3 - 6, 6 - 12, Favorite Books, On Parenting, Siblings, Sleep, Social and Emotional Learning

BOTW: Good-Night Yoga

good night yogaOn a recent date night at a local bookstore (exciting, I know), my husband came across Good-Night Yoga: A Pose-By-Pose Bedtime Story.  Neither of us practice yoga, but we’d been trying to find activities we can do as a family in the evenings that will engage both a three-year-old and a seven-year-old AND that will help us transition peacefully into the bedtime routine.

We’ve been reading and yoga-ing with this book a couple of evenings a week for the past month, and it’s become on of our favorite evening activities!  The kids love the illustrations and poses, and my husband and I love that it’s fun but not over-stimulating.  The kids have a great time watching their dad wobble through the balance poses, and I can see their body awareness improving with consistent practice.

If you’re looking for a family-friendly way to wind down after a busy day, then I encourage you to find a place on your bookshelf for Good-Night Yoga!

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The Power of Simplicity and Trust

The fundamental concept for the educator [and the parent] is not to become an obstacle in the development of the child.

-Maria Montessori, The Child In the Family

One reason I love to blog is because it gives me the opportunity to connect with many amazing parents.  After I wrote the post about Zach’s experiences with the Jaramillo soup, I began an e-mail correspondence with a reader (let’s call her Adriana) who felt the soup was right for her three-month old son (let’s call him Charlie).  We e-mailed almost daily while she learned the tricks to making a great soup.  Her baby was soon thriving, and fortunately we’ve remained in touch.

She recently e-mailed me to ask my thoughts on Charlie’s development, since he’s 5 months old and she’s concerned because he’s not yet rolling.  I told her that each baby has his own timetable and that if the pediatrician doesn’t feel there’s anything physically or mentally wrong with him, the best thing to do to encourage rolling is to place a favorite toy just out of the baby’s reach and let him make the effort of reaching it.

This exchange led her to open up a bit more about her experiences with Charlie.  She wrote:

I’ve invested in so many toys and activity centers for Charlie, to keep him entertained and alert. However, I feel like he is so bored by everything. He has a bouncy chair. A piano kick thing with hanging toys, a walker car thingy, a door frame jumper, not to mention tons of teething toys and other dangly colorful stroller toys. Nothing seems to hold his attention for long and he gets cranky and I have to continuously rotate him from toy to toy… I wonder if perhaps I have given him too much and therefore overwhelmed him and he just can’t deal with so much. I’m interested in the Montessori things you have talked about. Charlie is very determined, he hates when he can’t do something and gets frustrated when I help him. He tries to sit on his own but topples over and then pushes my hands away when I try to help him. His favorite thing is to stick things in his mouth or play with his hands.
My heart went out to her.  I think that at some point we all feel responsible for stimulating our babies and become puzzled when they respond by getting cranky and irritable.  I admire Adriana’s ability to observe her child and find the correlation between environment and behavior.  Here’s what I wrote back:
Each parent has to trust that their baby is an active being who can learn on his own without the constant stimulation of parents or loud flashy electronic toys.  The best way to come to terms with this is by observing your baby and giving him the opportunity to engage with open-ended objects.
Perhaps the reason he’s not rolling is because he doesn’t feel he needs to.  Place an interesting object – a metal mixing bowl or a shiny spoon or a pinecone – near him and go sit nearby.  Perhaps at first he’ll cry trying to get your attention because he’s used to being entertained, but when he realizes you are busy (pretend to be busy!!) he’ll eventually try to move towards the interesting object and interact with it.  This might take two minutes, two hours, or two days, but I guarantee you that it will happen!
You can also hang something like a couple of metal bracelets from a ribbon so that he can grab at them if he seems to be having too much trouble rolling and becomes too frustrated.  However, a little frustration and effort is a good thing!  Life is full of frustrations, and it’s important to let them experience a little bit of this so that they can also feel empowered when they overcome adversity.
I also suggested – among several resources – a great post from Janet Lansbury that offers suggestions for trusting in the child’s intrinsic learning process and learning to take a step back: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/08/the-secrets-of-infant-learning/
Adriana wrote back a couple of days later:
…Today I did an experiment. I took away almost everything away from Charlie’s play area except for his colorful mat and one teething ring. I put up a long mirror going along the mat and just put him down. He was so happy. Wiggled and talked. Very interesting to see him and understand that I didn’t have to entertain him. I look forward to understanding more and learning how I can help him be more interactive with his environment!
And then a day later:
Today I was playing with Charlie and he saw a toy he like that was a little off to his side around head level. He kept looking at it and trying to reach for it but unless he moved he could not get it. So I encouraged him to roll over and when he did, the toy was still a bit away. I just told him that he could get it and that he should. He reached out for it and got it himself!!! At that moment I almost cried because I knew that he just learned something. He eventually got frustrated because he couldn’t get it in his mouth properly and he got tired of keeping his head up, so I just showed him what he needed to do to get back on his back. He cried a bit after that, but eventually chilled out. It was just so neat to see that.
And the following day:
Today, I took Charlie outside to the yard and set up a blanket. I took two toys: a ball and a dangly bracelet that he likes. I could not believe it, we spent over 40 minutes together without one whine or cry. In fact, he laughed, like giggled, all by himself. We laughed together without me having to do anything. When the wind blew over the trees, he got so excited and started kicking and wiggling and talking. Today, he sat for a few seconds and actually grabbed a toy and played with it. He also reached for a toy by his side and with some help rolled over and extended his hand to grab it. In two days, his mobility and his eagerness to be mobile has changed so dramatically. I feel like crying when I think that I was completely keeping him from achieving these things.
Wow.  Simplicity and trust are two very powerful tools in the hands of a loving and humble parent.  Thank you, my dear friend, for allowing me to share your experiences with my readers.

The Basket of Known Objects

The Basket of Known Objects is one of the most simple and effective Montessori activities for babies.  It promotes exploration, language, sensory development and movement… Best of all, it’s 100% FREE!!

As its name implies, this activity requires placing 4-6 safe objects that you find around the house into a child-sized basket.  It can be introduced around the age of three months, or when you see that your child is beginning to grasp objects.  If your baby can sit up against pillows, you can introduce the basket in a sitting position.  Otherwise, you can place it on the floor next to your child and let him turn towards it.

The main purpose of this activity is to help your child explore the objects in his environment before he’s crawling; it’s like bringing the world to him!  While not a formal language activity, you can eventually introduce the names of the objects by conversing casually with your child as he explores.  However, first give him ample uninterrupted time to explore the basket and its contents.  Now is when you can grab that elusive shower or make dinner!

Our first basket was too big!

When I first introduced the activity to Zach, he was more interested in the basket than in the objects.  This was a little frustrating until I realized that this is the norm with infants; unlike pre-schoolers (with whom I am accustomed to working), babies will spend a long time just exploring the material and its container before engaging in what we would consider the actual purpose of the activity (of course, this exploration is also purposeful and incredibly important because for them, EVERYTHING is new!).

Our Basket of Known Objects has evolved with Zach’s interests (and, I must admit, my creativity).  At first, I chose four random objects (a measuring cup, a teaspoon, a baby food jar and a hand cream jar).  Note that these are real objects from our environment, not plastic toys.  As I moved around the house, I would encounter other items that could be introduced (a bracelet, a small box, a seashell, a coin purse, etc.).  Every few days, I would replace one familiar object in the basket with a new item and then offer the basket again.  We quickly realized that Zach would zero in on the new object.  Every. Single. Time.  Try it and see what your baby does!

When Zach began showing interest in crawling at around 6 months of age, I modified the contents of the basket so that they all rolled.  This provided lots of opportunity for chasing round objects around the living room!

Now that Zach is eight months old and on the verge of understanding language, I’m preparing a new basket, this time with objects that belong to the same category.  I’ve chosen to start with types of brushes – toothbrush, nail brush, hair brush, and basting brush – since that’s what I have around the house.  This activity will provide re-enforcement of the word “brush”, and will help him understand that within the category “brush” there are many types of brushes.

If you choose to offer this activity to your baby, use common sense to make sure all the objects in the basket are safe.  Tightly screw the caps on small bottles and check them often (some people even glue them on); avoid objects that can poke (especially before the child develops good coordination); if you are offering an object made out of glass, don’t leave baby unattended and make sure  he’s exploring on a soft surface away from walls.  If you choose the objects with care, you can leave your baby exploring on his own for as long as he’s interested (sometimes Zach would work with his basket for over 20 minutes).

Have you made a Basket of Known Objects for your baby?  Do you have any suggestions for parents who want to try this activity with their child?  Please share your ideas or experiences in the comments!


He Likes to Move It, Move It…

I had the good fortune of capturing Zach on video while he worked on his gross motor skills. (Please pardon the wonky camera angle; I didn’t want him to know I was filming him.)  I want to share what I recorded because I feel it illustrates several key principles for supporting the development of movement…

Motives for movement: The development of movement is two-pronged.  There is an evolutionary drive to move that comes from within the child, but it must be met in the environment by a reason to move.  Fortunately, babies are curious by nature, and don’t require expensive, flashy, and noisy toys.  A simple pinecone becomes a delightful plaything in the hands of a baby, and offers him a bounty of information in terms of texture, smell, weight, shape, sound, taste, color, etc.  (Make sure to check your pinecone for any tiny inhabitants before you give it to baby!)  Use your imagination to offer your child objects from nature and from around your house that satisfy his current developmental needs.

Clothing for movement: When I put Zach on his blanket, he was wearing cotton pants.  He quickly rolled over onto his tummy and began to do his military crawl, but his legs kept sliding out from beneath him.  I removed the pants and his traction improved considerably!  At all stages of child development, dressing for independence and freedom of movement is a key element for success.  Common clothing-related obstacles include: sleeves and pant legs that are too long; fabric that’s too stiff (e.g., denim and taffeta);  pants and overalls that are difficult to undo for going to the toilet; long and frilly skirts that get in the way during crawling and toileting; and socks and shoes that don’t let feet get the workout they need.  What do you think is more important: a fashionable tot or an active and independent one?

Space for movement: Playpens, walkers, jumpy swings… They are all sold under the pretense of keeping the child safe and entertained while the parent isn’t around to supervise.  However, they are an obstacle to the development of movement at a crucial time in the baby’s life.  If nature is driving the baby to move, we need to let him move!  Remember, a baby’s intelligence depends on his ability to move naturally and freely.  There’s nothing natural and free about a walker or a jumpy swing; they are expensive containers that infringe on a child’s freedom to develop.  A room, or even a section of a room, that has been carefully prepared to meet the needs of the child is a lot safer – and more intellectually stimulating – than any contraption (Trust me, those lights and bells on an exersaucer aren’t helping baby learn a darn thing).

“If a child is prevented from using his powers of movement as soon as they are ready, this child’s mental development is obstructed.”

Time for movement: Babies are often the victims of our rush-rush lifestyle; many spend the better part of their day in buckets car seats, strollers, and carriers, being carted from stores to siblings’ extra-curricular activities to restaurants.  In order to support a baby’s development, it is essential to block out some time every day for him to move on the floor.  Get creative: if you’re taking your older child to soccer practice, bring a blanket and let baby hang out on the grass.  If you’re making dinner, set down a blanket in a safe corner of the kitchen for baby to roll around on.  If you’re working out while pushing baby in a stroller, pause halfway through your run and let baby stretch out on a blanket while you do crunches.  Yes, it’s important for children to adapt to our schedules, but we also have to keep their needs in mind!

Baby sets the pace: Infants move slowly and deliberately.  It takes a lot of effort to coordinate movements during the early months of life.  The brain has to process a HUGE quantity of new data all day long! Be patient when your baby is taking his time reaching, crawling, exploring a toy, or simply looking around the room.  If you get used to waiting and slowing down now, you’ll be in a much better position to support your child’s burgeoning independence during the toddler years.

Maximum effort: Babies exert 110% effort when trying to reach a milestone.  Those evolutionary drives are no laughing matter; they push a child to his limit in the quest for development.  When I see Zach straining and grunting, a part of me wants to make him happy by helping him to accomplish his goal.   Moving the pinecone just a little closer to him, or giving him a little nudge in the right direction, should help him achieve his objective, and that in turn will make him feel happy, right?  WRONG Unlike adults, babies don’t work for an external goal.  Zach might seem interested in reaching the pinecone, but his real (albeit subconscious) interest is in developing the ability to crawl. (Did you notice how he would toss the pinecone every time he reached it?).  They repeat the same activity over and over and over, not because they’re masochists, but because they want to perfect an ability.  By “helping” him, I’m actually hurting his development!

“The ostensible aim of the child’s work is not its ultimate purpose; all the child does is to obey an inner impulse.”

Work without interruptions: Seeing your child reach new milestones is exciting!  It’s normal to want to encourage your baby or to bust out the camera so you can capture the moment.  Sadly, every interruption to a baby’s work weakens his innate ability to concentrate; chronic interruptions lead to an inability to focus on any task.  It is therefore essential to get out of the way and allow the child to finish his work – even if what he’s doing makes no sense to you at all!

“There is a vital urge to completeness of action, and if the cycle of this urge is broken, it shows in deviations from normality and lack of purpose.”  (Normality, in Montessori terms, refers to a child who is peaceful, focused, happy, helpful and autonomous – all qualities that develop if the child is allowed to concentrate on purposeful activities.)

The next time you are observing your child hard at work, remember Dr. Montessori’s wise words:

“No guide, no teacher can divine the intimate need of each pupil and the time of maturation necessary to each; but only leave the child free, and all this will be revealed to us under the guidance of nature.”


To Walk is Noble

A recent post on How We Montessori addressed the importance of letting toddlers walk when they show enthusiasm for it.  Yes, a walking toddler slows you down, but what’s your hurry?  Parents are always claiming that they want to stimulate their child’s intelligence, and yet they put a stop to the ONE activity that will most enhance cognitive growth – purposeful movement.

It has always driven me NUTS to see three-year olds being pushed in strollers.  Have you looked at a child’s face when he’s sitting in a stroller?  Is he engaged, curious, excited?  Or is he passive, bored, and even humiliated?  What do you think he’s learning while being pushed around?  What messages are we sending them when we strap them down? 

I hope you’ve seen the movie “Babies” (if you haven’t, what are you waiting for???).  It features a baby girl from a goat-herding tribe in Namibia.  From the moment the child starts to walk, the mother is never shown picking up the child again.

In one scene, the mother walks slowly next to the toddling girl, giving her sensitive feet time to become accustomed to the rocky ground.  The child’s discomfort is obvious, and yet the mother’s presence seems to be telling her: “You are strong, I know you can do this.”  In another scene, the mother bends down to nurse the girl while the child is standing.  In a third scene, the toddler is trying to balance a can on her head while walking – all this, while the three other same-aged babies in the movie (from Japan, Mongolia, and the U.S.) are still as wobbly on their feet as a newborn foal.

Dr. Montessori writes: “It is often we who obstruct the child, and so become responsible for anomalies that last a lifetime.”  By putting toddlers in strollers, we are giving them the message that walking is a chore, that our will is more powerful than theirs, and that their presence is slowing us down.  By letting them walk, we are encouraging them to “coordinate those movements which play a necessary part in [their] mental life, so as to enrich the practical and executive sides of it.”

Executive functions – the ability to plan, prioritize, initiate, inhibit, monitor, correct, control and change one’s own behavior – are honed through the simple act of walking!

Whenever I see a child strapped down to a stroller, I remember one of my Children’s House trainers.  She was an elegant older lady who floated like a butterfly but stung like a bee.  She told us that whenever she sees a child in a stroller, she approaches the parents and asks: “Can your child walk?”  Upon receiving an affirmative answer, she replies: “Then why doesn’t he?”



The Items In Our Basket Go Round and Round

Zach just turned 7 months and he’s on the move!  I’m intrigued by how much effort he puts into his movements and can only imagine how difficult it must be to drag yourself around a room when your arms won’t hold you up reliably, your legs tuck under you but then splay right out again, and your head weighs the same as the rest of your body.  Regardless, our little boy continues to grunt and inch his way towards whatever catches his attention.

To support this developmental phase, I’ve placed in his Basket of Known Objects several items that roll.  He has a pinecone, a bottle, a rock and a napkin ring.  His other favorite “toy” right now is a beer cozy.  Not very Montessori, granted, but it rolls, it’s chewy, and it’s easy to grasp.  I also made him a little cloth ball with fabric remnants I had around; it has a little bell inside and rolls slowly.

This is what I love about Montessori – it’s so intuitive.  Observe your child, see what he needs developmentally, and modify the environment accordingly.  Then get out of the way and let nature do her work.  You know your child better than anyone else, and you don’t need an expert to tell you how to stimulate your child.  As a good friend once told me: “The best parenting book is taking the time to get to know your child.”



The Realities of a Floor Bed (i.e. You don’t always get to call the shots with a Montessori child)

This week, Zach came to the exciting realization that he could transport himself across a room.  Using a combination of army crawling, slithering, and rolling, he covers the span of his bedroom in mere seconds.  His new-found ability has made me appreciate the genius of the floor bed even more, but it has also reminded me that nature is in charge here, not me.

Yesterday we had to go to L.A. for the first half of the day, so poor Zach basically spent 5 hours in a car seat (mostly asleep).  Needless to say, by his 7pm bedtime he was just not tired.  I tried to put him to bed as usual to see if he would get sleepy, but instead he threw a fit.  After I tried to calm him down a couple of times, my husband decided to go hang out with him.  He didn’t really interact with him or even turn on the light in his room; he just laid down by Zach’s bed and observed him.  This calmed Zach and he decided that he wanted to go exploring for a while.  He wriggled off his bed and made his way across the room; for almost an hour he babbled to himself while happily trashing his room investigating the contents of his cubbies.

I observed all this from the hallway and when I saw that he began to show indications of being tired (rubbing his eyes and yawning), we told him it was time to sleep, put him back on his floor bed, and left the room.  He didn’t utter a peep and slept through the night.

Today, he went to the pool with my husband and came back an hour after the “official” start of his nap time (he’s usually up for two hours before needing a nap).  I fed him lunch and put him in bed, but since he was over-tired he became hyperactive and didn’t want to sleep.  I heard him rolling around in his room and pulling out his toys.  He played for about 30 minutes on his own, and then another 10 with me when I went into his room to see if he was getting tired.  I eventually noticed signs of sleepiness, so I changed his diaper and put him back onto his bed.  He again fell asleep without a single complaint.

On a floor bed, the baby decides when he’s good and ready to take a nap, but this might not be on the parents’ schedule.  The floor bed allows the baby to satisfy his need for independence, freedom of movement, and the development of the will – three essential pillars of the Montessori philosophy.  Let’s see what Dr. Montessori has to say on these topics in The Absorbent Mind (note how all three concepts inter-relate and consider how they apply to the floor bed) :

She points out why it’s essential to respect the child’s quest for independence:

“In nature’s language, the word ‘create‘ does not just mean, ‘make something‘; it means that what has been made must also be allowed to function. It follows that the child can only develop fully by means of experience on his environment. The child who has extended his independence by acquiring new powers, can only develop normally if left free to exert those powers.  The child develops by the exercise of that independence which he has gained. If, therefore, what we mean by education is to help the child’s developing life, we can only rejoice each time he shows us that he has reached a new level of independence.  So, the first thing his education demands is the provision of an environment in which he can develop the powers given to him by nature.  His impulses are so energetic that our usual response is to check them.  But, in doing this, we are not really checking the child but nature herself, for the child’s will is in tune with hers, and he is obeying her laws one by one.” 

She goes on to discuss the role of movement in mental development:

“One of the greatest mistakes of our day is to think of movement by itself, as something apart from the higher functions.  When mental development is under discussion, there are many who say, ‘How does movement come into it?  We are talking about the mind.’  And when we think of intellectual activity, we always imagine people sitting still, motionless.  But mental development must be connected with movement and be dependent on it.  Movement has great importance in mental development itself, provided that the action which occurs is connected with the mental activity going on.  Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of his mind comes about through his movements.  The muscles directed by the brain are called voluntary muscles, meaning that they are under the control of the will, and will power is one of the highest expressions of the mind.”

She then addresses the concept of the will:

“In the little child’s life, as soon as he makes an action deliberately, of his own accord, [the evolutionary force of life] has begun to enter into his consciousness.  What we call his will has begun to develop, and this process continues henceforward, but only as a result of experience.  Hence, we are beginning to think of the will not as something inborn, but as something which has to be developed and, because it is a part of nature, this development can only occur in obedience to natural laws.  Under proper conditions, the will is a force that impels activities beneficial to life.  Nature imposes on the child the task of growing up, and his will leads him to make progress and to develop his powers.  Conscious will is a power which develops with use and activity.  Its development is a slow process that evolves through a continuous activity in relationship with the environment.”

In a nutshell, the floor bed helps the child independently move at will.

Isn’t it amazing to think that a simple mattress on the floor can be such a POWERFUL tool for supporting a child’s development?