I define “hitting the material sweet spot” as choosing a material/activity that not only matches your child’s developmental needs, but also challenges him while ultimately leading to success. A material that hits the sweet spot will usually engage the child, encourage repetition and lead to concentration.
“We know that development results from activity. The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to create his own experiences” – Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
How can you pick materials that hit this sweet spot?
1. Knowledge: It is important to understand the stages of child development and to know what to look for and how to support what you see. Knowing what kind of activities are right for each stage is also important. There are several ways to gain this knowledge. I like reading so I start with books. For the first three years, my recommendations are Understanding the human being by Silvana Montanaro, The 1946 Lectures by Maria Montessori and Montessori from the start by Paula Polk Lillard. I think the timeline in the front of Montessori from the start is a great reference. Voila Montessori has an updated clearer version. Kylie at how we montessori has created an amazing photographic timeline by documenting her son’s activities at each age and stage. This can also serve as a great reference. That said, keep in mind that timelines are averages and so development will follow a different pace for each child so it is important to observe.
2. Observation: Once you understand what to look for, then you have to look. What is your child interested in? What is he drawn to? How does he behave when he is engaged? How is he using his hands? Is he using his pincer? Can he effectively pick tiny objects? Does he use both hands together? When he does are they doing the same thing or different things but working together? How is his coordination? I spend most of my time with my son observing him. I watch to see how he uses his hands, what he chooses to play with when no toys are available, what activities he repeats over and over again etc.
As an example, He has always been interested in lids. He started putting caps on bottles at 7 months old and still insists on doing it till today. When he pulls pots out of our cupboards in the kitchen, he likes to find the matching lid, we have a suitcase in our room that he is constantly unzipping and zipping. When getting dressed, he likes to put the lid back on the container that holds his lotion. Notice that none of this activities were initiated by me but they all indicated an interest in opening and closing. An activity that most people with no knowledge of Montessori or child development might not consider important or even notice. They might even discourage or try to help the child when he shows this interest. For me however, it signaled an interest that I could support.
3. Choose the materials: My favorite materials are those that I don’t have to buy. In the early years and with an understanding of the child’s needs, it is possible to create a prepared environment for the child without buying much. Again, by observing the child, you find the things that interest them and make them accessible. I have had this lunch box for a while, I found it at a goodwill store. I also already had all the items in it. A first aid sample kit from a conference in my old life, two coin purses; one with a zipper and one with a snap, my husband’s cufflinks case from our wedding and a box that held a ring I bought many many years ago. I put these items in the lunch box and put it on his shelf. You should not have to call the child’s attention to a material that hits the sweet spot, it should call to the child.
4. Sit back and watch the magic happen: You know you have hit the sweet spot when you child independently selects the activity over and over again. Another sign is that he engages deeply, concentrates repeats the activity. You will also notice an air of satisfaction when he is done. Remember not to interrupt in anyway once the child is deeply engaged.
You may need to show the child how to use the material the first time he chooses to work with it. He will probably want to be involved immediately. I suggest collaboration especially for the younger child. An example would be that you zip half way and let him complete it or you hold the purse and he pulls the zipper.
My son takes the box off the shelf multiple times a day and goes through each item first and then goes through again. It is so simple but so great. He uses his hands in many different ways; he uses his pincer, his wrists, and his two hands work together. It is also great because it is an activity that can be extended in different ways.
The objects to open can be changed or added to, the open and close mechanisms chosen can be varied to meet the child’s abilities. I also put items in some of them so that he has to bring them out. None of them come out easily and he works hard and is satisfied when he succeeds.
I have really enjoyed observing him engage with this material. One time, I watched and took over hundred pictures. yes he was focused for that long. Here’s a slide show with some of them. I love watching his hands and also how he explores both the containers and the objects inside them by tasting, balancing, stacking, shaking etc.
As I look through these pictures, I think about the quote: “In this way, he becomes a man. He does it with his hands, by experience, first in play and then through work. The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence” – Maria Montessori, The Absorbent mind
What material has hit your child’s sweet spot?
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