Over the last few months, several of our son’s friends have enrolled in Montessori-style preschool and daycare centers. The parents have had nothing but good things to say about the switch, and my curiosity was piqued. Our boys are home with us all day, and we have no plans to change that. But I was wondering if there was more that we should be providing our three year old in terms of the environment where he spends most of his time.
The Wikipedia page about Montessori Education pretty much sums up most of what I’ve read about the concept, and matches closely with what my friends have described about their kids’ preschools.
The main difference between being at home with us all day and being in a daycare or preschool setting is that our sons aren’t interacting with other kids all day. So we make an effort to get them out and about in social settings quite frequently. This includes story time at the library, visits to friends’ houses, having friends over here, and impromptu trips to the park during times when we know there are likely to be other kids there.
But in terms of the environment we provide for our boys at home, we’ve always felt that it was pretty good, and now that I’m reading more about the Montessori style of learning, I feel even better about it.
We’ve spent very little money on the stuff we have, and our days are very laid-back and relaxed thanks to our refusal to over-schedule our family’s time. Here’s what works for us as far as the environment we provide for our three-year-old.
First, and probably most importantly, we don’t own a TV. Definitely one of the better decisions we’ve made as parents.
Our son’s toys are mostly things that require constant interaction and creative input from him. Here’s what he plays with the most:
- A set of wooden railroad tracks and lots of trains to go on it, along with lots of cars and trucks that he includes in his train/vehicle play. We got the train set on Craigslist and the cars/trucks came from Goodwill.
- The box of 2×4 offcuts, which he’s been playing with every day for weeks now. He makes something new with them every day, and incorporates a lot of his other toys into whatever he builds.
- A large farm that includes a dollhouse-style barn, lots of fence, and numerous farm animals. We got it at a garage sale for $10, and have added a few more animals from Goodwill.
- A large box of regular wooden blocks. Some used to belong to my husband when he was little (my MIL saves everything…) and some came from Goodwill. They are all shapes and colors and sizes, and include pieces from several different sets of blocks.
- A wooden castle that my parents made with our son’s help. He likes to build train tracks that connect the castle to the farm and then invent elaborate stories about who is going where and what they are doing.
- Lots of little plastic and wooden people/dinosaurs/animals, etc. These have come from a variety of places (mostly Goodwill and gifts) and he loves to involve them in whatever building he’s currently working on. At the moment, he’s building train tracks and recreating the children’s book “Dinotrain” using his little plastic dinosaurs as props.
- All sorts of stuff from the kitchen. Pots, pans, cookie sheets, cooling racks, spatulas, spoons, measuring cups…
- The sink. He likes to push a chair up to the sink and have all sorts of fun. A large cooking pot in the sink makes a great swimming pool for his plastic ducks and fish, and he also likes to use measuring cups to pour water into various other containers that he finds.
- His sandbox. When the weather is nice, he’s out there playing in it every day. My husband built it out of 2×12 lumber and we filled it with sand from the local landscape center. If space is tight, a little plastic swimming pool filled with sand works well. Don’t worry about sand getting in their shoes or on the floor. That’s why we have brooms and vacuums. Kids grow up fast, and before you know it, they won’t be interested in a sandbox anymore. Let them love it while they’re little.
That’s the list that comes to mind off the top of my head. He plays all day long, using his imagination, building stuff and creating stories to go with what he makes. He loves to show us the stuff he’s made, and often asks us to come and play with him. But he’s never bored and he’s almost never confined by structure we’re imposing. We provide toys that require a lot of creative input from him, and he does the rest.
We do require that all of the toys be cleaned up at the end of the day. For a long time, that was a challenge, as he wanted no part of it and had to be coaxed and prodded to clean up his messes. But recently he’s started cleaning up without being prompted and last night he said to me “I don’t need you anymore when I make a mess, because I’m able to clean it up myself.” Music to a mama’s ears! We usually all pitch in and clean it up together each evening (it only takes a few minutes because everything just goes into bins – blocks in one, trains in another, farm stuff in another…) but it’s great to see him doing his share. Cleaning up and meal times are the only real “structured” times that we have during the day when he has to be doing a specific activity that we’ve laid out for him. The rest of the time, he’s playing and creating his own structure. We read lots of books, but there’s no specific time or schedule for this – we just fit it in around everything else. We talk constantly about the stuff he’s doing and the things he’s creating with his toys, and we do our best to answer all of his questions throughout the day. We don’t have structured “educational” activities, but our son knows his alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes etc. and is starting to be really interested in reading and understanding how letters come together to make words. He comes to me throughout the day and says things like “house starts with H!” We’re confident that his academic skills are fine, despite not being in a structured preschool environment.
I did some searching around to see what other parents have done if they wanted to set up a Montessori style preschool environment in their homes. Some have pictures of beautifully-arranged preschool toys that are all made of wood and look just like the toys you find in a Montessori preschool. And some take the concept very seriously, following the “rules” of the Montessori environment quite closely.
Our living room doesn’t look like what you might picture when you think of a traditional Montessori preschool. But on closer inspection (especially if you watch our son play for a few hours), it’s obvious that the specific toys aren’t really the issue. As long as you have toys that invite discovery and creative play, and little or no TV time, you’re probably on the right track. You don’t have to spend a fortune on fancy toys and learning tools for your kids. Limit their screen time and provide them with toys (which can be free or nearly free thanks to thrift stores and Craigslist and the great outdoors) that lend themselves to creative, imaginative play and problem solving. Let them get wet and dirty. Don’t worry about drilling them on the ABCs and 123s. Instead, let them help you bake a batch of muffins and count aloud as they add scoops of oats and raisins. Keep life simple, let your kids be involved in the things you do on a day-to-day basis, and encourage their creativity and imagination. Good things will happen – without a lot of money or stress.
I’ve written this post from the perspective of a stay-at-home parent, but I think that the basics can apply to any family that’s looking for inexpensive, simple ways to provide a nurturing environment for their children during whatever time the kids are at home. I hope it helps!