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Zach’s Activity Area

We live in a small two-bedroom condo, which has posed some fun challenges as we work to continually adapt Zachary’s environment to meet his growing needs.  One of the four areas that make up a Montessori baby room is the activity area, where the little one has the opportunity to stretch out, roll around, observe mobiles, and play independently.  It is a simple set-up, consisting of a low mirror and a thin pad or large rug.  A hook or tripod for hanging mobiles is also essential.  Eventually, a low bar should be added when baby starts sitting up.  There should be one or two low shelves where a few toys are kept.

Our baby’s bedroom is tiny, and the only bare wall is actually a sliding door, so it was impossible to set up an activity area there.  Luckily, our bedroom is pretty big, and we’re hoping to turn it into a family room once my husband finishes building the loft that will be our new bedroom.  Therefore, it made perfect sense to set up the activity area there, since it will eventually become a place where the whole family can hang out.  I should also note that my husband turned one of the walls in this room into a rock climbing wall several years ago, which came in handy during the mirror set-up!

When Zach was a newborn, the activity area was nothing more than a pad, a low mirror attached to the wall, and a hook on the wall from which to hang mobiles.  This worked for about 2.5 months, until he started rolling and trying to grab the mobiles.  I tried putting a picnic blanket on the floor, but instead of rolling towards his toys, Zach would lay on his tummy and pull the blanket towards him until the toy got close enough to grasp!  Sneaky little bugger… 😉  We bought a couple of cute and sturdy IKEA rugs, and the problem was solved!

My husband added the low bar that will eventually encourage Zach to pull up and cruise back and forth.  He chose copper piping instead of a wooden rod because the bar has to be thin so the baby can grasp it; a wooden bar long enough to cover the amount of mirror space we set up would be too weak.  We have a huge length of mirror because we had the space, but one standard mirror (like those that you can put on a door, but placed horizontally) is plenty for a young baby.  When you choose the bar, make sure your baby can wrap his fingers around it!  We got our mirrors at IKEA; they’ve withstood plenty of banging and were very easy to mount.

The shelves are also from IKEA and they are just the right height so that when Zach starts pulling up he can reach the two upper cubbies.  I love to see Zach roll over to the shelves and pull out a toy on his own.  Having only a few toys makes it very easy to clean up when he’s done playing; each toy has a permanent spot, and I only rotate out one toy at a time every week or so.  We have 5 books available at any one time, and we also rotate those out every two weeks with other books that are kept in his room.  (Note how my husband used to bar to stabilize the shelving unit so it wouldn’t topple over.)

The toys we have out right now are not necessarily “Montessori” toys (if such a concept even exists), but they are all toys that have an intelligent purpose and satisfy Zach’s current interests.  A few of the items Zach explores right now actually belong to toys that are designed for older children.  I’ve offered the part of the toy that Zach currently finds interesting and put away the part that he’ll be into later.  For example, we have several wooden geometric solids that go into a hexagonal container.  He’s too young to be interested or capable of inserting the shapes into the corresponding holes, but he loves to take them out their basket and shake them (they have little beads inside that make them rattle).

These are some other examples of the toys we have out:

  • Four fabric rings of different colors, sizes, and textures (these are actually stacking rings, which Zach is not interested in stacking yet, so I haven’t shown him the pole)
  • The Takane ball (this ball hung from the wall when Zach was younger, and he developed enormous leg strength from kicking it.  Now it helps encourage him to roll and crawl, and is great for him to practice grasping and hand-to-hand transfer.)
  • The geometric solids (I found a great basket for them at a thrift store and made a liner out of an old felted woolen sweater.)
  • Stacking/nesting cups (I only set out three cups right now for Zach to explore.  He’s not really interested in nesting or stacking yet; he’s currently happy to explore them with his mouth.)
  • The Squish (This is another great rolling toy that’s also perfect for grasping and has a lovely rattling sound.)
  • A rattle (Our wooden Haba rattle is actually quite heavy, so it’s a great workout for him, especially now that he’s using wrist motion instead of just whole arm motion.)

There’s also a ring with a bell hanging from a string and an elastic; Zach loves to pull on and let go because the ring bounces back and makes a jangling sound against the copper bar.  Sometimes I hang the Takane ball from there, as a variation.  We have a bead maze that he’s too young to really play with, but it’s too large to store and he does roll towards it to inspect it sometimes.

Not surprisingly, Zach’s favorite activity right now is simply moving.  If I leave him in his activity area and return five minutes later, I will find him halfway across the bedroom.  He wants to explore and he’s trying to figure out how to crawl, so toys are of secondary importance to him right now.

We recently had two 13-month twins over for a visit.  It was amazing to see them being sucked in to the activity area.  They were delighted by a space that was just for them and spent a long time exploring.  They especially loved the bead maze and the Takane ball (which was hanging at that time).  Their parents commented on how peaceful and orderly the environment seemed, and how in contrast, the toys they had at home were “positively ADD-inducing” (these were the mom’s words, not mine!).

Our room is almost completely baby-proofed in preparation for Zach’s crawling stage.  It makes me happy to think that he’ll be able to crawl from his room to ours when the sliding door is open, so he’ll have a large area in which to move, explore, and play independently.

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Zach’s Digs – A Montessori Room

I was in Italy finishing my Elementary training when I found out I was pregnant, so my wonderful husband decided to surprise me by totally re-doing our spare bedroom and turning it into a Montessori room. When I came back, we worked together to add the finishing touches (mattress, nursing chair, artwork, etc.). 

A Montessori room consists of four areas: sleeping, nursing, hygiene (diapering), and activity.  Here’s a description of Zach’s room…

The floor is wood and it has slight grooves and indentations that provide lovely texture, perfect for stimulating the sense of touch in a crawling baby.  The closet is completely adjustable, so that we can change the configuration as Zach grows.  Right now it is set up for my convenience, with lots of baskets for his clothes, blankets, linens, and diaper covers.  The low rod will stay where it is, and when Zach is old enough to demonstrate interest in dressing himself, I will hang a few clothes on child-sized hangers for him to choose every day.  The deep baskets will eventually be replaced with shallower ones so he can access things like socks, underwear and t-shirts, and the deep baskets will go up high for storage.

The shelving unit is from IKEA, and what’s great about it is that when Zach is older we can stand it up and he can use it as a bookshelf.  Right now we have a changing pad on top (which I had to make at home because all the commercial changing pads were wider than the unit).  My husband is going to make a barrier across the front of the unit to prevent Zach from rolling over.  In the meantime, I am very careful about keeping a hand on Zach at all times when he’s on the changing pad and placing my body directly in front of him.  It was annoying at first but now I’ve gotten used to it.

The cloth diapers are kept in a box just below the changing area, and the rest of the diapering supplies are next to the changing pad, at arm’s reach.  This took a bit of readjusting to get just right, but now it’s super comfortable and makes the changing process quick and efficient.

The rest of the shelving unit consists of two sets of drawers: the top right-hand one has socks and undershirts, while the bottom left-hand set holds toys and mobiles that Zach is not yet developmentally ready for.  We also have a box in the unit where I’ve stored larger toys that Zach has received as gifts.  As he grows I will introduce them one by one and gauge his interest.

So, what’s visually available to Zach right now?  On the top row I have several books in Spanish and English.  We’ve started reading to him (he’s seven weeks old) and the books are easily accessible to me from the nursing chair.  Once he’s old enough to choose what book he wants read to him, I will limit the number of books available to 3-4 (and rotate them in and out) so he doesn’t become overwhelmed.

The bottom row of cubbies hold:
– a stuffed giraffe (his only stuffed animal toy right now) and a horse jack-in-the-box
– three different rattles (all three made out of natural materials)
– three Montessori rolling toys (more on those later)

Compared to most children’s rooms, the number of toys Zachary has available to him seems sparse.  This is done on purpose for several reasons:

  • It keeps the room organized and uncluttered, so that this becomes his model of what a living place should look like.
  • It allows him to see what toys he has, so he can make his own choices without becoming overwhelmed by too many options.
  • It helps him to remember where everything goes, so that he can put things back in their place by himself (with a little help from me at first, of course).

All of the items on the shelves right now are developmentally appropriate for a child a little older than Zachary, so we will begin to introduce them as soon as he is showing an interest in grasping.  (Note: We have toys for children as old as two years, but we won’t put them out until they become developmentally appropriate for him.)

To the left of the shelving unit is the nursing chair, set up in a lovely corner with two windows.  I chose this reclining chair from IKEA because it is not a rocking chair or a  glider.  Since the room is designed for Zach to be able to move around at will, I didn’t want to have a chair that could pose a pinching hazard for his fingers.  This chair not only is less expensive than most rockers and gliders, but it’s super comfortable, attractive, unobtrusive, and safe for little hands to explore.  It has a slight rocking movement that Zach and I really enjoy.  On the window sills I placed two pots with geraniums, which are colorful and hardy and brighten my day.  Zach loves looking at the window when he nurses; he’s attracted by the dark/light pattern of the wooden blinds and the bursts of color from the flowers.

The floor bed is actually a crib mattress from IKEA.  We are transitioning Zach from his bassinet to the floor bed, so right now we have an extra pad on the bed (the green pad pictured here, which used to be in his bassinet).  In a few more days I’ll remove the pad and my big boy will sleep on his floor bed!  (I’ll soon post about how we transitioned him to his own room.)  The floor bed is arguably the most important part of the Montessori room, because it allows the child to be independent in his environment.  Once Zach starts crawling he can get in and out of bed by himself (which will be interesting during nap time, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there).  Unlike a crib, the floor bed prevents the meltdowns associated with putting the child in what he feels is a cage-like environment.

But even before a child is mobile, the floor bed provides a developmental advantage because it helps him develop awareness of where a surface ends.  A small baby on a floor bed can move across it and feel where the bed ends.  If he keeps moving, he’ll roll off the bed and onto the floor, but the fall will only be a few inches.  Very quickly he’ll realize that in order to stay on the bed he needs to stop where he feels the surface ending.  This in turn will prepare him to make better choices near stairs and on taller beds.  Of course, it’s important to always supervise crawling babies near stairs and never leave them unattended on a normal-sized bed, but I have heard from many Montessori parents who say that their child showed a healthy respect for stairs from the moment they approached a step for the first time.

The last area of the Montessori room, the activity area, is not actually in Zach’s room because of lack of space.  (Note: some people choose to set up the mirror and activity area in the same space as the bed, with the mirror running alongside the bed.  I feel that this sends a conflicting message regarding the use of the bed.  Is it for sleeping or playing?)  We chose to set up the mirror and activity pad in our room (which will eventually  become the living room/rec room once our bedroom is constructed).  My husband placed mirrors on the wall and hung a fishing line from the ceiling.  From here I can hang mobiles, and when he’s ready I’ll be able to hang grasping and kicking toys that will help Zach develop important motor skills.  Currently he loves looking at himself in the mirror and seems to get a kick out of seeing me reflected when I approach him.  He also spends time checking out his mobiles and even does some tummy time with encouragement from mom and dad.  I made an activity mat for him with two different fabric textures to stimulate his senses (and to keep him off the carpet).

Once Zach is sitting up on his own, we’ll install a low bar across the mirror so that he can practice pulling up and then walking.  The mirror helps him to gain a clear understanding of his body and his surroundings.  We have more shelving units in this room, and the two lowest cubbies will belong to Zach.  Here he will keep the toys that he’ll use in the activity area (such as the Takane ball).

The artwork pieces that we chose for his room are intended to inspire admiration and inquisitiveness.  The tiles with the sailboat are from the Amalfi coast, one of our favorite places on the planet and somewhere we hope to take Zach one day.  The two photographs of the Earth show the two hemispheres and will hopefully inspire Zach to want to know more about our planet.  We also placed a low frame near his bed (not shown here), featuring artwork that will be rotated every couple of weeks (note: A great way to find artwork is to buy cheap outdated calendars of different painters and photographers).  None of these pieces are meant to be preached about to Zach, but are instead provided to let him inquire, investigate, and discover on his own.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of Zach’s Montessori bedroom.  Setting it up took a lot of thought and effort.  I wasn’t alone; my dear friend Jenny Paynel, owner of Voila Montessori home consulting, was enormously influential in our decisions.  Jenny holds both the Assistants to Infancy and Primary trainings, was my mentor during my own Primary training, and is also an amazing mom!  If you would like to know more about how to set up or modify your child’s bedroom to best support his development, Jenny can help.

This Montessori room has worked beautifully so far and we look forward to continuing to modify Zach’s environment to meet his ever-changing needs.