Getting Back on the Montessori Wagon

With the birth or our daughter, I found myself slacking off in the “Montessori parenting” department.  Gone are the days when Zach and I could spend 30 minutes cooking together, and my patience and resolve are minimal these days due to sleep deprivation and meeting the needs of a tiny human 24/7.

When I started noticing that my 3-year old was acting a little like an entitled brat, I knew that the changes to his lifestyle were to blame; I realized I had to modify his environment, routine, and expectations to nip this issue in the bud.

After cutting myself some slack for the first six weeks of Nadia’s life (the hugely important symbiotic period), I decided to take some baby steps to provide Zach with the activities and stability he needs.  Here’s what I’ve done and how I’ve done it:

Practical Life:

Our meals are a lot simpler now that I have to juggle a baby, but I am trying to include Zachary in the meal prep at least twice a week.  It can be as simple as scooping frozen peas into a pot of water, but at least he feels like he’s contributed to the evening meal.  I’m also encouraging him to dress himself, because we had gotten into the habit during the school year of helping him with his clothes to speed up the process and be on time for school (yes, even Montessori teachers take shortcuts!)  He has been helping my husband with simple repairs around the house and has been helping me with things like bringing the box of wipes during the baby’s diaper change.

Responsibilities (aka, chores):

To help Zach feel less entitled and more of a contributing member of the family, while avoiding becoming a nag about chores, I wanted to set up a Responsibilities Chart.  I don’t have time to make my own, and online at first all I found were sticker charts that reward children for behaviors that shouldn’t need to be rewarded.  Then I found this AWESOME chart called “Do-N-Slide”.  FullSizeRender

It comes with a label for each day of the week, along with about two dozen pictures of child-friendly chores most three-year olds can do on their own.  I picked out the ones that were relevant to our home, Zach and I talked about them together, and then I invited him to choose five chores for one day.  He slipped them in his chart and as he completed them, he moved them from the “To Do” side to the “All Done” side.  Some chores he was already familiar with (like clearing the table) while others required a brief presentation and some patience (like putting the clean laundry in his closet).

I have to make sure the environment is set up for him to be successful (i.e. make sure the watering can is on the porch, leave his laundry in a basket in his room, and clear a space on the kitchen counter so he can successfully place his dish and cup there) but a little effort on my part goes a long way!

Toys and books:

Zach’s toys and books were getting out of hand.  We got him a few extra toys to keep him entertained while I cared for his sister, but they somehow all ended up on his limited shelf space, which made for some massive chaos!  He was being careless and messy, and it was stressing me out.  Seriously, who needs Duplos AND Legos?!  His books were in two massive piles in the bathroom and in his bedroom, and he would only request the same few books over and over.  FullSizeRender_1

After a particularly stressful incident involving clean-up (or lack thereof), I hit rock bottom and put about half his toys in a storage box.  I made careful choices about what to leave out: Legos, train set, wooden blocks, a numbers activity, a shapes activity, a science activity, a geography puzzle, a few crayons and blank paper, two airplanes and a bus, and the sandpaper letters.  I also carefully selected a few quality books and placed them facing outwards in his new bookshelf.

The change was positive: He began playing with the blocks and then the geometry material, both of which he hadn’t touched in weeks, and he also repeated the science experiment three times.  Eventually, he asked for one of the toys in the storage box, so I invited him to pick one toy to put away for each toy he wanted to take out.  This has worked beautifully and I’m a lot less stressed because there’s a lot less mess!

Montessori activities:

I chose to keep Zach home over the summer instead of sending him to Montessori summer camp so we wouldn’t have to rush in the morning and so he could bond with his sister.  While this was the right decision for us, it also meant that the burden of keeping him going on his burgeoning reading, writing and math skills would lay on me. He had *just* started reading three-letter words when school let out for the summer, but I know he still doesn’t know all the letters of the alphabet.

He was not the least bit interested in doing three-period lessons and kept rejecting any activity that reminded him of school, so a few days ago I introduced the “sound of the day”.  Based on whatever conversation we’re having as a family in the morning, I’ll pick a sound from the Sandpaper Letter box and feature it in a see-through napkin holder (for example, we had read a book about a “giggling gull” so the sound of the day became the “g”).  The entire family takes turns tracing the letter and we all think of words that start with that letter.  Then, throughout the day, I’ll casually bring Zach’s attention back to the letter ifFullSizeRender_2 he uses a word that starts with that same sound.  It’s worked BRILLIANTLY and is a low-stress way of introducing the sounds!

I also put together a simple “Float or Sink” activity with objects I had around the house, and have started introducing the concept of numbers through making and labeling Duplo stacks (in lieu of the Number Rods).  I’m working on other easy-to-make activities like matching hardware store paint chips at a distance and then later finding objects around the house that are the same color as the paint chips; assorted punching activities; and a couple of sewing activities.  I’ll try to post them as we try them out.

Getting back on the Montessori wagon after lowering our standards hasn’t been a walk in the park, but when I feel like throwing in the towel after butting heads with a three-year old I think of the long-term repercussions, and it gives me the strength to take a deep breath, walk away to regroup, and try again later.

Happy Pi Day!

In honor of Pi Day, Zachary and I made a quiche following this tried-and-true recipe.  While not the speediest quiche to make, it was perfect for keeping us entertained on an otherwise lazy afternoon.   Here are some pictures of Zach working, to give you an idea of what a toddler can help with.  Please pardon the shades; he’s 100% three years old and 100% determined to assert his will.  And that includes cooking with sunglasses.

Transferring chopped chard from a bowl to the pan with tongs.

Transferring chopped chard from a bowl to the pan with tongs.

Rolling out the pie dough.

Rolling out the pie dough.

Buttering the "Pi" dish.

Buttering the “Pi” dish.

Grating cheese.

Grating cheese.

He would’ve gladly beaten the eggs and helped to assemble everything, but he had an unfortunate incident that involved forgetting to use the bathroom.  Which then led to him needing a shower.  Which made him tired and grumpy.  And eventually he took a nap and I finished making the quiche by myself.  Such is the reality of Montessori in the home.  Bon appetit!!!

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Bursting the Montessori Bubble

“At what point do you burst the Montessori bubble?” a friend recently asked.  She has two young children in Montessori, but is considering enrolling them in a traditional private school after they finish Primary.

My first thought (as a Montessori child, parent, and teacher) was, Why would you want to burst it?

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But my friend is not alone in her concern: many parents feel that Montessori shelters children from tests, grades, and competition.  Based on their own background, they believe that only a conventional approach to education can provide the tough experiences that will prepare children to be successful when faced with the hardships of real life.

Finding myself at a loss for a coherent answer, I posed the question to Dr. Steve Hughes during his recent visit to our city.  He looked at me from behind his glasses for a moment, and then asked:

“Which is the real bubble?”

His question was all the answer I needed.

Because the truth is, success in life is not built on a foundation of standardized tests, but on the freedom to make difficult choices and experience their consequences.

Success in life is not built on grades and percentages, but on self-awareness and self-improvement.

Success in life is not built on artificial competition among same-aged peers, but on genuine collaboration between generations.

Success in life is not built on cheating the system, but on having the wisdom and courage to transform it.

In Dr. Maria Montessori’s words…

“If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?… The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future.  If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities.” 

Absolutely the World’s Best One-Bowl Toddler-Friendly Banana Bread Muffin Recipe Ever Invented… Ever!

You might be able to tell by this post’s title how excited I am about this recipe.  It was given to me six years ago by a Toddler classroom assistant on a small piece of scrap paper.  Now, it’s time to share it and record it on the interwebs for all posterity.

World’s Best One-Bowl Banana Bread Muffins (can be made dairy-free!!!)

(makes 18 muffins)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup of melted butter (or melted coconut oil)
  • 2/3 cup of brown sugar (or 1+ cups if you have a sweet tooth, but honestly 2/3 cup is plenty for kids)
  • 4 room temperature eggs (you can put them in lukewarm water for a few minutes to warm up)
  • 5 very ripe bananas (the riper, the better!)
  • 3 tbsp milk (or milk substitute)
  • 2 1/2 cups of whole wheat pastry flour (the “pastry” part is really important!!)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 cup of crumbled nuts (or slivered almonds) – optional
  • 1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips – optional (but oh so yummy!!!)

Remember, you ONLY need one mixing bowl!!!

Directions:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350F and line muffin tins with muffin wrappers.IMG_2397
  2. Measure out the butter (or oil) into the mixing bowl and pop it in the microwave for 30-45 seconds to melt.
  3. Add the eggs and whisk until combined.
  4. Add the sugar.
  5. Add the bananas and mash very thoroughly.
  6. Add the milk and mix all the wet ingredients together.
  7. Add the flour, salt, and baking soda.  Fold into the wet ingredients.
  8. Add the optional nuts and chocolate chips and fold in.
  9. Spoon into muffin wrappers about 2/3 full.
  10. Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes.  Allow to cool in the muffin tins for 10 minutes before removing.
  11. Enjoy the gooey deliciousness!!!

Note: You an also make a loaf with the same mixture, just bake for 1hr 15min.

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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