A prepared environment

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

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

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

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

In the end I went to IKEA and bought this:

And this:

Also a couple of these:

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


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

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

Washing her lunch container

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

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

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


On bribery, incentives, and intrinsic motivation.

(Or: why my kids “got nothin’ coming” – except for these special cases)

Montessori philosophy discourages the use of extrinsic motivation – incentives, rewards, sticker charts, grades, and the like. The thinking seems to be that if you’re accustomed to getting something after doing the right thing, you won’t develop any motivation to keep doing the right thing after the rewards dry up.

This thinking makes sense to me. It’s how life works for most of us. We don’t do the laundry because someone will give us a toy if we do; we do laundry because it needs to be done (unless we want to walk around naked.) Of course, the reward of doing laundry is in having done the laundry – we get clean, fresh-smelling clothes and can choose from our full wardrobe. And likewise, the reward for my child packing her own lunch isn’t a prize or a sticker; it’s the fact that she has a lunch to eat.

(Did I ever tell you about the time she refused to pack lunch? She kept goofing off, despite a reminder, a warning, a polite offer of assistance, and some easy ideas. When it was time to leave for school she looked mildly surprised that there was no lunch for her. Oh, well. Off to school we went, and I stepped into the school office and asked them not to “rescue” her at lunchtime. They agreed, and it hasn’t happened again since.)

This can be a hard position to take when everyone else around you is giving out stickers and candy and excessive praise for the most mundane tasks. And when medical (or in our case, dental) professionals advise using a sticker chart to curb a bad habit… well, it’s never easy to buck a trend, but it’s particularly hard when that trend produces short-term results while your own method is focused on the long term.

While I don’t believe in using extrinsic motivation in general, I have occasionally used bribery and incentives to strongly encourage certain behaviours. I’ve used chocolate chips as a bribe for my child to learn to ride a bike (long story, kid is a bit timid and needed encouragement to even lift feet off the ground). I use screen time as a reward for violin practice every day. At first this led to more than a little cognitive dissonance, but I spent some time figuring out why external rewards seemed okay in certain situations, and I’ve come up with a coherent philosophy that I can apply to any questionable situation:

In our home, extrinsic rewards are reserved for behaviours that have no apparent benefit in the moment (and might in fact feel like punishment in the moment) but have an enormous long-term benefit.

Take violin practice. I will never pretend that it’s fun or interesting to spend eight months playing a single note over and over with different rhythms, all the while learning how to place your hands. You’re not playing a song, just repeating one note in rhythm. For eight months. It’s not fun, it’s not interesting, and there’s no apparent benefit – at the end of the day, you can still only play the one note, and nobody really wants to listen to that.

But the payoff for practicing violin daily is huge. After ten years you can play a vast repertoire of music (classical, fiddling, OR jazz); you can join an orchestra or a quartet; you can play by yourself for the sheer pleasure of making music in the moment; you can play with groups for more social interaction; you can play for money; you can teach; you can listen to and appreciate music in a different way than a non-musician can.

You can list these benefits until you turn blue in the face, but they’re just too far-off for most children to volunteer to practice daily. And yet, if we “follow the child” in this instance, the child would miss out on so much. Twenty years into the future they’d be those adults saying, “I wish my parents had made me learn an instrument.”

As an aside, I have met a great many such people; upon hearing that I’m a musician, they utter some variation of “I wish my parents had forced me to learn…” I can’t remember ever meeting someone who said, “I regret having taking lessons. My parents did the wrong thing by forcing me.”

That’s why I believe in bribes – but only for things like learning to play violin, or learning to ride a bike, or drilling math facts, or doing remedial reading work. In these cases I don’t really care if my children develop the desire to do something boring and seemingly pointless. That will come with time and maturity. I do care that they learn the skill in question. Once they have developed the skill to a point where it becomes useful and enjoyable they will want to practice.

In the meantime, I’ll have to force coerce bribe motivate them to practice. I can live with that.



Spring is in the house…

… and that’s the only place it is, since the weather here is still in “the dead of winter” mode. Yes, it’s March 5, everything is still covered with snow, and up until yesterday I was wearing long underwear beneath my jeans. Like so many people in Canada and the U.S., I am completely done with winter. Unfortunately winter isn’t done with us. Can the courts issue a restraining order against the weather? I’ll have to check into that.

In the meantime, though, I’ve decided to nudge spring along a bit. Last week we created a mini greenhouse and planted some vegetable seeds. Have a look:

family greenhouse

Not only are we getting an early start on our vegetable garden, but the kids get a glimpse of how rain happens. We haven’t added any water since we planted the seeds – it just evaporates, condenses on the top of the greenhouse, and then falls.

Image 1

… and just in case you want to create your own mini greenhouse… here’s a picture of the materials waiting to become the next greenhouse. It’s simple: a paper egg carton and a clear plastic box, plus some potting soil and seeds. Wait a week and… artificial spring!

Image 3

Aren’t these little sprouts a sight for sore eyes?

Image 2


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?