Every morning at 10am, our toddler community has snack together--and it’s an impressive sight to see. Eight two-year-olds all sitting at a table together, watching the teacher show them how to prepare a new food. Then each child gets a chance to help prepare the food. Then one of the children passes out plates; another passes out cups; and another helps to pick flowers to put in a vase for decoration. Then they eat the food; they ask for more and pass it to each other; and they use napkins to wipe their faces. When they’re done, they empty leftovers into the trash, put their plate in the dirty dish bin, empty their water into the sink, put their cup in the dirty dish bin, and push in their chair. Sometimes the more responsible ones help others who forget certain steps. After snack, they go to their cubbies to start getting ready to go outside.
Is it always calm, orderly, and beautiful? No. They spill water; they leave the table with their food; they might bang their forks; and they might forget to clean up. Toddler development is an imperfect development. It’s a beginning. It’s a transitional time when new skills are acquired but remain, for a while, undeveloped.
An infant, for example, cannot speak at all; but a toddler acquires the ability to speak; and a preschooler can speak fluently.
In the words of Maria Montessori, “before the age of three the functions are being created: after the age of three they are developed.” (Absorbent Mind)
The two basic “functions”, or powers, that toddlers acquire, are: the capacity for language, and the capacity for purposeful action.
Toddlers acquire language in three distinct phases. First they speak with single words; then they speak with phrases; then they speak in sentences. It’s an enormous accomplishment which somehow only takes about a year-and-a-half to complete.
During the same time period, children acquire the capacity for purposeful action. Whereas infants are seemingly at the mercy of their environment--wandering about, exploring their new world; toddlers begin to take control of their own actions by observing and imitating the behaviors of other people. For example, an infant might pick up a tissue and tear it apart or take all of the tissues out of the box. A toddler, however--who has observed other people using tissues--is able to pick up a tissue, wipe his nose with it, and throw it in the trash.
Almost all toddlers will develop the capacities for language and purposeful action; but the rate at which they develop these skills, and the perfection with which they perform these skills, depends largely on their environment.
There are two key components of a successful toddler environment. First, toddlers need an environment full of opportunities--both opportunities for language development and opportunities for purposeful action. And second, they need adults and other children who can model how to speak and how to perform certain actions, so that they can then imitate that language and those actions.
Here are some examples of how we provide this kind of environment at Atlas Academy.
We give our toddlers the opportunity for potty training by setting up a potty in the class, and by letting them walk around wearing underwear that they can easily pull up and down. Then, the children see others using the potty (modeling), and they seek to imitate that behavior. As a result, some of our toddlers are potty trained by age two, and almost all of our toddlers enter preschool already potty-trained.
We also have a variety of art materials (opportunities) such as water color paints, stickers, and play-doh. When the material is new to a child, the teacher models one way that the child can use it. For example, with watercolor paints, she would model how to take the tray from the shelf to the table; how to get water at the sink; how to pick up the brush and first dunk it into the water, and then brush a paint color, and then brush the paper. The child observes, and then later seeks to imitate this behavior, with varying degrees of success and consistency.
As mentioned above, we have a community snack (opportunity) every day. At first the teacher models how to pass out plates, use a napkin, and clean up, etc. And then the children are able to imitate this with varying degrees of success and consistency.
We also like to give toddlers the opportunity to get themselves dressed to go outside. This is not something that children always get to do at home, because parents don’t always have a half-hour to wait for their child to get dressed. Well, at our school, we build that time into the schedule, to make sure that our toddlers get plenty of time to try to dress themselves. Each child has all of their outdoor clothing in a separate bag, and when it’s time to go out, they go to their bag and attempt to put their clothing on one piece at a time. Like all toddler activities, each child practices getting dressed with varying degrees of success and consistency.
Lastly, we have a variety of language opportunities for our toddlers. We have a doll house with four distinct, furnished rooms; we have DIY picture books with pictures of the toddlers themselves engaging in various activities; we have a variety of other pictures books; we have a variety of puzzle-type materials that offer language opportunities; we have a mystery bag with a variety of small objects (for supervised use only); etc. In addition to providing these opportunities for language, the teacher also very carefully models language for the children to imitate. The way we model language is very specific, and is worth taking a closer look at.
There are three key aspects to modeling language for toddlers. First, the language given has to match the child’s general level of language development. For example, when reading a book to one child the teacher might describe the pictures using single words; whereas with another child, she describes the pictures using sentences. Second, the language given has to match the child’s familiarity with the content. For example, when a child is learning the word “apple”, the teacher points to a picture of an apple and says “apple”; then, once the child is familiar with the word, the teacher will show the child many pictures and ask the child to “point to the apple”; and finally, once the child has mastered the word, the teacher will point to the apple and ask, “what’s this?”. Third, the language has to be given in a way that is fun, interesting, and motivating to the child. To do this, the teacher needs to give the lesson in a way that is natural and conversational; not formal and rigid. The teacher has to interact with the child and say things like, “Oh, look at this, this is an apple!”; and then pretend to eat the apple and make eating noises; and smile at the child; and give the apple to the child to pretend to eat; etc.
Toddlers thrive in an environment that has both ample opportunities for development, and people to serve as models for imitation.
The relative calm and orderliness of our toddler community is the result of an environment that satisfies the developmental needs of toddlers, thereby giving the children a remarkable degree of self-control, independence, and inner peace and joy.
The first thing that strikes parents about our preschool class is how calm and peaceful it is.
A few children eating snack together; two children doing a puzzle together on a floor rug; two children coloring with markers at a table; the teacher sitting with a child for a one-on-one lesson; and four other children sitting at a table each independently doing his or her own work.
The peacefulness of our preschool classroom is typical of Montessori preschools.
What’s the secret?
There is one skill that, over and above all others, helps children to be calm and peaceful. And that is: we teach them to do one thing at a time.
When a child takes a material off the shelf, he might ask the teacher, “Is this a table work or a rug work?” Or--he might ask, “Is this a one person work or a two person work?” Then he’ll either sit at the table with the material, or roll out a floor rug for the material. Then that child will play with the material for an extended period of time; and when he’s done, he’ll pick everything up and put it back on the shelf.
One thing at a time. It’s a simple skill with enormous benefits.
After learning the basic structure of the classroom, children are ready to focus on the materials, enjoy them, and learn from them.
There are 5 sections to our preschool classroom, making up the 5 curriculum areas of a Montessori preschool.
Preschoolers are sponges for new information. They can soak up anything they can get their hands on. Montessori called this mentality the “absorbent mind”. And the purpose of each of the materials in our class is to “feed” their absorbent minds. That’s why all of our materials--unlike many typical toys--have a specific learning outcome. Our students acquire new powers through using our materials such as the ability to read, spread jelly on bread, or add and subtract large numbers.
You might think that a calm, quiet classroom full of learning materials might be a bit rigid. Maybe the kids are forced to stay still and quiet, and they are forced to learn things that they don’t care about. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Our preschool class is a busy beehive of activity, but it is controlled activity. Our students develop self-control by observing the behaviors of teachers and other children, and then by imitating those behaviors.
Imitation is the key to a successful preschool class. Children love to imitate the behaviors--and the language--of adults and older children.
Our teachers--as well as the older children in our mixed-age classrooms--serve as models for the behaviors and language that other children seek to imitate.
The teachers model how to prepare food, blow their noses, wash their hands, count to 10, sound-out words, feed the bunny, draw a picture, etc. And the children love to imitate what they’ve observed.
To sum up, our preschool classroom is full of interesting materials that each have a specific learning outcome. The children learn how to use each of the materials by observing and imitating the teachers and other students. This is how the children are able to develop an extraordinary degree of self-control and independence; it’s how they are able to learn a lot in the preschool years including how to start reading and writing; and it’s they are able to maintain a classroom that is peaceful and enjoyable for all students.