Creating a Play Space for Preschoolers (Guest Post)

This is a guest post by Jennifer Zimmerman about how she set up a Montessori and Waldorf inspired space for her kids to learn and play.

When my son Owen was approaching preschool age, we moved into a new home. This motivated me to really think about his new bedroom and how I wanted him to use it. I also  thought a lot about his future schooling and which educational philosophies would be a good match for his personality and needs. I looked into both Montessori and Waldorf education. I liked different things about both philosophies. I liked how Montessori encouraged self-help skills, independence and allowed the child to choose learning materials that fit their abilities and advance at their own pace. Yet, I also felt myself attracted to how Waldorf focused on the arts, encouraged pretend play and immersed children into a magical fantasy world. I favored Montessori for Owen, but I still wanted to incorporate a few things from Waldorf. I set out to create a fun and playful environment that had many opportunities for self-directed learning and exploration.

I loved the Montessori reading nooks, and so I created one by using a short and wide bookshelf to partition off a small area of his room. I hung a reading lamp on the wall and placed cozy pillows and stuffed animals near his rocking chair inside the nook. I placed his books on the bookshelf in easy reach so he could choose which ones to pull out and read. In this photo you can see his partitioned off nook. Just behind the shelf is where his cozy reading spot was:

Image

In another area of the room I hung a mirror close to the floor at my son’s level. The low hanging mirror is a common Montessori item, but this is also where some Waldorf influence came in. I hung some dress up clothes on hooks near the mirror, as well as some colorful play silks for pretend play. Play silks are an open ended toy which Waldorf really encourages.

Image

Open ended toys are toys that are gender neutral and do not have a specific purpose. Their purpose is up to the child to imagine. Play silks are square or rectangular pieces of real silk that usually have been dyed different colors. A play silk can be tied on the body as a skirt, a hat, a cape, wings, or a doll sling. They can be used as water, land, or sky with small toys, as a doll blanket, or simply waved around in the air during active play. Another example of an open ended toy is a push cart. The cart can be used by babies learning to walk, by toddlers transporting toys, as a stroller for dolls or stuffed animals, as a dump truck, or many other things according to what the child wants to imagine that day. Waldorf toys are quite spendy, so if you are on a budget like me then you must get creative about obtaining them. Waldorf-like toys can be purchased at thrift stores or homemade. There are many websites that give directions on how to make Waldorf toys if you are crafty. I bought the play silks as blanks for around five dollars each and then dyed them myself. I bought a push cart at Ikea for just under twenty dollars. This multipurpose toy, which can be used for many years, was well worth the price.

Next, I placed some Montessori-inspired educational materials on low shelves. These shelves should be short enough for children to reach, and wide enough to hold quite a few materials. The materials are objects and toys that allow children to practice life skills. Things like stringing beads and shape puzzles are placed in bowls or on trays on the shelves. There are many websites that show how to create these materials yourself. This concept melded very well with Waldorf’s idea of having natural objects around to be used as open ended play things. I found many real wood bowls and plates at thrift stores, some even shaped like tree leaves, and filled them with objects from nature such as pine cones, rocks, and nuts. Owen had a small table and chair that he could bring his materials over to play with them.

One area where Waldorf and Montessori are in complete agreement is the play kitchen. A play kitchen is a place that is ripe for pretend play for any preschooler, and also teaches important life skills to satisfy the Montessori side of things. Along with Owen’s play kitchen, we also found him a small play hutch made out of real wood at a thrift store. The hutch has real glass doors and contains real ceramic dishes, real metal pots and panscookware and silverware from Ikea. Learning to handle fragile items at a young age is an important aspect of Montessori education, and Waldorf stresses using natural materials for everything that comes into contact with the child. If a dish breaks, cleaning it up also becomes a learning experience that the child can be engaged in. They can use their child sized broom and dust pan to help clean it up.  Owen not only plays with real glass and ceramic kitchen items, he also eats and drinks from them. As a result, he learned about these materials early in life and is very careful with them. In fact, I accidentally break more dishes then he does.

Image

In Owen’s closet I placed a large shelf that holds his folded clothing. There is also a bar at his height with some of his clothes hung on it. This is another Montessori philosophy. Children are encouraged to choose their own clothing from a young age. Having the clothes out on shelves instead of stuffed into drawers makes it much easier for little hands to find what they need without making a big mess. Dressing oneself is another life skill that Montessori teaches. Waldorf encourages that clothing be made out of natural materials such as cotton or wool, and they discourage any commercial or fictional characters on clothing. This is one of those somewhat odd things about Waldorf (there are many!) but one that I personally try to live by.

ImageWhat we didn’t have room for in Owen’s room was an art station. Art, music and dancing are a very important part of a Waldorf education. We stored Owen’s art and music supplies in a tall shelf with bins. The art bin could easily be taken out and carried to the kitchen where Owen was encouraged to paint, color and draw. Owen preferred abstract paintings and I learned that if I gave him three complementary colors he would produce some pretty cool looking art work.

Owen is six years old now, and he has been joined by his little sister Isla who just turned 16 months. We just recently moved again and I now face the task of setting up a bedroom for each of them, and a small play area that they can play in together. Thanks to their  Montessori and Waldorf inspired toys, it is not hard to create a play room that a six-year old boy and 16-month old girl can play in together. They both love their play kitchen. While Owen ties play silks around his neck as capes, Isla uses them to wrap up her dolls. They both push their dolls and stuffed animals around in their cart, and Owen even gives Isla a ride in it every so often. They do art work together and Owen reads books to his little sister. Owen ended up attending a traditional school as he didn’t make it through the lottery system to gain entrance to the Montessori public school in our city. Waldorf was never an option for him, mostly because it is private and very expensive, but also because some aspects of their philosophy do not mesh with his personality or our personal beliefs. However, I think what we did take from both systems was very beneficial for him, and will also be beneficial for Isla as she grows.

Jennifer lives with her family in St. Paul, MN.  You can read more about Owen and Isla on her blog, Kinder Tales.

Let’s vote for kids

Kids FirstI vote for kids.  I’ve seen the bumper stickers.  I’ve even wanted to sport one (though I am car-free), but I’ve also wondered what exactly it meant.  Then an ARC of David L. Kirp’s Kids First came across my desk.  I could not resist reading it.  And, I must admit, I could not resist being caught up in its vision.  Here is the kids first agenda as laid out by Kirp (who, by the way, is a professor at UC Berkeley):

  • Give new parents strong support.
  • Provide high-quality early education.
  • Link schools and communities to improve what both offer children.
  • Provide mentors to youngsters who need a stable, caring adult in their lives.
  • Give kids a nest egg that helps pay for college or kick-start a career.

Kirp points out so many success stories from Head Start to Big Brothers Big Sisters, and I’d like to point out a a success story here in the Twin Cities.  Bright Water Montessori School is the only nationally accredited preschool in North Minneapolis, and the first on the northside to recieve a 4-star rating from ParentAware.  Bright Water is committed to North Minneapolis–to promoting peace in the, often very unpeaceful, neighborhood.  My daughter attended Bright Water’s preschool program for a year, and we were thrilled with the education she received.  I was continually impressed with the passion and commitment from the staff and the other parents.  They are doing great things there, and I am pleased that my family was able to be part of it.

Learn more about this great school, and what it is doing for North Minneapolis, in this video:

“Excellent education doesn’t just happen in the suburbs or in South Minneapolis.  It can happen anywhere.” –Ann Luce

What is true for us

Mindful Motherhood by Cassandra Vieten

My introduction to mindfulness meditation came through the mail.  I opened a package from the Library Journal offices in New York to find my latest review assignment: Mindful Motherhood by Cassandra Vieten.  I was only vaguely familiar with meditation, and the word “mindfulness” was new to me.  This was my perfect introduction to these ideas because it was very secular and scientific, which helped me to have an open mind. It was nearly two years ago that I reviewed Mindful Motherhood, and I have yet to really embrace a meditation practice, though I have found the principle of mindfulness–the definition repeated throughout the book is “awareness of the moment without judging it as good or bad”–to be extremely helpful.

This weekend my family went to an open house at Moe Body Works to support a friend who is a yoga and meditation teacher there.  In addition to snacks and tea, the open house featured several demonstrations of some of the services offered at Moe Body Works.  We didn’t get there early enough for the intro to Qigong, but the Acro-Yoga demo was very, very cool.  As one of the yoga teachers was “flying” upside-down, Ladybug whispered to me, “This is cool.”

Later, the meditation primer was probably less “cool” to her, but we really enjoyed it.  First we experienced two minutes of silence.  The time went fast, and Ladybug was mostly quiet during it, which helped us have confidence that she could handle being there with us during the primer.  Next we spent five minutes in silent meditation.  This was significantly more challenging.  Ladybug spent about a minute sitting quietly in position then she built a pattern with the orange sitting pillows that weren’t being used.  It was a long five minutes, but I’m really glad we all experienced it.  For one thing, my partner and I have a renewed sense of wanting to make a meditation practice part of our lives.  For another, I liked that Ladybug was there to see us modeling meditation for her and even to participate as she was able.

It reminded me of the Montessori “Silence Game,” which challenges children to stay quiet until their names are called as a way of teaching self discipline and awareness to children ages 2 to 6. How to Raise an Amazing Child the Montessori Way says, “At first, younger children may not be able to remain still and silent for more than 30 seconds, but gradually they will develop the ability to relax, listen, and appreciate the silence.”  I think this will be a good place for us to start.

The Mindful Child by Susan K. Greenland

When we got home, I picked Susan K. Greenland’s The Mindful Child off my shelf.  I’d read it some months ago but I hadn’t tried any of the activities/meditations with Ladybug,.  The book encourages parents to start using the principles of mindfulness even with preschoolers to help them “connect to themselves (who do I feel? think? see?) to others (what do they feel? think? see?), and maybe to something greater than themselves.”  Sounds like it’s right in line with the principles of sensory awareness in Montessori education.  Actually, several of the activities in The Mindful Child work as variations of Montessori activities (sorting dried beans with a blindfold, for example).  What I really like about Greenland’s book, though, is the flexibility.  She writes, “practice what is true for you.”  That may include art or movement or music.  And that’s okay.  Just keep practicing.  Sounds like something a mom would say.

I think we might be homeschoolers now…

Ladybug happened to receive a My First Sticky Mosaic Art Kit for Christmas, and she was eager to try it out.  I guess I wasn’t that enthusiastic about an art kit; I tend to prefer my art more let-the-spirit-flow-freely.  But she was so excited that I was swept up in her enthusiasm for the project.  It wasn’t until I was looking at the photos I snapped while she worked that I noticed why she must have liked it.  The peeling of the stickers and matching the shapes is a lot like the work she did at the Montessori preschool she attended until recently.  This actually inspired me to find more Montessori-style activities for her.  Just because she isn’t in preschool anymore doesn’t mean we can’t “homeschool preschool.”

 

I currently have Montessori Play and Learn and  Teaching Montessori in the Home checked out from the library.  Will report back on how useful they are.