It’s easy to look at all the fancy Instagram photos and “shelfies” and think Montessori is all about expensive materials. While the Montessori classroom tends to have a certain standard and quality for their materials that tends to come with a price tag, your Montessori home doesn’t need all of that. In fact, it’s better if you don’t have it, especially if your child attends Montessori school, because you don’t want them using all the same materials in both places. I often have people asking me how to get started with Montessori at home, particularly if they have babies and toddlers, so here are some of the basics that can be done usually with what you already have in the house.
Stay away from rewards and punishments
In Montessori, some of our goals are to help our child build concentration and an internal drive to learn and explore their world. Children naturally have this tendency, but we often derail it by handing out punishments and rewards for behavior. Some common examples of this are time outs, taking away toys for not cleaning up, reward stickers for using the toilet, or giving children special treats if they are “good”. However, Montessori is not passive when it comes to parenting. Instead of rewards and punishments, we try to set up situations to have natural or logical consequences. For example, if we don’t use the crayons gently, they will break and then we won’t have any more crayons to use. Or if we eat all the crackers now, we won’t have any more until the next time we go to the store. It’s okay to let children experience these natural consequences of certain actions.
This concept can also apply to more abstract situations. For example, if a child is tired and having a difficult time listening or moving their body safely, we can explain to them that their behavior is unsafe and we will have to go home because it’s our job as the parent to keep everyone safe. Going home is the logical consequence of the child being unsafe. This doesn’t mean the child is being “bad”, it means their behavior is unsafe. An example of a punishment in this situation would be taking away the child’s favorite food later in the day because they were being unsafe earlier. Taking the food away is not a logical consequence of their earlier behavior and the child cannot understand the reasoning behind it. Additionally, offering a reward for them to change their behavior in the moment, such as offering a special treat so they stop crying etc, is more like a distraction that encourages the child to stop feeling how they feel. In Montessori, it is okay for children to have big feelings about things. As parents, it is our job to model how to handle these emotions and ensure that the child is validated in feeling that way even if it is inconvenient for us in the moment.
Set up your home to be child friendly
Dr. Montessori was one of the first to notice that the world was not set up for children despite them being an integral part of so many homes. She encouraged parents and teachers to use child-sized furniture and materials such as brooms, so children could do things independently. If possible, try to set up your home so the spaces your child uses frequently can be done so independently. For example, Dr. Montessori emphasized the use of a floor bed vs a crib so the child could get in and out of bed at will from an early age instead of relying on the adult. An inexpensive stool can be a multi-functional piece of furniture to make sinks and counters more accessible for your child. Learning towers have become quite popular in Montessori circles, and although they are excellent if you have the budget and space for one, I don’t find them practical in small Tokyo apartments. For our family, a simple stool serves this purpose well.
Some other ideas are a basket or particular space by the door for your child’s shoes (you can read about our Montessori entryway here), making their clothes accessible so they can choose their own clothing, and having a low drawer in the kitchen for their plates and silverware so they can gather it themselves before a meal. Many of these things begin to be more relevant once your child reaches the age of about 18 months so you can observe and see when they may be ready to have some of these things accessible to them.
Have a space dedicated to your child’s work
This tends to be what most people associate with Montessori, but it really is just one facet of the Montessori home. Some traits of a Montessori workspace are that its 1) fully accessible to the child, meaning they don’t need your help to get work out from a closet, etc and 2) there are only a few materials out at a time. The work area could utilize a shelf for this, or it could just be baskets on the floor. You really don’t need anything fancy!
So, why do we do this? Having only a few materials available at a time encourage your child to focus on them vs just pulling them all out and making a giant mess. Ideally, your child will take out a material, use it, and return it to it’s place (although this is easier said than done!) Luckily the 0-6 year old child is in the sensitive period for order and therefore may find more joy in cleaning up than you think! You can curate the activities available based on what your child is interested in. If you want to see our setup for three children at home, you can read about it here.
Stick to reality based toys and books
One lesser known facet of Montessori is it’s emphasis on reality based materials. “Fantasy” is surprisingly common in children’s toys and books. For example, how many children’s books do you see that have talking animals as the main characters? A child in the first plane of development (age 0-6) is constantly trying to organize and categorize their world and they actually can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is fantasy like an older child can. For this age group, it is important to give children examples of what is real. Some examples are books with real photographs or realistic illustrations, animal figurines that are accurate instead of cartoon-ish, or a plain version of a stacking toy instead of one with a cartoon character on it. You can read about Montessori toys here.
Although television was not as common during Maria Montessori’s time, if we follow the advice on fantasy vs reality, we know that it would also apply to screen time. If you use screen time with your children, try to keep it reality-based and educational for this age group.
Personally I find it difficult to be 100% reality based and it has been a long process of slowly getting rid of the character-based toys in our home. After 3 years of doing this I think we are finally almost there! If you do have a book your child loves with a talking animal, for example, you can always explain to them that it is not real and animals don’t actually talk. I wrote more about how I go about choosing toys for our home here.
Involve your child in the care of their home
Toddlers especially are fascinated with everything you are doing. From folding laundry to cooking to cleaning windows, they want to be a part of it. In the Montessori classroom, these types of activities are called “Practical Life”. If possible, finding ways to get them involved with what you are doing will be just as fun for them as any toys. In fact, toddlers are in a sensitive period for language and one of the ways they learn new vocabulary is by being around you as you most likely unconsciously talk to them. It may seem annoying at times to have a shadow following you around (hence the running joke of moms never going to the bathroom alone) but this is so normal and imperative to your young child’s development. Some of activities our children enjoy doing at home are:
- Cleaning windows with a spray bottle (usually with just water but you can also add vinegar) and a towel.
- Washing fruits and vegetables before eating.
- Helping to load the washing machine and pushing the buttons to start it.
- Folding laundry and putting it away in their drawers.
- Sweeping the balcony.
- Washing bath toys with a sponge.
- Helping with cooking and baking (usually mixing batter for baking, beating eggs, or cutting food under supervision).
Prioritize outdoor time
Being outdoors has benefits for everyone, but especially the young child. Inviting your child to run barefoot across sticks, stones, and grass is incredible for their sensory input. The young toddler wants to move more often than not, so visiting your local park is a great opportunity for them to practice these gross motor skills such as walking, running, and climbing.
Simply going on a walk without any particular destination is also a great way to build your child’s confidence and interest in their world. This type of walk should have no destination but simply allow your child to dictate where you go. Because of that, it is best done within the confines of a larger park vs on a busy street. You can follow your child, stop and watch a tiny ant go by, collect rocks, or whatever your child is interested in doing. It can even work with multiple children as long as you are in a safe area. So often children are at the mercy of the adult’s schedule, so these little pockets of time where they can be in control are so important for developing their confidence and sense of independence.
I hope as parents we can see that our child’s inner teacher is directing them more accurately than we ever could. The child knows exactly what they need to be doing in that moment. In her book the Discovery of the Child, Dr. Montessori writes, “At any given moment a child is attracted to the object that corresponds to his greatest need at the time. In the same way the petals of all the flowers in an open field are calling other living beings to themselves with their colors and perfumes, but each insect chooses the blossom that was made for it” (106).
To me, this is truly what “following the child” means.
How do you do Montessori at home?