That Shelf Work Though
It is so easy to associate Montessori with one facet – the beautiful and meticulously prepared environment. While this is the most glorified aspect of Montessori, it is not the most impactful aspect.
“Montessori equipment is widely publicized and its role often misunderstood. Because of their visibility, the Montessori materials tend to be overemphasized in relation to the other elements in the Montessori method. In addition, their purpose is often confused.” – Montessori, a Modern Approach
While a focus on the prepared environment often comes with such cautionary tone, the first big leap into Montessori often starts for us newbies by throwing our everything into exactly this. For me, I needed to overly-focus on the materials, the organization, the presentation, so that my introductory attempts at practicing principals of this philosophy had a foundation. The prepared space at home really is worthy of emphasis, but if we don’t see past the stuff to learn the purpose, we will be stuck at the surface. The environment is only a shell of the method.
What helped me crack the surface was stopping to ask myself why behind every change that we made. The real magic unfolds when we see the opportunity provided behind these changes. This is what allows us to become prepared parents; and it is our preparation that will be the key to a prepared space.
I’m a year into our transformation, and throughout all of our changes, some that stuck and some that didn’t, there are a few pillars of change that have provided the most opportunity for growth.
Consistency – structure and order signature of a Montessori home taught me how babies learn. They are sensorial learners, passing through sensitive learning periods where they are working over-time to categorize their surroundings. I was in a habit of overhauling their playroom, assuming that the bigger the change the more exciting it would be. I was so focused on avoiding stagnancy that I was not allowing them the benefits of consistency. Now, significant changes are given careful thought, and what keeps it from growing stagnant is simple toy rotation. Everything has a place and belongs in its place.
Minimal, relevant & accessible – Of the things that we do have, we present fewer at a time and in an accessible way. This means that instead of leaving out a large tub of multiple toys crammed inside, I use shelves to display items individually. This means that instead of our old towering book shelf, I use front-facing racks low to the ground. Fostering engagement isn’t correlated to providing more stuff. Engagement comes when concentration is nurtured, and to nurture concentration we must first remove the hurdle of too many choices, especially where those choices may fall irrelevant in either being too easy or too difficult.
Care of the environment – It’s not enticing for me to write without a clean desk, nor is it enticing for my kids to play when the floor is covered with scattered parts. This isn’t to say we don’t make messes; but we clean them promptly to keep a clean slate for new ideas and discoveries. We define their workspace and we protect this space by instilling a habit of caring for our environment and taking pride in it.
Simple, natural & real – Montessori has brought me back to the basics of childhood in reminding me that beauty exists in nature and fun exists not in what entertains us but in what we discover with our own hands. This has probably been our most noticeable change as we dialed back loud aesthetics and incorporated more things of real-world value. It can also be the most confusing change as people immediately notice the preference given to wooden over plastic, hands-on over battery, practical over pretend, and realistic over cartoonish. These are preferences, not requirements. These preferences inspire more of the method; and so it’s less important that we block our children from anything other, and more important that we make room for these valuable opportunities where it is feasible for us as parents.
We prefer wooden, glass and metal over plastic because we believe in giving our children the opportunity to care for things of value. We prefer hands-on over battery because we value the opportunity for our children to to do rather than to watch. We prefer practical life over pretend because we value the opportunity for our children to experience the challenge and reward of real contributions. We prefer realistic because we value opportunity to build a concrete understanding before abstract.
When we focus on why we do what we do rather than simply how much we can do, we free ourselves from the classic Montessori-newbie trap of overly-focusing on the stuff, opening our hearts and our minds to the peace that Montessori brings not just within our homes but within ourselves.