or home improvement projects, I do clean up a bit before taking the pics. Not that I’d have you believe that my house is always pristine, but I don’t want you distracted from the main point by bits of, oh, let’s say dessicated play-doh studded with forgotten cheerios. From now on, if a photo I post represents how things actually look, I’ll say so. Otherwise please assume that some cleanup happened.

I think we’ll begin our tour of my montessori-ed home (and yes, as I’ve explained previously, that is a verb) in the kids’ room. There are a few minor improvements, a big build, and a couple of things that are simply organizational changes.

The bed

Hardcore Montessori parents eschew cribs in favour of a mattress on the floor, in keeping with the principle that children should be free to explore their environment. That’s all fine and good, and if I had thought of it before we had K, I might not have bothered buying a crib. But I did, and so the baby is in a crib while K sleeps in the snazzy toddler bed I built her. In my interpretation of montessori principles, it was important that K have a bed that is scaled for her, that she can enter and leave easily by herself (not that she’s allowed to, but that’s another post!), and has bedcovers of a manageable size. K was delighted with it from the moment she laid eyes on the raw lumber, and it’s been the site of many bedtime group hugs (yes, it supports two full-grown adults and a kid). Here it is again, the 5-hour upholstered toddler bed:

Grooming station

In montessori, children learn to care for their home, their classroom, their earth, and themselves. K hated having her hair brushed, and it occurred to me that she should have an opportunity to brush her own hair. Using a thrifted mirror and a section of picture-ledge shelving I created a vanity station. K keeps her brush and comb here (we used to keep hair elastics in a container on the shelf, but she just couldn’t resist pushing the elastics into the heating vent, and so when the elastics had disappeared we chose not to replace them on her shelf) as well as some decorative items of her choosing. She seems to enjoy seeing herself in the mirror and now stands much more patiently for her morning ponytail.

Dressing area

Okay, I actually didn’t change anything except how I use this area. The change table has been with us since K was about 2 weeks old, and we store the baby’s clothes here in bins with graphic labels. Diapers are in the drawers, wipes on top, and two diaper pails – one for ‘sposies and one for cloth.

After reading the blog of a montessori teacher who is now also a parent, I finally realized there was a solution to my recent dilemma – how to let K choose her clothes without letting her walk out of the house looking like a walking goodwill store? I do believe kids need to learn to choose their clothes and dress themselves, but I’m just not able to go all the way and give her free rein when it comes to her clothes. Anyhow, the solution was to offer her a selection of pre-matched outfits. When the kids’ laundry is done, I choose five outfits, put them together on hangers, and hang three of them on the drawer knobs. When she wakes up in the morning she can choose her outfit. It saves time over having to match, and then argue about, clothes in the morning before school.

This is what her selection looks like now, ready for the beginning of a new school week:

I think that’s pretty much it for the kids’ bedroom. Next time on “Montessori-ing my home” I’ll take you into the kitchen.

Montessori-ing my home (the principles)

As I was saying, I’ve decided to Montessori my home (and as I was saying, yes, that’s a verb now). Here are the Montessori principles I’m trying to apply. Keep in mind, I’m picking and choosing. There are many Montessori principles not represented here. This is my own quirky interpretation.

1. Children have an innate need for order. In practice, this means that every toy, activity, or tool must have its own clearly defined space. In the classroom each activity is in the appropriate section of the room, always on the same shelf, and arranged neatly on a tray or in a box.

This is probably the most difficult principle for me to adopt, seeing as I’m on the messy end of the spectrum. But we do have some cubby shelves that practically scream out for a single activity each… that will likely be my saving grace. Well, that and reducing the number of toys in here by about 90%.

2. Children have an innate sense of beauty. Children need to experience beauty, and they are drawn to attractive objects. Toys and apparatus should be attractive, clean, and in good repair. They should also be made of aesthetically pleasing materials whenever possible. In practice, this means that wood, ceramic, metal, and glass are more common than plastic in most Montessori classrooms.

I love this. I hate the gaudy plastic toys, especially the ones that play tinny electronic sounds. We all deserve so much better – the warmth of wood, the smoothness of stone, the coolness of ceramic (no, I wasn’t trying for alliteration. It just kind of happened.) Also, broken toys frustrate both me and the kids, and make the whole place look shabbier. The need for beauty is actually the driving force behind my desire to re-work our living space.

3. Children want to do meaningful work. If you provide properly sized tools and teach correct technique, children will happily work to maintain and beautify their home. Child-sized furniture, cleaning supplies, cutlery, and tools are necessary for a child’s success in this domain.

I am all for child labour. Seriously, if you spill a glass of water, you soak it up with a towel. And I truly believe that if I teach K  basic cooking skills now, I’ll be able to offload cooking dinner that much sooner (shh… please allow me my fantasies. They get me through the day.) There’s that, and the fact that if I teach her how to do certain types of work properly and safely, she won’t hurt herself by trying to reach tools and materials that she shouldn’t be touching.

4. Children can be taught to be graceful and courteous. Part of the Montessori curriculum is titled “grace and courtesy”. Children can (and do) learn that certain materials are fragile and must be cared for accordingly. They learn to walk carefully around others, use breakable objects responsibly, and leave things where others can find and use them.

Again, I’m not so good at the leaving things in the places I found them. But I do allow my kids to handle breakable objects gently. I also think that most children only need to see the consequences of dropping a glass once to know that it’s not something you should do on purpose (and no, I don’t mean the consequence of getting glass in your foot. I’m referring to the sudden, loud noise, the explosion of glass everywhere, and the seemingly endless cleanup).

5. Children need freedom to explore their space and choose their work. I think this one is self-explanatory. For parents of babies, this can mean not using playpens and exersaucers, as they restrict the child’s freedom.With slightly bigger kids (and with babies, come to think of it), it means that anything in reach is something the child is permitted and able to touch and use.

We’ve got this covered, sort of. We have baby gates at both entrances of our living room, giving the kids a 17×12-foot space in which to roam freely. Everything below a 3-foot height is available for their use.

6. Children want independence. The best way to foster this is by making their basic needs readily available to them. In K’s classroom the kids have easy access to a water cooler, containers of healthy snacks, a sink for cleanup, and so on. They very quickly get used to doing things for themselves.

When I worked with special needs kids, my policy was “don’t do anything for them that they can do for themselves”. I’ve created a grooming area (mirror and brushes) for K so that she’s not dependent on me to get ready, we have stepstools in all the right places, and K’s glasses and plates are in a place where she can reach them. To my surprise, she knows how to use the stepstool to access our fridge (freezer is on the bottom), take out some juice, pour it into a little glass, and put everything away again. This kind of independence is mostly beneficial to everyone.

I think that’s enough theory. Stick with me – soon I’ll post some pictures of how our house has turned out. In the meantime, do any montessori-oriented readers out there have anything to add?