When my daughter was accepted into a public Montessori school at age 3, I only knew a few details about what that meant — a mixed-age classroom and special tools that children used that were called "work."
If your kids aren't yet in school, or you haven't encountered it before, the Montessori philosophy may seem opaque. A typical Montessori classroom has a specific layout of tools and materials to allow students to choose what they are interested in. Teachers are referred to as guides and talk about children doing "work" in a "prepared environment," engaging with the "peace curriculum" and "spontaneous self-discipline." None of this sounds like my child. But Maria Montessori's ideas about children's growth — and the successfulness of her program — are interesting in their own right and easily applicable to working and playing with your children at home.
Focus, Self-Direction, Hands-On Learning
Montessori observed that if children are given interesting, manipulative materials to work with, they can work at something for hours. If not interrupted, they may develop intense focus and independence by simply choosing and "doing."
It could be something as basic as pouring a pitcher of water into a cup over and over. It could be arranging shapes a certain way. To me, this means letting your child do what they choose and not arbitrarily shifting their focus simply because you are bored or think they might get bored. It also means allowing them to finish, to work slowly, to do things the wrong way, to experiment and make mistakes and find solutions. Don't be so quick to fix something that frustrates or slows them down.
The Prepared Environment
If you want your child to try work on their own, you may want to organize a play or work area with things — toys or objects — you think they might be attracted to, as well as a place to do it, like a rug or table and chair. Some tasks, like pouring, require you to set up first. The setup is what Montessori called the "prepared environment" and is tailored to your child's age and individual character. To me, it means books, toys, and objects need to be accessible to your child; they need a place. It also means having out what they like and rotating a few things in and out as needed. You are helping them to do it by himself or herself, to use choice to develop independence. Simply googling "Montessori activities" or "tray work" brings up a slew of ideas — and how to arrange them — so your child can get the most out of them.
The Montessori method utilizes mixed-age learning all the way through secondary school. Kids are grouped ages 3 to 6, 6 to 9, 9 to 12, 12 to 15, and 15 to 18. The idea is that mixed-age learning negates the pressure of students being in a particular "place" (behind or ahead of their grade level) and allows students to work at their own pace. It also assumes that children learn best from each other and gain social skills this way. This is one of the easiest Montessori tenants to implement at home. Be open to group play with older and younger children — playdates don't have to be with peers.
Montessori lived through both World Wars and saw the rise of fascism in Spain and in her own country. She saw peace and democracy as essential to the growth of the individual. Introduce the concept of peace to your child with a book, poem, or music. Use the concept to promote listening, caretaking, and sharing, such as taking care of things or animals in the home and playing collaboratively with other children. Being quiet can be a form of peace. You can use a "peace table" to allow children to resolve conflict by themselves. They sit facing each other, perhaps holding hands, and discuss their argument — peacefully.
Be an open book. If your child is to learn by doing what you do, allow your child to see why you do what you do. Explain what you are doing. Your child can begin to grasp some of the many decisions you make on a daily basis — often unilaterally, such as doing laundry or running to the store or picking up toys. When children imitate naturally, do things slowly enough so that they can see each of your steps.
Perhaps my favorite part of Montessori's focus on peace is this poem, called "Gandhi's Prayer For Peace," which children often say before mealtimes. I like it because it introduces the idea of empathy quite simply. I can feel what you feel. But more than that, it gives such power to the individual being addressed. This line — "I see your beauty" — to me is a more empowering way to praise your child than saying "you look beautiful" or "what a cute outfit." In a culture that sends dubious and narrow messages about beauty to young children, this poem greatly expands beauty, to me, as not a label, but something communicative and essential — something quite in your power, both to be and to recognize.
I offer you peace;
I offer you love;
I offer you friendship;
I hear your cry;
I see your beauty;
I feel your pain;
My wisdom flows from my spirit within;
I salute that spirit in you.
Let us work together for peace.