There’s Just Too Much Stuff.

By Stacy Burnett

A few weeks ago I attended a discussion session on how to best support a self-directed child at home (more to come on this important topic in a future post).   Interestingly enough, this meeting led to an unintended but meaningful revelation about our home environments and the messages they send to our children.

During the session, some parents lamented that their child who excels at working with school materials one at a time and puts them away properly when finished, does not continue in this behavior at home.   Parents of older children shared that while their children do help around the house, that the execution does not match the level of the same tasks at performed at school.  The question on everyone’s mind was:

“Why isn’t my Montessori child more of a Montessori child at home ?”

The answer to this question varies from child to child, but one truth came to light:  a Montessori classroom, in design and methodology, is crafted specifically to allow children to work independently.  The environment is a key factor in the behavior of the happy, self-sufficient, and self-motivated children we observe in the classroom.  At home, children typically must fit into a world created by, and for adults.  Children are not always considered or consulted in the creation of the spaces in which they live.  In addition, we parents ask our children to help care for the household and all the stuff in the way we prescribe and at our pace.  In asking this of our children, we can create unrealistic expectations.  Although some families are successful in creating organized and uncluttered spaces at home, many are not.  During the discussion, a parent had a revelation:

There’s just too much stuff!

It’s no wonder some of our children are not able function independently in the same manner at home as they do at school.  The home environment itself is a barrier to their success.   Just like at home, a Montessori classroom has a vast array of items.  However, unlike our most of our home environments, in the classroom every object has a purpose, is intentionally lovely, and is thoughtfully organized.

Montessori Classroom via Peaceful Pathways Montessori

A Primary Montessori Classroom via Peaceful Pathways Montessori

The beauty of the Montessori classroom commands respect while also intentionally generating great curiosity and interest. The location and arrangement of each material is carefully planned. The shape, color, size, texture, etc, are carefully considered.  The Montessori teacher has thought out each and every activity, has practiced each lesson, has anticipated every movement and need required to use the materials properly and independently. When the teacher finds need for improvement, modifications are made to the materials and to the environment to better enable the children to use the material successfully, without adult assistance.  Additionally, the children are taught that the classroom is their “house” for which they are entirely responsible.  They are given many lessons on how to care for and clean their classroom. They learn to treat the materials with respect because they are special, and because there is typically only one of each kind to be shared by the entire class.  Within their carefully prepared classroom the children follow three simple rules:

1) only choose an activity that is on the shelf ,

2) always put the material away properly when finished, and 

3) only choose those materials that you’ve been given a lesson on.  

These rules of the classroom set up a system in which children are not fighting over a single material, that the materials are cared for and returned to their proper place, and that children choose activities that are specifically appropriate for each individual.   The teachers and assistants also invest a great deal of time checking the materials for missing, broken, or misplaced items, making repairs, and even rotating containers and vessels to create new interest in existing materials.

The simplicity, beauty, and calmness of a Montessori classroom is obvious, even to those not familiar with the methodology.   The children in a Montessori classroom work calmly and happily without the constant direction or correction from a teacher.  This is possible as a result of careful preparation, lovely, age-appropriate materials, and the lessons and rules of classroom etiquette.

Montessori’s writings on the Montessori teacher and the Montessori environment can help us to understand why the classroom environment looks the way it does.

The teacher must not content herself with merely providing her school with an attractive environment; she must continuously think about this environment, because a large part of the result depends on it. The teacher, therefore, must:

a) keep the didactic developmental material in perfect order. If this is not the case, the children will not take an interest in it and if they do not, the material becomes useless, as the entire Montessori method is based on the spontaneous activity of the child which is aroused precisely by the interest the child takes in the material.

b) make sure that every object used by the children has a place of its own that is easily accessible to them. Thus, the black and coloured pencils, the paper, the pen, the ink, etc., must be placed in such a way that the children can take them in an orderly fashion without the help of the teacher. The order in which the objects are kept teaches order to the children.

– Dr. Montessori’s advice to teachers

For many of us, our homes are usually another story.

Our living spaces are not often intentionally ‘prepared’.  The things we surround ourselves with are not always lovely, not always useful or meaningful.  In our house, we have closets and a garage full of things we don’t really need or use.  We have living spaces that are cluttered with toys, books, games, art projects and the like.  Often these things have missing or broken pieces.  We have a variety of things we’ve purchased that we liked in the moment, but now don’t necessarily need.  All these things take up physical and mental space for us and for our children.  With closets stuffed to the max, garages piled high with boxes and bins, play rooms bursting with toys,  it’s nearly impossible to know what you have or where it all goes.  Just the thought of organizing it all is stressful.  If managing the stuff is a daunting proposition for the adults in the house, imagine what it might feel like for a child.  Contrast that to the simplicity and ease of a Montessori classroom.  It’s not terribly surprising that in an unorganized and cluttered adult home environment that our children cannot, or do not, behave at home the same way they do at school.  By no means am I implying that we should recreate Montessori classrooms full of Montessori materials in our homes.  In fact, doing so is highly discouraged.   As parents we can be more deliberate about the home environments we create by understanding how and why a Montessori classroom works to support independent activity.

Plainly, the environment must be a living one, directed by a higher intelligence, arranged by an adult who is prepared for his mission.    -Maria Montessori

My mission for 2013, albeit a challenging one, is to eliminate from our home the things we do not need, do not use, and do not want.  I want to make more child-friendly living spaces that enable them to be engaged and self-directed.  Ideally, I want our children to manage their own spaces and not be overwhelmed by clutter.  Our kids only need a few toys and books at any one time, displayed lovingly, with a clear method of organization that allows them to access them and return them to their proper place without any help.  They also need to be taught which things they can use freely and independently, and which things are not age-appropriate.   I have to be better about checking my younger child’s toys for missing and broken parts, about rotating books and toys on a regular basis, and about reinventing existing toys to make them new and interesting again.   This sounds like a major undertaking at the moment.  If we can reduce the quantity, managing and caring for the things we choose to keep will be much simpler for everyone.

displaying toys for a toddler

example of how to organize and display toys via http://jackinct.blogspot.com

I don’t intend to get rid of all the toys, books, games, etc in our house. I do not intend to get rid of the toys and replace them with Montessori materials (also highly discouraged).  What I will do is be more deliberate about what we really need, what is truly engaging, and what is lovely and pleasing to us.  I intend to be more thoughtful in how these things are arranged, displayed and organized.  For the kids specifically, they really need to be able to see the toys and books they have available. Those things should be easy for them to access and put away on their own.  Montessori classrooms do this beautifully.  Each material has a place on a shelf.  Nothing is stacked or hidden, nothing is in a toy box or in cluttered bins.  The children can see the materials, can access them easily, and can put them away with ease.

In our house, we store some toys and books and every three or four weeks we rotate them to spark new interest in older toys.  What I haven’t fully considered is the quality of toys and books we make available at any one time, how the quantity effects the beauty and simplicity of our home, how the excess creates a hardship or barrier to access and clean up, and how the quantity is not as important as the quality.  Montessori classrooms also place an emphasis on the quality of the materials.  Everything is deliberate, organized and well maintained.

In “The Power of Conscious Parenting” By Miller/Dunlap, PhD, they write that one of the most important things parents can do at home is to simplify and organize the home and to create spaces for children that are uncluttered.

“Toys are the biggest obstacle to order…..One of the most important things to know about buying toys is when not to.

I’m more motivated than ever to go through all the stuff, one room at a time.  Once I tackle our living spaces, I want to take a good hard look at the stuff we store behind closed doors.  From the pantry to the linen closet, we will carefully consider each item for necessity, importance and aesthetics.   If we don’t need it or don’t love it, it’s gone.  If we have too many of any one thing, we’ll keep only what we really need.  The same will apply to future shopping.  By minimizing the amount of stuff we have and by reducing the pressure to buy it in the first place, we can also reduce the anxiety that comes with managing it all.  Too much stuff is stressful and unnecessary.  The message I want to send our kids at home is the same message they receive in their classroom:

We fill our spaces with useful, lovely, and interesting things.  We take care of them, repair them, and respect them because they are important to us.

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5 responses to “There’s Just Too Much Stuff.

  1. You nailed it! I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard a parent ask my why their child doesn’t “do that at home.” The prepared environment is key.

    I have to say, though, that as teachers, we have lots of opportunities for new beginnings. They come naturally after school breaks, especially the new school year. It’s more difficult to change a pattern of behavior once it is in place. How would you address this issue at home? Create your own new beginnings? Say, the new month?

    • Thank you so much for your comment and insight. Opportunities for new beginnings can happen at any time, this is true. In our home, our children each have a wall calendar. “Turning the page” for a new beginning at the start of a new month makes so much sense and can be easily understood. Great idea!

  2. Pingback: Why I Got Rid of the Toys | Dallas Moms Blog·

  3. can i ask if you have a dedicated play room? i like this idea in combo with a more “loose” approach but am concerned about my daughter not going to bed/nap because she sees all these toys calling her to play with them.

    • Thanks for your comment Dom! In our house we do have a space dedicated for play that gets a lot of use. The kids’ bedrooms also have open shelving with books and a few toys. Books are such a favorite part of our nap and bedtime routines that the toys haven’t been much of a distraction. Creating a sleeping space that is as peaceful and calming as possible makes a lot of sense! Toys can always be located elsewhere, particularly in a more active space in the home.

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