If you’ve looked into early childhood education, chances are you’ve come across the Montessori approach. It’s well-known for inspiring the youngest of children to concentrate intently, put their toys away independently, perform tasks such as getting dressed or wiping tables, and choose their own learning projects at school.
You may wonder, “When does Montessori start?”
The answer is that right from birth, we can implement Montessori principles.
This doesn’t mean our babies will tie their shoes before they can even roll over. But it does mean a baby has their own version of independence: concentration and perseverance.
Knowing a little bit about the Montessori method will help parents become great observers of their child. As a result, you’ll be able to see and support your baby’s development in a deliberate, mindful way.
While most people think of it for preschool-age children and older, the Montessori practices and ideas can be really useful for understanding babies’ development.
Here’s how and why babies and Montessori can be great together.
What is Montessori?
Montessori education is lead by the child’s development. Every human has a unique journey as their vision sharpens and they become aware of their limbs after birth. Eventually they move, scoot, crawl, walk, and have conversations! But each person reaches milestones at their own pace. Instead of focusing on how old a baby is, we try to introduce materials (the Montessori word for toys) and experiences based on where a child is on their own developmental timeline. For example, your child demonstrating the ability to transfer an object, such as a rattle, from hand to hand is something that will amaze you as a parent, even though you might not see it on a list of Babycenter milestones.
The role of the adult in Montessori is to prepare a child’s environment, introduce the materials, and then allow the child to learn for themselves through their senses, hands-on play, and exploration.
Translated for babies, this means creating a simple playspace where you and your child can be together doing what your baby needs to do to build their skills: sharpening their vision, moving their bodies independently on a mat, bonding with their caregivers, and listening to our language.
We can use materials like books, rattles, and mirrors, but really everything is new for a baby and offers them opportunity to learn about the world they are taking in with their senses.
As a child gets older, we continue to follow their lead, offering them activities and experiences that build on their interests.
You might be thinking, “Babies don’t have interests! My 3-year old nephew loves trains, but my infant loves only milk!”
Ok, here’s an example. Babies are working on developing their vision. Many of them love to lay under a mobile or activity gym and watch the dangling items move. You can build on that by taking your baby outdoors and showing them how leaves are moving in the breeze. Or by laying your baby on your bed while you fold laundry and showing them each item of clothing and telling them the name. For a newborn, that’s a developmentally appropriate experience, offering them language and visual stimulation. It’s that basic!
Montessori is a respectful approach to guiding children. The parent or teacher observes the child’s needs, trusts their abilities, and allows independence (within limits) so the child can follow their own unique path of development steered by their natural drive to learn and grow.
You may already be doing this!
Why is it called the Montessori Method?
A popular early-education approach, Montessori was developed by Dr. Maria Montessori in 1907. She was an Italian physician who studied children, including those living in poverty and with a variety of abilities. She made observations about their universal behaviors and proposed a novel approach to teaching in which the child’s needs determine the activities, rather than an agenda created by the teacher.
Now more than 20,000 schools around the world rely on this practice.
Montessori bragging rights
The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Warriors basketball star Steph Curry, and famed cookbook author Julia Child are among the people who credit some of their success to their Montessori education. Folks in the Montessori world like to bring this up because we believe that by supporting a child’s ability to concentrate without interruption, to let them play on their own and choose their activities, we are helping them become self-actualized, independent adults whose strengths include perseverance and problem solving.
Why begin Montessori at birth?
85% of the brain is formed by age 3. Formal education typically begins in preschool, but Dr. Montessori observed (and modern research has confirmed) that learning begins at birth.
Early brain development is the foundation for all future learning as babies establish pathways and patterns of discovery that they will use throughout life.
The quality of your child’s environment influences their development. Research shows that children who grow up in stimulating environments have greater opportunities to develop. Your child’s skills are not predetermined. Take visual development, for example. Your baby is born with some basic visual wiring, but what they see in the first months of life impacts key visual skills such as depth perception and the ability to switch focus quickly between objects. With this in mind, the first Montessori material for newborns is a series of mobiles designed to support the development of visual skills.
In addition to developing their senses and foundational skills, babies are learning how to learn! A major goal of Montessori is to help infants develop habits of concentration, perseverance when confronted with challenges, independent problem solving and other skills that will serve them well throughout childhood and adulthood no matter what type of work they choose.
How to begin using Montessori with your baby at home
In addition to reading, singing and talking with your child from birth, you can help promote learning at a young age by using these principles to design your baby’s environment:
- Offer a sense of order. For adults, a messy office with papers everywhere can be a source of stress and confusion. The same is true for your little one and their play area. Children function best in an organized playspace that is not over-stimulating. A favorite Montessori teacher saying is, “A place for everything and everything in its place.”
- Keep it simple. One way to keep things orderly is to not put all of your child’s toys out at once. Choose six to eight toys and a few books at a time and put the rest away for later use.
- Offer passive toys. We like to say that “passive toys make for active babies.” What we mean is that simple toys require your child to be engaged in order to activate them. More “active” toys with lights and sounds (screens are the most active) can put your child into a passive mode, where they push a button and wait to be entertained. Choose toys that are exciting because they invite your child to pull, grab, or move, not because of their bells and whistles.
- Present just the right amount of challenge. There is an understanding in Montessori that if you give your child a material and they use it “correctly” right away, you waited too long to introduce it. The best learning happens as children make mistakes while they try to figure something out and eventually achieve mastery on their own. When you look for toys for babies, try to choose ones that provide an appropriate level of challenge: not so easy that your child gets bored or so complicated that they get frustrated.