The term “prepared environment” is one of those terms that is clearly associated with Montessori education.
What does it mean exactly?
First, the environment was the classroom:
When we speak of ‘environment’ we include the sum total of objects which a child can freely choose and use as he pleases, that is to say, according to his needs and tendencies. A teacher simply assists him at the beginning to get his bearings among so many different things and teaches him the precise use of them, that is to say, she introduces him to the ordered and active life of the environment. But then she leaves him free in the choice and execution of his work.”
But we can extend that notion to the home and the direct environment in which the child lives, his neighborhood, his street and so on.
As a parent, you will be directly responsible for preparing that environment at home.
“In the home, the ideal environment for the child should also contain child-sized furniture and utensils, which he can handle himself. this is not yet practical in every home, but at least the adult can provide the child with a suitable spiritual environment.” Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents
Maria Montessori quickly noticed that the “environment” had a direct influence on how the child learns and what he can learn.
then came to realize that everything about a child should not only be in order, but that it should be proportioned to the child’s use, and that interest and concentration arise specifically from the elimination of what is confusing and superfluous.”
In the past, we used to believe that children had an empty mind that needed to be filled with the knowledge given by the teacher (and the parent).
Montessori challenged those outdated beliefs, and nowadays, we know that the child learns by doing, by being active in his environment.
However, new parents still somehow surprise that their baby when he becomes a toddler can be so disruptive of their own adult’s environment.
Maria Montessori said:
“The first aim of the prepared environment is, as far as it is possible, to render the growing child independent of the adult.”
This can be quickly done, and you don’t need to turn your house upside down to provide a prepared environment.
- Add a 2 steps stools in the kitchen to allow your child to help at the counter
- Free a bottom drawer in the kitchen for your child’s size tools
- When you cook, think ahead about the different activities that your child could help you with: snapping the French beans, pouring the milk in the batter, breaking an egg, cutting with child safe knife…
- Add a hook at your child’s level for his coat. Command hooks are handy and can be removed when your child has outgrown them.
- Swap the cot for the floor bed
- Display 2 or 3 outfits next to your child’s bed for him to choose from
- Have a place in each room–the bedroom, the kitchen, dining room, living room, bathroom, garage, and so forth – for the child “s few, carefully chosen belongings.
- Less is more when it comes to toys, books, and materials. Rotate and find a storage system that works for your home.
When you prepare your home for your child, think about:
Children love routine and order. They need to know where their belongings are and where to put them back. Being neat and being able to tidy up will take time . As little children absorb from their environment, living in a simple, uncluttered space will nurture their future ability to be organised and neat.
Maria said about order:
Order consists in recognizing the place for each object in relation to its environment and remembering where each thing should be. This implies that one is able to orient one’s self within one’s environment and to dominate it in all its details. The proper environment of the soul is one in which an individual can move about with eyes closed and find, simply by reaching out his hand, anything he desires. Such an environment is necessary for peace and happiness.” Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood
“the child must live in an environment of beauty.”
Beauty doesn’t equal expensive furniture, toys, and materials. Expose your child to what you consider is beautiful and attractive. Setting up an invitation to play with everyday objects, providing some natural elements, a few pictures printed from the Internet can be all that you need.
Nature and reality:
Young children are attracted by what they see in “real life”. No matter what we provide, in term of materials and toys, that will never replace the real hands-on experience in nature.
There is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all the life to be found around them, in a real forest. Something emanates from those trees which speaks to the soul, something no book, no museum is capable of giving. (From childhood to Adolescence)
The child should have free access to what he needs in the house.
And yes, with freedom comes limits.
You need to create a safe space, so it is OK to have some safety limits. For example, your child can have access to the stairs but only under your supervision if it is what works best in your house. Or you will provide what your child needs to pour himself a drink, but you don’t want to provide free access to the tape.
Also, consider how your environment will change and evolve with your child.
Plainly, the environment must be a living one, directed by a higher intelligence, arranged by an adult who is prepared for his mission.
The environment is not static and done once and for all.
You will observe your child and adapts your space to your child’s changing needs. If you have a second child, you will have to rethink the space to welcome a baby and so on. My children are now 7 and 11. I keep preparing our house to suit my children now that they are in the second plane and soon in the third plane of development.
Another critical point is that you are part of the environment!
You are the one who is going to prepare that space physically, and you are going to spiritually welcome that child and her needs in your adult’s life. This is the trickiest part as more often than not; we are a hindrance to our child’s development.
Often, we mean well and we want to help, we want to teach but the child, with the help of the environment, can teach himself.
“He has no need of adult influences to call out his activity, a tranquil environment suitable to the interests of his age and the freedom to follow the promptings of his own inner need are sufficient for him.” Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents
“Now the adult himself is part of the child’s environment; the adult must adjust himself to the child’s needs if he is not to be a hindrance to him and if he is not to substitute himself for the child in the activities essential to growth and development.” Dr. Maria Montessori, ‘The Secret of Childhood’,
We are naturally eager to interact with our children, but many parents also complain that their children cannot play independently.
So, think about preparing the environment as your first duty and that entertaining or teaching actively your child is not only not necessary but can also prevent your child to engage with toys and materials fully.
“Praise, help, or even a look, maybe enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity. It seems a strange thing to say, but this can happen even if the child merely becomes aware of being watched. After all, we too sometimes feel unable to go on working if someone comes to see what we are doing. The great principle which brings success to the teacher is this: as soon as concentration has begun, act as if the child does not exist. Naturally, one can see what he is doing with a quick glance, but without his being aware of it.” Dr. Maria Montessori, ‘The Absorbent Mind’
So, prepare the space, observe your child (and sit on your hands when you really want to help) and enjoy the joy that your child expresses as he grows and learns!