Theory: Permission to reprint portions of Child of the World, Michael Olaf's Essential Montessori for Three to Twelve has been granted by the Michael Olaf Company, www.michaelolaf.net
Preparing the Environment
Constant preparation and adaptation of the environment to the ever-changing needs and tendencies of growing children is essential in the Montessori method of raising and educating children. The first consideration is physical safety, and then the proper support for free movement, exploration, making choices, concentrating, creating, completing cycles- all of which contribute to the optimum development of the child.
Natural materials instead of plastic, and attention to simplicity, muted colors, plants, beauty, all contribute to the mental and physical health of both the child and the adult. To show respect for the developing sense of beauty, to aid the growing independence, and to inspire the child to activity, we chose the best of everything for the environment.
Children at this age often prefer to work on the floor instead of at a table- on rugs or pieces of carpet which can be rolled up or put out of the way when not in use. This marks the work space just as would a table.
In the classroom and in the home toys, books, and materials are attractively arranged on trays and in baskets, on natural wood or white shelves according to subject- language, math, geography, history, science, music and art. Each object has a special, permanent place so that children know where to find it and where to put it away for the next person when finished. Tables and chairs that support proper posture are important at every age.
Arranging the cooking and dining areas for the work of the child does not have to be a giant undertaking, and it does not need to be done all at once. Consider giving the child one low shelf or one drawer in the kitchen in the beginning. This could contain a cutting board and safe knife, or cereal bowls and spoons- whatever the child is most likely to use most often.
A stool is a good first investment, so the child can reach the sink or the counter, for work. Even better, if there is room, have a small table and chair or stool out of the way where the child can prepare and eat snacks, or do his share of the food preparation.
In the classroom, there should always be a space for children to prepare snack at any time of the day, and lessons on how to do the work, and how to clean it up in preparation for use by the next child. This is an exercise in contributing to the good of others- preparing and serving snack, and cleaning up.
Practical Tasks as the Foundation for all Later Work
It is not uncommon for the value of practical life or family life exercise to be misunderstood. I have heard parents exclaim in dismay that their child is "wasting time cleaning in her new Montessori school when she should be doing math!" However, math and all other intellectual work requires the ability to move carefully, to focus, to complete sequential steps, to concentrate to make intelligent choices and to persevere in one's work. This is exactly what is learned during practical life work. As a result of periods of time spent concentrating on such as task a child becomes calm and satisfied and, because of this inner peace, full of love for others.
Perhaps an even more important result of this work is that the child sees himself already as an important and contributing member of the group, and as an intimate friend, when he is welcomed to participate in the work of the adult. Think about the difference between how close you feel to your own guests. If all the work is done by you in anticipation for the guest's arrival, that is one relationship. When a friend joins you in your preparation of the meal, that is a closer relationship. The child benefits most from this close relationship with the parent, whether it be in scrubbing or cutting up the vegetables, washing or drying the dishes, setting the table, cleaning out the cupboards or refrigerator, mixing the muffin batter, and so forth.
When a child has a lot of experience with the important developmental tasks called "practical life" he becomes more successful in all other areas of study and in relating to others.
Environments in the Home
There are two important things to keep in mind in organizing a child's environment in the home.
(1) Have a place in each room for the few, carefully chosen child's belongings; By the front door a stool to sit on and a place to hang coats and keep shoes. In the living room a place for the child's books and toys- neatly, attractively organized. Think out the activities and the materials for all living spaces and arrange the environment to include the child's activities.
(2) Don't put out too many toys and books at one time. Those being used by the child at the moment are sufficient. It is a good idea to rotate- taking out those books and toys that have not been chosen lately and removing them to storage for a time. Children grow and change and they need help to keep their environment uncluttered and peaceful.
Parenting and Teaching
Through our children, we parents and teachers are the architects of the future of humanity. As we go about our daily lives in the presence of children we are constantly teaching by our own words, thoughts, and behavior. Education is often narrowly defined as the teaching of math, language, sciences and the arts, but the most important subjects to be mastered are; how to be happy, to be a compassionate friend, to express care through thoughtfulness and good manners, to identify a problem and work hard to solve it, to know how to be happy. More than facts, we must help our children develop a love of learning, an ability to make intelligent and responsible choices, to concentrate and focus, and to do one's best to complete a task to the satisfaction of oneself rather than to please someone else.
The main influence on the development of a child's spoken and written language is the language environment of the home. In fact the language of the caregivers in the first six years of life will literally form the spoken language of the child. The adult should speak clearly and precisely to the child. Reading aloud give the message that reading is fun, and introduces concepts and vocabulary that would not usually come up in spoken language.
Reading and writing should not be taught to a child before age six or seven, but, given the sensorial experiences of appropriate materials a child of normal intelligence will quite naturally teach herself to read and write sometimes as early as three or four years of age.
For success in language a child needs confidence that what she has to say is important, a desire to relate to others, real experience on which language is based and the physical abilities necessary in reading and writing. There are several things that we can do to help.
We can listen attentively and with eye contact, and speak to the child in a respectful tone. We can provide a stimulating environment, rich in sensorial experiences and in language- language is meaningless if it is not based on experience. We can set an example and model precise language in our everyday activities with the child. If we share good literature, in the form of rhymes, songs, poetry and stories we will greatly increase the child's love of language.
The truth is that when a free spirit exists, it has to materialize itself in some form of work, and for this the hands are needed. Everywhere we find traces of men's handiwork, and through these we can catch a glimpse of his spirit and the thoughts of his time. The skill of man's hand is bound up with the development of his mind, and in the light of history we see it connected with the development of civilization. - Dr. Maria Montessori
Art is essential in the environment of the child from birth on. It is a way of approaching life, of moving and speaking, of decorating home and school, of selecting toys and books. It cannot be separated from every other element of life. We cannot "teach" a child to be an artist, but we can help him develop:
"An eye that sees A hand that obeys A soul that feels"
ART MATERIALS Children benefit from having a variety of art materials available to them at all times and a space to work, uninterrupted, when they are inspired. It is important to provide the best quailty that we can afford - pencils, crayons, felt pens, clay, paper, brushes - and to teach the child how to use and care for them.
ART ACTIVITIES Individual art work connected with other subjects is more creative, noncompetitive, and successful than group projects or models created by the teacher for children to imitate. Children should not learn to imitate the creations of an adult, to turn out products that all look alike. They are shown carefully how to get out the clay, for example, to use each of the tools, to form basic coils and slabs. They are introduced to clay sculptures in museums and books. It is the child who will decide when to work on clay, and exactly what to make.
Just as any work in the 3-6 class, each art activity is kept complete and ready for use. If a child is interested in painting for example, he will find an apron, paper, paints, and brushes, all clean and ready.
After watching a seed grow into a plant a child might be inspired to draw, to make leaf rubbings, a clay sculpture of a plant, or to paint the leaf or plant. Building with blocks, visiting a museum, listening to or making music, eating ethnic food, any activity can lean naturally to an artistic creation by the child.
Music: Singing and Listening to Music
Humans are born to sing. As soon as a child can focus on the mouth of the mother, he is studying how lips move and how sounds are made. When he begins to make intentional sounds and the adult imitates them, the first duet is born. Let us help the child continue with this joyful human creation.
There is no such thing as a nonmusical child, there are just nonmusical adults who did not get this practice as children. Songs give children a way of expressing emotions, and the very act of singing is a physical release. I have always watched for the casual, unintentional singing in class, knowing that it is a positive sign. In our home, hearing our son sing in bed as he went to sleep at night was a reassuring sign that his life is in balance. We do not need beautiful voices to model singing for children.
Singing also gives practice in language, new words, poetry, and historical and other cultural information.
In a class, where children work individually instead of having group lessons, the teacher will sing a song, make music, dance, at any time during the day with two or three children who aren't busy. Others may join in as they please. Any child can make music whenever she feels like it.
LISTENING TO MUSIC
Just as beautiful speech comes from years of listening, music appreciation and accomplishment comes from years of listening to music.
Songs, folk, ethnic, and classical music played on real instruments, experimentation with good percussion instruments, ideally are all a part of the daily life of every child.
We can help a musical ear's development by being careful to eliminate background sound-TV, radio, constant random music- so that the sense of hearing is ever alert and not "turned off" by too much auditory input.
An atmostphere of love and respect for plants and animals in the home and classroom is the best foundation for a lifetime of comfort and interest in nature. This begins in the home as the child absorbs the family's attitude toward vegetables, flowers, gardens, house plants, weeds and trees.
Lessons that make a deep impression come from first hand experiences of plants; nothing can substitue for seeing, and smelling flowers in the home, and watching the daily growth of a flower or vegetable in the garden.
NATURE TABLE OR SHELF
A little table or shelf, in the home or classroom, dedicated to a changing array of beautiful objects from nature, is a delight to children. Some suggestions are a vase of flowers, leaves, a colored leaf in the fall, or a plant experiment (from the biology curriculum for the 3-6 class.)
It is important to keep this area very clean, beautiful, and constantly changing. A little tray with a magnifying glass could be kept on the nature table for closer observation.
In the 3-6 classroom a plastic mat, bucket and sponge; and a small drying towel are kept on a try under or near the nature table. One of the favorite activities is to carefully clean the table and the items on the table. Lay out a plastic mat and carefully remove everything on the shelf. If there are dry leaves or soil, show the child how to wipe them off the edge of the table and into his hand. Next show him how to dip and wring out the sponge, and to wipe the top of the table and the legs. With a drying cloth dry everything. Wipe and dry the plastic mat, then clean the sponge, hange the drying cloth up to dry and replace it with a fresh one. And replace the items on the table, letting the child decide on their arrangement.
Now the child knows how to carry out this activity at any time, independently of an adult's permission. This gives the child the feeling of really caring for the beautiful objects and not just looking at them.
It is important for a child to spend some time in the outdoors experiencing nature every day- in all kinds of weather and during all seasons. Going for a walk with a young child, if one follows the child's speed and interest, can open our eyes to the world of nature like never before...
Having these flower arrangements on the kitchen, living room, or classroom tables, even if they consist only of one small flower or fern in a vase, brings the child's attention to the beauty and variety of nature as he goes through the day. Don't e surprised if all the flowers and vases end up on the same table the first time.
If you are planning an outdoor environment for children at home or at school, be sure to include a space for wild specimens. Some of the best biological examples of leaf shapes and attachments, and so forth, can be found on wild plants such as dandelions and thistles.
First we point out, invite to touch, and give the vocabulary for experiences and concepts such as orange, red, small, long, rough, smooth, bumpy, hard and soft. This is a classification that even the beginning botanist can use.
Very soon we can give more. The young child wanted to know exact names of everything. Not just "flower" but "California poppy," and later, after exposure has stimulated an interest in plants, we can introduce the botanical names and further classification- such as kinds of leaf margins or flower corollas. Exposure to plants and animals initiates many important discussions which a wide vocabulary can enrich and make more satisfying.
Providing garden tools and a small wheelbarrow for the child, so that she can help to carry grass cuttings or anything else which needs to be transported, is an excellent way to involve the child with the yard work. Although the adult will often shy away from hard work, the young child will welcome important real work. This is the time to introduce gardening to children. Even one pot, inside or outside, with one plant, is better than nothing when there is no room for a large outside garden. It is important to show the child the end, as well as the begninning, of any of these activities. Sometimes endings can be separate activites so the child will be ready for them at the conclusion of a hard days work in the garden. For example, show the child exactly how to hold the shovel in order to carefully hang it up or place it where it belongs.
Wherever the adult is sensitive to the child's natural need for order, there is a place for every tool. Children are shown how to clean and put away the tools, how to hold the wooden handles and polish the metal. These activities give a great feeling of satisfaction, independence, and completion of a job well done.
Beautiful pictures of plants and flowers (photos, postcards, reproductions of great oil paintings) can be hung on the child's wall. You may be surprised at a child's preference for nonfiction books about nature when she has been kept in touch with nature.
Toys & Games
There are special toys or sensorial puzzles in the 3-6 class, such as the pink tower, the color tablets, and the sound boxes, that illustrate concepts such as large and small, hot and cold, loud and soft and so on. These materials have a specific way to be used because it is in this way that the child develps an understanding of the concept each is designed to teach. They can be thought of as puzzle toys because of the specific way to use them or to put them together. This work, and the understanding of the concepts, lead to an increadible level of creativity of the child in the home and school. It is rather like an artist who learns to use the canvas, the brushes, and the paints in very specific ways, and then creates remarkable individual pictures as a result is the basic work.
These sensorial materials are not necessary in the home, where parents can find other ways of introducing these expereinces in the daily life of children- feeling the temerature of the bath water, exploring tastes while baking, and color or size with toys, etc.
Along with these puzzle toys are those with open-ended use, but even these will have basic skills to learn before the creativity stage begins. For example, a child learns how to hold a nail and use a hammer safely before she makes pictures with the hammer board. Learning how to carry blocks and put them away is an important part of block play. When picking out toys it is helpful to imagine how long a child can play with them. If a child is included in the regular food preparation in the family and the real table setting and dish washing, he is not going to be interested in pretending to do these things with toys. If children are raised without early exposure to television and computers, they get used to the wondeful feeling of physical movement and work, and of reading and interacting with people, and have much less patience for passive entertainment.
The most important element in selecting toys and creating an environment for children is to include materials which will engage the child's mental faculties along with movement of the body and work of the hands, activities during which the child will enjoy the experience of focusing and concentrating, and find joy in the activity.