Supporting Montessori Education at Home
Written by: Ms. Alice Pilkey, Assistant Teacher (Redondo Beach)
A Montessori classroom is designed to provide continuity for children by reflecting their home environments, particularly through the exercises of practical life. Montessori education is, in turn, strengthened when parents incorporate elements of the philosophy and practice into their homes. Continuity is particularly vital in early childhood, since young children have not yet learned to compartmentalize their experiences; instead, they experience life as one comprehensive whole (Helfrich, 1). By choosing to bring Montessori practice into their homes parents can, simply, make the transition into the school years a more straightforward affair for their children.
The most significant step a parent can take to support Montessori education at home is to understand and respect a child's quest for independence. Maria Montessori describes this as an innate characteristic of childhood: something which, unless they are interfered with, all children desire and work toward with unrelenting determination (Montessori, 1995, 83-84). Defined by one educator as “the freedom to use all the skills and capacities” children have “even though they may not yet be perfected,” (Helfrich, 1) functional independence directly influences the emergence of positive self esteem. Honoring it, as a parent, can mean stepping back and allowing children both the time and the means to do as much as they can for themselves. While adjusting a hectic schedule to accommodate the slower pace of a child—and suppressing one's own natural instinct to show love by doing everything for that child—can feel both frustrating and counterintuitive to a parent, the child, over time, can only benefit. According to Sonnie McFarland, Chair of the AMS Peace Committee and AMS 2011 Living Legacy, “when parents do for their children what the children want to do for themselves, children receive the message that they are incapable and weak” (McFarland and McFarland, 35). When, on the other hand, children are permitted to operate independently—and experience success in a task—they receive positive messages about their own competence and are, in turn, emboldened to undertake even greater challenges.
An environment designed to promote functional independence affords children freedom of choice. This does not mean that they are left free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, in a world without boundaries or ground rules. Rather, a Montessori home—like a Montessori classroom—offers the child a range of developmentally appropriate and safe activities, as well as ample opportunity to practice emerging skills when and as the child sees fit. Within this type of home parents can, like teachers, practice observation: tracking children's progress and adjusting the environment as necessary, in order to present new opportunities and challenges as old skills are mastered. Tim Seldin, President of The Montessori Foundation, encourages parents to extend observation to a child's interests as well: “Pay attention to the things that fascinate her,” he writes, “and try to understand them” (Seldin, 9). Although advisable at all ages, this is particularly vital during the elementary years, when focused interests drive learning through exploration and discovery.
Alongside freedom of choice, another key factor to consider when designing a Montessori home is order. For toddlers, Montessori compares order with “the land upon which animals walk or the water in which fish swim” (Montessori, 1966, 53). Children of all ages, however, can benefit from well-ordered home environments because, on the one hand, order supports independence: it is, after all, only possible to enter the bathroom and comb one's own hair if one knows where to the find the comb. Children also—and possibly even more significantly—need order because of a phenomenon which Montessori terms the absorbent mind. Building intelligence through interaction with their environments, children, Montessorians believe, construct orderly minds when exposed to order on a daily basis, and poorly ordered minds in response to extremes of inconsistency and chaos.
One Montessori educator describes toys as the greatest “obstacle to order” in most homes and recommends decluttering play spaces by limiting the number and variety of toys available. Fewer—and simpler—toys can promote concentration; a too-wide array of toys can, on the other hand, reflect an adult perception of play as entertainment and, in the long run, detract from rather than support learning (Dunlap, 4-5). Toys made of natural materials are generally preferable, as well as toys with indeterminate purposes. A wooden block—which can become a microphone, a skyscraper, a wagon, or a truck—supports imagination better than a plastic truck, which can only be used as a truck; and imagination, in turn, supports the development of higher-level thinking skills as an individual matures.
Within the play room, toys should, ideally, be arranged so that children can understand and maintain order themselves. Low shelves are better for storing toys than toyboxes, since on a shelf each item can occupy its own designated place. Sets of toys with multiple parts can be stored on the shelves in small tubs or baskets, and either each position labeled or, alternatively, a picture taken of the whole shelf and posted nearby for reference. Just as Montessori teachers rotate activities through the shelves from time to time in order to reawaken children's interest, parents might also choose to periodically rotate toys (Korngold, 11).
Ideally, decoration in a child's bedroom should reflect the child's tastes and interests, and all personal spaces, including bathrooms, should be organized for independence. Beds should be low: children should be able to climb into and out of them without assistance, and clothes should be hung, in the closet, on beams low enough for them to reach. Bathrooms should be equipped with stepstools to make sinks and toilets easily accessible, with toothbrushes, towels, toilet paper, etc. all stored at appropriate levels. Other ideas include lightswitch extenders; small buckets with brushes for scrubbing tubs after bathing; and, in bedrooms, hampers for dirty clothes which children can, on their own, carry away and empty. In order to enable children to make their own beds, parents might even consider replacing challenging sheets and blankets with more manageable sleeping bags (Seldin, 7-8).
Designating space for children's things in common areas of the home honors them as fully participant members of the household. This can be simple: a basket of beads and laces, and a few puzzles, stored on the shelf beneath the coffee table; or shelf space for children's books at the base of the family library (Korngold, 11). Space permitting, a low table and shelf stocked with age-appropriate art supplies can keep children busy and productive in family or recreation rooms as well (Seldin, 8). Including children in common areas of the home should not require extensive “childproofing” if parents take the time to show them how to handle delicate objects (Helfrich, 2); in Montessori classrooms, children use glass regularly, and learn to treat books and other vulnerable items with appropriate levels of care.
The kitchen is an ideal place for children to acquire and practice new skills, on their paths to independence. Many parents stock the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, and a low cabinet, with healthy ingredients and allow children to make their own snacks. This requires a low table as well, or other work space which children can reach, and a full set of accessible utensils (Seldin, 8). By the elementary years, children should be capable of packing their own lunches, and allowing them to do so both honors their independence and, at the same time, lightens the workload, on a daily basis, for parents. A learning tower, available from several online sources, allows even the youngest children to safely reach adult-level sinks and counters and, under supervision, assist with nearly every stage of meal preparation. Since children involved in preparing foods are consistently more likely to eat them, including a child in the life of the kitchen can both encourage experimentation, and establish, for life, a positive relationship with food.
Although Montessori teachers work hard to set children off on the road toward a lasting relationship with the written word, literacy starts at home. Young children imitate the actions, and absorb the attitudes, of the adults around them, and if homes are not language-rich, it is difficult for teachers to make up for this during the limited hours which a child spends at school. If, on the other hand, parents engage their children in conversation; read to them; and model reading and writing for them, children enter classrooms ready to learn. Today's parents, like all adults, spend a vast amount of time in front of computer screens; much of this time, in fact, is spent reading and writing, albeit through an alternative-to-paper medium. But in the classroom, children do not learn to read and write this way. We expect them to open books, and write using pens and pencils. When parents take the time to let children see them doing this, interest is piqued far more effectively than it can be by any classroom strategy. Making literacy an integral part of home life—and limiting screen time—is arguably the single best thing a parent can do to support long-term academic success.
In early childhood, children want to know what things are; they are learning names and, according to one educator, “specific and accurate vocabulary is,” at this point, “ a true gift from us to the child” (Helfrich, 1). Parents who talk to their young children—about whatever is happening at the moment, whatever they are doing together—are constantly transmitting this vocabulary to them in the most effective possible manner. In the elementary years, children begin to probe further. “What” is replaced by “why” and “how,” as children search for deeper explanations behind phenomena. At this point, it is crucial to respect rather than stifle their questions, allowing them to discover answers themselves as often as possible (Stephenson, April 1993, 1), and searching together for answers to the toughest questions. This can mean trips to libraries, museums, observatories, and other local destinations; science experiments at home; and/or consultations with other adults who might be better prepared than parents to answer.
Throughout these years, the more involved parents are in their children's educations, the better the outcomes. Demonstrating a genuine interest in elementary-aged children's homework, and allowing them to reteach, at home, whatever they happen to be learning, can powerfully reinforce their experiences in the classroom. Continuing to read aloud with them, even after they are capable of reading on their own—and encouraging them to borrow, on a regular basis, from the public library—should ensure continuing interest in the written word (Stephenson, April 1993, 2), a vital key to higher education.
It is not possible to recreate a Montessori classroom at home, for several reasons. On the one hand, a home is designed to meet the needs of adults and children alike, while a classroom is organized exclusively for children. Everything present in a Montessori classroom is relevant to the developmental needs of its occupants, be they at the preprimary or elementary levels; which is simply not the case at home. Most parents, moreover, cannot replace professionally trained teachers, who understand both children's developmental needs, and how best to address them utilizing the Montessori materials. Finally, a Montessori classroom is an egalitarian community of peers. Critical social components of classroom experience—such as lessons in communication and cooperation, mentoring relationships, and leadership opportunities—do not exist at home because the peer group is not present (Helfrich, 1).
Despite these factors, however, the home can be a rich base from which to support what goes on in the classroom; and the classroom, in turn, can most accurately be understood as a space for broadening and extending the education started at home. Ideally, the relationship between parents and teachers is, in this respect, one of perfect symbiosis, with both parties, according to one educator, “supporting one another in their responsibility to the life of the child” and finding, together, “the best way to help the child help himself become what he was meant to become” (Stephenson, January 1993, 6). While putting every suggestion outlined here into immediate practice will no doubt prove impractical for many parents, it is important to remember that small steps matter too. Parents who choose Montessori education for their children, and who take the time to familiarize themselves with its underlying principles, are most likely already incorporating elements of Montessori practice into their relationships with their children and into the structures of their homes. Implementation occurs naturally—and even inevitably—as we, parents and teachers alike, continue to learn as much as we can about Montessori education.
Dunlap, Marianne White. “The Power of Conscious Parenting: Interconnecting Home and School.” AMI/USA: Parenting for a New World, Vol. V, No. 2: April 1996.
Helfrich, M. Shannon. “Practical Applications of Montessori in the Home.” AMI/USA: Parenting for a New World, Vol. VI, No. 3: May 1997.
Korngold, K. T. “Designing a Montessori Home.” Tomorrow's Child Magazine, Spring 2000.
McFarland, Sonnie and Jim McFarland. “Montessori Parenting: An Idea Whose Time Has Come.” Montessori Life: Spring 2013.
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995.
Montessori, Maria. The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.
Seldin, Tim. “Montessori in the Home.” Tomorrow's Child Magazine, Spring 2000.
Stephenson, Margaret E. “The Art of Montessori in the Home.” AMI/USA: Parenting for a New World, Vol. II, No. 1: January 1993.
Stephenson, Margaret E. “The Child from Six to Twelve in Home and Elementary Class.” AMI/USA: Parenting for a New World, Vol. II, No. 2: April 1993.