A dad’s perspective on Montessori 

Andrew: My wife was quite into it, but Montessori was initially bewildering for me. The general sensing I get from reading about the Montessori philosophy online is that it’s mainly mums who write about it, hence Jasmine and I thought it’d be interesting to share a daddy’s journey in understanding it and how dads can also play an important part in Montessori. 

Montessori Trays 

When Jasmine started getting more into the Montessori approach, she started setting up “trays” for the kids. Now, in my worldview, the only trays I know contain food on them, so imagine my disappointment when all that was on the trays were pom pomsstickers or fabric scraps. 

Training fine motor skills through tongs and pompoms. More details available on the post.

When Jasmine started buying even more trays (thank God for Daiso! What would my wallet/bank account do without you?), I wondered why it wasn’t sufficient to just have one tray or at most two trays and rotate different activities on the same tray. 

I have since been educated that the trays are set up with the intent of isolating a specific skill. As for multiple trays, the intent is to help teach self-regulation. The Montessori activity cycle involves children setting up their own mats, then selecting the tray they want to work on. They then put the tray back before moving onto the next activity. Given that children generally have short attention spans, building in this routine helps them to also learn how to exercise choice responsibly and focus on activities.

After Jasmine started doing her tray activities and kids got into the routine, I started observing all the above-mentioned benefits for our kids. They were certainly very focused whenever they engaged in tray activities, amazingly even so for Emmy! While the tray plays an important role in building focus, what’s equally important is how Jasmine calmly sits with the children through the activities and redirects them if they forget any part of the routine. While we can attribute Dylan’s focus partially to Montessori school, Emmy has certainly built her sense of concentration mainly from how Jasmine carries out these activities at home. 

Both kids engaged in their own activities. In fact, Dylan was the one who set up the tables!

Developing that internal discipline is so evident particularly for Dylan. On weekends when Jasmine sleeps in, Dylan will tell me “Dada, I want to do a Montessowi activity” and he will walk to the shelf, bring a tray to the table on his own then start engaging in the activity with his sister while I complete other household tasks or well, just relax on the couch. Sometimes he will also say “I want Mama to set up a Montessori activity” or when Jasmine wakes up, he will immediately run to her and say, “Mama, can you set up a Montessori activity?”. It’s not that Dylan only does activities when Jasmine sets them up for him (he can spend ages on his own free play), but what’s heartening is his desire and excitement to learn with Mama.

Self care-related trays, on our bookshelf.

What impressed me even more was when we had friends’ kids over once and they had chosen a tray (pic above but I wonder where my books went to). One kid wanted to bring another tray over and Dylan told the kid in all earnestness, “No, we need to finish our activity on this tray and put it back before we start on the next one.” When moving on to the next tray, the kid brought the items over but without the tray… So Dylan took the tray over and placed the items on the tray for the kid! This was a level of self-discipline and organization that I believe came about because of how Jasmine set up the learning environment and also routines. 

Sensory Activities 

Unlike trays which focus on specific skills, these sensory activities bring together a combination of skills and are multi-sensorial. They are not Montessori, but they complement Montessori in a home environment, as Jasmine will set these out in relation to whatever unit she is covering. 

Imagine my surprise when Jasmine started putting stuff in our fridge that wasn’t food! I was shocked when I saw a tub in my freezer, filled with ice and an assortment of sea creatures sticking out. Didn’t help that the tub was similar to ice cream tubs so I was expecting some kind of dessert 🙂 Heh. On a serious note, this was supposed to introduce animal habitats, climate change and the science of melting. 

With all the colours, this almost looks like the set up for some shaved ice dessert!

Another sensory activity that Jasmine set  set up was inspired by bubble tea (sweet local beverage containing tapioca pearls that look like bubbles) after I brought us to this bubble tea shop in Tai Seng that had bottles shaped like light bulbs, pictured below. The children were so absorbed watching the shop assistant prepare the bubble teas! I wonder why most of the sensory activities seem food-related… I look forward to the day when the kids can actually prepare me a cup of bubble tea so that my senses can also be engaged. (Jasmine, for your action please :D). 

What a beautiful set up! Emmy is evidently having fun here.

Well, all the effort certainly pays off richly as the kids LOVE these sensory activities! They don’t want them to end. We don’t deny though that these activities can get messy, hence that’s where the next part comes in on practical life! 

Practical Life and Preparing the Environment

Now, while trays and sensory activities are not things I would actually pursue myself, practical life is something I strongly believe in. I was already practising it to a certain extent before we started embarking on the Montessori approach but understanding Montessori principles helped me to refine my approach to doing it.

Well, it all started when I had heard from some colleagues working in education as well that studies have shown that children who get engaged in housework grow up to be more resilient. It also came about rather naturally as there are so many household tasks we need to tend to and rather than occupying the kids separately or carrying them, I decided I needed to find a way to get them involved too! 

I started with dishwashing, which to my surprise the kids took to very well. It was very sensorial at the start, I mean, kids do love water play. Gradually they became more skilled. (Video of Dylan guiding Emmy washing dishes)

2yo Emmy scrubbing her own bowl

Then we extended it to activities like sweeping, mopping, vacuuming and even cooking! What is great about practical life is the sense of achievement instilled in the children for having contributed to the household. Cooking’s even better because the kids benefit tangibly from the edible outcome. We started to even have a weekly make your own breakfast day where Dylan would wake up early and prepare his own omelette before school (view the full video here). 

So, if I was already doing it, how did understanding the Montessori philosophy refine my approach? Firstly, I was more intentional about the “parent talk” that I used while guiding them (see the full Facebook post on this). Rather than giving them all the instructions and steps, I took another approach with Emmy where I let her take lead and guided her along the way. When she turned to me, I asked her questions to prompt her on what to do next. 

Secondly, I started to discover the power of setting up the environment, which was something that Jasmine taught me. If we want our kids to help out, then we need to set up the environment so they can access and use the necessary tools to help out. Here’s an example of how we set up the clean up area for our dining table as well as the self care area in the kids’ room:

For more details, check out our post on how we’ve set up the kitchen clean up area. We also have shelves at child’s height  under our bar counter, which have come in handy for getting our kids to help stack baby wipes. Check them out in action helping out around the home in this video. I certainly have no complaints when the kids get more involved in helping out around the home! 

Self Care 

Setting up the environment also helps in a key component of the Montessori philosophy, which is self care – basically getting kids to take care of themselves! 

We got this nifty little thing called the water dispenser. Previously we always had to remind our kids to drink water, then pour it for them. However, I saw how attracted the kids were to this station and how they started serving themselves water as and when they felt thirsty (details and more pictures here).

The next “redesigning” effort to enable self care was our toothbrushing station where the tooth brushes, tooth paste and cups were all at child height. The kids loved it! In fact there were days where I had prepared Dylan’s cup and toothpaste for him and he would insist that he wanted to prepare everything himself. Emmy too knows how to take the toothbrush, toothpaste and cup from the station and bring everything to the sink.

Behind all the set up and practice of self care is the fundamental belief that the child is capable of doing things without adult assistance. It is actually this belief at the heart of Montessori that changed the way I parented my children and I even started allowing my 3 year old son to cut his own nails and I must say he does a really good job at it. He’s also less scared of the process as the nail clipper is being controlled by him and hence he can ensure he won’t cut himself (full post on this here).

Furrowed brow = concentration

When the word “Montessori” is mentioned, most people think of it as a “teaching” approach and what comes to mind first is always the activities that children are engaged in. That was also why I was initially apprehensive about how I could incorporate the Montessori philosophy in my parenting. However, through observing my wife and my kids as well as through adopting the philosophy myself, I’ve learnt that the Montessori approach is really about the beliefs we hold about the child and the way we convey them through respectful words and actions. You certainly won’t catch me setting up trays and such; however, I am fully into the practical life and self care aspects and these have become part and parcel of my personal parenting philosophy and practice. I see my kids growing in independence and self-directedness and am having greater appreciation of how capable and competent even a baby can be!

So fathers, fully embrace the Montessori approach and allow yourself to be delightfully surprised by your children 🙂  

Head over to our Facebook page as we are planning to write the following posts: Montessori on an airplane as we relocate to London (tomorrow!), teaching Mandarin in a monolingual English environment and of course, Jasmine wants to prepare the environment in an even smaller space: our London home!

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