When it comes to a Montessori education, you might question how young you can start; can infants be taught using the Montessori method?
The principles of Montessori education are rooted in the idea that a confident, self-reliant child will be successful in learning and life. Maria Montessori based her educational approach on the fact that children learn best when they’re not forced to simply parrot information from adults. Children who explore and learn in a self-directed way are more interested in learning and will actively pursue concepts they find interesting.
This does often clash with traditional views of education - where children simply repeat information through forced repetition. Montessori can be difficult for parents raised in traditional education systems to grasp, at least at first. Once you embrace child-led education, however, you will see the benefits in your child very quickly.
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Why Montessori Is A Good Choice For Infants
While Montessori education works best for younger students, you might question how young you can start Montessori education and this is a valid concern. Fortunately, even infants respond well to the Montessori Method, which helps them to express themselves and encounter their environment.
Start by unlearning
As a parent, we want to do what worked well for us as children, as well as protect them from things that didn’t work or may have harmed us. This creates a state of mind that is both hyper-vigilant and stifling, even if we don’t mean for it to be. Most people are brought up in traditional education systems that are rigid, tedious, and very different from the Montessori Method. These education systems also tend to start later, but Montessori can start very early; infancy - and even prenatally - is the ideal time to begin implementing Montessori in your home.
If you find yourself wanting to instruct or hold your child back, unlearning that tendency is the first place to start. Montessori encourages your child to learn on their own, at their own pace, and based on their own interests.
Though babies need a lot of care, they are still capable of directing their own exploration through their environment - in fact, they crave it. Babies are built to take in and process tremendous amounts of information through touch, taste, sight, and sound. Crawling with intent towards something that interests them is the purest expression of the Montessori Method at work in a child.
For you as the parent, setting up their surroundings in a way that engages them is the primary goal. Creating Montessori shelves full of open-ended toys (blocks, for instance) will get their interest. You then just have to step back and let their natural inclination towards discovery lead the way. For many parents, then, that means unlearning the instinct to instruct and rigidly guide, but it’s a necessary deconstruction.
Infants are information processing machines
Babies are hard-wired to process information, and especially in early childhood, this comes naturally and quickly. There are certain periods where specific information is easier to learn as well - sensitive periods, as they’re often called. These periods are when language, mathematical, or writing just comes more easily.
As a parent using the Montessori method, you want to seize the opportunity presented by these windows of time. You can do this by thoughtfully and purposefully creating the Prepared Environment in a specific way to capitalize on these slices of time.
The Prepared Environment
Because children are constantly learning by interacting with their environment, a Montessori household should be meticulously laid out to promote positive interactions. Order is highly valued, as well as shelving that is easily accessible by your child. These areas you will populate with prepared items, such as books, blocks, movable alphabets - anything that draws their attention and helps them learn.
Maria Montessori herself called this environment the “third teacher”, so it’s critical that you prepare it and maintain it well. A large part of the Montessori method is being a good example that your children will emulate. Obviously this means speaking and acting intentionally, but it also means keeping your home environment clean and peaceful. A child who sees this behavior will emulate it and value order, peace, and stewardship, especially when it’s part of their routine from birth.
A Montessori Prepared Environment is designed to be a safe area where your child can express themselves and feel peaceful. It should include elements that:
- Are organized and structured so a child can develop at their own pace in an environment that is well-maintained, ordered, and decluttered
- Have age-appropriate materials that demonstrate real-world applications, rather than just “play pretend” toys or electronic lights and sounds
- Are intentionally filled with engaging, interesting items that are tactile, bright, and interesting to babies
This extends to your child’s nursery. Instead of filling it with normal furniture, the room should be organized in a way that prioritizes your child’s perspective. This should include:
- A floor bed rather than a crib, so they can move about themselves, confidently and safely
- Accessible, anchored shelving for prepared materials and books
- Art that is lowered to their level, again reflecting real life over pretend
- A secured mirror also at their level
This environment gives the child the safe means to explore, which builds confidence and self-reliance. Again, this might go against our nature to instinctively control every aspect of their environment, but freedom of movement is hugely important in babies’ lives. As long as the space is secured and decluttered, they should have freedom to move about and explore.
When you put a baby in a bouncer, for instance, they might be interested in the lights and sounds initially. Over time, however, the restriction to their ability to move about and discover will get frustrating for them. Intentional, decluttered space is expansive and allows for their curiosity and exploratory nature to blossom.
The same concept of freedom of movement can be applied to how we dress our babies as well. Restrictive clothing makes us feel better, but it can lower self-motivation in a child who is trying to move about but can’t because of the swaddling they’re in. This creates more reliance on the parent, which is the opposite of the Montessori Method’s goals: to create an independent, curious, confident child.
Choosing toys for a Montessori infant
Like with all Montessori concepts, the toys you provide to your baby need to be intentional, following a few simple guidelines.
Choose passive toys over active ones
The lights and sounds of electronic toys fascinate children, but they create a passive observer. They’re being entertained rather than actively participating in the creation or learning that passive non-electronic toys provide.
Examples of passive toys are balls, sticks, tubes, blocks, cloth, cups and bowls - anything that promotes organic interaction.
Use sturdy, natural toys
Plastic is often viewed as safer, but if you have children, you know they can break anything. Wood and metal are better choices, for several reasons:
- More durable toys are simply going to last longer.
- Quality, natural toys show damage rather than get destroyed, whereas plastic toys break and then have to get tossed. This shows the cause and effect of misuse and teaches children to be stewards of their environment.
- Wooden and metal items tend to be more interesting in a sensory manner. The way wood smells and feels, or how metal can be cold to the touch initially but warms as they play with it. These are highly important traits to a baby learning for the first time.
Choose toys that focus on a single sense
While future learning will incorporate the senses (learning phonics with sandpaper letters, for instance), early toys should isolate the senses. Modern toys are extremely busy and can be overstimulating. Look for toys that allow children to engage in one or maybe two senses at a time, leading to more prolonged interest.
Using the Montessori Method for infants
In the first few months of life, babies have reflexive and instinctive movement at the core of almost everything they do. They sleep a lot, and can really only fuss and cry to express themselves.
Be attentive in this period and don’t try to overstimulate them. Noisy, visual mobiles and rattles are just going to be too much. Talk to your baby, and let them take in the sights and sounds around them. Their ability to focus will improve over the first three months, and so will their ability to engage with their environment.
Montessori - 3-6 Months
From 3-6 months, they will explore with their hands and mouths, practicing motor skills and learning to play. Offer them safe freedom to move about along with extremely tactile toys to help them grasp, chew, throw, and reach. Bright colors are a great choice here because they attract the child’s attention and teach them to go after things they want.
Along these lines, put items within their reach but avoid giving them to them directly when possible. This encourages self-reliance and teaches them to go after what they want.
When your infant starts to move through sitting up and crawling, you should further change their environment, opting for floor cushions and rugs that are more comfortable to move on. Around 7 months, a child’s senses become more fine-tuned. Their motor functions increase and their desire to engage their senses increases dramatically.
Montessori - 6-9 Months
Around 6-9 months is when you should work on hand-eye coordination and other movement concepts. Balls are great toys here, as they provide endless fun while really working on fine motor skills, such as grasping and reflexes. This is also a great time to introduce small amounts of solids and a sippy cup, both of which further develop fine motor dexterity.
Your child’s environment should still be uncluttered and accessible, even before they can move about freely. This gives them unconscious structure and teaches them to expect peaceful organization. Remember - they will eventually emulate the behavior you model, particularly in the first 7 years of life. Show them to respect their surroundings and they will.
Your role in Montessori
As we said before, Montessori learning is child-driven, but that doesn’t mean you don’t interact with your infant. Your interactions should be mindful and purposeful, reinforcing their behavior but careful not to impose your will upon it.
Encouragement versus praise
When we praise our children, we teach them to seek validation from other people. “Good job” might be our default, but it ultimately is a critique of their end result. Encouragement focuses on their effort and their determination, rather than on the end result. It might look like “you worked very hard on that drawing; aren’t you proud?” While this example is less aligned with the abilities of a baby, it’s important to understand how to interact to encourage self-motivation as they age.
This is a subtle yet important thing to understand when engaging with your children and to help increase their intrinsic motivation to succeed.
Don’t dilute information
People tend to treat babies like…well, like babies. We tend to hold fast to the idea that they’re completely incapable of thinking like an adult. But it’s not that they’re unintelligent - they simply don’t have all the tools we have yet and speaking to them in baby speak is not going to help. If you use baby words like “baba” instead of bottle, it just reinforces the incorrect method of speaking.
Be intentional in how you speak to your children, even as babies. Use the real words and don’t dumb down concepts for them. Avoid using silly or diluted references to body parts, tasks, or items - this only confuses them. Children can grasp concepts better when they are clear, concise, and presented consistently.
Gently direct and observe
Remember, even as babies, they are watching your actions and words to determine how they should act. Be calm, speak clearly and intentionally, and demonstrate care and respect for your environment and other people/animals. Likewise, be mindful to gently direct their play - this is in opposition to the desire to rigidly structure or passively observe. It can take some getting used to, but it’s critical to understand the difference.
Montessori Method is great for infants
Children are natural scientists - they’re hard-wired to interact with all of their senses, gather information, and put concepts together. It can be difficult, but you must first unlearn your instinct to constantly limit their activities and movements to “protect” them. Even as babies, giving them more freedom to encounter their surroundings - in a way that you control and steward - is critical to them learning confidence and self-reliance.
Structure your home to be peaceful, clean, decluttered, and safe. Use a floor bed rather than a crib, and intentionally place Montessori materials where they can access them. Lower decorations, art, and mirrors to their level. Encourage full exploration of their environment, but don’t tell them where to go or what to look at.
Embolden your children, rather than praise them. It might seem like a minor difference, but it is a huge factor in the development of intrinsic, internal motivation rather than seeking the approval of other people. Starting this at 3 months old will set them up for a lifetime of self-assurance and self-driven discovery.
Montessori is a good choice for infants for the same reason it works for older children; kids learn best when self-directed. If we give them positive actions, words, and ideas to model, they will emulate us. Give them real toys to play with and they will see how to take care of their surroundings, giving them a sense of responsibility and how their actions affect the world around them.
Montessori for infants just makes sense and flows naturally into using Maria Montessori’s methods as they age. It creates a foundation of interaction and learning that will last them their whole lives, creating confidence, responsibility, and curiosity that makes them into strong, respectful adults.