Recently one of my readers, Dawn, emailed me with some questions about using Montessori methods in a homeschool environment. I thought our dialogue might be helpful, so I’m posting her questions and my answers here.
Q. Where do toys fit into a Montessori household? How do you keep children from choosing toys over Montessori materials?
A. I have toys and Montessori work in separate areas. When it’s work time, we don’t use the toys. My kids understand that and it really hasn’t been a problem. They don’t have to choose between them, because during our work time we only use the Montessori materials.
That said, there can be toys that you purposely put in the Montessori environment, depending on your children’s ages. Since my daughter just turned 3, we have some puzzles, bead stringing, and Melissa & Doug toys in our Montessori area. You’ll see that in every Montessori toddler room. They’re called “pre-Montessori materials”. When she uses those I consider it work and not playing. My son, who’s six, has only what you would consider “work” in his classroom area. His toys are upstairs in his room and completely removed from the work area.
Q. Do you have a set school time? Or do your children choose when to do work during the day?
A. Most days, we work from about 9:30-11:30, give or take a little. I find that if we don’t make that effort, it’s too easy for the morning to slip away and all we’ve done is played and watched TV. It also lets them know what to expect every day. In the afternoon, my son and I are more free-form, but at the very least we read to each other every afternoon.
If one of them does happen to get out some work when it’s not actually “worktime”, that’s fine with me as long as they do it the right way (getting out a rug or table mat first, using the work correctly, putting it away neatly).
Q. I’ve read that when using Montessori materials, the child should only use them the way they were presented. Yesterday I gave my son a pitcher, cups, and rice for pouring. He wanted to explore the cups and rice in ways that did not involve pouring. Is that okay?
A. In a very classic Montessori setting, the teacher would gently take away the work if a child started using it in a way that it wasn’t correct. In my personal experience, most directresses allow a little leeway, especially if it’s a child who has trouble concentrating but really gets into a certain work.
When your son wants to explore the work a little, take it away before he gets out of control and re-present it the correct way the next time you get it out. And of course, make sure that you present work correctly and clearly the first time you get it out.
Q. Is there a website I can go to that clearly explains in what order to present the Montessori materials?
A. I recommend our Comprehensive Lists for every age group (3-6, 6-9, 9-12). Keep in mind that the order of materials presented will vary by the age and abilities of the child as well as the materials that are available in a classroom or home setting.
Q. Is there a place to go to find out how and when to use rugs & table mats?
A. A rug or table mat should be used with every work (except practical life activities that involve water, or art activities that involve paint or glue). How to know which to use when? That can depend on the child’s preferences, although anything that’s bigger than the table mat should be done on the floor with a rug.
To present either, have the children sit on the line and pick up the rug or table mat with both hands. Bring it to the table or floor and set it down first, then unroll it (no flapping it out in midair!) If it’s a rug, have each child walk around it once, heel to toe, so that they understand that we don’t walk on the rug.
When you roll it back up again, that is also done on the floor, with great attention paid to keeping the sides even as you roll. Pick it up with both hands and return it to the rug spot – we prop ours up against the back corner of a shelf, but you can use a clean, empty tall garbage can as a holder.
Q. I think that would be very useful when training my 16 month old to be respectful of her brothers’ work and work areas. Do you agree?
A. At this age she has not yet developed the sense of “self” as a separate entity from everything and everyone around her – that starts around 18 months. To her, everything she sees is for her and about her. Rugs and table mats will be no exception. You can certainly start to tell her to leave their work alone, but whether or not she complies will depend on the child and her temperament. Whether or not their work is on a rug probably won’t make much difference. My preference, when my daughter was that age, was to only work with my son at nap time. So much easier!