Montessori Baby

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

Monday, August 21, 2006

Basket of Treasures

The other day, I read an article on Montessori Magazine's website (see link) advocating the creation of a "Basket of Treasures" for babies. The premise behind the idea was that household objects are far more fascinating to babies than most toys; not only do such objects have greater variety in their textures, smells, shapes, sounds, and colors, but they also are objects that babies see adults using in their environment.

The author of the article suggests walking around your house with a basket collecting a variety of objects with an eye toward including various materials of different properties, colors, shapes, weights, sounds, smells, and so on. For older babies, these might include objects that can be put into relationship with one another, such as jars and clothespins.

That same day, I gathered together a basket for Alex. Here are the items I included:

-drink holder -small ceramic bowl -plastic CD case -large straw
-hairbrush -wine topper -bottle brush -large washers
-coaster -garlic press -metal tongs -empty bottle
-jar with golf ball -spice jar with basil -coat hook -baby socks
-pastry bag top -small cutting board

I plopped Alex down next to it after a nap and feeding. At first, he was fascinated with the basket itself. He pulled its handles and untied the cloth interior. Eventually, he discovered that he could take objects out of the basket. He began exploring them one at a time, dropping them to the side when he was finished. Occasionally, one on the mat beside him would catch his eye and he'd give it another go.

On our first go-round with this new activity, Alex entertained himself for the better part of an hour (minus a break for a snack and help back into an upright position). What a great new item to put in our arsenal of daily activities!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Montessori Lessons at Home, Part I

Though we haven't yet prepared any real lessons for Alex, a friend with an older baby asked how Montessori might be implemented in the home. What follows is a basic overview of the Montessori method for delivering an individual lesson.

Montessori made two discoveries in her early work with children that translated into a method for delivering "lessons." First, she realized that adult materials were not suitable for children. She was a pioneer in the development of child-sized furniture, tools, and materials. Fortunately, today, these are fairly easy to obtain. For a great resource in this respect, check out or

Montessori's other discovery was that adults do not often take the time to slowly and carefully present movements or activities to children. Therefore, her presentations took on a very deliberate, explicit nature that she called "using analyzed movements."

Thus, in essence, a "Montessori lesson" that might be implemented in the home involves demonstrating a task using analyzed movements and appropriate, child-sized materials. (It seems important to note here that these are not the only types of lessons given in a Montessori classroom, but that these are probably the most appropriate to life in the home)


To prepare an activity, then, you would first want to gather and arrange all the materials a child will need to complete that activity. To help a child know which items belong to a single activity, you might color-coordinate them or put them all on one tray. Think about where this activity will be kept in the home so that a child can get it himself and put it away when he's finished.

Example: For banana slicing, I might put together a tray with an underlay, a small cutting board, a plate, a knife, a paper towel for waste, toothpicks to insert into the slices, and a sponge for cleaning. The tray might sit on a shelf in the kitchen, and the child would know it was available for use if there was a banana on the plate.

Once you have all your materials, practice your presentation on your own. You'll want to think about each discrete step of the activity and use slow, precise movements. You may discover that a given movement we adults do with ease is too difficult (for example, turning over a bottle cap in one hand). You'll also discover that there are a million choices to consider. Make sure you have your presentation down before you give it to the child, because once her mental camera is rolling, it is very difficult to rewind and "erase" mistakes or make changes to the way you want something done.

Example: When she sits down with the tray, where do I want her to put the cutting board? How will she handle the initial peeling? What will she do with the peel when she's done? How should she hold the knife? Where should the knife go when she's done slicing? Should she clean up before or after eating the snack?

Note: The purpose of perfecting a presentation isn't so that the child will copy you exactly or demonstrate perfection herself; it is so that she gets a very clear, hesitation-free demonstration of one way to accomplish a particular task.



-A parent might approach her child when he's not busy and say something like "Alex, I have something I'd like to show you. Come with me to the [place where the activity is]."
-When they get to the shelf/place where the activity "lives," the parent might say "This is banana slicing. You can carry the tray like this (demonstrates lifting the tray and putting it back). Let's take it to your table (allows the child to lift and carry it to the table)."


-The parent might sit beside the child to his right (if right-handed) on a low stool. She might begin by saying "Let me show you what we do with this." From this point forward with a young child, there will be little or no talking, as she wants the child to focus on her hands, not her mouth.
-The parent will give the entire sequence of the presentation (which hopefully will be short for a young child). For banana slicing, this might involve setting out each of the items on the tray in a particular arrangement on the table, lifting the banana onto the cutting board, lifting the knife, demonstrating how to correctly position one hand on the knife and one hand on the banana, slicing the top of the peel, carefully setting down the knife, peeling the banana, placing the peel on the paper towel, picking up the knife and again demonstrating hand position, slowly and carefully demonstrating cutting, setting down the knife, demonstrating toothpicking banana slices and putting them on a plate, folding the paper towel and throwing away the peel, wetting the sponge and wiping off the cutting board and knife, and setting the plate of bananas on a serving table.
-The parent would then get the necessary materials (banana, plate and paper towel in this case) to set everything up on the tray for the child to do and say "Now you can slice a banana."
-As the child gets going, the parent should slowly and unobtrusively get up from the stool, leave the child to his work, but remain close by to observe. This is important because there's a temptation for the child to ask for help if you're right there or for you to correct or get involved unnecessarily. If you are a little ways away, the child is independent, but can seek you if he really gets stuck. Note that if a child finds a "creative" way of accomplishing the same task you just demonstrated, this is fine as long as it is safe and within the bounds of appropriate use of the materials (i.e. You might stop him from waving a knife around, but you might not stop him from slicing before peeling and peeling each individual piece afterward.)
-If the cycle of activity is something that can be repeated, you can encourage this repetition after one cycle or at the transfer point by saying something like "You can wash the table as many times as you want."

Putting Away:
-When you recognize that the child is finished, swoop back in and ask "Are you finished?" If there is more to putting away than you've demonstrated already, say "Let me show you what we do next" and demonstrate. Otherwise, you might simply say, "Do you remember where this goes on the shelf?"
-Once it's all done, you might say "Now you can slice a banana whenever you want/whenever you see one on the tray."

Corrections and Representations

If there were things that didn't go perfectly during the child's first attempt, you can give "points of interest" during later attempts or even ask for a turn to re-demonstrate something. This is always done without drawing attention to "mistakes." You might say, "I wonder if you could do that without spilling any water on the floor?" as a sort of challenge or you could say, "Could I take a turn?"

If you get into a presentation and realize you weren't as prepared as you thought or you are missing something, it's perfectly okay to say to stop, let the child know you are not ready, and suggest that you do it together later.

Monday, August 14, 2006


A few nights ago, my husband and I left Alex with a babysitter to go out to dinner for our anniversary. It was the first time we had left him with anyone for quite some time, and as we drove to the restaurant I worried about whether or not she would be able to get him to sleep. Though we had gotten Alex to take a bottle early on, we had not done so in quite some time and Alex usually nursed to sleep.

This worry prompted me to think about a larger concern; was Alex developing sleep "problems"? Though he generally sleeps a solid 10-hour stretch at night and takes several naps a day, I began to wonder about some of our techniques. Was nursing him to sleep making him dependent on me? What about my responses to Alex's occasional late-night feeding demands and our habit of pulling him into bed with us if he woke up early? Were these creating problems as well?

Sleep is clearly a huge issue for parents of young children. It is almost always a topic of conversation among the parents I know. "How is today going?" is often followed by a report that includes the previous night's sleep and the length of today's nap. Friends, relatives, and even strangers ask us whether or not Alex is a "good" sleeper, and I have even caught myself walking into Alex's room after a long nap and saying "What a good nap you took!"

This all makes me wonder where the normative aspects of sleep came from and whether or not I should be buying into them. Are we concerned about babies' sleep habits because of concerns for their health and happiness or because it is convenient for us?

The answer, I am sure, is a mix of both. Just looking at our own family, there are clearly times when Alex is fussy or sick and has trouble getting himself to sleep. These are the times when I help him get to sleep because I think he needs it, and the times when I pray for a long nap for his sake. More often, though, I find myself wishing for a long nap so that I can enjoy time to myself or I realize that I'm trying to put Alex to bed because "it's about that time" when he is clearly content to continue playing or just needs a change of scenery.

In one of her earliest books on education and parenting, The Secret of Childhood, Montessori chastizes parents who put their children to bed for their own convenience. She cites this as one of the many examples of parents thwarting their child's developmental needs to serve their own ends. While I truly believe that parents have, in general, become much more sensitive to their children's needs, I also believe that her admonishment stills bears weight today. At times, I do see sleep as a vehicle to meeting my needs, and this more often than not creates frustration for us both.

What, then, is the alternative? In her writings, Montessori clearly states that the child becomes "normalized" through appropriate, meaningful work. Unfortunately, many of the terms in this phrase have become so laden with negative connotations that it is easy to quickly reject it without understanding its genius. Montessori means that, if we provide for a child's emerging developmental needs, most problems will disappear.

Thinking about Alex and sleep, I find this to be generally true. If I provide for his physical and developmental needs between naps - feed him when he's hungry, offer diverse activities, and provide sufficient stimulation - he will generally "tell" me that he's tired and go down for a nap quite easily. We've taken the "Montessori" approach to room arrangement and have given Alex a low bed in a child-proof room. Hopefully, then, once he is mobile he will be able to tell us he's tired by going to his bed, and will be able to entertain himself once he wakes up. The room has already had its perks for solving the "parent need" aspect of sleep problems - I feel comfortable leaving him there for short period while I throw in laundry or grab something to eat.

Still, there are times, as with the babysitting experience, when sleep doesn't come easily and I wonder about the best approach. Recently, I perused a host of Feberian "cry it out" websites and sites on the other end of the spectrum to get some ideas on how to handle those middle-of-the-night wails or to see if nursing Alex to sleep is "ruining" him. The answers aren't clear, but I think Montessori would agree with the Feberians that we need to assist children in getting to sleep independently and she would agree with anti-Feberians that allowing a child to scream endlessly in the dark does not serve his needs.

In a recent rereading of What Every Parent Should Know, a long-held Montessori concept jumped out at me as a guide to handling sleep questions. In short, she says we must "help the child to do it himself." Lately, I've focused on giving only that help which is necessary for Alex to get himself to sleep. This is where the parent role as observer and interpreter comes into play. Is that cry insistent, or is it just a fussing that he can work through on his own? Is he truly tired at this moment, or does he just need a change of activity? Is trying to fall asleep in a strange place with a strange person too much for him to handle at this age?

Unfortunately, this conclusion isn't a "simple sleep solution" and there is certainly room for error. However, I find that it makes the most sense to me as a parent. Alex knows what he needs, and we can work with him to promote his independent fulfillment of those needs. Still, we're human, and there will be times when we misinterpret his behavior or attempts at communication and there will be times when we do what is self-serving. Neither of these things will ruin him. In fact, I feel pretty confident that, in the long run, our efforts to focus on Alex's needs and to assist him in becoming an independent sleeper will work out best for the whole family.

Monday, August 07, 2006


In a Montessori classroom, concentration is absolutely sacred. It is a sign of complete, fulfilling engagement with an activity and a teacher's duty is to protect it at all costs. In very early childhood, then, this responsibility seems naturally to fall upon the parent.

After our first discussion of concentration in my Montessori training, I began to notice how little we respect this sign of engagement in everyday life. I caught myself regularly interrupting my husband, my students, and my colleagues in spite of the clear signs they gave that they were focused and intent on accomplishing something else - the fixed gaze, the lack of extraneous movement, the quiet dedication to the task at hand. I also began to notice how I felt during those moments when I was interrupted. None of the words I would use - irritated, frustrated, distracted - are pleasant.

However, as an adult, I was generally able to handle the distraction and pick up where I had left off. This can be much more difficult to a young child who is just learning to focus his attention. Even well-meaning interruptions, such as praise, can be detrimental to this developing skill. What does he learn when we constantly interrupt? He learns that engaging with an activity will only result in frustration, because as soon as you get hooked, someone will come along and scoop you up or distract you.

From the time Alex was born, I have worked hard to recognize and protect his moments of concentration. It is a challenge, and one I have probably failed at a million times. It is so easy as the adult to put my priorities first. If he is working with a toy or staring at picture and I want to go to the store, I could so easily pull him away from what he is doing. Yet concentration indicates that what he is doing is exactly what his developing body or psyche needs at that moment.

Protecting concentration does even more than assist the child in his development; it demonstrates respect. It tells him that his work and his interests are important. Even beyond that, it signifies that I recognize his needs as equal to my own. Thus, whenever I see those little eyes locked in and sense that quiet determination, I pause, watch, and marvel.