"Help me do it by myself!" This is one of my favorite Montessori concepts for both life in the classroom as well as at home. It truly captures a child's innate desire to master the skills necessary to achieve age appropriate levels of autonomy. Our role as teachers, parents and caregivers is to foster independence in our children. As a teacher, I view my classroom as an extension of the home and our students collectively as our family and community. I often use the words "this is our classroom home" when I am instilling a sense of respect for the space and members who share it. The majority of community members in a classroom are children and so the space is always set up to be child-accessible. Materials the children need are at their level--everything from chairs and tables, to art supplies and toys, tissues and wipes and toilets and sinks--all of these are accessible and available to the children. They are given lessons individually and as a group on how to manage and care for themselves in this space, and very quickly my classrooms (and students) are running like a well oiled machine! My students always came in each morning, unpacked their bags, removed and hung up their coats and knew where to place papers to be turned in, lunches and snacks. If they were hungry for a snack, I had an "open snack policy," and a basket where they could access their snack foods. By four and five, most children can recognize hunger cues and know when they need to eat! If there was a spill, they could easily access a rag to wipe it up. If they were thirsty, a small pitcher was ready with cups to fill with water. If the pitcher was empty, they knew how to carefully carry it to the bathroom sink and fill it up again. Fostering this level of independence in children helps to build confidence and competence. It requires us to teach through both modeling and formal lessons. We must remember that our students need the lesson from beginning to end--how to access their materials, what to do with them and how to put them away when they are done. I have found that to be a comparatively small investment of time when it comes to running a classroom as an only teacher with many students. The children become autonomous enough to carry out age appropriate tasks and to help each other when needed. It culminates in more time spent learning and exploring as a community and less time tending to the vast array of individual needs throughout the day.
Life at home with children is a bit different. The house is a family space and children are members of the family community. The space itself must accommodate a different set of developmental needs: those of both the adults and differently aged children. While I always dreamed I'd be the parent to foster independence in my own children as I do in my students. it's often "easier" and "faster" to do things for them. Dinner is completed more quickly when I make it myself. We can get into the car a lot sooner if I put my toddler's shoes on and pack snacks and water ahead of time. That said, this toddler will be attending that same Montessori-inspired Jewish preschool in the fall! He will learn from his teachers how to independently navigate his classroom space and contribute to his classroom community. As a parent and as a teacher, I value the connection between home and school.
S is definitely of the age now that he often wants to do things by himself. And sometimes he also still wants help or to have things done for him--those are moments I know that he is particularly grappling with his role as big brother and bigger kid. I aim to minimize our battles, to empower him to achieve mastery over age appropriate tasks and to continue to fill him with the feelings of being nurtured and cared for that he still craves and needs. And one of the ways I can best achieve this in our home is by setting up our living space so that he is able to access the things he needs throughout the day independently. Toys,books, art supplies, artwork, dishes and cleaning supplies, self care supplies like tissues, towels and wipes, even clothing and shoes must be available and accessible to all of the members of the household--not just those over 3 feet tall! And as much as I joke about yearning for the day that has finally arrived, when my toddler could be counted on to fetch things for me so I wouldn't have to get up and get them myself, I see the benefit for him in being able to access and choose the things he wants. Beyond that, by doing so independently, I eliminate many of the battles we experience on a daily level over controlling those choices.
At the beginning of last summer, I revisited my copy of Patricia Oriti's At Home with Montessori. This concise volume takes the reader room by room through the family living space with practical suggestions on how to incorporate Montessori's philosophy and appeal to children's natural desire and need to actively participate in family life and functions. At the time, S was still pretty new to walking and quite a bit shorter! Room by room, I incorporated some small changes both from ideas taken from the book as well as my own creativity to make our space more accessible to S. This was truly helpful as well when I was newly pregnant with Y and not feeling well enough to get up and down all day!
Each space and each room is an opportunity for the family to coexist and connect with one another. When we portray each of the family members' preferences, personalities and needs in these spaces, it's truly a reflection of each individual and not just the adults or just the children. As a result, there are really no spaces that are only for adults or only for kids here. Partly due to small living space and partly due to our preference, nearly every room is family friendly! The only exception is the bedroom my husband and I share--but even though it's not typically a room our children are in past infancy, it is still one that contains artwork by S on the walls and stuffed animals on the beds! When it comes to setting up your home, a living space is as personal and individual as the people in it. There is not one right or wrong way. We do what works best for our families as they grow and evolve. As our families change, so, too, do our living spaces. My home may not be featured in Good Housekeeping anytime soon, but it is a genuine reflection of each of the people in it. I've shared plenty of my practical tips for playroom set-up here, and now I'm happy to share a short series of posts on how we set up other areas of our home to be family accessible along with some activities for teaching practical life skills.
Join us tomorrow when I'll offer a peek into our Dining space, a space that truly gathers the family over one of our favorite activities: eating! Ironically enough, my husband and I will be fasting tomorrow in observance of Tisha b'Av...so we've truly set up that space to be one S can independently access just in time!