If you prevent children from participating in the upkeep of their environment, you are denying them valuable learning opportunities, says Amii Spark…
One of the things that really drew me towards the Montessori approach is the fact that it sees and treats children as valuable members of their communities. This is evident not only in the written theory but in the way rooms are arranged with furniture that meets the needs of the children, and how children are heavily involved in said rooms’ upkeep. This includes activities such as wiping up spills, putting rubbish in the bin, brushing and mopping the floor, putting learning materials away, helping to do the washing and so on. It really helps give children a sense of responsibility for their environment. Children want to be actively involved, rather than merely imitating these tasks during their play.
Despite this, many practitioners I speak to are hesitant to encourage children to take part in ‘care of the environment’ activities. Some fear that cleaning materials are not safe – I recommend using vinegar diluted in water, which is completely safe for children to use. It kills germs and cleans well without leaving any chemical residue. You can also add either tea tree oil or lavender oil; both are antibacterial and smell lovely. I tend to have spray bottles and cloths set aside for the children’s use, and colour-code them. That way everyone can tell easily which things are for the children.
I’ve also heard it said that cleaning is an adult job and children should be playing. The task of children is to develop into adults. In order to do this they must practise and take part in day-to-day activities; otherwise they simply will not understand why they should take care of their environment, or develop the skills to do so. Children learn through play. As long as an activity is self-chosen and enjoyed, it is play. If children want to help to wipe the table or pick things up off of the floor, let them. Show them how to do things correctly. Children want to be a part of our world – the real world, not the world that we have made for them, which, honestly, is aimless and does not take in to consideration how children actually learn.
Lastly, many people tell me that children take too long to complete tasks, and don’t do them properly. It is very important to realise that opportunities to take part, like any planned activity, are for the children to learn and develop real-life skills. If you are unable to slow down to the children’s pace for most of the daily activities, I would ask you to take a hard look at why that is the case. We would not hurry a child to go down the slide, look through a book, sing a song or complete a puzzle, so why would we hurry them through wiping a table? All are equally beneficial learning moments. Allow the children to do as much as they can, then say, “Okay, now I’m going to give it one big wipe, and we are all done.”
Taking care of the environment is an important part of how children develop a positive sense of self and responsibility towards their surroundings, as well as real-life skills. These are just as important, if not more so, than the academic skills that are pushed so hard on children. Keep in mind that any opportunities you give children to take care of the environment need to be developmentally appropriate, but take care not to underestimate their abilities. An infant of 10 months is more than capable of wiping up a spill with a small cloth while sitting down at a table.
I think that is the mistake we make most often: we see children as a separate species to adults. We place them in another world that we have created for them, when really all they want is to be part of ours. I think it’s time that we let them.
A former preschool-based deputy manager in the UK, Amii Spark today spends her time running training programmes for nurseries and parents on the sunny island of Malta. She is also the founder of The Olive Grove, a Montessori-based parent education and support service. Visit facebook.com/OliveGroveMalta