Montessori playtime: When no schedule is the best schedule

"I took a step back—and we were both so much happier."

montesorri play with no schedule

You would think that being a stay-at-home mom means you actually stay at home. But not really—as I’ve recently found myself spending less and less time at home.

At night, I would start to get a slightly panicky feeling if we had nothing planned for the next day, and then I would try to think of something we could go do together. I think this happened for a few of reasons.

First, my son, James, has gotten to an age where it’s really easy to take him out and about. He is also awake for much longer stretches of time now. It can be daunting to think about three hours at home with nothing to entertain the little one.

Also, while I largely used to sit back and watch James play fairly independently, I had gotten out of the habit of doing this when he started pulling up to stand. I was a little terrified because he would just let go and fall straight backward and hit his head.

So I followed him around constantly. While this may have been necessary for a week or so, it is certainly not necessary anymore. James is super capable of coming down gently and intentionally now, and he rarely falls. When he does fall, he almost always catches himself with his hands.

I just need to retrain myself to let him be.

I started reading Your Self-Confident Baby, by Magda Gerber, because I was curious about the RIE philosophy and how it was similar to/different from Montessori. I am loving the book, and it really reminds me that:

1) Children need long, uninterrupted periods of time to play

2) I need to interfere as little as possible when a child is playing/working on something.

These two things are definitely emphasized in Montessori as well.

So last week, I took a step back—and we were both so much happier. I chose a spot to sit in the room and let him play without me hovering to make sure he didn’t fall.

He played happily and periodically came over to check in with me. He usually came over very briefly and climbed up on me for a hug before zooming off again. Sometimes he would choose a book for me to read to him before continuing on his own. It was so fun and interesting just to watch him play.

I realized that while it seemed like James was getting bored playing for a long stretch of time, it was really just false fatigue.

False fatigue is a term we use to describe how the children behaved late in the work period at school. In a Montessori classroom, the children have three-hour-long work periods where they choose to work independently. A few hours in, some of the children would start to get silly and stop working.

The children would wander around, aimlessly chatting with other children and become rambunctious. It would seem as if they were done for the morning.

In reality, they were a little fatigued from all of their hard work, and they needed a little help settling back into work mode. After connecting briefly with a teacher, many of the children would transition back to do some great work. I’ve seen the same thing with James.

He will start rage crawling, as we call it, around the room, grunting or whining and not choosing anything. It’s as if he’s totally done playing in the room. I’ve found that often I can help him settle back into playing by connecting with him. First, I just talk to him about what I’m seeing, what he may be feeling, and some things I see that he may enjoy doing.

I also find it helps if I put all of his toys back on the shelf where they go. Since he doesn’t yet restore his own toys, the room is a mess after a while. I think it becomes visual clutter to him when everything is on the floor—as if he can no longer see anything interesting to work with.

As soon as I put the toys away, he often sees something that strikes his interest.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll read him a couple of books, or sing a couple of songs with him, and then help him get started playing with something. Then, I back away and let him play on his own.

These tactics usually work very well, unless it’s late in the day, at which point James may be just too tired to be as independent as he is most of the time. At that point, I’ll continue reading books with him or singing songs, as long as he enjoys doing it, or I will take him outside for a change of scenery.

When he is playing happily on his own, I just try to watch, which is a big part of Montessori as well as RIE. Honestly, though, I don’t find myself able (at this point at least) to merely sit and observe him all morning, so I bring a book or a notebook and read or write while I watch. (I find that if I have nothing else to do, I often wind up jumping in when James doesn’t need my help.)

I always put down my book as soon as he comes over to me—I choose a book because I think that it’s beneficial to model reading and writing, rather than being on my phone. Seeing adults read can help children want to read, as they want to do everything we do. I hope that, with practice, I’ll be able to observe James for longer stretches of time.

I believe that a baby is part of the family, and that involves compromise. So if I’m going crazy being in the house, I will take James for a walk in the stroller, which he seems pretty neutral about, but I really enjoy.

I try to make sure he has some free time to play in every block of awake time throughout the day, and that he has at least one really long stretch of time every day to play freely.

By shifting my perspective, I no longer feel like we must have something to go out and do every day. This has made such a difference in our days—now I enjoy being with James at home so much more.

This is how we’re defining success this school year

Hint: It's not related to grades.

In the ever-moving lives of parents and children, opportunities to slow down and reflect on priorities can be hard to come by. But a new school year scheduled to begin in the midst of a global pandemic offers the chance to reflect on how we should all think about measures of success. For both parents and kids, that may mean putting a fresh emphasis on optimism, creativity and curiosity.

Throughout recent decades, "school success" became entangled with "academic achievement," with cases of anxiety among school children dramatically increasing in the past few generations. Then, almost overnight, the American school system was turned on its head in the spring of 2020. As we look ahead to a new school year that will look like no year past, more is being asked of teachers, students and parents, such as acclimating to distance learning, collaborating with peers from afar and aiming to maintain consistency with schooling amidst general instability due to COVID.

Despite the inherent challenges, there is also an overdue opportunity to redefine success during the school year by finding fresh ways to keep students and their parents involved in the learning process.

"I always encourage my son to try at least one difficult thing every school year," says Arushi Garg, parenting blogger and mom of a 4-year-old. "This challenges him but also allows me to remind him to be optimistic! Lots of things in life are hard, and it's important we learn to be positive during difficult times. Fostering a sense of optimism allows kids to push beyond what they thought possible, like biking without training wheels or reading above their grade level."

Here are a few mantras to keep in mind this school year:

Quality learning matters more than quantifying learning

After focusing on standardized measures of academic success for so long, the learning environment this next school year may involve more independent, remote learning. Some parents are considering this an exciting opportunity for their children to assume a bigger role in what they are learning—and parents are also getting on board by supporting their children's education with engaging, positive learning materials like Highlights Magazine.

As a working mom, Garg also appreciates that Highlights Magazine can help engage her son while she's also working. She says, "He sits next to me and solves puzzles in the magazine or practices his writing from the workbook."

Keep an open mind as "school" looks different

Whether children are of preschool age or in the midst of high school, "going to school" is bound to look different this year. Naturally, this may require some adjustment as kids become accustomed to new guidelines. Although many parents may wish to shelter our kids from challenges, others believe optimism can be fostered through adversity when everyone is committed to adapting to new experiences.

"Honestly, I am yet to figure out when I will be comfortable sending [my son] back [to school]," says Garg. In the meantime, she's helping her son remain connected with friends who also read Highlights Magazine by encouraging the kids to talk about what they are learning on video calls.

Follow children's cues about what interests them

For Garg, her biggest hope for this school year is that her son will create "success" for himself by embracing new learning possibilities with positivity.

"Encouraging my son to try new things has given him a chance to prove that he can do anything," she says. "He takes his previous success as an example now and feels he can fail multiple times before he succeeds."

There's no denying that this school year will be far from the norm. But, perhaps, we can create a new, better way of defining our children's success in school because of it.

This article was sponsored by Highlights. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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