04 February 2011

A Child's Environment

A large part of Montessori theory and practice is the preparation of an environment that is exactly matched to the child's needs. Montessori adults use the prepared environment to stimulate spontaneous activity in the child, and often when a child is misbehaving the cause can be traced back to something in the environment. By altering the child's environment, we remove the cause for the misbehaviour and the child is once again able to function freely and spontaneously. It is especially important to remember that the young child (under the age of 3) in the period of the unconscious absorbent mind. This means that they are developmentally primed to absorb everything around them, indiscriminately, and use it to form their framework of knowledge and understanding of their world.

"So the first period of life has been fixed for the storing of impressions from the environment, and is therefore the period of the greatest psychic (mental) activity; it is the activity of absorbing everything that there is in the environment."
Education for a New World - Maria Montessori

Infants and toddlers are therefore the most receptive to a specially prepared environment, since it will most likely furnish them with the tools that they are innately guided to seek for their self-development. This concept can sound very esoteric to parents who are new to the philosophy that Dr Montessori proposed, however, it really is quite simple when you break through the jargon and look at it in practical terms.

Every baby is born with an inner guide that helps him or her to seek out the things in their environment which are needed to grow and learn. This inner guide is very sensitive to influences from outside, and can be overpowered by a forceful adult who tries to replace the child's own guide, with his or her conscious adult will. Montessori parents are conscious of the importance of respecting the child's inner guide and understand that they can provide the most beneficial help to their growing baby by exerting their considerable influence upon their child's environment, rather than upon their child!

So how does one prepare an environment for a infant or toddler? There are a few things to keep in mind.

The “prepared environment” (at all planes of development) must
×          facilitate spontaneous activity
×          accommodate deep concentration
×          allow maximum freedom
×          foster independence
×          nurture the imagination based on reality
×          promote social interaction
Montessori Education and Optimal Experience - Kevin Rathunde

1. Keep it Simple
Infants and toddlers are bombarded with sensory information every second of their awake time. Their brains are still too immature to "screen" out the less important stimuli, and so they become overstimulated or overwhelmed a lot quicker than older children and adults. This process of sensory screening takes a number of years to develop, and is one of the reasons why we keep Montessori environments for the youngest child, very simple.

"One of the brain's major learning tasks is to organise the confusing array of sensory stimuli that start bombarding the infant at birth. For this, children need an environment over which they feel some control."
Endangered Minds - Jane Healy

Only have on hand the things your child needs and uses every day. No unnecessary clutter and only a few chosen items for stimulation. So look at what your child is doing developmentally and choose the items that match that development. A newborn baby sleeps a lot of the time. So a carefully thought-out sleeping space will be important for this little one. They will need to feel secure and warm and peaceful. For this reason many Montessori parents choose a Moses basket or Cestina, for the first weeks of life. This provides the newborn with a soft, protective space in which they can nestle yet still see the outside world. A topponcino (a special carrying pad) will also help the little one to feel secure when being moved about and when being passed from person to person.

2. Keep it Ordered
Children in this first phase of development have an extreme sensitivity for external order. That is, they use the order of the things around them, to establish and determine an internal order in their framework of knowledge. The experience of the world, to the young child, is like visiting a foreign country that you have never been to before. Not only is the language incomprehensible, but you are also disoriented and need to learn your way around. This is so much easier in a place where things are laid out logically and in an orderly fashion. Imagine waking up each day to find that the whole town had been changed around during the night and you had start from square one to reorient yourself before you could even begin the day's activities! Changes to your child's environment should take place gradually and preferably in front of them, so that they can assimilate the changes to their internal "map" which they have been developing from birth.

"We like to live in an orderly environment because it ministers to a sense of comfort in us, and aids our efficiency."
Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work - EM Standing

3. Keep it Free
The concept of freedom is central to the Montessori approach. Montessori parents the world over strive to structure their child's environment to support freedom for their little one. If your child is free to act upon their environment then you will be able to observe their true nature, and their needs, both physical and emotional, will become evident to you. This will give you valuable information about what your toddler needs next, and will allow you to keep the environment matched to their changing needs. Freedom should not be confused with license - although as adults we can often err on the side of too little freedom rather than too much! A good rule of thumb is to ask these questions: Is my child acting of their own will? Is this activity safe? Is this activity respectful of other people? Is this activity appropriate for this place? Is my child able to do this independently or can I be available to offer assistance if needed? If the answer is yes, then let them be...If the answer is no, then don't dismiss the activity out of hand. Find a way to make it happen for them so that your answer can be yes! Adapt the environment so that you can allow this freedom for your child.

"To assist a child we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely."
Source Unknown - Maria Montessori

4. Keep the Choices
Another essential component of authentic Montessori practice is respecting the right of the child to choose their own activity. Even the youngest child has the ability to choose and the more you incorporate this into your daily interactions with them, the greater their sense of self will be nurtured. In theory the child should be able to choose to do any activity, for any duration, at any time.
Therefore it is especially important that you prepare the environment so that it only includes those activities which fit these conditions. If you don't want the child to choose an activity, then perhaps you should consider removing it from the environment so that you don't need to say "no" when your child chooses it.

"A structured environment consists of routine actions, reasonable limits, consistency and child involvement."
Bright From the Start - Jill Stamm

"The environment must be so arranged that they can carry out these activities in their own way and at their own rate."
Education for Human Development - Mario Montessori Jr

By allowing your child to choose, you are directly supporting their will development, and helping to give them a sense of control and mastery of themselves. This is so important for the development of a healthy self-image and sense of worth. If you have put love and thought into preparing an environment filled with "motives for activity", then you can sit back and observe your young child making reasoned and deliberate choices, and engaging with their chosen activity to a high degree. This is rarely possible when you are busy orchestrating their day and when the main activities are chosen by you.

"Every living creature possesses the power to choose, in a complex and many-sided environment, that thing, and only that, which is conducive to its life."
Education for a New World - Maria Montessori

"The first thing to do is to enrich his life by an environment in which he will become the owner of something, and to enrich his mind by knowledge and experience based on reality. "
The Advanced Montessori Method - Maria Montessori

"Sometimes very small children in a proper environment develop a skill and exactness in their work that can only surprise us." Source Unknown - Maria Montessori

5. Keep it Real
Children under the age of 3 learn by imitating what they see around them. Never again will your child want to clean and dust and sweep, as much as they do in this period. By preparing your home environment so that it facilitates and encourages your child's interest in practical life activities, you will be helping them to fulfil their desire to play an important role in their family life. Every child is driven by a deep, social desire to belong. Given opportunities to do real work, that benefits their family, your toddler will feel a sense of satisfaction and take great pleasure in these activities. Think of ways to adapt the home environment to your child's size so that they can be independent in dressing, getting themselves a drink, toileting, brushing their teeth, watering plants, feeding the cat, dusting. A useful way to facilitate this work is to analyse each component of the task. If you walk yourself through every step of the job, and then picture your toddler completing each step, you will probably pick up on things that will not "work" and things they will not be able to do alone. You can then adapt and adjust the activity so that their independence is fostered.

"The exercises of practical life are formative activities, a work of adaptation to the environment. Such adaptation to the environment and efficient functioning therein is the very essence of a useful education."
Source Unknown - Maria Montessori

"A young child's environment directly and permanently influences the structure and eventual function of his or her brain. Everything a child sees, touches, hears, feels, tastes, thinks and so on translates into electrical activity in just a subset of his or her synapses, tipping the balance for long-term survival in their favour. On the other hand, synapses that are rarely activated - whether because of languages never heard, music never made, sports never played, mountains never seen, love never felt - will wither and die. Lacking adequate electrical activity, they lose the race, and the circuits they were trying to establish - for flawless Russian, perfect pitch, an exquisite backhand, a deep reverence for nature, healthy self-esteem - never come to be."
What's Going On In There - Lise Eliot

"It is self-evident that the possession of and contact with real things brings, above all, a real quantity of knowledge. There is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all of the life to be found around them in a real forest."
Source Unknown - Maria Montessori

"The prepared environment should bring the world at large, within the reach of the child at whatever stage of development it is, at a given moment."
Education for Human Development - Mario Montessori Jr

6. Keep it Active
It is important to remember that the young child is very focussed on movement. If an activity offers a chance to work on their motor skills it will be very attractive to them. Children under three are simply driven to move - they are almost incapable of remaining still and find it very difficult to control this strong impulse. In our modern times it is very easy for a day to pass by in which our young children are seated and restrained for most of the day. They might eat their breakfast in a high chair in which they are unable to seat themselves, and need adult assistance to get out of. They might then travel in a car seat to the shops where they are placed in a shopping cart to keep out of trouble while mum does the grocery shopping. Then, back into the car seat to go home. They may then go for a walk (in a pram, because mum needs to maximise her exercise time and can't walk at a toddler pace), or bike ride (in a bike carrier or kiddy trailer). They could even have a swing at the park (in a seat with a chain that is opened and released with a childproof catch)...you get the picture!
If your home environment is structured to provide freedom of movement, your baby or toddler will have fewer tantrums, and be happily engaged for more time each day. Ideas to help in this regard include the use of a floor bed, a conscious limitation on the amount of time spent in restraints, a safe place for gross motor play, activities for free choice which assist the development of fine motor coordination and most importantly, time. A hurried child cannot commit to deep and serious work. They learn to operate at a superficial level of concentration if they are constantly interrupted. This has serious implications for later learning.

"Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment."
Source Unknown - Maria Montessori

"A well-designed environment is, of course, safe for infants and toddlers but, more than that, it supports their emotional well-being, stimulates their senses, and challenges their motor skills. The needs of infants and toddlers are to move, to change activities at will, to rest and observe.
Motor competence and emotional competence are closely linked in infants and toddlers. Feeding oneself, crawling to a desired toy and picking it up, climbing to the top of a loft, and going down a slide are all activities that help the infant develop a sense of self, a feeling that he is capable, that he can achieve, that he can master.
The indoor environment must support a child's need to crawl, climb, run, and jump."
www.spacesforchildren.com - Louis Torelli and Charles Durrett

And just in case you had any doubts about the importance of environment in nurturing your young child here are a few more quotes to inform and inspire you!

"The brain literally evolves in response to experience and to the environment. In fact, forming, refining, and eliminating neural connections is the main task of early brain development. The particular network of wires that your child grows is unique to him."
Bright From the Start - Jill Stamm

"People are what they are as a result of their own specific environments. The life force adapts itself to fit the environment."
Nurtured By Love - Shinichi Suzuki

"We must provide environments for children in which their 'human plan' can realise itself. Our question is therefore how we can avoid conditioning from the outside and promote an optimum process of maturing from the inside."
Raising Curious, Creative, Confident Kids - Rebeca Wild

"An important factor in stimulating the nervous system to develop and help human beings to progress and evolve is the kind of environment offered to them."
Understanding the Human Being - Silvana Quatrocchi Montanaro

"Man is the son of his environment."
Ability Development for Age Zero - Shinichi Suzuki

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