One of the biggest pitfalls educators encounter is not the system, not administration, not parents, not difficult behaviors. No, the biggest pitfall is much, much closer to home. The difficulty? The self.

What? Isn’t it because of who we are that we became educators in the first place? Isn’t it our love of children that keeps us going everyday despite the difficulties? Didn’t we spend years studying for this vocation?

Yes, yes, and yes. Yet, unless we slow down and prepare the innermost part of ourselves, we will not be fully prepared. In The Secret of Childhood, Dr. Montessori writes, “We insist on the fact that a teacher must prepare himself interiorly by systematically studying himself so that he can tear out his most deeply rooted defects, those in fact which impede his relations with children. We need to see ourselves as others see us.”

She points out two things that impede the teacher: pride and anger. Let me give you some examples from my own experience. As a Montessori teacher who teaches children between ages three and six we have an area of the classroom called practical life. In this area children practice pouring water between two or more pitchers, preparing their own snack, using spoons, tongs, eye droppers, etc. to transfer items between bowls, decorating the classroom with flowers. Often I have provided the materials used by the children: lovely small vases, beautiful bowls, interesting spoons, etc. The children do not always use these items with care and they are often broken. It is easy to become angry or frustrated when these carefully curated items don’t make it through even one day. If an unprepared teacher were to lash out at a student at this time instead of carefully considering the underlying cause of the carelessness or breakage (poor motor control, tray not right size for activity, etc.) we can damage the self esteem of a very young child. Something far more precious than any vase or bowl.

Pride also can hamper the teacher’s ability to move the children forward. Too often we are so concerned with how others will view us by the behavior or academic prowess of the children (our pride) that we may lecture the children before or after a visit instead of allowing them to be themselves in their individual developmental time frames. We show them our disappointment or give too much praise merely for the sake of the visitor’s perception. Again, these things damage the children’s sense of self in a way that can be difficult to repair.

What is so important prior to the beginning of school but also each and every day is that we as educators (or homeschool parents, or just plain old parents!) is to take stock in our interior life. Reflect on your state of mind first thing in the morning. Is there something bothering you? If you have negative feelings, how will these impact your day? Is there something you can do to gain peace?

At the end of the day, reflect. Where did the day go right? What did you do that you could improve? What caused you to act in a way that wasn’t helpful? How can you change? Look at yourself but don’t be harsh. We all make mistakes, we all fail, we all have room to improve. When we are kind with ourselves during this kind of emotional honesty we will remember to be kind with the children as they are also learning how to act and behave.

This kind of inner care is called many things. Mindfulness is probably the newest term. Whatever you call it, know that by taking the time for introspect at the beginning of your day and also at the end will help no matter what your vocation – teacher or otherwise. Knowing ourselves will always assist us as we connect with others.

This is always our first goal in the Montessori classroom – to connect with the children, the parents, our larger community. Only then are we able to begin the larger process of education.

*This post is part of the Year in a Montessori School series.*

In a just over a week I will begin a new school year with my students, ages 3-6. I teach at one of the two Montessori schools in my town (The New School of Lancaster). A very long time ago I was a parent to two young boys and was faced with the challenge of deciding where to send them to preschool. I was a stay-at-home mom and thus didn’t need a full day program for my children which gave me more options from which to choose. I’m not sure if that was a good thing or just the opposite! At the time, I was not a Montessori trained teacher and didn’t know much about the differences in school options. I really just took into consideration cost and location. I wish now I had known more about the differences in school educational philosophy. In order to help others with this type of decision I will be posting for a full year about the Montessori classroom.

I hope you will join me in this look inside the classroom. You may or may not have the option of choosing a Montessori school for your children but perhaps by seeing what it is we do and why what we do is so important during the first years of a child’s life you can look for similar ideas as you search for a school. You may also decide to implement a few things you read about at home. Please leave a comment if you have specific questions or topics you’d like to see covered. I look forward sharing this year long journey with you.

Happy autumn, everyone! The weather has finally turned cool here in Lancaster, PA. Whatever the weather in your part of the world, I hope you are finding time to enjoy it. This week I started leading two caregiver/toddler classes at school. It was so much fun! I just love talking with parents and seeing all the fun things their young children are doing. Part of the joy is sitting and watching the children in the environment. They always amaze me. The way they use the materials in the classroom and relate to each other and the adults in the room is so fascinating.

I have children as young as 10 months old in class so I put out a few items that are for younger children including a beautiful wooden ball cylinder from Heirloom Kids. This toy is a rolling cylinder with multicolored balls encased inside. The balls cannot be removed from the cylinder. It is a really beautiful toy for very young children. Older children can become frustrated by this toy because they want to be able to remove the balls from the cylinder (but cannot). This is exactly what happened during our class.

For about 15-20 minutes of our time together, the adults sit together to discuss a topic while the children play and explore the classroom in and around us. One little 13 month old was sitting with her mom trying and trying to put her fingers inside the bars of the cylinder so she could remove the balls. She became very frustrated and was verbally expressing her distress. Another parent brought up a wonderful question,”What do I do when my child becomes terribly frustrated? Do I intervene or let her work it out?” Since our topic for the day was observation, this was a beautiful hands on way to explore the topic. 

We stopped to observe what was going on – the child was trying to put her fingers in the cylinder, she was unhappy and expressing (loudly) frustration with the situation. We also talked about child development. At 13 months she is at a stage where she wants to explore the properties of the container (open, close, take out, put in) and the balls in a more advanced way than this toy allows. Thus, she was extremely frustrated. 

After (quickly) observing the situation and thinking about her developmental level, we introduced another material (a basket with a removable ball) and unobtrusively removed the ball cylinder. She immediately quieted and became interested in the new material.

In addition to talking about observation, we had also been talking about the prepared environment and how we can assist our children just by changing things about the rooms they explore. I explained why I initially put in the ball cylinder (due to young age of a few children) and why after observing all the children in the room (who are capable of more advanced manipulation) I will remove it and replace it with more developmentally appropriate toys next week. 

I hope this little anecdote helps you to focus a little more on observing your children, thinking about their developmental levels and how you can change or enhance the areas of the house-room-garden-yard that they come in contact with. By doing so you are helping your child to grow and develop by removing obstacles and enhancing her learning environment.

 

As I sit at my computer and write this post it is raining cats and dogs outside my window. After several weeks of dry we have come to a week of downpours. I guess it’s an evening out of nature. 

I’ve been a little quiet this summer but wanted to write a blog post about a project I have enjoyed working on over the past few months. I’m pretty passionate about getting children out into nature and in allowing them to explore the natural environment. There is a place for the standard playground equipment but I have seen over many years that children really prefer to have a less structured outdoor space. There is more to discover and create when they are left to use the sticks, stones, leaves and plants that are at their disposal.

We used to have a very large holly tree in front of our house that was surrounded by English Ivy (aka the enemy). We eradicated the ivy soon after we moved into our house and had the tree taken down about two years ago. This left a large grassless oasis. Last summer I attempted to use it as a raised garden but there really isn’t enough full sunlight for that kind of project. So this year I decided to make a children’s garden. 

My own children are grown but we have so many children in the neighborhood I thought it would be fun to create a little spot for our littlest neighbors and their parents. If you have young children, grandchildren or, like me, young neighbors,I encourage you to think about how to make a child-friendly space in your yard.

So what did I do? First I contemplated the space. There were three elements already in place: a dogwood tree, the holly tree stump and a truck tire. The space was also already delineated from the ivy which had killed all the grass in an oval like shape. So I knew the space was shady in the morning which would be a great thing for the children. I then thought about what I knew about young children. They need to move and they learn from their senses. I knew I wanted to add some living pieces that would stand up to children’s curiosity and would feed their sensory systems. Thus I planted catnip and regular mint (just a note that all kinds of mint will spread like crazy so be careful where you plant it). I also wanted to add something that would be visually exciting so added a hyacinth bean vine in the tractor tire and up a decorative piece of metal. The vine gets the best little purple pods! 

For movement, I moved some circular stepping stones from the backyard that were given to me by a good friend. They are arranged throughout the garden just far enough away from each other to allow a few good jumps! I also added a stone pit. Initially I thought I would put some construction vehicles in this space (and I still might) but for the time being there are some big dinosaurs and some little people. 

On the tree stump I added some cars (nature parking lot???). I planted some pots with shade loving plants and one with chives (another great herb for smelling and tasting). A few years ago I made some gnomes out of sticks I whittled from our yard. I added these to the chive pot. When our holly tree was cut down I saved a few tree stumps and added those to the garden for sitting or using a tables. Large mulch filled in the rest.

What was the last thing I did? I invited the neighborhood to come and play. And play they did. I’ve gotten photos from some fun playdates in our yard and have heard snippets of children’s laughter from the yard while I was inside working. What joy!

I’ve started a Pinterest board all about children’s gardens if you want to dig a little deeper into the idea. Click here to see it.  If my children were young I would definitely work more in the back yard to create an open ended space for them to be free, discover and create. For now I’m happy to see the enjoyment in the front of my house.

Have a lovely end of the summer. Remember….get out there and enjoy nature!

Happy June! It has turned hot and humid here in Pennsylvania this week. We don’t have air conditioning at our house and since it’s too hot to go out into my garden I’ve been enjoying sitting with our new little kitten while reading. She’s quite playful so I don’t always get a lot of reading done until she tires herself out. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a kitten in the house so I don’t mind!

I’ve also been having a blast getting to know some new children at Montessori Toddler Camp. We’re into week two now. One of the areas of the classroom is always a little library. I love to see which books the children want me to read over and over and over. In my last post I listed a few things to think about when choosing books for children under six. Here’s that list: 

  • Find books with beautiful illustrations.
  • The words should use rich language. Children from 0-6 are in a sensitive period for language. They have a capacity to learn words almost effortlessly during this period of life. Let’s give them the proper names for everything and help them learn to describe what they see in multiple ways!
  • Keep it concrete. Choose stories and books that are about real life. 
  • Match the word/illustration ratio to your child’s developmental stage. This means few words and simple illustrations for babies and increasing words and more complicated illustrations for older children.

Today I wanted to talk a little about books and Toddlers. I don’t love the term toddler although we use it quite a lot in the U.S. When I say toddler, I’m speaking of a child who is walking (9-18 months) until about 2.5-3 years. As always, I like to think about the developmental stages of this age group before choosing toys, activities and books. So, what do we know about toddlers?

  • They are in the sensitive period for language. Children learn words and the rules of sentence structure during this time. The more language rich their environment, the better.
  • Toddlers continue to learn through their senses. We want to try to incorporate all the senses into their learning as much as possible. Hands on activities are best.
  • Toddlers are refining their gross and fine motor skills. They are always on the move. 
  • This age group learns through repetition. They do not tire of things in the same way they will when they are older. 
  • These children are concrete learners and are very self centered (in a good way). They want information that pertains to their world.

How do we use this developmental information to help us choose books? During this time children will often look at books on their own as well as with you. Help your child learn to turn pages and to treat books with respect. Having a little shelf or basket with 6-10 books available at a time in a common area or in two parts of the house will give your child lots of opportunities to look at books and for you to read to him or her. You will have to decide when your child is ready for books that use paper instead of cardboard. If your child is rough with her books you may choose to keep the paper books out of her reach until she is ready to use them without ripping or throwing. Watching you take care with the books is the best way to teach a child how to care for them. 

Take trips to the library if your child is able to handle it. Our local library has a lovely two tiered half circle seating area surrounded by books in the children’s section. When my boys were toddlers they only wanted to jump off this instead of looking at books. I decided they were not yet ready for the library and left them home with my husband while I searched the library for books to bring home. When they were older they loved going to the library to pick out their own books and had the self restraint to resist jumping of the seating. 

At this age still try to find books that talk about daily life, that have a few more words and may have more complicated photos. Toddlers love to look at the photographs and drawings in books and to talk about them. This is all language learning. The more language you can provide to your young child the more success he will have when he begins learning to read himself. Knowledge of vocabulary words is such an important step in reading readiness.

Here are a few suggestions for Toddler books:

  • My First Body Book (DK) – children love to point to the different body parts in the book and then on their own bodies.
  • My First Things that Go (DK) – vehicles of all sorts to look at and talk about. Take it in the car and see if you can find the real vehicles that are in the book.
  • Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks from A-Z (R. Scarry) – A precursor to the classic book Cars and Trucks and Things that Go. 
  • Noisy Farm (Usborne) – Buttons to press to hear the sounds of the farm. Also check out Noisy Train, Noisy Orchestra and Noisy Diggers.
  • Birds (Kevin Henkes) – Beautiful illustrations  by Laura Dronzek and a simple story about all the characteristics of birds: color, shape, size, movement and much more. We have so many birds in our backyard this book was a great one to use when thinking about the birds in nature and learning to look at all their characteristics.
  • 1-2-3 ZooBorns! (Scholastic) – Children love looking at wild animals and photographs of cute baby animals are even better! This is also a counting book.
  • My Dog Spot (Jack and Norma Levin) – This is a lovely book about a dog named Spot. The illustrations are simple and lovely and there is some amazing language used throughout the book ( He laughs by yiping, Yipe-yipe.). The story may seem so simple (Spot likes to chase cats and birds and rabbits and put his head out the window when Daddy takes him for a ride in the car.) but this is the stuff of real life that toddlers can’t get enough of!

This is just a very short list of amazing books that you can read to your young child. Take every opportunity to bring books into not only your toddler’s life but also into your own. Seeing his parents enjoy reading will encourage your child’s enjoyment, too.

I hesitate to recommend reading books on electronic devices whenever possible. Often the device is more appealing than the story. Your child also loses the fine motor practice of using her pincher grip to turn pages and to have the sensory experience of the paper in her hands. These are important learning experiences and steps to later skills such as writing.

Next week I’m going to talk about books for preschoolers. I’m hoping to blog in a different format so stay tuned! I hope you are having a relaxing and enjoyable summer. Now, back to my book (and the kitten)!

 

June is here! I don’t know about you, but summer always makes me head to the library for some new books. Although I always have a non-fiction book about child development or how the brain learns language or some Montessori philosophy book or other on my bedside table, I also welcome summer with a stack of fun fiction. Something to lose myself in and to relax once my school year has finished. I also just reorganized my children’s books. I pulled out the books that I might want to use for the Toddler Camp I’m heading up at a local Montessori School and purged a few boxes of books that I never used. All this book sorting and library going made me think about how important books are to children and how important it is to have a little knowledge about how to pick books for different ages. So this is the first of three blog posts about books.

Today I want to talk to you about babies and books. I think it is so important when choosing anything for a child (be it clothing, books, games, furniture or toys) that we first think about that child’s developmental stage. So what do we need to know about babies before we choose books? And for this post, I’m talking about children from birth to 12 months. 

The first year of life is full of tremendous changes. Your baby is born with limited abilities. She can’t focus her eyes very well and not very far (about from breast to mom’s face). She isn’t able to purposefully grasp any object and can’t really move on her own. At one year of age she is a very different child! Some children are walking and running and have started saying a few words. Her skills with her hands and fingers may have progressed from whole hand raking of objects to beginning to pick things up with thumb and finger (although very unrefined).

How does this help us choose books? Perhaps most importantly we need to remember that children at this age have what we refer to as an Absorbent Mind. They are unconsciously learning from their environment. So we want to make their experiences as rich as possible. Here are a few tips when choosing books for children under age 6.

  • Find books with beautiful illustrations.
  • The words should use rich language. Children from 0-6 are in a sensitive period for language. They have a capacity to learn words almost effortlessly during this period of life. Let’s give them the proper names for everything and help them learn to describe what they see in multiple ways!
  • Keep it concrete. Choose stories and books that are about real life. 
  • Match the word/illustration ratio to your child’s developmental stage. This means few words and simple illustrations for babies and increasing words and more complicated illustrations for older children.

For infants you may want to choose books that are all illustration and are printed in black and white. I love these books by Tana Hoban. 

Of course for an infant, I also recommend reading anything outloud (being mindful of the content, of course!). Babies are listening to everything about our language. They are taking in our inflection, cadence and how we break apart sounds and sentences. Reading to your baby (and even your unborn child) is helping him learn to understand and speak even if he won’t be able to do so for a long time!

Other books that are lovely in the first year of life involve few words on the page, simple illustrations and are generally sturdy for little hands to explore (ie: the board book!). Books that have some sensory component to them are great as well since your child is learning through all his senses, not just visually. Here are a few I love.

  • Baby Touch and Feel Animals (DK). This book shows photographs of real animals, one per page, with something to feel on each.
  • Hello Baby! by Mem Fox and illustrated by Steve Jenkins. I adore both these people. Mem Fox just seems to understand children and what speaks to them at many ages. Steve Jenkins uses beautiful handmade paper to create lifelike animals. The language in this book is rich, too. “Perhaps you’re a porcupine, twitching its nose. Are you an eagle exploring the skies?”
  • Amazing Feelings (Scholastic). Shows simple photographs of real children with real feelings.
  • I See by Helen Oxenbury. A simple book about exploring the world. Also check out I Touch and I Can.
  • Touch, Think, Learn: Farm by Xavier Deneux. Each two page spread features a raised animal that fits into the opposite page scooped cutout. The other thing that caught my eye about this book is that each two page spread includes vocabulary words to help describe the page. For instance on the page with the donkey the words include “mane, saddle, hoof, muzzle, ear, grass, tail, carrot, grazing, swishing.” This is perfect help for tired parents!!!
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. This book is a classic. I spent hours (no, years) reading and re-reading this book to my boys. They especially loved the page that described all the people food the caterpillar ate and then made a big deal about how sick he got! 

I could go on and on but this gives you a little sampling of the type of books your baby will love. I always try to keep a little basket of books in our general living area that I rotate. Don’t overwhelm your child with too many at a time. And, perhaps most importantly, if your child doesn’t seem interested in a book put it away and keep searching for the books she enjoys. Use your local library, too. We have wonderful libraries in our town and the librarians are a wealth of information. 

I hope this information was helpful to you. I’d love to hear about the books your children love. Post them in the comments, please! Next week I’ll be sharing part 2: Books for Toddlers.

One of the key principles that every Montessori teacher learns during training is to observe. As a high school and college student, observation was usually relegated to my science classes. I guess that makes sense since Maria Montessori was trained as a doctor, not as a teacher. In order to learn about children she researched, she created a natural setting for young children and then she sat back and observed the children. 

It was through her detailed observations that she learned so much about young children. She watched them with no preconceived notions. She wanted to find out from the children  how they learned, what was important to them and how to set up the best environment to help them grow and develop. 

As a teacher, when things go awry in the classroom, one of the first things I set out to do is observe the class. Let me give you an example. At the beginning of the year I found that the students had a lot of difficulty lining up at the door (which we need to do several times a day). There was pushing and pulling, arguing and fighting. It was, frankly, mayhem. So, I took a day to observe what was going on during line up time.

When observing, you want to really just watch without opinion. So, in my example, I noticed that the children were bumping into each other, standing very close together, had a difficult time knowing what was in front of rather than beside the next person, etc. 

What I always want to avoid is being negative with the children. I don’t want to be yelling or telling them what they are doing wrong. I strive always to keep things positive (easier said than done). What is best of all is if I can change the environment to solve the problem and keep myself out of it all together.

So, what did I do after observing? I placed small pieces of tape equidistant on the floor on which each child would stand. In this way the children were in a line, each person had their own space and there was less pushing and fighting. Did this solution eliminate all pushing and fighting? No. No solution is ever perfect but this one went a long way in solving our difficulties.

Of course, this example doesn’t really help you as parents. We don’t really line up our children at home! What I do want you to think about is how to observe your children and why it is so important.

In my last post I talked about setting up the environment to help maximize your child’s development. Observation can help you figure out what your child needs at his/her stage of development. So, let’s think about a few of the developmental domains and how observation can help us help our children:

  • fine motor  – watch how your child holds things. Maybe your baby is now able to pick up an object she is looking at with little difficulty. You see your preschooler is now holding a marker with the tripod grip. Your child seems to use his left hand more than his right hand. Your child does not use both hands when drawing, putting together puzzles or eating. So how does this observation help you? If you have a child under the age of one, her fine motor skills will change drastically in this first year. You will want to provide her with toys that will help her refine her grasp and that challenge without too much frustration. Once your child is a preschooler and getting closer to that magical kindergarten age, you may want to make sure he is using both hands together and crossing midline (click here for why this is important). The tripod pencil grip is important for writing in kindergarten. Please note that not all children are developmentally in the same place at kindergarten and the tripod grip is one of these areas that develops at different times in different children. What is important is that you are aware of where your child is as he is entering kindergarten. In this way you can be attuned to things that he might find tiring or frustrating and to give his teacher a heads up.
  • gross motor – watch how your baby moves. Does she try to get that ball that is just out of reach? How long does she work on this before getting too frustrated? Does your preschooler like to climb, jump and catch a large ball or does he prefer to sit on the sidelines? After some time observing we can think about how we are helping or hindering our child’s development. Maybe we are so worried our child is in danger that we don’t let her climb trees or the playground equipment without hovering. Perhaps we are always stepping in at the first sound of our baby’s efforts instead of giving her a little space to work hard towards scooting to that ball that is just out of reach. Often observation (i.e. sitting on our hands so we don’t interfere) helps us change our own behavior by allowing our children to continue their behavior even when it makes us uncomfortable.
  • language/communication – What does your child gravitate toward? What does she like to talk about? What sounds is your baby making? Does she respond when another person repeats her sounds? Does your baby have different types of cries? Does she stop crying on her own sometimes? Are all of her sounds distress or are some just temporary frustration? Does your child use eye contact during communication? What books does your child enjoy? What books does he find boring? What subjects is your child interested in? 
  • social/emotional – How does your child solve problems? Does your preschooler look to you (or another adult) to solve her problems for her or can she problem solve on her own? What makes your child happy, sad, angry, frustrated? How often does your child ask for help? How does your child deal with separation? How does he manage when things don’t go his way?

There is so much I could say about observation. I will leave you with this thought. Take one item about your child/family/situation that drives you crazy. Instead of yelling or talking or reading about solutions…..observe the situation for a day (or two or three). Write down everything you see or hear. Put your emotions aside for a little while. Show your notes to your spouse/partner or a good friend. Brainstorm what you think is going on and how things could change. You may be surprised with the solutions you come up with. 

Here’s my last example (because I love a good story more than empirical evidence!!!) One summer my youngest son participated in a camp at our community park. The camp provided lunch for the participants. I often took my older son (who is diagnosed with autism) to the park to play at the end of the camp period and before lunch. My elder son was typically well behaved. On this particular day, around the time the park was having lunch he was having a melt down (you know, kicking, yelling, not following my direction, etc.). This was quite unusual for him. I looked around at what was happening (the other children were eating) and finally had an ‘aha’ moment. He was hungry. A bag of goldfish crackers later and he was happy, quiet and compliant. 

So I encourage you to observe your children every day. Think about what they are doing, saying and how they are interacting. During times when life is stressful, take a moment (or a day or two) to sit back and observe what is really going on. It is in this kind of reflection that we can help not only our children on their developmental paths but also help ourselves on our parenting paths!

 

From before birth, children are gathering information through their senses from their environment. It is this gathering of information that we call learning. Children between the ages of birth and six have amazing abilities to learn in ways that humans can not recreate during any other period of our lives. Dr. Maria Montessori called this the child’s ‘Absorbent Mind.’ 

You’ve most likely heard children referred to as little sponges. It’s so true, children soak up information like a sponge from their environment. 

First, what do I mean when I use the word environment? In the 21st century when we hear this word we think about nature – the polar bears and the melting ice caps, etc. When referring to child development, I am using the word environment much more broadly. A child’s environment is anything and everything that she comes in contact with: the objects and areas in which she lives and (most importantly) the people with whom she lives and interacts. 

The young child’s brain is constantly building connections to help him grow and learn. We are born with our neurons already formed but the connections have not yet been properly built. So nature (our biology) and nurture (our environment) must work cooperatively to help each child work his way to becoming a fully formed human being. 

Let’s think for a minute of all the things children seem to learn effortlessly during their first three years of life. At birth, children are helpless. They cannot hold up their heads, let alone crawl or walk. They are unable to purposefully grasp and manipulate objects.They communicate only through crying. By the age of three years, children can now walk, run and jump. They can eat independently (and even help prepare the meal!). They have learned an entire language…with no formal schooling!

Think about the last time you tried to learn something even slightly complicated. I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve tried several times to learn to knit. I am already a competent seamstress so I do have some background knowledge about how things fit together and my fine motor skills are pretty good. However, the motor skills involved in knitting are different than those involved in hand sewing or quilting (at which I am quite proficient). So, I’ve read books about knitting, watched videos about knitting and practiced knitting. It’s taken me untold hours and lots of ripping out of yarn to barely learn to knit and purl. 

What does this example tell us? Yes, as adults we can still learn skills but it takes much longer and involves much more work to learn new things than it does if we learn them during the first six years of life. We no longer have an absorbent mind.

So why am I talking about all of this? If our children have absorbent minds we should just sit back and let them get on with learning, right? Not quite. Yes, it is true that children will learn from any environment. So it is vital that we help our children by providing the right kind of environment. In order to do that we must first learn about child development. What is my child working to master right now? In child development there are three basic areas or domains: physical, cognitive and social/emotional. 

If you have a one year old, chances are he is working on learning to walk and then refining his large motor abilities. He is just starting to talk (understanding language more than expressing it). He is learning to communicate his feelings (laughing, crying and moments of serious reflection) and absorbing the feelings of others (ever been in a room where one child starts to cry and in a matter of minutes all the children begin to cry?). As parents we want to provide him with an environment in which he will continue to learn and grow in all three domains. 

No matter what stage your child is in there are things you can do to prepare his environment:

  • Keep things safe. Make sure the physical area your child inhabits is free from dangers. Tuck cords out of sight and reach, cover electrical outlets, put away breakable and swallowable objects.
  • Provide proper toys/furniture. If your child is learning to pull up to stand, a low coffee table or soft ottoman can help him work on this skill independently. Children from 0-6 are very concrete learners. Minimize fantasy and toys related to media (tv and movies). There is plenty of time to show your child your favorite Star Wars movie and characters when he is older and can properly understand the fantasy nature of the show. Provide activities related to your child’s skill level. Put away things he is misusing (throwing or scattering about). This usually happens because the activity is too easy or too complicated. Toys (not too many) should have a clear purpose that your child is able to use or is something she is working to master.
  • Be mindful of your words and the words of others. Children are always listening, even the youngest. Provide books and conversation with lots of vocabulary. Call things by their proper names. Converse with your child while you are doing things with, for and to her. Give a running dialogue about the bath or the diaper change. Speak quietly and gently. Keep background noise (television, radio) to a minimum. Save adult conversations about negative news events or emotionally charged arguments for times your children are asleep or out of the house. Children pick up not only the words you use but the emotions behind them and are not often developmentally ready to understand.
  • Engage all the senses. Children learn through their senses. Provide opportunities to listen to many kinds of music and to hear the different sounds that can be made with instruments or just the crunching of leaves under your feet. Talk about the multiple textures of clothing and blankets, the smells of the herb garden or fruits in your lunch box. Show your child things you love visually (different kinds of birds or trucks or quilt patterns).
  • Go outside. Provide your young child with lots of time in nature. Babies can lay on a soft blanket with you and watch the leaves blowing in the trees and can hear the birds singing. Take a walk and let your toddler lead. Don’t be in a hurry. You will be amazed at your young child’s observational skills, physical skills and the amount of focus he can muster.  
  • Respect your child’s feelings. Remember, young children are learning how the world works. Their brains are changing at an amazing rate. Children are learning to be independent while still being very dependent. It can be a difficult time for them. They may be upset at something you think is insignificant. To the young child, what you see as insignificant may be the most important thing in their narrow world. Honor it by naming it. ‘You seem very sad that I had to take away Grandma’s glass bowl.’ ‘I can tell you are angry that we had to leave the park.’ Honoring emotions is not the same as allowing all behaviors. For more information on emotions, click here.
  • Provide order and a schedule. Young children do better when their world makes sense. They like to know what is going to happen. Bath always comes right after dinner. Daddy always reads two books at bedtime. Grandma watches me when Mommy goes to work. No, you don’t have to have dinner every day at 5:30 on the dot. What is important is that your child knows to expect dinner at a certain time of day. It is helpful to have things orderly as well. Toys are kept in certain areas of the house, easily accessible. Things that are special (maybe art supplies for the very young) are kept out of reach but are used together with older brother or when Daddy comes home from work. Having an orderly environment helps the child form an orderly brain. It helps form concentration and attention. Does that mean you have to be a total neat freak? No. Just remember that your child is absorbing everything in her environment. Having things in order (we eat in the kitchen, bowls, utensils and napkins go in this low cabinet, etc.) assist the child as she is learning about her world.
  • Spend time. This is the most important gift you can give to your children. Figure out a way to spend time enjoying each other’s company every single day. Turn off your phone and power down the tv and computer. Give all of your attention to your child. Sing, cook, put together puzzles, coo with your baby, play games as a family, go to the park. Whatever it is that you do, enjoy it and focus entirely on it. There is no email or phone call or Facebook meme that can impact the world in the same way as giving all of your attention for part of your day to your children. 

Today I challenge you to pick one thing to enhance the environment of your child or children. Think about what they are learning and add (or subtract) something to make that learning more meaningful. And, most importantly, spend time and enjoy your child just as she is, today.