I'll admit that before I was more informed (aka: educated) about the world of Montessori, I thought it all a bit woo-woo. Coming from me—someone who believes in things like reincarnation and ghosts and soul mates—that's really saying something.
Now I'm not going to try to sell you on the Montessori idea. But what I will say is that I've totally embraced it for our daughter. In a nutshell, it's learning based on her natural curiosities and interests. So instead of saying, "It's 1:00 pm, let's open our math books" I might say, "What would you like to learn about after lunch?" Or I would say that if she knew what a math book was. But she's not even two so that seems a bit reaching.
Multiple studies have shown—and I think it's common sense to state—that we learn better when we're actively engaged in the learning as opposed to being forced to learn something because it's a certain time of day. My daughter has thrived on this concept and I truly believe it is one of the reasons she has the semi-decent attention span that she does at 17-months. I'm not opposed to screens—Moana is a staple in our house. But I also know how to engage her mind educationally while also giving me brief respites during the working day to check email or complete 15-30 minute tasks. The answer? Trays. They've also helped minimize the play area and—by proxy—the play mess. How, you ask? At 17-months my daughter knows that she can only play with one tray at a time and that she has to put one tray back on her shelf before grabbing a different one.
Toys. Automatically. Cleaned. Up.
It's not witch craft. But it could be a miracle. I'll have to get back to you.
Real quick: When I say "tray" I mean "tray." I found ours at Goodwill for $1. But they're available on Amazon, Target.com, Walmart.com. You can get plastic ones, wooden ones, handles, no handles. You get the idea.
Now your trays can be whatever you want them to be. I try to align mine with the 5 key learning areas of Montessori which includes:
If you're curious to learn more, this article—and truthfully her entire website—is amazing.
So I put together 3-4 trays based on these 5 key learning areas. I tend to switch them out every few days after my daughter has gone to sleep so there are fresh things to keep her occupied. She has a little table and chairs where she can sit and explore the tray or she can place it on a mat or blanket on the floor. Here are some examples of trays I've put together for a 17-month old:
Sensory: Pinecone + tree leaf + plant leaf + flower + small bowl of dirt
Mathematics: Egg carton + polished stones + bowl
Culture: Mini Mexican maracas + Coloring map of Mexico + Crayons
Sensory: Homemade play dough + cookie cutters
Practical: Toothbrush + hair brush + mirror
Mathematics (and dexterity): Small bowl with water + ping pong balls + slotted spoon
Language: Sandpaper alphabet
Mathematics (and dexterity): Salt shaker + toothpicks or short spaghetti noodles
Practical: Mini spray bottle + small cloth + mini squeegee (this tray is placed near the slider so she has easy access to glass)
Culture: Print-off map of Africa + print off of African animals + crayons
Sensory: Muffin tin with baking soda and food coloring + vinegar + medicine dropper
Again: any one of these trays will keep her entertained for at least 10-15 minutes. If she hasn't seen it in a few days it's like it's brand new. Two trays back to back give me enough time to work/breathe/relax. Heck, even ONE tray gives me that moment I need for work on days when my email will not. Stop. Dinging.
Now sometimes she makes a big mess and we have to learn about cleaning up. I (usually) keep my cool and consider this Practical Life skills. But keep this under consideration while you're pulling your ideas together.
Don't want to do a tray? Have a mountain of laundry or dishes to get through or things to put away? Involve your kiddo in household chores. Read: Practical Life Skills!
Will these errands then take longer? Yes. Will your little love it and love being with you and love learning and soak up the attention and praise s/he gets like a little sponge? Also yes. Our young ones ADORE US. And they only want our attention. They will do whatever they need to, to get it—so let's set them up for success and ensure they have the means to garner our attention positively.
Again, trays are an incredibly easy thing to set up for your kiddo. And I've found that it practically eliminates toy clutter in our home. Plus they keep her engaged—what more can a busy mama ask for?
Wondering how to work tray play into your everyday? Don't miss my blog about block schedules. And getting ballsy.