In the Kitchen with Maria
Montessori early childhood classrooms are orderly, tidy, prepared spaces within which children have access to all the tools and materials they need to thrive. They also tend to be more peaceful, more collaborative and more focused than one might expect of a preschool setting.
This is not a coincidence.
Montessori early childhood classrooms are more peaceful, more collaborative and more focused because they are orderly, tidy, prepared spaces within which children have access to all the tools and materials they need to thrive. Young children, who may have yet to develop patience and self-restraint, don't have to "wait until I'm done," to be active. They can choose materials without waiting for a teacher or for a specific time of day. Their fine and gross motor coordination still developing, they can still get a lot done because the tools that are available to them are matched to their emerging coordination. Most importantly, their inherent need for agency and influence is honored through contributions to the community that have a real benefit. They're not playing at being contributing members of this society. They really are contributing members of the society of the classroom and, as such, they rise to the occasion, taking responsibility for themselves and for others in ways that may be surprising to observers who expect more chaos than collaboration.
Parents can implement some of the same structures in preparing their home environments as Montessori teachers do in preparing the classroom. The kitchen is a great place to start. Look for ways to create order, to provide your child with the tools and materials they need to thrive. Is your kitchen a place in which your child can contribute in useful, real ways, or are you always trying to shoo him or her out of the room so you can finish making dinner? Think about ways to engage instead of distract, to let your child be a part of the real action of the kitchen, so that it doesn't end up being a place in which he or she is unwelcome or likely to get into trouble.
1. Look inside your cupboards. Often, adults use their lower cupboards to put things that are used less often or that they don't want visible, like cleaning supplies or pots and pans. Select a cabinet or two that you can dedicate for your young child. Look at the items you've made accessible for yourself up high, and provide child-sized alternatives in the low cupboards your child can access independently. So, you might have one cabinet that has your child's cups, plates and utensils in it. Now your child can set the table and put away the dishes after meals independently. You might have a cabinet that has child-sized baking and cooking tools, inviting your child to participate in the preparation of your meals. In a Montessori classroom, these would each be demonstrated on a work in isolation, but in your home, it's ok to have your child choose the tools he or she needs to prepare whatever specific meal you're creating together. Creating a space that is dedicated for your child's own dishware, glasses, utensils and cooking needs sends a clear message to your child that he or she is welcome in the kitchen and that you trust him or her to be responsible for taking a part in the family's needs.
2. Look inside your fridge. In Montessori classrooms, snack is available when children are hungry. We know that children's ability to judge their own hunger is evolving, as is the predictability of their metabolism and daily caloric needs. When infants cry, we trust that they may be hungry or wet or tired. When older children act out, we often attribute to them some intent rather than first checking to see if they might also be hungry or uncomfortable or tired. Letting your child have access to healthy foods whenever he is hungry teaches him to self-regulate his diet, to eat when he's hungry and to stop eating when he's full. Dedicate the shelves of your fridge that are at your child's height to your child's needs. Prepare a small jug of milk or water to store on the bottom shelf of the fridge door. Prepare healthy snacks, like orange slices, carrot sticks or cheese, and display them in clear, glass containers stored on the lower shelves for your child to access easily. When your child asks for a snack, invite her to go to the fridge to select from one of the snacks you've prepared for her. She'll enjoy the independence and you'll have a much less grumpy child on your hands.
3. Look inside your pantry. Think about the dry snacks or supplies your child might need from the pantry. Prepare a basket with a selection of healthy snacks and let it be available to your child. Put aside a small stock of paper towels, dishcloths or toilet paper so your child can be responsible for replenishing the materials he may have used in the kitchen. If you have pets, offer a small container with a screw-top lid that your child can manage, and let him be responsible for filling the pet's water and food bowls each day. Engage your child in the daily work of the kitchen to support his developing independence, concentration, coordination and sense of order.
4. Throughout your kitchen space, look for ways to engage your child in the process of preparing food with you for the family. Young children can tear and wash the leaves for a fresh salad. They can chop vegetables and measure liquids in a measuring cup. They can set the table if the dishware is available to them. They can clear the table and rinse off the plates. They can wipe down countertops before food preparation and afterwards. They can stand with you on a small sturdy stool to help mix, blend and pour ingredients together. They can prepare dough for baking and pour cereal for breakfast. They can cut fruits and prepare serving bowls for the table. As they develop their fine motor skills, they can work with you at the stove. Even as observers, children who work with their parents in the kitchen learn that they are contributors and agents in the space. They have the chance to talk with their parents as they're preparing meals together. They are more likely to try unusual foods that they've helped to prepare. Instead of sending your child out of the kitchen, look for ways to keep them with you in real contributions to the family meal.
Your children want to be real contributors to their communities. Remember Montessori's advice: children become like the things they love, and your children love you. They want to be in the kitchen with you because they want to learn from you. They want to care for their families because they see their families caring for them. Invite them in. Breaking bread is a tried and true way for connecting a family, but making the bread together is even better.