Why I Want Montessori on Wet Weekends
Why I Want Montessori on Wet Weekends
A guest post by Mark Powell, Montessori dad
What does a parent do on rainy weekends with a child who’s still too young for team sports or play dates? I knew a family in Boston with a large Victorian who kept nothing in their finished attic except a couple of old mattresses, just for days their four children couldn’t go outside. For those of us without that kind of indoor real estate, and with no relatives around, rainy days at home can sometimes feel like a prison sentence! Commercial indoor children’s play spaces like The Bay Area Children’s Discovery Museum, Habitot and Studio Grow are becoming increasingly popular venues for parents with young children, and not just during inclement weather.
As Bella began to crawl we eagerly awaited the opportunity to provide her a more stimulating environment than we could organize at home (not to mention the opportunity to connect with other parents starved of adult conversation!) Habitot offers a padded crawling area for babies, as well as other areas for art, water tables, climbing tunnels and a spaceship for imaginative play. Habitot is affordable, but small and often overcrowded. Studio Grow is a more expensive alternative aimed more at older preschool children with more choices and a larger space, including lots of room for gross motor play. With the largest and most varied spaces, more staff, and interest for the widest age range, The Bay Area Children’s Discovery Museum offers the closest approximation to an educational opportunity for families with children in need of a place to play.
Urban play spaces like these are frequented by middle class parents who believe that their toddlers or young children learn through play. Many of them also buy educational iPhone apps, DVDs or CDs like The Mozart Effect to help give their toddlers an educational advantage. But babies, toddlers and young children are efficient, low-cost learners who absorb language and learn 24/7 from every moment they experience. What they need more than preparation for school is preparation to meet their own practical needs in everyday life.
My own toddler has attended a Montessori toddler program since she was 17 months. Bella has been raised following Montessori principles at home as well, which basically means that we are always looking for ways to allow and promote her independence. Her home environment, like her classroom, satisfies her need for predictable order, reassuring her that everything around her has a place. At the same time these spaces are arranged to empower her to make choices as she learns to take care of her own needs. Her bedroom has a shelf that holds a revolving selection of games, puzzles or toys, discretely contained in their own container, which she uses at a small rug on the floor or at a toddler-sized table and chair, just like she does in her classroom. She is expected (and sometimes reminded) to return these activities to the shelf when she’s done. A low bookshelf in the living room holds a large selection of picture books which she pulls out and reads on her own (making up words to go with the story she creates from the illustrations) or brings to us to read to her. Bella sleeps on a low mattress on the floor so that she can climb in and out of bed on her own at will. Many of her clothes and shoes are also stored within reach so that she can select her own outfits each day. A plastic basin cut into a small bench, with water running from the spigot of a water jug, gives her a sink where she can wash her hands or help prepare meals. And a low shelf on the kitchen island has become a place for her to retrieve her eating utensils and placemat before meals, and to return dirty dishes afterwards. We also leave snack foods and cereal on this shelf which she can help herself to when she is hungry between meals.
Resisting the temptation to do for Bella what she can do for herself can be challenging at times. Often all it takes is a little encouragement, a careful demonstration, or a small change in her environment that makes it more accessible for her little body. It means reminding ourselves that learning how to do is more important to her than getting things done. Our efforts to trust her judgment – even when it’s inconvenient – and listen as she tries to communicate what she wants with her limited vocabulary are helping her grow into a child who knows what she wants and is not afraid to go after it. At two years of age she is potty trained (day and night) and empties her potty into the adult toilet. She takes great pride in dressing herself and placing her dirty clothes in a hamper. She feeds herself without spilling food and pushes in her chair when she’s done. New surprises come daily; she is already growing up faster than our expectations of her. All of these skills were eagerly adopted by Bella because she was shown how and given the choice to do things for herself.
Bella often asks to visit Habitot or Studio Grow on weekends because they offer her a wide choice of physical and creative activities not available to her at home. But while these drop-in play spaces have the physical appearance of a pre-school setting, they do not help facilitate the independent, creative, social being that every young child strives to be. While there are many activities to choose from, the lack of a cohesive community makes it difficult for children to know what they want to do. Adults hover over their children, taking photos, checking emails, watching the time, afraid to let them wander off in a place where they know no one. Outnumbered and overpowered, children find it difficult to resist the subtle or not-so-subtle suggestions to try something that looked interesting to well-meaning parents for reasons that may have nothing to do with the subtle perspectives or needs of the child.
Without community there is little respect for a young child’s developing ability to choose. Bella’s experience at Habitot and Studio Grow has been that, even once she makes her choice, at any moment another child might come up behind her, uninvited, and add to her painting, remove a prop from the dollhouse scene she had just created, or declare that it was now her turn to use the ride-on toy car. None of the many adults has the authority of a teacher that knows each child and is respected enough to adjudicate such a dispute. In these environments, every child is encouraged to be an individual atom, and that freedom to bounce from one activity to another is not balanced by a responsibility to respect the rights of others, to return materials to their proper location (wherever that might be), to clean up one’s mess, or to give others a turn. Contact with other children leaves her edgy, yet there is nowhere safe and quiet where she can sit and concentrate for long enough to discover anything on her own.
Every chance we get, we take Bella to a grassy park, a sandy beach, or for a hike in the woods. But on wet and cold weekends when the natural world is unwelcoming and her home environment is just too small, we wish the calming and welcoming environment of her Montessori classroom was available to help her continue to develop her independence in the social and physical order.