Independence, freedom, order, beauty. These are all elements of the Montessori play space, and who doesn’t want these things for their child? However, sometimes adopting a Montessori approach can feel like a high bar.
Jessica Rolph, your host, is joined by Simone Davies, author of The Montessori Baby and The Montessori Toddler. She can also be found online at The Montessori Notebook, where she gives tips, answers questions, and provides workshops to parents.
Simone would argue that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to embracing Montessori at home; there are many small ways to incorporate Montessori, practices that not only reduce clutter but also bring more ease into our daily routines with our toddlers.
[2:06] Does Montessori’s focus on real experiences get in the way of a child’s natural inclination towards fantasy and imagination?
[4:05] How does Montessori reconcile this focus on the “real” with a child’s enthusiasm for dress up and fantasy play?
[5:18] What are the differences between Montessori at school and Montessori at home?
[6:31] How long should caregivers allow children to be immersed in self-driven tasks?
[7:44] What does it mean to be a Montessori parent? Who is Montessori for?
[8:42] What does freedom within limits look like in a Montessori home setting?
[9:28] Is there a Montessori view on discipline?
[11:14] What does “Follow the child” entail?
[13:20] What are some ways to create a “Yes space”?
[14:49] How can parents support their child’s freedom of expression and movement in a small home?
[16:02] Simone talks about how having a beautifully prepared environment can feel out of reach for some people.
[17:26] What is the best way to implement toy rotation?
[19:40] What are some ways that families can incorporate Montessori at home without spending any money?
[22:10] Jessica shares the highlights of an inspiring conversation with Simone Davies.
Simone: Hello, so lovely to be here today, I’m so honored to get to speak with you and your community.
Does Montessori discourage creativity?
Jessica: This is a big deal for me because we have been following you and reading your books, and our community is so excited. So I want to jump right into it. Does Montessori’s focus on real experiences get in the way of a child’s natural inclination towards fantasy and imagination, because we’ve heard that some parents fear it might actually hinder creativity.
Simone: I love this question because I think a lot of people think that Montessori means that kids can’t be creative because they have to use materials in a certain way, or that because we say like, “Don’t offer the child too much fantasy play while they’re in their first six years. They think, “Oh, then we don’t want to provoke their imagination.” But like you said, if you offer real life experiences, then the child themselves has this hands-on experience, and then they can build on that as they move into the, what we call second plane of development, from 6 to 12 years old, so if you give them what’s based in reality, for example, a tower, and then they might see the Eiffel Tower or they might see a tower in your city, and then they’ll be able to imagine their own tower, so by having a concrete real experience, then they can build on with their imagination, and I have to say that if you speak with any six to 12-year-old Montessori children, you can just see the imagination explodes in that second plane of development, so just trust the process of giving your child like real life experiences now, if they’re in the zero to three, three to six age group, and with sensorial experiences so they’re taking in everything through their senses in that first six years and their imagination…
You can already see it, they play out like real life situations, so they might have a language basket, for example, with different fruits, and then they’re pretending to make a fruit salad and because they see their real life and they’re making a way of processing what they see in their daily life, and then they do their own imaginative play in that way, in those three to six years.
Jessica: Yes, my only challenge with sending all my three children to Montessori schools for about a decade was the day that they really… There’s always going to be that day where they want to wear their costume to pre-school, or they want to wear a costume element or a character or something on a t-shirt. I remember negotiating with the front desk and saying, “Can he wear his socks? They have capes flying from the back of these socks. But, could he wear those?” So, what’s your comment on the sort of natural inclination for children to just love to dress up and do fantasy play and… How do we address that in Montessori?
Simone: Yeah, well, I think they’re interested because for them, everything that they see in their years, they can see is real. So if you give them a fantasy person that is wearing a cape, then to them that’s very real. For example, if your child has seen a character on television, they’re going to invite them to their birthday party ‘cause they think that they are a real friend, so it just goes to show like, input is output. So, I would limit sometimes the amount of things that are more fantastical and try and find books, for example, that are based in reality, and they’re often the ones that I see the children gravitate back to time and time again, the ones about the vehicles, the ones about getting dressed in the morning, the ones just about going to the dentist or the things that they’ve experienced, so it’s not a problem if they do, you can just say, “Oh, you felt like you wanted to wear such and such today.” And that’s what I would say, because they’re usually really proud of it, I don’t make a big deal about it, but… Yeah, I can also show them real experiences as well.
Integrating Montessori at home
Jessica: That’s so helpful. I wish I’d had you in my ear, in all those years, those early years. So Montessori at school versus Montessori at home, what are the differences to know for those who are just getting started?
Simone: Yes, I think that everyone thinks that my home has to look like a Montessori classroom and it’s your home, and so you want your child to feel comfortable in every single space in your home, but the Montessori materials for example, particularly if your child starts going to a Montessori school, you don’t want it to have things like a pink tower and a broad stair, because those are materials they’re going to get in their school, so what you want to do more at home is have real life activities, so, things in your daily life… Just involving them in the cooking and going out into nature and reading books and having conversations and being creative with materials, so back to creativity, rather than telling them, “Here’s a coloring sheet.” You can just give them a blank piece of paper and have some beautiful markers or some pencils that make a really lovely color and get them to explore that way, so we give them all of the tools and then we let them express themselves in any way that they want.
Jessica: I totally agree with you. I don’t think it makes sense to see the same materials at school and at home. And then, furthering this distinction between classroom and at home, a hallmark of Montessori is allowing these long stretches of time for children to be immersed in this self-driven task… How long are we talking?
Simone: Okay, so one thing in a Montessori school is that we offer a three-hour work period, and that’s basically an uninterrupted block of time for children to be able to go deep into their areas of interest and without being stopped to say, “Oh, let’s go and do yoga now.” Or, “Let’s do singing time and let’s all snack together.” Or, “Let’s all go to the toilet at the same time.” So, having large blocks of uninterrupted time at home can be really useful too, ‘cause I think some kids these days are so over-scheduled that they’re going to all these extra classes, and they could just be more blocks of time for them to wonder and to explore what’s around them. Then on specific activities, it could be literally as short as 30 seconds as a concentration span, and it could be as long as 40 minutes as they get older, and it depends on the child as well, so there are some kinesthetic learners who might look like they’re not doing anything ‘cause they’re touching and moving around and putting things in and out, and that to them is actually concentration, so it can look so different as well.
Who is Montessori good for?
Jessica: I do feel like my kids and so many children are over-scheduled and they just… They do love that free space and time, so I really love that point that you made. What does it even mean to be a Montessori parent? A lot of parents are asking this question, and who is Montessori for?
Simone: I love Montessori parenting because I really get behind the ideas of gentle parenting, but that only provides one part of it, which is like how to speak respectfully to your child and all those kind of things, and when you add in the other parts, which is like the environment and setting up at homes in this Montessori way, and the activities, like being able to observe our child and see what they’re really interested in and that they can deep dive and we can really help them develop their, you know, to be the best person they can be. Then you have like a trifecta, because you don’t just have gentle parenting, you can really meet your child where they’re at and support them, and you have this child who can deal… They’re learning how to deal with all that life throws at them, so not just being able to concentrate on an activity, but also the social and emotional side of life as well.
Jessica: Yeah. And talking about the sort of limit setting side of, you know, there’s a lot of discussions around the gentle parenting movement and limit setting, what does freedom within limits look like for a Montessori home setting?
Simone: Freedom within limits is a term that we use because I think some people think that Montessori kids are allowed to do whatever they like, and then some people, as I said earlier, think that it’s really strict in like how we expect them to behave and that kind of thing. Actually, Montessori falls somewhere much more in the middle, and that would be like the freedom within the limits, so then freedom in limits at home might be, for example, they can eat whenever they’re hungry, except the limit might be that I’m not going to let them graze all day, what I’ll do is I’ll put the amount of raisins that I’d like them to eat in a little box in the cupboard, and this is their snacks for the day, so if they eat them at nine o’clock, they’ll know that there’s no more raisins, that they’re all gone. So that might be one way of having a limit.
Discipline from a Montessori perspective
Jessica: Is there a Montessori view on discipline?
Simone: Discipline is such an interesting word, isn’t it? ‘Cause I think most of us think of punishments and things like bribery, and how am I going to get them to do what I want, and actually in Montessori, we think about self-discipline and how am I going to teach my child something or how can they learn something from these situations. So actually, when you have two children fighting, instead of thinking, “I have to discipline my children.” I’m thinking, “Oh, great. This is an opportunity for them to learn how to become siblings and how to solve problems together.” So I’m going to be their guide and over time, I’ll need to intervene and help less and less as it goes on, so what that might look like instead is supporting them to be like a translator for them, “Oh, it looks like you wanted that toy and you also wanted that toy. How can we solve the problem?” And even… You might think, “Well, my child’s two years old and their sibling is six months old, so I mean, how are they possibly going to come up with that?” But my son was playing with his trucks and Emma went over to take it… She was still crawling and when she took it out…
Of his hands, I said that exact thing, “How are we going to solve the problem?” We have two kids who want to play with the same truck, and Oliver actually managed to take the front wheels for this vehicle off, and he took the front wheels and gave her the back wheels, and they both like were playing with the car and I was like thinking, kids come up with the most amazing solutions, like I would be trying to like, “Oh, maybe we need to get another car.” Or I’m trying to say, Oh, you have to share that one and give it to her ‘cause she’s younger.” And instead, when we get out of the way they can come up with ways to solve their own problems, and that is going to be in the long term, much more useful than putting them into time out or telling them they can’t play with each other or taking away the toy, that kind of thing.
“Follow the child” concept
Jessica: Yeah, that makes so much sense. And it is this “Follow the child” concept. So what does “Follow The Child” entail in Montessori? Can you flesh that out a little bit and how might this mantra get misconstrued?
Simone: Yeah, it is often misconstrued, but “Follow the child” means, look at your child and what are they interested in right now, so let’s in some ways throw away the developmental charts that say, “My child needs to be doing this at this age and this at this age.” So that I can actually really look, “Where is my child doing the fine motor skills, gross motor skills, language, their social-emotional development, cognitive development.” All of the different kind of parts that make up a human, and I get to learn about my child and I’m going to then see what they are most interested in or see what makes them, you know, support them if something is difficult for them, so that’s how we follow the child, but sometimes people think that follow the child means that we’re allowed to let the child do whatever they like, and that’s actually this free-range parenting, which means that they learn no limits at all, and actually, our child is going to live in society, and so there are limits in our family, like what’s okay for me and what’s okay for them, and we’re trying to find ways that both of us can have our needs met…
And when we go out into society, if we want to use a loud voice and it’s bothering somebody else, it’s like, “Okay, let’s see how we can… Should we go outside if you want to use your loud voice, or do you want to stay inside and we can use a quieter voice?” So we’re always then showing them… Yes, we’re following the child, but that doesn’t mean at the expense of everybody else. We’re living in a community.
Creating a “Yes space”
Jessica: So some of our community asked about tips for creating this “Yes space” in a very small area such as a shared bedroom, do you have any thoughts on “Yes spaces” and how to create them?
Simone: Okay, so in a small space, for example, a bedroom, I would almost take everything out and then put only back in what you need, because if you find that you’ve got a desk in this little room and the desk actually isn’t being used very much, ‘cause they mostly play in the living area, then you actually can create more space and that’s not going to cause a problem, and so “Yes spaces” mean that the child can explore freely without us having to say, “No, don’t touch that. No, don’t touch that.” So if it’s a bedroom space and you want them to be quiet and to play by themselves when they wake up, then choose things that are appropriate, like maybe not that like noisy toy that your aunt gave you that plays Sesame Street songs or something like this, but some quiet toys that they can have on a low shelf for them to explore at their own pace. I always… Whenever I’m setting up a space, I always sit on the ground as well to see what it might look through their eyes, and if you’re working with a really small space, you can see that it gets really cluttered really quickly, so you’re going to probably spend more money on storage than you will on any other piece of furniture in that room so that you can store most of the things and just rotate out a few things at a time.
Jessica: Yeah. And I think that sometimes there’s this notion that “Yes spaces” can kind of be like baby jail or toddler limiting too much, the space because they’re often… Sometimes people get the “Yes spaces” and if you don’t have a lot of space in your home, and then you’re creating this more limited contained area that maybe could hinder freedom of expression and freedom of movement, how do you reconcile this?
Simone: Yeah, I tend to actually allow the child access to almost the whole home, so that my home ideally is a “Yes space” for them to explore, but you have to see what your child will do, so I’ve had some children that come to my classes who will be able to climb on top of the washing machine to reach something that’s up high on a shelf behind there, so then you might want to say, “Okay, well, I’m going to put a lock on their door, so that they can’t get in unattended.” But mostly, I mean, most children will, if you put out engaging activities, they’re going to be more interested in the activities that you put out and are engaged in, so… “Yes spaces” mean, “I feel welcome here.” It’s not limited in that it’s sterile or anything like that, it’s actually very beautiful and engaging and inviting, so I think that’s how I would do it, try and make everything as accessible as possible, but of course, if you need to put a barrier across because of stairs or because of how your house is set up, then… Yeah, make the area as big as possible, so they have freedom of movement, ‘cause that’s a really big principle of Montessori as well.
Jessica: So now I want to ask some questions about the stuff and why there’s such a focus on that, you know, beautifully prepared environment. I think it can feel out of reach for some people… Can you talk to this a little bit?
Simone: Yeah, the reason that there is such a focus on the environment is it’s what our child is taking in and it’s a physical environment, so it’s that beautiful space, but it’s also the emotional environment, so that’s us as the prepared adult. So that sounds like a big responsibility and does sometimes feel out of reach, but we can start small, you know, just make small tweaks to say, “Okay, I’m going to make a reading corner and… Yeah, there’s a window in my home, so I’m going to put it there and I’m going to have just a few books so that they can access them themselves.” And then you’ll immediately see how much they gravitate towards it and keeps them engaged as opposed to when we have an unprepared environment, then if they don’t know where to even go, because there’s so much stuff sometimes, or maybe there’s not enough that’s available, ‘cause we’ve hidden it all in cabinets, so of course they’re going to run around in circles because they’re not engaged, so it’s starting at one little bit at a time, start with a book corner, maybe start by the front door and think, “Okay, getting out the door is really hard…
Right now, what we’re going to do is have some little hooks and then when they come in, they’ll be able to put their coats and their bags on the hooks and the shoes in this little basket, and then when it’s time to leave, we wont be going… “Where is everything?” They’ll be able to go over and find their things ‘cause they have a really strong sense of order when we set that up. I always like thinking of it as an intentional space, so rather than focusing on perfection, focus on intention.
Montessori toy rotation
Jessica: We obviously at Lovevery want to make it easy for parents related to the materials, you know, in a lot of our community is asking about toy rotation or material rotation in the Montessori world. What is the best way to implement it? Like, there’s so many questions like, “How many toys do you leave out? How often do you rotate? What if they’ve already mastered an activity?” Like what you just said, do you still rotate that item back in later?
Simone: Yeah, so how many things to have out? I won’t say like put out six things on a shelf, and for some reason everyone said, “You need six activities on the shelf.” But I just wanted to say like, if I put out 20 things that’s going to probably be overwhelming and really hard for your child to find things. And if you only had two things out, there’s not enough choice, so around six for each child in your home, so if you have two children, it might be then 12 activities that they’re choosing from, then they have some variety, but if you’ve only got six things out as well, then you really need to observe your child to see what they’re most practicing at the moment, so that they can be really effective because if you still have some baby toys kicking around and your child’s one and a half, then they’re just going to get up those toys and they’re going to be throwing them everywhere, so that’s when I tend to rotate their toys. If I see they’re throwing their toy, it’s usually a sign that it’s too hard or too easy, so too easy and that they’ve probably mastered it, and too hard, these pieces, I thought, “What a beautiful puzzle,” I thought it was beautiful…
When I put it out and actually they can’t do it yet, and so they’re getting really frustrated. “What I do like to do with things that they’ve mastered is putting it away for some time, and then you can always bring it out, and like I said, sometimes they use it then in a completely different way. So I run parent child classes, and what I see is that a child from 16 months old might be… There might be an activity that’s out for them, and then the three-year-old will come back over and use that activity in a different way. They’re really working out why is the ball going down the ramp, and what happens if I put this ball straight after this ball, and they’re almost doing a physics experiment.” So there’s definitely a case for some things coming back out.
Jessica: Yeah, there’s so many creative ways. I just had somebody DM me on Instagram where she said that she brought out the tissue box and… The love every magic tissue box, and then she also had this puzzle, our garden puzzle, and so she put the pieces of the puzzle inside the tissue box and the child had to feel for the shapes and say, “Oh, that’s the spade,” or, “Oh, that’s the radish,” or “That’s the carrot.” So there’s so many different ways to extend our materials, I love these ideas.
Montessori on a budget
Jessica: What are some ways that families can incorporate Montessori at home without spending any money?
Simone: Yeah, well, what I love about Montessori is it doesn’t have to be about the material, so even if you had no money and you couldn’t buy it, and you can still do Montessori in the way that you parent your child by allowing time, by having conversations together, by really allowing time to listen and connect, and then there’s time for movement, so you could go out to a playground or a park or the mountains or whatever nature you have nearby, and even if you don’t have nature nearby, you could be walking around the block and looking for nature, you know, coming out of the footpath and those kind of things. I love books, so you could go to the library and get books with your child so you can read together and discover new things that are beyond your local community by finding out more about books, and then those daily life activities. So you’re going to be preparing dinner anyway, and your child can stand on a stool to peel some carrots or if they’re younger, they might be peeling the banana and taking that to the bin, and so you’re allowing time for them to be involved and that might not be at every meal, and if you’re a working parent…
It might be just on the weekends, but they’re actually starting to feel like I can contribute to the house, and they’re really learning that I’m an important part of this family as opposed to thinking that, you know, my parents do everything for me, or my caregivers can do everything for me, and instead, all I do is play, they actually feel really important when they’re involved in some of those important tasks, from setting the table to clearing the table and being involved in that food preparation as well. So if there was nothing else that you could do with your child, then I think food preparation goes a long way, and you can also see that they learn so much from that, there’s language, the names of everything that you’re using, from the utensils to the fruit or vegetables that you’re working with and going to the bin, there’s movement, their fine motor skills as they’re peeling and grating and slicing and all the things that they have in their fine motor skills, and then that communication as well between us and the connection you’re building, so they get so much out of the food preparation.
Jessica: That’s so wonderful to hear all of these real accessible ways that we can incorporate Montessori into our homes, so Simone, it’s been so wonderful being with you today. Thank you so much.
Simone: And thank you for all the questions on the community, I love getting to answer them, and I hope that it’s been helpful to everybody.
So many highlights to draw on! Here are my takeaways from the conversation with Simone Davies:
- Montessori encourages limiting things that are more fantastical in the early years, and instead offering books, materials, and experiences that are based in reality. This provides the foundation for imaginative thinking that can come later.
- If you intend to send your child to a Montessori school, there’s no need to replicate the classroom materials at home. At Lovevery, we make sure our items don’t overlap and rather build on what you might find in a Montessori program.
- In today’s busy world, it is easy to jump from one activity to another. Try to offer your child longer blocks of uninterrupted time at home to wonder and explore. This can be anywhere from a few minutes for a baby to 40 minutes for a preschooler.
- Some people think Montessori gives children free reign to do whatever they like, but in fact, a Montessori home or classroom involves limits — ones that respect the child’s independence. “Freedom within limits” is one way to describe discipline within a Montessori setting. It can look like a box of raisins in the cabinet: The child is free to have it when they please, but when they are gone, there’s no more snacking.
- While “yes” spaces can be wonderfully liberating for children, Simone prefers to make the entire house as accessible as possible. Think about what furniture and accessories you might be able to remove to make your home safe. And here’s a bonus to all that decluttering: Children tend to be more engaged when there is an ordered environment. When setting up a space, Simone likes to sit on the ground to get a perspective similar to that of the child.
- If you are trying out toy rotation, Simone recommends making available around six materials at any given time. If you have 2 children, it might be 12 activities they are choosing from. Once the material has been mastered, put it away for some time. But then a few months later you can rotate it back in. You may find that your child will use that item in a different way the second time around.
- A few ways to implement Montessori that cost no money include taking time to really connect with your child in back-and-forth conversation; engaging in some sort of movement outdoors, whether that is in a park or walking around the block and observing nature; reading books together at the library; and inviting your child to work alongside you in the kitchen.
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