6 Common Misconceptions about Montessori at Home
This week I’m breaking down some common misconceptions about Montessori in the first few years. I bring up these misconceptions because too often I see people dismiss Montessori for reasons that aren’t even true. I completely believe in every family choosing the parenting philosophy that works best for them, but I do hope everyone has the correct information about their options first, and then chooses from there! I hope this helps clarify some of the hot button Montessori topics in the first few years.
1. Kids have complete freedom
It is true that independence is a cornerstone of Montessori. Providing the youngest of children with choices and making our homes accessible promote their capabilities, confidence, and motivation. However, we give our children independence within clear and safe boundaries, in age-appropriate ways. We call this freedom within limits. We offer choices and set clear limits. Young children want predictability and to know that the adults are in control and that their environment is safe. When they receive mixed messages about their limits, they test to see what is and is not acceptable until they feel they are able to predict their environment again.
For example, a freedom is how much to eat at mealtimes. A limit is that we sit down while we eat and that the grown-ups decide what food is offered. A freedom is choosing which books to read before bed. A limit is that we read three books. A freedom is running and playing as loudly as they want. A limit is where that kind of running and play happens (outside).
2. The Shelf is the most important part of Montessori
Looking on the internet, it might appear that the materials on our shelves are the main focus of how we practice Montessori at home, but that is far from the case. Montessori is not defined by the shelf.
The most important material in your environment is YOU. Preparing yourself is the first step in anything we do in Montessori. Our language, attitude, and response to our children are more impactful than anything on their shelf.
Montessori is also about learning with all of our senses engaged. It is about learning through movement, learning through our hands, and above all, it is learning about and in the beautiful natural world we live in. The richest learning environment we can give our children is not their shelf at home, but the natural world around us.
3. Our children eat and play alone
While we do encourage starting infants and toddlers on solid foods at a small weaning table, we do not encourage eating alone. A small table encourages independence by getting in and out of the chair as well as reduces throwing and dropping behaviors as there isn’t as far for food to fall. In toddlerhood, the weaning table offers a way for children to set their own table and serve their own snack. Our babies and toddlers are not sitting here alone though. We typically sit on the floor or on a small cushion and join them. Often we also use a high chair for family dinners and meals that pulls right up to our kitchen or dining table.
Similarly, it is true that we encourage independent play as it allows our children to concentrate, problem solve, get creative, and fulfill their own interests. However, it is always balanced out with time together. Often we are sitting right next to them as they explore toys on their own and we talk to them when they look to us for feedback, labels, or conversation. We also spend quality time with them during transitions, such as diapering or toileting, dressing, preparing food, and cleaning. Though not always in the photos, Montessori is about connection as much as concentration.
4. Pretend play isn’t allowed
While it is true that fantasy is discouraged in the early years, it is not true that pretend play is discouraged.
One reason why it can feel as though pretend play is discouraged is because of the emphasis on reality over fantasy. In Montessori we encourage real activities that teach children about the world we live in and give them rich sensory experiences. We also lean towards books and materials that are based in reality. When young children read books that describe real places, people, and animals, they develop a sense of wonder for the world we live in. Books based in reality help to explain the already-gigantic world we live in.
When we let young children lead their own pretend play, we see them create scenes all on their own. These scenes mimic what they see in the real world and in their books. Pretend play offers them a way to work through new experiences and test out new ones. When we provide toddlers and young children with all that the real world has to offer, their pretend play only becomes richer and more fun for them. Sometimes pretend play is with dollhouses and other times it is using the shelf materials themselves in a creative way.
5. Montessori Children Aren’t Social
It is true that children are not forced to share in Montessori. They are also not forced to play with others. Rather, we let the child decide whether to play alone or with others. There are always opportunities for both in a Montessori classroom. We model kindness and compassion ourselves. We give children the opportunity to collaborate and resolve conflict themselves.
Often people bring up the social aspect when children are just toddlers. Toddlers aren’t social beings yet. Though toddlers enjoy being around people, especially family members, they are mostly engaging in parallel play - playing beside not with peers. It isn’t until age 4 or so that children share common goals in their play. Understanding typical social development tailors our expectations of chlidren’s social play and lets them take the lead.
6. Children are Forced to do Chores
Sometimes people see toddlers washing windows or 3-year-olds sweeping the floor and think that this has been forced upon them. Rather, cleaning up is something we model and build into our daily rhythms. It is something that young children really want to be a part of. In Montessori, we invite even the youngest of toddlers to join us as we go about our daily tasks. Toddlers feel valued and helpful when they get to be a part of these important jobs.
As children reach preschool age, we do encourage cleaning up after oneself, e.g. when we make a spill, we wipe it up. The goal isn’t to “make children clean” but rather to instill a sense of personal responsibility, caring for our shared environment, and learning to work together as a family or community. We model this ourselves and help each other out as needed.
I hope that helps clear up a few of the most common misconceptions I hear about Montessori at home in the first few years. Montessori looks different in every home and every family. Find what works for you!