Montessori Practical Life & Culture, A Week with the Grandchildren
Three of our four grandchildren and one daughter left this morning to return to Portland, Oregon. It was such a rich and enjoyable week that I am sharing it with you. In my international work I have seen over and over again that when homes have very few distractions from the real, daily life of the family, such as toys and screen time, they quite naturally join in and spend valuable time with the rest of the family. As a result children learn about cultures in a natural way, and, as they carry out valuable activities that they see being done by adults, they feel useful. Spending this time with us they learn our values, they imitate everything we do, and they develop skills that will be valuable for the rest of their lives and we have fun together.
As family were arriving late at night after a 9+hour drive we welcomed them with candle light, Indian music (the sound track from the movie Lagaan) and warm turmeric milk haldi doodh (in Hindi) to prepare for a good night’s sleep. A peaceful end to a long day for all.
Our meals are very simple. It is the work connected with the meals that are the most inviting. We explained that in most parts of the world there is little variety in meals so breakfast was always the same and dinner mostly soup, nuts, veggies, and fruit. This simplicity meets a child’s need for a sense of order and we could focus on the shared work connected with meals.
Picking greens from the deck containers (and nibbling them at the same time), and preparing small bowls of nuts.
Making toast with butter and vegan Parmesan cheese, and fruit salad with walnuts, almonds, and toasted sesame seeds.
SETTING THE TABLE
Each person in the family selected his or her own napkin ring for the whole visit. This way each person could take care of his napkin and decide when it needed to be washed (by hand of course and hung out to dry). Learning how to light a match, and then the candle for the meal, is very attractive. The match-lighting “rule” is that lighting a match must always be for a useful purpose and in the presence of an adult.
Our rotating “lazy Susan” in the middle made it possible for each person to serve his or her self. VERY small amounts are taken, and everything is at least tasted. Then each person can continue to take small amounts throughout the meal, paying attention to his or her hunger, and nothing is left on the plate and wasted at the end of the meal. I learned this during my AMI 0-3 training from Dr. Silvana Montanaro and I must mention that the table and chair and the Lazy Susan were left to me by my dear friend and Montessorian Karin Salzmann who some people reading this knew and loved. Thank you Karin.
BEGINNING THE MEAL
Before the first breakfast we explained the various ways people around the world give thanks before beginning to eat, and the children chose the Japanese tradition of saying “itadakimasu”, pronounced “ee-tah-dah-kee-mah-su.” This is a way of giving thanks for those involved in the preparation of the food. (Farmers, cook, table setter, etc.) And toward the meal itself, the plant or animal life that was given to make such a feast.
Everyone was called to the meal and when everyone was served . . . and only when everyone was served, in unison, we said . . . ITADAKIMASU!
ENDING THE MEAL
In many countries politeness dictates that no one leaves a meal until the last person is finished eating. This really helps to inspire conversation and create longer periods of enjoyable time spent together. Then everyone automatically worked together to clean the table, put out the candle, and sweep the floor, until everything was in order.
Here it is important to say something about the Montessori theory topic of “planes of development”. During the first plane, from birth to 6 years, a child is challenged to learn a lot of practical life, but only until each one is mastered, not out of duty or responsibility. Sometimes a parent will say, “He learned to clear the table, make his bed, hang up his coat, etc., but then stopped doing it! Why?” My response has always, “If this child tried to do, every single day, everything he is learning, there would not possibly be the time.” So at this stage the adult should keep modeling this practical life in a careful and joyful way, inviting the child with careful lessons, and the child will imitate and keep learning as he grows up.
At the second “plane” or age 6-12 a child is very interested in fairness and making logical rules (notice I did not say “following rules” but “making rules”). For our older grandchild the book “The Little Red Hen” satisfied his need for moral behavior, sharing the work, etc., and we often heard him say to us adults and to himself, “Remember the Little Red Hen, only people who help with the work should get to eat the food! He understood that he and the adults needed to share the real work while his young sister did the work that she was interested in at the moment, and sometimes she just watched others.
TOYS AND BOOKS
Yes there was time for playing with Lego, my own personal “secret stash” of Star Wars figures, toys, going to the beach, climbing trees, working on the fort behind the house, making a bed of straw in the garden, and learning bow and arrows with Baba (grandpa). But as was discovered in the first Montessori class, the casa dei bambini in the slums of Rome, children preferred real work even to the lovely dolls and toys that had been donated by Dr. Montessori’s friends. So then, as now eventually they are replaced by good quality, child-size, tools so children can successfully manage real and satisfying work of caring for themselves, each other, the environment, and being courteous.
Always we go to the library when grandchildren visit and winding down in the evening by reading is expected and loved by all
But no one felt like they were missing anything we most of the day was spent on practical life, real work that adults do.
On these visits the first practical life activity is always unpacking and deciding where everything goes. This time the younger grandchild was tucked in the corner of my office and the older behind a curtain at the top of the stairs. Everything was folded and put away. They even decided to fold their clothes at the end of the day (as we had read a book about Japanese children doing this) and pajamas in the mornings.
Then off to see if there is some other work to be done, such as dusting the houseplants (a memory from their earliest Montessori experience).
On warm days there was plenty to do sweeping the deck and watering plants, and on cold days bringing in wood, building the fire, and lighting it – all on one’s own with a little help from Baba.
SUZUKI SUMMER ACADEMY
Finally Monday morning, the first day of the one-week Suzuki begins! At the end of the day the younger grandchild brought home a borrowed violin and showed us what she has learned, as she did every day of the week.
The almost-7-year-old not only showed us his Suzuki piece, but also played a duet with Uncle Michael of a song he had heard someone play at Montessori school in Portland and had figured out by ear.
The music inspired our very dramatic youngest grandchild to create her own dances to the variety of music being performed during the first evening of Suzuki camp.
And I was finally able to share some of the music vocabulary materials I made for my Montessori classes so very long ago, the names of Western classical composers.
One of our family practices we have shared with grandchildren for 15 years now, is gratitude and prayer. Upon waking and before going to sleep we think of a few things to be grateful for.
And at our Buddhist altar, as each of the 7 water bowls is filled with water, even the children love to pause after filling each bowl and think of something to be grateful for or someone to pray for.
The whole family easily shared art during this trip. It is my mother’s 93rd birthday next week and each family member spent time and energy to create a personalized birthday card for her that was then placed in a beautifully decorated envelope and mailed.
And we all enjoyed the paintings and prints being prepared for my own show next week.
Journals are also a part of our grandchildren’s visit tradition. Just as in my own 6-12 classrooms as a Montessori teacher I would NEVER REQUIRE daily writing in a journal. But when something special happens I suggest, “Is that something you would like to draw or write, to record and keep until you are an adult to share with children someday?”
Since the elder grandchild has been telling us quite a lot about their family’s 3-day river rafting trip on the John Day river he was very pleased to have a record of that.
And when the little one found a tiny “baby banana slug” to show the whole family this was a perfect opportunity. She was worried that she wouldn’t be able to draw something “so difficult” but when I pointed out the two little feelers on the head and the gentle curve of the back she drew one banana slug, and then another, and then decided that was the mother and father and followed this with a whole passel (is that the collective noun?) of youngster banana slugs.
During the week there were normal periods of hunger and tiredness, impatience, frustration. But we used the age old Montessori axiom of “Teach by teaching, not by correcting” in exploring behavior and preparing for better responses or reactions to situations, just as is done in the classroom.
For example, instead of embarrassing a child by saying, “Say think you.” in front of a Suzuki teacher, we would say ahead of time in the car, “Who do you think it would be nice to thank you your last day of Suzuki camp.” Or instead of “stop fighting!” we could say at a neutral moment, “What would be a good thing to do when you get so frustrated that you want to hit someone?” We create little dramas for practice, often ending in laughter because of the creative variations. The unexpected response to this last question, from the 5-year-old, was “meditate!”
I hope you have enjoyed this sharing of the best of our week together. In this last picture the oldest and the youngest of 4 grandchildren share one of the most beautiful spots at our home, the cathedral grove, before leaving for the long drive back to Portland, Oregon.
We are blessed.
The child who has felt a strong love for his surroundings and for all living creatures, who has discovered joy and enthusiasm in work, gives us reason to hope that humanity can develop in a new direction. —Maria Montessori