Discover the Child

Discover the Child
"There is a tiny light in the unconscious of mankind which guides it toward better things." "We must follow the child, but we must follow the child as his leader." -Maria Montessori

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Talking with Toddlers: Supporting Identity and a Developing Sense of Self

In this second installment of the Talking with Toddlers series focuses on a toddler's developing sense of self and his need to assert his individuality. We may not think of this need off hand, but it often rears it's head in moments of defiance and may be the source for the maligned label, "Terrible Twos." We can avoid many of these terrible moments by learning to understanding this need and finding a way to support a child's burgeoning sense of self in a positive way. We'll also explore useful strategies and phrases for negotiating some challenging situations with toddlers. 

The basic needs of toddlers include:

  • Movement 
  • Individuality
  • Relationships
  • Language
  • Cognition
  • Love and Security

It isn't until 18 months that a toddler even begins to develop a conscious sense of self, an "I." He began life complete linked, then in arms. Though he doesn't remember it consciously, he is still comforted by the implicit memories of synchronicity in the arms of a parent that brings flooding back that experience of perfect resonance and complete oneness that is his foundation for trust in the world. As he began crawling away as an infant with freedom of movement, he experienced an ability to transform his environment through reaching and grasping that formed the foundation for trust in the world. Now that he is 18 months old with this secure psychological foundation of trust in self and trust in the world, his brain, especially his left brain, is developing to such a degree that  he now has a conscious sense of self that never existed before. He has a real need to explore this identity and understand, "Where do I end and you begin?" Consider six ways you can support your child's developing identity. 

Supporting your child's self care unfortunately requires some work, flexibility and a lot time from the adult. Yes, we know you can do it better and faster, you've had a bit of extra practice. This step towards your child's growth and development takes buy in, and I hope you take my word for it- every opportunity you provide your child to care for himself is a huge investment in his self confidence. It also teaches your child, "I'm hear to help when you need it, but you are in charge of you." If an activity requires a sequence of steps, you can begin supporting your child's independence by completing the task collaboratively, allowing your child to complete more and more steps as he gains independence. Do the same thing in the same exact way every single time. Toddlers have a very strong sense of order, that is why they line up their toys and are compelled to close open doors. Toddlers do not think of the end product and analyze how to achieve the result, but a toddler can learn to complete a task with many steps through repetition. The adult must provide toddler sized tools. To allow your child to ultimately be able to squeeze his own toothpaste on his small toothbrush, he'll need travel sized toothpaste. The same thing goes for clothing. Get clothing with elastic waist bands that aren't too small, shirts that are loose enough to slip easily over her head and shoes with velcro closures that slip on easily. It is also important that your child's clothing is accessible. Hang no more than three outfits on a low rack or place in a low drawer. Your toddler must have a chance to make choices, as many choices as possible, but he can only choose from a limited number of choices. Limiting the number of items also means that he can put away his own clean laundry, at least those three outfits! 

The picture of a closet from "Spaces" on the amazing Montessori blog, How We Montessori.

While your child is exploring this new idea of identity and learning to understand where he ends and others begin, it's really important to respect his body. If someone walked up to you and grabbed you by the nose with a tissue or stopped to "fix" you every time she saw you, even before she looked you in the eye and smiled, you'd be pretty mad. You are still going to need to help your child wipe her nose or peel her off of the floor when she's gone completely boneless. You can ask first, "I see you have some mucous, can I help you wipe your nose?" or, "I'm going to help you with your body until you're ready (to control your body by yourself)" When you model respect for your child's body, she will learn to demand that other people respect her body, too. Yes, mom, you are the only person on the planet who might wipe your child's nose with your bare hands, and it's hard to conceive of a separation between you and this person that used to literally be connected to you, but that is exactly what your child needs. Your child needs to know that you are comfortable with the idea that his identity and your identity are separate. If you can't feel comfortable with the idea, your child certainly cannot feel comfortable with the idea. Fast forward to days of fragile adolescence when your child is trying to feel comfortable with her body, then think twice before you fix her hair, comment on her pants put on backwards, her shoes on the wrong feet or the paint on her face when you pick her up from preschool and say instead, "I'm so happy to see you!" If you feel the need to intervene with your toddler recklessly teetering with both of her legs stuffed into one pant leg you can say, "Are your pants feeling comfortable for you?" 

Developing a healthy sense of self as a toddler means that your child will grow to be a person that feels she can make a meaningful contribution to her family and her community in a way that resonates with her own strengths and passions. Giving your child an opportunity to participate in daily tasks around your house allows her to discover her favorite ways to contribute to her family, to develop concentration and stimulate all areas of functioning, to develop executive functioning skills, and learn to trust herself. Put out color coordinated cloths on a low shelf for wiping spills on the floor or table, a crumb sweeper for tables, a sweeper and dustpan for floors and see what happens! Place pet food in a small pitcher on a tray each day and allow your child to feed your cat, put out a creamer for watering plants inside or a caddy with small tools for window washing. You can read more ideas on previous posts like Practical Life and Integration or this post with pictures of Montessori Practical Life materials. 

With all of this exploration, purposeful work and self care, your child is well on his way to developing a healthy self concept. He has plenty of opportunities to actively asserting his will, and that means fewer power struggles when you need to make a demand. Bonus! The bad news, he still needs a lot of practice figuring out exactly where he ends and another person begins, especially the people he's closest to. He needs to practice making choices, tons of choices, seemingly inane choices. There is one very firm, never to be broken rule about these choices. Your toddler, under no circumstances, must be allowed to make a choice for another person. He may choose where he sits, he may not choose where you sit. He may not direct your actions or choose who drives or who reads or who helps. You can redirect his demands into a question by saying, "Do you remember how to ask courteously?" or you can say, "You may ask, 'Help, please?'" There is a very important reason for this rule. Your child is trying to discover for himself where his domain ends and yours begins. If he is granted control over his choices and yours, where does that leave him? Feeling responsible for your choices, too, leaves him feeling completely overwhelmed and hopelessly adrift. Give him practices making choices for himself and let him know, "You are responsible for you." 

Supporting your child's concept of control over actions and ability to choose must mean that she is ability to experience consequences of her actions in an environment with as much freedom as she can handle at any given time and very clear limits all of the time. Limits are clear and communicate what you DO want. Limits sound like: 
  • How do we do it?
    • We use gentle hands with friends. You may hit the drum
    • We keep sand in the sandbox. We handle fragile objects carefully.
  • Where do we do it?
    • We run outside. We yell outside. We only draw on the paper.
  • When do we do it? 
    • You'll be ready to go outside after you go potty and put on your shoes.
Consequences may look like punishment, but there are a few big differences. Consequences are linked to the behavior. If he behaves differently, the consequences are different. Consequences are also communicated so that the child understands, "I am the only one who can change my behavior." Allowing consequences actually empower your child, while punishment eclipses his sense of control over his actions. Consequences connect your child with his behavior and also help him make connections between his actions and the people around him. Consequences sound like: 
  • Time in
    • "You may wait here until you are ready to join us." or "You may wait here until you are ready to control your body."
    • If your child begins to manipulate time in you can say, "I see you're having a hard time knowing when you're ready. I'm going to help you. I'll check in with you when I'm available."
  • Loose the object. Loose the opportunity
    • I see you are done with the sandbox. 
    • I'll hold the shovel until you are ready to use your gentle hands.
When your child acts in a way that is not ok and you allow him to experience a logical consequence to his action, the outcome is naturally unpleasant. If your limits are clear and consistent and you remain calm, then it is fair and important. Even so, when your child cries, you don't have to like it, but you have to learn to be ok with this part of parenting if you want your child to be a person who has self-control, accepts responsibility for his own actions, and develops the ability to think before acting. When you begin to waver in your conviction, think of your toddler as an 18 year old at a fraternity party. That's not actually much of a stretch, college kids at a fraternity party might look and behave remarkably like toddlers. 

As your child is actively developing his personality and sense of self, she is very receptive to any message you give her about who she is. It is very important to remember to describe actions, not attributes or abilities. As an adult, you are a vessel and you may let words in, but the words never become a part of you.The child is an unformed vessel; she is creating herself. The words you give her and the sense of complete acceptance form a part of who she becomes forever. Clear limits tell your child what is ok and what is not ok, but your words reinforce she is valued and loved with complete acceptance. She will learn that a bad choice doesn't make her a bad person and that she is loved and accepted no matter whether she succeeds or fails. If you hear yourself saying, "You are so..." or "Be.." don't say it! Instead say, "Use your gentle hands," "Make a good choice." or "I see that you worked really hard on that!" When your child succeeds at a task and hears "You are so smart," she comes to hear, "You should be able to do things easily because of who you are." Studies show that hearing "You're smart." is detrimental to her performance in school. The child fears challenging tasks that result in failure, meaning she's not smart anymore. Smart means to her that she should be able to succeed without trying so it isn't rewarding to struggle and work hard on something challenging; it conflicts with her identity. Let your child experience struggle and failure without evaluation. Don't eclipse her own experience success with praise and reward, she just share in the joy with her if she reaches out to you. 

The love and security you provide are absolutely the most important thing that you can provide your child. You won't always remember to use the right words and you won't always be able to stay calm. Sometimes it helps to have phrases that you can use when you aren't able to be as thoughtful and responsive as you'd like. Try this list of useful phrases: 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Talking With Toddlers: Supporting Critical Thinking

It is the time of the year to kick off Parent Education classes like our Talking With Toddlers and Setting Limits class at Follow the Child Montessori school. While the blog has take a back seat to the start of the school year and the time needed to prepare for these classes, I thought I could certainly summarize some highlights of the classes for this blog.

I'll work on posting a series of posts based on our Taking With Toddlers class that covers ways to support development and address needs. As parents notice the children happily listening at school, they they ask, "Can you just write down all of the things you say?" I can certainly do that, but we first have to consider the needs of the child and understand what makes these tinies tick before consulting the favorite phrases playlist.
Toddlers are actively developing and have a very strong need to explore:

  • Movement
  • Individuality and Sense of Self
  • Social Relationships and Emotions
  • Language
  • Cognition, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Love and Security

I don't spend a lot of time talking with parents about how to develop a toddler's critical thinking skills, though we spend a lot of time at school working to support these skills. In fact, I don't think I've ever had a parent ask me a question about how to help her child learn how to think. I hear a lot of questions about toileting, sometimes questions about language and emotion, but never in the past 8 years has a parent asked me how to help their child learn to think. In part, that may be because we have a belief, albeit an incorrect belief, that skills like concentration, memory and attention, flexible thinking, problem solving, persistence and critical thinking are innate. In fact, these executive functioning skills or soft skills actually develop through a child's explorations and experiences from birth to age four. Yes, you read right, executive functioning skills are essentially set by age four! These skills take practice to develop and often some time and patience on the part of the parent.


  • Love and Security- A child cannot learn unless he feels physically and emotionally safe. Ofcourse, we must meet a child's basic physical needs, but we also must ensure we are consistently giving our children unconditional positive regard, connecting emotionally with our chidlren, and creating a loving and respectful environment 
  • Freedom of Movement- If your child is in a container (carseat or stroller) he is not connected to his environment and his exploration is limited. He also cannot control the amount of stimulation he receives.
  • Accessible Toys
    • Made of natural materials, if possible
    • No batteries
    • May contain some materials for self expression (like instruments, a few crayons or chalk and paper, etc.), sensory exploration (clay or clay with hidden objects), spatial exploration (building blocks or peg puzzles), and language exploration (real objects and replicas)
    • No more than 9 materials on a low shelf for one area of the home, rotate biweekly or when no longer interesting to your child.
  • Accessible Self Care
    • No more than 3  of each type (shirt, pants, socks etc.) of weather appropriate clothing items within your child's reach 
    • A snack choice available for your child to prepare and serve himself when he is hungry in the afternoon. 
    • A water source for your child to get her own water
    • Dishes within reach for your child to set his own place setting.
  • Purposeful Activities related to self care or the care of your home involve almost every area of functioning including memory, sequencing, order, language, sensory integration, motor planning, fine and gross motor development, social contribution and helping, perspective taking, and concentration. 
    • Consider what information your child may need including how to handle or hold objects. 
    • Acquire child size tools (
    • Have available at all times color coded cloths for table wiping and floor wiping, a dust pan and sweeper, a broom and sweeping guide and mop.
    • For more ideas read, "Images from a Montessori Toddler House"
  • Time

Recipe for Success

Once you have acquired all of the ingredients there are a few important steps to remember

1.  Don't Interrupt- You've worked hard to set aside blocks of time for your child to freely explore. Once he chooses an activity and he is concentrating. Don't interrupt! Concentration is a skill that requires practice to develop. Our world offers your child plenty of practice in distraction!
2.  Embrace and Rejoice in failure- Critical thinking requires your child to practice making her own judgments. When your child practices pouring his own water from a pitcher you can model how to pour, by silently modeling and using slow, deliberate movements. You can set him up for success by getting a small pitcher. He can only learn to pour by practicing over and over. Just like when he learned to walk, he's going to fall. It's a good thing you've got those cloths within reach and you've showed him how to wipe the table and hang up his wet cloth, because spills are going to happen. Learn to stay calm and smile in these moments of failure, because your child is learning some very important skills. 
3. Don't Praise and Don't Direct and Correct- When your child looks to you after she's completed something, she likely just wants to connect with you! Try describing what you see or repeating back what she says to you. Don't eclipse your child's own internal gratification and sense of accomplishment with your praise. 
4. Useful Phrases- Try these useful phrases:

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pedagogy of the Cat

"Our world is a fast world... Our divinity is speed... The child teaches us his work is slow... Because the child is constructing his neural network, this is done in a slow temper. So the questions is, in order to educate towards speed, what must we do? We need to go slowly. If you want your child to go quickly, then slow down. If you want your child to have those capabilities to adapt to tomorrow, give him everything he needs for right now. We sacrifice the present for the future thinking we are doing something good to our children... Only interested in results, schools are a barrage of verifications, correct results, obsession with speed. You can only educate for speed by slowing down. My great teacher, who has gone far away, where we cannot send letters, used to call this the pedagogy of the cat. It is the fastest animal in the world when a cat is in the process of catching a fly. What does a cat do all day? He sleeps. 
- Raniero Reigni, International Montessori Congress, August 6, 2013

Take every moment you can spare and slow to the speed of your child. Observe with the intention of understanding, not with the intention of intervening. Connect with loving intention, not with the purpose of shaping your child's actions and desires. Create a world that is accessible to your child and what he needs now, not a world that gives him skills for what you hope for him to be in the future- a football player, a soccer player, a dancer. Share in your child's joy in the world exactly as it is. 

Go to nature quickly, then slow down. Let your child fall and get dirty. Let your child wander in no particular direction and follow, taking interest in what he'd like to share with you. Let your child scrape his knee. Let your child struggle and become frustrated then persevere and succeed or even persevere and fail. Give empathy freely and direction very sparingly. Embrace every failure and relish every time your child repeats the same action over and over again, knowing your child is a scientist working tirelessly to understand the world through his senses.

Slow down enough to notice signs of concentration then never ever interrupt. Fade quietly and wait, silent and invisible. Let your child's own interest shine. Withhold praise and reward that eclipse this interest. Your child is the scientist, life is his experiment and only he knows when he has achieved his goal. His is a work of becoming.

Stop a moment to sit on the floor and look at the world at his level. Is this world rich and beautiful? While the beauty we observe merely washes over us, hopefully leaving a positive impression, beauty in a child's world becomes a part of his being. Our children can only appreciate the beauty of our humanity if we bring this beauty into the world of the child in the beginning with beautiful language, art, music, gardens, and handcrafted objects. 

Your child wants to know where he shines in the constellation of his family. Is he a capable, trusted and respected person whose contributions matter to the people who are most important? Create a microcosm of the world for your child that allows him to experience a new social role as a contributing member of his family and offers an opportunity for him to develop trust in himself. He will become a person connected to his humanity who believes in his purpose.

We believe a child is not capable. Ask yourself, how much could you accomplish in a Wonderland world where you could reach nothing and anything handed to you was big enough for a person three times as large? Imagine everything is new in this world. You can make sense of a few things at a time as you attempt to orient, but instead you are assaulted by dozens and dozens of choices all of the time, nothing is in order, and nothing is predictable. How much could your child accomplish if the world is scaled down to fewer things, fewer choices, and predictable routines with ample time to complete a task?

Above all, love freely. Loving in the moment is an act of complete acceptance. Let go of all worries, of who your child may be in the future or the pain he will most certainly experience. These fear-laden expectations sit in waiting and sharpen the edges of our words. Know your child is strong. He is a master of joy. If we go slow enough we can see the rough, choppy surface that results from a hurried life settle to reveal the deep, still water that is the true nature of the child. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Getting Off to a Good Start

In one week children will begin a new year at school. Every year we find ourselves reassuring worried parents who are nervous about the start of school and welcoming young toddlers who are ready to embrace a new community with a little bit of support. A calm, confident parent who approaching the start of school with a positive outlook and feeling of preparedness is the best support for a child embarking on a new school year. Keeping a few things in mind will help you support your child's new beginnings. 

The number one rule to remember when your child begins something new: 

Novelty is the currency of childhood. Spend it wisely. 

On the one hand, novelty is stressful for a child, but a child must be open to novelty in order to connect to a new environment or new experience because that is the critical element for learning and development. Neuropsychologist Alan Schore explains that, "efficient and resilient strategies for coping with novelty and stress," actually defines adaptive infant mental health. When an infant or toddler experiences too much novelty, he becomes overwhelmed and extremely rigid. He can't incorporate new experiences and you'll see meltdowns and hear the infamous, "No!" in response to almost anything. 

Keeping this, "Novelty is currency," mantra in mind for the start of the school year, there are a few things to keep in mind; 

  • This is the time to be a stickler about your daily routine. You can experiment with some flexibility around a daily routine after everyone is settled in to the new school routine. 
  • Adjust to the sleep schedule your child needs for school before the start of school. 
  • Don't go on vacation right before school starts if at all possible. If you can't get out of that last minute trip, make sure to carve out as much time as possible to return to a regular routine before beginning school. 
  • Novelty also includes a lot of sensory stimulation. Avoid overstimulating activities like television or bouncy inflatable warehouses that can empty your child's tank quickly.

Practice Separation

There are two people involved in separation, you and your child. Both of you need to be prepared. 
  • Let your child practice separating from you this week. Go somewhere that is safe for your child like a park nearby where you have been before. Set down a physical home base like a picnic blanket and busy yourself with reading a book. Stay positive and calm while your child separates from you at his own pace, leaving and returning as many times as he wants. 
  • Play simple games of hide and seek at home. 
  • Be mindful of your attitudes about separation. Your role as your child separates is to be an emotional anchor. You can read more about this on my previous blog post, Be an Anchor.
  • Create a separation routine together that you will practice each morning. Your child can decide if he wants one hug and two kisses or two squeezes, a kiss and a wave at the window. Stick to your routine and make the separation brief. Letting your child's teacher help soothe him demonstrates to your child that you trust he is well taken care of. You can even tell him ahead of time, "If you have a strong feeling about saying goodbye, your teacher is there to help you." 
  • Touch base with your child's teacher that she will call you if she cannot help soothe your child during the transition time so that you can feel confident about the separation, too. 

Support Emotional Resilience

Even if you didn't know it, you began wiring your infants emotional brain in the first few months of life. When you rocked and swaddled or cooed and bounced, you regulated emotional states for her. When you responded to her cues and made silly faces and spouted ridiculous strings of vowels, you helped support her ability to regulate her own emotional states. Scientists found that mothers' and babies' brain wave frequencies resonate in perfect patterns with each other in these moments of synchronicity, which is how brains build other brains!

  • Believe it or not, face-to-face time is still critical for your child's mental health and brain development. Make sure to carve out quiet time every day to set aside all of your worries and be fully present and connect with your child. Respond to her cues that signal she needs calmer, quieter interactions or more excited, enthusiastic reactions. 
  • Massage is a wonderful way to help your child integrate all of the sensory information of the day. Daily massage has shown to help children in almost all areas of functioning, even physical health. The Peanut Butter and Jelly Massage is one of our favorites. 
  • Support tough emotional challenges during the transition to school by empathizing with tough emotions in the moment, not just with your words, but also with your whole body. Once you've connected to your child's emotional brain, you can help support his more logical left brain functions. Run through a few highlights of your child's day saying, for example, "It can be hard to say goodbye and go to a new place, but there are a lot of fun things to do and your teachers care about you and are hear to help. You are going to have work time, snack time, and playground time, and then you'll get your purple bag and I'll see you at the gate." 
We sing a song with children that have a tough time with the morning separation. It uses this, "Connect Right, Engage Left" strategy described by Dan Siegel in the The Whole Brain Child
Morning Song (tune of Itsy Bitsy Spider)

It's hard to come to school but it's fun to stay and play, 
We work with our friends and then we're done all day.
Work time and snack time and playground time and
Then we get our purple bags and go to the bench. 

You can change the words to match your child's day at school

Have a great first day of school! 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Impressions From the 2013 International Montessori Congress

It’s difficult to explain why some moments are transformative. The 2013 International Montessori Congress in Portland, Oregan was a life changing experience for me. Was it the inspiration of great leaders, the magnitude of 2,300 Montessorians brought together by a shared purpose, sharing the experience with the people I admire and work with closely, the feeling of gratitude for the gift of this experience generously donated by our own Montessori community or the encouragement and reminders of reuniting with mentors and friends I haven’t seen for many years? It may be even more difficult to put into words exactly what I learned and to reflect on what these great teachers wanted to share with us. Eduardo Cuevas reminded us of Montessori’s message that observation is both art and science. The science is to deconstruct what we perceive into its parts in order to see all of the detail and the art is to reconstruct the whole, “So as to know, love and serve the divine in man.”

The closing keynote speaker, Dr. Vandana Shiva, touched so deeply in me the places that had been stirred by this experience. It is possible her words may best guide my attempt to convey the lessons of this International Congress. Dr. Shiva, an environmentalist, feminist, physicist, philosopher and founder of Navdanya, an organization that has advocated for and trained 700,000 organic farmers in India and created 112 seed banks for the protection of biodiversity, spoke so beautifully on the themes of love and respect for nature and life, that she rekindled a deep desire to serve and protect the the nature of the child and the child in nature and even more to live better.

She called for us to respect the perfectly balanced and diverse web of life and nature as a whole and to honor the sanctity of work. Her revelations of ecology and the protection of the seed resonated so perfectly with our vocation of protecting the life of the child to create a peaceful human ecology. She bravely defends the most vulnerable of humanity and has watched the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives due the the ecological and human disasters resulting from the destruction of ecosystems and the destruction of the seed, farming and farmers, yet she spoke only with deep compassion, not anger. Paul Hawken, an environmentalist and author pleaded with us to focus on the solutions, not to focus on the catastrophe, but Dr. Shiva lives fighting for the solution and showed us the way to compassion. It is from this place of compassion that I am moved to action, and I hope I to live and share her message and the message of Maria Montessori with as many people as possible.

Love, love is most important. To love the child is to love humanity and to love the web of life is the work of the adult. The balance of nature on the point of "the highest degree of turmoil," as Swimme describes, in a system of connectivity and diversity must guide our interactions with the child. While her contemporaries professed the ecosystem to be untouchable by man despite relentless commodification, Montessori reminded us that, 

"One thing still evades the intelligence of humanity and that is the consciousness of [our] terrestrial destiny, and that is the fact that the whole of humanity is so intimately united that it forms but one organized energy."

This image of the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101) from NASA's telescopes
depicts the spiral arms of the galaxy where stars are created.
Before the universe came into existence, there was a quantum void, Brian Swimme explained that the whole universe is a fluctuation out of this vacuum, not of emptiness but of enormous potential. The Universe exists in the perfect balance to create galaxies. The galaxies can exist in a precise pattern with swirling arms that give birth to stars. When the pattern is disrupted, star creation ceases to exists. It is so huge, so impossible to conceive of the greatness of this creation and our connection to this infinite energy, but the child, too is seething with possibilites and deserves the same divine reverence. He is made of star dust and has inherited 200,000 years of human understanding. If we protect the nature of this child, from her arms great things will be born, too.

"Protecting the diversity of the seed is our sacred duty," professed Dr. Shiva. To save our seed and its infinitely creative power, we must save the seed of our humanity, the child, from corruption because "No living being, especially the child is something that should be modified externally." Judith Snow, through beautiful story telling, revealed the truth of diversity and inclusion. Inclusion not only serves a child that we may label as disabled, but improves the development of all children and the performance of the teacher. Paul Hawken reminded us, nothing in nature is linear, which is clearly the case with the child. Neuropsychologist, Dr. Steven Hughes, shared with us the patterns of cognitive development for many children, none alike. Does it make sense, then, to present the same segments of knowledge in the same order to every child? It does not. Michael Gurian reminded us that there are certainly 3.5 billion ways to be a boy or a girl, but that there are tendencies for both boys and girls and we, as Montessorians, must maximize these tendencies. We must work with the nature of the child instead of against it.

The child, like the seed, has a great power for self-construction. Though he cannot choose his environment, he uses his human and physical environment to construct himself. The environment we create must connect to the child's inner nature and must connect the child to nature. What is the most important aspect of this environment? Dr. Adele Diamond, credited as one of the founders of the field of Cognitive Neuroscience, explained that love was the most important ingredient of any environment. Montessori explained, 

"The child draws love to himself and rapidly absorbs life around him, creates movement, creates language to express his soul born incomplete and uses his living environment to establish his personality." 

Diamond and Hughes explain also how the Montessori environment serves the nature of the child to be successful, not just in academics, but in life. The skills neuroscientists have discovered are most indicative of success in life include creative problem solving, flexibility, self-regulation and self-control, discipline and perseverance, a set of skills called Executive Function. The low teacher direction and highly-structured environment of a Montessori environment build opportunities for these Executive Functioning skills to develop. Hughes explains that almost every aspect of the environment helps develop these skills optimally for each individual child through the culture of the classroom and the repeated exploration of the materials themselves. He also explains that Montessori appeals to the child's natural modalities of learning- his senses. Through brain scan images Dr. Hughes explained how the child, with each exploration in this highly structured environment, becomes an expert at one skill in particular- learning. He asserts that the Montessori environment is perfectly adapted to the development of the child at each level from birth through adolescence.

It is a critical time to provide this education to the child. Dr. Reniero Regni, a Montessorian and professor at the university of Rome explains, "The Western World has grown into a great power that now has the fear of actually destroying the civilization that gave birth to it. We need wisdom to hold this great power and we must construct it straight away." Why don't we have this wisdom? Brian Swimme explains, it is simply because humans have never needed this wisdom. Surely, if the smallest microorganisms that gave birth to all life on the planted could invent photosynthesis to solve a problem of food shortage, humanity can certainly overcome the crises of our planet. 

The child has a true love of the environment Regni explains, and "What does love do? It transforms the world." We cannot curse our artificial nature, it is our nature to transform our environment. "Being anti-technology," Reigni explains, "is like being anti-digestion. It is our nature, but we can neither allow this artifical nature to destroy nature... We need to help man's work converge with nature's work." We live in a fast world that is only speeding up. How do we prepare the child for this fast world? Regni tells us, "If you want your child to go quickly, then slow down." The child's work is slow because he is constructing his neural network. We must give the child right now everything that he needs. Above all, the child needs to work. We often profess how must we love the child, how we want to do everything for the child, but we are not giving him what he truly needs because “Man builds himself by working. Nothing can substitute for the lack of work: neither welfare nor affection.” (Secret of childhood p. 262). To save humanity, Dr. Shiva explains, "We must reclaim work as creativity."

We've become disconnected from humanity and work. We focus on the commodities and profits produced per acre, not the health of the food per acre. Montessori explains, when we separate the child from nature the desire for possessions emerges. We've become focused on cheap, fashionable clothes, not the well being of the producer. Montessori pleaded with us to value all life, that no life is disposable. However, our educational system focused on creating consumers. Paul Hawken explains, "It takes $300,000 of taxpayer money to teach a child not to think systematically." A connected curriculum honors nature, but the world taught in disected segments to a child who is divorced from the work of his own hands, trains him to separate the products he enjoys from the human producer and to devalue work. We are reminded by Dr. Shiva that, “Everyday, every moment when work is about the serving of life, maintaining of life, renewal of life, it is a source of joy.”

To truly value work, we can look to the child. Montessori tells us that the child has an instinct for work, that an inner voice is telling him to work or die! The child has a real hunger for objects and movement, but what do we usually tell him? Don't move! Don't touch! The child's energy is channeled into everything he does and the child has great energy, but his work is strange, explains Reigni. If you ask a child to bring some water, he will bring the heavy jug sitting next to the glass of water and the more he works, the calmer and happier he becomes, but we adults cannot wait to rest and think of anything but work. Reigni points out, “The economist would not be in favor of the child, but because the child is closer to the powers of creation, perhaps he is more correct that the adult.” 

Just as it is for the child, it can be for the adult. Work and vocation can converge and, "Here the child is a master." Was Michelangelo racing down off the scaffolds of the Sistine Chapel to play bingo, Reigni asks? When the instinct of work is neglected, we think it is a true privilege not to work. If the child is divorced from his work and not allowed to explore his world through his senses and the work of his hand, he becomes disconnected and cannot find focus and interest. Without interest, he cannot find his purpose and will only become more distant and disconnected.

As adults, we must regain our powers of observation and relearn the art of putting all of the pieces back together to see the whole. We must be the child's interpreter. Montessori herself was a great scientist and a great spiritual being. Reigni tells us, If we loose the scientific aspect of Montessori, we become idealists. If we loose our technique as teachers, we will just have discourse, and if we loose our spirituality we will loose great wisdom.

There is hope for the future. Brian Swimme tells us that, "The Montessori movement is exactly what we need to develop the wisdom to act in ways that are mutually enhancing," but that we must not dismay in the face of many obstacles. Instead, we must consider the universe. Once, in a universe dominated by light, matter was something negligible until matter and light arrived in perfect balance and the universe as we know it came into being. It wasn't until the conditions for life on this planet arrived in perfect balance that, "What was negligible became stupendous." Andre Robrefroid, president of AMI, called for us to be "A new force in improving what we do, not discrediting what others do," and to "Increase the clarity of our message." We are truly educating for a more peaceful world and we can continue to look to nature for inspiration and to her many defenders.

Thank you to all of the families at Follow The Child Montessori School whose generous donations made our experience possible.

If you want to help spread the message of Montessori, please visit, Building the Pink Tower.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Surviving Summer

Well, the school campus is empty, all of the materials are packed away and it took me about a week to get around to writing this blog entry. Yup, it's officially summer. I understand, though, that parents may not embrace summer with a lot of zeal. If your child has been in school all year, the idea of having a little one to your self all day every day may feel daunting at times. Here's a few tips to keeping the fun in summer.

With the changes in routine that summer brings, you are likely to see that your child become easily overwhelmed. Summer is a great way to experience new textures, whether your child walking barefoot through the grass or building a sandcastle at the beach. Some children find new sensory experiences overwhelming. Even the sights and sounds of a regular day can create anxious energy that finally errupts in a tantrum. There are a few things you can do to help your child integrate all of the novel and unique sesory experiences he needs for his development and the routine sensory information he needs to function:
  •  Limit or eliminate electronics that overstimulate your child. It may look like your child is relaxed while watching tv, but television watching actually involves an almost constant shift in attention.
  • Set aside face time just to sit and connect with your child. This time is a very important way for your child to decompress and process his day. 
  • Try massage if you feel your child has a lot of pent-up energy. The Peanut Butter and Jelly massage described in an earlier post is a great way to help your child unwind at the end of the day. Massage is shown to help in almost every area of mental and physical health.
  • Examine the materials available for your child to work with and make sure to have items that make beautiful sounds and offer unique textures. A toddler's sensory systems are still developing and his ability to process visual, auditory and tactile information is based on his experiences.
  • If your child is feeling squeamish about touching something or is feeling anxious about a loud sound, some empathy and reassurance can help your child to feel understood then to use his more rational left brain to override overwhelming emotion. Short lists, sequence and language engage the left brain, but only when you connect to your child's emotions with words, and understanding tone of voice and empathetic body language first. You can say,

"I know it can feel worrisome to touch something sticky. If you touch it and then you're ready to have clean hands, what could you do?"

"I see that loud blender really startled you, you can say, 'That startled me!' If you feel startled you can take some deep breaths. How many deep breaths would you like to take?" 

Uninterrupted Time
When you are feeling daunted by a vast expase of time, take a deep breath and remember, it is not your job as a parent to entertain your child! Create at least two hours of time most days for your child to be able to freely choose how to fill his time. When you see signs of concentration, never interrupt! Remember, concentration is a skill that requires practice to develop. Set up the environment so your child is able choose activities that interest him without any help from you.
  • Set up a low shelf with no more than nine materials that may include:
    • Materials for developing the grasp and eye-hand coordination such as pouring or transferring with hands or tools like spoons or tongs. Observe what grasps your child is using and create materials that challenge those grasps. You can look at a previous post for more ideas!
    • Provide materials that help your child care for the environment like a sweeper and dustpan; color coded cloths for wiping spills on the table or floor; a bucket with small squeegee, spray bottle and cloth; and tiny creamer on a tray for indoor plant watering. 
    • Rotate materials for self expression like 5 to 7 crayons in a dish on a tray for drawing or tracing. Keep a few sheets of paper in a letter organizer on top of the shelf where your child can always find it. Have a tray available for completed work. Finger paint, clay, one or two water colors with tiny pitcher, brush and pinch bowl for water work well, too. Do you have an easel, make sure to set up materials for easel washing, too!
    • Consider some materials to encourage language development. Create a basket of 5 to 7 animal replicas or objects and print out matching cards. Your child can pick a card and find the matching objects. Real objects like types of rocks, shells, or other natural objects are wonderful, too!

Does your child have opportunities to explore many types of movement? Read more about movement development and consider all of the ways you might be able to provide opportunities for your child to explore movement. Some great indoor tools include a large bean bag, tactile stepping stones to practice jumping, heavy balls to carry, a wagon to push, scarves for dancing, and a drum to hit.

Meaningful Work

Provide opportunities for your child to contribute to the day-to-day activities of your house. With appropriately sized tools and some flexibility on your part, there are many activities your child can do at home that are helpful for every area of development. If your child helps you unload  the groceries, for example, he is engaging all areas of the brain including language development as you name objects, sensory stimulation while handling objects, cognitive development while finding the appropriate place for each item, social and emotional development while contributing to the people that are important to him, and movement! If you remember the phrase, "What fires together wires together," it becomes obvious that these types of purposeful activities stimulate every area of the brain, wiring these parts together for more effective, whole brain functioning! Don't miss these opportunities for your child. Have you considered offering:

  • Sorting silverware, clean or dirty laundry for every member of the family?
  • Taking out or bringing in the recycling bin on a hand cart with adjustable handle or wagon. 
  • Cutting produce or cheese, plucking grapes, peeling eggs, mashing potatoes or beans for hummus, juicing lemons, popping edamame beans, cutting herbs with scissors, or even baking bread!
  • Set up brushes, a basin and restaurant pitchers for scrubbing the porch or outdoor furniture. Don't forget a watering can or endless watering outside. A tiny coffee creamer works great for watering plants indoors. Have your child help gather sticks out of the yard and put them in a wheel barrow. Sweep the porch or driveway with a push broom. Keep an eye out for child-sized products that allow your child to feel included and capable
When daily routines become chaotic, toddlers often become more rigid. A toddler in a rigid state tries to control everything around him and has a very difficult time incorporating novelty. To help your child regain some emotional flexibility:

  • Create as much routine as possible and remind your child what is happening ahead of time so there is room for openness to new experiences. 
  • Help your child understand that emotions are temporary and don't define him. 

There is a world of difference between hearing "I see you are feeling sad," and "You are sad."

  • Talk about your toddlers strong feelings. Help her create her own way to work through strong feelings. Remember, following a sequence will automatically engage your toddlers left brain to help override these right-brain meltdowns! Don't forget to incorporate movement, movement actually changes brain chemistry and helps children (and adults) feel more calm. You can create this emergency emotion plan by explaining to your child:

"It can feel scary to have strong feelings. When I have strong feelings I like to take three deep breaths and squeeze a pillow really tight. What would you like to do when you are having really strong feelings?" 

"I see you are feeling really angry. Can you jump up and down as many times as you are angry?"

Routine is the antidote to rigidity. Try to begin each morning with time outside, allow your child to prepare his own morning snack, then follow with two hours of uninterrupted time to play and work on his own. At lunch, discuss what activities or errands will occur that afternoon. Talk about the expectations at each location in a calm and relaxed way and offer choices. You could ask, "Is it ok to run in the grocery store? Would you like to help me find the groceries, or would you like to ride in the cart?"

Have fun and enjoy summer!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Toileting Two Cents

It isn't my favorite topic, but it's certainly a challenge that we help parents with most often. Before children even begin school we ask parents to read Diaper Free Before Three, because it offers a perfect explanation of our toileting approach at school and it offers wonderful support for parents trying to nurture healthy toileting habits at home. 

The three A's of toileting in Toddler House:
  • Attitude- As much as possible, we want to convey a relaxed attitude towards toileting so the child understands, "This is just what we do. We pee in the toilet." Allowing your child to watch his parents or siblings use the toilet is very helpful. When your child's clothes get wet, you can say, "I see you have wet clothes, let's get dry clothes." Rewards for toileting complicate and this message. 
  • Accessibility- From the time an infant is sitting, incorporate opportunities for sitting on the potty into the daily routine. Use the same word as a cue every time you observe your infant or toddler voiding. When your child sits on the toilet, use the cue to communicate what to do! Wearing very little clothing or none at all from the waist down will help your child get to the potty more quickly while he is still learning.  
  • Awareness- Unlike disposable diapers, using cloth diapers during infancy certainly helps an infant associate bodily functions with the sensation of feeling wet. It's never too late to start, though. If your child is walking well, offer as many opportunities as possible for your child to be out of a diaper and wearing training pants. To really heighten awareness, combine easy to clean surfaces and supervision with ample fluids, a naked toddler and potty! 
Parents often find this approach works very well. Progress is not always linear, nothing about toddlers is usually very linear, but it is helpful for the child. However, I see children wearing diapers later and later. As a culture, we seem to be comfortable with children staying in diapers well into their preschool years. Certainly, the diaper companies don't mind perpetuating this norm. 

Many times I'm asked, "Why don't we wait until the child is ready, then toileting will be easier?" It is true, we support a child's development based on his readiness and natural tendencies. It is exactly the natural process that we've interrupted by failing to introduce toileting early on, using diapers that pull moisture away from the skin, and establishing an expectation that pee and poop go in the diaper. Toddlers have a very strong sense of order and it is very unlikely that a toddler who has only experienced a diaper will suddenly create a new sense of order on his own when we've interrupted the natural process at every turn. Even if we haven't supported toileting habits from the start, there is no need for a child to go in diapers for years. Introducing toileting can be a positive experience for a toddler.

We can naturally support toileting, as people have done for centuries and continue to do all over the world, by offering toileting opportunities early. If your child hasn't had these opportunities early on, it is helpful to create a new association by removing the diaper and underwear then acknowledge, "It can be hard to do something new." Remember to keep a approach toileting with a relaxed attitude, make sure the potty or toilet is easily accessible, and help your child gain awareness of his body.

A great resource for parents 


Leg warmers keep legs of pantless toddlers warm

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Montessori Language Crash Course

Even if you are not setting up a Montessori classroom, I hope an introduction to Montessori language materials will help inspire opportunities for language development you may provide at home. If you are setting up the classroom, I'm excited to share ideas for materials with you.

The first introduction to language materials is real images or replicas. While holding and looking at the object, repeat the name, then pass the object to the child. Repeat the name as the child holds the object. We know that language is linked with sensorial impressions. Also, children learn new words when it is paired with her name or at the end of a sentence.

Create other opportunities for introducing new vocabulary during every day activities. Name produce as you hand it to your child to place in the grocery cart, name types of clothing as your child helps you place it in the laundry basket or washing machine, and give accurate names for types of animals, plants, objects, road signs, or breeds of dogs you find outdoors.

Replicas- Birds
Kitchen Utensils

 The next introduction is objects and exact matching images. After naming the objects during a presentation the child places the objects on a work mat (neutral colored placemat or small rug) or table. Next, you'll ask the child to find an object and place it back on the tray. Holding the cards in hand, ask the child to choose a card. The child places the object on the card, with some prompting, if necessary. An image that matches the object exactly is a concrete representation for the child that the two-dimensional image represents the three-dimensional object. After matching all of the objects, ask the child to find each object and place it in the basket to encourage recall. If, at any time during a presentation, the child finds a different object than the one requested, merely state, "You found a squid, can you find the jellyfish?"

Replicas and Matching Cards- Sea Animals

 After a child is comfortable with the materials, she is ready to explore objects and similar images. Objects in a set fit a classification. Ideally, the relative size of the objects is accurate and the objects are as realistic as possible. Some of these objects may seem obscure, but the theory of Lexical Diversity explains that learning vocabulary aids in overall language development.

These materials also offer other indirect learning opportunities. In a group lesson, a toddler has an opportunity to practice waiting and sharing objects. In an extension of the lesson, we may place the objects across the room and ask the child to bring a specific object, exercising memory and recall. Children absorb information about the general characteristics of each classification and learn to identify objects with subtle distinctions.


Breeds of Dogs

Real Objects and Matching Images- Pasta

I usually place nine sets of language materials on the shelf every two weeks. We store each set in a large ziploc bag and place the bags in the cabinet. This is also an effective way to store and quickly replace toys at home. Keeping a limited amount of toys on a shelf allows a toddler to successfully care for his materials, avoid visual clutter that causes fatigue, and to help him make sense of his environment. 

Remember that background noise is an obstacle to language development. Infants and toddlers cannot easily distinguish language from background noise. It is very important to eliminate background noise such as radio and television at home during waking hours whenever possible. At school, the teacher must be sure not to run loud air conditioning units or fans during the work cycle.

I hope you are inspired to create new opportunities for learning language!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

After a night of rain, the sandbox was filled with water. "Open it, please?" asked one of the youngest children. Usually, the children figure out a way to open the heavy cover together, but with the water weighing down the cover, that wasn't possible. It took quite some prompting as I asked, "What could we do?" "What could you use to get out the water?" The pitchers and basins are available for porch scrubbing, but they certainly came in handy for this purpose!