When I visited a Montessori classroom for the first time, I saw 3- and 4-year-olds in flow. As I observed, I could see that at such a young age, they were already developing a sense of purpose and self-direction in their work. They were given the freedom to discover and explore their passions and nurture their unique gifts. That school visit was completely eye opening and I knew then that I wanted to help spread Montessori.
What is Montessori, and why begin it at birth?
Montessori education is developmental education. It involves a curriculum of materials (the Montessori word for toys) that meet a child’s developmental needs at every stage of development, and a respectful approach to guiding children. The parent or teacher observes the child’s needs, trusts their abilities and allows independence (within limits) so the child can follow their own unique path of development steered by their natural drive to learn and grow. This popular early-education approach, developed by Dr. Maria Montessori in 1907, is now used in more than 20,000 schools around the world.
Learning begins at birth, and 80 percent of the brain is formed by age 3. Early brain development creates a foundation for the future because babies establish pathways and patterns of learning that they will use throughout life. Babies are learning how to learn. A major goal of Montessori is to help infants develop habits of concentration, perseverance when confronted with challenges, creative problem-solving skills and other abilities that will serve them well throughout childhood and adulthood, no matter what line of work they choose. Even if your child isn't going to attend a Montessori preschool, there are many useful tips to learn from the Montessori approach that can help you prepare for any school environment.
Incorporating Montessori at Home
1. Read, sing and talk. All of these are incredible language-learning tools that you can use with your child from birth, and the more you use them, the greater the benefits will be. Babies can only gain an understanding of language and build vocabulary when it’s in context and delivered in a social interaction. Reading, singing and talking are the best early literacy tools. And remember that the major literacy goal before preschool is to grow your child’s love of language!
2. Create a sense of order. For adults, a messy office with papers everywhere can be a source of stress and confusion. The same is true for your little one and their play area. Children function best in an organized playspace that is not over-stimulating. A favorite Montessori teacher saying is: "A place for everything and everything in its place." This is much easier to maintain if you keep your child’s playspace very simple.
3. Provide a simple playspace that promotes focus and independence. Choose six to eight toys and a few books at a time, and put the rest away for later use. Displaying toys on a low shelf, as opposed to in a toy bin, allows your child to access them independently and become the master of his or her space. As you observe that your child’s interest in certain toys is waning, you can rotate them with some of the new ones you have stored away. This helps reignite your child’s curiosity and allows them to continue learning from their toys as their skills improve.
4. Remember that passive toys make for active babies. Simple, or "passive," toys require your child to be engaged in order to "activate" them. More active electronic toys with lights and sounds (screens are the most active) can put your child into a passive mode, where they push a button and wait to be entertained. Avoid the bells and whistles, and instead, choose toys that are exciting for the engagement they require.
The most important element of Montessori parenting is observing your child so you can respond to their unique needs.
Dr. Montessori developed her method over several years through close observation of children and how various materials propelled their growth. She was a developmental scientist before her time. This explains why over a century later, numerous research studies have confirmed the efficacy of Montessori education.
Similarly, observation is the tool that will enable you to unlock and expand your child’s potential. By observing your baby, you can know whether they are unhappy with a toy because it’s too easy and they find it boring or because it’s too challenging and causing frustration. By observing your toddler, you can understand the patterns that trigger a tantrum and help to set your child up for peaceful days. By observing your child, you can notice the earliest buds of their passions and gifts so you can help them to flower. The result will be children who are engaged, happy and thriving.
Zahra Kassam is the founder of Monti Kids (montikids.com), a subscription service that brings the authentic Montessori curriculum to the home for babies. She lives in Oakland with her husband and two young sons.