Promoting Independence –
Using Montessori Techniques at Home
By Cheryl Feuer Gedzelman, MA
When my daughter Emily started Montessori school at age 3, I couldn’t wait to observe her in action. I knew that her child-centered classroom boasted many wonderful educational activities, and that each child could choose her own. When I finally did observe, Emily told me she was doing chair washing. She filled a bucket with soapy water and scrubbed the chair thoroughly. She rinsed the chair with clear water and then dried it. She cleaned her sponges and dumped the bucket of water. This whole process took about a half hour. When she was finally finished, I exclaimed, “What a wonderful job, honey! What are you going to do next?” “I’m going to wash the chair again,” she answered.
Every day, Emily told me what color chair she had washed, and I was sure that no other classroom had cleaner chairs. I trusted Montessori and knew that there must be a logical reason for me to pay them money for Emily to wash their chairs. Eventually, Emily branched out into sewing, ironing, polishing, and other “life skills” activities. While Montessori teachers encourage children to repeat tasks to attain mastery, they also encourage children to do a variety of activities. I learned that Montessori is not simply a child-centered classroom but also a model for teaching life skills and independence to young children. In addition, you can use Montessori techniques to teach life skills at home and thus incorporate your young child as a contributing family member.
When you walk into a Montessori classroom, an obvious observation will probably be the child-sized furniture and accessibility of all items. Coat hooks, tables and chairs are low, and each activity is grouped on a bookcase for easy view and accessibility. The teacher gives every child individual lessons on how to work each activity, and thereafter, the child can access and utilize the activity whenever he desires.
You can extend the scaled-down philosophy to your home. Many families have child-sized tables and chairs. You can go further and install low coat hooks, towel racks, belt hooks, and ideally, clothing racks. Caroline Linke, Director of the Montessori School of Oakton, recommends that families keep toys in easily visible and accessible places, such as book shelves. Each toy or activity group should have a clearly defined space on the shelf, for easy retrieval and return. By rotating toys and limiting choices, your child will not be overwhelmed, and it will be easier to put away the toys correctly. Ms. Linke advises against keeping many toys in a toy chest because they become all jumbled up and
have no sense of order.
Children thrive on order and simplicity. Based on Montessori example, their playrooms should be set up by category so they can see where everything is. The art section should include paper, scissors, glue stick, and markers or crayons so that children can do art projects independently. I have found that teaching children to use materials neatly and clean up properly can be quite a challenge but is worth pursuing. The amazing thing about a Montessori classroom is that although only one teacher and one assistant preside over a classroom of 25 3-6 year-olds, the children are all happily pursuing activities in a controlled manner. The room is always neat because the children have been taught how to use materials and return them properly. This always seems more difficult at home but can be done
In addition to being more independent in their playrooms, children can be taught to be more independent for many daily activities. Most important is personal dress and care. Children love to pick out their own clothes and dress themselves. Some parents let their children pick out whatever clothes they want whether or not they match. Other parents prefer to teach their children how to match clothes, which may take time and cause battles, depending on the personality of the child. Helping your child by limiting choices is a good compromise. In addition to getting dressed, children can learn to brush teeth, wash faces, and brush hair with the help of stools, accessible supplies, and mirrors. When my child was 3, we created a morning chart and evening chart with pictures to keep her focused. The evening chart said: brush teeth, get in pajamas, go to potty, read books. These charts, recommended by PEP (Parent Encouragement Program, Inc.) helped us promote independence in addition to streamlining morning and evening routines.
Children can also learn to participate in doing family chores at a very young age. These may include setting the table, dusting, cleaning spills, sweeping with a child-sized broom and dust pan, watering plants, and raking with a child-sized rake. They can pick up dirty clothes, help with laundry, and help carry light grocery bags. The possibilities are endless. Sandra Westcott states in her Parent Handout on Home Responsibility, “By including one of your children in a task you have chosen, you are spending time together, which is much more fun for everyone! Remember to notice and praise your child’s completion of a job, even if he only does it occasionally at first.”
According to Carolyn Linke of Montessori School of Oakton, there are two other reasons to promote independent life skills at an early age. One is that by doing a multi-step task like chair washing, a child develops concentration and focus. Another benefit is the satisfaction of completing a “real” task that adults do, too, and participating in the ongoing collective life of a group. Young children are usually eager to help and participate in family life.
One necessary family-life activity that children love is preparing food. PEP recommends that children begin preparing their own lunches at 3 years old. There are many baking and cooking tasks that young children can do, such as pouring ingredients and mixing. By participating in food preparation, they can see what goes into their food, become familiar with measurement, and be more open to eating and enjoying a greater variety of foods. In addition, activities like pouring build dexterity and concentration. Of course, satisfaction and building self esteem are added benefits.
In order for children to learn how to help out and do for themselves, be sure to allow enough time. This is very challenging in a rushed and busy world, but it obviously takes young children much longer to do everything. Elizabeth G. Hainstock says in Teaching Montessori at Home – the Pre-School Years, “From an early age children want to be independent, but parents thwart them by being too eager to do things for them. If you will take the time to teach your child to do things for himself, the rewards will be great for both of you. The words you should hear with joy are ‘Let me do it myself!’” Maria Montessori wrote, “No one can be free unless he is independent…In reality, he who is served is limited in his independence…”(from The Essentional Montessori by Elizabeth G. Hainstock).
In order to learn independence, families model techniques for various activities. Children are most receptive to learning from other children. Perhaps to simulate a family, Montessori classrooms feature mixed age groups. The primary class encompasses ages 3-6. The advantage, of course, is that the older children help the younger ones, benefiting all. And children learn by example, especially from other children. Real families should take advantage of their children’s age differences. My 5-year old is thrilled to help her 3-year-old sister write letters, draw, get dressed, or do anything else.
Finally, Montessori method is based on self-motivation to learn. Children are considered to be at work during the day, but they have fun doing it. They do go beyond life skills, learning geometry, geography, phonics, and much more. Young children have the capacity to absorb, learn, and do so much. They just need a controlled creative environment to allow them to pursue their interests.
There exists in the small child an unconscious mental state which is of a creative nature.
We have called it the “Absorbent Mind.”
The tiny child’s absorbent mind finds all its nutriment in its surroundings…Especially at the beginning of life must we, therefore, make the environment as interesting and attractive as we can.
(Maria Montessori, from The Essential Montessori)