"To stimulate life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself..."
If you’ve visited your child in their Montessori classroom, you may have noticed them working independently, sitting quietly at a table by themselves engrossed in a seemingly simple activity like pouring sparkling water or lying on the floor spread out across a mat filled with complicated combinations of beads and blocks. Or maybe you watched your child prepare snack for a friend, to joyfully sit together in playful conversation, or smiled yourself as your child collaborated with a small group of friends over a construction or an art experience. And, if you’re like many parents observing their children in the classroom, you probably asked yourself,
“Where in the world are the teachers?”
At first, maybe this caused some concern. Shouldn’t the teachers be teaching something? And doesn’t that look like one big adult talking about whatever it is they’re talking about, surrounded by many children quietly staring at them? And maybe you came to value the independence and self-direction of the Montessori classroom. Maybe you came to understand the self-correcting nature of the materials and the role of the teacher to present new lessons before “observing unobtrusively” while the children explore on their own. And, if you’re like many parents observing their children in the classroom, you probably then asked yourself,
“How did they DO that?”
We’ve all seen our children in the classroom: independent agents of their own days, putting on their own shoes and cleaning up their own work, sometimes quiet, sometimes engaged, and compared them to our children at home: standing a little too close when we’re trying to get something done on the laptop, asking questions at the most inopportune times about things that seem to have nothing to do with what we’re doing, seemingly incapable of being alone for any time at all, demanding our attention. all. the. time.
And here’s one more way you’re probably like many other Montessori parents right now: you’re wondering how in the world to get your children at home to play on their own.
Spoiler alert: it’s easier at school, because of the teachers and because of the classroom design. Your child has (and should have) a different relationship with their teacher than they do with you. They know their teachers well, but they know you much better. Their teachers have practiced their teaching responses. They’re prepared to respond to children in each moment in a way that supports the child’s developing independence, concentration, coordination and order. The children can’t interrupt the teacher’s work, because the teacher’s work is the children. Don’t aspire to that relationship: it’s limited and, even in the three-year-cycle, it’s going to end and be replaced by others. It’s lovely, but it’s finite.
You can take some cues, though, from the classroom design, to help your child to find the same joy in independent activity at home that they have discovered at school. At school, the classroom is designed to be emotionally responsive, intellectually engaging, self-directed and self-correcting.
Care first for your child’s emotions: This is a challenging time for most of us, and your child is likely experiencing more fear and more stress than usual. Their regular routines are upended.They’ve been separated from their friends, their communities, their normality. Just like us. But unlike us, they don’t have the perspective to place this crisis on a longer timeline, or the language to communicate their most complicated emotions, or the life experience to feel safe in the midst of so much chaos. If your child seems more needy than usual right now, that’s to be expected. Go slow.
Think about front-loading uninterrupted time with your child at the beginning of the day. Ask yourself what morning routines you can prepare for the night before, so that you’re available to give your child your complete attention for the first few hours of the day? Can you flip your work responsibilities or adult demands to allow uninterrupted time with your child as the day begins? How we start our days together can determine how they unfold.
Prepare and serve breakfast together. Let your child set the table, whisk the eggs, spread jam on toast or mix fruit into the oatmeal. Time in the kitchen is both practical and attentive. Sit down together for breakfast and make sure the conversation includes children at the table as contributors, rather than just observers to adult chatter.
Plan time in the morning to use your bodies together. Take a parent-child yoga class together online, or enjoy an exploration walk in your backyard or in your home. Kick a soccer ball between you. Take a hike. Plan an art activity together, from simple activities that require you to bend, kneel or crawl, like sidewalk art, to long-term activities that allow you to cuddle together while you create, like fingerpainting, embroidery or cross-latch. And then get involved with your child- participate as your child’s companion.
Think about the needs of the household that you can share. Wash and dry dishes together. Do the morning laundry and let your child carry the laundry basket or load the machines. Make the beds. Fold towels and blankets. Wash the windows. Think about activities that help to care for the environment you share, and that do so with all the muscles in your bodies involved.
Prepare, if possible, the ability to be attentive for yourself, too: turn off your phone and step away from your computer. If you need to attend to morning business, try to do so before your child wakes up, or to block out an hour or two when other adults know you’re unavailable. Think about starting the day with a combination of things you can do together, some for the benefit of the household community and some for the benefit of your private time with your child. Meet your child’s need for attention and affection first, before you ask them to be alone.
Prepare self-directed, self-correcting, intellectually engaging activities for alone-time, and schedule when those are available: That doesn’t mean handouts and workbooks, which may look “academic” but which lead your child to a single, predetermined experience. Instead, let their independent open-ended play time be with activities that engage their problem solving skills, that let them explore their own interests, and that are challenging but within their ability to complete on their own.
Hold some special materials for when you know you’ll need time alone. You might have a basket of activities that are only available when you need to attend to other tasks. Think about things your child can do with their hands, but without too much reliance on adults, like Lego blocks, stitching on plastic canvas, coloring with colored pencils or smaller styluses, drawing the details they observe around them in a nature journal, or following along to an audio recording of a favorite book they can hold. Keep a box of cardboard for building forts or ramps for toy cars, or a basket with flashlights, nuts and bolts, or other household tools for exploring their environment on their own.
Consider challenge prompts that you can make available for your child to transition into these times. You can offer verbal cues, like, “Can you build the most complicated tower you can imagine, in the next fourteen minutes?” Or prepare a series of direction cards with simple drawings or, if you have a reader, written prompts on them from which they can choose to complete meaningful activities, like preparing a tossed salad for the family to enjoy or assembling a new batch of home-made creative dough. Children can prepare meals on their own for the family to enjoy later or complete household chores independently. In doing so, they develop the ability to problem solve across multiple domains while asserting their importance as a member of the household.
Ask your child to create their own list of activities they can do “all by themselves,” and plan together for increasingly longer windows of independent activity. Start with shorter windows of independent play, to help your child to understand that they are safe and that their needs will be met, even when they’re playing independently. In the classroom, children have twenty other people they can ask for help if a teacher is not available: it’s going to take a little time for your child to rely solely on their own resources
Be available, but uninvolved. The concentration you see in the classroom evolves over time. At first, some children attend to their work in short bursts, but over time and with the right lessons, they discover work that enchants them. Be nearby to your child at first, reading a book or engaging in an activity that can be interrupted. If your child asks you for help, look for ways to turn the solution back to them. Offer only the assistance that they cannot do themselves, like threading a needle or reaching something from the highest shelf, but think about questions you can ask them to help them to solve their own problems first.
Be present, but not omnipresent, and let them work through problems, even if their solutions take more time than yours might. Practice language like, “What solutions can you think of?” Or “ What are some tools you have that might make that possible?” so you’re comfortable with language that turns solution-making back to your child. The more you behave as though you are the only one who can fix a problem, the more your child will be dependent on you for all the issues that arise while they’re alone. Focus on providing only the support your child needs (like holding the clasps of a zipper closed while your child zips, rather than zipping their jacket for them) so that your child can do as much independently as possible.
Make sure your child has the tools available to clean up after themselves and a physical environment that they can manage. In the classroom, we use small mats because, in part, it limits the area for which a child must be responsible. If your child is playing independently with an activity that could get bigger than they can manage on their own, give them a designated area before the activity begins. Make sure they have the tools to clean up if something goes awry, like a spray bottle with just enough water to wipe down their table top or a dust pan and broom should something need to be swept up. And then let them clean up after themselves, even if it’s not to your standard. You can always model wiping a counter later for them.
If you have times when you absolutely cannot be disturbed, make these as short as possible and talk through the expectations on your household with your child. Give your child concrete parameters to help them understand. Present these lovingly. If, for example, you need to rely on a kitchen timer for your child to check in to see how much time is left before they can interrupt you, remember that these are short-term tools that are helping your child to understand the passage of time and to be aware of the limits in your household right now, not measures by which they might get “in trouble.” Give your child something they can do if they want your attention, like writing you a note in a book you’ll read later, or drawing a picture to place in a special box you’ll open when your uninterrupted time is over. You’ll want to keep enough attention there to know if your child is at risk or if their independent activity is growing beyond their own ability to manage, but think about it in the same way teachers in the classroom do, to “observe unobstrusively,” and let the child come to you if they need you instead of interrupting them when they are engaged.
And finally, remember that this is going to take time. Your children will need time to adjust and feel confident in new expectations. In the classroom, we have, by design, activities that can be completed independently by children with shorter attention spans and the model of children who are completing longer, more engaged work. It won’t be the same at home, and it may take many days of reliably, lovingly stepping back from your child’s activities to remind them (and yourself) that they are capable of being alone. Indeed, they need to be. Meet their emotional need to be with you first, then support them in building the practical, physical and cognitive skills to be independent of you. Be patient with yourself and your child as you both learn to be with each other in a new way.