According to Montessori from the Start, children are usually ready to start Practical Life activities around 15 months old. Henry is officially 16 months old, so we've been seizing any opportunity to involve him in our daily life. For example, we ask him to carry his breakfast (a bowl of plain, whole fat yogurt with blueberries) to his table every day, and then we ask him to carry it to the kitchen when he's done (he eats breakfast and snacks at his weaning table). I ask him to put his clothes in his laundry basket, turn on lights, close doors, etc.
After watching Edison's Day for the upteenth time (during a family education event for the school I'm trying to start), I decided it was time to teach Henry how to feed Hoss (in the video, Edison feeds the cat). I know it can be dangerous for children to feed dogs because dogs can be so unpredictable around food, but Hoss is a certified therapy dog and, frankly, he doesn't care that much about his dry dog food.
Here are the steps I went through to facilitate Henry's independence and teach him responsibility:
- I brainstormed ways to change the environment to make the dog food accessible to him. I was contemplating purchasing a small shelf, but Matt had the idea that we should just use one of our existing cabinets. We have plenty of storage, so it wasn't a big deal to shuffle stuff around, and Henry can open and close the cabinets independently. We chose a lower cabinet that is at his height.
- On a trip to IKEA (I was trying to take my mind off the miscarriage--although seeing tons of pregnant couples shopping for cribs didn't really help), I purchased a plastic silverware drawer to neatly separate out different items for Henry. Matt and I almost opted for the bamboo one, since natural materials are always superior to synthetic ones in a Montessori environment, but I couldn't justify the extra $10, since we'll be moving sooner rather than later and will have to prepare an entirely different environment for him. I also purchased a little tray, since having defined spaces for different activities helps children develop an orderly mind.
- At Whole Foods, I purchased a container to hold the dog food. I was looking for a piece of Tupperware with a top that flipped open (so Henry could pour the food) and screwed off (so we could fill the food for Henry). Instead, I opted for a glass container with a top that Henry can remove independently.
- I set up the tray and the dog food in Henry's cabinet. This system will require Matt or me to fill the container every morning and night, but that's part of facilitating Henry's independence from a very early age. He needs us to scaffold the activity, so he can easily manage it by himself. Yes, it takes more work on our part, but doing Practical Life activities benefits him so much. They help him form his sense of self; we give him opportunities to be competent. They also help him develop his focus and concentration and his fine- and gross-motor skills.
- I carefully thought through what the process should look like step-by-step. Breaking down processes into their smallest components is integral to teaching young children how to do something new: 1) Open the cabinet. 2) Remove the lid of the container and place it on the tray next to the container of dog food. 3) Remove the container. 4) Carefully carry it over to Hoss's bowl. 5) Set down the container. 6) Sit down. 7) Pick up the container and dump the food into Hoss's bowl. 8) Pick up any extra pieces that fell on the ground. 9) Stand up. 10) Pick up the container. 11) Walk the container to the shelf and place it on the tray. 12) Place the lid back on the container. 13) Close the cabinet door.
- In the Montessori tradition, lessons such as this primarily happen through modeling rather than talking. When the lesson is quiet, it allows the child to focus on the guide's movements. I choose to give the lesson through words and actions because I'm trying to fill Henry's world with as much language as possible.
This kind of parenting takes more work up front, but my hypothesis is that it's going to be worth the invest. My hope is that we won't have to cajole Henry into doing chores by using sticker charts or weekly allowances. Instead, participating in the daily rhythm of our household will just be what we all do to contribute to our family. More importantly, I think this kind of work helps him develop intrinsic motivation and a strong core of self-confidence that is not dependent upon praise from others.