While you may think you're being helpful by buckling your child's shoes or pouring her a glass of milk, you may actually be doing her a disservice. By nature, children are abundantly curious about the world around them and have an inherent need to contribute. Even tasks as simple as hanging up a coat or washing a piece of fruit instill an invaluable sense of autonomy and confidence.
Maria Montessori believed that children learn best through active, hands-on learning. In Montessori classrooms, teachers empower children to be self sufficient through carefully prepared environments and by use of authentic, small scale materials, designed just for little hands and bodies. It is not uncommon in a Montessori class to see preschool-aged students, who may not otherwise complete these tasks at home, pouring a glass of juice, preparing their own snacks, serving themselves and their friends, and cleaning up after themselves.
Luckily, bringing these practices into the house is easier than one might think – it just involves setting up your home appropriately and taking the time necessary to show your child how tasks should be carried out safely and effectively. Below are a few key items to have on hand to encourage simple, yet fun independent work for children in the home:
A Step Stool
An invaluable tool for children, a step stool is best used in the kitchen when reaching for items on the counter top, helping prepare dinner, or washing fruits and vegetables. It can also come in handy in the bathroom when brushing teeth or washing hands.
Having reachable hooks in the house make children a part of cleanup, giving them a place in which to hang their coat, scarves, hats, and other items that would otherwise be picked up and taken care of by a parent.
Small Pitcher and Cups
A small, lidded pitcher on a low shelf in the refrigerator allows children to retrieve their own glass of milk, juice, or water when they’re thirsty. Look for a pitcher that’s small enough for their hands, and cups in a corresponding size. (We suggest affixing a piece of tape to the front of the pitcher to mark a fill line, ensuring that there won't be any overflow spills!) This exercise in pouring not only frees up your time, but also builds fine motor skills and aids in grip development.
It’s helpful to keep healthy snacks within reach in your refrigerator. Snacks are best prepared using bowls and dishes that are relative to the size of the child, which makes the process easier. Allow children to wash their fruit or vegetable selection themselves, using a step stool at the sink, of course.
Mini Broom & Dustpan
Spills and messes happen! Maria Montessori believed that all mistakes were a pathway to learning. Allow the child to participate in the cleanup by providing him or her with a miniature broom and dustpan. You’ll be surprised by how eager children are to help out.
If helping out in the kitchen or merely washing their little dishes, cups, or toys at the sink, outfit your child in his or her own apron — they’ll love the responsibility that comes in wearing it and will certainly feel part of the household team.
Most of these items can be found at your local home goods retailer or online. Look for items made of real materials, such as glass or stainless steel, as children will get used to the weight and the texture of items that must be handled carefully. All classroom items, including teacups, water glasses, and dishes, are made of organic materials. While breakage can of course happen in class, it is rare, as children learn early on how to become aware of their bodies, how they carry themselves about a room, and how they are to hold and work with delicate items.
We hope you will take some of these tips with you and transform your home into your own version of a Montessori classroom! Just the teachers do, it is important to trust the child, to let their curiosity lead them, and to watch what happens next.
Alissa Dufour is the Director of Communications at The Caedmon School. She previously worked staffing high-need NYC public schools through the NYC Teaching Fellows program, and taught in the English Composition and Creative Writing departments at Manhattanville College.