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

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Montessori Garden

A Montessori Garden
If every child were a garden, and Montessori was her gardener,
Montessori would gift the seeds of the garden to a mother
And when these tiny seeds emerge she would tell the mother,
Keep the seeds close, handle with care and filter the harsh light
So the stems grow straight and strong towards the light,
Not twisted in search of the light they need,
Nor shriveled from too much light, too soon.

And when these neophytes have grown, they are ready to leave the seedbed
So she constructs a beautiful glass greenhouse with space for this child garden
There are other nascent gardens in this greenhouse,
Each beautiful and unique
There is space just enough for the gardens to grow with a glass ceiling to filter the light;
These gardens aren’t yet ready to be out in the world
And the greenhouse is beautiful, as not to detract from the beauty of the gardens.

In each garden there are plants of many kinds, and there are weeds
Each plant has a growing season and the gardener watches closely,
She knows the need of every plant and when it is going to bloom
Just before the blossom appears, the gardener knows the roses will need special care
She knows how to tend to the wisteria, the orchid and the fern
Each part of the growing garden needs to be nurtured, and she knows
If one plant is neglected, vines will overrun the garden, and its harmony is destroyed
She never alters the plants in the garden, or tries to change what is there
She knows each garden will be beautiful just as it is
But for now, it needs care

What of the weeds? The gardener doesn’t spend her time looking for the weeds,
She gives them no attention, no nourishment, no water
She gives all of herself to the plants and the flowers
She nurtures the roots and the soil; she knows every leaf on every plant
in every garden

When the garden is mature, it is has a beauty all its own
There is a perfect place in the world for each garden
It is ready to leave the greenhouse and be a gift to the larger world.

By Angie Ma

An aspiring gardener

With gratitude for the gardeners in my life, Judi Orion and Dominique Mouthon who have offered inspiration, wisdom and guidance on my own Montessori path and to Dr. Annette Haines who is guiding me on a new Montessori journey.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hanging up the Cape: A Call for the End of Superparenting

Let's take a deep breath, hang up our capes, and feel the weight of the super "S" lift off our chest.

Parents, we deserve a lot of credit. Every parent I've ever met wanted exactly the same thing- to do the absolutely best job he or she could as a parent. 

Somewhere along the way the parent job description has been rewritten by Marvel Comics, because no human being could possibly meet the qualifications we've collectively placed on ourselves. I want for us to look carefully at this parenting role, because our real job is an important one- the most important one. I'd suspect that our quest for superparenting is hurting our children and causing us, the parents, immense anxiety. 

Let's be clear about what's not in our job description! It's not our job as parents to:

xPrevent negative experiences and emotions, failure or struggle.
xDo everything we can for our child, even when he is capable of doing it for himself.
xFill our child with knowledge and hone her skills so she is the best at sports and school. 
xPunish, reward, praise and scrutinize your child’s actions.
It's hard to see our children on a roller coaster of emotions, to struggle through each milestone along the pathway to independence. Let's face it, we don't always feel great about our children's growing independence. After all, a mother and child were completely symbiotic at the beginning of this parenting journey and each stage of independence from birth, to weaning to walking, to the first day of preschool brings a new separation that requires not only our support, but our complete acceptance.
When we forget that it's the consequences our children experience that develop self-control, we may feel like a heartless despot watching our child melt into a boneless puddle on the floor when her markers are taken away because she forgot again to draw only on the paper. It's not fun with your child erupts with the fury of Mt. Vesuvius as you walk or carry (with warning) him off of the playground and into the car because he hit a child on the playground.

Of course we want our children to feel happy, but we need to feel ok with our children experiencing life, learning through failure, and growing through struggle. 
Because we can't be here...

Maybe we can start from a simpler definition. A parent's our job is to: 
Live together in a home you’ve created to meet the needs of the people who live there.
Clearly communicate the expectations of the people that live in that home and follow through with those expectations.
Love unconditionally, including self.
Allow your child the freedom to experience life within safe limits
Above all...

“What do children need most? To be loved, to know themselves to be valued by humanity is more important than knowledge or skill. To truly listen, to be heard and understood… total concentration on the other is always a manifestation of love.” -Dr. Adele Diamond

What do I love so much about this grand summary for parents and educators? This ultimatum is from Dr. Adele Diamond, a founder of the field of Cognitive Neuroscience. She doesn't ask us to buy computer programs, drill our children with flashcards, or hire an Au Pair who speaks Mandarin to benefit our children. She asks us to love them, to respect them, and to be present for them. 

What does our child need to learn to succeed in the 21st century? According to Dr. Diamond, a child needs to learn life skills called executive functioning skills, like self control, emotional control and concentration. Our children don't learn these skills from flashcards and worksheets. A child doesn't learn self control from sticker charts or from being told how wonderful, smart and brilliant he is. Our children learn executive functioning skills from real life experiences. A child learns life skills from a challenging task that interests him. When he fails, he's allowed to figure out for himself how to make changes and is given the time and freedom try again. Her task can be anything from trying to scale a climbing wall on the playground, to wiping up the milk she's spilled.

It's not our job to praise her, instruct her or advise her. It's our job to protect her concentration, to make sure she has the tools that fit her small hands to do the job right, to fade into the background so she can notice her own elation at whatever she considers to be a success. When she says "I did it!" we don't belittle and eclipse her own internal gratification with our praise, but simply reflect her own joy back to her, saying "You did it!" 

Let's put some of our parent worry on the shelf. Remember when your child learned to walk. You let him try and practice and fall. You were there for a hug when he needed it, but you knew he couldn't learn by holding your fingers. He had to try it on his own. Pretty soon, he was running. It was the same with talking and it will be the same with reading and fractions and friendships. We look to see if our children need any support along the way, but we know they are the ones doing the growing. 

After all, we don't need to be all things for our child, we just need to be there. That's super enough.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Talking with Toddlers: Supporting Language

This is it! Supporting a toddler's need for a rich language environment is the last installment in the Talking With Toddlers series. I also saw a cartoon from "The New Yorker" today on facebook that read, "A recent study has shown that if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go [$*%@$]ing ape [$%&#]." I try to keep my posts positive and to the point, but I find myself even more motivated following these earth shattering findings. I'll keep this one as short as possible!

We've discussed how to use language that supports the need for movement and senses, love and security and relationships, and cognition. This last, most straight forward installment is about a toddler's need for a rich Language Environment

In an effort to be as brief as possible there are only three things to keep in mind when supporting your child's language development: 

  1. Speak to your child often, even before your child begins speaking!
  2. Remove language obstacles (like background noise, pacifiers, hearing loss)
  3. Exposure and Real Experiences- sensory experiences are the foundation of language

The moment an infant is born, she is already wired for language and drawn to the sound of his mother's voice. In Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky describes ways of supporting language development in an infant's preverbal stage such as: 

Pre-verbal Language Exposure

  • Parent speak, parent look parent gesture- your exaggerated faces and gestures along with melodic speech grab your infant's attention and help wire his brain for attachment and communication. Don't be afraid to look silly.
  • Protoconversation- Even before your infant and toddler can speak, it is important to have conversations. Speak then pause, as if your child will respond. Researchers have found this type of conversation is a huge benefit to language development. It might sound like this: 

Types of Language

  • Quantity counts- The amount of words a child hears greatly improves his language ability.
  • Variety- Consider singing, reciting or reading poetry, reading books, rhymes, labeling, describing your child's actions, describing objects, varying sentence length and structure. 
  • Precision- Your child is at the perfect stage for absorbing vocabulary. Using precise language, like saying, "Daisy," instead of, "Flower," will not only help your child learn new words, but support his overall language development. 
    • Research shows that children learn new words when the word comes at the end of a sentence or following his name.
Removing Language Obstacles

  • Hearing Loss- Whether congenital or temporary due to ear infections, hearing loss inhibits your child's ability to absorb language and learn language sounds (phonemes). This foundation is important for reading later, too
  • Background Noise- Children's sense of hearing is still developing. A child's ability to decipher white noise (like a loud fan), television or radio from speech is extremely poor. While you are able to filter out background noise and hone in on an individual's voice, your child cannot. When background noise is present, your child is missing out on language opportunities. 
  • Pacifier- If your child uses a pacifier while awake, he is not able to practice speech.
  • Inhibited Movement- If your child is not able to freely explore his environment, the experiences that serve as a foundation for language development will be greatly diminished. 
Exposure and Real Experiences- Sensory experiences are the foundation for language. Children cannot learn language from a television set. They must touch real objects and have real experiences. Consider:
  • Name objects using precise names. 
  • Practice oral counting in real situations. 
  • Describe what you see together using precise language. 

Enjoy Talking with your toddler!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Talking With Toddlers: Love, Security and Relationships

I believe in the power of words. I believe that the moments when we are loosing it, we can use words that function better than we do. After years of working with toddlers, we've crafted phrases that help us and the children function better.

To know when to use these phrases, it helps to keep in mind the needs of these tiny, but mighty people. The "Talking With Toddlers" series of posts has focused on the needs for movement and sensory experiences, developing sense of identity, and cognition and the language that can support those developing needs. Of course, these needs don't operate in isolation, but in balance. Above all, one need is most important.   

Movement and Senses * Individuality and Sense of Self * Relationships * Language * Cognition * Love and Security


Adele Diamond, a founder of the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience, explained that Love and Security was absolutely most critical for a child's successful and healthy development. Indeed, nothing else can develop when this fundamental need is not met.

Let's celebrate that for a moment. Every parent I have met has one thing in common. They love their children and they are trying to do the best they can at this great work, parenting. Do they make mistakes? Have I made mistakes? Absolutely! Has every action I conveyed the love and unconditional positive regard I have for my daughter? For certain, no. To grow in my ability to share this acceptance and love, I know I must focus on myself and know:   

I fully accept and love my self, right now in this moment. 
I have spoken harsh words and I have spoken loving words, but I am not my words.
I have thought terrible thoughts and I have thought compassionate thoughts, but I am not my thoughts.
I have had terrible, weak, angry and sad feelings. I have had joyful, happy and loving feelings, but I am not my feelings.
I have made mistakes and done bad things. I have done wonderful, brave and compassionate things, but I am not my actions.
I have a body, but I am not my body.

I am individual, but I am also connected to my family, my friends, and my community and  my actions have an impact on those around me. I hope that my impact is a positive one. 

I believe that loving others begins with loving myself. If you believe the same then these ramblings might resonate with you, too.

If we begin at this place of unconditional positive regard, love and acceptance what does that mean? Does it mean that everything our child does is ok? Does that mean that we are there to protect our child from experiencing anything difficult, struggling or failing because of this love? Absolutely not. As Maria Montessori explained, "We must follow the child, but we must follow the child as his leader."

What is it that we ultimately want for our child? We want her to grow to love who she is at her core. We want her to have meaningful relationships with other people without losing her sense of self. We want her to connect with her community and realize that her contributions are meaningful.

Dan Siegel describes this healthy emotional function as an integrated state. An individual that exists in this state (I hope I've had a few moments of this level of functioning) allows all of the different parts of self to work together like a choir singing in harmony. At the level of the individual, relationship, community and even country doesn't exist in this healthy state, there is either a state of rigidity or a state of chaos, Dr. Siegel explains.

Creating an environment of love and security requires us to do only three things- accept, connect with your child, and honor separateness.

Accepting means that our words and actions reflect that we honor the worth, goodness and value our child no matter what his emotions, or actions. That does not mean that an action is appropriate or accepted, but that the child is always accepted. We can explain to a child, "That is not ok," which is a very different statement than, "You are not ok." Our role as a parent or leader of a child is to model appropriate actions and set clear limits about the behavior you expect. The child is given as much freedom as he can handle at a given time and he is allowed to experience the natural or logical consequences of his actions.

Connecting with your child means spending time together. It doesn't need to be more complicated than spending time together face-to-face. A time for listening and responding, doing something or doing nothing.

Allan Schore, an expert on attachment and emotional health, explains that the emotional circuitry in the brain is actually built during these moments of emotional connection between the parent and the infant. Parents actually control the level of stimulation in the first few months of life by swaddling and rocking when the baby cries or cooing and making silly faces while the baby gazes up at them. This connection is how the baby learns self-control and emotional regulation. The mother and infant, through voice, gesture and gaze, create a palpable and positive energy that peaks before she quiets and responds when the baby starts to look away, needing more calm. During these moments of synchronicity, Dr. Schore explains, the brain creates important connections that allow a child to develop emotional control, empathy, effective communication, and even an ability to regulate stress.

We can't always have these perfectly in-sync moments. The good news is we don't have to be perfectly responsive and in tune all of the time. Just showing up is enough, and these moments will happen.

Honoring separateness means respecting your child's body, your child's emotions, your child's thoughts and your child's work. As a parent, you are the person above all others that your child needs to honor his separateness at each stage of independence. As a parent, you are the person above all others, that will find this separateness most difficult.

A child's life begins completely attached to his mother. We honor and celebrate the separation of birth, knowing the infant can no longer thrive in the womb that was once a perfect environment for him. At each stage of independence, when the child comes off the breast, begins to crawl away and then walk away, the parent must embrace each separation with openness, acceptance and positivity.

When we see our children at the end of a school day acceptance, connection and honor means that we do not ask, "What did you do?" or "Were you good today?" It means that we say, "I'm so happy to see you." It means that we refrain from fixing hair and clothing, as if our child was a doll. When our help is necessary, we ask first. When the child needs help with his body, we tell him, "I'm going to help you with your body.

Honoring separateness means respecting concentration, even when it is the thousandth time she's repeated a task. When your child is feeling proud of herself you share in her joy, without eclipsing her sense of accomplishment with praise or replacing her own evaluation with yours. When your child is struggling on a difficult task, you do not step in to show how easily it can be done, you acknowledge the difficulty of the task. You offer your child only the help that is necessary, even though the amount of help needed may change day to day and even moment to moment.

We can use words that express love and acceptance, while still setting clear limits and communicating our expectations. We won't get it right all of the time, but having a list of phrases can help us use constructive words, even when we aren't on our "A" game.


There is certainly no shortage of parenting advice. No matter what advice makes sense to you and of all the things you can do for your child, love is the most important. When, at the end of the day, you may feel that dinner was lacking, the tv was on, bedtime was late and the house was a mess, be kind to yourself. You've already given your child the most important thing he will ever need- love. Just don't forget to give it to yourself, too.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Talking With Toddlers: Movement and Senses

I've spent a lot of time talking on the blog about movement, because it is so critical that we embrace a child's freedom of movement. Movement is also critical to sensory exploration. There are a few important things to remember about a toddler's need for sensory and movement experiences: 

  • All senses and movement abilities are still developing 
  • Development of skills relies on experience and repetition
  • The quality and variety of experience affects the sensorial acuity and agility a child may develop in adulthood.
  • Helping a child move gives the child incorrect information that hinders a child's ability to safely evaluate safe movement. 
  • Real experiences with real objects help a child integrate movement and senses because the child's movements are related to the auditory, tactile and sensory feedback the child receives. 
  • Electronic experiences are disintegrative because sensory feedback is not related to movement.
  • Self regulation results when a child can regularly control his own level of stimulation and move independently. 
  • Face time and massage help your child integrate his experiences. 
  • Television looks relaxing, but is actually a bombardment of sensory information beyond her control and constantly changing information that reinforces shift of attention, not concentration.
Read "Move It or Lose It" for more information about developing movement. 

I haven't talked a lot about integration. You may have heard the term, "Sensory Integration Disorder." That doesn't make a lot of sense until you think of integration as different parts working together. Sensory integration means that a child can form a cohesive impression of the environment based on the information he is receiving from all senses. For the senses to work together, they must be wired together in the brain. The common saying, "What fires together, wires together," suggests that the senses can only work together if a child experiences all senses working together. Exploring the world through senses requires freedom of movement. Unfortunately, automated experiences mean that movement and senses don't connect. 

If a child stacks and knocks over wooden blocks, the child's experience connects many parts of the brain because they are all engaged to complete one task:
  1. If Johnny chooses to work with blocks himself, then he is exercising choice.
  2. When he stacks the blocks his movement involves sensory information from the wood. He feels the weight and balance of the objects, and he hears the sound of the blocks tapping. 
  3. When he knocks it over he immediately feels the impact,sees the blocks tumble and hears the sounds. The different parts are working together like notes of a choir in harmony.
If a child is given an electric toy he pushes a button and the visual and auditory information are completed unrelated to her movements. Also, electronics stimulate the same areas of the brain over and over, not achieving the whole brain stimulation that is ideal for healthy brain functioning. Have you ever noticed how that electronic whirly, flashy, beeping toys grate on your nerves? It certainly depletes your child's sensory system, too. Your child doesn't have the filters you've developed to weed out sensory information in the environment that you can ignore, which is why they may be compelled to attend to these loud, beeping and flashing objects. Don't mistake this attention grabbing as constructive interest. 

To put it simply, if the toy has batteries, your toddler doesn't need it.

Maria Montessori understood and wrote about this phenomena of healthy whole brain functioning, too. Instead of labeling this healthy brain development, integration, as neuroscientists now do, she called it normalization. She also understood that whole brain intelligence was related to a child's experiences and she designed Practical Life activities to support the development of the child. You'll find more information when reading, "Practical Life and Integration."

I'm not quite ready to let go of this point because I know this idea of technological toys for babies is firmly ingrained in our culture. If you'd like to decide for yourself consider the following Toy Evaluation Checklist: 

If you completed the checklist for the toddler tablet, you'll find the material only offers visual and auditory feedback. The tactile feedback is so limited, it could hardly be called stimulating. The child cannot control the level of stimulation the machine emits from the screen. Lastly, there is a wishlist on the screen for the child to begin shopping for the items he or she would like!  Consumerism is a topic for another day, but it is deeply unsettling to me that our children are experiencing a consumer role at such a young age. Even more appalling, one might even be able to purchase this item at a chain store Buy Buy Baby or Toys R Us.  Really, toys are us? We can do better. 

The wooden toy pictured is from a Montessori catalog, For Small Hands. It is a beautiful and colorful wooden toy that will stimulate every sense. The experience the child has may be as varied as his exploration and may even learn later how to play a game with another child or adult. No matter how much data can be stored on a machine, the experience a child may get from this wooden toy is infinitely richer. I also believe the experience to be much healthier for the developing brain, too. Sensory and movement isn't contained to play with toys, as you well know.  

Understanding the need for sensory exploration and movement may help you keep your sanity when your child insists on jumping off the porch step 1,000 times in a row. You can just tell yourself, "He's insulating his neural connections with a myelin coating to speed neural information, helping his neurons grow dendritic branches like the branches of a healthy tree, and strengthening neural connections between different areas of the brain each time he repeats this task." instead of saying, "My child is bouncing off the walls!" 

Your child does have a need for sensorial exploration and movement, but he still needs clear limits. While your child is interested in movement during this very dynamic time, look for opportunities to model and allow your child to practice how to handle fragile objects, how to safely carry objects, and where it's ok to move vigorously. Try these phrases when talking to your child to help set clear limits about safe and appropriate movement: 

Using positive language helps encourage cooperation, helps your child focus on what you do want, and communicates to your child that he or she is the only one who can control his or her body. Communicating and following through with logical consequences helps your child understand that his actions have consequences. 

When things seem out of sync or your child seems out of sorts, remember to consider: 
  • Has your child experienced very stimulating environments (like a bouncy fun house playdate)?
  • Are novel experiences like holidays, new caregivers, or even a time change draining your child's ability to incorporate a lot of stimulation? 
  • Has your child been outside? 
  • Has your child been sleeping regularly and eating a balanced, whole foods diet? 

If the answer is yes, some things can help:

I hope these guidelines help you make sense of your child's need for movement and sensory exploration. Sometimes, understanding our child's needs helps us respond in a more constructive way.