Shortly after Lucy was born, Tom and I listened to a series of talks about parenting based on Montessori principles. We were immediately intrigued, as the ideas and methods were at times revolutionary sounding (don’t force young children to apologize to others; give a 6 month old a tiny glass cup to drink out of), and others already resonated with our own preferences (give babies and children toys of natural materials, not plastic; don’t over-praise children for every little thing they do).
Those talks began us on a journey of learning more and more about Dr. Maria Montessori, her life’s work, and the method of educating children that is still very much alive 100 years later. As I tend to do, I spent hours reading articles and checking out books at the library, and even reading some of Montessori’s own writings about her method. I had some brief understanding of the method beforehand, but only knew that Montessori schools had adorable wooden child-size chairs and tables, and that the classrooms were mixed age groups.
I discovered so much more, and most importantly, realized that Montessori principles could and should begin with tiny infants, practically from birth onward. It’s fascinating stuff. Montessori was basically a pioneer in her time, becoming the first woman in Italy to earn an MD, and shattering many preconceived notions about what children are capable of doing. She was brilliant and scientifically methodical, discovering major childhood development truths through observation.
It’s been so interesting to try and implement some of the infant montessori ideas with Lucy. We realized we were already doing some of them (cloth diapering, avoiding flashy toys and such), but the details about each month of baby’s development, each milestone, and how to guide the baby and prepare the environment to maximize independence were so helpful.
We also really like the philosophy behind discipline in Montessori: it isn’t rewards and punishment based, but rather is focused on training the child’s free will. There are probably not many parents who want their kids to grow up without being able to freely choose the good, yet so many traditionally ingrained parenting/teaching practices actually prevent this (arbitrary punishments, coercing desirable behavior, public humiliation, etc). Montessori wants children to learn, when they are developmentally able, how to make a choice and deal with the natural consequences when it’s not the right one. And more importantly, to learn to choose the good precisely because it is the right thing– not because Mom said she had to, or she knows she’ll get grounded if she doesn’t.
So at this point, we’ve been consciously attempting to use parts of the Montessori method and philosophy with Lucy. For example:
Prepared Environment (the principle that if the baby’s area is set up correctly they will thrive and become more independent):
* Her low wall mirror, at which she would watch herself attempting to push up on all fours, then sit up, then scoot, then pull up on a stool. She also enjoyed talking to the baby in the glass and licking the little face she saw reflected there.
Ohhh, who’s that?!
Trying sooo hard to go forward!
Looking at herself explore a box of books
*Treasure baskets- small baskets filled with 3-5 themed real life items (e.g. different types of brushes, religious items, kitchen measuring utensils, different types of paper, etc.).
Her low shelves with all her baskets and toys accessible, so she can crawl over and play with them herself
One of her early treasure baskets to the left
Playing with (and eating!) paper, a favorite activity still
*Montessori-specific toys- Maria developed quite a few toys, or tools, for infants and toddlers to aid development. As she observed them, she discovered certain times when the babies interest was very strong in something specific, such as grasping objects, shaking objects, opening and closing lids, pulling things out of a box, turning knobs, etc. So she came up with some materials to capitalize on what she termed these “Sensitive Periods.” Lucy has a few, though really, you can make many yourself or get creative and find similar objects among your household goods.
Imbucare box Lucy has, for fitting shapes into a hole and then opening the door to retrieve.
*Floor bed- after she outgrew the co-sleeper, we bought a very thin Ikea crib mattress (2″ off the floor) and laid it out on the floor. She soon learned to crawl off, rather than fall off. Of course, there were drawbacks to this too… she would often just crawl off and scream at the door when she didn’t want to sleep. Oh, and the whole mice/roach issue down there. We’ll try it again when we move permanently. For now she’s in a pack and play, though I suppose we could transition her back to the floor bed at some point.
*Cloth diapers- helps them prep for potty training by actually feeling wet vs. dry. (Though admittedly, she’s been in disposables for a couple weeks to heal a nasty diaper rash). Montessori also found that the Sensitive Period for potty learning is 12- 18 months. I know, I know, it does sound crazy, but there’s reason behind it: at around 12-13 months, the baby has learned to stand alone and most likely walk steadily. This means the the nerves along the spinal cord are myelinated, which means that bladder control is possible. Thus, the toddler can feel the muscles either holding or releasing, and can learn when it’s appropriate to do so. I don’t think a 13 month old will learn to use the potty in 2 weeks, like a 3 year often can, but if it’s done steadily, the little toddler can learn the sensations and form habits. I, for one, aim to take advantage of this Sensitive Period with Lucy, because if she is potty trained even a few months after the new baby is born, I’ll be a much happy diaper-er.
*Feeding- early independence in feeding is encouraged, with things like drinking right out of a tiny glass, instead of sippy cups, and using real materials like glass, ceramic, silver, and wood instead of plastic stuff. She loves her silver demitasse spoons and bamboo spoons, though we have to supervise her closely when using ceramic dish ware.
* Montessori has extensive information on how infants acquire language. At this stage in Lucy’s development, the important things are mimicking her sounds (all parents do this, I think!), and being as specific as possible with our language. For example, giving specific names of things, “That’s a tulip/terrier/sweet potato”.
*Reality-based books- Since children can’t really distinguish reality from fantasy until they are around 4, Montessorians generally stick to reality-based books for little ones. We have a lot of board books that fit that bill (touch and feel animals, ones featuring photos of other babies, food, or household objects, etc.), but I know there are a few childhood favorites that aren’t necessarily totally realistic that we still show to her. I think if there’s a good balance, the kid will be fine. I do notice, though, that she is far more interested in the ones that have realistic photos or drawings.
*This may not go under the Language category really, but we have tried to be conscious about how we react to Lucy. We try not to overpraise and say, “Good job!!” about every little thing she does. It’s hard though, because, darn it, she’s so cute, and you are proud of even the little accomplishments, like finally crawling forward, or recognizing her name, or whatnot (well, I suppose those are rather big accomplishments, after all). But we do try to make sure we don’t just lavish unnecessary, empty verbal praise. It makes more sense when we say things like, “You pulled yourself up on that chair! You’re a big girl!” or just generally comment about what she is doing. And then there are times we’ve learned to just leave her alone; she certainly doesn’t need us constantly narrating her actions all the time. She concentrates much better when she is working in peace.
Anyway, there is much more still learn as Lucy grows, and we look forward to taking the best practices from Montessori’s work. We don’t agree with everything, and that’s fine. We take what works and leave the rest.
If you’re interested in any of this, I highly recommend starting off by listening to the talks I linked to above. They are so informative. I also recommend (with a few caveats regarding the breastfeeding and sleep) the book, Montessori from the Start. It has some good ideas for how to implement Montessori from birth through about age 3.