Language Development, Practical Life, Science

If You Only Do ONE Montessori Activity…

Spreading-Cream-CheeseI challenge you to think of one activity that exposes your child to math, language and science, while helping her develop concentration, motor skills, and delayed gratification. It’s not found in workbooks, and you probably won’t see it taking place regularly in most schools (unless they’re Montessori schools).

If you want to know what it is, click here!

Language Development, Montessori Theory, On Parenting, Practical Life, Science

Bathroom Botany

I was sitting outside, enjoying a bit of sunshine, when Zachary walked out of the bathroom and approached me with an inquisitive look. “Mom, can plants grow with pee?”

The question from my just-turned-four year old caught me off guard.

“Uh, I’m not sure.”

He reasoned: “Well, pee comes from water, right?  So maybe they can.”

“Huh.  Maybe they can.”  And then I realized the potential this question had.

“Hey, do you want to do an experiment?  We can try to see if plants will grow if we water them with urine.”  His face lit up and he followed me inside.

beansWe hunted for some cotton, six glass jars, a handful of beans, masking tape and a Sharpie.  I showed him how to separate the cotton and prepare one jar – cotton layer, three beans, and another cotton layer.  Then he prepared all the rest on his own.  I asked him what sounds were in the words “agua” and “pipi” (he’s bilingual), and carefully wrote the words in cursive as he watched.  And then, because he had just used the bathroom, I invited him to drink a big glass of water.

An hour later, we were ready to start watering!  We separated the glass jars based on their labels, collected his urine, and I showed him how to use a dropper to get the same amount of liquid into each jar.

We have three jars that are being watered with tap water (our control group) and three being watered with urine.   Every day, he reads the labels, separates the jars, and uses the dropper to provide equal hydration to all the beans.dropper

It’s been a week, and we’re waiting with bated breath for the results of our experiment!

Apart from learning whether his hypothesis was correct or not, there’s SO MUCH peripheral learning taking place with this activity!  He’s perfecting his use of a dropper, learning how to set up a controlled experiment, reading labels, sorting & classifying, practicing proper hygiene, developing persistence, delaying gratification, and experiencing the beauty of botany!  Once our beans germinate, there will be new vocabulary, comparisons, and conclusions.

Children are natural scientists, and with a little help from us they can develop skills that will last a lifetime!

“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” – Dr. Maria Montessori

 

 

Language Development, Montessori Materials, Montessori Theory, Science

Extensions

One of the activities I felt was lacking in my child’s previous Montessori experience was the use of extensions.  No, I’m not talking about artificial hair pieces!  Extensions are activities that are introduced after the initial presentation with a material, in order to encourage the child to re-visit the material and solidify the skills and/or concepts it’s designed to provide.

Yesterday, my son came out of his new school with a huge smile, holding this painting:

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This is a perfect example of an extension.  In his classroom, there’s a tree puzzle (aff link), used to give three-year olds the names of the parts of a tree.  Once the child has mastered the puzzle (which Zach probably did at his old school), there’s not much he’ll spontaneously do with it.  And most children won’t voluntarily re-visit a material once they’ve figured it out.

Zachary’s new teacher invited Zachary to build the puzzle on top of a white sheet of paper, and trace the outline.  Then, she showed him how to use finger paints to create all the different parts of the tree.  This forced Zachary to slow down and really analyze the shapes of the tree parts and the relationship between them.

When I asked him to tell me about his painting, he pointed out the roots, trunk, branches and leaves.  Through this enjoyable activity (which probably kept him focused for a while), he learned new words and became aware of the relationship between the parts, while enjoying some fun finger painting!

Montessori Theory, On Parenting, Science, Social and Emotional Learning

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.

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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.

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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.

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Playing Catch Up

There’s one thing that sets children ages 0-3 apart from children in all other Montessori age groups, and it’s been throwing me for a loop recently:

THEIR NEEDS AND ABILITIES CHANGE SO DARN FAST!!!  AAARRGGGHHH!!!

I spent almost two hours observing through a one-way window in my son’s Toddler Community.  What I saw was amazing.  And disconcerting.

Because the environment I worked so hard to set up for my one-year old just a few months back?  Yeah, completely useless now.

My baby, the one who was content shaking a maraca or drooling over a plastic lion, is now a capable almost-two-year-old who makes his own orange juice, slices cucumbers, washes dishes, paints, draws, pastes, sews, strings beads… The list is endless!

The Montessori mommy part of me is excited at the thought of re-vamping our space to make way for Practical Life activities, but the Montessori teacher part of me knows the hard work that is involved in the creation, rotation, and upkeep of said activities.  *deep breaths*

With Thanksgiving vacation around the corner, I’m going to make it my mission to slowly introduce new activities in our home.  I promise to make time to share them here!

trayFirst step: buy trays.  Like the Primary environment, all activities are kept on color-coded trays.  Unlike Primary, the activities are often performed within the trays.  So, say the child is juicing oranges.  The juicer, orange, bowl for the fruit,  pitcher and sponge would all stay within the tray as the child works.  The trays should have handles on the sides for easy gripping and transportation.  Thankfully, if you live in the United States you can take care of all your toddler tray needs at Michael’s!  Guess where I’ll be this weekend?

Unlike they do in the classroom, I’m not going to paint the trays; I’m going to stain them all the same color and then use colored electrical tape to line the exterior and a matching oilcloth rectangle to line the interior.  This way, I can use the same tray over again for a different activity by simply changing the color coding!  Electrical tape is great for anything that needs color coding: pitchers, buckets, glasses, brush handles, etc.

Second step: make an apron.  Zachary’s school uses this one, so I want to make the same model to support his sense of order and help him master one type of apron before moving on to other variations.  I think I have a few yards of oilcloth somewhere, for the apron I was going to make him one year ago…  Add one more project to my ever-growing list of Thanksgiving activities!

So, there you have it – the truth about being a Montessori teacher/mom.  Just because you know how it works doesn’t mean you have the bandwidth to keep up.

But I’m trying…

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Show & Tell

It might seem like Montessori parents like to show off what their children can do: “Look, my baby can drink from a glass!  My toddler can slice a cucumber!”  But honestly, our excitement has nothing to do with bragging.  At least for me, sharing my son’s accomplishments is about telling other people: “Look what YOUR child is capable of, and imagine the sense of competence YOUR child can develop!”

Parents who are new to Montessori often observe a classroom and think: “My child would never fit in.  He’s not capable of doing what those children can, or of behaving like those children do.”  I want you to know that, although all children develop at their own pace, your child CAN become self-sufficient at an early age.  Why is this important?  Because research confirms that children whose independence is supported feel capable of dealing with life’s challenges, have a higher sense of self-worth, and tend to have a more intrinsic motivation to learn.

Remember, too, that it’s never too late to modify your approach if you realize you have been holding back your child.  You might get some resistance at first, but if you know what every child is capable of, it will be easier for you to transmit trust and confidence to your child.

Here’s a great perspective from the book “Positive Discipline: The First Three Years” by Jane Nelsen:

When a baby is born, she is all but helpless.  It takes days, weeks, and months before she learns to control her own movements, reach and grasp, and walk on her own.  In her early weeks and months, your job as her parent is to keep her safe, to tend to her needs, to comfort her when she cries, and to be patient – very patient.  But as she grows into toddlerhood, you may be surprised at how much she can do that can help her develop a sense of capability.  On the other hand, if you do too much for her (in the name of love), she is likely to form the belief that she is not capable… Words alone are not powerful enough to build a sense of competence and confidence in children.  Capability comes from experiences of accomplishment and self-sufficiency, and from developing solid skills.

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Learning

So often we focus our parenting energies on “teaching moments”: spouting nouns ad nauseum, choosing the perfect picture book, or refereeing toddler interactions on the playground. We fail to notice, however, that babies and toddlers really learn the most when they are given the time, space, and framework to explore, experiment, and reach their own conclusions.

Zach is transitioning from babyhood to toddlerhood, a process that’s as enthralling as it is exhausting. Meals are messy food-flinging fests; underwear and diaper changes are full of protests; getting him dressed often ends up with me chasing him across the room while he crawls away with his shirt half-on; and I seem to spend half my time averting disasters and the other half dealing with bumps and bruises.

In all this chaos, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that each mess, protest, and bruise is in reality a learning opportunity for Zach. I don’t have to do anything overtly educational to help him learn – no preaching or teaching are necessary. I just have to be consistent with the routine, establish limits, and let him experience life and consequences within those boundaries.

Last night during dinner, Zach was focused on drinking water from his glass. Every time he brought the small cup to his lips, two-thirds of the liquid would run down his chin and onto his bib and shirt. He was clearly surprised whenever he felt the cold water hit his chest, but he was determined to repeat the activity. In my state of exhaustion, I silently bemoaned the mess he was making on the newly-cleaned floors. My husband, however, pointed out that Zach had learned a lot during that meal, and that’s when I remembered that learning happens all day, every day, as long as we allow it.

Additionally, there are so many things Zach has discovered in these past few weeks because I was too busy to pay attention to him! He figured out how to walk backwards with his push wagon while I was doing dishes and couldn’t get his cart out of a corner; he discovered how to scoop sand into a container while I was chatting with a friend at the park; he learned how to transition from one piece of furniture to another when I was talking on the phone and couldn’t offer a helping hand.

Of course, there’s a fine balance between giving your child space and neglecting them, but in the helicopter parenting society in which we live, most children would benefit from a little more breathing room. So, the next time you’re tempted to jump in and teach – don’t. It might be just the learning opportunity your child needs.

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Using a Fork (with video)

During the past few months, I’ve given Zach many opportunities to explore eating with his fingers.  On several occasions I’ve offered him small pieces of fruit or steamed vegetables that he can grab with his hands and bring to his mouth.  I thought he would find this enjoyable, since he loves to eat, but it’s actually been super-frustrating for him!

Because he’s only 8 months old and hasn’t developed fine motor control yet, he can’t grasp the pieces with a coordinated pincer grip.  He manages to use his thumb and index finger quite well, but then the food gets stuck to his hand and he ends up putting half his fist in his mouth in a desperate attempt to get some food.  This frustrates him greatly and sends him into crying mode, so I decided to stop for a while and wait for his coordination to improve.  I’ve also tried giving him large pieces of fruit that he can hold in his hand and munch on, but he ends up taking huge bites that he can’t mash with his gums, and he freaks me out when he starts to gag and turn red, so that’s not working either.  He does very well with bread rolls and veggie puffs, and we can see how happy he is when he’s feeding himself, but the fruit isn’t working well just yet.

Today I received some amazing white peaches from our CSA.  I wanted Zach to experience the joy of biting into a super-sweet late summer peach, so I cut up half a peach into small bite-sized pieces and placed them in front of him after his meal.  He tried grabbing one piece, it got stuck on his hand, and he wailed in frustration.  I pulled the sticky piece off his hand and he grabbed my wrist to lead my fingers to his mouth!  This gave me an idea…

I took out a small fork, speared a piece of peach and fed it to Zach.  He was delighted!  So, I speared another small piece but this time I left the fork sitting on the edge of the plate.  Zach immediately grabbed it, brought it to his mouth, and expertly pulled off the piece of peach with his lips.  We repeated the process and Zach happily ate the rest of his peach with his fork!  Not once did he poke himself, and he had a great time feeding himself with minimal intervention.

I’ve read on mainstream parenting websites that you shouldn’t introduce the fork until after 12 months of age because babies can poke their eyes or hurt their gums.  I had used the fork to feed him fruit before, and it was clear that Zach knew exactly what the utensil was for.  He didn’t wave it near his face, nor did he stab himself in the mouth.  A little trust goes a long way when working with babies, I feel.

We tried it again in the evening with my husband and I took some video of the process.  I’m really excited that Zach is exploring yet another facet of independent eating.  His eagerness and focus let me know that we’re on the right track.