"Help me do it myself" is a common phrase we try to remember in Montessori.
Young children crave independence. They are driven to achieve it from birth. If we can help them get there, we can minimize a lot of the struggles associated with toddlers and young children, and empower them to feel capable and confident in their growing abilities.
Because of Montessori's focus on independence, parents are often shocked when they see their children do certain things all by themselves at school. "My child never does this at home!" is a common response.
Here are some examples of things young Montessori children do for themselves, and how to encourage your own child to greater independence.
1. Get dressed
From the time children enter the Montessori toddler classroom at around 18 months old, they are encouraged to dress and undress by themselves. This happens in very slow stages, with undressing usually occurring first.
Montessori toddler teachers patiently show a child each step of dressing and undressing, from pushing down their pants to strapping the velcro on their shoe.
To try this at home, find times that are not rushed to practice with your child. Make sure the clothes and shoes are easy to get on and off. After you've shown them how a few times, sit nearby and offer the minimum amount of help they need to be successful. You might start with just a verbal reminder of what they need to do. He may be able to pull up the front of the pants, but need help with the back. Gradually, they'll need less and less help.
2. Wipe their nose
Montessori toddlers and young children have access to tissues and are encouraged to practice wiping their noses in front of a mirror so they can see when their face is clean. An adult may have to alert them that they need a tissue before they learn to complete the task alone.
Children can also take care of other basic self-care activities like washing their faces, drying their body after a bath, washing their own hands with soap, brushing their own hair, etc.
The job might not be done as quickly or as thoroughly, but empowering your child to take on these tasks raises their body awareness and helps his confidence grow with each new skill they develop.
3. Set the table
From the time they are walking, Montessori babies help set the table. This starts with something simple like bringing a plate to the table or bringing over their own lunchbox.
As the child grows, the process involves more steps, with the 3-6-year-olds setting their place with a napkin and placemat, glass plate, fork and spoon and a water cup.
To try this at home, use a low shelf to place a few dishes for your child. Show him how to carry each item carefully, one at a time with two hands, to his spot at the table. He may need a step stool to reach the dining table.
4. Clean the table and floor
Montessori children clean the tables and floor when they have made a mess by sweeping up any spills.
They also often choose to scrub a table or chair or mop the floor when there is no specific mess. The children enjoy the sensorial experience of the soap and water and experience a great sense of pride at seeing the results of their labor.
To try this at home, give your child a small broom and encourage them to help you sweep after meals. Give them a scrub brush and spend time scrubbing their outside toys together.
5. Put away their own toys
Montessori children are expected to put their own work and toys away, and they generally do so without reminders after becoming acclimated to the classroom.
Every item in the classroom has a specific spot where it belongs and the children quickly understand the expectation and social norm that everyone cleans up after himself.
To try this at home, ask your young child to put away a toy when he is done with it before he gets out another one. Toddlers may need you to clean up with them, especially if it's something like blocks with many pieces.
6. Help prepare food
Food preparation work is often a favorite among Montessori children. The interesting thing is they love activities like washing and cutting carrots and apples even if they choose not to eat the food they've prepared. This is because they are getting to use real tools and participate in the work of everyday life in a real way.
To try this at home, find ways your child can help in the kitchen, either preparing a salad alongside you or making a snack independently. Slowly introduce your child to the tools and skills needed in the kitchen, always watching for safety, but also giving him the freedom to work on his own.
7. Problem solve with a friend
While kindness and peaceful actions are always emphasized in Montessori schools, disagreements between children still inevitably occur.
Rather than acting as a referee, the teacher acts as a support and a guide, helping the children to talk to each other about what they each want and need resolve the situation.
To try this at home, next time your child has an argument with a friend or sibling, take a step back and see how they handle it on their own. Step in if it's becoming violent or escalating too much, but take the minimal action needed to help the children sort through the situation on their own.
8. Play independently
As Montessori lessons are generally given one on one, rather than a group, the children spend a good deal of their time at school working independently, practicing the lessons they have already been given.
Playing with your child is a wonderful thing, but don't be afraid to tell her you're unavailable if you need to get something done. This will help her learn to play on her own, too.
To try this at home, if she's used to always playing with you, start with really short tasks. You might say something like "I'm going to unload the dishwasher and then I will come play with you." Slowly stretch the time she is comfortable playing on her own.
9. Take care of a pet
Pets are a big part of many Montessori classrooms, in part because they let us observe biology in real life, but also because they offer a great opportunity for the children to take care of another living being.
Children feed and give water to the pets daily and even help clean and scrub their habitats.
To try this at home, if you have a pet at home, show your toddler how to feed it or your preschooler how to scrub the pet's food bowl to keep it clean.
10. Think through a problem
Montessori teachers often answer a question with a question. "Where might you look for that? What should you do next? What are you missing?"
This encourages children to think through a problem rather than turning to an adult for the solution.
To try this at home, you can use guiding questions in the same way at home to help your child think more independently.
The journey to independence is a messy one. It is so worthwhile though to see a young child doing what he is capable of – helping to take care of himself and his community. This not only leads to independence, but gives him such a sense of purpose and pride in being a contributing member of the group.