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Filtering by Category: Montessori Philosophy

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

What Are Sensitive Periods?

Theresa

“When a particular sensitiveness is aroused in a child, it is like a light that shines on some objects but not others, making of them his whole world” - Maria Montessori

One of the most discussed phrases in Montessori is “sensitive periods“. In short, a sensitive period is a phase or window in a child’s development when they are most capable of and responsive to absorbing a certain skill.

What Are Sensitive Periods? - Montessori in Real Life

There are a variety of sensitive periods in childhood, but here are some that apply to toddlers. These include but are not limited to:

  • Movement: birth to 2.5

  • Language: birth to 6

  • Toileting: 1 to 3

  • Small objects: 1 to 3

  • Order: 1.5 to 4

  • Refinement of Senses: 2 to 6

  • Grace and Courtesy: 2 to 6

  • Social Skills: 2.5 to 5

What Are Sensitive Periods? - Montessori in Real Life

Before going into some these in more depth, it can help to know how to spot a sensitive period. Though there are general time frames for each of these periods, every child is a bit different in their development. You’ll know when your child is in a sensitive period because they are engaged, passionate, and energized by working on this specific activity or skill, and often return to it again and again. It can help to keep these sensitive periods in mind to better understand your toddler’s “tricky” behaviors too.

When a child isn’t permitted to exercise their sensitive periods, they will likely throw tantrums to demonstrate their unmet needs to fulfill their interests and goals for that period. They may also lose the ease of doing and interest for the activities related to developing that skill. If they miss the sensitive period of window, they will likely still develop those skills, but will take longer and with more effort and less joy. (For example, adults know how much harder it is to learn one new language than it is for toddlers to learn two languages at the same time.)

What Are Sensitive Periods? - Montessori in Real Life

Sensitive Period for Movement: Birth to 2.5 years

From birth to two and a half years, children show a sensitive period for movement. It is easy to see this in the great effort infants put in as they quickly transition from lying to rolling to sitting to crawling to pulling up. They use their hands in different ways to explore their environment and materials with more precision every day. Through the second year, toddlers continue this self-motivated movement but with more refinement, coordination, and control. Toddlers’ need to move and exert energy often seems limitless, and it practically is.

D was a late crawler and walker, so her first year was all about fine motor. Now, as a toddler, she is going through a huge sensitive period for gross motor. Every day includes a combination of a toddler-led walk, sliding at the playground, carrying heavy objects around the house, and climbing up and down the stairs on repeat. Giving her these opportunities to exercise her large movements gives her the ability to focus on her smaller work as well as eat and sleep better.

What Are Sensitive Periods? - Montessori in Real Life

Sensitive Period for Small Objects: 1 to 3 years

Any parent of a toddler has probably noticed this one - they love tiny things. As soon as babies begin to move, they seem to notice every little speck on the floor, and need to pick it up. Toddlers find nothing more fascinating than collecting small rocks and picking every tiny flower. While parents often worry about choking hazards, reacting with panic or ripping small objects out of your toddlers’ hand will only lead to tantrums. We can give our toddlers supervised time to hold and inspect small objects to fulfill this need. Toddlers need this time to tune into the details of everything, and see those smallest features, changes, and qualities up close. They are not only learning about their fascinating environment, but also working on those much-needed fine motor skills and developing their concentration.

Most of D’s favorite works include small objects right now, and at first with reminders (now without), she knows to keep them in her hand. Our rock collection is quite impressive these days. ;) Just the other day she found a tiny lock and key in our drawer, and rather than take it away, I observed her and watched with interest as she used her tiny hands to fit the lock inside and then sigh with huge satisfaction as she went on to repeat this a dozen more times. These little opportunities to work with small objects are huge for her development.

What Are Sensitive Periods? - Montessori in Real Life

Sensitive Period for Toileting: 1 to 2.5 years

This does not mean that toilet learning can’t happen after 2.5 years, but rather that the toddlers are quicker and more interested in the toilet before 2.5 years (usually before 2 years even). Children develop an awareness of their bodily functions around a year and can usually control their bladder and bowels pretty well by 18 months. Toddlers between one and two years also want to imitate everything we do, and this often includes the toilet, so it’s a great time to take advantage of that. If we start toileting during this sensitive period, we can avoid using bribes and rewards.

Though it’s been a longer process, I am really glad we started toilet learning with D before 18 months, because now, at 21 months, she’s in underwear full-time (except for sleep). There are still some accidents and sure to be more regressions (especially once baby 2 arrives), but we’ve avoided any huge struggle over it. You can read more about this process in previous blog posts.

What Are Sensitive Periods? - Montessori in Real Life

Sensitive Period for Order: 1.5 to 4 years

Routine to their day is a big component of toddlers’ need for order. Montessori explains, “It is necessary for the child to have this order and stability in his environment because he is constructing himself out of the elements of the environment.” Toddlers crave routine and order in their environment because it provides a safe base from which they are explore everything else in the constantly changing (and big) world. External order helps toddlers and young children develop internal mental order. This is why Montessori environments have a more minimal look to them, and a specific place for everything.

D is deep in this sensitive period right now. She is very particular about the placement of her things. She actually corrected me when I tried to put one of her materials back in a different spot or when I put her shoes in the “wrong” basket. I also find the days that we stick to her routine are much happier than the days we are in and out of the car or when she isn’t sure what’s coming next. Keeping up with our regular schedule most days, giving her a heads up when we can’t, and always having a consistent bedtime routine helps her tremendously with this need for order.

What Are Sensitive Periods? - Montessori in Real Life

Introducing New Materials to a Toddler

Theresa

Just as important as the materials in the Montessori environment is the way in which we present those materials to the child. In an early childhood classroom (age 3-6), Montessori guides use a more formal method for teaching, called the Three Period Lesson. Simone Davies has a great explanation of that in her blog post here. As she explains, we often modify the three period lesson to a two period lesson for toddlers. In introducing new objects and vocabulary to D, I first label each object clearly and slowly. I then ask her (in various ways) to find each object (e.g. Can you put the eagle in the basket?” or “Where is the eagle’s beak?”) Unless I’m sure she knows the word, I do not ask her “What is this?” because it is often difficult and intimidating for newly verbal toddlers to answer, and makes the activity less enjoyable for her. I discuss other language activities in my previous blog post as well.

Giving Lessons - Montessori in Real Life

The three (or two) part lesson works well for some types of materials, such as labeling these forest animal figurines, but not others. With a toddler, lessons often aren’t formal, because they aren’t sitting still for long, and are usually eager to jump into trying it themselves. That being said, there are some general steps I take in introducing a new material, that seem to be fairly consistent across type of activity…

Giving Lessons - Montessori in Real Life
  1. Set up the new material on a tray or in a basket so that it’s inviting and “incomplete”, e.g. puzzle pieces are out of puzzle or nesting cups are unstacked. (Or, if practical life, set up at her small kitchen or weaning table).

  2. Bring D’s attention to the material. If she’s interested, I slowly model how it works/how it is to be used. (If she’s not interested, I wait for another time.) I use minimal words, so that the focus is on my hands, not my voice. It is difficult for toddlers to process both at the same time. For example, with the shape/color sorter above, I might point to the cylinder in my hand, label it “cylinder”, point to the cylinder inset, trace my hand around the circle of the cylinder and inset, and then slowly place the cylinder in the inset. I might say “The cylinder fits!” I would repeat with the remaining shapes and colors. Now that she can match the shapes, I might point out the size/color difference as well, but there’s no rush on this!

  3. I “undo” my work, again slowly, placing each piece back on the tray or in the bakset. I might label with minimal words again, such as noting the color, shape, or a simple action “I put the triangular prism back in the basket!”

  4. Once the material is set-up on the tray or in the basket, I give it to D to use and explore. At this point, I don’t interrupt. Sometimes she imitates my actions and is engrossed in the activity, and other times she uses the material in her own way, which is just fine. I let her play with it as she wishes to.

  5. If she attempts to imitate the actions she saw me do, but struggles, I wait, and often she self-corrects (see note below regarding control of error). Or, if she signals that she wants help, I do show her again, or help guide her. I only intervene if she asks for me to though. I try to encourage her to figure things out for herself, so that she doesn’t come to rely on me doing things for her. Sometimes this means keeping a little distance while she works. This provides her the opportunity to feel confident and capable in her own abilities.

  6. If she completes the work, but mixes pieces up or does it in the wrong order, I don’t fix it for her (unless she asks, as noted above). I let her “complete” the work as she sees fit. When she’s done playing with it, I might model it again correctly another time.

Giving Lessons - Montessori in Real Life

Note: many traditional Montessori materials include a built-in control of error. This means that the materials allow the child to self-correct because they provide instant feedback about whether it is completed correctly or not. A classic example is the knobbed cylinders. If a child places one cylinder in the incorrect place, he will not be able to fit all the cylinders into the block. This will allow him to re-arrange the cylinders in the block to ensure they all fit. This opportunity for self-correction provides toddlers (and older children) independence, curiosity, satisfaction, and confidence in their work.

Giving Lessons - Montessori in Real Life

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through one of these links, you won’t pay anything extra, but I will get a small commission, which helps keep this blog going. Thanks for supporting Montessori in Real Life!

What is Montessori for Babies and Toddlers?

Theresa

When people ask me to briefly describe Montessori and why it’s different, I usually stumble over my words. My husband says I need an “elevator pitch”, and I’ve yet to make one. If anyone has a great one, let me know! What I can do is try to describe Montessori in bullet points. I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the Montessori philosophy in general, and suggestions for further reading on the topic. I hope that by describing a few of the key elements of Montessori and including some resources below, I can provide parents new to Montessori a little more insight. And please let me know what else you’d like to know in the comments section! I also always like to add that while I am obviously a big proponent of Montessori, do what works for your family, and remember that there is no perfect way, or perfect parent!

6 Key Elements of Montessori Philosophy for infants and toddlers:

Respect for the child: This is the most important element of Montessori, and parenting in general. Respect for infants and toddlers comes in many forms in a Montessori environment. It includes a beautiful and inviting space for our child to play in. It also includes making children feel like important and contributing members of our family or community. Respecting the child means speaking and interacting with our child in a gentle and loving way, and in words they can relate to. Lastly, this includes respecting each child’s individual development and pace/style of learning, whether at home or at school.

Montessori in Real Life

Observation: Taking the time to observe each child allows us to assess their individual needs and interests - social, emotional, and developmental. These observations give us the information we need to prepare a proper environment for each child's development, and to rotate materials and activities as they grow and their interests change. We might notice that our baby is constantly making animal sounds, especially the dog and cat. To take advantage and expand this interest, we can find materials such as wooden puzzles, books, and animal figurines of pets for our baby to explore. Observation can especially come in handy when our child is “acting out”. For example, if our toddler is throwing all their toys off their shelf, that tells us that 1. we might want to simplify their shelf or reduce the number of materials and 2. give them other opportunities to throw, such as balls into a laundry basket.

Montessori in Real Life

Preparation of environment: Maria Montessori said, “the greatest sign of success for a teacher... is to be able to say, 'The children are now working as if I did not exist”. Instead of the teacher or parent at the center, Montessori describes a triangular interaction among the adult, child, and environment. The adult is the connection between the child and their environment, inviting them in. This is in part why teachers are called guides in Montessori. With a prepared environment and carefully chosen materials, the child can explore their environment (at home or school) and use their materials with minimal assistance. This kind of environment promotes curiosity, concentration, and independence early on. 

dynamic triangle.jpg

Order: In a world that is so big and often overwhelming, infants and toddlers are usually happiest when they have order and structure to their day. This includes organization of their environment and routines. In Montessori classrooms and homes, all of the children’s materials have a specific place in their environment, and there is a consistent daily schedule. The idea is that infants and children come to know what to expect and feel more secure with that knowledge. With that security, the child has the confidence to seek out independent play and take on new challenges. Of course we can’t always keep our environment perfectly organized or our days structured (nor should we), but the more we can do, the more calm and confident our child will feel.

Montessori Home

Independence and Choice: Whenever possible, children are given a chance to do things for themselves before the adult steps in. A common quote in Montessori communities is “help me to do it by myself”. We, as adults, are there to model and guide, but not to take over our child’s work. Giving infants and toddlers time and opportunities to exert their independence promotes their self-confidence and self-reliance. You can see the delight and pride on a toddler’s face when they put their own shoes on for the first time. One simple way to give your child more independence is to give them choices rather than directions. For example, “Would you like to get in your pajamas or brush your teeth first?” rather than “It’s time to get ready for bed”.

Montessori in Real Life

Intrinsic Motivation: In a Montessori environment, adults try to acknowledge accomplishments rather than praise or offer rewards for doing something “good”. For example, an adult might say “You stacked those blocks really high!” or “I see you worked really hard at putting on your coat” rather than “Good job!” or “I’m so proud of you!” 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. Acknowledging the effort they put into something rather than the end result also encourages children to seek out challenges more often, and to do activities because it feels good rather than because they want praise.

Montessori at Home
What is Montessori for infants and toddlers?

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through one of these links, you won’t pay anything extra, but I will get a small commission, which helps keep this blog going. Thanks for supporting Montessori in Real Life!