As a Montessori teacher, I am passionate about the philosophy which promotes respecting and observing the child in order to best guide their development. Montessori emphasizes autonomy, self-initiation, and kindness. I knew that I wanted to use what I had learned in my teacher training to help implement these principals with our son from early on.
First, a brief introduction to Maria Montessori and her method. Born in the mid 1800s, Montessori was the first Italian female physician. After becoming a doctor, she worked with children with cognitive and physical disabilities in hospitals and asylums in Rome. She was distressed by the primitive methods used to educate and treat them during that era and wanted to find a better way to help them. In order to do so, Montessori studied education and spent a great deal of time observing the children. She found that when given the appropriate carefully prepared environment along with a trained adult who could respectfully guide them in their work, they thrived.
She went on to create the Casa de Bambini, Children’s House, in a poor district in Rome. She served children ages 3 - 6 of low-income working parents. Montessori began applying some of the principles she had used with the children in the asylums with these children. She developed unique, manipulative, didactic materials that now bear her name.
In addition to their academic work, children engaged in a variety of “practical life” activities such as caring for their environment by sweeping the floor, washing the tables, and watering the plants. They also practiced self-care activities including taking their coats on and off, tying shoes, and proper hand washing. The children developed concentration, attention, and self-discipline, and became more proficient in mathematics, reading, and writing than many of their peers in traditional educational settings. News of the success of Montessori’s method spread broadly. Today, Montessori schools are flourishing all over the world.
Montessori believed in treating children -- even from infancy -- with respect, offering autonomy and choice. She also thought that we should talk to them, as much as possible, using adult language, and involving them in daily activities such as care of self and care of the environment. Not only does this demonstrate respect and that you want the child to understand what we are doing to them (feeding, changing, dressing, changing, taking them to the park, etc.), but it provides a variety of language learning opportunities in the ordinary events of each day.
While the Montessori method is most widely known in an educational context, we can easily translate her philosophy to our home as well. We have tried to do this with our son even in his first year of life. We have set up our home to promote his safety, independence, and access as much as possible. Our entire first floor, where we spend most of our time, is baby-proofed, so he has the freedom to roam as he pleases without us having to say, “No! Don’t touch that!” or “You can’t go there!”
As he approaches his first birthday and becomes more mobile and capable of handling materials and participating in self-care, we have continued to modify our space to include him and offer opportunities for him to develop independence. Let’s take a look at how we have set up a few areas of our home with him in mind.
We have a low table and chair with a beautiful view or our backyard that Levi is learning to get into and out of independently. Both are adjustable for multiple heights so he will be able to use them for years to come. He usually eats breakfast and snacks here. He sits in an adjustable high chair with a foot rest that we pull up to the dining table when we eat lunch and dinner as a family.
Levi uses a placemat that, when he’s a bit older, will guide him as to how to set the table. He uses stainless steel silverware, a ceramic plate, and a drinking cup made from tempered glass (it’s actually a shot glass, but it’s the perfect size for him currently and the small amount of water is perfect for minimizing inevitable spills). He’s learning to get his plate, silverware, and cup for meals, as well as wipe the table after meals with a rag. Using real cutlery, a glass, and plate help teach him to handle these items with care from the beginning. Do we have messes? Yes – often. Do we have broken plates and glasses? Rarely. The shock of a glass breaking once or twice is enough for most toddlers to learn the consequences of mishandling these items.
We converted our hand-me-down IKEA play kitchen into a functional kitchen with a few modifications. Using some water jugs with a funnel and water pump, he now has access to running water at his height. We're currently practicing hand washing together. He enjoys seeing his reflection in the mirror that is just his height. We replaced the play stove with a cutting board.
There is also space to store all the supplies he needs for a meal, which are, again, at his level. Eventually he’ll be able to use this kitchen as a meal preparation space.
We also have a collapsible learning tower, which we’ve just begun to use in short bursts. Levi can climb (with assistance) up into the tower, which brings him to counter height. For now, he can observe us preparing food. In the coming year we hope to begin to include him in tasks such as adding pre-measured ingredients into a bowl, washing produce, mixing ingredients, and slicing soft items with a child safe knife or crinkle cutter.
We have a low chair Levi sits in where we assist him with putting on and removing his shoes. He has a choice of two different pairs of shoes, which we keep in a basket. We have low hooks affixed to the wall using Command strips where he can select from two hats. In the winter, we will swap out the sun hats for beanies and coats.
Our family room doubles as Levi’s primary play space. We have an eight cube IKEA organizer which displays his toys. You’ll notice there are not very many toys, and the pieces are disassembled and contained in a basket or on a tray. These features make the toys more inviting to children. We rotate different toys into this selection when we observe what he is most engaged with or seems to be losing interest in, usually every few weeks.
We also have a basket with a handful of books that he can select from, as well as some forward-facing wall-mounted book shelves at his level (IKEA spice racks). When children can see the front covers of books, it is far easier for them to find the book they’re looking for, rather than the sliver of spine that is visible on a regular bookshelf. We also rotate these books every few weeks and supplement the books we own with library books. Currently he is very engaged in any book that features faces (especially baby faces!) so we have lots of those on display.
This is still a work in progress for us. Currently, we have a small Baby Bjorn potty in our downstairs bathroom, as well as one in his bedroom, where we are introducing Levi to Montessori toilet learning. Montessori believed that children go through a sensitive period for learning various skills throughout their development, such as reading and writing, but also for toilet learning. This age range is between 12 and 18 months. She recommended gently providing opportunities for the child to use the potty, especially upon waking and after meals (common times when children often need to use the restroom), rather than waiting for the child to spontaneously show “signs of readiness.”
It is also important to involve the child in the toileting process as much as possible. The child may help to push down their pants and clean up after themselves with no shaming from the adult when they don’t quite make it to the toilet. At this stage, we don’t ask Levi if he wants to go, we just offer regular opportunities at the same times each day so he learns this is part of our routine. “It’s time to go potty,” and we go together. We invite him into the bathroom with us when we need to use the restroom so we can model for him he can observe the process. We have some books to read together while he’s sitting on the potty, as well as wipes for cleaning up, and training underwear, which he’s wearing more often as he gains competence in this area.
In sum, Montessori doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Many of the items we use we purchased second hand or repurposed from things we already had around the house. It also doesn’t have to be all or nothing. For example, Levi’s bedroom isn’t very “Montessori.” We use a traditional crib, not a floor bed, as many Montessori families do. It just isn’t something we’re comfortable with at this time.
Anyone can practice this philosophy even if you don't have lots of the Montessori materials by setting aside a few moments each day to connect with and observe your child. Anyone can speak respectfully to their child, offering them choices and a voice, even in small ways, in the day-to-day happenings of their lives. At its core, Montessori is a way of perceiving and interacting with children, not a set of aesthetically pleasing wooden materials on a shelf.
The Montessori Baby – Simone Davies
The Montessori Toddler – Simone Davies
The Whole Brain Child – Daniel J. Siegel
Montessori at Home Guides:
Montessori at Home – YouTube, Happa Family
Montessori at Home – Sapientia Montessori