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Filtering by Tag: Montessori Toddler

Encouraging Independent Play

Theresa

Promoting independence is a key component of Montessori, in large part, because it allows the child to feel respected, capable, and content. One of the best ways to encourage independence is through play. If toddlers can feel comfortable and confident playing on their own, they will also feel capable of other tasks on their own. Play is such valuable time for children to learn, imagine, take chances, and make mistakes and then do-overs. For my husband and I, it’s important to raise kids who are able to play by themselves and create fun with what is available, rather than need entertainment to find joy. It’s about finding the right balance for your family. While I love engaging in activities with my children, I also really appreciate being able to complete a task myself without a clinging child. Even better is the feeling that we don’t need to rush into my toddler’s bedroom in the morning, because she is happy to play with her dolls or flip through books in her room, just as she is before she falls asleep.

It’s never too early or too late to encourage meaningful, independent play. Here are some tips for promoting independent play in babies, toddlers, and beyond.

Encouraging Independent Play - Montessori in Real Life

A “Yes Space”

This is probably the most important one. It’s nearly impossible to expect a child to play independently if we have to keep hovering and telling them “no”. Whether it’s your living room or a play room, babies and toddlers need to play in a space where they can safely explore. When D has gone through phases of not being interested in her toys, this sometimes mean she explores the drawers in the kitchen accessible to her, uses our child-size swiffer to dry mop the floor, or “reorganizes” our pantry. Anything that is unsafe to her is kept locked or up high. As long as she isn’t causing harm or a major mess, she is okay playing in our main living area, with her toys, or not.

Encouraging Independent Play - Montessori in Real Life

Appropriate Toys

Children (including babies) are more likely to engage with a toy if it is just the right level of challenge for them. Too easy, and they are bored. Too difficult, and they get frustrated. Different children have different thresholds for challenges as well. If we want our children to engage in play on their own, we have to set up an inviting and challenging environment for them. If you aren’t sure where to start, The Montessori Guide offers month by month activities, up to 21 months (soon to be 24 months!). Additionally, rotating the shelves (a few toys at a time, as needed) helps to keep their environment interesting. If your child is really struggling to play on their own, consider starting with open-ended toys (such as magnets or blocks) or toys with movement (such as a car tracker), that engage almost all ages and types of children.

Encouraging Independent Play - Montessori in Real Life

“Together Time”

I find D is much more open to playing on her own when she’s already had some quality time with me. This was especially true during her more clingy phases. Each day I try to set up some time for her and I to engage in play together (when I’m showing her a new work or we are prepping food together) and some time for her to play alone when I’m trying to get something done (or just nursing s!). Even with S, I apply this kind of balance: I spend a lot of time holding and snuggling him, but other times I let him lie down and gaze at his mobile or look around on his tummy. Even diaper changes and potty breaks can count as quality one-on-one time if we are focusing our attention on our child.

Encouraging Independent Play - Montessori in Real Life

Make Play a Habit

This may seem obvious, but sometimes we forget or get too busy to make play a part of the daily routine. Play doesn’t have to be with Montessori toys in a Montessori environment; it can also be exploring nature or playing with cardboard boxes. The important thing is that we allow children to have time to just be themselves and explore their own environment each day. Toddlers, especially, thrive on figuring things out for themselves, so we don’t need to “play for them”. Even if you’re sitting with your child playing, avoid fixing or correcting their play. We want them to feel like their play or work matters, which will in turn make them more excited to play on their own. If your child is only in the habit of playing with you, start small by just moving a few feet, or only leave for a minute, and gradually increase as they get more comfortable playing on their own.

Encouraging Independent Play - Montessori in Real Life

Limit Over-Stimulation

It may seem counter-intuitive, but often the more a child interacts with a screen or electronic toys, the more “bored” they are. When children, even toddlers, get used to the sensory overload that TV shows and loud, blinking toys provide, they can develop a shorter attention span in general. This then translates to less interest and ability to concentrate on more active and independent types of play. This isn’t always the case, but it can be. In our family, we do not make screen time a part of our day. But you have to do what works for your family, and sometimes that includes screens. :)

Encouraging Independent Play - Montessori in Real Life

With all this being said, it’s helpful to remember that babies, toddlers, and children of all ages go through periods of wanting to be more or less independent. When D was around 18 months old, she went through a major separation anxiety phase, and was not interested in playing alone. I continued to encourage her to play on her own but didn’t force it. I still let her know when I needed to separate myself to finish a chore and I let her choose to follow and watch me or play by herself. For a while, she just followed me. Over the course of a month or so, she gradually began to enjoy her independent play time again. Like all aspects of raising children, phases come and go.

Encouraging Independent Play - Montessori in Real Life

Praise vs. Acknowledgment in a Montessori Home

Theresa

Praise (or lack thereof) is a topic that often comes up in Montessori discussions, and in my Instagram messages. I do not say much out loud in my videos of D working, which is typically intentional. When she is concentrating, I do not want to interrupt, and especially not with my own judgment of her work. Most of all I try* to avoid “Good job!” That is not to say I don’t think it or feel proud when she matches the flowers correctly, or climbs over the Pikler triangle like a champ. But I want her to be able to focus on her own efforts and feelings about it rather than focus on mine. When she’s finished with her work and looks up to me, I acknowledge it with something like “You matched all the flowers to the cards! You look really happy” or “You climbed over the Pikler for the first time!” and she feels the pride all on her own.

* we all say good job sometimes, and that’s okay :)

Praise vs. Acknowledgment - Montessori in Real Life

In a Montessori environment, it is the norm for adults to acknowledge accomplishments and encourage efforts rather than praise or offer rewards. As mentioned above, the idea is for children to learn how to take pride in their own accomplishments, rather than only put in effort for adult praise or external rewards. Rewards take away a child’s intrinsic motivation, or desire to work on something just because it feels good to do so. In contrast, Acknowledgment allows a child to assess their own work, and feel satisfied or proud for themselves. Additionally, acknowledgments or encouragements are specific to the activity or effort at hand, rather than vague like “I’m so proud of you!”. The specificity (e.g. “You are working really hard on putting on your shoes by yourself!”) makes our comments more meaningful to our children.

Praise vs. Acknowledgement - Montessori in Real Life

Acknowledging the effort our children put into something rather than the end result also encourages them to seek out challenges. Conversely, praising our children for a job well done often leads them to avoid challenges for fear of making a mistake and not being “good enough”. Carol Dweck, a developmental psychologist at Stanford coined the terms “growth mindset” vs. “fixed mindset” to describe these differences. A child with a growth mindset believes that they can work hard at something to get better at it; a child with a fixed mindset believes they are either good or bad at something, and they can’t change that. Unsurprisingly, children with growth mindsets are more motivated, confident, and high-achieving.

How do we help our young children develop a growth mindset? It comes back to how, or if, we praise. Instead of praising or rewarding the outcome, we can praise or acknowledge the effort or process. We want to convey to our children that we notice and value how hard they work at something, and the steps they took to get there. We want them to know that mistakes are not just okay, but necessary, in learning a new skill. This really helps me think about how I parent D and how we can all help toddlers become self-assured and challenge-seeking children.

Lastly I’ll just share with you some of the phrases we use at home to help cultivate a growth mindset and acknowledge or encourage efforts rather than praise or assert my judgment:

It looks like you really enjoyed that work!

I can see you worked really hard on that activity.

You did it (all by yourself)!

It’s so nice to see how proud and happy you are.

You put your work away, so now we can go make dinner!

That was really helpful how you set your own table.

For my favorite parenting/Montessori philosophy books, check out the end of this blog post!

Praise vs. Acknowledgment in a Montessori Home - Montessori in Real Life