Monday, March 9, 2009

What do you DO with an UNDER TWO (or three)?

One of my six readers recently asked the following question:
I to ask you about the shelves in your school room. I have attempted to have specific shelves for my oldest and some for my youngest. However, as expected, the work on the other shelf often seems to be more appealing for both. How do you go about handling that? Do you enforce it?

What follows is an extremely bloated blog post that will eventually (I hope) get around to answering that question, and this one: What DO people DO with an UNDER TWO?

Or, under three for that matter... Many people seem to be starting the 3-6 curriculum early, at around 2.5 (myself included), so I tend to think of the under twos as the problem, but really we are talking overall about under-threes.

The fact of the matter is, while Montessori classrooms are mixed ages, they do not have "underage children" running amok with the 3-6 year-olds. I don't know how accurate they were, but someone once told me that until a child is at least 19 months old, they can't comprehend the concept of ownership and think everything is for them. When I started having time in the "school room" with both kids for the first time, I peppered the Montessori groups message boards with questions about how people dealt with having an under two in the same space as an older child. I didn't get very many responses, and most of those were along the lines of "I'm in the same situation, let me know what you figure out."

Some of the concerns I had were about sharing. Some were about choking and broken glass. Some were about damage to the equipment. My biggest concern is that if Me Too is exposed to Kal-El's activities now it will destroy the sense of mystery and discovery he needs to have later when it is the appropriate time for him to do them.

As always, I found the best quantity and quality of information on blogs.

Two types proved helpful. First, blogs that could make it clear to me how crowd control is handled in real Montessori primary classrooms. Second, were homeschool blogs written by families that had their own little monkeys toddling around. I'll talk about the first right away, and the second towards the end of the post.

Many months ago I read a great post written by a classroom teacher that discussed their procedures for waiting for turns with a work, watching another student work, and working together. I have spent at least an hour looking through the
71 blogs in my google reader trying to find it to no avail. Maybe someone who reads a more reasonable number of blogs has seen it and can let me know where it was. (On a side note, I read somewhere that you should not have more than 10 items in your reader. Oops.) Unfortunately for all of you, instead of providing you with a fantastic link, I'll have to give you a run down of what I have gleaned about Montessori classrooms and crowd control. Any errors in interpretation are mine and mine alone.
  • Montessori classrooms only have one of each piece of equipment despite the fact that there are 25-30 in a class. Among other things this teaches patience and the idea that anything worth doing is worth waiting your turn for. It also probably also encourages students to try some otherwise untouched works when all the popular ones are taken:)
  • Students are only to work with equipment that has been presented to them either individually or in a group.
  • Students are not forbidden to watch others work or to work together.
  • If one student is working and another student wishes to observe they must ask permission from the student who is working to observe. "May I watch you work?"An observing student has to watch from a respectful distance with their hands to themselves. They may not touch the student working or that student's work.
  • They may also ask permission to work together. If two students agree to work together, then they may. There is no strong-arming students into "group projects" like I encountered in my public school education (I hated those, I always got stuck doing the whole project myself).
  • I am currently reading Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius and it said that at the primary age students usually prefer to work and play separately or side-by-side but become very social at the elementary level and prefer to work in groups.

As I said, this information would be much better straight from the horse's mouth so to speak so I'll let you know if I find the link and I encourage you to read a blog or two written by a trained and experienced Montessori classroom teacher.
For a long time I avoided the problem altogether by having "school" right away in the morning. Kal-El gets up consistently at 6 a.m., and Me Too was sleeping until 9 a.m. Once Me Too started to get up earlier, I had to figure out how to put them together. It also wasn't fair to exclude Me Too from time in the school room. I was doing a lot of pre-Montessori activities with Kal-El in the spirit of a Montessori Young Children's Community and he should have the same advantages.

I decided to set up two shelves for each child, the idea being that perhaps they could be trained to know which works were intended for whom. (It is also essential to be using work rugs.) This, as it turned out, works very well.

In the school room there are two sets of shelves. Usually the shelves you see on the blog are Kal-El's just because they wind up in the background due to the way the room is shaped.

This is what they look like together.

This is a close-up of Me Too's shelves.

They hold pre-Montessori type learning toys and appropriate practical life works. There are many ideas for children under the age of three in Tim Seldin's book How To Raise An Amazing Child the Montessori Way and Maja Pitamic's book Teach Me to Do It Myself: Montessori Activities for You and Your Child. Another fantastic resource is available at Montessori for Everyone and it's called the Comprehensive List of Materials & Concepts for a Toddler Montessori Child--18 Months to 3 Years. In other good news there has recently been a spate of new blogs written by moms are starting Montessori at or near infancy and they have a lot of good ideas. Some of them are even former Montessori teachers or have been through training.

The first day I tried it, I didn't think it was going to work. Kal-El was old enough to understand but Me Too was maybe 17 months old and tried to take things off of Kal-El's shelves non-stop. The second day he only tried a few times. The third day he tried once or twice just to make sure the rules were the same. To train him to do this, I repeatedly told him "No, that is for Kal-El, these are Me Too's shelves" over, and over, and over....and physically redirecting him to his own shelves. (It was rather like watching Supernanny keep a kid in time out or teach one to stay in his bed.) I tried to maintain a really pleasant tone during this so he wouldn't dislike being in the school room.

Of course, Kal-El is interested in what is on Me Too's shelves as well and I've decided to let him work with whatever activities he wishes. At first Me Too was really getting the shaft because he couldn't touch Kal-El's materials, but Kal-El could touch his. That's just part of being the second child. There were two reasons I made that decision. First, if I made Me Too's shelves "taboo" it would make them just that more enticing for Kal-El. I hoped that by letting him use the works, he would try them and get over it. In reality, those works are too basic and as a result only hold Kal-El's interest momentarily. That worked beautifully. Second, in a Montessori 3-6 classroom works the student accomplished in their first year are still present on the shelves in their third year. When the child feels a need they may take one of those works off the shelf and use it and are not discouraged to do so. I read recently (Montessori Today) that the child has a different type of experience doing this kind of work. When they originally worked with the equipment it was with a sense of discovery. When they return to a work after some time, it is more like visiting an old friend or something. Kal-El will have that same opportunity to revisit past work.

I wanted to honor the kids right to observe one another working, to work together, and the right to work alone. Kal-El already enjoys mentoring Me Too on a work, just as an older student in a Montessori school would mentor a younger student. I don't know if Me Too will ever have that opportunity or not :) Somebody has to be the youngest right? (Although, if we are to support their preference to work in groups at the elementary level we had better get crackin'!) I taught the boys to ask one another if they want to work together before they just barge in and start touching. Me Too is very clear on this. Kal-El asks "do you want to do it together?" and he responds either cheerfully "uh huh!" or emphatically "no!" They are usually delighted when they work together with Kal-El exclaiming joyfully "we're working together!" echoed immediately by Me Too "mmmeeemawking gether!" (we're working together).

It almost goes without saying that Me Too spends a lot of time kneeling next to Kal-El's rug and watching him work. This organically led to a change in how Me Too uses Kal-El's shelves. He can't really say "do you want to work together" (His repertoire of sentences has been exploding lately, but his best ones mostly include "I'm Okay," "Mama....(where) are you?" "Come out, come out, wherever you are" "I want up," or alternatively "I want Da Da" "let's do it" and "I love you.") He "expresses his desire" by trying to grab whatever Kal-El is working with on his rug. Kal-El has learned to expect this and instead of "freaking out" says instead "Sure, Me Too, let's do it together" or "No, I want to do this myself." Then, it's my job to observe and determine whether or not the activity is something that it is appropriate for Me Too to help with.

I have to say that this policy, along with using rugs, is really helping teach the boys to respect one another.

So....what's "appropriate" for Me Too? Sometimes it's an obvious "no" right away (such as the phonic sound sorts) and I interject and redirect him to simply observing. If he can't keep his hands to himself after that, I direct him to another activity. Sometimes it's an obvious "yes" and I can let things take their course. Most often it is a "we'll see" situation. If I automatically had said "no" to all of the activities I thought he couldn't do, I would have held him back on a lot of things he is actually capable of doing. Often times he can do the activity with an adaptation. For example, when Kal-El started working on sorting balls into the compartments of an ice cube tray using tongs Me Too started sorting the balls using his fingers and still will repeat this activity ten times in a row with intense concentration. He has recently started doing it using the tongs which I never would have suspected he could do. Me Too is also completely capable of doing the cylinder blocks individually. He is doing all of the steps properly (uses a pincer grasp, etc.,). I am really glad I didn't prevent him from trying this. He is very interested in puzzles right now and can do knobbed, shapes puzzles really well. He has a lot of trouble doing puzzles with animal shapes and such though because he has trouble lining up the piece properly. The cylinder blocks, being cylinders, don't require that step. Me Too is learning to be gentle and perfecting his grip. Obviously there are some things he tries and is unsuccessful with. If that's
the case I redirect him. He is usually not interested anymore when a task is completely beyond him. He is always very interested in the pink tower. The first few days he didn't take that information well at all...

But now he just accepts that he is not allowed to work with it

One piece of equipment at a time Me Too has learned which things on Kal-El's shelves he is allowed to touch and which he isn't. Likewise, he knows which shelves are his and that he can use all of the works on those shelves. We are still working on only taking one thing off the shelves at a time. He does okay unless he gets excited. He tends to abandon his work if Kal-El is being shown something new and wants to join us for the presentation. Then, he forgets what was working on and gets something else.

In the end, I am hoping that not being able to use much of Kal-El's work isn't really any different that it is for any student in a Montessori classroom who can see three years worth of equipment in the room but has to learn they may only work with equipment that has been presented to them.

I guess my response to the reader question could have been a lot simpler. Such as: Yes, I have specific shelves for the boys. Yes I enforce it, but Kal-El is allowed to use anything on Me Too's shelves and Me Too can use some of the things on Kal-El's.

I don't pretend that my solution will be the right thing for everyone. Here are just a couple places to look for some other ideas.

Our Montessori Story is the online diary of a multi-family, home-based, Montessori preschool. Their solution was to create a classroom for their over threes, and a playroom for the under threes. You can search through their blog to find posts about when they combine the two groups. In recent months/weeks they have started to bring the under-threes into the classroom for periods of time.

JenMack at Wildflowers and Marbles wrote a post here titled Kinder-Play: Play spaces for the Youngest. Her strategy could be summed up as creating an obstacle course of appropriate activities physically in the way of inappropriate activities. It's a little bit like putting out a separate feeder for the squirrels in hopes that they will stay out of the bird feeder.

Another example is Steph at Montessori Free Fall. She has a daughter about Kal-El's age and teaches another little girl about Me Too's age as well. Her blog is missing a lot of my favorite posts since part of it went "private" and I can't find the ones that showed how she set up her materials. However, you can still find some posts that give you an idea what it's like to work with two about those ages if you look for posts titled "Preschool Session Review."

Andrea at Gray Family Circus set up activities that are appropriate for her two-year-old on low shelves and the activities for the older children on the higher shelves so it becomes a matter of being able to reach.

Another website I originally turned to for ideas is called Preschoolers and Peace. She is a homeschooling mom of eight so she definately knows how to keep her little ones busy while the older ones work. She advocates a lot of room time/crib time/play pen/chair time which didn't mesh well with my Montessori sensibilities. However her ideas about what to have them do while they are there are very good. If you dig around on her site there is a lot of information about her daily schedule and how she makes it all work. There is also a post here that's a list of ideas for keeping little ones busy. Her site is not a Montessori site, but she homeschools using the classical method employing the trivium. I myself am trying to figure out how the Montessori philosophy and the book The Well-Trained Mind
could be used together.

Good luck!

Another post you might like: Toy Rotation for Infants and Toddlers


  1. Thank you for this informative post! I just recently found your blog, and have been a delighted lurker. :)
    My youngest is a fairly new 2. We don't do strict Montessori, but have mats and free choice activities in a loose sort of way. But my little girl has just always had a mat and was allowed to do anything her 3yo brother does, with different expectations as far as just what she could handle. (fingers versus tongs for example) This has never been a problem. They are, however, not well suited to any sort of working together, so that is strongly discouraged. My older two (5 and 6yos) do work with each and also with the younger ones at times.
    My solution to bigger kids doing works intended for the little kids is that big kids must do a set number of their own works FIRST, then they are allowed to alternate between their works and the little kids' works. This allows anything new to be available to the little ones first, and keeps the big kids from only choosing fun and easy stuff.
    Again, I have been really enjoying your blog and your ideas!

  2. I have just recently found your blog and have been reading it everyday! I have 2 girls 4 and 17months and am loving your posts. This one in particular was very very helpful to me as we have a very similar situation happening with the youngest trying to get into what the oldest is doing all the time! I guess I have not been persistant enough in redirecting her and I will give it another shot! Thanks for all of your ideas and thoughts!

  3. Thank you so much for answering my questions with such a detailed informative post! I have set up similar rules for my 3-year-old and 21 month old. My 3 year old is pretty much allowed to work on any activity on any shelf. And my youngest is allowed to work on only some activities on his sister’s shelf. This works on most days, but on some days it seems like my son’s only mission is to go for the rice pouring tray (a definite “no-no”). I like your reader’s idea and will try to have my oldest complete a predetermined number of activities on her shelf before being allowed to chose an activity from her younger brother’s shelf (Thanks Spesamore Academy).
    Thanks again, I will definitely continue to follow your blog.

  4. Regarding the pink tower. 1 1/2 year olds love stacking so you could have it down on the floor and put the tiny one on another shelf for your older one if you are afraid it is a chocking hazard.
    Great post! I wish I could be as patient as you!

  5. Thank you so much for this post. I only have one child, but he is soon to turn two and I was wondering what things would be good to start with him. I have no idea if this is the post you were referencing about taking turns, but if not, it is one that I thought was helpful.

  6. Courtney,

    Thank you for trying to help me find my phantom post. No, unfortunately that wasn't the one I was looking for. I came across that one again when I was searching and was really excited at first because it COULD have been the post. The one I'm looking for specifically gave a "script" for how the kids should ask to observe and what to do with their bodies while observing.

    Still haven't found it :(


    You're right, he is at a good age for the pink tower now. We tried it the other day but he wouldn't listen and wait for the demonstration. He kept grabbing at it, stacking big ones on top of little ones, then violently knocking it down. I have to work with him on patience for a little bit first. Although someone made a good point recently that the pink tower is the sensorial material that takes the most abuse because it is one of the places they learn NOT to abuse the materials.

  7. I just found your blog and am looking forward to reading through all your posts. I have loosely been doing Montessori activities with my 3.5 year old and now I'm about to really get her schoolroom set up. I have a one year old too, so it should be pretty interesting! Thanks for all the information and the Montessori related links- so helpful!

  8. I notice you have the geometric cabinet in one of your pictures. Does it get a lot of use. I am considering buying one, but wanted to know what homeschoolers who had it felt about having it.

    juliecerdas at gmail dot com

  9. The girl who painted trees,

    Yes, we do own a geometric cabinet. It was one of our most expensive purchases to date. I purchased it because the geometric cabinet is used in nearly all of Gettman's periods (if you follow the Gettman at all). In other words, it is used for an extended period of time for many types of activities. It also can be used during Montessori Elementary.

    If it will break your heart that they don't use it for hours at a time in the first several weeks, don't get it. If you can be patient and let their use of it add up over several years it is a good purchase.

    This is an older post. You can see pictures of my kids using the cabinet as recently as the last couple of weeks.

    It is important NOT to buy this cabinet at the deepest deepest discount. Discount cabinets (such as the one at Montessori Concepts) are not cut properly. The circles only fit in one way and the figures that should fit in with many orientations (such as a hexagon) don't. The ones from I-fit or Montessori Outlet are probably your lowest-priced options.

    I look forward to reading about your choice on your blog sometime :)

  10. Thanks so much for all the info! I can't wait to check out the rest of your blog!

  11. i have been following your blog and enjoying reading how you spend your days with your boys for a while . my two kids are 4 and 20 months old . it was a lot easier before having our baby brother . he just doesn't want to accept that he has his own work to do . he really believes he is his 4 years old sister twin brother and should do everything she is doing , and of course it all ends in big mess , tears for the 4 years old , and sometime more fun to join in the mess i have been working so far with home made material till i just got my first order yoopee , feel it is a bit late for my 4 years old wish i did it before , but she can always benefit from them and her brother will have the opportunity of early start . i didn't have a schoolroom before , material was all over the house on shelves , with the arrival of baby brother material went on high shelves and big sister work moved to the dining room table , till little bro learned to climb up .
    i have been working hard on decluttering my house , set up a toy room with some toddler activities , and i have a whole empty room with some tall cabinets i managed to empty the lower shelves to put my new montessori material . i dream to assign a shelf for each area , so all sensorial can go on one shelf , language on another , geography and map work on another , but looking at your room i feel i shouldn't waste more time and can just start with whatever shelf space available and just rotate the material .i am kinda of panicking , possessing all this beautiful material making me panic , where to start , how much to put out ?? how did you do it ?/ should i keep the room locked and work on finishing it all and get it ready than invite them in , or just go ahead and start ?? and no i don;t see me able to keep our little bro hands off the material so not sure how well i will be able to give a presentation with him trying to grab everything and his sister finding it great fun .
    any advice

  12. I want to suggest an approach advocated by Michael Dorer at an AMS workshop many years ago. He was referring to all ages of Montessori: find something that any particular child can do with a material that calls out to him/her. It may not be what the material was made for. It may be as simple as dusting. If the child is truly not ready for that material, the interest will be brief. Applied to your set-up, I would interpret that each child should have his shelves, but neither should be prohibited from using the materials on the other's shelves. I am exploring the limits of this idea now, with a 15, 13, 10 and 2 in the house.

  13. I love the way you've applied Montessori principles to your home! And it's fun to see posts from a few years back! I featured your post and photo in my post on preventing choking in babies and toddlers with older siblings at

    1. Thanks Deb,

      It IS fun to look back. I haven't looked at this post for a long time and it was really something to see Me Too curled up on the floor with his head down because he was sad to be too young for the pink tower.