I often get email queries from parents asking me “What activities should I present to my child?” “What can I do with a 20 month old?” “How can I get my child to enjoy writing? Maths? etc,” The reality is that I cannot answer those questions for you. Of course, I can tell you what my children enjoyed at those ages, but that does not mean that yours will. To know what materials to place in our homes, in our learning environments, one must observe the child.
Observing our children is an art of its own. This is why I want to take some time to discuss specifically how to observe the child. Only after we truly do this can we know what materials they need in their environment and how to set up the environment in the most conducive way to their specific needs.
Mindfully Observing the Child
Observation is one of the cornerstones of the Montessori Method. At home, it is important that we also pay close and mindful attention to our children. Observing the child is an art form. I am truly in awe of how a well trained Montessori teacher can so attentively watch multiple children simultaneously without disrupting their concentration. While a Montessori teacher has had years of training, practice, and experience in order to learn how to skillfully observe a child at work, at home, we do not typically have this luxury of training and diplomas. These skills however can truly have countless benefits, not only for establishing peace in our homes, but for the development and confidence of our sweet children.
We observe that a child occupied with matters that awaken his interest seems to blossom, to expand, evincing undreamed of character traits; his abilities give him great satisfaction, and he smiles with a sweet and joyous smile.
Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him [the child], or destroy the activity… this can happen even if the child merely becomes aware of being watched. After all, we too sometimes feel unable to go on working if someone comes to see what we are doing. (Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind)
When I am asked by parents where they should start with Montessori, my advice is always the same – our first steps should be to observe the child. Maybe this seems a bit silly. Or too simple? I get it, you are with your children aaaaaaall the time so you really already see and watch them.
But how often are you watching them while folding laundry? While making that important phone call? While cooking dinner?
When we talk about observing the child in Montessori, this is very mindful, intentional observation. It is dedicated to understanding all of these nuanced things that are children are doing. When we multitask, we run the risk of missing very important details.
Here‘s the thing, before we can start changing things, buying materials, getting rid of toys, it is important for us to understand our children’s current developmental needs and what they need from us.
A Montessori space is not static. It is a constantly evolving, constantly changing space in your home that you will be tweaking to fit the needs of your children for their specific developmental needs right now. Think about it. Even us adults may change what we like, what we are drawn to, which may mean we change up something in our homes.
In order to set up an environment that works for them, we need to understand what their needs are. What are they drawn to? What triggers a meltdown?
Be in the moment
Seems easy enough, right? Just watch your kid. Take a moment to reflect though. Truly think about it. How often are we, parents, mothers, fathers, caregivers, so occupied with our daily tasks, obligations, and many distractions? We are living in a society that praises being busy, where longer to do lists seem to be a positive.
Can you honestly say that you truly, deeply stop to provide your 100%, full, present, in-the-moment attention to observing your child?
Or do you watch your child from the corner of your eye, listen to their stories while folding laundry, check important emails while trying to hold a conversation, cook dinner while they play?
The prepared environment, or in general any space that we seek to create for our children should truly be about our children. It’s important to give them a space that is meant for them, at their level, for their needs. To understand what to put in that space, how to set it up, we must truly see what our children need.
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How to Observe
I recommend to get out a notebook or use our printable sheet. Take notes. Do it. Write it down. You’ll remember everything better, I promise. This will also help to prevent your mind from wandering, or your hands from grabbing your phone, laundry, etc. Just trust us!
So, you have your pen and paper? Your child is playing. Go ahead, stealthily watch. Pay attention to everything.
- How does your child choose to spend his or her time?
- What item do they pick?
- How do they use it?
- Pay attention to small details. If they are using a toy – how are the fine motor skills? Can the child manipulative the toy easily from hand to hand? Are the wrist movements fluid?
- How is the atmosphere? Is the child feeling happy and the mood is light as they play? Is there pent up aggression? Do they bang the toys together in anger? Does it seem like something isn’t going as it should?
- Are they able to properly use a material/toy they have chosen? If it is a puzzle for example, are they are to work on it? Do they start banging the pieces when they do not fit correctly? Is the child content, focused, and happy as she or he works? If there is anger, the puzzle may be too difficult.
- Does the child want to climb? Refusing to play in a quiet activity, but instead choosing to jump, run, and remain active?
- Is the child unable to engage meaningfully with any toys/materials in the play space? Do they know how to use them?
- Are they overwhelmed? Easily crying? Asking only for your guidance and interaction?
The most important part
This, of course, is a very general list of items to pay attention to. Truly, the biggest advice that I can offer here is two-fold – and everything else stems from these things:
- No distractions. Pay attention with all of your mind and heart.
- Observe all of the details. Do not correct.
If our children are meaningfully engaged, they really should not be aware that we are watching them. As Dr. Montessori stated, this can disrupt moments of concentration and thought. We should let our children work. Even if they are struggling or making a mistake, as long as they are meaningfully engaged and not frustrated, it is important to let them work.
If you notice the child struggling with something, take a note of it. This is one area that should be targeted when you place activities onto their shelves (when you set up the environment.)
Let’s Summarize – Mindfully Observing your Children
- Carve out at least 10 minutes 2-3 times in your day.
- Turn off ALL of your distractions – put away your phone, turn off the TV. When your children are playing, just really observe.
- Choose a moment when your children are playing independently, so you can concrete on watching them.
- Take a notebook and write down your observations. Review these notes often and be sure to add to them as you continue.
When we are truly mindful and observant, it becomes much easier to understand our children’s behaviour and patterns. These observations can be very small that we may otherwise miss or forget.
For me, I really had an “aha” moment about the importance of observation when my son was 2 years old. We were talking and I noticed he was twisting his hands as if he were opening a jar. I made note of this movement, and the next day, I presented some jar and lid matching works for him. He spent a full day practising this skill – matching the lids, twisting them off, and on and off and on and so on…
Once he mastered the skill, he didn’t return to the work with the same enthusiasm or concentration. My point with this story is that if we observe our children very mindfully, we can notice interesting behaviours, patterns, and truly learn to better understand our children’s needs.
Once this skill of mindful observation has been mastered and you have reviewed your notes, you will have a better understanding of your children’s needs. YOU will be able to say what types of materials you should have out for your children.
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