Letting the Child Lead the Way

You might be familiar with the idea that children learn best when they are following their interests.  But you might not know that by “following the child”, you’re also helping them develop executive functions: skills like impulse control, delayed gratification, problem-solving, strategizing and concentrating, which are much bigger determinants for success in life than IQ.

I recently attended a talk by Dr. Steven Hughes, where he focused on the development in childhood of executive functions.  I learned that when a person engages in work that challenges them, satisfies them, and gives them a sense of purpose, their brain produces just the right amount of a hormone called dopamine, which is responsible for managing drive and motivation, and regulating executive functions.  This explains why children rarely misbehave or make bad decisions while doing productive self-chosen work.

I did a little more research after his talk and discovered that boredom is related to a lowered production of dopamine, which explains why most children have to be bribed to do uninspiring school work (receiving bribes increase dopamine, but also leads to a bribe addiction because the motivation isn’t coming from within the child).  It also explains why children act out when they’re bored at school; they are not producing enough dopamine to remain in control of their behavior!!

Meanwhile, even low levels of stress (like those caused by threats, assessments, and externally-imposed deadlines) lead to a dopamine flood that shuts down the prefrontal cortex – the rational part of the brain that regulates executive functions.

In other words, when we pull the child away from his self-chosen explorations and force him to do the work that WE thinks is beneficial for him, along with killing his love of learning, we are also impairing the development of his executive functions. 

So, please, it’s time to start listening to Dr. Montessori and to modern science.  Let’s stop thinking we know what’s best for the children and start allowing their creative and productive energies to lead the way.  Are you ready to follow the child?  I know I am.

Cursive Cards

For the past few weeks, Zach has shown a strong interest in sounds and letters.  He’s constantly pointing out letters and asking what sound they make, and then thinking of words that start with that sound.  However, he’s not keen on tracing the sandpaper letters.  I can’t say I blame him; ours are pretty rough (because they’re new) and his index and middle fingers are very sensitive because he sucks them!

It irritates me that he doesn’t see cursive letters anywhere except in school (most signs that he sees are in upper-case print and books are in lower-case print), so I made some cards to spark a conversation on sounds and hopefully help him associate the cursive letter with the sound while his interest is strong.  I chose pictures of objects that he’s interested in and found a great font that is almost exactly like the one used in the Montessori sandpaper letter and large moveable alphabet materials.  Please note that these are not an AMI-approved material, but simply an extension to support my son’s burgeoning interest.

I’m sharing them with you but ask that you don’t use them as flash cards to drill your child.  They’re only intended to start a conversation that then leads to the child thinking of more words on his own, and that sparks interest in and awareness of cursive letters.  Also, please don’t use them with young toddlers.  The images are not to scale, and it’s important to provide accurate scale for children younger than 2 1/2.

To make them, simply print them out in color on white card stock, cut, and then laminate (or print on regular paper, mount on colored card stock, and laminate).

Have fun and let me know how they worked for you!

PS: the letter “x” doesn’t have any images because its phonetic sound is not used at the beginning of any word.  But, this in itself is an interesting point to discuss with the child!

PPS: There are only four cards in each PDF because the alignment would get all funky if I tried to put more cards in the same document.

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Turning Picky Into Practical

Toddlers are famous for their food fixations.  I’m blessed to be raising a very adventurous eater, but even Zach has some toddler quirks that would drive me insane if I chose to let them bother me.

This morning, I pulled out a container with a few strawberries from the fridge.  I asked Zach if he’d like some with his breakfast and he said yes.  I told him I had to rinse them first, and he flipped out.  While he screamed, I washed the strawberries, put them in a bowl, and took them to the table.

(Yes, I know I should’ve acknowledged his upset, asked questions to clarify his discontent, blah blah.  Honestly, this was pre-caffeine and I’d been up since 2am with a kicking fetus and a coughing toddler who hogs the bed and puts his feet in my face.  He’s lucky I didn’t eat the strawberries myself.)

He sat down, pushed the strawberries away, and said: “I don’t want them.”  I was genuinely puzzled, as they are one of his favorite foods.  I almost said, “That’s fine, you don’t have to eat them,” but fortunately my husband (who doesn’t have a kicking fetus in his belly nor toddler feet in his face, and could probably sleep through both) stepped in first.

“What’s wrong,” he asked.

“They’re wet,” Zach answered.  “I don’t like wet strawberries.” (Mind you, he’s happily devoured mountains of wet strawberries all his life.)

Now, I am NOT the kind of mom who will bend over backwards to make the food look just right for her picky toddler.  I had a million things to do, and I wasn’t about to hand-dry each strawberry.  But his quirk gave me an idea.  I took a paper towel, placed it next to his bowl, and showed him how to dry his own strawberries.

Problem solved!!  He was incredibly focused and productive, and even gave my husband a lesson on how to dry strawberries.

I wonder how many food quirks could be nipped in the bud if, instead of taking it personally or labeling the child as picky, we could empower him to to be an active participant in his own need for order.

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Pom-Poms vs. Broccoli

Practical Life activities should be, above all else, practical: real activities that have a purpose and a goal. Practical Life IMG_0309should never, EVER be busy work. Busy work is insulting to the child’s intelligence and developmental drives.

So, let’s say you want to introduce transferring with tongs. Instead of the ubiquitous pom-poms you see all over Pinterest, how about using broccoli?

Here’s what I did with Zach (who just turned 3), when he asked if he could help in the kitchen:

I had already chopped some broccoli (before he asked to help), so I put it in a bowl and had him transfer it piece by piece from the bowl to the hot buttered pan with a pair of long tongs (he has small ones but I didn’t want him to burn himself by getting his hand too close to the pan).

Then, I showed him how to use the tongs to toss the broccoli so it would cook evenly. When the it was ready, I invited him to transfer it back to the IMG_0306bowl.

He’s been cooking over a hot stove for over a year now, so I only had to remind him at the beginning to work carefully and not touch the pan or the heat source. When he was transferring the cooked broccoli back to the bowl, he dropped one stalk.  He picked it up with his hand, and immediately dropped it again.  It was hot!  Good learning experience…

He was so proud of his contribution to our meal, and he learned so much in that short amount of time.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll take broccoli over pom-poms any day.

To Follow the Child

Now that Zachary is three years old, I’m constantly surprised by how differently Montessori happens at home and in school.

In a classroom, you plan your lessons in part around the child’s interests and abilities, but also based on the sequence in your album. The children are (for the most part) happy and willing to receive the presentations.  Not so at home when it’s your own child.  I’ve learned that nine times out of ten, we’ll only do anything productive if Zachary initiates it.  If I invite him to do an activity, I often get a “No, thanks”.  And honestly, I’m perfectly fine with that (not to say that it didn’t rattle me at first because I’m a planner by nature).  It’s made me think that maybe, just maybe, as guides we could try following the child a bit more…

Case in point: A couple of months ago I tried introducing a couple of sandpaper letters to Zach, since I noticed he was tracing letters on signs.  Not the least bit interested.  So I put my letters away and didn’t push the subject.

Then, about two weeks ago, while he was decorating a thank-you note from his birthday party, he asked me how to write his name.  In lieu of a moveable alphabet, I took out the sandpaper letters and introduced each one, tracing and saying the sound.  Then, I lined them up to make his name (this is not AMI practice but I was improvising) and let him look at them for a good long while without saying anything (note: I never read the name to him).

He looked and looked, and suddenly, his whole face lit up.  “That says ‘Zachary’?” he asked.  I said yes and he broke into a huge grin.  The next day, he asked me to write ‘Zachary’ on his chalkboard, which I did slowly, sound by sound, helping him figure out which sound came next.  I told his teacher about his interest and left it there.

Then, this morning I was reading him a book.  He pointed to the letter ‘g’ and asked what sound it made.  I told him, and IMG_0299he started finding more ‘g’s throughout the page.  He asked: “What words start with ‘g’?”  I said “g-g-guitar” and then he said “g-gorilla”.  We thought of a couple more words and then I pulled out the sandpaper letter ‘g’.  I traced it, said the sound, and asked if he wanted to trace it.  He said no, so I clipped the ‘g’ on the chalkboard and drew a cursive ‘g’.  I asked if he wanted me to write some words starting with ‘g’.  He said yes, so I wrote four words.  Then, he started erasing them with his hand.  Thinking we were done (and honestly a little disappointed that he didn’t want to take it further), I passed him a wet rag to erase his board.  But to my surprise, once he was done erasing, he set to work trying to write a ‘g’!!!  Happy day!

They are our great little teachers, in so many ways.  To truly follow the child, I have only to keep my eyes open for the sensitive periods and prepare the environment accordingly.  His powerful developmental drives will take care of the rest.

Floor Bed Confidential

It seems like there are two major complaints when it comes to using a floor bed: the baby rolls off while sleeping and/or the baby crawls off to explore the room instead of staying put and falling asleep.  I’ve experienced both situations, and I hope that I can provide some encouragement and realistic expectations for parents going through the same scenarios.  Because the truth is, when used correctly, the floor bed is an amazing tool for supporting your child’s development, both mental and physical.

Before we get to the solutions, let’s discuss the main purposes of the floor bed: encouraging independence, allowing the development of the child’s will, and supporting their need for movement.  A child on a floor bed can get in and out on her own as soon as she can slither, thereby reducing her dependence on adults and increasing her sense of self-reliance.  This experience supports the development of the will, wherein the child formulates a goal, tries different strategies, accomplishes her mission, and feels successful.  And all the while, her need for free movement is being supported, because she can use each skill (focusing her eyes, rolling, slithering, crawling) as soon as she develops it.

Like any other Montessori developmental aid (including mobiles, weaning table & chair, and every single Montessori material), it is important to introduce the floor bed at the right time.  Failure to do so can result in reduced effectiveness and increased frustration for both parent and child.

The best time to introduce the floor bed is a few weeks after birth.  At first, the newborn should sleep in a bassinet that allows unobstructed views of her surroundings.  However, around the time that recognizable sleep patterns are established and before the child is rolling, she should transition to the floor bed.  Each child and each family is different; you can read about how I transitioned my son from the bassinet in our room to the floor bed in his room here.

Transitioning your child at the right time doesn’t mean that you won’t encounter challenges.  Once your baby starts rolling, chances are she’ll probably roll off the floor bed at some point.  This seems like a bad thing, but consider it from your child’s viewpoint: she’s free to move and practice her new skill; she’s developing an awareness of borders (which will come in handy when she navigates stairs and transitions to a “big kid bed”); and she’s experiencing the consequences of moving past those borders.  sleep1

Many families find that a soft rug or blanket placed just next to the floor bed is all that’s needed to cushion the baby’s “fall” (which in reality is not more than a few inches).  Some parents find that they can gently move their baby back to the bed without waking them, while others (like me) prefer to let the baby snooze on the floor.  If your child is particularly active while sleeping (like mine is), and she’s at the stage where she’s able to slither on and off her mattress at will, you can also try placing a rolled towel at the edge of the bed under the fitted sheet, or investing in the wonderful IKEA Kura loft bed (minus the slats, so the mattress rests on the floor).  This set-up won’t hinder a child’s independence as long as you show her how to get in and out, and will provide the support they need to stay on the mattress. Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 8.16.38 PM

The more stressful challenge to parents is when the child starts slithering and decides to move off the bed to explore her room, instead of staying in bed and falling asleep.  While frustrating to adults, we must remember that this is exactly what the floor bed is designed to do – encourage independence and develop the will.  You can read here about what happened when we decided to follow our child’s lead.

The best piece of advice I can give parents who are going through this phase is to keep their child’s room as sparse as possible.  On the shelves the child can reach, place only a few carefully selected items for her to explore and leave them there, always in the same order.  Don’t make the bedroom her activity or play area or feature lots of new and interesting objects at her eye-level, because this will encourage her to get out of bed and go see what’s new.  She will certainly crawl out when she first develops the ability to do so, but once the novelty fades, if there’s nothing new for her to explore in her room she’ll be more interested in resting (because all that slithering and crawling is exhausting!).

Many parents make the transition from crib to a floor bed after the child is slithering or crawling, expect them to just stay put and fall asleep, and feel frustrated when this doesn’t happen.  When a young child is given freedom, she’ll use it to further her development.  She can’t not.  It’s an evolutionary mandate.  If you’ve chosen to give your child the freedom to move, then you can’t be angry at them when they take full advantage of it!  Be patient, provide a predictable routine and clear expectations, and gently re-direct back to the bed as many times as necessary each evening.  I assure you that with consistency and realistic expectations will come success, and your child will reap the long-term benefits of the floor bed!

Art & Montessori

A common misconception among Montessori skeptics is that there isn’t enough emphasis on teaching art in the Montessori classroom.  If their definition of teaching art includes 25 children sitting together, making paintings that look almost exactly the same, based on the teacher’s original idea, then they are absolutely right: you will NEVER find this type of art instruction in a genuine Montessori environment.

(As one friend says: “In conventional school art classes, the teacher has to write down each child’s name on the paper because nobody has a clue which painting belongs to whom – they’re identical.”)

Zachary (2yr 11mo) concentrates while learning to glue toothpicks and glitter.

Zachary (2yr 11mo) concentrates while learning to glue toothpicks and glitter.

Art activities in the Montessori classroom are not meant to impress parents.  Montessori artwork might never be featured on the wall of your local supermarket.  Montessori art has a higher purpose: to support the child’s creative development.  He can take as much time as he needs, incorporate skills from previous lessons, collaborate with others, and take risks.  He’ll develop concentration through repetition, and will refine his motor skills.  His artwork will never be graded, compared, or critiqued by the adults in the classroom.

As with all Montessori materials, Montessori art activities are introduced as individual presentations in Primary and in small group lessons in Elementary.  Emphasis is made on learning new techniques and working with care and precision; a specific end product is almost never highlighted (especially not in Primary).  After the lesson is over, if the child doesn’t want to work with the material immediately, he’ll return it to the shelf, where it can be accessed at any time by any child who has had the presentation.

You can bring the Montessori approach to artwork into your home by following some simple tenets:

  • Choose a medium your child can manage on his own.  A great resource for Montessori-inspired art activities for children ages 3-8 is this book (written by a Montessori teacher): “I Want to Paint a Zebra, but I Don’t Know How.”
  • Set up all the necessary tools and materials on a tray, including containers and clean-up items.
  • Choose a place where the tray will be stored, which is accessible to your child.
  • When you present the activity to your child, set out two pieces of paper: one for you (set up between you and the child) and another for the child, placed off to one corner of the work area to inspire him to begin working once the lesson is over.  Point out that you’re going to have a turn first and when you’re finished, it’s his turn.
  • Limit how much you talk and keep your movements slow and deliberate.  Don’t talk as you are manipulating the materials, because the child might turn to look at you instead of your hands.  If you need to explain something, do it before or after each step of the process.
  • Keep techniques open-ended and don’t feel you need to show EVERY variation available.  For example, if using clay, you can say: “This is one way of rolling a ball”.  Let your child discover other ways when it’s his turn.
  • Focus on introducing skills and techniques (“This is one way of gluing cotton onto paper.”) instead of trying to make something your child can identify (“I’m making a snowman.”), because his potential desire to copy your snowman will limit his creative experience.
  • When you finish the lesson, decide if you’ll invite your child to work with it right away (best for young children) or whether you’ll show him how to clean up (suggested for some older children).  Always remember to come back to show your child how to clean up!
  • When you’re done with your artwork, take it with you.  Leaving your version in front of your child limits his creativity and can make him feel discouraged if he decides his version is not as “good” as yours.
  • Let your child work by himself, but keep an eye on him to make sure he’s not misusing the materials.  Gentle reminders with positive phrasing are usually all that’s needed to get a child back on track: “Glitter goes on the paper, not on the dog.”
  • When he finishes, if he seems interested in discussing his work, use descriptive language (“You really enjoyed making circles with the red crayon!”) instead of offering generic praise (“Good job!” or “That’s beautiful!”).  For older children, you can also ask questions about their creative process (“What did you learn when you started mixing colors?”).
  • Respect what the child wishes to do with his artwork once he’s done.  He might want to give it away, feature it on the fridge, or even throw it away.  There are no bad choices here (other than feeding it to the dog…).
  • Don’t feel bad if your child doesn’t want to work with the material again.  If you want to encourage further use of the activity, you can provide variations (different colors or types of paper/paints/objects for gluing, etc.)

I hope these tips are helpful… Have fun!!!