Parents can create a Prepared Environment at home. A Prepared Environment not only includes the physical materials, it also encompasses the atmosphere and the rules that govern the environment (home or school).
Preparing the Environment
In the home or school for the child of this age, much attention must be paid to the safety of the environment. It is a recognized fact that the child will develop more fully; mentally, emotionally, and physically when she is free to move and explore in an ever-enlarging environment instead of being kept in a crib, playpen, swing, or walker. The exploration of the environment is vital.
From birth on, when a child is free to leave his bed and to move about his room, and later the other rooms – careful attention must be paid to assuring safety: covering plugs, taping wires to the wall or floor, removing poisonous plants and chemicals.
A 2-foot gate, which can be stepped over by the adult, creates safe and interesting spaces for the child through the house. When the child is capable of exploring outside his room, the gate can be used to protect the child from unsafe rooms, the home office, the kitchen, or any other place that is not yet child-proofed.
The easiest time to prepare the environment is before birth, the parents crawling around the child’s room to see what the child can reach or will be attracted to and then to make it safe. As the child’s environment becomes larger, encompassing other rooms of the house, and as she begins to crawl quickly and to walk, the adults must continue to childproof the house.
During the first three years the child will absorb, like a sponge, whatever is in the environment, ugliness or beauty, course behavior or gentleness, good or bad language. As parents, we are the first models of what it means to be human. If our children are in a childcare setting or an infant community, we must exact the same high standards.
Quality and beauty of the environment and the books and materials is very important in attracting, satisfying, and keeping the attention of the child. If the child is exposed to beautiful rattles and toys, she will help create a world with the same high standards as an adult. Toys, rattles, puzzles, tables, and chairs made of wood instead of plastic develop an appreciation for nature and quality and show a respect for the child.
Pictures on the wall, hung at the eye-level of the child, can be beautiful framed art prints or simple posters. Rather than ugly cartoons, that adults assume are preferred by children, we see that children are drawn instead to the great art, which has stood the test of time. Children also enjoy seeing their own artwork framed and displayed on the wall. The children’s pictures can be changed frequently, as they create new artwork.
Rather than keeping things in large toy boxes, it is more satisfying to the child to keep them neatly on shelves, hung on hooks, sorted on trays, and separated into baskets. This also makes putting things away much more logical and enjoyable. It is possible to put shelves in the child’s room, family room, and wherever else the child may play, before the child is born. Parents can begin immediately to keep the child’s things on shelves and continually set the example of putting toys away where they belong when they are not being used.
Here are some things to keep in mind when organizing a child’s environment:
1) Have a place in each room –the bedroom, the kitchen, dining room, living room, bathroom, garage, and so forth – for the child’s few, carefully chosen belongings.
2) Think carefully about family activities and the materials used, in all areas of the home, and arrange the environment to include the child.
3) By the front door, have a stool to sit on and a place within reach to hang coats and put shoes. In the living room, have shelves for organizing a few of the child’s books, toys, puzzles, or games.
4) Don’t put out too many items at one time. A few baskets or trays holding tools or toys that are being used at the moment are sufficient. Don’t put too many items in each basket. IF a child has 100 legos, that is too many for him to manage. Start out with 10 or 15 in the basket. This way he can learn how to completely put away the legos. As he wants more legos with which to build, more, legos can be added to the basket. He gradually learns how to manage more and more legos.
5) It is a good idea to rotate books and toys – taking out those that have not been chosen lately and removing them to storage for a time. A monthly rotation works well. An older child can help with this. This is done after observing what the child is actually using, and removing those things which are being ignored, or which have been outgrown. Be sure to leave the favorites!
Shelves are an important component of the child’s environment. Shelves do not have to be expensive; they can be as simple as boards and bricks. They can also be as elegant as any other furniture in the home. It is wonderful when a family can afford a child-sized bookcase in each room of the house for the child’s belongings.
Solid wood tables and stools, which allow the child to sit up straight with the feet flat on the floor for drawing, playing, fixing, and eating snacks are very important. Not only will good posture be developed, but also she will be better able to concentrate and focus in this position.
Small solid wood benches, useful next to the front door for removing shoes, in the bathroom for removing pants and reaching the sink, in the kitchen for reaching the sink are very important for the child’s work and independence.
A low bed is preferred so she can easily climb in and out of it. A comforter makes it easy for the child to make her bed.
The Environment and the Mind
All adults are influenced by their first environment and nothing can help create beauty in the world as much as giving beauty and quality to the very young.
We must not only think of the quality, but the quantity. Visible posters, pictures, toys, etc. always affect the mind. It has been shown over and over in children’s environments that cluttered shelves, which are visually blocked out by the adult, are a constant visual barrage for the young child, causing stress. Too many pictures and posters on the wall do the same. The Chinese art of placement, Feng Shui, teaches that clutter, even hidden under a bed or piled on top of bookcases can cause stress.
The same hold true for the sounds in the environment. With time the adult brain learns to block out the sound of a TV or radio, but a child is always aware of it. Sometimes a child can become upset by visual and auditory stimulus of which the adult is completely unaware!
Preparing the environment before birth frees parents to devote time to be with and enjoy their child after birth. A neat, attractive, enjoyable, organized, and uncluttered environment can help create a more peaceful life for the whole family.
The Child’s Research
Some people call the search for limits “testing”, but there is negative connotation to this word. When a child is trying to learn the rules and procedures of the society in which she lives, this is a very positive undertaking. It is actually important research.
A good example is the research question, “What is the meaning of the word ‘No’”? I remember an incident in our home between a good friend and her two-year old daughter, Julia. The two-year old had climbed up on the piano bench and was reaching for a bust of Mozart kept on the piano. As she reached toward it she looked expectantly at her mother, obviously for some kind of a response. The mother said, “No, don’t touch it.” Julia stopped, lowered her hand, and then reached toward it again. The mother said, “No” again, a little louder. Again, the daughter reached and looked at her mother. This happened several times with no resolution.
I watched this communication, and the confusion on both sides, and offered the suggestion, “I don’t think she knows what ‘No’ means and is trying to find out”.
The mother laughed and said, “Of course.” Then she went to Julia, said “No,” gently, and as she said it, picked Julia up and moved her across the room to a pile of building blocks. Both were completely satisfied.
In the first exchange, perhaps the child thought, “No” meant “I am waiting and looking and expect you to eventually pick up that statue. And I am getting mad at you.”
In the second exchange, the message was clear. “No” meant, “stop doing what you are doing and move away to another part of the room or another activity.” (and, thanks to the clear and gently way of speaking, “I am not mad at you.”)
Children do not understand the language of reasoning until around age six. They need clear demonstrations along with words. It is very helpful for parents to realize that their child is not trying to be bad, but she is being a normal intelligent human being trying to find our how to behave. She is carrying out research.
Teach by Teaching, not by Correcting
The most powerful tool parents have for sharing their way of life and their values is the example they set. In every waking moment of the child’s life, especially in the first three years, she is learning and becoming more and more like those people she finds around her. She will imitate the way of walking, moving, talking, the vocabulary, the handling of objects, the emotions, manners, taste, and the respect and consideration (or lack of) for others, and on and on. The first important thing we can do is to surround him/or her with the kind of people we want her to emulate. These are her first teachers.
The second is to avoid correcting when the lesson can be taught in another way. (Of course, if a child reaches for a hot pan handle we correct!) For example, if a child is continually slamming the door very loudly, the best approach is to: 1) Note that the child needs to be shown how to close a door carefully and quietly. 2) Choose a neutral moment (which means not an emotionally charged moment when the adult is upset by the door slamming). 3) Give an amusing, exaggerated, and interesting lesson, showing the child how to close the door – turning the handle so carefully and slowly that there is no sound whatever. Try other doors, do it over and over, as long as it is being enjoyed by both.
With these lessons you can teach brushing teeth, putting away toys, pouring milk. Manners lessons, like saying “Please” and “Thank you”, come from the culture in which the child lives. We used to practice over a large bowl of popcorn, offering and thanking over and over and sometimes laughing hysterically at the end of the lesson, at the exaggerated and fun manners.
When parents and children begin to spend more active time together the need for these lessons comes up often and can be enjoyed by both adult and child. And life becomes more and more pleasant.
Another way to show respect for a child, and at the same time exact the desired behavior, is to offer choices.
One summer I discussed this philosophy with my eight-year old niece. The following day she and I were sitting on the lawn talking and I noticed that she was watching carefully as a mother and small child were having a verbal battle across the street because the child wouldn’t let the mother put on her shoes.
Finally, my niece said, “Look at that silly mother. She is doing that all wrong. She should have said. ‘Do you want to put your shoes on yourself, or do you want me to put your shoes on?’”
She was right. The normal healthy two-year old who is just beginning to be able to function independently on many physical and mental levels is not interested in being told what to do, but very interested in being given choices.
I know of no behavior on the parent’s part more assured of creating a peaceful atmosphere in the home of a two-year old than that of giving choices.
Toys should be kept in the area where the family lives, not only in the child’s room. A cupboard in the kitchen can be made available to the child with pots, pans, and other items the child can use while parents are working in the kitchen. Adaptations can also be made in other rooms.
Shelves are much more satisfying for storing toys than toy boxes. Shelves allow a child to see what is available to him so he may then choose with what he would like to work. When he is finished, it is then easy to put his work back on the shelf where it will be accessible to him the next time he wants to use it. Toy boxes encourage dumping of toys, show disrespect to the child’s belongings, and display no order to the environment, as they tend to get lost and/or broken in a toy box.
Having order in the environment creates a feeling of security in the child, and trust in the environment. Baskets, trays, and small boxes neatly arranged on low shelves can be very helpful in creating this order. If the adult carefully and continually puts the pieces of puzzles or toys back in the basket and on the shelf in front of the child, she will eventually imitate and join in the activity. Sometimes the “putting away” into baskets is the most enjoyable part of play.
Limiting the number of toys available at any one moment and having a place for every toy, helps with the task of teaching the child to put toys away. But most important is the example set by the others in the environment. In a Montessori community, this lesson is much easier than in the home because the teacher is dedicated to the child completely, all day long. She will constantly put things away, carefully, slowly, and as the child becomes aware of this, he naturally wants to learn to do this – just as he wants to learn everything else.
Of course, it is much easier to get into the habit of putting a toy away right away when it is obvious where it goes on the shelf. It is more difficult when all of the toys are out and all the shelves empty. This habit of putting toys away, if developed early, will be helpful in many ways throughout life. The parent can sometimes make a game of this by playing at “putting away” instead of making it a distasteful chore.
Respecting Work and Concentration
One of the most important elements of Montessori philosophy is that of respecting the concentration of a child. When the child is engaged in something safe and purposeful (meaning an activity requiring effort of both the mind and body – not watching TV!) this is considered a child’s important “work” and the adult’s role is to respect and protect it.
“The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. It lays the whole basis for his character and social behavior. Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity. It seems a strange thing to say, but this can happen even if the child meekly becomes aware of being watched. After all, we too sometimes feel unable to go on working if someone comes to se what we are doing.
The teacher’s [and parents’] skill in not interfering comes with practice, like everything else, but it never comes very easily. What advice can we give to an interesting occupation: they should not be helped unnecessarily, nor interrupted, once they have begun to do something intelligent.
--Dr. Maria Montessori
from: The Joyful Child