Favorite Books, On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning

Making Peace with Star Wars

My husband and I put a lot of effort into keeping our home free from violent media influences.  It’s an uphill battle that we’re committed to fighting, and one that sometimes requires a little creative thinking.

Zachary’s male classmates (ages 3 and 4) are fascinated by Star Wars.  Yes, you read right: ages 3 and 4, not 13 and 14.  They know all the characters, all the spaceships, and, of course, all the violence that goes with it.  Zach would come home every day, his head a jumble of confusion: Who is Star Wars?  Is he a good guy or a bad guy?  Does Luke Skywalker walk on the sky?  What does a light saber do?  Can it kill you?  If it kills you, are you dead?  Is Darth Vader a bad guy or a good guy?

We were very frustrated by this turn of events and found it difficult to answer his questions without confusing him even more.  We told him Star Wars was a “once-upon-a-time” story, explained that what his friends called “bad guys” are really people who were feeling sad or angry and didn’t know what to do with their feelings, and allowed him to buy a plastic light saber (with his own money, of course!) so he could see that it was just a harmless toy.  But still, the confusion reigned supreme and overshadowed all his other interests.

I kept wishing there were a book that summarized the basics of the Star Wars story without the violence inherent to the plot.  I searched fruitlessly for weeks, until – just before Father’s Day – I came across Darth Vader and Son.  Stroke. Of. Genius.

darthIt features 4-year-old Luke Skywalker (the same age as Zachary) engaging with his sometimes clueless and exasperated dad, Darth Vader, in many of the same scenarios that my son and his dad experience week to week.  The “I-don’t-have-to-pee” dance; the “I-won’t-pick-up-my-toys” battle… You get the idea.

It’s gentle enough for my very innocent 4-year-old to enjoy, and yet it has lots of references to the movie series, which my Star Wars-loving hubby really appreciated!

The mystique of Star Wars quickly faded from Zachary’s mind once he and his dad had read the book a few times.  Now, they quote bits from the book when the real-life situation mirrors what Luke and Darth experienced, and they share a laugh.

We might not always win the battle against mainstream media influences, but in this case, the force was with us!!

*This post includes an affiliate link.

 

On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning

Manic Brain

When I decided that screen time would no longer be a part of my 4-year-old’s life, I knew I would have to deal with screen detox.  The first day of Spring Break was also the first day of the “No More Screens” rule.  Almost immediately after waking up, Zach asked to watch videos.  I said no and reminded him of the new rule.  He got very angry and cried.  I acknowledged his feelings and stood my ground firmly and with love.  When he calmed down, we had breakfast and played trains while the baby napped.

When his play was winding down, he again asked for videos.  I said no.  He cried but seemed less frustrated.  We had lunch and read some books while the baby again napped.  Later that afternoon, he asked for videos again.  I said no.  He didn’t cry.  At that point, I knew he was ready to listen.

I said, “You know that inside your head you have something called your brain, and that’s what you use to think, learn, and solve problems.  When you watch vgiphyideos, your brain is like this…” I made quick panting noises while shaking my head manically from side to side.  He smiled.

I continued, “When we turn off the videos, your brain is still going like this…” I again made the manic gestures, and he laughed.  “The problem is that the rest of the world doesn’t move as quickly as the videos, so your brain makes you feel angry because it wants things to move quickly again.  You have a wonderful brain; it’s a brain that can learn a lot and can solve problems.  My job is to help you keep your brain healthy and calm so that it can think and make good decisions.  And that’s why I decided that you can’t watch videos anymore.”  He thought about what I said but didn’t have any questions.

The rest of our Spring Break week passed without a single request for videos, and with lots of wonderful work and play.  I had my gentle, sweet, and mostly cooperative son back.

Today was the first day of school, and I knew he’d ask to watch videos because screen time had been a part of his after-school routine.  He came through the door after school and videos were the first thing on his mind.  I said no.  He asked why.  I repeated my “manic brain” explanation and offered an audiobook and a trip to the park as alternatives.  He happily accepted, and we had a fun afternoon.

During dinner, my husband asked Zach if he’d felt excited today about seeing his friends again after the break.  Zach said, “When I saw my friends this morning, my brain felt like when I watched videos.”  And that’s when I knew he understood.  Metacognition at four years of age.  Never underestimate a child.

On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning

The Medium is the Message

Screen time update: A couple of weeks ago, I posted on Facebook about screen time at our house. I wrote about how Zachary was frustrated when it came time to turn off the computer after his daily 15-minute screen time allotment, and how he had found a healthy outlet in crying.

I wish I could report that he had either developed the ability to turn off the screen without getting upset, or had at least continued to cry without escalating to anger. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), after a few days of harmless crying, he became aggressive at the end of screen time. After three days of dealing with his behavior, I explained my decision and my reasoning, and pulled the plug.

Today is day #1 of no screen time, and it happens to coincide with the first day of Spring break. He had a huge fit in the morning when he asked to watch a video and I reminded him of the decision. He got angry and tried to throw things, so Tom, my husband, stopped him and moved him to his room so he wouldn’t break anything (all he has there are clothes).

A few minutes later, Tom asked me to take over because he wasn’t feeling capable of handling the situation. I hugged Zachary and rocked him in my lap as he cried. It took him a while to get his anger out, but he did. He’s asked to watch a video three times, and all three times I’ve stood my ground firmly and with lots of love. His anger has diminished almost to zero, so now we’re ready to talk about what screen time can do to the brain and how the brain responds.

I’ve made a special space high up in a kitchen cabinet for ALL electronics, and that’s where they’ll stay any time the children are around. A friend and fellow Montessori guide told me that she and her husband treat their cell phones like old-fashioned land lines and keep them stationary when they are home. If the phone rings, they walk over, answer it, and then return it to its place. We’re going to do the same.

I thought limited screen time would work at our house. It doesn’t. Screen time is convenient, let’s not kid ourselves. Many shows are cute and seem harmless – even educational! But when it comes to children (and even adults), the medium is the message. And from now on, I’m thinking a lot more carefully about what message my children are receiving.

Language Development, Montessori Theory

Three Steps to Academic Success

3-period-fruitThirty thousand. 30,000! That’s the number of words scientists say you should be speaking to your child daily to increase his chances of academic success. Most parents reach and exceed this magic number, but how do you know if your child is really benefiting from your efforts? Do you feel you might be choosing the wrong words or confusing your child by rambling?

I’m about to share with you a simple but powerful Montessori technique that will put your worries to rest.  To find out what it is, and to watch a short instructional video about it, click here!

Favorite Books, On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning

Communication for Peace

So many struggles with our children stem from conflicting goals: you need to go grocery shopping and they want to stay home; you need them to sit down for dinner and they want to keep playing.  Imagine if there could be a way of communicating with your child that allowed you to achieve your goals while respecting their priorities. Well, there is.

The practice of Nonviolent Communication recently came into my life.  NVC is a way of expressing “what we are observing, what emotions we are feeling, what values we want to live by, and what we want to ask of ourselves and others,” (NVC site) through the development of compassion, without using anger, manipulation, or fear.  Here’s a diagram of how NVC looks in practice:

nvc

When I started reading the book Nonviolent Communication (aff link), it dawned on me that it can be a powerful tool in our Montessori work of educating for peace, creating critical thinkers, and enhancing emotional intelligence.  I don’t know why it’s not part of the suggested reading in all AMI Montessori training centers, but I’m glad I discovered it and can share it with others.

Here’s the thing about NVC: it’s easy to learn, difficult to master, and once you use it, you’re hooked!

So, how does NVC work?  There are several books about it (and hours of videos on YouTube), so instead of going into details, I’ll give you a beautiful example that happened in our home this weekend. While not all conflicts are solved this fluidly in our home (because I’m still learning), NVC has made a profound difference in my ability to communicate compassionately with my son and husband, while getting my needs met!  I’m going to label the different elements of NVC throughout the conversation, so you can see how it flows.

Zachary (4 years old) normally goes to bed by 6:30pm, but this day he’d taken a nap in the car, so it was almost 8pm and he was still happily playing trains with his dad.  My husband and I had had a long week: he had faced many challenges at work and I had been up several times each night with the baby.  We told Zachary it was time to get ready for bed, but he objected.

Me: I see that you still have a lot of energy in your body, don’t you? (observation)

Zach: Yes, and I don’t want to go to bed.  I want to bring my bed downstairs and sleep next to my trains.

Me: Ah, you want to be close to your trains.  That makes sense.  You know, you don’t have to sleep right away.  You can take a couple of engines to bed with you and play with them there.

Zach: I still don’t want to go to bed.

Me: I understand you don’t feel tired yet. Here’s the problem: Your dad and I feel really tired and want to go to bed soon. (identify feeling) We had a long week.  Do you remember how daddy told you about the frustrating meeting he had with the man who was not being very helpful?  And do you remember how I said I was tired because Nadia was crying at night?

Zach: Yes.

Me: OK, well, we need to go to bed soon so we can have energy to go to the beach tomorrow. (our need)  We want to have time to read you a book and sing some songs (his need) before we have to go to sleep.  How can we solve this problem so that we have time to read a book and sing songs, and so mommy and daddy can go to bed on time? (request)

Zach (thinks for a moment): OK, first pajamas, then brush teeth, then go to the bathroom, then bed.

Me: Great, let us know if you need help along the way!

And wouldn’t you know it, he was fast asleep by the end of the second song.

 

 

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

 

 

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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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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!!!

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Hands Behind Your Back

From the time we were pre-schoolers, my brother and I constantly visited world-class museums and galleries with my parents. There was one rule that we were expected to adhere to without fail: hands behind your back. For us, “hands behind your back” meant: “We trust you and believe that you deserve to be in this beautiful and inspiring place. Show us that you can be trusted.” Even now, whenever I enter a museum or a store that sells fragile things, my hands swing instinctively behind my back.

Flash forward a few decades… As a Montessori guide in Primary (3-6) classroom, the message I wanted to transmit to my students was a similar one: “I trust you to control your impulses while observing someone working with a material. I trust you to respect the right of other children to work and concentrate.” A child who is able to observe with his hands behind his back understands that his rights end where someone else’s begin. He has internalized a concept that many adults still struggle to understand.

hands1
My son Zachary, choosing to observe at the park…

hands2
A friend’s 2.5-yr old daughter, who has attended Montessori school since she was 18 months old.

The younger we set up these expectations, and the more consistent we are, the more successful a child will be at developing self-control. In the Montessori Toddler and Primary environments, “hands behind your back” is one of the first Grace & Courtesy lessons given. The adults model proper observation etiquette for the youngsters, and will offer gentle reminders. The new children quickly learn to put their hands behind their backs, not because they are being forced to by an adult, but because nobody likes to be told by an irate classmate: “Don’t touch my work!

When a child puts his hands behind his back, he is saying that he respects the other person’s work and expects the same courtesy in return.  Putting one’s hands behind one’s back is always a choice, a subjugation of one’s impulses in the interest of social harmony.  There are times for interacting and there are times for observing; Montessori children learn to tell the difference and make conscious choices on their own at a very early age.

We are often quick to doubt a child’s capacity for self-control. It’s very easy, almost automatic, to say: “You can’t watch her work because you’ll be tempted to grab her material.” Or, “You can’t go into that store because you’ll break something.” It’s much harder to look a child in the eye and say: “I believe in you; show me you believe in yourself.”