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How do you apply aspects of the Montessori philosophy in your home?

In this episode, Ayelet sits down with Montessori Parenting Mentor and Home Consultant Jeanne-Marie Paynel. Jeanne-Marie is founder and CEO of Voila Montessori. She guides expectant parents and caregivers of young children on how to prepare their homes for their young children to thrive during the first years of life.

Jeanne-Marie and Ayelet discuss the Montessori philosophy, some of the ways we can bring it into our home, and how we can apply it to our littlest of humans, infants and toddlers. Jeanne-Marie offers  specific tips and resources for families with infants and toddlers to use when deciding how they might want to bring Montessori home.

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Ayelet: Welcome to episode 48 of the Strength In Words podcast! Today, I’m speaking with Jeanne-Marie Paynel, founder and CEO of Voila Montessori. Jeanne-Marie is a Montessori Parenting Mentor and home consultant. She guides expectant parents and caregivers on how to prepare their homes for their children to thrive during the first few years of life. Jeanne-Marie believes that a supportive and peaceful atmosphere at home will allow every child to grow up as an independent and confident learner. Her mission is to help parents appreciate the true importance of their role, not as servants or teachers – but as supporters and guides of their child’s natural development. Jeanne-Marie, welcome.

Jeanne-Marie: Thank you – great to be here!

Ayelet: We’re happy you’re here. I’ve asked you to come on the show today to speak a bit about the Montessori philosophy, and some of the ways that we can bring it into our home and apply it to our littlest of humans, infants and toddlers. So first, I would love to hear just a little bit about you and what brought you to the world of Montessori.

Jeanne-Marie: Well, it was a round-about way! I decided after my second child was born to have a big career change. I was actually in advertising for twenty-some years, and I decided my calling was really to be with children, that I really wanted to work with children – it’s something I had always wanted to do. As an adult, I was always the one playing with young children at parties! And so, I went back to school and got my Masters in Montessori Education at 40-some years, when my second [child] was already 4 years old. So, that, I will say, is probably one of my, you know, life career thing that I wish I had found all that before – that finding Montessori when you are expecting (which is why my mission is to work with expecting parents!) is that there is just such amazing information for us to be guides and supporters of our young little humans that come to us as divine beings. That’s what I do. But, basically, when I went back to school, I did work in the classroom for a few years until I realized that parents just had so many questions, and there were so many tools that I knew about, but that they didn’t! And so, I really set on a mission to share what Montessori is about, but also how we can apply it in our daily lives at home. And it really starts from the very beginning.

Ayelet: Yes. So, let’s hear a little bit – just a quick overview about the Montessori philosophy as it relates to infants and toddlers.

Jeanne-Marie: So, as it relates to infants and toddlers… I’ll just be a little more general, in general, what is Montessori? So first of all, just two days ago on [January] 6th [2018], we celebrated the 111th year of the first Montessori classroom opening by Dr. Maria Montessori in Rome. And this was the beginning of what we are now to learn about the Montessori method – even though she humbly said that, “I didn’t invent anything, I just followed the children.” And that’s what Montessori is all about: it’s about following the child’s natural development, and being very respectful of it. Not to, you know, push, expect, want something – it’s really about letting this life unfold in front of us. And for us to guide it! You know, to really be there, to offer the challenges and activities that are age-appropriate and such. Differentiating from the traditional education that probably most of us went through, Montessori is really child-led. So that is really the big difference. And in the home for the infant and the toddlers, it’s about following their needs. It’s about really being attentive and being, what Montessori called, “the scientific observer” so that we are really watching this life unfold in front of us and trying to understand it, and give it some – offer new opportunities to develop whatever skill we’re seeing the child intrigued or wanting to master. And that’s really the big part. And for me, when I work with families, it’s really about looking at their home, and looking at the environment that we create for our children. Because it’s so easy to let ourselves be influenced by what… how do you say, what is available on the market, and to buy things for them and all of that… but I’m really about keeping it very simple.

Ayelet: YES!

Jeanne-Marie: Because we have to remember that the child comes to us… very simple! You know, they’ve been in a very simple, beautiful, prepared environment which is prenatal life. And we need to let them adapt with simplicity and gentleness and such. So, I’m very much about keeping the environment very simple, very orderly – no big plastic toys, noise-making and lights and all of that. They don’t need all of that! There’s already so much for them to absorb. So, I really like to prepare the parents and the environment for them to adapt to their time, place, and culture with ease. And that’s really the basis of it, and it’s really about giving them the freedom and the time to develop on their own terms and on their own agenda! Every child is going to develop the same kind of pattern, most often, give or take a few months, a few weeks here and there, so it’s just about being grateful that this is happening in front of our eyes.

Ayelet: Absolutely. And I know that for families with children with special needs, the Montessori philosophy and environment is a wonderful way to do it, because of those tenets that you mentioned, of simplicity, of respect, of letting things unfold and supporting the child in their exploration of the world.

Jeanne-Marie: Yes, and it’s interesting you say that, because Montessori actually started her work in what was considered, unfortunately at the time, “idiot children.” Children that were deemed, “oh, you know, they’ll never achieve anything.” And just the fact that she took the time, she observed, and she created manipulatives that helped them understand… they showed us that they were capable of great things! And she thought, well, what would happen if I used all of this on deemed “normal” children, and there the Montessori method was born.

Ayelet: Amazing. For those listeners who are not familiar with the term “manipulatives,” can you give us just a little bit of a…

Jeanne-Marie: So a lot of what we have in the classroom or in the home of these toys… when I say ‘manipulative,’ it’s really toys that are going to help the child understand certain concepts. For example, there’s one that I love that’s around 9 months or so, that’s called the “object permanence box.” Very simple toy where you’re putting a ball into a hole. It disappears for a fraction of a second and then it reappears! And you probably have one… is that why? [Ayelet holds up a cardboard box with a hole cut out of it] Yeah, exactly! But that was created with Piaget to really help the child understand object permanence. Because around that age, they’re starting to understand the concept that if mom or dad leaves the room, they don’t disappear forever. And so, this is just a manipulative to help give them a sense of that, sensorially. And so, that’s a lot of what the manipulatives in the classrooms are all about. It’s really isolating a certain skill, a certain concept for them to first learn it sensorially. That really, the basis for all our education is really sensorial. I mean, language – you know that! – we need to smell and feel and taste what an orange is. That, when we say “orange,” it comes to our mind! But we’ve felt it, we’ve tasted it… so, really engaging the senses. And knowing that the child, those first three years, the child is a sensorial learner, so we really need to feed those senses.

Ayelet: I love how you say that. Because it really is – those first three years, especially, but even the first five years, we know that infants and toddlers learn holistically, sensorially, through all of these domains of development. And to have experience with an object or a concept is to learn about it, and then we give it a name, and then we have a memory of it, right there! And then, we also engage with our caregivers! So, that, right there, hits on cognitive development (the working memory), communication development (the vocabulary), the sensory and motor development of touching it and feeling it and looking at it and smelling it (all of the senses), and then of course, the social/emotional development piece of experiencing it with another person or interacting or observing or imitating how someone else uses it. So, wonderful, Jeanne-Marie.

Let’s take just a quick break here to hear a word from our sponsors, and then we’ll hear a few tips and resources from Jeanne-Marie about bringing Montessori into the home. 

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Ayelet: Alright, Jeanne-Marie, tell us your top three tips for parents and caregivers… give us a place to start when it comes to integrating aspects of the Montessori philosophy into the home environment.

Jeanne-Marie: So, one of the bases of Montessori is this notion of “the prepared environment.” When we talk about our classrooms, we talk about the prepared environment. So, when I work with parents, especially expecting parents or parents of young children, I remind them that the first environment was the prenatal environment, which we take great care of! We prepare what we eat, of exercise, of our state of mind, all of that. Then, we consider the birth environment, and we hope to have a calm, peaceful one. And then, there’s the home! And, often times, we tend to not put that much emphasis on this new, home environment for the child. So, I invite you to really get down to their level. And I actually say, you know, roll around your environment – see it from their perspective! It looks very different! And then, really start adapting it so that they can have the freedom of movement, and that they can safely explore. And that is really the big basis for the home.

It’s to really create an environment where they are going to really adapt with ease, where they’re going to be able to explore, because that’s what they are – they’re explorers, right? And to… for one thing, when you look at your environment, you might have put artwork up… but it’s probably up at your level! So, why not bring some of it down to their level, so when that crawling baby’s going around, they have something beautiful to look at, too! Or some family photographs that you can then have a conversation about and explain, you know, who this ancestor is, or maybe a photo of you as a child or them as a baby – all of that is just beautiful! I remember very well being in a home of a woman who had this gorgeous wall of all the family photos… but, you know, it was up high! And so, we just took that bottom row and we moved it all the way down. Oh my gosh, the changes that they made for this little person who was just crawling, who would go over and was fascinated. What a beautiful invitation for language, because you’re able to tell stories around that. So, it’s really about considering what their viewpoint is, and really adapting it.

When I set up the homes, I first look at four basic areas, which is the sleeping area, and in Montessori, we do recommend a floor bed. So, it’s not using the crib that is a container, that is not going to give them the freedom of exploration or the freedom of movement. I mean so, we could do a whole podcast on just the floor bed, but that’s a really strong concept, and I have a blog post on my website if you want to read more about it. But it’s this idea of freedom of movement, and then also their visual sense – that they’re trying to make sense of the environment, and if we’re putting them, you know, in a container behind bars, that it’s a very different visual perspective that they’re getting. So there’s the sleeping area, and then there’s the feeding area, which, in the beginning, is really more for the caregiver: whether you’re comfortable, whether you have everything at arm’s reach, whether you’re breastfeeding or bottle feeding – I want this to be a place where you can really relax and connect with the child.

Ayelet: So that’s really just, a chair, a specific chair that you designate.

Jeanne-Marie: Exactly. I do try to encourage that to be free of distraction, we tend to want that to be in front of a TV, a computer, with our phone and everything… I encourage that, as much as possible, to really be a time to connect and bond with the child. And I know it’s hard especially at the beginning, because it feels like we’re there 24:7, but that too shall pass! And it’s also a time for you to relax, and to get some rest. So, making it for you, as well. And then that definitely evolves. Because when you start introducing solids, the child is starting to sit on their own, then I use a weaning table and such. So, sleeping, feeding, personal care or the physical care of the child. And this one, one of the tips that I like to get you to think about is the orientation you have vis-à-vis the child. Most of the changing tables I see, we’re tending to them sideways, like, the changing table’s up against the wall and they’re kind of looking at us with a crooked neck and all this. So, we can either orient our body or just orient the table so that we’re facing forward. It’s a lot more respectful, they’re getting equal sensation on both sides of the body and such. So that would be a big one. And then, that also evolves! As the toddler starts wanting to engage in their care, when they’re starting to give us some elimination communication of, you know, the changing table isn’t doing it for me anymore, how are we going to evolve that and everything.

And then, one of the most important is the movement area. And the movement area, from the very beginning, again, super simple. It can be a blanket or a mat on the floor. If at all possible, up against the wall so that you can put a nice long horizontal mirror – because, as I think we’ve all noticed, children love to look at themselves. They’re getting information, they’re getting feedback of their body scheme, of their body image. So this is kind of an encouragement for movement. And there, very simple toys, usually made of natural materials, so that they’re getting that sensorial experience, whether it’s leather or metal or wood. But, I try to avoid plastic, I try to avoid battery-operated, noise-making… and that’s it! And so at the beginning, it’s going to be mobiles, because that’s their vision sense is developing. And then it’s going to be grasping mobiles, and then it’s going to be toys that are going to encourage movement. But it all happens on that movement mat… until they start crawling – and then the entire home becomes the movement area. In front of the movement area, in front of the mirror, one of the things also is once they master the skill to sit on their own (so, we’re not propping them, this is a natural development!), their hands are free and they start wanting to grab and pull up. So, I like to put a bar in front of the mirror at arm’s reach, and they start pulling up! And they start standing up on their own, and they feel so proud and powerful, which is a beautiful sight to see. And that’s basically it! You know, those four area, and then of course I look at the kitchen and the bathroom and other areas as we’re wanting to give them more independence and more activities to be part of.

Ayelet: Sure – yeah! So, I mean, I hear a lot of diversity in experience, diversity in movement, diversity in materials. And of course, everybody, you know, this is… Jeanne-Marie is telling us about this is what the Montessori way is all about. Now, of course, you can make “hacks,” right? That also fill this kind of activity. For instance, I have this object permanence bocks which is of course a cardboard box with a hole cut out into it. But also, instead of, say, a bar, that you have to really grab and attach and create a bannister or a balance bar, we’ve got, for instance, an IKEA activity gym that has… I’ll put the link to it here.

Jeanne-Marie: And they can hold and pull up safely on it?

Ayelet: Yeah.

Jeanne-Marie: Ok –  yeah, because I’ll use, you know, a coffee table, an ottoman, whatever! Anything they want to pull up on – it’s just, to me, the one in front of the mirror… you know, I have seen these little ones finally pull themselves up, and oh my gosh that look of joy on their face when they see themselves – it’s just amazing.

Ayelet: Yes! And they get to see themselves do it! What a neat thing, right! So, yeah. There are ways that we can adapt and make these things actually very simple to do.

Jeanne-Marie: It’s true, and I think what you’re saying, and I think this is maybe the misunderstanding of Montessori sometimes, is that we think that we have to have “the” Montessori toys… but it’s true – it’s just about understanding their needs, and understanding that we need to just create simplicity. I mean, room for them to explore! That it’s contrary to maybe, putting them into a restraining exersaucer or playpen… and I know that some of us need that for a little during the day or whatever – there’s nothing majorly wrong! It’s when children are spending all of their time in there and that we think that that’s good for them… no. We want them to discover what their body is capable of on their own. That they’re able to get in and out of situations on their own.

Ayelet: Yes. That’s right. Again, going back to that diversity in experience, and diversity in movement. Wonderful, Jeanne-Marie, that’s nice. And I also want to emphasize, this is a “pick and choose your own adventure.” You know, what works for one family doesn’t necessarily work for another family – or for a specific child! You may have wonderful visions of having a floor bed for your child who is not into it. Or, you may have a wonderful idea that you would like to do that, but in reality, your home just doesn’t – you can’t create that space for the time being. Just because that doesn’t work for your family right now doesn’t mean that you cannot ascribe the ideas that you enjoy about any philosophy, including the Montessori philosophy, to your home and your parenting. So that’s wonderful, Jeanne-Marie, thank you.

So, tell us a bit about what are some of your favorite resources for parents and caregivers interested in learning more about bringing Montessori into the home.

Jeanne-Marie: Well, for one, I would say, my website, so voilamontessori.com – I try to create as many resources for parents, so there’s a lot there. And then there are two sites that I always refer parents to which is aidtolife.org, Aid to Life is really a definition of Montessori education – it’s an aid to life! So, aidtolife.org – very simple information about movement, communication, all of that. And it’s done by the Association Montessori International. And then, also, montessoriguide.org, so, Montessori Guide. And that’s more of a visual – there are beautiful visuals of seeing children in the Montessori environments. So, those are two that I really like.

Ayelet: Wonderful. And we’ll of course post those on the show notes and on the website. Anything else specifically that you recommend for our listeners?

Jeanne-Marie: Just patience and observation. I think, to me, that is really the most important one – is to get out of the way! You know, those first three years, children are not only sensorial learners, but they are driven by a very powerful life force. Giving them the direction to figure it out, explore, go, so it’s really important to just let them do that and be there for them. You know, guide them, give them opportunities to try new challenges, but without any expectation, without any judgment, without any comparison to the next-door neighbor’s child or your sister’s child or whatever. They’re unique.

Ayelet: They are. And it’s so hard. It’s so hard as a parent… but hear Jeanne-Marie’s voice in your head!

Jeanne-Marie: Yes. And also, in your head, hear me say you’re doing an awesome job. Because I think we’re so quick to judge ourselves, and so we just need to enjoy and really be in awe of this little human being discovering all of these things for the very first time!

Ayelet: Absolutely. And that is the key. That is why Strength In Words exists, that is why what you do is so important, Jeanne-Marie, so I thank you – so much! And thanks to all of our Community LAB members who are here listening live, we are going to continue the discussion and open up for a Q&A session with you guys in just a minute, but for everyone listening from home or on the go, thanks so much for joining us and we will see you next time!