My first encounter with Montessori was a classroom observation. I was captivated by this little children who would work independently on a material and then stand up, push in their chair and return the material before selecting another one. I had to know more.
It is for the reason that I’m always tickled when guests to our house have the same reaction when observing my son play. The expectations are usually that young children are messy and disorganized, so they are always surprised when he finishes playing and puts away his toys/materials or cleans up after himself.
We have used Montessori principles since birth and I believe they help the child learn to put away their toys after playing, their plate after eating or just learn to leave a place as they met it or better? The following are the five key things for us.
Order: If possible, from birth the child should experience orderly environments where everything has its place and is in its place. Even if your whole house is not in order, you can try to keep the child’s spaces in order. Having a shelf for toys and a place for different activities such as eating, playing (movement area), care and sleep contribute to the child’s sense of order. It is never to late to start so if you haven’t started this from birth, go ahead and create orderly spaces for you little one. When the child absorbs order in this way, they develop internal order and have a drive to create, maintain and restore order. It becomes part of them and so natural for them to want to put things back in their places after use. Also provide child sized cleaning tools that they can access easily and use to clean up after meals, a spill etc.
Model: The child from 0-6 is in the period of what Maria Montessori termed the absorbent mind. During this period, the child absorbs everything in the environment and this include the physical and human environment. Just like they absorb the order in the environment, They also absorb the characteristics that we exhibit and they become part of the child. It is therefore important for us to behave in the ways that we want them to behave. From the beginning, we can model cleaning up after ourselves as well as after the child. We give the child time and space to play but when we know he is done, we can say to him or her, “now we are going to clean up” or “Let’s put it back”. In the beginning the adult will be doing most of the cleaning but as the child becomes able we can invite him/her to be part of the process. Children like to help when given the opportunity. It should not become a sort of punishment and we don’t reward the child for cleaning up. It is just part of the process of playing. When you are done you put away the toys. I was actually inspired to write this post because I heard my son saying “put it back” to himself after working and as he was walking to the shelf. He was 2 at the time.
Limit: It is harder to clean up when there are many things to clean up or so many toys that it is hard for the child to see a place for each thing. Limiting the number of toys available to the child, and the number of components (with consideration of the child’s abilities) encourages and makes it easier for the child to clean up. Even if the child owns a lot of toys, they don’t all have to be out at the same time. You can rotate them periodically based on observation or even just on a schedule. This allows the child engage more with the materials that are available. It also allows you to really see what holds his/her interest, and off course it makes it easier to clean up.
Freedom: It is important to allow the child to choose what they want to work with. One of Dr. Montessori’s important discoveries was that freedom goes hand in hand with discipline. I have this to be true in this case too. My children are more likely to return a material they chose to play with by themselves than one that I suggested. I try to limit suggesting what they work with to times when I am introducing something new. When showing my children materials for the first time, I usually go with them to the shelf to get it. This way, they see where it came from. I also offer or invite them to work with it but never insist.
Concentration: Another observation I have made is that when allowed to concentrate on a material (especially one which they have freely chosen), they will usually complete it and return it without any prompting. However if they are interrupted, they might get distracted or lose interest and move on to something else. I have written about the importance of Concentration and not interrupting here.
These are my 5 tips for encouraging your child to pick up after themselves. What are some things that have worked for you?