Teaching toddlers the Montessori way

This year miles joined a Montessori toddler community. I am sure there are many parents familiar with Montessori principles and philosophy but my husband and I were not among them when he started. In general, we take a laissez-faire approach to parenting, which perhaps makes us more reactive than active parents. I like to think that despite our chronic procrastination when it comes to deciding how to parent won’t keep us (or Miles) from getting a passing grade in the end.

The toddler curriculum consists of “practical life.” I kind of get the concept. The children ‘work’ for most of the morning rather than playing. I’ve noticed that work and play indistinguishable for Miles right now, because everything is new and exciting. Even the most mundane task of pouring milk into his cereal is a delight. He gets starry eyed at the prospect of sweeping with his little broom. He literally wets himself in the joy of washing dishes. I know the novelty will pass. I think ‘practical life’ is about capitalizing on this and channeling all that curiosity toward skills that will serve children well later on in life…and if it serves me well right now, so much the better!
It is more than chore camp. I started to understand this more after going to the toddler community parent meeting last week. We were shown a video of a 20 month old that is more functional than some college freshman! His morning routine includes setting the table, buttering his toast, and clearing the dishes at the end. After school he had a play-date, picked pears, went to the beach, made pizza dough for dinner, and even made dessert! I would be exhausted doing half of this stuff! After dinner he washed the dishes, took a bath (not forgetting to put his dirty clothes in the hamper first), and lastly took out the recycling. It’s an impressive list. I was waiting to see him grab his keys and drive to work. Miles is also about 20 months old, and it’s hard not to compare. Compared to the video, our home is chaos – so it shouldn’t have been a shock that chaos begets a chaotic toddler.

I realize that I cannot suddenly transform my home into a toddler oriented Montessori method mecca overnight – or ever, but we can make changes. Honestly, I didn’t even know that toddlers were coordinated enough to do half of this stuff. And so it begins! Here are some of changes in action, along with pictures and commentary on Miles’ initial responses.

Limit toys to 6 at a time

I had mixed feelings about this one. Didn’t we just go through over a year of collecting awesome toys? My sister just gave Miles an impressive (and expensive!) collection of Thomas and Friends trains and tracks. Why wouldn’t Miles want to play with the whole set? Who wants to play with 6 building blocks at a time, anyway? Well…darned if he didn’t play for longer and with more enthusiasm with the one basket of 6 blocks than he ever did with the full set of 36. He still enjoyed Thomas and 5 rather than 15 of his friends. In fact, he finally figured out how Harvey the crane’s magnet works for the first time! It reminds me of the pedagogical method of covering very few topics but in more depth that is the current trend in teaching college level biology. Our brains truly retain more when we are less overloaded by too much information.
Let him do it himself
Surely a more Montessorian phrasing exists, but i think this sums it up. I am so guilty of taking over tasks for miles for the sake of time and convenience. We are committed to backing off and letting him do things whenever we can. It is a work in progress, but a big part of it was creating spaces/solutions for making tasks toddler accessible. Here is his new kitchen shelf everything he needs to set his place at the table. I’d say so far, we are about 10% of the way to him doing this task, but that’s a step in the right direction!

Plan ahead

The Montessori school has their system down pat, has smoothed out the kinks, and developed plan A, B, and C. It is day 3 of this experiment and we are not there yet. I am realizing just how important it is to pre-plan. Everything needs to be mis-en-place like a chef’s station at a restaurant (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/08/11/338850091/for-a-more-ordered-life-organize-like-a-chef). If I do not prepare fully (including a contingency plan) the consequences have a butterfly effect that lead to mess, confusion, and eventually tears!

Allow me to present this vignette. It is breakfast time and cheerios with milk is on the menu. I have prepared a small container of cheerios and a small carafe of milk for Miles to pour into his breakfast bowl. He begins to pour cheerios into the bowl…uh…that’s enough, sweetheart…Miles, the bowl is full…uh. oops. Cheerios are now all over the table, floor, and the dog is eating them. Note to self, pre-measure how many cheerios fit in his little bowl. Now it’s time to pour the milk on the cheerios…no, sweetie, only he cheerios in the bowl. Darn. I guess that was confusing. Cheeriomaggedon! A sea of milk with cheerio flotsam on the table, the floor, and soaking into the seat cushion. Miles looks up smiling – best. breakfast. ever.

So no more cheerios. Time to sweep. Okay, but wait! Walking to get the broom – look, momma, how they crunch under my feet! Crunch, crunch, crunch. Yum! They taste even better after I pick the crumbs off my feet…ew…maybe not. Time for the broom…er…wait…the milk. I need to get a toddler mop. Too. late. now. See Miles sweep. See Miles sweep milk into the floor vent….aaaargh. See Miles sweep cheerios and milk under the fridge and look back at me with a smile that says…TA DA!!!

Tune in next week for more adventures in the toddler hood. I will either get my act together or Miles will adjust to his family’s particular brand of lunacy…at best I think we can hope for a combination of those two.


2 thoughts on “Teaching toddlers the Montessori way

  1. It’s so great to hear your thoughts and experiences Nelle! We’ve also been learning more and more about Montessori and trying to apply some new concepts and strengthening ones we were kind of doing. Nevertheless, still some days we’re faced with a similar situation as your Cheerio breakfast one. I’m not sure if what I’m about to say is in Montessori terms, but I feel it’s well-aligned. One thing that has helped me as a father tremendously, is seeing my now 16-month-old as a little human…a little soul…who was brought into this world, given to us to nurture, care for, love, and teach. This little soul already had some predestined capacities and talents from the time of conception. My wife and I are supposed to find those capacities and talents and nurture them. We accompany our child through all her stages and we can’t either slow her down or speed her up, we have to go according to her pace, but always….always building her capacity and making sure there’s progress. And I have to remind myself…why? And one way to look at the answer is that as parents we build capacity in this little soul so she can acquire human perfections, spiritual heights, and contribute to the advancement of civilization. Now that’s a lot to ask for of a 16-month-old, but it all starts with simple things such as gaining new simple skills like what you’re teaching Miles. I’ll end my ranting comment with a quote “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can alone cause it to reveal its treasure and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.” – Bahá’í Writings


    • Beautifully stated, and I couldn’t agree more! I would only add that these little people are total sponges. They call it the “absorbent mind” in Montessori speak. So much of what they learn comes from watching us. It’s a lot of pressure – but good pressure. It motivates me to try to act right and do good in the world. Thank you for the thoughtful comments, Daniel!



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