Montessori Philosophy & Praceite

BIRTH TO THREE—A Superior Environment

The following is the text from this section of the 2009-2010 edition of The Joyful Child, Montessori from Birth to Three
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A Superior Birth to Three Environment
When parents are getting ready for the first child, they will be overwhelmed by ads on what they "need" for that child. It seems that these ads are aimed at selling things far more than providing what is really good for the child. Many items are not only overstimulating for the young child (too many objects, uncomfortably bright colors) but they hamper the natural development of important abilities such as language (pacifiers) and movement (cribs, swings, and high chairs) and even sometimes can be dangerous (walkers and off-gasses from plastic). The simple, natural, and gentle environment, that encourages feelings of safety, and encourages the child to communicate with others and to move—that is the superior environment for the child from birth to three.

The best time to prepare the environment is before birth. The parents should crawl around the child's room to see what the child can reach or will be attracted to. Listen to the sounds: can you hear the wind in the trees, or are the sounds of nature overwhelmed by the sound of a TV or radio? The child, unable to filter out the unnecessary or the disturbing as the adult can, will hear and be affected by every sound and sight.

It is important for the child's sense of order, his security, to keep the environment the same for the first year. Planning and preparing the environment ahead of time makes this possible.

A child will develop more fully—mentally, emotionally, and physically—when she is free to move and explore an ever-enlarging environment. But in order to give the child this wonderful freedom, we must explore the home or daycare environment with a fine-tooth comb. When a child is free to leave his floor bed and to move about his room, and later the other rooms—careful attention must be paid to covering plugs, taping wires to the wall or floor, removing poisonous plants and chemicals, and removing any objects that could harm the child. As the child begins to crawl quickly and to walk, the adults must continue to childproof the house.

A 2-foot high gate which can be stepped over by the adult, creates safe and interesting spaces for the child through the house. At first the gate can be kept at the door of the child's room. Later, when the child is exploring outside his room, it can be used to protect the child from unsafe rooms, the home office, the kitchen, or any other place that is not yet childproofed.

General Environment Principles

Here are some things to keep in mind when organizing a child's environment.

(1) Participation in Family Life: Even from the very first days invite the child into the life of the family. In each room—the bedroom, kitchen, dining room, living room, front hall, and so forth have a mobile for the infant, or a basket or shelves for the young child, to store the few carefully chosen belongings, and a special mat or rug for him to "work" on developing abilities.

(2) Independence: The child's message to us at any age is "Help me to do it myself." Supporting this need shows respect for and faith in the child. Think carefully about family activities in all areas of the home, and arrange each space to support independence. A twin mattress for the child's bed; clothing cubby, coat tree, or low clothing rod or hook wherever the child dresses or undresses (front hall, bathroom, bedroom, etc.); a stool or bench for removing shoes and boots; inviting shelves for books, dishes, toys.

(3) Belongings: This brings up a very important point. It is too much for anyone to care for or enjoy belongings when there are too many out at one time. In preparing the home environment for a child, have a place to keep clothing, toys, and books that are not being used. Rotate these when you see the child tiring of what is out on the shelf, in the book display, or toy basket. Have just a few pieces of clothing available to the child to choose what to wear each day, just a few toys that are enjoyed, and only a few favorite or new books to look at.

(4) Putting Away & The Sense of Order: "Discipline" comes from the same word as "disciple" and our children become disciplined only by imitating us; just as we teach manners such as saying "thank you" by modeling this for our children instead of reminding, we can teach them to put away their books and toys only by gracefully and cheerfully doing it over and over in their presence.

People are always amazed at how neat and beautiful a good Montessori class appears. This is not because the teacher is imposing her own order on the child, but because she is satisfying the strong sense of order of the child.

Furniture does not have to be expensive; it can be as simple, or as elegant, as any other furniture in the home. The important thing is that it is of a size and quality to be of use to the child. Solid wood tables and stools, which allow the child to sit up straight with the feet flat on the floor for drawing, playing, fixing and eating snacks during the day, are very important. Not only will good posture be developed, but she will be better able to concentrate and focus in a correct seated position.

The Environment & The Absorbent Mind
During the first three years the child will absorb, like a sponge, whatever is in the environment, ugliness or beauty, coarse behavior or gentleness, good or bad language. As parents we are the first models of what it means to be human. If our children are in a childcare setting or an infant community we must exact the same high standards.

Quality and beauty of the environment and the books and materials is very important in attracting, satisfying, and keeping the attention of the child. If the child is exposed to beautiful mobiles, posters, rattles and toys, made of wood and other natural products, as an adult she will help create a world with the same high standards.

Toys, rattles, puzzles, tables, and chairs—made of wood—develop an appreciation for nature and quality and protect the child from unsafe chemicals that are found in many synthetic materials.

Pictures on the wall, hung at the eye-level of the child, can be beautiful, framed art prints, or simple posters. All of us have been influenced by our first environment, and nothing helps create beauty in the world as much as giving beauty to the very young.

Rather than tossing toys into large toy boxes, it is more satisfying to the child to keep them neatly on shelves, hung on hooks, kept ready to work with on wooden trays or small baskets. This also makes putting away much more logical and enjoyable.

The Chinese art of placement, Feng Shui, teaches that clutter, even hidden under a bed or piled on the top of bookcases, can cause stress.


The Outside Environment
Sometimes we forget that daily life was first carried out in the outdoors, people coming into their homes for shelter from the elements. This is still the instinct of the child. In the first days of life, just a breath of fresh air and a look at the tree branches moving in the wind each day is sufficient; soon a daily walk in the baby carrier or stroller; and before you know it, walks led by the child, where each new thing—cracks in the sidewalk, parades of ants, puddles, brick walls, weeds and thistles—many details which we as adults previously overlooked, will enchant the child and make a short walk into a long drawn out discovery. Sometimes a "walk to the park" can take an hour, and one may not even get past the front sidewalk.

One day a new teacher told Dr. Montessori that there was just nothing worth exploring in the outside environment of their city school. So Dr. Montessori led the children outside to the front of the building. An hour later they hadn't gone any further than a small weed patch a few feet away. It was full of tiny details of life and absolutely fascinating to the children.

When we say to give the world to the child, this does not mean the inside of buildings, but weed patches, glorious sunrises and sunsets, the strong cleansing winds of fall, the sounds of birds in the trees, the stars and clouds, the infinite variety of leaves and flowers, the beautiful world of nature.

It is very good for us adults to slow down, forget our plan, and follow the child as he discovers, smells, sees, hears, and touches the outside world.
Welcome the child to your outside work—washing the car, working in the garden, whatever you can do outside instead of inside—there is always some little part of the real work that a child can do.

Try to create an outside area where the child can not only do outside activities such as playing in a sandbox, but activities he would be doing inside, such as washing his hands or the dishes, looking at books, doing a puzzle.

It is often the case in this country that "intellectual" activities are done inside, and "large muscle" activities done outside. So the only thing one finds outside is playground equipment. This separates the work of the mind and the body and splits the naturally integrated life of the young child. The most important work is done with the mind and body working together to create.

It is ideal, but not always possible, to create a free-flow inside-outside for the child. An alternative is a protected porch or other safe outside space, no matter how small, which he can be in at will. Of course this must be open only when the adult can be available to see what the young child is doing.

Learning how to prepare the environment before birth frees parents to devote time to be with and enjoy their child after birth.

A beautiful, organized, and uncluttered environment can help in many ways: dressing and undressing is simplified; the favorite book and toy is always within reach; the child can participate in the life of the family and feel needed; challenging work that focuses the child's attention and fulfills her needs is always available; a more fun, creative, and peaceful life comes into being for the whole family.

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© Susan Mayclin Stephenson, 2010 (
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