Exploring the Essence of Montessori Parenting – Heather Harty

This is the fourth interview in the Exploring the essence of Montessori Parenting series. Today’s interview is with Heather of Little Bluestem Montessori. If you don’t already follow her on Facebook, do so at the end of the post!  As with the other posts, grab a cup of tea (or wine), relax, take your time and read carefully to absorb all the wisdom.  I’ll let her tell you about herself.

Tell me a little about yourself.

I am Heather Harty.  I am a trained Montessori guide from birth through 6.  I am married and have one daughter, age 4.  We live a in small town in central Illinois, USA.  Currently, I host Parent-Infant classes in our home 1 day per week and teach half days in the Toddler Community at the same Montessori school my daughter attends.

How did you discover MONTESSORI?

My younger brother attended Montessori school.  When I was around 11 years old, I would ride my bicycle after school to his Montessori school and pick him up. When I was in high school, the woman who founded and taught at his Montessori school started a beautiful café in my small hometown.  I began working there making coffee drinks, cooking breakfast and waiting tables.  She prepared the kitchen space much like a Montessori space and showed me how to do things (cook eggs, bake pies, hand stuff ravioli) that I had never done before.  She has been a mentor, friend and another mother to me.  

At university, I studied cultural anthropology.  More than anything, I left university wanting to help bring positive change to the world.  And I felt that the best place to start was by loving and understanding one another… by finding value in the life of each person, of understanding each person’s story and each person’s gifts.  And while I studied, I also worked at restaurants, coffee shops and a bakery.  I loved to work with my hands… to polish a wine glass until it shined, to lay the table beautifully, to tuck each pastry carefully into a special box.  

After university, I took one year to travel many places in hopes of finding my calling.  I worked on organic farms, for a beekeeper, on a vineyard.  I came home fulfilled but seeking.  How could I continue to be close to the earth and work with my hands while bringing a change to society?  In my angst, I turned to my dear Montessori friend and mentor who said to me, ‘Honey, Montessori has all that.’  And so, I began reading the works of Maria Montessori and her words about the individual–worthy of a profound respect with her own particular inner guide, that the child’s mind is built through meaningful work with the hands and in contact with nature, and that the child has this capacity to seek what they need and to learn at a time when they are ready (auto-education), that through allowing individuals to develop to their maximum potential there would be meaningful change in  society (peace!).  And on top of all of this, Maria Montessori was an anthropologist who wrote about a universal development of the child, but made the radical suggestion that the customs and traditions of the child’s culture must be followed and shown to her as part of her education.  I was sold. I took my Montessori training, first for children aged 3-6 and later for birth to 3.

Ok, let’s talk about Montessori parenting. How old is your child?

 My daughter is 4 years old.

What does Montessori parenting mean to you, and what are some of the ways that you have implemented Montessori in your family?

For me, Montessori parenting is a way of being with our daughter… of respecting her as an individual, trusting in her innate abilities to learn and grow, understanding her development, and setting up our home so that she can be as independent as possible and so that she can contribute to family life.  We observe her and follow her interests.  

We have very few ‘Montessori’ materials in home (as she enjoys those at school).  

We implement Montessori in our home by allowing our daughter time and space to be.  We encourage and allow her to participate in all areas of our home life from cleaning to preparing meals to gardening.  We keep a few well loved toys in our main living area so that we can all be together during our leisure time, enjoying our own hobbies.  

We follow her interests.  Through observing her play and listening to what she is eager to know or to do, we support her in her explorations.  We might read a book on a certain topic to find out more, seek information in a field guide, or make sure to make certain objects or materials available to her for her research and exploration.  She often winds up repurposing things from around our house  and leads the way!

How has parenting changed from the infant stage to the toddler stage and then to the young child stage?

For us, infancy was a time when we learned to trust our daughter and ourselves as parents.  We also learned to see her as capable of many things.  We have always spoken to our daughter as if she could understand.  So, toddlerhood brought many changes such as walking, talking and a strong desire to join us in our daily work.  We needed to set up our home so that she could do these things, but because we had been allowing her as much independence as possible while collaborating with us from infancy, this did not feel like a difficult transition.  

We are loving parenting a young child.  We can clearly see the benefits of raising her as a ‘Montessori’ child.  She seeks challenges, persists when things become difficult, takes initiative and responsibility around our home, and is so very curious!  Interestingly, as she has gotten older, we find need to change our home environment less and less.  If she wants a book, she can take it from our larger book shelves.  If she wants to sweep or mop, she can go to our broom closet and find her cleaning tools hanging next to ours.  We need to ‘prepare’ the environment less because she is able to organize, plan, and seek out the tools she needs from our home.

You garden a lot with your child. Have you always been a gardener or is this something your started recently? What are the benefits of gardening from a Montessori perspective and what tips would you give someone looking to start with their child(ren) but who has no previous experience?

My parents and grandparents have always gardened.  But, I do not remember being actively involved in gardening as a child.  I think my brothers and I mostly just played around outside while they tended the garden.

I began gardening later as a young woman when I became very interested in organics, sustainability and understanding where our food comes from.  

The benefits of gardening from a Montessori perspective are huge.  Gardening ties everything together!  The child experiences direct contact with nature (hands in the soil, water), the empathy of nurturing and caring for another living thing.  The child begins to observe and notice growth and changes and the passage of time and uses her muscles and her might to heft a wheelbarrow of compost or to grasp a tiny seed.  And then, there is the harvest!  Montessori wrote that the child’s interest in harvesting helps to bring curiosity about the sowing.  Picking vegetables is fun, like a scavenger hunt.  Children learn to discern what ripe looks, tastes and smells like.  And then, the child can wash, peel, chop and cook the food from the garden all the while working alongside parents to contribute to family life.

Advice for people wishing to start… Very little is needed.  A visit to the garden center for a couple of large pots, organic potting mix, a few vegetable seedlings (pepper, tomato) and herbs (basil, parsley, thyme), perhaps a strawberry plant,  and a small watering can is all that is needed.  Adults and children will enjoy the harvest and eating straight from the vine!

What is the best part of being a Montessori parent?  

The awe, the wonder.  My husband and I are constantly in awe of this little person unfolding before us.  Her curiosity and exploration helps to open my eyes to what is all around us.  Suddenly, I wonder about how long a turtle can hold its breath under water, why there is both black smoke and white smoke that puffs from a steam engine, and I want to know the names of everything around so that I can share in the wonder with my daughter.

What is the most challenging part of being a Montessori parent?  

Finding balance, trying not to succumb to guilt, and trying to carve out the space to be fully present some of the time.

What tips would you give new Montessori parents? Learn to trust your child, yourself… Remember that you are learning and so is your child.  And that you can aspire to make amends when you make a mistake.  And, Montessori is really a way of being with children not simply materials to purchase.

What are your favorite materials for the infant stage?

Quilt out in the garden, simple containers and objects that can be placed inside (clothes pins, small balls, wooden discs, etc), and a simple peg toy.

Toddler stage?

Tools that fit the child’s hand and allows her to participate in everyday life–watering can and a few garden tools, spray bottle and wiping mit, kitchen tools, a broom, etc.  And a couple of riding toys—tricycle, and a balance bike.  A doll to nurture.

Young child stage? Building toys—magnatiles, Goobis, wooden blocks.  Some models of animals and people, high quality art supplies such as clay, watercolors, colored pencils, etc.

Please share some of your Montessori spaces 

What is the difference between being a Montessori teacher and being a Montessori parent in terms of your interactions and expectations?

This is something I am constantly thinking about.  I think from infancy through toddlerhood, my interactions and expectations were mostly consistent.  

As our daughter becomes older, I have observed her real need for open ended play.  She often combines many of her toys to build something very grand or gathers many different toys to enact a pretend scene (having a market stall, raising pet corgis, going camping, etc.).  Montessori wrote that when given the choice, children would choose real experiences (ie- baking a real pie versus making a mud pie) over toys that replicate the real experience.  And while I do believe this to be true, I have observed both kinds of ‘work’ informing the other.  For instance, my daughter might be collecting herbs and flower petals for a pretend wedding.  Then, she will find caterpillars.  She will stop, get a magnifying glass and her field guide and study it for a while.  Then, she will return to her play.  So, at home, we allow much more fluidity in use of toys and in her play time.  

My interactions with children are genuine, empathetic, and curious, just as I am as a parent.  But my expectations on how children use materials is clearly different.  Honestly, I sometimes struggle with this.  I feel like our modern times are so busy, children are not having the free time to just be and are coming to school very hungry for it.    

You are taking the RIE training, what have been your thoughts so far and how will it change your practice as a Montessori parent and educator.  

The training has been a profound experience for me.  There are so many similarities between the work of Dr. Emmi Pikler, Magda Gerber and Maria Montessori…seeing the child as competent from birth, trusting in the child’s abilities to unfold in her own time and her own way, and then fostering this personal growth through deeply connected moments that refuel the child so that she can seek her independence through her self-initiated movement and exploration.  Now, I try to aspire to such a level of connection and respect in all of my relationships.

And Finally, why do you Montessori?  

It has become such a part of me, I cannot imagine a life lived any other way.

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Thank you so much Heather!

Did you enjoy that as much as I did!? I loved Heather’s answer to what Montessori means to her. Literally every word. Please join the conversation! What resonated with you? What are your answers to any of the questions above? Leave a comment.

Follow Heather’s  amazing Facebook page: Little Bluestem Montessori where she share pictures from her wonderful program and also very helpful articles.

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