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What Does Following My Child’s Lead Even Mean?

A popular summary of the Montessori approach is the expression “follow the child”. It sounds interesting, right? But this short phrase is not quite descriptive enough for most of us to understand.

Dr. Montessori was urging people to look to human development as a map for how children should be educated. She said, “Anyone who wants to follow my method must understand that he should not honour me but follow the child as his leader.”

So, with that in mind, what do we do? How do we “follow the child as his leader”? 

In a Montessori classroom, the activities are on open shelves so that students may select what they want to work on and place the materials back on the shelf when they are ready to move on to something else. Teachers circulate around the room, supporting the students by modeling how to use new materials, answering questions, and offering new challenges to practice.

In this way, a Montessori classroom is quite different than a traditional classroom because the teachers are not directing the action. Instead, they are observing the children and supporting them as needed. 

What does this mean for parents who are interested in Modern Montessori?   

At home and on the go, parents can also observe their children and support them as needed. Although it looks different than in a classroom, the benefits of “following the child” are the same!

Here’s what Dr. Maria Montessori wrote (nearly one hundred years ago!)

The child has his own laws of growth, and if we want to help him grow, we must follow him instead of imposing ourselves on him.

A child has an inner drive to learn, in other words. So we don’t need to bombard them with ABCs or educational videos. Instead, we can watch what they do and empower them to do more of it!

Toddler playing independently with peg dolls

What does following my child’s lead look like?

To embrace the Modern Montessori mindset of following your child’s lead, consider these simple tips. 

3 Modern Montessori Ways to Follow Your Child’s Lead

There are so many moments in which you are probably already following your child’s lead!

If you sense their joy in grabbing a spoon and waving it around and so you begin offering them a spoon to hold during a meal, that is following their lead. You are noticing and supporting, the key to Modern Montessori!

Following Your Child’s Lead with Communication

Even a baby is absorbing information through communication, and of course, a toddler is expanding their vocabulary every day! At every age, our children are learning the customs of our society through conversation. Here are some communication tips: 

  • When your little one makes noises, babbles, or speaks, turn towards them and make eye contact. 
  • Respond to continue the conversation, even if it’s just babbling. If you believe they are noticing something, follow their lead to continue the dialogue. “Yes, I see that dog, too. He has a stick in his mouth!”
  • For a child who already speaks, ask open-ended questions — or try using “I  wonder… ” For example, “I wonder where that fire truck is going?” or “I wonder what we can do with these blocks.”
  • Pause to give your child time to form sounds and thoughts. 

These moments of mindfulness give your child security and confidence. They also allow you to notice your child’s personality and development.

Baby playing with Object Permanance Box from Monti Kids

Slow down, way down.

Just as it is important to give your child time to respond when you are communicating, apply the same mindset to following their lead when it comes to physical movement. Ask yourself if there is actually a deadline for getting to the next place, or if it’s just your adult brain desiring efficiency!

If you are at the bottom of the stairs and your child wants to go up and down a few times, or even just sit in the middle for a bit, you have the opportunity to simply let them practice their stair navigation and set the pace. 

A Montessori teacher will tell you that “behavior is communication.” Your challenge is to translate it. 

For example, climbing up onto a counter might mean, “Please give me a stool. I want to see what’s up here.”

Try these things: 

  • Allow time for wandering. On a walk, let your child set the pace. Refrain from hurrying them.
  • Notice when they repeat an action. Whether your little one empties drawers over and over again or seeks the thrill of falling into a pile of pillows, repetition gives us an invitation to follow our child’s lead by offering more experiences in the area they are showing interest.
  • Take it slow! Most of us are tempted to interrupt our little ones by showing them something “even more fun.” Honor their process by waiting a beat. If they are content to fall into the same pillows over and over again, let that experience play out. When there is a natural pause in their activity, you can ask, “Would you like to get two more pillows to make this soft space bigger?”
Montessori Toy for Age 19-21 Months

Follow your child’s interest by providing interesting activities

If you’ve ever bought your child a toy or book because they love a certain character or theme, you’re certainly following their lead. And here’s another way to look at what captures their attention: what activities or actions do they love or repeat?

How your child uses their hands and body is an indicator of what skills they are ready to develop. In the Monti Kids® Program, families learn to notice specific milestones, such as using each hand for a different purpose, to understand when to introduce a new toy.

Here are some examples of milestones parents might notice, from Level 7 of the Monti Kids Program for toddlers:

  • Navigating the home independently
  • Expressing vocal effort, such as grunting or sighing to convey exertion
  • Pointing out bigger or smaller in size or quantity

Offering activities that build on these interests as they emerge supports a child’s learning, self-confidence, and independence.

The Monti Kids Program offers all the guidance you need to follow your child’s development and support them from birth to age three.

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