Maria Montessori believed that meal time is an extremely valuable learning opportunity for children. From the time children can sit independently, Montessori children sit at a child-sized table and learn to feed themselves. They learn grace of movement by setting the table with breakable, child-sized dishes and glasses. They practice courtesy by using please and thank you, chewing with their mouths closed, serving others first and through conversation. At a recent classroom meeting, my child’s teacher guided the parents through the lunch routine for her Montessori classroom. It was such a treat to see how my daughter sets up her lunch everyday.
First, we parents arranged the tables in a long, banquet-style line and placed chairs on each side, ensuring we had enough seats for all of the parents. In Montessori, carrying the tables is always a two-person job performed gracefully, avoiding shelves, work rugs, and other children. Moving chairs is equally important, with great care taken to set down the chair silently. Once we all found our seats, we followed each other to get our lunch setting one item at a time. First, the placemat, then back to the table. Next, the napkin, then back to the table. Then a ceramic, child-sized plate carried with two hands back to the table. Then a small juice-glass sized cup carried with two hands back to the table. Finally, a metal fork and spoon carried purposefully back to the table. One parent noted how much we moved throughout the classroom just to set up our lunch spots.
Once seated, a parent carried a ceramic tray with damp, heated and neatly rolled washcloths. Another parent, using tongs, carefully placed a washcloth on each placemat for us to wash our hands. This elaborate presentation is referred to as “Japanese hand washing”, inspired by the warmed washcloths sometimes handed out at Japanese restaurants. To avoid lines at the sink, each child uses their small washcloth to carefully wipe each finger of each hand in preparation for lunch. What a special way to wash hands before each meal!
Our table had a beautiful, porcelain pitcher of water with lemon slices for us to drink. We passed the pitcher around the table, some parents offering to pour for others as I’m sure the children do. We were served a snack that our children prepared – 2 crackers and a skewer of cherry tomato, fresh mozzarella, leaves of spinach and a black olive. The presentation was beautiful. After we enjoyed our snack and asked a few questions, we began the clean-up routine.
First, we cleared off our plates in the trash and went to the washing table outside to clean off our plates. The washing table has two bins – a soapy bin on the left and a clean water, rinsing bin on the right. We used a small sponge to wipe off our plates in the soapy water, rinsed our plates in the clean water then dried our plates. To dry, we set our plate on one washcloth and dried with a second washcloth. Finally, we carried our plates and cups to the dishwasher cart. The dishwasher cart is taken to the school’s kitchen daily and the dishwasher is loaded by the children. Then we returned our napkins and placemats – if clean, they are reused and if soiled, they are placed in a laundry basket. If there were crumbs or food on the table, we swept them up with a special broom and dustpan that are exclusively for use on the table.
I was inspired by this activity because I saw so clearly how I could continue these routines at home. Since both of my children have been a part of this particular classroom, they are used to the same routine. The key to making this a successful routine at home depends on consistency and a prepared home environment. Keep your eye out for a future post about how our home environment is prepared for meals.
While I would love to set up a formal snack table in my home, this exercise reminded me of many smaller, simple concepts to include at home. In our busy, adult world, we often carry too many things at once. While perhaps inefficient by adult standards, carrying one item at a time demands a certain amount of care and presence of mind. It encourages grace by enabling the child to focus on maneuvering carefully and safely with their breakable dishes and cups. Another takeaway is to make meal presentation beautiful. I felt special when the teacher offered the elegantly prepared snack and ornate pitcher of lemon water.
How can you use this information in your home? Do you have a consistent routine for setting and clearing the table? How do your children help with the dishes? For mealtime, consider these steps to bring Montessori home:
- provide children easy access to child-sized, breakable dishes, glasses and small utensils
- set up a routine for setting the table that your child can do independently, without asking for your help
- create a dishwashing routine, which includes clearing the dishes, cleaning your plate, and wiping down your space at the table
- involve your children in meal preparation and presentation
- slow down! Carry one thing at a time, close drawers and cupboards quietly, and model the grace and courtesy you would like to see in your own children
- enjoy meals as a family, with the help of your children!