Thursday, August 18, 2016

Messy Montessori and Order in the Prepared Environment

My sister's friend, who follows the blog, mentioned to her one time that she tried something she had seen around here with her son, but according to her, he just made a mess. To that my sister replied that there's mess here and there, too, you just don't see all that much on Facebook or Instagram. And she's absolutely right--if you've watched our little video of Cara pouring water into a drinking glass, you probably didn't notice that the cloth place mat was soaking wet. And not included in that video of her preparing a snack at 16 months is the part where we had to clean up the table and floor afterwards. So I think this post is in order, because Montessori can be messy, too.

Particularly when your toddler discovers that the soil she scooped from nearby pots works interestingly with the water she poured and transferred into bowls and containers from the water table.

But that sentence--if we weren't immediately, apprehensively caught up by the words "soil" and "water", we'll see that that sentence is actually full of meaningful, age-appropriate work--scooping, pouring, transferring, discovering.

Mixing. Spreading. Making paint. Painting, Pouring using a funnel. Plucking malunggay leaves to put some into her soup (her real, edible soup in the kitchen), then deciding to go and "cook" the rest outside.

Really, it's fun to find the beauty in these messes--to see the explorations and discoveries, open-ended and unstructured play.

Especially because if there was no "mess" in the first place, you won't get to witness this...

She stacked them up, just as I do when clearing our dining table out after meals, then she got a rag and wiped and cleaned the wet table--all on her own, without any prompting or presentation.

I'm thankful we have an outdoor prepared environment for those kinds of work, but really, indoors is quite the same.

Particularly when you encourage eating independently (the real mess is under the table).

It took/takes some unlearning on my part. When I was training to be a Montessori teacher, one of the many things that appealed to me was order--how the materials are arranged on the shelves--everything in its place, set just an inch off the edge of the shelf; how you lay the materials, say the Pink Tower, neatly on the rug before building it up from largest to smallest, how order and respect are encouraged among the children by letting them work on rugs, one work at a time--then packing away, putting the material back in its place so it's ready for the next person to use.

But one of my most memorable experiences in teaching/observing the children in my classes made me think that some deviation, particularly in a home environment, should be worthwhile. One time, a child in my classes decided to take out all our pouring materials, placing them all on a rug--beans, corn, rice--in mostly glass pitchers! Potential disaster. But I held my breath and observed. She worked on them all, by herself for a time; then she invited a friend, got a wooden board (the one we use for a little matching rhythm instruments game), placed the wooden board in between herself and her friend, then asked the friend to guess what she'll pour--beans, corn, or rice--just by listening to the sounds. Amazing idea! Amazing practical life plus auditory discrimination work!

And with younger children, especially, whose work is exploration, I think sometimes we need to adjust, redefine what we see as "work". It wouldn't always look like your pinned picture of a child working on a spooning activity on a tray, for example, neatly transferring rice grains from one bowl to the other.

This looks like a mess; but this was actually that first time she worked by herself, independently, busy, without-looking-for-me, concentrated, purposeful for a whole 3 hours! 3 hours! That's like a whole Montessori uninterrupted work period!
I dare not interrupt to ask her to pack away one material first before going onto the next one. For all I know, to her, it's all one big work. It seems like it; with her moving among the materials--comparing, fitting, mixing, seeing the hoola hoop and the stool and saying they are "same", "circle" and discovering the screws on the stools and exclaiming they're "circle", "same", too!

Imagination runs wild, too.
On the left: We watched a flamenco performance a few days before that, where she saw someone play a cajon. So there she was, sitting on turned over baskets and tapping them.
On the right: She wore her floating vest all by herself and pretended she was swimming.

We've been thinking about getting her a wooden play kitchen, but I'm glad we didn't just yet because here she was, using the blocks from her Plan Toys as stoves.

It's easy to see just a crumpled paper here, but I saw how she tried to copy her Daddy putting in paper into an envelope. She couldn't slip the flat letter-size in, so she folded it over and over until she could put it right in.

That's just some of our #MessyMontessori.

But there's also real value, need for order in a Montessori Prepared Environment. You strive towards it, see it even in the earliest newborn/infant environment where you have a designated place for sleeping, nursing, diapering, and working (a mirror and mat for the baby's earliest work of movement and observing the environment). It's more than just an attempt to maintain a room that's neat and straight, it's an invitation to orientate oneself (the baby) to his world and to eventually use this order in his environment to communicate (going to the diapering area when he needs a change or waking up from a nap and heading purposefully for the shelves, ready for work).

Order is more than just aesthetics. Order is a message.

What does order in a Montessori Prepared Environment say? With it, what do we communicate to the child? And how do we incorporate order into our homes, answering the child's Sensitive Period for Order? Some ideas:

"This is your world and it is familiar and safe."
- Assign a place for sleeping (a floor bed), nursing (if it works), eating (a weaning table and chair), diapering (can be on the floor so the child can get to it when he needs a change), care of self, working (for infants, a mirror and a movement mat), and any other activities applicable for the family.
- Put materials in their consistent places, on the shelf, in the room, in the house.

These help the child navigate his world, with security and confidence. So much so that when a challenge arises, the child would eventually know how to use his environment and its materials to problem-solve.

"We respect your need for routine."
- Experiment on and eventually establish a routine that works for the child, the family.
- Equally important is having a familiar routine for when schedules and set-ups need to change (A talk or presentation? Involving them and brainstorming with older children?)

"Let me invite you to work with _____."
- An organized, well-thought shelf is already inviting for the child. You won't need to say much, the child will gravitate towards a shelf, a work that understands and fulfills his developmental needs.
- Equally important is a manageable storage system. Not everything has to be out all at once. Minimize clutter on the shelves and work area by having an out-of-reach storage for things that are out of rotation.
- An orderly shelf that still does not get used tells us that something needs to be addressed--maybe a material needs to be put in a different way or taken out for a while or maybe the entire shelf needs to be rearranged or placed in a different part of the room.

#Montessori #shelfie going on now in the Montessori community, started by @essentialmontessori! 💕 Here's our 23-month-old's (one of many, in every room of the house). On the top we have an abacus, a zither, sensory bottles, discs and horizontal dowel, spheres and dowels. At the bottom there's homemade clay, peg train, a basket of Magformers, shape puzzles, a small abaca bag with a walnut inside, a basket of seashells. We've been decorating our shelf areas with DIY party decors we used for Cara's birthday last year, like that felt bunting (see more inspirations in link in profile)! And she'll be 2 in a month!!! P.S. I was going to write "misplaced red ball from the ball house" there after shape puzzles, but the ball is red and the square is red and she's a lot into putting "same" (colors, sizes, matches) these days so it's more likely that that red ball is actually well-placed after all. #montessorishelfie #montessorionmars #montessorihome #montessoriathome #preparedenvironment
A photo posted by Mars Medina-Montessori on Mars (@montessorionmars) on

"This is how we _____."
- Order works with the genius of a Montessori principle, Control of Error. Use them to set and show consistent boundaries, "freedom within limits". Maybe red rags for the table and blue ones for the floor. A line on the pitcher that shows the child just how much water to put in. Mark the place mats so you never have to tell the child where the glass needs to be. These are just some examples of Control of Error that contributes to Order.

"You are capable." I remember there was this one time when my then-18-month-old had this idea to bring her food outside so she can eat there. When we got to the outdoor table, it was dusty (soil, remember). I was almost going to just invite her to go back inside when she said, "Dirty! Wait, wait." Then, knowing the routine, knowing the materials, knowing the order; she went inside, got a rag and wiped the table clean.

And for me, if it takes some mess so she can be free to explore and so she can feel empowered, capable of coming up with discoveries that wonderfully await her and of clearing up obstacles that would inevitably come her way, then I'd take it--we like cleaning around here anyway. Because really, it's #MoreThanJustMess.

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  1. Wow! This is such an amazing post! Although, I encourage our children to tidy up, I have to also hold my breath many times during the day - when I see the "mess" they create. As you said, it is all one big work for them.

  2. I love this! Pics on blogs and social medias don't reflect the whole picture! And yes, toddlers are in an exploratory stage so mess and mix materials is part of that stage. I'm trained 3 to 6 and I have to step back to observe when I see toddlers or younger 2, 3 years old in that stage. I like your blog very much!