Dylan’s Montessori Play Area

Jasmine: I have been interested in the Montessori and Reggio Emilia schools of thought for early childhood education and found them quite complementary.

Montessori believes that children learn through doing and exploring using all their senses, and freedom of movement best enables them to do so. Hence, in a Montessori home, you would find floor beds, weaning tables and chairs (instead of high chairs) that the child can get in and out of without assistance, and toys in shelves or baskets low to the ground so the child can reach for them. Montessori also advocates the “prepared environment” as a way to enable the child to move about freely yet safely.

This is our humble Montessori play area for Dylan currently:

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We try to have:

  • Everything low-lying, so Dylan can access it
  • A variety of open-ended toys (the pic above shows two sections, one with sensory baskets and one with wooden toys like the latch board and ball tracker)
  • Two mirrors

Our open-ended toys are displayed neatly in open baskets (rather than closed drawers) on the floor for the child to choose from.

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This was one of our earlier set ups- a basket of books, a basket of musical instruments and movement toys, and a treasure basket of hats and silks. I have actually pared down the baskets to just two, and have introduced more un-toys like the Daiso broom, a neon hedgehog washmitt and a narrow tray.

Both our mirrors are from Ikea, a large one and a smaller acrylic one that we reposition wherever Dylan is playing. Mirrors are used in Montessori spaces, but the use of our mirrors is inspired also by Reggio Emilia, which takes it a step further, as mirrors are used as work surfaces and to reflect the child at “work”, to provide the child with different perspectives to view his or her task and thereby increase his reflectiveness (literally) on the task.

Andrew: Dilly loves the mirrors very much and I would often catch him looking at himself and smiling back – so cute! I think he’s starting to realise that it’s him in the mirror.

Jasmine: They realise that typically around 18 months of age- a common sign is that instead of pointing to the mirror, they will make an action and watch their reflection do the same.

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Jasmine: The circular chest of drawers in the corner holds more of Dylan’s toys (the ones which need parental supervision, such as the alphabet magnets, bubbles, the puzzles –as he is going through a very drooly stage now and has damaged the puzzles with excessive saliva).

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It’s not perfect, but it’s a safe and hopefully inviting play area for Dilly. I would still love to put some artwork at Dylan’s eye level and swop out the rug for something a little plainer and made of natural material like seagrass or sisal, so that he can focus on the tasks and materials at hand. I think this play area will evolve again once his baby sister is born, as we will need a floor mattress, some black and white art and a Montessori mobile!

Andrew: Something that’s not mentioned above, which actually also sometimes serve as a ‘toy’ for Dylan is the curtain behind! He doesn’t play so frequently with the one in his specific play area as it is behind his mirror, but very often, he enjoys walking across to the other side of the room and hide behind the mirror or just play with the fabric, even interact with us by playing a silly game of ‘hide and seek’. Heh. That does fall under Montessori too right?

Jasmine: I guess so- Montessori believes in “preparing the environment” to be child-friendly and conducive for exploration. In other words, if the child can reach something, it’s fair play!

By exploring his play area and beyond, Dilly can learn how to discriminate different textures, colours etc. He loves the sheerness and movement of the curtains and the fact that he can see us through it. I’ve also seen him pushing the coffee table away so he can walk all around the carpet while looking very intently at the patterns, or flip the corner of the carpet over, and in doing so contrast the carpet’s softness and fringe with the hardness of the ceramic tiles under!

Andrew: I do think the fact that we do not ‘fence off’ this area or put him within a playpen also adheres to Montessori principles as we are often surprised that other parts of the house become ‘play areas’ for him to learn different skills. (Jasmine: yes, we were tempted to fence it off many times because it was getting tiring chasing him everywhere, but we’re glad we didn’t- and just tried to make the house safe and child-friendly too!) For example, he enjoys coming to our rooms and especially playing with the keys in our lockable drawers. We’ve come to realise he’s grown in hand-eye coordination as he’s learnt recently not just to pull out the keys, but how to put them back rather precisely! It was a real cute moment of learning for him and he kept doing it after that. I can’t imagine the locked drawer alone kept him occupied for almost 20 – 30 minutes – sometimes we wonder why we even bother with buying toys? Haha…

Reggio Emilia – a comparison

Jasmine: Now, I’m learning a bit more about Reggio Emilia, which shares Montessori’s beliefs in the child as an active and independent learner with his own interests, and the environment as the "third" teacher. Both have in common the use of natural materials, un-toys (the less the toy does, the more the child can do) and freedom to explore.

However, Reggio is a bit less structured than Montessori. Where Montessori regards children’s activity as serious “work” and focuses on practical life skills e.g. buttoning of trousers to sweeping the floor to helping younger children, Reggio emphasizes make-believe, art, drama etc as a means for self-expression. This is termed the "hundred languages of the child", expressed through make-believe play, painting, sculpting etc. In a nutshell, Montessori emphasizes respect, autonomy and self-discipline for the child, whereas Reggio Emilia emphasizes creativity and self-expression.  As Andrew will mention later, our home is more Montessori- Dylan just seems happy imitating us and “helping” us with daily tasks, and we want to play to his interests.

Two other distinctive points about Reggio include documentation and the strategic use of mirrors to promote inquiry (which I have briefly alluded to above). Documentation (through the artefacts created, photos or written reflections) allows both children and teachers to revisit and build on prior learning. As Reggio originated in Italy, which was rooted in strong familial traditions, communication with parents is a Reggio cornerstone. Documentation thus allows teachers to regularly update and work with parents on their child’s progress. This concept of documenting is not quite so relevant for me now, but I might just try “documenting” when I introduce Dylan to coloring/ paint, or in building structures from blocks, recycled materials etc, by which I mean posting it on FB. Haha.

Andrew: Overall, we seem to be more successful with adapting the Montessori style for our home.   However, I was really impressed with the Reggio Emilia school of thought when I first went with Dear and Dilly to Blue House, which we have written about before. The idea of parents not interfering in the child’s play and seeing it as a way of him expressing himself was great and quite aligned with my own philosophy of education for my students previously. We’ve introduced quite a lot of those activities into our home, with Yakult bottles, sensory bottles, mirrors etc, which Dillie has taken to quite well. Even with the building blocks, we let him do what he wants with it and not interfere.

Souvenirs

Jasmine: Outside the home and on our travels, Montessori and Reggio Emilia principles have also influenced our selection of souvenirs for Dilly! Considering how both schools of thought prize the “un-toy”, travelling, especially, is the best time to get authentic knick-knacks with aesthetic appeal and learning value… at much lower prices than what you find in toy stores!

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From Bali last yr (on crotcheted blanket): a crotcheted blanket from a rice paddy, a kalimbas (finger piano), wooden drum, rattan basket used as his treasure basket and a coconut wood bowl and spoon.

From Phuket (on floor); a hat made of fabric strips, 4m long fairy lights for the nursery, two silk scarves and erm, a book from the airport coz we were trying to use the remaining baht up.

Interestingly, the choice of Bali toys was influenced by my Montessori beliefs of incorporating natural materials (not plastic) and music of different cultures for sensory stimulation.

My choice of Phuket toys, however, also incorporated these Reggio ideas, which is why I bought a hat and scarves for dress up play for Dilly (and his sister’s) future use. Heh.

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I like that both Montessori and Reggio Emilia promote the use of natural materials for open-ended play, which frees up the child’s creativity. The best part is that most of these items here cost under SGD5!

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