5 Questions About Montessori at Home
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It’s the start of the school year, a time fresh with possibility. When we resume school, or when we have new children joining us, we’re often met with the same question: what can I do at home to support the work my child is doing at school?
We host Parent Education events throughout the school year, and we typically start the school year with the theme of Montessori at Home. We’ve gathered five common questions here.
1) Why does my child hang up their coat/put away their work/clean up after themselves at school but not at home?
The short answer is, the Montessori classroom is set up to help children be successful in this regard, and a home is set up with different goals.
The Montessori classroom is also called a Prepared Environment. Every aspect, from the items on the shelves to sinks and toilets installed at a lower height, is taken into account to help children to help themselves and to meet their own needs. They don’t need to ask for help when they spill water, cloths are available for them to fix a mess themselves. Hooks are placed at a child’s height so it’s convenient and easy for them to hang their own coat, and children like to be successful and independent.
We adults are also part of the Prepared Environment. Anything we want the children to do, we must model perfectly each and every time. At home, I leave my book where I’m done reading it, maybe on the chair where I was reading, and maybe I remember to take my empty cup of tea the kitchen and wash it straightaway, or maybe not. In the classroom, I always model exemplary behavior. Everything always ends up right where it belongs. If it has a space, and it’s always returned to the space it belongs, why would I leave my work out on the table?
If we want children to tidy up at home the way they do at school, we can have a space, curate that space, and model the expected behavior.
A good rule of thumb is to have out no more items than I could tidy in five to ten minutes. For instance, maybe eight books at a time in a basket or displayed, rather than eighty or more on a shelf. We might have several shelves in our rotating library (a closet, basement, or garage is a lovely storage space for books, toys, or clothing while we rotate through a limited selection of current favorites), but just a handful out at a time, changing weekly or monthly. Toys, and even clothing, can be the same. We notice the same few tops and bottoms making the rounds through the laundry each week, or that we are always tripping over the same few toys. It’s pretty clear what the favorites are! If you ever find there’s too much “stuff,” try putting some of it away for a while, to return later, or not. Less often really is more.
2) Which Montessori materials should I purchase for my house?
This is such a logical question! If this work at school is meaningful and my child loves it, let’s bring it home! If it’s a favorite at school, wouldn’t it be great to have it at home, too??
We want to give our children every advantage. We don’t want to look back and say, if only. We don’t want them to miss out on opportunities down the road that we could have better prepared them for now. This can sometimes look like fear or anxiety or stress — what if they’re not reading before five? What if they miss out on their first choice university/job/internship by just a hair? What if I could have done more??? Particularly when we see the benefits of this methodology, we want to help our children the most we can, and doesn’t that mean more is better?
In a word, no. The best material to bring home is none of them.
Think about your favorite part of your job. Maybe it’s patient care, or respectful arguments, or coaching, or intense meetings, or writing grants, or balancing accounts. There are joyful and challenging parts to every job, and we all have our favorite part.
Now, imagine your boss tells you at the end of the day, you’re not done, you need to take your favorite part home.
Maybe it’s not such a burden at the start. After all, it’s your favorite! But after some time, it becomes less enjoyable. If it continues, you’re likely to stop putting in very much effort at work, since you’ll just have more to do at home. It’s the law of diminishing returns. There’s research showing that working more doesn’t achieve more, and in fact achieves less and with less enjoyment.
So, if no Montessori materials, what?
So many things directly benefit a child’s academic success without even seeming to hold value. Trips to the library help foster an enthusiasm for literacy and attach a positive emotional connection to reading. Cooking and baking together is a direct application of math and science. Coloring helps children develop comfort with using a writing device. Building Legos or helping to put together furniture helps with logical processing, following a sequence, and task persistence. Any fun activity a child enjoys, or that you enjoy engaging in with your child, has a direct benefit to their learning, development, and future. Never forget or undervalue that!
3) How much responsibility is right for my two-year-old/five-year-old?
Well, it depends! A five-year-old who hasn’t had responsibility previously is not necessarily going to be ready for a higher level of responsibility than a two-year-old who’s had incremental growth since their earliest days.
Helping children develop responsibility is much like planting a tree. When is the best time? 20 years ago. When is the next best time? Right now.
We start where the child is right now, and grow from there. Montessori doesn’t attach external expectations to a child, such as age-based expectations, but rather observing to see what a child is ready for, what captivates their interest, and growing from there.
We start from success, and with an end result in mind.
Maybe you want your child to pack their lunch. We don’t start with packing a lunch. We start with carrying a lunch box into school. Bringing the lunch to and from the car. Putting packed containers into a lunch box. Picking protein or vegetable from two or three choices. Picking fruit from anything that’s available in the produce section. Boxing up a serving from dinner to take or making a sandwich. Planning and packing a lunch. Maybe later on, even planning and preparing a meal for the whole family!
Any task we’d like children, or later our yet-to-be-adults, to be successful with can be reverse-engineered in this way. It’s always easier and harder than we imagine, on both sides of the equation, since we, and children, need to be comfortable with consequences. We need to be comfortable with the consequence of children eating the simple sandwich and applesauce that’s provided by school when children forget their lunch. We need to be comfortable with the consequence of learning those beautiful green apples are really sour and not your favorite. We need to be comfortable with the consequence that a child has picked the same lunch for the umpteenth week in a row, and while nutritionally sound is quite boring to our palate, and wouldn’t you like to try something different this week?
Keeping children company while they stretch their abilities is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of growth.
4) What do you think about chores?
They’re excellent! We all live in this household together, we all benefit from one another’s company and help, we all contribute.
Chores are not something just for children, or just for adults, chores are something we all do! It’s another way we enjoy one another’s company, you hold the bag while I rake the leaves, you dust and I’ll sweep, I’ll wash will you dry?
We’re working symbiotically, and not only are we enjoying each other now, we enjoy what we get when we’re done — the satisfaction of a job well-done, more time together, a nice space to be.
We wordlessly make an agreement with children, I will take care of you and help you to take care of yourself.
Sometimes that means we have more of the responsibility. Sometimes it means we have to do something unpleasant. For a child who is perfectly capable of tidying after themselves, and is perhaps testing a limit by not doing so, we set a logical consequence we’re comfortable upholding.
These toys will be put away before we start movie night. There are books that need to be tidied. You can do it while I finish the dishes, or I can do it later, but that means we’ll have less time to read books together before bed.
Even when it’s something good, such as “one more book,” having a clear, kind, and consistent limit is safe for children. Which brings us to our last question:
5) What should we do when my child doesn’t do what they’re supposed to? (clean up their mess, make their bed, etc.)
Love and empathy make us forget that sometimes the answer has to be no, and in those times, we need children to understand that no is not the start of a negotiation.
Let’s take a fairly tame example, such as that “one more book” mentioned above. We could really insert one more anything here. One more trip to the bathroom, one more kiss, one more hug, one more song, anything! We hear “one more” from a child and we really think, this is ONE more, if I give them the one more, they’ll feel safe and happy and do what they’re supposed to do joyfully. We feel mean for not giving the one more, especially when it’s a hug, or a trip to the bathroom for a child who’s learning to be independent with toileting, or a drink of water, or really anything in that time before bed. It’s hard to be consistent and clear, particularly when there’s some natural end in sight, such as the drop off at school or bed time. We don’t want to end on a “bad” note.
We want to say yes, but unfortunately we can’t always say yes. We don’t need our words to have meaning for the easy moments, we need them for the hard ones.
We say three books, we read three books, then a child asks for one more. On a good day, it’s easy, we want to say, yes! But what about the days when we have a headache, or the work day isn’t over, or the baby and your partner are sick? If a child has learned “one more” gets traction, and then one day for some seemingly arbitrary reason it doesn’t, that’s not on them, nor is the conflict that inevitably follows. We have, for lack of a better word, trained them into pushing limits. How unpleasant!
It’s also uncomfortably real when we insert another example. It’s a pretty common formula: a child wants xyz, we say no, a tantrum follows, still no, they settle themselves down, we say yes. This makes a child feel good, we feel good because they’re happy, win-win right??
But what about when the answer is still no?
Let’s reflect on a clear example. What if a child didn’t want to put their seat belt on, or didn’t want to be in their carseat. Would that ever be an option? Absolutely not! We wouldn’t even consider putting a child’s safety at risk for their momentary happiness or discomfort. Not even after they’ve settled themselves down, and say “but I’m calm now!” So then, when the child feels momentary discomfort or unhappiness at hearing “no,” whether it be not getting a toy when they’re purchasing a gift for a friend, or not being able to do a playdate today, or choosing a candy when we’re on our way home to eat dinner we just need to buy groceries first, it’s equally important to say and to stand by “no.” If we need to say no, and sometimes we do, we need it to have meaning, for all the times when no really is the final answer.
This is only the very tip of the iceberg of questions about Montessori at Home. Montessori isn’t a set of materials, (though wouldn’t that be easy!) it’s how we interact with others and the world around us every minute of every day. If you have questions, please feel free to send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by:Charlotte Snyder