Wednesday, May 27, 2020

What is a Prepared Learning Environment?

In my posts I often use the Montessori term “prepared environment”. Today, I want to provide insight into what this means. Maria Montessori observed many children throughout her life, and she was a big advocate of having certain areas where everything is set up for them. Ideally, it may be several shelves that are attractive, welcoming, and with order and learning in mind. As we set up our children’s learning areas we should definitely consider their age and interests. Carefully organized settings for children where they freely move and explore provides many opportunities throughout the day for children to learn and discover. They should be free to work on activities of their choice and at their pace. Maria Montessori recommended setting up a minimalistic, clutter-free environment with simplicity in mind. Try not to overwhelm young learners with too many activities, lots of visuals such as posters on the walls, and loud, battery-operated toys.   

“The first aim of the prepared environment is, as far as it is possible, to render the growing child independent of the adult.” M. Montessori

Here are 8 "prepared environment" stations in our home:

  • The library area. My children are five, three, and two years old. The younger ones are girls and the eldest is my son. With that in mind, I divide our library into different levels: toddler books, character/manner books, seasons, Lego books, animals books, etc. The library is the most popular corner of our house.  Our youngest daughter spends most of her time there. I have a soft comfy chair that is her size, one small basket with her favorite set of books and a big floor puzzle. We visit our local public library to rotate and replace the selection of books ideally every few weeks or once a month. 

  • The kitchen. My kids enjoy spending time in the kitchen. We have a wooden, toddler-sized table with two chairs. My girls always bring fresh flowers from their morning nature walks to decorate their table. I seasonally rotate their placemats and make sure their kitchen corner is beautiful and appealing. In addition, our two lower shelves include children sized silverware, plates, cups, and napkins. It allows for the children to set up their own table independently and serve themselves basic snacks. They prefer to choose their own silverware and plate settings and giving them the freedom to do so minimizes a toddler's frustration and/or disappointment prior to mealtime. 

  • The play and learning area. We have small shelves with different activities on them in our formal living room. I usually have a few things for each subject: math, language arts, geography, science, sensorial materials, etc. They can be puzzles, sorting trays, matching pictures with objects, a box with sensory play for my girls, a globe, building blocks, farm animals, toy bugs, etc. Basically, anything your children have an interest in. Make sure to rotate these materials. Also, as you observe the child, watch what they enjoy the most, and what are the things he/she never engages in. There were moments, when I had the best in my opinion materials on my kids’ shelves and none of them touched it. At other times, they would be inclined to complete the same old puzzle over and over again for months on end.

“The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.” M. Montessori

  • Bedrooms. Each of our children is fortunate to have their own room.  Their nap schedule is different and I also want them to have their own private and safe place when they want to be by themselves. 

I minimize the number of toys the kids can have in their rooms; while each of them has a small shelf with books on it and a couple stuffed animals. Their closets have low shelves with clothes to help with the independent dressing process. Pajamas, socks, underwear are in separate baskets, t-shirts, dresses, sweaters, pants are separated. I include my children in the laundry process, they help me in organizing and folding their clothing, and are responsible for putting their dirty clothes in the laundry hamper. Note: this is a process, kids obviously don’t always remember to toss their dirty close in the hamper, nor do I give up in reminding them of their responsibility. 

  • The Lego station. My son fell in love with Legos when he received his first Duplo set at 18 months old. Since then I have watched his interest grow. At some point it became obvious he needed a dedicated space to be more organized. These days even the girls started to get into Legos. It’s either because they enjoy his company and want to be around him or because they truly enjoy the focus and attention of configuring shapes and figures. The biggest challenge was to ensure every corner of our house was not overrun with Legos. There were days where legos had crept onto the kitchen counter, dining table, living room, family room floor, our son’s  room, etc… It started to frustrate me and the rest of the family. The following was our solution to the Lego epidemic:
    • Dedicated display space for completed lego sets. This ended up being above the TV frame in the family room
    • Saved all the instruction booklets from each lego set in a large box
    • Agreed on firm boundaries and rules regarding where configuring Lego is allowed. For example, if Lego is spilled on the living room floor, our son cannot spill another container in his room or in the family room until he cleans up the first pile
    • Have your child configure legos on a large rug or under a blanket so it’s easy to swoop up the legos and also visibly not step on them
    • Have dedicated containers for mixed-use lego pieces which are where the kids toss their legos at the end of the day
    • A separate container for Lego mini-figures and their accessories
    • One thing we haven’t mastered yet but is a work in progress is organizing legos by colors and having color-coded shoe boxes for ease of organization.

  • The dressing area. At the entrance of our home we have a kids dresser with hangers for their jackets, hats, sunglasses, and shoes as well as umbrellas and boots during the rainy season. Children have a natural desire to dress themselves from the moment they begin to walk. It’s convenient to have a dedicated area where they can ready themselves when it’s time to go outside. When my kids weren’t of speaking age, they would always bring me to this corner and point to the jackets which was their way to invite me for a walk :)

  • Art Corner. One of my children's favorite sections in our house, and definitely the messiest. I make sure to have several coloring pages that spark their interest, with markers, sharpener, paper, a notebook, and some erasers. We also have a double-sided easel (chalk-sided, felt tip marker sided, and with a paper roll for pencil drawing) This station definitely can’t exist without placemats and wipes! I set up this station in an area with lots of natural light. You can have a famous painting displayed somewhere close to your art station to inspire your young artists. Do I have paint available for my children laying out in the open? No. My youngest just turned two, and can be too creative with paint so under my supervision we do watercolors or use our paintbrushes. One of the key points of a prepared environment is rotating the material at each station . For example, have different natural materials for your children to paint: rocks, sticks, leaves, acorns, pine cones, etc. The biggest challenge here is not to teach how to paint or draw but to quietly participate. Often I sit and work on my own art piece while my kids are engulfed in theirs. There are times when they choose this station without me being present there. I remind them to wipe their table and make sure the materials are placed back in their places (i.e. coloring books, markers, etc.

            “Every child is an artist.” P. Picasso

  • The classroom. We turned our two car detached garage into a formal classroom. As we are homeschooling, my children literally have to leave our house (i.e. the front door) and transition to a schooling/learning environment with desks, tables, and school-aged learning materials. Our children go to this school setting four days a week for three hours a day. At our co-op, My Montessori Family, some of our children’s friends join us and we learn together in this prepared environment.

What are some of your favorite stations to set up in your home?

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