Montessori Baby

The author, trained as a Montessori primary teacher (AMI), documents and analyzes her efforts to raise a "Montessori" baby.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Sensitive Period for Order

Months 0-6

To finish up the discussion of sensitive periods, I will turn to the fourth period that Montessori identified in the young child. It is the sensitive period for order. This, to me, is one of the more fascinating. It is a strong part of the human tendency to orient oneself to one's environment, assists with the creation of abstractions, and runs contrary to many of our assumptions about children. (A child, orderly?)

In her various writings about development, society and education, Montessori tells a number of anecdotes in which children become extremely distressed and the adult cannot figure out why. In one, it is because a mother is carrying her coat on her arm instead of wearing it. In another, it is because someone has opened an umbrella inside the house. When she was observing the children in her first Casa de Bambini, Montessori questioned some children who were carefully moving and rearranging a table. They told her that it had formerly been in a spot right under the lamp and had been moved, so they were trying to put it back in its original position.

Montessori concluded that order must be essential to the child. If we think about it, it makes perfect sense. The child has come into a totally alien world and must orient himself to every aspect of it. He is working to understand the rules and categories that will help him make sense of it all. Routines, a neatly organized environment, boundaries, consistency - these provide both security and a basis for understanding.

I was so grateful to know about this need for order before Alex arrived. It enabled me to think carefully about his room arrangement so that it could be a stable, comforting environment for him right from the start. A few short months later, I was surprised at just how stable he wanted that environment to be.

Before he was born, I had placed a couple of photographs on the wall beside his bed. In his early weeks, these became a favorite focal point of his and we noticed that when he was tired of being handled, he enjoyed lying in his bed staring at these pictures. One day, I thought to myself that he might like some variety, so I added another picture to the wall. That day, when I placed him in his bed, he fussed and fussed. I noticed that his gaze was directed at the new picture. Hmm, I thought to myself, maybe I have thrown his world into a tailspin by adding this new element to a formerly predicatable and comforting place. I began to imagine myself in his position - waking up and suddenly noticing this new, bright picture where it had never been before. I removed the picture and the fussing stopped. It was amazing.

This episode reminded me to be sensitive to Alex's need for order. This doesn't mean that routines or layouts or ways of doing things can't ever change, but it does mean that change should be carefully considered and carefully done, and that its after-effects should be observed. Now, when I change something about his room, I try to make sure that he's present. We are working to establish a bedtime routine that can be done anywhere so that he'll have consistency even when we travel. I try not to introduce him to new toys or environments when he's tired and less able to handle change.

It will be interesting to see how this need manifests itself in the coming months. As he begins to learn the "rules" of our world, I wonder how he will handle aberrations from the norm. Will routines help him when we must stay in unfamiliar places? We shall see!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Sensitive Period for Sensory Perception

Months 0-6

It started a few weeks ago. First, there was the scratching of little fingers on every surface. Then, there was a keen interest in watching the dog move around the house or a ceiling fan twirl in its orbit. Next, it was locating voices, putting everything in the mouth, and freezing to listen to changes in music. These were the signs that made it clear to me that Alex was coming alive to the world of sensory information.

The attention to sensory development in the Montessori classroom has perhaps the most beautiful reason behind it. True, the development of sensory perception contributes to later reading and it becomes the foundation of later abstractions, but its main purpose is to give the child the "keys to the world" so that he can enjoy and appreciate all the rich sensorial experiences available to him.

Having noted Alex's interest in new sights, smells, sounds, textures, and materials, we have already begun this exploration together. My husband and I put on different types of music for him more often now and we give him things to play with that have different visual properties, apparent or real temperatures, colors, and textures. When Alex and I go out into the garden or on a walk, I break off bits of different herbs for him to smell or put him near to flowers and plants so that he can touch and examine them. We take him to new places often and read books with vibrant colors, interesting photographs, or varying meter.

Alex has not yet seemed prepared for an exploration of tastes, though I appreciated it when someone I know defined early eating experiences in just this way. "It's not about feeding, it's about tasting," she said. To think of it this way has helped me not to rush, but to offer foods and let Alex take the lead in tasting and "asking" for more.

One of the greatest things about Alex's awakening senses is that mine have come alive again, too. Seeing the world through him has made me notice what I normally would ignore or miss. His appreciation for all that is around him is yet another gift to me as a parent, and one for which I am truly grateful.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Sensitive Period for Language

I doubt anyone needs Montessori to tell them that children have a sensitivity to language between birth and age 5 (more like 6) - their "explosion" into spoken language is probably enough to indicate that this is a major developmental interest at this age. Even before they reach the stage of picking up on every little word (even the ones we don't want them to know!), babies have a fascination with the sound of human language.

In the first six months of life, we have already seen Alex progressing in his language development. Not too long after birth, one of his favorite activities during quiet, alert times was to watch the mouth of a person speaking to him. So we did. My husband went a little nuts with it by reading him Proust and legal articles, while I tended to stick to Goodnight Moon and general conversation. The truth is, it probably didn't matter. What was fascinating to him was not the content of our speech, but the sounds we were making.

After storing up a sufficient number of sounds, Alex began practicing so that he could join us. At times, this was independent work. We could hear him in his room in the morning just after waking up running through the range of tones and volume he could manage. Other times, he wanted to participate in conversation. We imitated his sounds back to him and he was delighted to have others speak his language.

Now, Alex is beginning to practice particular sounds that he hears. I recently heard a study on NPR that discussed the two areas of the brain at work in speech development. Apparently, there will be a repetitive cycle that will enable him to perfect sounds - he'll hear a sound in his environment, attempt to make it, hear that sound and determine whether or not it is close to a sound in our language, try again, compare, try again, and so on. Doing this, he'll eventually develop the range of sounds we use to speak English. Who knew it was so complex?

However, that's the beauty of the sensitive period. It's not complex for him - he's driven to do it and his brain is primed for it. As long as he gets all the sounds he needs from us at this stage, it won't be laborious or difficult. In fact, it might be fun! I wonder if his first word will have something to do with the constitution?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Sensitive Period for Movement

Birth to Six Months

Borrowing the concept from Hugo de Vries, a genetecist, Montessori identified four "sensitve periods" in humans. These are periods of heightened sensitivity in, and, subsequently, learning in particular areas of the brain. These areas include movement, sensory perception, language, and order. Neuroscience now bears this out; children do undergo significant growth and pruning of neurons in particular areas of the brain between birth and age five. How critical, then, is it for us to provide an environment rich in opportunities and appropriate stimuli!

Montessori saw the sensitive period for movement lasting from birth to about age four, with gross motor coordination as its initial area of perfection and refinement of the movements of the hand as one of its last and most important conquests. In between, the child develops manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination.

Even before he was born, Alex loved to move. Between his regular kickboxing practices, hiccups, and startle reflexes, it felt like there was always something happening in Alex's world. To capitalize on this sensitive period in the early months after he was born, we simply provided Alex with space and the opportunity to move in different positions. He was never one to be swaddled or cuddled, preferring instead to spread out. His floor bed allowed for freedom of movement on his back, and we placed him in front of a mirror for "tummy time" each day. He also spent a significant amount of time sitting on laps or riding around in our Baby Bjorn.

To develop hand-eye coordination, we kept a mobile above his bed and a batting toy on his car seat and bouncy chair. Eventually, we began to wonder if those accidental swattings were really an accident. Around the same time that we were sure he was reaching with the intention of grasping, he began showing an interest in sitting up on his own. We were delighted to help him practice his new skill and he took great pleasure in it.

Sitting up allowed him to really free up his hands and work with objects. We began doing short periods of daily "seated work" with the toys on his shelf. Soon, I hope he will be able to join me at a table in the kitchen scrubbing potatoes or slicing apples!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Follow the Child

Bringing Alex home from the hospital was both terrifying and thrilling. We had just spent two hours in our hospital room trying to soothe our screaming newborn. I hadn't slept the entire night before, and breastfeeding was not going well in spite of the advice of well-meaning nurses and hospital lactation consultants. We strapped him into his car seat once he was finally settled, got into the car, and took Alex home.

The entire world had changed while we were gone. Drivers swerved wildly on the roads, stoplights were interminably long, and the cold winter wind was much harsher than we remembered. We were beginning to see everything through a double-lens - that of our newborn child responding to a unfamiliar world and that of parents who were transporting the most precious cargo ever. The world was harsh and our task of protecting him from it monumental; we were overwhelmed.

My only comfort on that day, aside from the friends and family that offered their support, was my faith in the three words that could probably most accurate sum up Montessori philosophy - "Follow the child." We could take our cues from Alex; he would let us know what he needed. The only real challenge, then, would be in interpreting his demands. Fortunately, there were a limited range of options for what those demands might be.

Pediatricians and child development specialists are just now beginning to urge parents to do what Montessori knew was essential so long ago. Handouts from the lactation consultant encouraged us to "nurse on demand" and all of the websites and child development books told us that we should respond when our baby cried. "You cannot spoil an infant," they said. "Crying is communication," another pointed out. I like "follow the child" best.

That night and the following days, we fed Alex when he was hungry and slept when he slept. We enjoyed face-to-face time during the brief periods when he was active, and took him on tours of the house during his more alert, quiet times. When he wasn't satisfied after nursings, we sought help from our pediatrician's office and got our breastfeeding back on track.

This isn't to say that we abandoned our own needs altogether. "Follow the child" doesn't mean "sacrifice everything for your child" or "do everything the way your child wants it done." We helped Alex learn to sleep at night by keeping the lights off during feedings and remaining quiet. He spent time alone each day and braved the February chill with us for walks. In short, he took his place as a member of our family and we welcomed him by responding to his needs as well as making him a part of our lives.

Unlike "you cannot spoil an infant" or "crying is communication," "follow the child" is a positive philosophy that extends far beyond the first year of life. Though his needs will change, our roles as interpreters and providers will not. Whether he exhibits a need for freedom or limits, stimulation or repose, encouragement or compassion, we will do our best to deliver.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Before studying Montessori, I had always imagined that birth must be both a grueling process and a joyous event. Never once, in picturing the hours of excrutiating labor and the supremely divine moment of greeting the pink, wriggling, long-awaited child, did I think of this event as a conquest. But, in fact, it can surely be thought of that way; birth is a child's first conquest of independence.

Thinking of birth as a conquest of independence sets the stage for all of parenting. From that moment on, it is a process of letting go as a child becomes more and more able to depend upon himself. He learns to breath on his own; to feed himself; to sit, crawl, stand, and walk; to care for himself and his environment; to make choices; and to negotiate social groups and navigate the world at large and of information. Eventually, he chooses a path for himself and follows it - out of the home and into the world, on his own.

Perhaps our most important roles as parents, then, is to support and celebrate these conquests. There's no doubt that we do. Who couldn't help but feel enthusiasm for a baby's first steps or proud when a daughter heads off for her first job? At the same time, I think we have a hard time letting go. There's something bittersweet about the child who forgets to turn to wave when he gets on the bus - he is eager and ready for what lies ahead, but has forgotton, at least in that moment, the parent watching him go.

If she were here today, Montessori would be shocked at how little room we create in our lives for the development of independence in our children. A part of this is for our own convenience. The other day, I witnessed a mother pull and tug her child's jacket on as he stood there, unmoving and seemingly helpless. I feel certain he could have done it himself, but probably much more slowly than time allowed at that moment.

Another part of this is a (misguided) effort to be a good parent. We make their lunches or pick up after them or carry their belongings for them because we think they don't want to or shouldn't have to. However, the smile I've seen on the face of a three-year-old eating an apple he sliced himself gives me reason to believe otherwise. I also recall that spaghettios tasted a heck of a lot better the day my aunt taught me how to cook them myself.

I fear that the fact that we so seldom see children doing things for themselves has led us to believe that they cannot. We think they haven't the attention span or the memory to complete a detailed task. I was certainly astounded when I first saw a child of 3 or 4 wash, dry, and wax a table in a Montessori classroom or spend an hour spelling out words on a rug. They are so much more capable than we give them credit for being.

So Alex's birth was his first great conquest. How will we as parents meet the others? I hope we will have faith that he is capable and will communicate that to him through our actions. I hope that we will have the patience to demonstrate skills slowly and repeatedly and then - most importantly -patience to let him practice (and make a mess) as he perfects them. If I continually remind myself that, through his accomplishments, he will develop a sense of pride and self-worth, I feel certain that we will not hold him back.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Why Montessori?

The first time I walked into a Montessori primary (prekindergarten) classroom, I was astonished. Picture twenty-five 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds in one room with two adults. Chaos, right? Yet this room was the picture of harmony. Three or four quiet voices could be heard as children busied themselves with self-selected activities and tasks at various tables and rugs throughout the room. These activities could be found on neatly-arranged wood shelves that divided up the classroom into workspaces. The adults blended into the the surroundings and were by no means the central focus; occasionally, one would pop up from a table where she was demonstrating a technique or taking notes.

Around the time I sat down to observe in an out-of-the-way corner, a redheaded youngster of about four decided to serve bananas. I watched as he unrolled a mat over the surface of a nearby desk, then walked back and carefully lifted the tray designated for banana slicing - a plate, a banana, a knife, a paper towel, toothpicks - all neatly arranged on top of it. He put on an apron and sat down to his task. While I marvelled, not even realizing that peeling, slicing, "toothpicking," and serving were developing his understanding of sequencing and his motor abilities, the child worked without interruption or break until he had a plate full of appetizer-like banana chunks. He stood with a smile and walked around the classroom, inviting other children to take one. When they did, he beamed with pride, but the polite "no thank you" from other children did not seem to faze him.

If this visit alone was not enough to convince me, my study of Montessori theory, my work as a teacher and graduate student in the field of education, and my everyday life experiences certainly did. Perhaps I'm an idealist, but it seems to me that the world we live in needs an educational system that is focused on more than reading scores and grade point averages. An "educated citizenry" does more than read, write and apply math formulas to data. It thinks critically about current world issues. And though I know many might argue against this, but a good school teaches not only academics, but tolerance, a sense of justice, compassion, self-direction, and the myriad of other personal characterstics that contribute to successful participation in our diverse, complex world.

I chose Montessori because it believes - not even that schools can impart these characteristics - but that they are a natural part of human development. Even a utilitarian might agree with this. Compassion, self-direction, a sense of justice - these qualities help a person successfully navigate human society. I chose Montessori because I agree with the Montessori and many other educational philosophers like Kohn that rewards and punishments are an external, arbitrary, and unnecessary imposition on the educational process. I chose it because every time I read a fellow Montessorian's writing or return to Montessori's books, I find myself saying, "Yes. I wholeheartedly agree."

I feel fortunate to have found a philosophy that so completely matches my own at such a young age. It has enabled me to study it in-depth, reflect upon it and test it against the teachings and preachings of other writers, and apply it to my life. I am even more fortunate in that I can apply its teachings and principles to the unfolding life of my son. This is the focus of my blog - what it means to raise a Montessori child, how I have transformed her philosophies into everyday life practices, and what has resulted from my endeavors.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Who was Maria Montessori?

In her lifetime, Maria Montessori came to believe that the development of the child was the key to social progress. She thought that if we could support the natural path of his development, he would reach what Maslow called "self-actualization." In her books and speeches, she emphasized a direct link between education and societal progress, peace, and prosperity.

Born in Italy in 1870, Maria Montessori defied traditional roles at an early age. At age 13, she attended a boys' technical school and later went on to be the first woman to study medicine in Rome. Finding it difficult to practice even upon graduating at the top of her class, Maria accepted a position working with children in a psychiatric clinic. Feeling a great sense of compassion for these children - who had no toys and were not educated - she began what was to be a long career as researcher. She discovered, much to the surprise of those around her, that these children were very capable learners. In fact, after her work with them, they scored as well as many "normal" children on Italian standardized tests.

Her work at the asylum prompted her to return to Rome to study psychology and philosophy. She was made a professor of anthropology at the University of Rome, but later left this position and her medical practice to assist and observe sixty children in the San Lorenzo district of Rome.

There, she discovered what became the foundation of her system of education: Children teach themselves. She offered them a variety of materials, gave lessons, and observed. The results were astonishing; these young children, most ages 2-5, formed a settled and productive community, learned to read and write with ease and delight, and enjoyed many of the tasks that adults dread - cleaning their environment, gardening, cooking, sewing.

Montessori's work became well-known across the globe. Alexander Graham Bell and his wife founded the Montessori Education Association here in the States and her "glass house" schoolroom at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco attracted world-wide attention. She was invited to open a research institute in Spain, and in 1919 she began a series of teacher training courses in London. She later became the inspector of schools in Italy, but left the post because of her opposition to Mussolini's fascism. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times - in 1949, 1950, and 1951.

When Montessori died, she left behind the Association Montessori Internationale, an organization dedicated to continuing her work. She also left a significant impact on the world of education and philosophy. For all those who believe that learning need not be drudgery, that the child can be his own teacher, and that education can and should be a vehicle for social change and self-fulfillment, Maria Montessori has given a significant starting-place for the actualization of these beliefs.