Thursday, 22 April 2010

Montessori in a Minute: Independence

From the moment a child is born s/he strives to become independent; to crawl, to feed her/himself, to walk. to talk and so on.  If nothing gets in the way, a child can be very independent but many things do get in the way....... tables and chairs too high to get up to and sit at, taps too far to reach, clothes too difficult to put on, utensils and equipment too big for her/his little hands.  It is not only the child's goal to become independent, but the adults task to enable independence.

So how can we support the child the become independent? Well, I see three main ways:
  1. Attitude (including the way you see the child and your patience!)
  2. Environment- does it allow the child to do things for her/himself?
  3. Toolkit - you need to demonstrate and give the child 'tools' to be able to take a task on and become skilled at completing it.
As regards attitude, you really have to believe that the child is strong and capable.  You have to be prepared to slow things down and go at the child's pace and you have to be willing to put in the effort and thought required to make it happen!  Toddlers want to walk, but very often find themselves strapped into buggies or car seats.  It takes longer to walk, holding a hand, yes, but planning for them to have at least some time a day walking on the school run or the shopping trip is invaluable as they see such a different perspective on their own two feet!!  I hope that the days of plonking toddlers in a playpen with a handful of toys are long-gone, but if you still do that, consider how much you are restricting that child's movement, and development of walking, muscles, balance and co-ordination!

Some of the effort and thought goes into the environment. Think about how easy it is for the child to be able to do the things that s/he needs to do every day.  Consider:
  • Child-sized coat pegs.
  • Small tables and chairs rather than highchairs for toddlers.
  • Small jugs and cups for them to pour their own drinks.
  • Step for the toilet.
  • Press on wall lights where the switch is too high to reach.
  • A sink at child height or a hand-washing station.
  • Child-sized gardening tools; watering can, hoe, spade, wheelbarrow.
  • Child-sized cleaning equipment; broom, dustpan and brush, spray bottle filled with water and cloths/sponges.
  • Toys stored in way that helps children to find what they want and return it after use.
Making as many changes to the environment as possible and finding ways around things that cannot be changed helps to make daily tasks achievable for young children - a vital ingredient for them to become self-motivated learners and contributors to the community (community can be the childminding setting, toddler group, home or the wider world eventually!).

Once these changes are in place, you model how to do things to the child and then allow her/him to try it her/himself, providing a 'toolkit'.  The child will make the actions their own and that is great, you are simply introducing them to a way of doing things!  S/he will need lots of practice to master each skill and will delight in repeating the actions over and over, refining and perfecting the skill; once achieved it is really important that the child has opportunity to use that skill in everyday life:
  • Put out small jug and cups for the children to pour their own drink.
  • Put bread, butter and filling son the table and allow the children to make their own sandwich.
  • Encourage them to brush teeth and hair, wash faces and hands after meals.
  • Keep cleaning equipment in the same place and children can clean up their own spills and messes (within reason!!).
  • Chat with parents to make sure that children come in clothes that they can manage themselves, such as trousers that aren't too tight to pull up after using the toilet!!
Allowing children to take responsibility for themselves in this way builds their self-esteem and confidence which will spill over into building relationships with other children and trying new activities.

If you want to read more about Montessori, try Montessori From the Start by Paula Polk-Lillard and Lynn Lillard Jessen.  It isn't rated by all Montessorians but I personally have found it clear and understandable and very readable which is worth a lot if you have ever ploughed through Montessori's original writing translated from Italian!

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