Montessori at home
So many homeschooling parents (and parents of young children) are jumping on the “Montessori bandwagon”, and it’s easy to see why. You can easily incorporate Montessori at home for children of any age, whether you planned on primarily using your dining room table for preschoolers, or have a decked-out, designated homeschool room.
You don’t have to be inherently creative or spend a lot of money for your young child to benefit from what a Montessori-inspired education offers.
What is Montessori?
The Montessori Method was created by Maria Montessori, Italy’s first female physician. Through her direction, meticulous observations, and work with children in low-income apartment complexes in the early 1900s, she refined the use of experimental materials and created a revolutionary way to teach children that is still used worldwide in many private and public schools.
Simply put, a Montessori environment allows children to learn about the world around them through the use of their senses. The aim is not to teach facts, but to cultivate a life-long love of learning.
Montessori materials often concentrate on a single function or mechanism. These individual concepts build upon one another rather effortlessly, and so concrete objects aid the child to easily understand abstract ideas. Children work independently and focus on one task at a time.
When I give my kids these liberties to mold their environment, I really see how internally-motivated they get. You see the desire in their eyes to dig deeper into a topic that interests them.
Can you Mix and Match?
While I can certainly admire and respect the Montessori “purist” view on having everything exactly as Maria Montessori expressed, you can absolutely benefit from even the smallest implementations of her ideas by using Montessori at home.
Adapt the Principles to Work for Your Family
Since many homeschooling families have several children with ages that wouldn’t normally be grouped together in a typical Montessori setting, you must adjust.
When my youngest child was one year old, I had a large gated-off section within the schoolroom for her to safely work on age-appropriate materials. It allowed my older kids to work with small manipulatives and trays with ceramic bowls and glass cups, so I didn’t have to worry about her getting into them and choking.
A year later, though, the section was opened up and reconfigured into a “toddler zone” and reading nook so that all the children can freely move around all sections of the class, observing their sibling’s work and helping one another.
Worksheets aren’t inherently evil, but they do have a limited place in our classroom. The kids see them as novelties and not as a boring daily torture, so I think we found our sweet spot with them.
Our homeschool is always evolving and while I do not claim by any means to be a “Montessori purist”, there are a few Montessori fundamentals I would suggest you try.
The Use of Scaled Furniture and Materials
Montessori is child-led learning. Maria Montessori stressed the need for freedom and independence, that children have “absorbent minds” and with the careful preparation of the environment, the child is able, through “free, natural manifestations”, to have these “spontaneous discoveries” creating a deep love of learning.
Creating spaces and using objects that are easily accessible to your child is key. Some pieces to think about acquiring are:
- Low shelves – Openly displaying the work materials, instead of in big bins or out of reach, show your child that these materials are special and are to be carefully handled and cared for. What you choose to put on these shelves will vary depending on the developmental level of your child and how much space you have.
- Small tables and chairs – Chairs and tables shouldn’t be a hindrance to learning. If the chairs and tables are lightweight, your child can freely move them into different rooms fostering independence. It’s neat to see this in action. My kids use them to prepare, serve and eat their snacks, help do the dishes and fold laundry, get art materials to make artwork early in the morning and get really creative with playing pretend. Don’t have the budget? Repurpose an old side table or coffee table.
- Various-sized trays or baskets – One work or activity goes on its own individual tray. Once a work is introduced by the parent, then the child has permission to take the tray to his/her work table, and carefully with much concentration, does the work until he or she decides they are finished. Then the child returns the tray to its allotted spot on the shelf. The key is that your child has to be able carry the tray or basket from the shelf to his/her work space and back with ease, so be mindful not to buy them too large. The natural wood ones look lovely but I’d personally spend my money on more things to go on the trays than the trays themselves. Dollar stores, thrift stores, and online stores carry a ton of inexpensive options to suit your needs.
- Small pitchers, bowls, scoops, small measuring spoons, small tongs – These tools are all used on a daily basis in the practical life skills area of Montessori as well as the pre-writing area. For example, transferring dried lentils with a small measuring spoon from one small bowl into another, starts the process of developing a proper writing grasp. You want these tools to aid your child in their work, not frustrate them to death, so try them first before putting them on the shelves.
You can save a ton of money and make many of your materials at home and then make them durable by laminating them. (An amazing resource online with Montessori printables that are free or very budget-friendly is Montessori Print Shop).
Inspire a Love of Nature
Maria Montessori put a huge emphasis on fostering the connection between child and nature through the care of plants and animals, as well as placing a great value on creating aesthetically-pleasing surroundings.
Create a Nature Table
Fill different-sized baskets and bins with a variety of natural materials that your child can freely touch and arrange. You can change it monthly or seasonally, and while the majority can be actual organic matter, throw in some meaningful miniature objects or artificial plants as well.
In our house, some of the best group discussions and peaceful interactions happen around the Nature table.
Some Seasonal items that can be used are:
- Fall: Gourds, pumpkins, apples (real or fake), leaves, sunflowers (artificial or real) for flower arranging, mums, acorns, sticks, leaves, art cards of fall landscapes, cards on the life cycle of a pumpkin, dried corn, lentils, Raffia, books on fall, fall leave rubbings, etc.
- Winter: Evergreen, Images of winter landscapes and hibernating animals, bare branches, white table cloth to look like snow, snow globes, plastic icicles, paper snowflakes, wool snowman, animal figurines who do not hibernate, piece or pictures of winter fur on animals.
- Spring: Seeds, small indoor plants, small water pitcher, Assorted flowers (real and artificial), miniature birds, nest, eggs (fake), twigs, spring landscape art cards, frogs, life cycle of frogs or butterfly cards, bugs, magnifying glass, books on spring, rocks, petals, moss, green leaves, leaf rubbings, miniature dinosaurs, etc.
- Summer: Shells, starfish, ocean animal figurines, small figurines of boats or lighthouses, cards on whale species, plants, images of summer landscapes, flowers, bowls of fruit, herb garden, painted wooden fish, cards on the lunar phases, pictures of constellations, planets, etc.
If you don’t have space for a Nature table, make a Nature tray. And if you are really pressed for space, use the nature tray as your dining room table centerpiece, or put small plants throughout your schoolroom with small pitchers beside them for the children to use.
Let the Child Self-Correct
So your kid didn’t grasp the concept right after you gave a lesson? They might not be ready. Relax, and let it go for the day. I’ve introduced lessons 3-4 times before my child positively responded.
Most Montessori materials are either self-correcting or include a control of error. So when the child is doing the activity, they can always test themselves to see if they did the work correctly. The motivation to get things correct then comes from an internal drive to learn, not from external consequences like getting a treat if you got the problem right or being punished if you made a mistake.
It can be so easy to try to correct something before the child has had the time allowed for them to recognize the mistake. Be more of an unnoticed observer. You can write down your child’s progress for your records. Be encouraging and allow the progress to naturally unfold.
I keep daily records of all the work my kids do and where they are in the mastery of a skill. I write (i) for when I started introducing a skill, (p) for when the child is actively practicing a skill, and (m) for when the skill has been mastered. This way you can know when to move to a new skill in your sequence of lessons.
So you now have at least a vague idea of how to start setting the stage for a unique learning environment, but what good are beautiful shelves filled with utterly-inspiring work material if your child has not been taught how to respect his/her work, or how to use the materials appropriately and show courtesy to others while doing so?
Before the school year begins, my primary focus is on creating that very unique classroom culture by teaching the children how to conduct themselves through lessons in politeness and proper behavior.
It is a privilege to be at liberty to independently work as you wish, but with the freedom of this type of environment also comes responsibilities.
We have a duty to society to instill good citizenship and courtesy in our children.
With the use of role-playing scenarios and simple concentration activities (such as practicing pushing in a chair as quietly as possible), the child learns how to respond with good manners and reinforces polite behavior in various situations.
The six rules I use in my homeschool are put in small phrases so the kids can memorize them. In our classroom we are constantly practicing these rules through role-playing. The older kids get a refresher and the younger kids get to practice.
- “One work at a time” – You can choose from the variety of materials, but you can only choose ONE at a time. You can carefully take the tray with its materials anywhere in the room or house to work (except on the shelves themselves, which would deny other children easy access to the other materials). Once the child is finished, he/she carefully brings it back to its original spot.
- “Go slowly” – while walking into the room, while taking a tray to your spot, and doing the work without rushing – all help maintain a mode of concentration and purpose in our actions.
- “Keep the room tidy” – Each child has an apron and wash rag, and at the beginning and end of each school day, they do things like dust the shelves, push in their chairs, throw away scrap papers, empty out the wash basin used for washing hands, bring the snack dishes into the kitchen, and water the plants.
- “Quiet Voices”– This rule is a constant struggle in our house but a necessity to creating a courteous and productive work environment. I’m constantly trying to come up with new games or activities to help my children become sensitive to volume.
- “Be Gentle” – with how they handle the materials, with how they speak to their siblings and with how they care for the plants and animals they interact with.
- “Use your words” – We still deal with tantrums and issues with personal space in our house, but growing in grace and courtesy has really helped. We insist that the kids use their words to express their feelings in a clear and calm manner, and this is where the role-playing activities have come in handy.
Examples of Scenarios to go over with Your Kids
- What do you say when you first meet someone?
- What do you do when a guest leaves your house?
- What do you say or do when you need to apologize?
- How do you ask someone to play?
- How do you tell someone no?
If my kids do not follow the classroom rules, they get a reminder of which rule they are breaking, and if the behavior doesn’t stop, they can sit in a chair until they are ready to resume their work with courtesy. If the bad behavior still persists and becomes a distraction to their siblings working, they must leave the learning area altogether.
I want the kids to know that the environment is a special privilege.
Grace and courtesy, I believe, are such a huge reason why Montessori classrooms have that “magical air” about them. I would recommend going to a Montessori open house to see in practice just what I’m talking about.
Whether you are a hard-core Montessori purist wanting to eventually go all the way with your pink towers, metal insets and Kandinsky paintings on the wall, or if you just wanted some fresh ideas to create a new, creative and productive learning atmosphere, I hope these simple ideas will be an inspiration to get you to started!