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Following Montessori principles at home

As featured in Juno, Winter 2014

Carine Robin finds it helpful to follow Montessori principles at home.

junoI’m a Montessori teacher, but I’m primarily a mother.  When my daughter was born, I already had plenty of experience in childcare and a background in psychology, but I was living abroad, isolated from family support.  I remember spending a month at home in Belgium.  All my family members carried my daughter around; she was delighted and contented.  Back alone with me, she didn’t want to stay on a playmat any more.  She wanted me to help her sit up or carry her around.

I fell into the trap of buying lots of things to try to keep her occupied.  It didn’t really work.  A friend recommended How to Raise an Amazing Child by Tim Seldin, which is based on the methods used by Maria Montessori.  The book promotes freedom of movement and an uncluttered environment.  I was hooked, and I tried its recommendations straight away with my daughter.  That was how Montessori education entered our home.

You may be familiar with Montessori as a school system, but what does it mean to raise a child the Montessori way?  We prepare our home environment to help our children thrive, explore freely and become independent.  We observe them and adjust the activities we provide to respect their needs and their sensitive periods of development. [See box.]

Babies and toddlers observe us all the time.  This is how they learn life skills to become independent human beings.  That’s why they are so interested in kitchen utensils, laptops, keys, purses and mobile phones!  For a young baby, a treasure basket full of everyday objects is far more interesting than any noisy plastic toy.  There are some simple steps that you can take to make your home child-friendly.  Why have fragile decorations that your toddler is not allowed to touch?  In our house there are no nick-nacks or delicate vases.  I have plastic containers, kitchen utensils and baking materials in the lower kitchen drawers for my children to explore.

We have toys, of course, but only those that correspond to our children’s sensitive periods.  I rotate the children’s activities regularly to avoid boredom, and I present them in an orderly way, as this helps children to order their thoughts.  If their toys are classified by type, they will be able to classify in their head too.  This improves memory and concentration.  And they will play better!  You don’t have to buy anything expensive: one of the best activities for my toddler is a collection of little boxes and bottles to open and close.

Now that my eldest is almost 7, I can see the long-term benefits of the Montessori philosophy.  As long as I prepare the environment, she can be totally independent.  She knows where the art and craft materials are, and she decides what to do and takes what she needs to do a piece of art.  During the school holidays, she loves to have projects and to learn about something specific.  Following the Montessori ideas of learning through the five senses and hands-on materials, I help her to explore a subject of her choice.

Montessori continues to be very much a part of our family life, and it benefits us all.

A sensitive period is a term adopted by Maria Montessori to describe one of the intense periods of learning that all children go through.  At such times, children are particularly responsive to certain types of stimuli or interaction and it is very easy for them to acquire specific abilities.  Once the sensitive period for a particular ability is past, the development of the brain has progressed past the point at which information can be simply absorbed, and the child will have to make a conscious effort to learn a new skill.  For example, a child who is learning to walk might only be interested in walking in the park, rather than going to a toddler group where he has to sit down.

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