By Julia Niego
Montessori has been around for over a hundred years. There are Montessori schools aplenty and the approach is getting new attention these days. And yet, Montessori remains a bit of an enigma…
Having come to Montessori from the brain development angle, my feeling has always been that the aspects that make the approach so rich and wonderful for babies and toddlers are principals that all parents can understand and everyone interested should have access. But when I explain that I follow Montessori at home, the reaction is often a little stilted.
Over the years I have spent time in various roles listening to other parents talk about common Montessori misunderstandings and some of the things that have turned them off, or make them feel that it all sounds a bit much! I am here to shine some light on some of those myths and share my stance that Montessori is actually about less, not more, and that the simple principles can be workable in all of our different kinds of homes, budgets and parenting styles.
I have a tiny baby! It’s a little early for educational philosophy and curriculum, right?
Trust me, I’ve seen many a parent smirk when the idea of a “baby curriculum” comes up, and I get it. But we now know without a doubt that the first years of our child’s life are vital for their cognitive, language, and sensory motor development. While babies might not seem from the outside to do much in the way of active learning—especially in the early months—research shows that your baby is forming important pathways and connections that are the foundation for the burgeoning skills that begin to emerge in toddlerhood.
Babies do learn in a very different way from older children. They absorb knowledge from their environment, based on a biological drive to explore and sensitive periods where their focus and effort are oriented toward specific concepts and skill development. Montessori at its core is founded on the research-backed understanding that your baby’s brain is built to engage in learning about the world from day one.
I’ve heard that Montessori is “child centered” and “free”…sounds like chaos.
Montessori does follow the child, but it does so within a carefully prepared—and quite structured—environment. This environment becomes the “third teacher” and allows for babies and toddlers to learn the way they naturally do, through free movement, touch and exploration. Teachers and parents are guides, modeling, noticing, encouraging, and maintaining consistency, so children can construct knowledge independently. In this approach little ones learn over time to make choices, concentrate deeply, finish a task before beginning another and gain an awareness of their own selves and others. When we choose to step back and observe, rather than direct, babies learn to direct themselves. As anyone who has spent time in a Montessori environment knows, the first aspect that stands out is the sense of calm, order and competence. I promise that this can happen in your own home too.
Isn’t Montessori pricey?
I know from experience that Montessori can truly be adapted to any home and budget. After all, Maria Montessori began her first school in a crowded, gritty slum in Rome with what she had available. The less-is-more approach means that rather than continually buying new toys and learning materials, and throwing them away when they are broken or no longer hold interest, children work with the same Montessori materials for months and even years. And like many Montessori moms I have communicated to family around birthdays and holidays so Montessori materials go on the wish list instead of a whole pile of—ahem, junk—which we do not need.
There are a variety of free resources online that can guide you in setting up a Montessori–inspired home and many Montessori families have blogs detailing how they set up their home with affordable, sustainable furniture options. In addition, there is a growing internet community that offers guidance on creating your own Montessori materials to compliment those you do choose to purchase. And most materials will stand the test of time—we are currently bringing out handmade materials for our one year old that graced the work shelves years ago when my five year old was a baby!
Sounds like it takes a lot of time and energy that I just don’t have.
So many parents feel pulled in a million directions and spend countless hours searching—and often purchasing—“solutions” for obstacles that inevitably arise during the baby and toddler years. Montessori is in essence a full parenting, developmental and educational philosophy rolled into one! While there is a learning curve for any approach, once you have the core principles of Montessori down, it becomes naturally incorporated into your life.
By building your child’s independence from the beginning, Montessori invites them to get involved in the work of the home alongside you. This means that the work you put in to prepare the environment at the beginning will pay off over time in your favor! As one small example, consider the time and energy a typical parent spends getting their children dressed each day. Now imagine that your child has all they need at their level, and is taught how to dress themselves from an early age (yes, zippers, snaps and buttons too).
The process allows for you as the parent to begin pulling back early on, and the sense of autonomy for your child means less struggles and tantrums. Believe me, when I began I wondered if I had the time and energy. As it turns out, I have regular moments of gratitude that my children can spend time in independent play, that the set up encourages them to focus on one task at a time, that I can feel sane sharing space with them.
Say I’m interested…Montessori seems tough to access.
Gone are the days when Montessori only happened behind closed school doors. A whole new community of Montessori at home has exploded in the last few years! Books, blogs and posts about the day-to-day aspects of the approach are available online. Montessori from The Start by Lillard and Jessen and The Montessori Toddler by Simone Davies are wonderful places to begin. (Also, Living Montessori Now, How We Montessori and The Kavanaugh Report are all excellent online resources.)
New Montessori subscription services such as Lovevery and Monti Kids take out the guesswork, bundle, and include parent-friendly curriculum guides according to your child’s level of development. Plus, childcare services like Guidepost at Home, which provides nanny shares that follow a Montessori-inspired curriculum (and partners with both Lovevery and Monti Kids!) allows for high quality Montessori at home.
While I originally discovered Montessori in my own education, I have rediscovered the approach in a whole new way as a parent. I know as a mom that no matter how inspiring any approach may sound, it needs to relevant for our baby, affordable, manageable, accessible and ultimately doable. I feel privileged to have witnessed the fresh growth of Montessori beyond the classroom walls and into our own homes over the last years. It has brought simplicity, joy and a deep respect for the child into my role as a mother and, as is evidenced by so many other Montessori moms, I am driven to share my truth!
Julia Niego, MS holds a BA in Behavioral Neuroscience from Colgate University, an MS in Neuroscience and Education from Columbia University/Teacher’s College, and professional certification as an Educational Therapist through University of California Riverside. Over the past decade she has founded and developed curricula for Montessori preschools, directed a local network of Montessori-at-home playgroups, and consults on progressive approaches as the founder of Neuleaph Child & Brain, LLC. She continues to pursue her fascination for the intersection of early learning and the child brain, and draws deeply on the Montessori approach as an early childhood educational therapist with a private neurospychologically-based tutoring organization in NYC.