A Child-Safe Montessori Home
Sometimes, it seems as if the requirements of setting up your home to assist in your preschooler’s Montessori learning conflict with the requirements of having a home that’s safe for children. How do you reconcile these two important demands?
If you’ve got a crawling baby or a toddler who has a lively intelligence in the house at the same time as you have a preschooler of the right age to attend a Montessori early childhood learning centre, you probably are well aware of these demands. You want to make sure that both your younger and older child have opportunities to explore and experiment with their world, but you don’t really want to have that “wonderful” learning experience known as a ride in the ambulance and/or a visit to the emergency room at your nearest hospital.
According to Montessori principles, you should put a child’s learning materials (which your child will refer to as “toys”) where he or she can access them easily and take responsibility for putting them away properly in the right place when they’ve finished with them. However, a lot of things that your preschooler (aged over 3 years) will be able to use, such as counters, beads and plastic animals, may be the wrong size for a crawler or toddler to get hold of. As you probably already know, crawlers and toddlers explore things by putting them in their mouths, and the beads and counters and magnetic letters that are wonderful for your older child’s learning are a potential choking hazard for your younger child.
So how do you resolve this problem? The old way of doing things involved putting the younger child in a playpen where they could be safe. However, many modern parents realise that this doesn’t encourage a crawler/toddler to move around freely and develop what’s known as “gross motor coordination”. Playpens don’t offer much space for a child learning how to walk and run to get around. However, if a kind granny offers you a playpen, don’t turn it down. You can apply the reverse playpen principle instead. In the reverse playpen principle, it is the older child who uses their bits and pieces in the playpen. The older child is able to get in and out of the playpen much more easily and usually appreciates having a place to play on the floor where a younger sibling won’t come down and crash the tower or mess up the pattern that they’ve worked so hard to set up. This solves the problem of your younger child shoving the older child’s beads or counters into their mouth, and probably curbs a bit of sibling rivalry.
However, you probably shouldn’t store the “dangerous” toys of your older child in that playpen, or you’ll run out of room quickly. If you have a lot of shelves at different heights, you might be able to put the older child’s equipment on the higher shelves but still within reach of the older child, at about 1 metre off the ground, say. The lower shelves are kept for the toys that are safe for the younger child, which will include soft toys, larger blocks and robust musical instruments such as shakers and drums. If you don’t have a range of shelves and only have cupboards which the younger child can open easily, then you will have to try putting a suitable catch on the cupboard. You will have to choose a catch that your older child can open easily – hook and eye catches or bolts are suitable. If your child has learned how to tie shoelaces or basic knots (and untie them!) then you might want to get creative with a special ribbon or rope that ties their “special cupboard” shut.
In the interests of courtesy and preventing fights once the younger child gets a bit older, it is probably a good idea to tell the older child why certain items need to be kept out of the reach of small, pudgy baby fingers. It’s not that the sets of equipment are the older child’s personal property (you probably will want the younger child to use those things when he or she is ready); instead, the things are kept separate for safety reasons. This can be a good chance to make the older child feel special, as you can emphasise that they have grown up and are big enough to use these without risk.
Another thing that parents often do at home to reinforce Montessori learning at home is to have a handy jug and cup where a preschooler can get this and fetch him/herself a drink. Even if you and your older child feel confident that he or she can handle a jug competently, it pays to make sure that this jug and the cups are not only child-sized (in best Montessori fashion) but also that they’re made of something hard to break, such as enamelled metal or plastic. There is a good chance that one day, while your back is turned, your older child will be very kind and a good citizen and decide to get your younger child a cup of water as well, so something unbreakable will have to be the way.
Although your older child is less likely to put something dangerous in his/her mouth, you still need to bear in mind that he or she is still likely to be childish. You still need to keep dangerous chemicals such as bleach and dishwasher powder out of reach of preschoolers, as they might decide to experiment with pouring using these corrosive substances. Medicines should also be kept up high and locked away, as should sharp knives. And you should keep those guards over light sockets so a four-year-old who thinks he/she is able to plug in the CD player doesn’t try with disastrous results. You won’t be able to relax the safety principles in this area until all your children are a lot older – by the time the youngest is about eight or nine, you should be able to keep the detergent and the disinfectant under the sink again where everyone – including the children – can get at them to wash the dishes easily.