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Dear Emily

Disclaimer: This was written several years before being posted. The date of this entry therefore does not correspond with the date of this experience. My niece would kill me if I publicly suggested that she was playing with dolls yesterday!

Dear Em,

Yesterday we went to the shops with the intent of buying you a DVD of your current favourite movie (“Pitch Perfect” – I’m really grateful that you’ve picked a favourite movie that I enjoy so much too!). On the way through the maze of products we happened to pass the toy section on the way to the DVDs. As we did I saw you double-take at an aisle containing some dolls that used to capture your heart and imagination in the same way that Pitch Perfect does now! Before you were watching college students singing pop songs while love blossoms you were playing imaginary games with dress-up dolls. 

You’ve liked a lot of dolls in your lifetime – even briefly (and to my deep discomfort!) those horrible Bratz dolls that were inexplicably popular for a while! I’ll never forget the excitement on your face when you unwrapped a box of Lalaloopsy Dolls one mini-Christmas; I had imported them from overseas for you so you could have one that you’d fallen in love with in an online catalogue that wasn’t yet released in Australia. Then one day you found a doll that seemed to bridge the gap a little bit between your young innocent world of dolls and the ‘cooler’ world that you were heading towards. These dolls referenced classic horror figures – ‘Claudine Wolf’ the werewolf and ‘Laguna Blue’ the lake monster were your favourites!

It has been a while though – quite a long while – since you’ve played with your collection of Monster High dolls even in the privacy of your own room, let alone sought out the latest releases out in public. Yet your attention seemed caught and it was as though you were being dragged into the gravitational pull of nostalgia! So we stopped and looked, with you all the while trying to justify and rationalise. Casually assuring me “oh I’m so over these but I’m just a bit curious about what new ones have come out since I used to play with them”. Yes, of course, you used to play with them so so long ago back in the distant past of your long-forgotten youth! We checked a few out and chatted, then you spotted a set where you could ‘make your own’ Monster High dolls. Little limbs and accessories were carefully arranged in plastic case providing the opportunity to pick and mix to create a unique monstrous model. You spent quite a while looking at this. You even spontaneously announced, “You know, I’m almost tempted to get this, just because it’d be interesting to have a go at making one”. Yes, of course, not to play with, just for a bit of an interesting sociological experiment! I waited for you to ask me if we could buy the set. You seemed quite taken with it, and you’re usually pretty confident about making the request (but, to your credit, you’re equally understanding when I have to say no!). You didn’t ask. You examined it, and turned the box back and forth, and eventually put it back on the shelf so I asked “are you ready to head to the DVD section?”

When we got there we found that the DVD lacked special features, but was still at an especially high price! So I mentioned that maybe we should wait for a special edition to be released and buy it at that point. I thought you’d disagree and say we should just buy it now anyway. You didn’t disagree. You immediately agreed, no argument, no questions asked! As we walked back the way we came I saw your face and read your expression. I asked “You’re planning to ask me for something else aren’t you? You figure that since we didn’t spend that money on the DVD we could spend it on something else instead?”. You laughed, caught out, and admitted that was the plan! I reassured you that I only managed to guess it because that’s exactly what I would have done! I love those moments where I just look at you and see a mini-me (but the new and improved version!). It’s true that I also love the times when I see the inimitably unique “Emily” aspects of you, I don’t need to inject myself into all that is good about you because you have so much that you have created just for yourself, but it is a privilege that I am able to share so many traits with you. We giggled for a minute about our similarities, and you mentioned that your mum had pointed out that you’re “turning into Jecky”. Then you got back to the point and, again with that oh-so-casual tone, mentioned “I was thinking of maybe just grabbing that Monster High set, you know, just to check it out.”. The set was actually a bit more expensive than the DVD – I’d clocked the price when you first picked it up from the shelf – but I wasn’t going to say anything. In that moment, with you so painfully self-aware of the cognitive dissonance of simultaneously wanting to revisit your childhood while striving to grow up, I would never have tried to push you towards one or the other.

To be honest, it was lovely to see you having a moment of regression! You are so grown up in so many ways and I appreciate when you can let your guard down and just be little. This is why I still piggy-back you around, or pick you up in what you call a “Princess carry”, despite the fact that both leave me almost hobbling! I know that one day soon you won’t ask anymore, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to rush the arrival of that day. Every time you’re still willing to ask to be my little girl in a Princess carry I’m going to make sure I let you! Otherwise I will have only myself to blame when you’re “too cool” for it and I’m sad about it! So this was the same; I knew all I had to do was mention the price and it would have been just enough to knock you towards the self-conscious denial of your continued interest in dolls. So I kept quiet and we bought the doll.

When we got home I watched you play. I observed as you picked out the pieces and built your dolls. You needed my help to figure out how to attach the little wolf-like ears on one. I felt lucky to sit beside you playing dolls; it’s been a while since we’ve done that and I don’t know when we will again. You seemed calm and happy with the doll in your hand. The night before you had stayed up til 4am with your mates posting selfie photos on Instagram like a true teen (although you’re still, technically, a “tween”). Today your legs curled up under you as you braided the hair of your doll, just like the little girl of yesteryear.

You don’t have to choose Em. You don’t have to be one or the other – grown up or innocent, coolly cynical or sweetly optimistic, self-consciously mature or naively free. For a period of time in the next few years you might think you have to choose, and you might decide to hide certain aspects from your peers, but one day you will realise that balance and dichotomy make you richer. I believe you will become an adult who will always still be silly, funny, free and open of heart and mind.

I love you for who you were, who you are and who you will become. Yesterday, today, every day and always.

Montessori Books: Reviews & Recommendations

Montessori Books: Reviews & Recommendations

   

First things first: I love books!

 
Some of the many books that adorn my own home.

I am in a long-term love affair with the printed word. I love filling my bookshelves but my paper filled friends never seem to stay there for long and books pepper every surface of my house. They’re on my coffee table, my desk, my bedside table, on the couch.

When parents come to me to ask where they should start learning about Montessori I tend to point them towards books rather than websites (yes I realise it’s ironic that I run a website about Montessori and that I’m writing in a blog right now!)  There are some incredible Montessori blogs and websites out there and they provide an enormous wealth of information and inspiration. I simply believe, however, that books are the perfect place to begin and that they are necessary for developing an authentic, informed view of Montessori. I believe that if you only ever read books you could be absolutely confident that you had a genuine understanding of Montessori, whereas I don’t think you could feel the same if you only ever visited websites. You can, of course, combine both but I suggest starting with books because if you happen to visit a misleading website first then it can be hard to ‘unlearn’ what you find there.

There are a few reasons why printed books can be more informative than online sources...

1. Books tend to be a more reliable source (with a more consistent message across titles).
Anyone
can put their opinions on the internet. There is no real quality control online because it is an essentially self-published medium. I could write “The Montessori method requires all children to wear a uniform featuring a purple piglet standing under an umbrella” and publish it online if I wanted to (I just did!) It isn’t true, of course, but if someone Googled “Montessori uniform” it might pop up as a result. Very few people go through the necessary steps to identify whether or not an online source is reputable and the reason for that is that it is time-consuming. Looking up an author’s credentials takes time and energy that many people (especially busy parents) just don’t have to spare. That’s the beauty of published books: the publisher did that work for you! Somebody else has already taken the time to read the manuscript, research the author and objectively edit the work. When you read a book you can, therefore, have an increased sense of confidence that it is coming from a reputable source.
This is why, for instance, you will find a lot of contradictory information in Montessori websites but you will find that almost all Montessori books have a consistent message. The web entries may have been written by a person with no Montessori qualifications whatsoever whereas there is greater scrutiny on the manuscript of a Montessori book and on the person who wrote it.

2. The human eyes, and mind, are likely to absorb and recall printed words more easily than digital ones.
Perhaps this will change over time but, at present, it seems that people are more likely to thoroughly read, remember and comprehend words that are printed compared to those that appear digitally. Ferris Jabr, in Scientific American, explained that “evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way” (2013). Furthermore,  eye-tracking technology has discovered that most people “read” screens in an F-shaped pattern that means a great deal of information may be overlooked entirely (without us consciously realising it).

3. Books offer a concrete experience that we can absorb with our senses and keep over time.
There is something powerful about the tangible nature of books. We can physically hold them in our hands and enjoy the emotional and physical sensation of engaging with the words. When I read a book I underline phrases that strike me, I put post its on pages that inspire me, I crack the spine so that my favourite section appears naturally when I randomly open the cover. I get to know the book in a way that I can’t do with a website. I don’t feel connected to my screen in the same way that I do with a book (even though I spend long periods every day on my iPad and/or laptop!) I feel good about books and I enjoy returning to them. When you’re looking at Montessori sources you are trying to build a relationship with this new way of thinking about children. Anything that helps you to feel physically and emotionally connected to it on a long term basis is a good thing. This is why I suggest that parents or educators invest in books that they can call their own rather than just being visitors to an external, digital source.

 

So with those book-benefits in mind, I recommend the following texts for learning about Montessori.


I have broken these up into different subsections so you can focus on your own unique needs:

-Where to start (books for beginners)

-Straight to the source (Maria's own words)

-Activity ideas (if you want to set up environments and activities) 

-To convince a sceptic (if you're trying to help a friend, relative or colleague to understand your passion for Montessori)

-Supplementary books in line with Montessori (if you want to learn about education and parenting from a perspective that isn't "officially" Montessori but is still harmonious with the principles).

 

Where to start:


If you're brand new to Montessori, and you're looking for books that are comprehensive without being overwhelming, these are the titles for you.

 

The Montessori Way: An Education for Life
Tim Seldin & Paul Epstein

 

The Montessori Way manages to walk the line of being deep and comprehensive while still clear and accessible. Even the formatting of the book seems to have been selected for this purpose; rather than a thick ‘novel’ style book  it is a large ‘coffee table’ style size filled with text and colour illustrations that make you feel a bit like you’re reading a magazine (albeit a very enlightening one!)

The Montessori Way covers all of the fundamental Montessori concepts and provides insights into the real world of Montessori classrooms. Whether you read it in one sitting, or come back to chapters over time, you will be left with a much greater sense of understanding about this holistic method of education.

 

How to Raise an Amazing Child
Tim Seldin

 

I have heard more positive feedback from parents about this book than any other. Like “The Montessori Way: An Education for Life” it has a format that is designed to appeal to parents. How to Raise an Amazing Child (apparently the author isn’t too keen on that title but the publishers liked it!) is an inviting, modern format filled with colourful photographs and easy-to-read text. It mixes key philosophical points with really practical activity ideas. This is probably the best book for parents who are brand new to Montessori because reading it will give you a sense of “I get it” AND “I can do this!”

 

Understanding Montessori: A Guide for Parents
Maren Schmidt

This book, unlike the Tim Seldin titles, is more of a straightforward ‘novel’ style text. It breaks down the details of the Montessori philosophy and practices, dividing it into sections so that complex concepts seem comprehensible. It is a fairly comprehensive guide and reading it will leave you feeling much more informed. It demystifies many of the keywords and phrases you might have heard from Montessori educators so it is empowering in the sense that it starts to translate this special language of Montessori.

 

Straight to the source: Books by Dr Maria Montessori

Many of Maria’s works are published, from full length books to collections of lectures, and it can be hard to know where to start. Reading Maria’s own words can be enlightening but can also be overwhelming. On the one hand it is, undeniably, valuable to go directly to the source. Who better to explain Maria’s intentions and observations than Maria herself?! On the other hand, many of her words are a century old. They were written (or spoken and transcribed) in Italian in the early 1900s and have been translated into English and preserved across the decades. It is inescapable that some of her words will, therefore, feel outdated and sometimes this can blur the message. Furthermore, Maria’s personal style of writing is so passionate that it can border on a sense of spiritual transcendence. Some people find this uplifting, others find it a little off-putting. It is therefore vital that Maria’s words are read in context of the time, language and personality of their author!

 

The Secret of Childhood

My own much-loved copy!

I used to joke that this was my “bible” of Montessori (the Gospel according to Maria!). This is partly because of the incredibly reverent tone of her words but also because my copy even had those tissue-thin pages that the Bible often has. This is the book that really captures the emotion of Montessori. Maria’s sense of awe is palpable; she not only respects the child but is amazed by the child! This passion is contagious and as you read the words you find yourself transported to this state of wonder.

 

The Montessori Method


My oft-revisited and extensively annotated copy!

This is the book that I have probably revisited the most in my career and it is the source of the majority of the most famous Montessori quotes. Almost every page provides a phrase or sentence that just so perfectly encapsulates the principles, practices and values of Montessori. It is a very focused book, with a clear message to deliver, and I personally find that it is a perfect valance of philosophy and application.

 

Dr Montessori’s Own Handbook

This one is an interesting read because it offers insight into Montessori’s own classrooms at a very direct level. It contains pictures and explanations of the environment and materials with an extremely practical focus on the methodology of presenting lessons. I also enjoy it because it identifies the evolution of what we now call “The Montessori Method”. Although the vast majority of principles, materials and practices have remained relatively unchanged there are a few details in the Handbook that Maria slightly adjusted later in her career.

 

 

Activity ideas:

Many Montessori books do a wonderful job of exploring the philosophy but provide little ‘practical’ advice, particularly for parents. If your aim is mainly to find ideas for activities, with a bit of philosophy there as an explanation, then there are some books made just for you!

 

Teach Me to do it Myself

Maja Putamic
 

This book is essentially a straight “activity guide”. Only the first few pages are dedicated to the history and principles of Montessori, the rest is filled with clear directions for setting up Montessori activities. It is divided into sections so that you can focus on learning new practical life lessons, sensorial experiences, language or number games and scientific concepts. The book is aimed primarily at the ‘early childhood’ years of 3 to 6 year olds. It is ideal for parents (or educators) who either know the philosophy already and just want some activity inspiration or for those who might not feel ready to explore the complexities of the philosophy but do want to provide supportive, developmentally engaging experiences for their child(ren).

 

Child’s Play: Montessori games and activities for your baby and toddler

Maja Putamic

 

Child’s Play follows a similar format to Teach Me to do it Myself but this time focuses on activities for 0 to 3 year old children. It provides a clear, easy to understand layout with a few pages dedicated to each activity. It explains the materials you need, the presentation, the purpose and gives tips and tricks for ‘following the child’ by adapting or expanding on the experience. Both Child’s Play and Teach Me to do it Myself suggest activities that can be done with very little specialised ‘equipment’. They do not require you to purchase Montessori classroom materials (like Pink Towers or Number Rods) but instead focus on activities you can either create from found objects at home, or in nature, or with commonly available resources that you can purchase at affordable prices.

 

Montessori Play and Learn: A parent’s guide to purposeful play from two to six.

Lesley Britton

 

I’ll start by saying - you have to overlook the dated clothing in the photos! This book was published in the early 90s and it shows in some of the images (think little girls in Peter Pan collars and big scrunchies and boys in flannelette shirts under denim overalls!) Interestingly enough some of these fashions are now cool again in that ironic retro ‘hipster’ way but it can be slightly distracting (even off-putting) when your first glance at the book. But this is an instance where you literally shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The photos are dated but the information is timeless! It is an incredibly valuable resource with a balance of theory and practice intertwined in an extremely accessible way!

 

Aid to Life
Created through collaboration of various Montessori organisations

 

Aid to Life is actually a website, and all the information is available online, but they also have printed copies of booklets and posters (and DVDs) containing their ideas. I tend to suggest that parents actually invest in these printed versions - partly because I believe it is easier to absorb the information in that physical form but also because purchasing the copies helps to invest in the project! The proceeds can aid the development of further resources which can, in turn, aid the development of your child!

 

 

To convince a sceptic:

I personally believe it is usually ideal to offer people an invitation towards Montessori and then allow them to walk the path themselves. Being too ardent with convincing can actually make people defensive or lead them to believe that Montessori is some sort of cult trying to convert them! Sometimes, however, it feels necessary to be a little more intentional and persistent with your attempts to express the method to someone who is a little doubtful. For instance, if one parent is dedicated to using Montessori practices, but the other parent knows little about it or has concerns based on incorrect preconceptions, then it is useful to try to create a greater sense of partnership. Similarly, if you are a Montessori educator or Montessori inspired parent then you will have some people in your life whose opinions are of great value to you. If your close friends or family members don’t “get” Montessori, or don’t seem to respect the choices you’re making, then you might feel that you want to lead them towards an understanding of what you’re doing and why it is valuable. These books can help with that goal!

 
 Montessori Madness
Trevor Eisler

 

A persuasive and charismatic book written by a Montessori dad who fell in love with the method! It’s subtitle is “A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education” and that’s exactly what it offers. Trevor argues that Montessori is the answer to improving the public and private schooling system (he is based in the United States but the themes are universal) and he explains exactly why the method is so powerful. I have found that this book is particularly well-received by fathers because they can relate to the author’s voice. 

To get a glimpse at the power and passion of Montessori Madness watch this 321 FastDraw video based on Trevor’s work:

 


Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius
Angeline Stoll-Lillard

 

This book is literally and metaphorically weighty. It is heavy and dense both in terms of its physical characteristics and its content. Both of these factors make it perfect for someone who is really serious about presenting the case for Montessori. It relies not on rhetoric but on evidence to demonstrate Montessori’s value. Furthermore it takes a century-old method and places it in a very modern context and finds that it is still ahead of its time! It is the perfect riposte to sceptics who say “Montessori is all theory, there’s no real evidence that it works” or “Montessori is no longer relevant”.
(There is also a DVD of the same title available, as illustrated above).

 

 

In harmony with Montessori (but not officially Montessori)

There are many books that fit in perfectly with the principles of Montessori without actually using the “M word” or aligning themselves with the pedagogy. These can be extremely valuable resources, especially for parents.

 

Anything by Alfie Kohn

This is not even my full collection of Alfie Kohn books - several are on loan to friends or to parents from my preschool!

Alfie is one of my favourite authors and has written many books that confirm the Montessori perspective on promoting intrinsic motivation over extrinsic manipulation. Alfie himself does not suggest any relationship between his work and Montessori principles but that is what makes them so powerful to me. He has arrived at these conclusions independently, not out of a loyalty to Montessori but based on the evidence and research that he has assessed. It is very reassuring and affirming to have Montessori’s work validated by reputable independent sources. All of his books are eye-opening if you have the time to read them all but if you’re short on time I personally recommend starting with the following (in order): 

1. Unconditional Parenting
2. Punished by Rewards
3. No Contest
4. The Homework Myth
 

All his books are available from www.alfiekohn.org, along with many free and shorter articles that cover similar topics.

 

The Parenting 5 Series

Ruth Barker

I should declare an interest here because, unlike the rest of the books on this list, I sell these books and I also know the author personally. The Parenting 5 series is one of the newest kids on the block in terms of Montessori inspired work and it is also one of the most accessible. They have been written with busy parents and educators in mind so they get straight to the point and provide extremely practical, down-to-earth advice. They are like compact ‘how-to’ guides with each book in the series focusing on a different aspect of child development. They are designed to empower parents not only with information but with the tools to implement their newfound inspiration.

 

The Positive Discipline series

Jane Nelsen (and co-authors)

Montessori inspired parents often find that “discipline” is one of the hardest elements to understand and implement. Dr Montessori wrote extensively about subjects like freedom, self-discipline and self-correction but these lofty goals can feel a bit out-of-touch for parents who are just looking for practical advice. Parents often lament “I know I’m not meant to use rewards or punishments but what do I actually do when…” The Positive Discipline series offers answers on a very practical and detailed level. Their principles are extremely harmonious with Montessori but they are extrapolated to support you in almost any scenario you can possibly imagine.

My favourite aspect of the Positive Discipline series is that there are a range of books that focus on very specific situations and contexts. The series began with simply “Positive Discipline” but now you can access titles such as:

  • Positive Discipline the First Three Years
  • Positive Discipline for Preschoolers
  • Positive Discipline for Children with Special Needs
  • Positive Discipline for Teenagers
  • Positive Discipline for Childcare Providers

There’s even “Pup Parenting” for those of us raising fur-children!

The books are authored by Jane Nelsen but she partners with co-authors for each book in order to ensure that the most expert voices are heard. All books in the series are available from www.positivediscipline.com

 

 

WHERE TO BUY:

Firstly - you don’t have to buy all these books. You could start from the top, look only to the sections that interest you (such as ‘Activity Ideas’), you could buy one from each section for a more comprehensive collection or you could decide to start building your own Montessori inspired library! You have to make the decision for yourself because this is your learning journey. You make your own road by walking so you need to choose how to proceed from here. If you decide you want to purchase one, some or all then keep reading!


My instinct is to say “Montessori Books” (www.montessoribooks.com.au) because this is an Australian source operated by the Montessori Australia Foundation (MAF). MAF supports Montessori schools and parents as well as advocating for the recognition and advancement of the Montessori movement in Australia. Purchasing through Montessori Books helps to provide much needed revenue for MAF - they do so much and everything we can do to financially invest in their work helps to return support to the Montessori community. Sadly, however, Montessori Books has been offline for at least the last 9 months and I have no idea when it will become available again! I have my fingers firmly crossed that the “website redesign” (currently announced on the screen when you visit their URL) will be complete soon. I do recommend that you try checking Montessori Books first when you are making a purchase - just because they were offline as I was writing this does not mean they will be offline when you are reading it!

If Montessori Books is not available then the North American Teacher’s Association (NAMTA) has a web store on their website (http://www.montessori-namta.org/) Buying through NAMTA again allows you to know that your dollars are investing in supporting the Montessori movement.

 

You can, of course, buy most of the books from large multi-national retailers like Amazon. In fact they are often cheapest there. However I stop short of personally “recommending” Amazon (and the like) because big isn’t always better and when something is “cheap” it often means there are hidden costs. Cut price books have an economic impact on the author, the publishers and the smaller retailers who don’t have the buying power to compete with behemoths like Amazon. I started this post by mentioning that I love books and I therefore want their existence to continue. If I want the privilege of being able to hold a physical copy of a published book then I have to support the work that went into it by paying a price that reflects that effort. I also love Montessori and so I choose to try to support the movement by utilising retailers that feed some of the proceeds back into the Montessori community. It is up to each consumer to decide where to invest their money but I empower you to make informed choices and to think of it as exactly that; an “investment”, not just “spending”. Every dollar you ‘spend’ is actually an investment in something - whether it’s an investment in encouraging an author to take the time to write their next amazing book or an investment in the profit margins of giant companies that utilise tax loopholes to offer low prices while maintaining huge revenue streams and pushing ‘little guys’ out of business.

 

 

 

 

Dress for success: Clothing tips for young children

  

Dress for success in early childhood!

Some ideas and tips to help you scaffold your child’s experiences with developmentally appropriate clothing!

  

The following ideas are based on my observations of the activities, experiences and conversations of hundreds of preschool age children, in a wide variety of clothing. They are also based on my knowledge of principles of Montessori and Pikler.

 

Tip 1: Clothing should be functional for the context.

It can be tempting, with so many "cute" outfits available, to dress children more for aesthetics than functionality. This often leads to children wearing impractical clothing that looks great but gets in the way of their daily experiences. An easy, fundamental tip is to think about the context for those clothes, not just their appearance. We do this instinctively as adults - we have outfits we wear to work that are completely different to what we'd wear to a party or what we'd wear to the gym. We know we'd look completely insane if we turned up at yoga wearing a minidress and high heels...yet so often we send our children to preschool wearing what should be "dress up" clothes in a context where they will actually be more physically active than an adult in a yoga class!

                        
Perfect for a wedding day...                         perfect for every day!

Dress your child in clothes that respect the context of play!

 

Tip 2: Clothing should allow freedom of movement.

A lot of children’s clothing accidentally restricts movement, even if it “fits” properly. This can happen in many ways - from a girl’s skirt getting in her way when she tries to climb over the climbing frame through to a pair of jeans being too tight to allow a child to cross his/her legs. For babies there are other considerations - for instance, some fabrics are too “slippery” and prevent a baby from crawling, standing or stepping safely along smooth surfaces.

Dress your child in clothes that promote movement!

 

Tip 3: Clothing should encourage engagement

The purpose of childhood is to engage in exploration and experimentation. You might wonder what clothes have to do with this, but the truth is that certain outfits discourage engagement because the adults feels protective of the clothing! This tends to happen if the clothes were expensive or if they are “special” outfits. There are certainly times and places where special outfits might be appropriate, but they are not ideal on a day-to-day basis. For “normal” days don’t dress your child in anything so fancy or expensive that you would prevent activity to preserve the outfit! If you don’t feel comfortable with the outfit getting messy, dirty, wet, painted etc then it’s not really an appropriate outfit for early childhood. Every now and again I get a child at pre-school (usually girls, though boys have done it too) who announce that they “can’t” paint, or go in the sandpit, or play with the water trough or do some baking because “I can’t get messy”. Sometimes the child will elaborate by explaining “mummy/daddy says I can’t get my clothes dirty” but often the child has already internalised the anxiety enough to present it as their own concern rather than being able to identify that it is something they’ve absorbed from mum/dad.

Dress your child in clothes that welcome the splashes and smudges of childhood!

 

Tip 4: Clothing should counteract the weather

One of the most striking sentences I’ve ever heard at a Montessori conference is “There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes” I’m often surprised by how precious we can be about weather. It starts to drizzle and we run inside, despite the fact that most of us enjoy the luxurious sensation of a shower. It starts getting warm outside and we rush in to crank up the air conditioner - even making it so cold inside that we’d turn on the heater if that was the ambient temperature rather than our artificial one! Children deserve to view natural weather patterns as safe and enjoyable. They deserve to feel the beauty of a gentle summer rain, to cavort in the sun and create in the snow (if you’re lucky enough to get it where you live, or be able to travel to find it!). Clothes are our ally in making all types of weather “good”. If it’s cold outside, dress your child in lots of layers all the way up to a thick jacket. If it’s raining then provide a waterproof outer layer.

Dress your child in clothes that balance out the weather rather than avoiding the weather altogether!

 

Tip 5: Clothing should respect the sense of touch

Children arrive in the world with a set of tools for exploration; the senses. Your child uses these senses to absorb information and experiences. The sensory input that a child receives helps to form his or her understanding of the world around them. Perhaps the most active tool in the first years is the sense of touch. So it makes sense to offer as much positive and pleasurable input as possible! When you choose clothing for your child take a moment to feel it, not just look at it. Feel the texture of the fabric, run your hand along the inside to check if there are any ‘scratchy’ elements or rough stitching. Find clothing that feels beautiful without being distracting. This will help your child to feel good physically but also emotionally, as many children are frustrated or upset by uncomfortable fabrics but lack the ability to articulate what is bothering them. I’ve had many occasions where a mysteriously miserable toddler suddenly turns into a bundle of joy after we change their clothing!

Dress your child in clothes that feel beautiful.

 

Tip 6: Clothing should minimise distraction

Your child has a lot to take in. They are brand new arrivals on a fascinating planet filled with wonders and marvels. Adults don’t have to do much to “inspire” a child’s curiosity, because they are innately eager to explore and the world is naturally amazing, but we are responsible for removing obstacles that might hinder a child’s discoveries. This includes clothing! Your child’s clothing shouldn’t distract him or her from exploring the world. Unfortunately some clothing does present a distraction. This can be through tactile input - a scratchy tag that keeps bothering the sensitive skin on the back of a child’s neck. It could also be through the other senses - like a bracelet that keeps jingling. Sometimes it’s simply because there are so many removable elements of the outfit - scarves, hair clips, beanies, belts, headbands etc - and a child is distracted by the constant stress of trying to keep track of them (and the anxiety when pieces inevitably get misplaced).

Dress your child in clothes that don’t distract from the work of discovery!

 

 

 

Here are few age-specific tips:

For babies…

Allow bare feet. Many ‘onesies’ and other baby clothing covers the feet. This can be cute, and might seem cosy, but a baby’s feet and toes are quite sensitive. The baby can use his or her feet to take in sensory input but the toes and soles are also used in the development of balance and movement.

Covered feet might not ‘feel’ the solid connection to the floor as easily and smooth fabric on the feet might cause a hub to slip instead of grip when she tries to craw, stand or step.

 

Make dressing a partnership. When you help your baby to get dressed try to remember that you are partnering with a human, not playing with a doll.

Make sure that your interactions make it clear that you are doing this with your baby, not to your baby. Use your voice to explain each step of the process before it happens - this helps your baby start to participate actively in the process as well as helping to promote language development. For instance, you might say “we need to put your shirt on next. Hold out your arm and I’ll help put your sleeve on.” Say this slowly and pause to let your child absorb your words and react. You’ll be surprised by how engaged even the youngest babies can be in this process!

Liberate skin! The largest organ in the human body is our skin. Every inch of it is covered in nerve endings and receptors that take in information. Sadly, most of those inches are also covered in clothing every day!

Accessorise in moderation (and in context). Accessories (as explained above) can cause distraction to children and this is particularly true for babies. A baby who is left with a bib around his/her neck all day will likely find that it dangles in front of their eyes each time they bend forward towards something. This can distract their attention from that original goal. Similarly, hair accessories on baby girls might be useful for announcing gender but they can also be distracting for the wearer and her peers.

The baby girl herself might constantly be clutching at it, trying to pull it off (or pull it into her mouth!). I have seen quite a few instances of baby girls and their mothers locked in a silent battle over headbands, with the girl pulling it off or askew and the mother replacing it…only for the baby to move it and the mum to replace it…and so on! Even worse is that a headband can be a very appealing distraction for other babies! If a baby girl is attending a social setting - such as a playgroup or childcare - then headbands can actually become dangerous as other babies might (quite innocently) be enticed to reach out and grab it. This can cause distress for the wearer at best and physical injury at worst (as the grabbing baby’s lack of coordination might mean a fingernail ends up in an eye before the headband is actually caught).


For toddlers…

Start to offer choices. Toddlers love having the opportunity to show that they are capable, autonomous individuals. They are starting to become liberated from the shackles of dependency and oh boy do they like to assert that newfound freedom. This is one of the most amazing, wonderful and admirable elements of ‘toddlerhood’ but it is also a source of conflict between adults and children if the child has to look for their own ways to demand independence. An adult can offer productive, meaningful and helpful ways for a toddler to express his/her voice. When it comes to clothing this means offering limited choices within limits. Two options are ideal for a two year old - “this one or that one?” - and the adult should preselect those items so that both are equally appropriate. At this stage it is ideal for a parent to place two outfits out - on the bed or hung in a toddler sized wardrobe - so that the toddler can choose between them.

Toddler/preschool wardrobe from M.A.N Made Creations

 

Promote independence. A toddler will be starting to demand independence but the physical development doesn’t always keep up with that social impulse. To scaffold a toddler’s attempts at being “big” (eg. “I do it, I’m a big girl”) try to provide clothing that matches their level of motor coordination. A loose jacket with a couple of big buttons at the front gives a toddler a better chance at independent success than a tight jacket with ten tiny buttons.

Submit to the senses. A toddler is just starting to be able to understand and voice a lot of the sensory input they are experiencing and that is an exciting revelation for them! Where a baby might have cried because of a scratchy hat, now a toddler realises he/she can just rip it off, shout “NO!” and run away from it (while mum/dad/teacher chases behind!). The toddler’s senses are strong, and getting sharper with every day, and they are now more connected to the mind - and mouth - than before. So we need to respect this influence when choosing clothing options. If a toddler always rips his/her hat off then it may be fruitless to just repeatedly insist that it is worn, because the hat might genuinely be causing sensory input that is distressing or distracting. This can be solved proactively - by having toddlers go shopping with you and trying things on in the store - and retrospectively - by trying a few choices until one is found that suits the senses.

Self-sustaining shoes. This is another area where independence can blossom, both in terms of choice and management. A parent can offer a child the choice between two pairs of (appropriate!) shoes - “The red sandals or the green ones today?” Ideally these shoes should be fasted in a way that the toddler can manage independently, such as velcro straps. Furthermore, the shoes should respect the toddler’s activity level. Toddlers are busy and fast - and sometimes their intent moves faster than their coordination can manage. It is therefore vital that a toddler’s footwear is supportive and stable. A pair of Crocs or thongs do not offer much support and can slip off very easily right in the middle of a run/climb/jump, whereas sneakers or strapped sandals protect the foot while promoting movement.


For preschoolers…

Expanding choices. Preschoolers can handle more options in their choices and more steps in their instructions. At this age a child can go to a wardrobe and choose between a few options in multiple stages - “Please go pick a shirt, some pants, some underpants and some socks”. The adult still needs to be the architect of these choices behind the scenes - for instance swapping clothing choices according to the weather so that on a warm day there are only t-shirts, shorts and thin socks available in the child’s range of choices. I recommend having a small wardrobe for a toddler or preschooler to access independently and periodically (perhaps weekly) filling it with appropriate choices. The majority of the child’s clothes can be stored elsewhere, such as a regular sized wardrobe, but the small wardrobe is the ‘independent choice’ area. Freedom within limits!

Increasing independence. Preschool children are developing increasingly refined motor coordination, so it is time to start providing challenges in the way that clothing fastens! It is time for ‘trickier’ options such as smaller buttons, buckles on pants and tighter clothing. Provide demonstrations (with exaggeratedly slow movements) to show your child how each fastener works and allow plenty of time for him/her to master the art!

Fancier footwear. Again we can embrace the increased coordination of preschoolers by starting to offer shoes with buckles and laces. Yes these fasteners are challenging, but they are also possible. Most preschool age children are absolutely capable of tying their shoes if they have enough time and support to learn the movements involved.

 

 

 

Clothing during the toilet-learning period:

When your child is in the midst of learning how to use the toilet there are a few clothing tips that might minimise obstacles…

 

Keep it loose: Loose clothing is easier to get off quickly when a child suddenly realises he/she needs the toilet. Track pants with an elasticated waist can be pulled down in a matter of seconds, whereas a pair of tight jeans or leggings take more negotiating (and often end up wet before they are removed).

Keep it short: When it comes to t-shirts, dresses or skirts it is easier for a child to manage with shorter lengths. In relation to shirts this is because a long shirt can sometimes hang so low that the front covers the penis when a boy stands at a toilet or the back accidentally tucks under the bottom when a boy/girl sits down to urinate. In either case the bottom of the shirt ends up wet and the child can feel discouraged. This is similar for dresses and skirts for girls; if the skirt is particularly long then it’s tricky for a little girl to ‘hike’ it up enough to keep it out of the way. This reduces the independence that she can exercise when getting ready to sit on the toilet.

Keep it off: If you’re at home, or in a safe environment with close friends or family, then why not let your child boycott pants (or all clothes!) entirely! This prevents the first two hassles mentioned above as well as giving your child a lovely sensory experience. It also reduces the hassle of having to clean piles of ‘wet’ clothes if your child has accidents* along the way.

*Please note: A thick pair of underpants is usually enough to catch the first few ‘drips’ if the flow starts before the toilet is reached (or to ‘catch’ anything that slips out the back!) so your floors should be relatively safe (but you know your child’s body and you know your flooring - so if your child is prone to loose bowel motions and your carpet is expensive then maybe the pants-free option isn’t for you!)

Notes from a Pikler Intensive!

Notes from Pikler Pre-Intensive & Intensive:

The following is a collection of thoughts based on the information and inspiration provided at the Pikler Institute Intensive workshop (April 2015). For more information about the Pikler/Loczy Institute, or to find training opportunities, please visit www.pikler.org

 

The notes below are in my own words, except where indicated by quotation marks and sources. These quotes are from verbal lectures and, as such, do not have a reference to a written source. Please remember that the information below is my interpretation and understanding but it is, in no way, a definitive explanation of Pikler principles nor is it absolute 'fact'. These words are my way of expressing what I have learned from the talented, knowledgeable individuals presenting the Pikler course. I offer this information with the best of intentions to help provoke thought, reflection and perhaps further research. I apologise in advance if my understanding deviates from the precise Pikler explanations (a lot of this is new to me, I'm on the learning journey with you!)

I have tried my best to provide context for each of my thoughts but these were based on notes furiously scribbled throughout 8 days of 8 hour lectures/discussions! So please forgive any tangents or sudden shifts in topic. Each bold heading represents a new subject or self-contained thought!
 

Happy reading!

 

Being present in the moment.

Mindfulness is important when you are engaging with a child. It is important to be truly and consciously present in the moment. Many adults are physically present with the child but are intellectually or emotionally elsewhere (eg. worrying about bills that need to be paid or laundry that needs to be done) and this causes a disconnection between adult and child (and often causes the adult to ‘rush’ through the task). Mindfulness can seem like an overwhelming concept and you might ask “How can I possibly be mindful all the time when I am with a child?” It might be easier to think of it like this; you don’t have to worry about being mindful ‘all the time’, just be mindful right now…and now…and now! Take each moment as it comes and focus on being present in the present (rather than stressing about the future).

 

What’s Now?

Do we spend so much time thinking about “What’s next?” that we fail to appreciate “What’s now”. This relates to being mindful/present with children but it is also a useful thought in relation to a child’s individual development. In care settings the adults are often preoccupied with “planning what’s next” and even present observations are only used as fuel to feed the “what’s next” machine. Similarly, at home a parent can be so focused on preparing a child for the next stage (such as helping him/her start looking at letters/numbers) that they may be distracted from appreciating the wonder of what the child can already do. There is immense value in looking at the child from the perspective of “what can this child do now” and appreciating that for its own sake rather than just as the precursor to the next step.

 

It’s the ‘how’, not the ‘when’.

On a similar note, Beverly encouraged us to remember that: “It’s not the when, it’s the how”.

For example, the milestone of a baby sitting up unaided. Instead of asking ‘when did he start sitting on his own?”, consider “how does he sit?” - is his spine straight, or are his shoulders hunched, does he remain comfortably upright for long periods or does he frequently lose his balance.

When we consider the child’s developmental journey the ‘when’ is not particularly useful or helpful. There is such a broad spectrum in terms of a healthy timeframe that it does not reveal very much to think about precisely when a child achieves a particular skill or milestone. It is much more important to think about how a child engages with a particular movement or ability as it reveals more about the child’s individuality and development.

If we focus on the how, not the when, then parents and carers will feel liberated from the pressure to try to rush the child towards “early” achievements. A child that is artificially pushed may hit the milestone “early” but the “how” this is done may always be negatively impacted. The child may do that thing in a much better way if he/she is given the freedom to do it whenever is natural.

 

Free play without adult intervention.

On how the Pikler children can engage in free, self-directed play for long periods without looking for adult assistance:

“These children do not expect to be rescued”
-Beverly Kovach

 

Responsibility

On allowing children to take responsibility for themselves and their experiences (and not turning it into a reward by saying “only the most careful child can help carry the dishes”);

“Responsibility is not a privilege, it is a right.”
-Anna Tardos

 

Two types of balance

There are two types of balance; static and dynamic.

Static is the type of balance that we use to hold a single position (such as standing on one leg, or when we sit upright and keep our back straight).

Dynamic balance is what we use when we are in motion or moving between positions.

A young child, who is developing balance and body awareness through free movement, needs to develop both types of balance. This process is hindered if adults intervene with the child’s movements. The child’s static balance can be impacted when an adult tries to use artificial resources to ‘aid’ the child, such as placing the child in contraptions that make him/her sit up before he/she is actually ready. This might artificially make the child ‘sit’ whilst in the contraption but it does not let the child feel, experiment with and achieve true static balance because the contraption does the balancing for him/her. The child’s dynamic balance can be affected in similar ways such as when an adult, albeit with good intentions, tries to “help” a baby with movement by always holding both of the child’s hands while he/she is trying to walk. This might make the child walk “sooner” but he/she is not truly experiencing the reality of dynamic balance. It can be hard to ‘undo’ muscular and procedural memory, so when the sitting contraption is removed or when the adult hands are no longer holding on, then the child will have difficulty letting go of the habits while trying to readjust to the new realities of gravity and unaided positions/movement. This can result in strange, uncoordinated or uncomfortable positions/movement.

  

Dress for success.

The first work of the baby and child is to explore. To explore the newfound ‘world’, explore through the senses and explore movement. Yet children are often dressed in clothing that inhibits that exploration. Tight or impractical clothing can prevent the child from using all of his/her senses and/or from moving naturally. So parents and carers are encouraged to help the child “dress for success”.

It is ideal for a child to wear clothes that:

-Allow freedom of movement,

-Do not cover the hands or feet. The hands being uncovered allows for tactile sensory exploration. The feet being uncovered allows the child to experiment with finding equilibrium and balance in a natural barefoot position, as socks cause slipping and shoes interfere with the centre of gravity and posture.

-Can become messy without causing distress to the parent/carer. This is because many of a young child’s sensory explorations will have potentially ‘messy’ results - and if the adult is worried about a special/expensive/fancy outfit being destroyed then that adult will be more likely to prevent or restrict the experience.

It is obviously not possible for a child to be barefoot 24/7 and there are times when it will be totally appropriate for a child to get ‘dressed up’ for special occasions. The “dress for the child’s success” mantra should be considered a default setting, something that guides the normal clothing choices, but not as a constant rule.

 

The joy of learning.

Many adults tend to be ‘outcome oriented’, focusing more on the final product than the process. The words of Magda Gerber remind us that:

“The joy of learning does not depend on the result.”

The child’s experience is what counts. We should not measure a child’s experience by our adult perceptions of an “outcome” (or a lack thereof). This is partly because there are many unseen processes occurring that are of ‘developmental value’ to the child, but also because joy is valuable too! In reality every experience a human has will impact some area of our development or abilities whether it is social, emotional, cognitive or physical but if we just pretend that an experience could have zero developmental value other than joy, then the joy itself would still be enough. 

A baby, or a child, should be allowed joy. Many adults, especially in care, become so focused on ‘developmental outcomes’ that are are actually scared to value or even allow experiences that don’t seem “educational” in some way. But joy has value. Joy is valuable. Adults just need to catch up and start valuing it!

 

Flooring

The Pikler Institute uses, and recommends, wood flooring for babies based on the fact that it is a permeable surface and assists with the development of balance and movement.

 

Movement as an external manifestation of what is happening inside.

We cannot see inside the child’s mind. We can’t witness the sparks of every neural connection in the making, or read a road map of those that already exist. We cannot observe an emotion itself, or a memory or desire, and the baby or toddler doesn’t have the language to express it.
What we can see is what the child does. What the child does can tell us what the child knows. The child’s movements are an instrument for him/her to express intelligence, desires, experience and emotions.

 

When should an activity/experience end?

In most care environments, and even in many homes, it is the adult who decides when a baby’s activity is finished. This can happen in many forms; a well-meaning adult trying to redirect the baby to a new activity or a carer announcing that it’s time for a transition in the daily routine (from ‘play time’ to ‘story time’ to ‘song time’ to ‘lunch time’ to ‘outside time’ to ‘play time’ again etc; many child care centres have an unnecessarily high number of these transitions each day). In the Pikler institute the adult does not interrupt to identify the “conclusion” of a baby’s free explorations. Instead the ethos is: “Each infant must decide whether he has exhausted the limits of his own reality.” -Anna Tardos

 

The hands welcome the child.

Anna Tardos points out that:
“Hands constitute the infant’s first connection to the world”.
As such, the movements we make with our hands can define the child’s understanding of the world. Rushed, hasty, insensitive touching can teach the child that the world is impatient, uncaring and unpredictable. This can result in a baby who is anxious, nervous and adverse to new experiences. On the other hand (pardon the pun!), the baby can learn to feel safe, supported and engaged through touching that is caring, consistent, slow, tender but confident. 

 

On how a child builds a rich vocabulary.

The Pikler principles do not include talking endlessly at a child to try to artificially stimulate the development of language. Nor does it involve using ‘baby-talk’ (babble or ‘cutesy’ voices). Instead the focus is on rich, clear, contextually-relevant and well-constructed language delivered primarily through one-on-one caregiving moments. 
“They will get the vocabulary when you talk to them like a human being from the beginning.” -Janet Gonzalez-Mena

 

The child as a partner.

One of the most striking features of Pikler caregiving moments (such as nappy changes, feedings etc) is that the child is clearly a partner in the process. It is happening with the child, not to the child. The child is empowered, engaged, responsive and involved. It is clear in these moments that: “the child is a participant, not a recipient.” -Janet Gonzalez-Mena

 

There is love both at home and in childcare, but it is different in each domain.

The Pikler carers are not instructed to have “love” as a conscious goal. They do not have to “love” each child because safe, supportive and nurturing caregiving can exist in that context without love. The carer can learn the practices and procedures necessary to make the child feel valued, supported and respected without “love” having to be involved. It is, however, important that the carer’s interactions are consistently of a high standard because the absence of “love” in the relationship means that smaller elements have more of an impact on how the child feels about that person (or in that environment). 

It is true that many carers do come to feel a sense of ‘love’ for the children in their care. But this is not a prerequisite for care, nor is it automatic or immediate. It is also a different kind of love from what exists between a parent and child. A carer might ‘love’ a child, or all children, in their group but it is not the same depth and intensity as the love that a mother or father feels for their child.

The parent, on the other hand, immediately has love on their side. There is, and should be, love between parent and child. The power and influence of that love is the reason that loving parents do not have to be as consistent as a childcare worker. A parent can make more mistakes because the love is there to cushion the child in that experience. If an adult in a childcare environment was to use a harsh voice - snapping, or even shouting, at a child - then that child could be deeply impacted and could develop long-lasting anxieties about that person (or environment) based on that one experience. A parent at home might occasionally speak to their child in a less-than-ideal tone but the child still knows that he or she is loved by that parent and so the impact of the harsh words is not as significant. The mistakes are mitigated by love!

This is why parents should not feel intimidated by the seeming ‘perfection’ of high quality care workers. Carers are putting constant and conscious effort into shaping every word that we say, every action that we take, as it is our profession and our responsibility to make every interaction as positive and high-quality as it can be. In order to support your child we must be our best selves in every moment. Our very best is designed to make a child feel safe, respected and cared for. But our very best is still only half as good as a parent’s ‘average’ because the parent has love on their side! The positive impact of love is even more powerful than the very best ‘care’.

Ultimately we must remember that, the teacher might come to love the child because she cares for him; but the parent cares for the child because she loves him.

(Please note: The above sentence uses ‘she’ for the teacher/parent and ‘he’ for the child simply for ease of reading. It applies equally to male teachers, fathers and female children.)

This concept can be expanded on by considering the analogy of the plant.

Anna Tardos used this to explain the difference between caring in an institution (like child care) and caring at home. She speaks of a plant that grows naturally in the wild, in its natural habitat. In that environment there is no conscious effort to make the plant grow because the right conditions are present naturally. If that plant was carefully uprooted and transplanted to a pot elsewhere then the conditions change. Suddenly the gardner tending to that plant will need to put deliberate, detailed thought into how to nurture it. The gardner needs to know exactly what type of soil to use, when to water it, how much water it needs, how much light (and what kind) it needs and so on. To keep the plant healthy and growing the gardner must seek detailed information about how to care for it and must follow strict routines and procedures, at a high degree of attention and accuracy, to provide the right conditions in this artificial environment. Yet that plant would have continued to grow in nature without that degree of attention.

The gardner doesn’t make the plant grow better than nature does; it just takes more conscious effort to achieve the same level of health and growth.

This is analogous to the fact that a childcare worker needs to put more conscious and deliberate effort into supporting the child, whereas the child’s parents (their ‘natural habitat’) do not need to think as meticulously about each interaction because they are instinctively providing the most vital conditions. This is another reason why parents do not need to feel so guilty or anxious about their parenting “techniques” - a loving home is the right environment to support the child’s growth naturally!

 

The Learning Pyramid

The National Training Laboratory, in Maine, identified the degree to which various learning methods impact the learner. They arranged this in a triangle for illustrative effect but they are as follows;

“Passive” teaching methods:

Lecture = 5% retention

Reading = 10% retention

Audio-visual experience = 20% retention

Demonstration = 30% retention

“Participatory” teaching methods:

Group discussion = 50% retention

Personal practise = 75% retention

Teaching others - 90% retention 

This is relevant to the way that adults learn in higher education or professional development, but we can also apply these guidelines to the way that we interact with children. If our teaching primarily consists of monologue lecturing then we can’t expect the child to retain more than 5% of what we say. If we engage participatory learning then we can anticipate much higher retention.

 

The child reaps what we sow.

Erik Erikson had a theory of eight psychological stages of development, beginning with the infant who he believed was in the stage of “Trust versus Mistrust” for the first year of life. Erikson believed that in this stage the baby is learning whether or not to trust people, to trust environments and to trust the world. The baby is seeking patterns to make impressions about what the world is. By giving the child predictable, consistent and quality care we are able to let that baby form a view of the world as a safe, caring place filled with safe, caring relationships. Erikson’s thought is that the caregiving we offer to the child in this first year will form the foundation of their model for trusting relationships (or the lack thereof!) He framed this from the perspective of the baby as “I am what I am given”.

 

Conditioning (in a good way!)

The concept of ‘conditioning’ has a negative reputation in the education and care sector because it has been applied in inappropriate or negative ways, as part of the passive ‘transmission’ model of education or to manipulate/force the child into behavioural responses.

But those outcomes are examples of how conditioning can be used in negative ways, it does not mean conditioning itself is necessarily negative. If we remove those negative connotations for a moment and just think of ‘conditioning’ as a psychological process then all it really means is that the brain learns what it is given. If a particular stimuli, or condition, is presented to a learner repeatedly then it is absorbed and can result in particular reactions. This is actually an important fact for a parent or carer to be aware of because we are sometimes ‘conditioning’ a child without even realising, for better or for worse.

It can happen in negative ways - such as the child who is accustomed to being picked up roughly or abruptly who is therefore ‘conditioned’ to recoil every time the adult approaches.

It can, however, also be used to help the child develop positive associations. If the carer is consistently respectful, careful, deliberate and confident with picking up the child then the child will develop a ‘condition’ towards reacting positively; perhaps reaching out or putting the body in the position that best suits that moment.

The latter example refers to the fact that humans develop postural memory through conditioning. Even adults utilise postural memory - the words I am typing right now are an example of my own postural memory. When I was a teenager I took typing lessons. Through repetitive exercises I developed a muscular memory of how my fingers should move but I also learned a postural memory of how my body needs to be positioned for this process. I sit differently according to whether I am reading a book, writing on paper or typing on a keyboard. When I’m typing my back, arms and shoulders all assert a specific posture in order to find the right position on the keyboard. I don’t think consciously “I must align my body into my typing posture” - it just happens. It is deeply ingrained and I would find it very difficult to change it now. The same happens for babies. They start to develop memories of specific postures associated with particular events or experiences. Adults have a big influence on the child’s development of these postural memories. It is our responsibility to provide the type of interactions and experiences that help children to develop positive, natural and comfortable postural memories.

 

Please don’t let me fall apart!

Infants do not instinctively have a sense of “body unity”. As adults we take for granted the knowledge that our body is a ‘whole’, that each of our limbs are part of one whole rather than multiple separate entities. Babies do not immediately know this. They need to learn this. Until they learn body unity there is an instinctive reaction to being handled by a limb, as though the baby is alarmed that they will ‘fall apart’ due to a limb being somehow disconnected from the body. If an adult reaches out to lift or hold the baby’s hands, arms, feet or legs then the child will likely reflexively startle or pull back. It is therefore important, at this early stage, to hold, lift and handle the baby in a way that promotes a unity of body. That is, holding from the ‘trunk’ not the limbs or lifting by supporting the whole back.

 

Technique and attitude

The Pikler trainers speak a lot of the difference between “technique” and “attitude”. Technique can be taught; it is tangible, concrete steps and processes. Attitude is something a little more abstract, which can be developed over time but can not be instantly transmitted. The repetition of respectful techniques can mould an appropriate attitude - but it is also very helpful if the technique is already present in the person who is learning the techniques!

There is one element of adult attitude that is vital from the beginning; an intrinsic curiosity and interest in the child.

(This is another reason why parents have a headstart! Every parent has an innate interest in their own child!)

Anna Tardos says “If the adult does not have a real, genuine interest in the child then even the best technique won’t help”.

We need technique and interest; a curiosity about who the child is, what he can do, what he knows, an interest in what the child needs from us (and doesn’t need from us!) and a desire to learn more about this little person in our care.

Promoting Language at home: Part 2

To reiterate from PART 1: My top three tips for promoting literacy and language skills at home are…

  • Talk and listen!
  • Read together!
  • Promote language as holistic!

To expand briefly:

Talking and listening is an incredibly powerful way of helping your child to develop language skills. It allows you to model all sorts of conversational and semantic skills, including tone, cadence, inflection and context. You can also use these conversations to introduce new words to your child in a relevant manner, helping your little one to develop a broader and deeper vocabulary.

Reading together is so simple yet so effective. It not only introduces language but helps your child to develop a positive relationship with words through that special shared experience. Having good quality books in your home environment helps your child to build the relationship between spoken and written language. It’s ideal to have books where your child can reach them independently as well as taking the time to read them together.

Promoting language as holistic means finding opportunities to explore words and meaning as they apply to other subjects. Rather than viewing words as a separate subject of their own – like “English” – a young child should view literacy as a perfectly natural and intertwined part of every learning experience! So if your child spontaneously shows interest in a dragonfly that’s fluttering through your garden then you can use that moment to introduce the nouns, verbs and adjectives that might relate to that little creature. There are so many of these natural, embedded language experiences each day and they can be more impactful than planned activities because they are relevant to your child’s natural curiosity!

 

Teaching language lessons at home: 

There are also lots of ways to integrate more ‘formal’ language experiences, but it is important to be balanced and positive in your approach. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to “teach”. Remember that your child has an incredibly powerful absorbent mind, so a lot of language learning will happen very naturally. Try to ignore the ‘peer pressure’ of friends (or commercials!) making you think that other children are reading or writing fluently in early childhood. The vast majority of primary schools have absolutely no expectations that a child will be reading or writing by the time they enter their first year of school. So any ‘formal’ reading or writing skills acquired during early childhood are an added bonus, but they are not a prerequisite for school and they are not “the norm” for most children. By all means create lessons, arrange environments and promote experiences but don’t feel that you need to pressure your child.

Part 2: Language activities

Early language games

I spy games:

It's an oldie but a goodie! Play "I Spy" with your child but use phonetic initial sounds. You can play this spontaneously or with a structured activity. On a walk to the park you might spontaneously say "I spy something beginning with p" for 'plant' or "Something beginning with c" as you walk past a cat. At home you might more deliberately gather some items from around your home for the game - a sock, a book, a pencil, a teddy and a glass (just make sure you name the objects first so there's no room for confusion - that is, say "this is a teddy" so your child doesn't call it a "bear"). Then say "I spy with my little eye something beginning with g".

Rhyming games:

Rhyming is such a useful language skill and it helps to train the ear to listen for 'end sounds' (which can be harder to identify than beginning sounds). You can rhyme spontaneously through songs and stories. You can also arrange activities such as rhyme matching with objects (shown below). In our example below we have three pairs - a glass star and a car, a toy fox and a box, a toy cat and a toy rat. We name all the objects first then place one of each pair into the bowl. The child then finds each partner! Little objects tend to fascinate children so they are a great way of drawing in your child's interest! You can also use cards (either purchased or home made) to sort by rhyming sounds. In the second picture below we have a pile of 'at' sounds and a pile of 'ug' sounds with cards to sort (cat, rat, mat, hat, bat and slug, jug, mug, rug, bug).

  

 

Card games:

There is no end to the possibilities for card games that involve language. Your child doesn't necessarily have to be reading the words - you can do the reading while the verbal language washes over your child and they absorb the sight of the written words. The card games can focus on vocabulary and nomenclature - not so much on 'reading' or 'letter sounds', but just on introducing new words and concepts. For instance, in the photos below we are matching baby animals to their parent while introducing the terms associated with these lift stages - calf and cow, puppy and dog, duckling and duck etc. 

 

 

Teaching Letter Sounds

A Montessori classroom will use 'Sandpaper Letters' (aka Tactile Letters) to initially introduce letter symbols. The use of the tactile element helps to promote a muscular memory, as well as a visual recognition, of the letter shapes. So it is ideal if you can replicate this at home. You may be willing to invest in Sandpaper Letters or you might choose to make your own! You can do this by printing large letters from your computer (ideally onto card!) and then making them 'tactile' with sandpaper or felt. If you have the patience then you can actually cut pieces of sandpaper or felt into the letter shapes and secure them. If you'd like a quicker version you can place glue over the top of each letter and pour on some sand (or polenta or glitter - anything that will create a rougher/different texture from the card). You might need to fix these up regularly, as they won't be as long lasting as commercially produced Sandpaper Letters, but they can still get the job done!

Once you have your Letters you can use Three Period Lessons to introduce each letter sound and associate that sound with its symbol! Remember that the Montessori approach is to teach PHONETIC SOUNDS first. That is, 'a' for 'apple' not 'a' for 'angel'. 

To do this choose a pair of letters at a time that contrast in appearance and sound. For instance, b and d are a bad couple because they look too similar. Similarly, s and f aren't an ideal match because they sound similar phonetically. 

Once you have two contrasting letters following these steps (using 's' and 'p' for example):

Period 1:

Place one letter in front of the child. Trace the shape with your fingers as you say its sound. Repetition is helpful here! Your child should trace the letter and can try the sound too.

"This is sS. This is s."

Remove that letter and place the second letter in front of your child. Repeat the process.

"This is p. P. This is p."

Period 2:

Place both letters in front of your child.

"Point to s" (wait for your child to point).
"Point to p" (wait for your child to point).

Move the letters around to change their position and ask again. 

"Point to p(wait for your child to point)

"Point to s(wait for your child to point)

If your child consistently identifies them correctly, move to Period 3.
If your child makes errors when identifying the letters then return to Period 1.

Period 3:

Place one letter in front of your child. Ask,

"What is this?"

Wait for your child to articulate the phonetic sound for this letter. Then remove it and place the other letter in front of your child and again ask,

"What is this?"

Wait for your child to answer.

You may then like to conclude by placing both letters on the table and saying "Today we learned s and f." You might then like to ask your child "Shall we play a game with these letters?" (such as the initial sound games outlined below) or you might say "I'll show you where we can put these letters on the shelf so you can choose them again another time". 

Polenta / sand tray

As soon as your child starts exploring the letters you can introduce a sand/polenta tray. It helps to reinforce the recognition of the letters while also promoting pre-writing skills. Place your tactile letters close to a tray/box holding fine sand or polenta. (You can place that tray/box onto a larger tray if you want to contain spills!). The child traces the shape of the letter then recreates those movements in the sand. 

The example here actually shows numerals, but it is the same set up for letters!

Using Letter Sounds for Initial Sound Games

Initial sound games are great fun and help to reinforce the sounds associated with letter symbols. You can play these with your child or set them up as independent explorations. 

Start with one letter at a time. Place your tactile letter (or a printed letter) on a tray with a collection of objects (or printed pictures) that begin with that sound. So you might choose 's' first and collect a sock, sponge, scissors, spoon etc. This just helps your child to relate the sound to the letter symbol. 

Then you can progress to initial sounds sorting. Start with 2 or 3 letters at a time and arrange sorting activities where your child can place objects alongside their 'initial sound' letter. As your child masters this you can introduce more and more letters at a time or even progress to matching one object to each letter of the alphabet!

  

You can use items found at home (sock, spoon etc) or you can collect little 'objects'. If you have trouble finding these you can print your own pictures (websites like Pixabay.com allow you to use free images!).  

 

Using letter sounds for word-building

Once a child is comfortable with letter sounds they can start 'word-building'. This construction tends to happen before deconstruction (reading) and before writing. So your child may not be able to read yet and may not be able to actually write letters, but he or she may be able to make their own words if they have access to the right materials!

To engage in word building your child needs a material that has multiples of each letters in a form that can be moved around and reused. In a Montessori classroom we use the Moveable Alphabet. You may be willing to invest in one (there are cardboard versions available that are cheaper than the wooden sets, though they don't last as long), or you might prefer to make your own. You can make your own either by printing cards or with materials from a shop (eg. magnetic letters, threading letters etc).

Whether you’re making your own or buying them, remember that plain, consistent colours are ideal to minimize the ‘distractions’. Montessori Moveable Alphabets are usually red and blue or pink and blue, with the consonants in one colour and the vowels in the other. Highly contrasting colours are used to differentiate between the two (eg. pink and blue) and are a deliberate ‘point of interest’ to show the difference between consonants and vowels. This is particularly helpful because short phonetic words tend to follow the pattern of consonant, vowel, consonant – so the colours help narrow the field down when a child is searching for a letter. If you’re making your own you can stick to these colour schemes – if you’re buying them then it’s ideal if you can find a set with one colour for consonants and the other for vowels, but the next best thing would be to have all letters in the same colour (not a different colour for each letter, or several colours).

The advantage of buying a set, rather than making them, is that a physical ‘letter’ can be held to give a tactile feeling of the letter shape. A printed letter card is only a visual cue, without that additional feeling.

 

The cardboard version of the Moveable Alphabet showing contrasting colours for consonants/vowels and the 3-dimensional (not printed) letters to offer a tactile sensation as well as a visual.  

If you make your own letters you can present them in a sorting box, such as a craft box purchased from Spotlight/Lincraft, or a fishing tackle box purchased from a hardware store. 

Place this on the shelf and allow your child to experiment! He/she might build words spontaneously from personal creativity, or you might also like to provide objects/pictures for inspiration. If your child knows the letters c,a,t,d,o,g then place a toy cat and a toy dog next to the Moveable Alphabet to let him/her try making those words!

 

Using letter sounds for reading 

Once your child is familiar with lots of letters, and has succeeded with some word building, you might like to try reading! 

Again you can make your own materials here. Remember to use phonetic words, since your child knows letters by phonetic sound, and start short! Nouns are also a logical place to start because they are most concrete (that is, it's easier to sound out the word 'cat' because it's a familiar noun rather than sounding out 'cut' which is a slightly more abstract verb). 

You can, again, collect objects or make cards with phonetic nouns. Make a word card for each object/picture and let your child 'sound out' the words to match them. 

You could, for instance, print (and laminate if you can!) a set of cards to match little toys or printed pictures for phonetic nouns like;

cat, dog, peg, hat, tap, bat, rat, log, cup

Once the shorter words have been mastered a child can try longer words like;

rock, sock, picnic, clock, camel, frog, duck, magnet, kennel, piglet

Don't be alarmed if your child engages in some non-linear strategies, such as 'guessing', 'whole word recognition' or going from the 'initial sound'. These are problem-solving skills and reading skills. As adults we don't read by sounding out a word letter by letter, so it's not a bad thing if your child sometimes implements other strategies such as instantly recognising a familiar word or using a few known letters to 'guess' the word. 


Your child might also enjoy playing the “Noun Game” and “Verb Game”.

The Noun Game consists of a series of cards with phonetic nouns written on them. Your child sounds them out then uses blue-tack to fix the label to the relevant object in the house. It's like a treasure hunt! 
 

Short Phonetic Nouns around the house:

tap, mop, mat, pen, cup,

 Longer phonetic nouns:

blanket, sink, desk,

  

The Verb Game again utilises cards but this time they state phonetic actions! To play together you can hold up a card for your child to read, or your child can play independently by picking the cards. Your child sounds out the letters and performs the corresponding action!

Short Phonetic Verbs:

run, hop, kiss, tap, hiss, sit

Longer phonetic verbs:

stomp, blink, wink, swim, clap, drink, snap/click (fingers), stand, jump

 

After your child masters the reading of single words you can start introducing phrases and sentences. Initially your child could build phrases or sentences, by putting together an article, adjective, noun and verb (each on a different little card). You can start with phrases first, like "big pig" and "wet frog", before introducing the other grammatical elements needed to build it into a full sentence, "A big pig" then "A big pig grunts". After your child is building sentences then he/she can read sentences that you've prepared. 

  

 

It is important to remember that the possibilities are endless! Don't get too caught up on official "Montessori" lessons - there is no need to follow every lesson or use official materials (unless you are formally homeschooling your child with the Montessori curriculum). Just take some inspiration from Montessori language principles - start with phonetics, involve muscular memory and movement whenever possible, allow for repetition, let word building come before reading and provide indirect preparation for writing. From there be creative! Invent your own games, be spontaneous and - above all else - let language be fun and natural! Don't turn it into a chore or a laborious lesson, let your child explore the joy and excitement of language! 

 

A few tips and extra resources!

Where to find ‘objects’ for language games:

Little objects and miniatures for language activities can be found in all sorts of places. Once you start looking you will be amazed at how regularly you find something perfect!

 

“Two dollar shops” (like Cheap as Chips, Ned’s and so forth) often have little objects at very affordable prices. Toy stores may also have doll’s house furniture and accessories that are suitable. Another surprisingly useful resource is erasers! Lots of stationery shops (or department stores like Kmart) have novelty erasers that are shaped like different objects.

 

What materials do you need to purchase?

Potentially none! You could absolutely create a rich, inspiring language environment without spending a single dollar.

If you would like to purchase materials – the most fundamental Montessori Language materials would be the Sandpaper Letters and the Moveable Alphabet. These can be repurposed for a range of experiences so they can be a very worthwhile activity.

To buy Montessori materials try Think Education for the most reliable quality, or consider cheaper sources like Educating Kids or Amazon or secondhand materials from eBay. 

 

There are also many other language materials and games that can be purchased. Whenever you consider an item just ask yourself whether you could make it yourself, and then weigh up the financial cost of the purchase versus the time-cost of preparing the material yourself.

 

Blogs / online resources with more literacy ideas:

 

http://carrotsareorange.com/montessori/montessori-home/

 

http://www.stayathometerritory.com/search/label/Montessori

 

http://www.montessori.org.nz/node/288

 

http://www.montessorichild.com.au/blogs/news/14952693-supporting-literacy-at-home-early-childhood

 

Free Montessori printables for making your own cards:

 

http://www.montessoriprintshop.com/Free_Montessori_Downloads.html

 

http://www.montessoriforeveryone.com/Free-Downloads_ep_35-1.html

Promoting language at home: Part 1

My top three tips for promoting literacy and language skills at home are…

  • Talk and listen!
  • Read together!
  • Promote language as holistic!

To expand briefly:

Talking and listening is an incredibly powerful way of helping your child to develop language skills. It allows you to model all sorts of conversational and semantic skills, including tone, cadence, inflection and context. You can also use these conversations to introduce new words to your child in a relevant manner, helping your little one to develop a broader and deeper vocabulary.

Reading together is so simple yet so effective. It not only introduces language but helps your child to develop a positive relationship with words through that special shared experience. Having good quality books in your home environment helps your child to build the relationship between spoken and written language. It’s ideal to have books where your child can reach them independently as well as taking the time to read them together.

Promoting language as holistic means finding opportunities to explore words and meaning as they apply to other subjects. Rather than viewing words as a separate subject of their own – like “English” – a young child should view literacy as a perfectly natural and intertwined part of every learning experience! So if your child spontaneously shows interest in a dragonfly that’s fluttering through your garden then you can use that moment to introduce the nouns, verbs and adjectives that might relate to that little creature. There are so many of these natural, embedded language experiences each day and they can be more impactful than planned activities because they are relevant to your child’s natural curiosity!

 

Teaching language lessons at home: 

There are also lots of ways to integrate more ‘formal’ language experiences, but it is important to be balanced and positive in your approach. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to “teach”. Remember that your child has an incredibly powerful absorbent mind, so a lot of language learning will happen very naturally. Try to ignore the ‘peer pressure’ of friends (or commercials!) making you think that other children are reading or writing fluently in early childhood. The vast majority of primary schools have absolutely no expectations that a child will be reading or writing by the time they enter their first year of school. So any ‘formal’ reading or writing skills acquired during early childhood are an added bonus, but they are not a prerequisite for school and they are not “the norm” for most children. By all means create lessons, arrange environments and promote experiences but don’t feel that you need to pressure your child.

 

Part 1: Prepare a language rich environment. (Click HERE for Part 2). 

Think of your whole house as your child’s prepared environment. Try to place language – written and verbal – in as many places as possible throughout the house. The book on your bedside table is showing your child the purpose and value of written language. The notes on your fridge should be low enough for your child to read them too, so that they can start to see the different contexts and structures of language (such as invitations, to-do lists etc).

 

Be wary of the language lessons your home environment is teaching by accident! For instance, if your child watches TV then think about whether those shows model real language or if they rely on “baby talk” and babble. Choose high-quality over novelty every time!

 

If you’d like to introduce purposeful ‘language’ activities, place these in a consistent place in the child’s environment. A little low shelf, with enough space for


If you’re using activities it’s a good idea to have a balance of constancy and novelty. Have some language items that are always present – such as a little letterbox where your child can write and post cards to family members (this could be a purchased letterbox or one that you and your child make from a shoebox!). These constant items promote repetition and make language part of the child’s natural routine and rhythms. Supplement these constant items with some activities that are rotated regularly (read below for some activity ideas). The presence of these, and how often you change them, should be based on your observations of your child.

 

Here’s a few quick rules for those observations:

  • If your child never picks the activity from the shelf, then it is either lacking a suitable ‘point of interest’ or it does not fit your child’s current needs.
    Your first response here is to change its presentation slightly to create more of a ‘point of interest’ – if its in a box, try taking it out and putting it on a tray/basket so it’s easier for your child to see. Or change some of the colours/materials in the activity to make it a little more appealing to your child.
    If you make the activity more enticing but your child still doesn’t choose it then the next step is to try a presentation. Invite your child to try it with you and show how it works. Sometimes a child is just simply unsure of what to do with an activity, so they don’t take the plunge of choosing it spontaneously, but a demonstration from mum or dad might help them see how fun it is!
    If you’ve tried improving the point of interest and you’ve given a presentation but your child still doesn’t return to the task independently, then it’s a sign that the task doesn’t quite match their needs. Remove the activity for now (but either store it, or take a photo as a reminder, so you can reintroduce it later). Try something a little different, but don’t be discouraged! It doesn’t mean there was anything wrong with the activity, and there’s definitely nothing wrong with your child, there was just a mismatch in timing!
  • If your child regularly picks the activity but struggles with it then you should first engage in a presentation, working together to develop the skill. If your child still seems unable to grasp the concept then try to decrease the level of challenge (for instance, if it’s sorting by initial sounds and you have 4 sounds to sort then try reducing it back to 2 sounds at a time). If your child still doesn’t respond comfortably then remove the activity and wait for a later date to try it again.
  • If your child regularly picks the activity and uses if effectively, engaging in problem-solving and repetition, then leave it there! Even if this keeps happening for weeks or months – leave it there! As long as your child is engaged in a positive, productive and purposeful way there is no need to make a change. Let your child keep revisiting the task and refining their skills.
  • If your child regularly picks the activity but uses it in a destructive way then it may be that your child is ‘bored’ by it. Intellectual boredom can leads to destructive behaviours so if your child is being rough or careless with the material then perhaps it’s too easy. Either swap it for a more challenging task or add steps/materials to the activity to extend it.
  • If your child regularly picks the activity and breezes through it then this is again a sign that you need to increase the level of challenge. Either swap it for a more challenging task or add steps/materials to the activity to extend it.

 

 

Look for opportunities to embed language into other projects or explorations. For instance, in the pictures below we used language to record our observations of a growing silverbeet plant.

  

 

There are so many ways to incorporate writing, letter recognition or reading into your daily routines or special projects. Let your child help to write the shopping list - or write one yourself but then let your child look for the matching words in the shops! Look for opportunities in your daily interactions to promote verbal or written language naturally. The more relevant language feels (especially written language!) the more your child will want to acquire the skills involved in it. 

Promote ‘writing without writing’. Dr Montessori used materials such as “The Insets for Design” to help children begin making the shapes used in letters without the pressure of actually writing the letters. Through these ‘indirect preparations’ the children were able to acquire writing skills more naturally and thus had a spontaneous ‘explosion into writing’ when their hands were ready. You could invest in Montessori Insets or you might simply look for ways to allow your child to acquire ‘pre-writing’ skills without actually writing. These can include using paintbrushes, drawing on a chalkboard or even making marks in the dirt or sand with a stick. These motor movements help prepare the body while also reinforcing that ‘writing’ is just another way of making marks to express meaning.

 

The 'Insets for Design'. (Please note: They are usually used with a piece of paper that is the same size as the pink inset frame itself - in this case the little girl pictured was creating a larger, more elaborate design and so she chose a bigger piece of paper). 

Other fine motor experiences, such as using kitchen utensils or tools that require strength and coordination, also promote pre-writing skills by preparing the hand. So when you have a cup of tea and you ask your child to use tongs to squeeze the tea bag – you just promoted pre-writing skills! (So you can pat yourself on the back for awesome parenting even as you relax for that brief moment with your tea!)

 

 

Outside The Box

Outside the box.

Once upon a time there was a box... 

And there was a little girl who just didn't fit that box.

 

Everywhere she went this girl could see the box, and almost everyone else that she met seemed to fit inside it. They looked happy in there; content and comfortable and almost carefree.

 

The box was at school with her each day. The teacher was in there - and most of the children. The lessons and the worksheets fit the box too. But she didn't. The children in the box didn't disagree much with the teacher, didn't ask for different work and didn't start to worry about all sorts of things that weren't even happening yet. But she did.

 

The box was at parties with her on the weekends. All the other people would dance and run and giggle inside the box. But she didn't. There weren't enough rules in the box, and hardly any explanations, and the children in there didn't feel the need to stop and ask why they were playing. But she did.

 

The box was even with her family. Her parents seemed to fit into it quite well, although she noticed some dents where she thought they might have had to bend it a little over the years. Her cousins and aunties and uncles all seemed to fit in perfectly. They chatted loudly and grinned broadly at family gatherings. But she didn't. Her relatives didn't feel uncomfortable with the crowd and the noise, didn't feel the need to keep quiet or to talk too much to try to get back in control of this crazy situation. But she did.

 

Her teachers sighed with frustration and wondered why she couldn't just fit the box and get on with it like everyone else.

 

Her friends, and their parents, rolled their eyes and wondered who she thought she was for refusing to get into the box.

 

Her relatives joked about her and thought they were only teasing for her own good when they tried to push her into the box.

 

Her own parents didn't want to sigh or roll their eyes or push her. They wanted to know her, to understand her and to support her. They didn't want to force her to fit the box. But sometimes, just sometimes, they wanted things to be easier, for her to be more like everyone else...and sometimes she knew that they felt like that.

 

Sometimes she tried to fit the box. She knew what it looked like to fit the box. She had seen so many other people in there, so she knew what she had to do to get inside. She would squash herself and squeeze herself to try to fit in. But even when she just about managed to get in she found that she felt too uncomfortable and soon she would burst back out again.

 

One day her parents took her to meet someone who knew a lot about boxes. This person knew that there was more than one box, and that nobody had to squeeze into a box that they didn't truly fit in to. This person explained to her, and her parents, that she would live her life with a different kind of box; the kind that had a gift inside. For it turns out that she had a gift inside herself. 

 

Her gift was not ordinary and so it didn't fit into the same type of box that most other people felt comfortable in. The box that would fit her gift wasn't better or worse than the other box. It was just different, because she was different. She could be happy for the people who fit the other box, as it is a perfectly lovely box, but she could be proud of her gift too.

 

So she made a box for her gift. She built strong walls, so she would feel safe, but she made sure she could move the walls so she would never feel stuck. She made sure her box had no lid, because she didn't want to be alone in there and she always wanted to be able to reach up to the sky. 

 

Eventually her teachers, her friends and her relatives started to recognise the unique shape of her box. They didn't always understand it, because they didn't fit her box any better than she fit theirs, but at least they could see it now. They didn't often ask her to fit their box anymore because they could see she was happy, content and comfortable where she was. And when someone didn't notice her box, or didn't know why it was such an odd shape, her parents would gently explain that the box had to be that strange shape to protect the wonderful gift inside.

 

Sometimes she visited the other box, for she had lots of friends there. Sometimes she invited people into her box, and she shared with them her unique way of looking at the world. 

 

Then one day she looked around and realised that she couldn't even see the boxes anymore. She didn't see everyone else as stuck in the same box, because she had grown to know so many different people with all sorts of beautifully misshapen boxes. She didn't need her own box anymore, because her gift was strong enough now to roam free in the world. 

 

All of the cardboard walls were gone and she was just happy knowing who she was.

 

 

 

Written by Jessica Langford

Montessori Child

www.montessorichild.com.au

 

 

Standing Nappy Changes: Why & How

Montessori Standing Nappy Changes: Why & How

You may have heard that many Montessori environments promote a "standing" nappy change for toddlers, rather than placing the child in a lying position in a change table/mat.

The "standing change" is a technique that I use in my own Montessori classroom and it is an effective, successful experience for me and the children in my care. It is something that feels quite natural to me and I do not personally find it to be more 'difficult' than a traditional nappy change (on a table/mat). The children in my care seem equally comfortable and happy with this method - particularly because it is often quicker than a traditional change, thus allowing them to get back to 'work' more quickly, and also because it is a dignified and respectful experience for them. 

I offer the following information to help explain why I make this choice as a professional (and why I will continue to use the method when I'm a parent) and also to outline how I actually move through the practicalities of it.

This information is not meant to suggest that this is the "right" way or the "only" way to change a child respectfully. Each parent has the right to decide what feels comfortable for their family just as each school/centre has the right to define their own philosophy on the matter. 

If the points made below resonate with you then you might choose to try the standing change technique yourself. If you find yourself disagreeing with the points below, or you have your own equally strong reasons for preferring the traditional technique, then I absolutely respect your right to engage in parenting/caring in the manner that feels right to you! This is not a prescription, just an open sharing of information. There is absolutely no judgement implicit in these words - I don't think that a teacher/parent who uses standing changes is "better" or "worse" than one who uses traditional nappy changes, because we are not in competition against each other but are instead on the same team (team 'Child'!).  I just want to share my own feelings on the subject and I hope they might be helpful to some, while I know they won't be right for all. 

WHY:

  • First and foremost, it shows respect for the dignity of the child.
    As the child becomes more cognitively and physically mature it makes sense to change our interactions to respect the child’s actual level of ability. A beautiful nappy change on a table is absolutely perfect for an infant, but making a mobile toddler lie on their back for the change renders them artificially immobile and regresses them to a previous stage of development. If children were born with the ability to stand (such as a foal can do soon after its birth) then it is unlikely that we would make them lie down to change a nappy. It is something we do out of necessity for a newborn, because there is no alternative when a child’s legs are incapable of supporting their standing weight. That does not necessarily make it the right thing for an older child. We need to look at the ‘standing toddler’ as a unique creature and decide what is the most respectful and appropriate method for their physical, social, emotional and cognitive needs. A standing nappy change respects their physical needs by incorporating their motor coordination, rather than ignoring it. It respects their social and emotional needs by maintaining a close, connected interaction between adult and child while also promoting a gradual step towards increased independence. It also respects their cognitive needs by providing a more stimulating experience where the child can watch what is happening, or observe the environment, rather than looking straight up at an empty ceiling.

  • It allows a child to be more aware of what is happening during the process.
    He/she can more easily look down to observe – this allows the child to see actions such as the unbuttoning of pants, the opening of the nappy tabs and so forth. The child feels more empowered by this knowledge and can also use these observations to start taking ownership for the routine. He/she can unbutton and take down the pants independently, or ‘step into’ a pull up (the way that he/she will do with underpants soon), rather than lying back passively while the adult does these things to the child.

  • It promotes toilet learning by allowing a child to associate the ‘change’ process with the environment and dynamics of using the toilet.
    The standing change can occur beside the toilet, and the child might even like to sit on the toilet in the middle of the change to see if there is ‘more’ to come, and the child starts to cognitively identify that a change or progression is happening from the ‘babyhood’ of nappies on the change table to the childhood of standing to approach the toilet. It is a huge – and potentially daunting or scary – movement from “change table” to “toilet” but a much milder and smoother step from “standing next to the toilet to get changed” and “using the toilet”.

  • In a home environment the standing change also allows the process to occur without interrupting the child.
    Children often resist nappy changes if they are engaged – but the adult can be unwilling to wait until later due to the smell or concerns about hygiene/discomfort. A standing nappy change at home means that the child does not have to cease activity because a parent can perform a standing nappy change while the child continues to engage.
    (If you're a parent with a toddler outside the house, and you need to use a public bathroom, the standing change also means you don't have to worry about making your child lie down on an unhygienic surface because he/she can keep his/her shoes on and remain standing on the bathroom floor). 

  • The standing nappy change is also one of the first ways that we can promote ‘protective behaviours’ for the child.
    Trusted adults should strive to teach children that they have ownership of their own bodies and that each individual has the right to remain in control of what happens to their body. Placing a child in an immobile, prone position (lying on their back on a change table) and then doing the nappy change routine to them while they are unable to even see what is going on sends a potentially troubling message that it is “okay” for an adult to render you powerless over your body while touching you in intimate areas. Yes the child has ‘consented’ to the nappy change but their autonomy and control is then removed by the dynamic of the situation. The child is passive and powerless, the adult is active and in control. By allowing the child to remain standing during the change we are returning the control and active decision making to the child. The child can step back if they are made to feel uncomfortable (eg. If the wipe is too cold, or the adult’s movements too rough). The child can choose positions that feel physically and emotionally comfortable – eg. One child might happily bend over to reveal their bottom, while another might feel uncomfortable with this and will instead ‘squat’ so that the bottom cheeks remain ‘closed’ but the thigh areas are easier to access. The child who is standing can also start to perform the actions independently – taking a wipe and cleaning his own penis, or her own vagina, rather than having to lie back while an adult touches these areas. The standing change can be one of the earliest opportunities for the child to start retaining ownership of his/her body and rights. 

  

  

HOW:

  1. Be vigilant: The earlier that the change occurs, the easier it will be. If a child has been sitting in a full nappy for a long period then any faeces will have started to harden/stick to the skin and will have also been ‘squashed’ into more areas. If a nappy can be addressed quickly then the faecal matter is often still in one ‘piece’.
  2. Plan ahead: Place a disposable change mat (or paper towels) on the floor if you’re changing a nappy with a significant bowel motion. Have all of your materials easily accessible. When you actually remove the nappy think about the motion you will do this in so that you can contain the majority of matter and provide the initial wipe. By removing the side tabs (or breaking the sides of a ‘pull up’) you can then hold the bottom middle of the nappy with one hand and take it just low enough for it to stop touching the child’s body, then slide it backwards past the bottom (wiping a little along the way with the dry part at the very top front of the nappy). Pulling the nappy forward would potentially put faecal matter onto the vagina/scrotum while pulling it downwards (such as with a pull up) can drag faeces/urine down the legs. Taking it backwards helps prevent the spread of faeces and holding it from the bottom middle section helps to prevent spillage.
  3. Promote a connection with the ‘toilet’ process: Arranging the change near the toilet allows the child to start building a connection between the expulsion of faeces/urine and the toilet. The toilet is no longer a foreign, distant idea but a relevant and realistic goal. This can be enhanced by;
    1. Asking the child the sit on the toilet if they feel that there might be “more” urine/faeces. This is particularly relevant if the nappy change is being performed immediately after the wee/bowel motion as sometimes a vigilant adult might have noticed the expulsion in the middle of the process, meaning there is more to come if the child is given the opportunity to try.
    2. Allowing the child to try wiping his/her own bottom.
    3. Using toilet paper (instead of or as well as wipes) so that the child can place these (or watch as the adult places these) in the toilet to flush them. This introduces one part of the toilet routine but also helps the child feel comfortable with the ‘flush’, which is important since children can sometimes be nervous/fearful about ‘flushing’. 
  1. Ensure safety: Ask the child to hold onto a stable surface to maintain their balance. Often the easiest available surface is the sink in a classroom setting (where the sinks are low) – the child can hold the edge of the sink with one, or both hands, to maintain balance and to comfortably get into the poses that allow access (see point #6). 
  1. Communicate: Tell the child what you are going to do before you do it and ask the child to help with the process (either by actively engaging or by adopting poses that allow easier access – see point #6). Take advantage of the child’s cognitive abilities by explaining what is happening and why.
  2. Ensure hygiene: It is important to still get into all the ‘nooks and crannies’ to remove faecal matter. When the child is simply standing normally you may be unable to see hidden faecal matter, so it is important that you do make an active effort to check.
    There are several strategies to help ensure that you can observe and access difficult areas;
    1. Ask the child to bend forward gently. This does not have to be an undignified “touch your toes” type of bend, just a gentle angle of bending forward so that the bottom cheeks are a little more open and visible.
    2. Ask the child to ‘squat’. Placing their legs far apart and bending slightly opens all of the areas that need to be accessed (including bottom, inner thighs and scrotal/vaginal area).
    3. Ask the child to lift one leg at a time. By lifting one leg up you can more easily see and access the inner thigh areas.
      You can help the child to understand these poses by demonstrating them yourself! This shows the child the physical positions that you need them to adopt, but it also helps the child to feel comfortable with doing so because they see you role-modelling it.
  1. Involve the child: Just as a three year old might wipe his/her own bottom after using the toilet, it is appropriate for the two year old to do the same during a change. Provide the two year old with a wet wipe or toilet paper and offer instructions about how to reach back to ‘wipe’ (initially it is best to do this only after the adult has removed the majority of the matter).
  2. Pack up hygienically: Ensure that you follow the same types of steps that you would with a change table. In a classroom setting this would be a routine such as using detergent and water to ‘wash’ the area (including the floor under the child as well as any surfaces touched during the change) and disposing safely of the bagged nappy, wipes and gloves. Ensure that the child washes his/her hands thoroughly and that the adult does the same.

The joyful work of a Montessori Christmas!

To read the first entry in our Montessori Christmas Blog series please visit our post on 'Monte-Santa'.

 

Practical Life: a Montessori perspective on the productive, purposeful work of Christmas. 

 

I have known many Montessori classrooms, and Montessori inspired parents, who seem to think that as Christmas approaches they need to hide the Pink Tower and bring out the Santa stickers. This seems to be founded on a belief that Christmas needs to be particularly "fun" and that it is so important that it should be present as a consistent "theme" in the classroom or home environment. 

It is my belief that it is unnecessary to change the Montessori environment significantly when Christmas arrives. The existing materials and activities provide countless opportunities for fun, even 'themed', experiences relating to Christmas.

 

There are countless creative ways that you can inject a little bit of Christmas into the Montessori experience - you can use your own imagination to concoct unique variations.

For inspiration, here are a few examples of festive fun that can be found in the ordinary routines and materials of the Montessori environment...

 

Inset for Design: Christmas Style!
Several of the Inset shapes can be adapted to create Christmas shapes or symbols, as shown below;
 
 
Practical Life task: wrapping presents.
The act of wrapping a present can be treated like any other 'Practical Life' work. It is a useful skill that is relevant to the child's cultural context. As such it is entirely appropriate and authentic to present gift-wrapping as a Practical Life presentation in a Montessori classroom. It requires fine motor control, spatial reasoning and the use of multiple tools (scissors, sticky-tape and so forth).
   
 
  
  
The Ribbons Dressing Frame provides the perfect opportunity for a child to master the art of tying a ribbon and bow around a Christmas gift.
   
  
 
Christmas counting: making budgets.
The Christmas season tends to be a time of making 'lists'. I personally prefer to encourage children to write lists of gifts they wish to give rather than those they wish to receive. This shifts the child's perception of what Christmas is about, making it more about what one can do for others than just getting what you "want". Making gift lists also provides an opportunity for the child to consider a 'budget'. In an early childhood setting this could be as simple as considering two gifts, assessing their prices and using concrete materials to engage in some simple addition to identify the total spent. An older child could engage in a more complex process of counting his/her own savings, perusing catalogues or online outlets to identify gifts, then totalling the exact amount of the desired purchases before deducting this from the savings total. 
  
  
 
 
Christmas cooking:
Montessori children engage in cooking all year round but the festive season provides extra incentive to incorporate specific themes (such as Christmas cookie shapes) or to include specific ingredients or flavours that are commonly associated with Christmas (such as cranberries or cinnamon).
 
 
 
After a child has helped to cook part of a Christmas meal then he or she can also help to set the table - by placing the plates and cutlery or by decorating it by arranging vases of flowers!
 
 
 
Christmas Literacy: opportunities for meaningful writing
The Christmas season provides an ideal opportunity to combine Literacy with Grace and Courtesy by encouraging a child to write 'thank you' cards for gifts received or writing and posting Christmas cards to friends and family.
 
 
Making Presents
Homemade, handmade gifts are the perfect way for a child to exercise their motor control and learn new skills while also building a connection with creativity not consumerism. There are, of course, countless items that a child could make as a gift for a friend or relative. Here are just a few examples of gifts or special creations that children have developed in my own classroom. Please note: the 'assembly-line model' of having every child reproduce a predetermined product is not aligned with authentic Montessori principles. Handmade items should, instead, reflect the child's interests, abilities and creativity as well as relating to the needs of the recipient.

 

-Christmas themed play dough
  
  
 
   
  
 
  
 
-Potpourri (made from dried lavender)
 

Monte-santa

Merry Montessori Christmas!

One of my favourite things about the Montessori method is that it can so seamlessly into the life of the child, the family and the school. When the method is understood, and the adult is ‘prepared’, there are very few roadblocks between Montessori and real life. This is largely because Montessori is a ‘ground up’ methodology; it was built on the foundation of the child’s natural impulses, so it perfectly suits the child’s needs. Yet it seems than many people believe there is one area of life that is completely incompatible with Montessori; Christmas. In particular, the Santa story!

Over the years – both in my own Montessori Pre-school and within the online community of forums and Facebook groups – I have consistently noticed that parents seem to believe that Montessori and Christmas are not a harmonious couple. There seems to be a pervasive attitude that the ‘fun’ parts of Christmas would be challenged by the Montessori principles. As such, families seem to feel compelled to choose between them. They ask themselves (and each other!) “Do I just let my Montessori principles go out the window for a while so we can enjoy Christmas…or should I avoid some of the Christmas traditions so I can stick to Montessori?”. The good news is – you don’t have to choose! It is not a matter of one or the other. Authentic Montessori can easily co-exist with a joyful Christmas. It is just a matter of tweaking a few of the minor details of some of our common Christmas traditions. The changes would be barely noticeable to anyone unfamiliar with Montessori – but to those of us who know the power of the methodology we will see how much smoother Christmas can become when we employ these principles. 

Please note: I am absolutely aware that Christmas is not universally celebrated by all individuals, families, schools or cultures. My choice to write this post reflects the fact that, in the current cultural landscape of Australia, many families do choose to engage in some or all of the traditions associated with Christmas (such as gift giving, family celebrations, stockings, Santa stories and so forth). Since these traditions are common in our community, and here at Montessori Child we seek to provide information and inspiration relating to the Montessori approach, it is a relevant question for me to consider how Christmas and Montessori fit together. However, it is imperative to note that this does not imply that celebrating Christmas is a necessary part of the Montessori method. You can absolutely practice the Montessori approach without the need to celebrate Christmas (just as many people celebrate Christmas without a thought for Montessori!). Montessori is a non-denominational approach and there is nothing in the method that suggests that Christmas is any more important than any other cultural celebration (such as Ramadan, Hanukkah and so forth). 

   

Imagination or Fantasy: a Montessori perspective on the ‘Santa Story’.

 

First and foremost, this is my opinion! It is a considered opinion, based on my Montessori training and my experiences in both a family and classroom context, but it is nonetheless still just an opinion! You might find it useful as ‘food for thought’ or as guidance but you do not need to treat it as gospel.

To understand how the Santa story might relate to Montessori we first need to consider the Montessori approach to imagination.

 

The Montessori philosophy distinguishes between ‘fantasy’ and ‘imagination’, effectively defining them as two completely different cognitive processes. The easiest way to understand the Montessori definition of, and differences between, the two is to consider the role of reality.

 

Imagination is rooted in reality. It is the act of bringing to the ‘mind’s eye’ something that is not physically present, or using past experiences and existing knowledge in order to envision a new concept or creation. Imagination has a positive relationship with reality. It starts with real experiences and it tends to lead towards a real outcome. Art is an example of imagination – it takes real colours, shapes and textures and combines them with experiences of real images. Imagination then creates a completely new and unique image or object that might look nothing like its real ‘roots’ but possesses those roots nonetheless.


Fantasy breaks away from reality. It is about escaping, ignoring or contradicting what is true, possible and present in the real world. There might be real elements in there somewhere but they are heavily diluted by the impossible. Fairies or superheroes, for instance, represent ‘fantasy’. In the real world there are beautiful little flying creatures fluttering around the garden, but they are butterflies not fairies! Reality also offers truly brave heroes, but they are not imbued with the powers of radioactive arachnids and they don’t have to fight robotic octopi. It can be argued that the value of those fantasy stories is in the allegories that they offer. Superhero stories are intended to teach of bravery and responsibility, but this message is lost on young children who are so distracted by the fantastical elements that they lose touch with any of the real-world relevance. Ask a four year old what Spiderman teaches and you probably won’t get a lecture about courage; they’ll just pretend to fling a web in your face.

 

During the first plane of development (ages 0 – 6) the Montessori method very strongly promotes the presentation of reality to the child. In these early years the child is building his or her understanding of the world and, as such, Montessori believed that to this young child we must present reality in all its beauty. As the child’s understanding of the world solidifies, and his/her cognitive processes mature, a more fantastical version of imagination does become more relevant. The Montessori primary school child (6 to 12 years) will have more experiences with ‘fantasy’ based stories because they are now cognitively and emotionally ready to interpret their metaphors and analogies (rather than taking them literally, as a 3 or 4 year old would). The child in that ‘second plane of development’ (6-12) will explore the ‘5 Great Lessons’ that rely on imagination to understand the concepts that are not tangibly available for us to observe or experience; the Coming of the Universe and Earth, the Coming of Life, the Coming of Human Beings, Communication in Signs and The Story of Numbers. In the early years, however, the emphasis is on what is real; what is tangible, present and available to our senses.

 

In these early childhood years the Montessori philosophy encourages meaningful experiences with the real world. Imagination is absolutely relevant but it is in the form of learning to bring to the mind’s eye what is not physically present or of creating something new based on personal creativity. It is not imagination in the sense of “pretending” or “fantasising”. A Montessori classroom tends to encourage the actual, real experience in place of “pretend play” (that is, providing real cooking experiences rather than simply encouraging a child to “pretend” with plastic food or empty saucepans). The Montessori early years also actively avoid fantasy, where fantasy means completely unreal and impossible concepts (such as superheroes with powers bestowed by arachnids or aliens). In Montessori young children are actually discouraged from descending into pure fantasy. The reason for this is complex but it mainly comes down to two primary risks; confusion and disconnection. 

 

Confusion:
One risk is that during early childhood the child cannot adequately or reliably distinguish between reality and fantasy. At this early stage of life the child is actually building his or her understanding of the world. The child relies on sensory experiences to create a picture of his or her culture, community, nature and reality. Everything the child knows about the world comes from what he or she sees, hears, touches, tastes and smells. It is almost impossible for a young child to conceptualise that something that he or she can see, hear, touch, taste and smell can still be “not real”. The idea that their senses can lie (or that adults can manipulate their senses) is incomprehensible to the child. If you try to tell a pre-schooler that his/her favourite character isn’t real then you will be met with a response ranging from incredulity to downright disdain. Of course it’s real, they will utter, I’ve seen it on my TV! Fantasy might seem harmless enough if it’s just for fun, but if a child believes it to be real then it starts to have much deeper – and perhaps more harmful – connotations.

 

Disconnection: 
This leads us to the second major risk; that the child’s experiences with ‘fantasy’ can build a wall between the child and the world. This is a matter of time and space. If the child spends a lot of his or her time with fantasy then there is quite simply less time left to engage with the wonders of reality. If the child builds relationships and affinities with fantasy then there may be less space for other, real connections. This ‘space’ can be both literal and figurative. If the child’s shelf is filled with toys representing fantasy characters then there is not much room left to fit the wonders of reality and nature; shells, flowers or science experiments. If the child’s heart feels filled by their ‘relationships’ with these fantasy characters then there may be less ‘space’ that needs to be filled by real friendships. I’m not suggesting that a child who loves superheroes will be without friends (in fact, these characters can be an icebreaker when children chat about their interests) but I have encountered children who would rather watch their favourite show, or play with their favourite figurine, than engage with a new peer. I have also seen a vast number of children who become so consumed with fantasy that they are only able to engage with others through this outlet, as opposed to building a wide range of social strategies. 

 

So what about Santa?

 

It is in the early childhood years that most children will be introduced to the idea of “Santa”. Santa is (spoiler alert!) a fantasy character. He does not exist. There are suggestions that his myth has an origin story rooted in history, but the version we tend to present today lacks a connection with reality. The “Santa” that most children know about is a jolly man who lives at the North Pole, flies in a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer and squeezes down chimneys to leave presents (and eat cookies). 

Since Montessori discourages fantasy in the early years does this mean that Montessori-inspired parents have to opt out of the Santa story? Do they have to joylessly tell a toddler that Santa isn’t real? Do they have to tell a crestfallen pre-schooler that all their friends will get stockings filled with presents but that it won’t happen in our house because we are a Montessori house?

 

No. That’s not necessary. This is not an “all or nothing” choice. There is the potential for balance.

 

The balance, in my perspective, is to present the Santa story as exactly that; a story. A fun, family tradition. Not a literal reality. 

 

The Santa story has become so deeply embedded in the Christmas celebrations of our community that it has become a part of our culture. It is a tradition associated with a festival. So the presence of it as a story is, in fact, now a part of our reality. People really do play out the Santa traditions at Christmas time. So we can make this distinction when presenting it to our children.

In my Montessori classroom we discuss the fact that “some families talk about a special character called Santa”. We don’t say “Santa visits on Christmas eve”, nor do we say “There’s no such thing as Santa”. We simply state the honest fact that “many children choose to play some special games like hanging stockings”. We can even go so far as to honestly say things like, “when the children check the stockings in the morning they are filled with presents”. Sometimes a child will ask a specific question like “Does Santa put the presents there?” and we can honestly answer, “Well lots of families like to say that the presents are from Santa but in other families the presents in the stocking are from mum and dad.” Or a child might ask “Does Santa come down the chimney?” and we can reply “Well lots of families tell stories about Santa coming down the chimney.” I have often told children “In my house nobody comes down the chimney to give presents, my family and I give presents to each other”. This reply seems to completely satisfy the children – they aren’t worried that Santa doesn’t come down my chimney because they’re still young enough to remain open-minded. 

This respect for the idea of Santa, without needing to confirm or deny a literal interpretation, is similar to the way that many families are now quite happy to celebrate Christmas as a tradition without feeling compelled to literally accept or promote the idea that it is the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ*. Many Australian families have absolutely no aversion to going through the motions of Christmas customs – singing carols, wrapping gifts and placing a star on the tree – without feeling compelled to tell their children that the songs are about Jesus, the gifts symbolise those offered by the wise men or that the star guided those visitors to the manger where Christ was born. We are quite easily able to separate the customs from the ‘faith’. Since so many families are easily able to adopt the practices of Christmas without promoting the divinity then it seems much easier to accept that we can present Santa customs without promoting a literal belief in him. 

*Just to clarify – I am absolutely not commenting on whether the Christian faith is ‘real’ or not. I am also not drawing a direct connection between ‘Jesus’ and ‘Santa’. I am simply comparing society’s relationship with the two concepts.

 

So one way to balance Montessori and Santa is to present 'the story of Santa' rather than trying to actively suggest that it is 'the truth'. But that's not necessarily going to be exactly the right solution for your own unique family culture. To help you make your own way to deciding what's right for you I'd like to share some experiences from my own family.

 

In my own family history I have learned three important Montessori-Santa lessons.

1.

One came from my older brother. He was the first child born to our Montessori mum (Barbara). When he was very young she lovingly made a special book for him that talked about the story of Santa. It showed images of different cultural incarnations of the character, such as St Nicholas. It detailed and depicted many of the different rituals that children from around the world performed at Christmas time. Mum presented my brother with the story of Santa in a beautiful, loving and joyful way, but she never lead him to believe that Santa was literally ‘real’ – and this never bothered him. His understanding of the Santa story didn’t contradict anything that his friends said at pre-school (and then primary school) so he didn’t feel remotely left out or confused. Nor did he feel the need to suddenly declare “Santa isn’t real”. He was seemingly unaware that his peers took it more literally than he did – he was just happy to play along with the story and related customs.

So it is possible for Christmas to be joyful, fun and special for a child who knows, right from the outset, that Santa is just a story.

 

2.

My second lesson came from mum’s reaction to my personality. As a child I really enjoyed pretending. As a toddler I lined up my teddies to give them 'lessons' and take 'class photos'. As a pre-schooler I played 'hotels', stealing keys from around the house to hang them on hooks behind the 'front desk' ready for my many guests. I demanded a 'fairy party' for my 5th birthday, dressing up in wings and hoping I would receive magic powers as a birthday gift. So what was my Montessori-mum to do? She knew all the theory, but here was this child seemingly eschewing the first plane of development and demanding fantasy! Mum decided that the needs of the child and respect for the individual trumped strict adherence to the details of the theory. So I did not receive my brother’s carefully prepared book of the history of Santa. I was, instead, allowed to believe in a more literal version of Santa. I wrote earnest letters (requesting a cat, despite having an allergy to them!) and carefully prepared plates of cookies (and carrots for the Reindeer). In return my parents wrote responses in disguised handwriting and took sneaky bites of the treats. They actively participated in creating and keeping alive the ‘fantasy’ of Santa for me. And I was really, really happy. I have incredibly strong and joyful memories of those Christmas traditions – I loved finding footprints in the chimney and feeling like I was so close to magic. I do remember the exact moment that I realised Santa wasn’t real (there were old-fashioned air vents in the wooden door to our living room and one year I used these to spy on my parents as they placed presents under the tree and nibbled on Rudolph’s carrot). Yet I don’t feel that I was traumatised by the discovery. I must have already suspected – that’s why I was spying – and I think more than anything I just felt disappointed because I would have liked him to be real. I do know that I kept writing letters to Santa for several years after discovering the truth – because I knew that this would be a good way of getting what I wanted for Christmas! I figured that as long as my parents thought I still believed then they would be inclined to keep the myth alive by fulfilling my requests! 

So it is okay to respond differently to different children – even within the same family – and it is possible for a Montessori child to truly believe in the Santa myth without being scarred for life.

 

3. 

My third Montessori-Santa lesson blossomed as I cared for my beautiful niece, Emily. She was always a crazy kid – I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked at her wacky antics and said “well, better to be weird than boring!”. I sometimes think the universe manufactured her to make me more appreciative of my mum, because Emily is, in many ways, exactly like I was as a child. (This seems to simply be in her nature, but our similarities have only become more pronounced as I have nurtured her over the years – we still jokingly say “psychic connection!” to each other when we randomly arrive at the same conclusion at the same moment!). Emily has always loved being funny, crazy and silly! At the age of three she spontaneously found her way into my make up case, covered her face entirely in blue eye-shadow then placed a green rug over her head and body before walking around the house repeating “I come in peace” like an alien! (Perhaps she is a bit of an alien; it would explain a lot!). So it was obvious to me very early in Em’s life that she would love engaging in the fun customs of Christmas. Yet I didn’t really want to actively manufacture the “lie”. So our solution was this; when she was too young to know the difference (0, 1, 2, 3) we just did the traditions without bringing Santa into it (hung the stockings, made cookies and placed them under the tree etc but never mentioned 'Santa' specifically). When she was about to turn 5, and nearing that second plane of development where analogy and metaphor are more comprehensible, we started to introduce the Santa story because she was encountering it through her peers. We spoke to her about the "stories" of Santa but we carefully injected subtle but powerful words like imagine - "some people like to imagine that Santa brings special presents" rather than "Santa brings presents down the chimney". At this point we introduced the idea of writing a letter that identified some special things she would like to receive or that she would like her family to receive. She would draw or write a note and these would result, on Christmas morning, in a reply ‘letter from Santa’. I was, however, very careful in how I phrased the letter. The letters never directly referred to literal elements of Santa. Instead I used the letters as an opportunity to reflect on the year that Em had experienced, to mention the things that she had done that were particularly special or important. 

 

To this day Em still receives a letter from “Santa” every year. He has grown with her. His letters acknowledge the year she has had and celebrates the interests she has developed. Several years ago he signed it “Santa Paws” as a joke because she had fallen in love with my new puppy. Last year he admitted that he was a “Directioner”, because Em’s currently in the throes of adolescent obsession with the band One Direction. Emily absolutely understands the humour and metaphor inherent in the letters – and she actively, willingly participates in this. It’s our family tradition. She hasn’t outgrown the Santa story because the story has grown with her. The letters give a self-knowing nod and wink while encouraging a little sparkle of fun in our Christmas morning.

So you can still have all the fun of Santa, for all the years of ‘childhood’ and beyond, without being dishonest.

 

Santa is a story, a cultural custom and a metaphor. From this perspective he can absolutely have a comfortable place in an authentically Montessori home.