My son is 13 months. His main job appears to be finding the most random possible use of household objects.
I admit, sometimes I am fascinated by his tiny toddler antics, and at other times, I’m kinda bored. What is the big deal with the vacuum hose? And the freakin’ recycling bin?
Over the past months, I’ve found myself following my busy little fella around the house and feeling distinctly restless. He’s busy doing his own thing, and I have to be there watching every second, but I don’t necessarily relate.
Coming up with activities for one year olds can feel like a challenge, because the things that catch their attention and challenge them, are often so different from the things that stimulate us, as adults.
Recently, though, I had a mind-shift breakthrough that allowed me to see more of the fascination in what my kid is actually doing all the time when it looks like he’s just aimlessly messing around.
I started reading the book The Montessori Toddler by Simone Davies (*link). She is a mother, and Montessori teacher specializing in Toddlers, and she has a super loving, mindful, and toddler-positive approach that I instantly resonated with. She talks a lot about the Montessori philosophy of observation, and how to support kids in their own learning, and within a few pages, I was thinking differently about my toddler.
Because this age group is working on such simple stuff, a lot of the activities in the book are for older toddlers. But the approach makes it easy to find activities for my little baby-toddler by applying the principles that I learned.
The Montessori Approach
The Montessori approach is all about fostering independence and confidence by letting the child lead, observing them, including them in daily life. Specific physical skills are fostered through simple hands-on activities that provide the right amount of challenge.
Simone Davies goes into detail about the specific physical abilities that this age of super young toddlers are working on
– using two hands together, stacking, working across their body –
She then goes into how to set them up to learn, build confidence, and build curiosity and love of learning.
She talks about the concept of scaffolding – how kids and toddlers build on simple skills to work up to more advanced and complex activities. I’m not a total convert to Montessori as of yet – I am way more into imagination than they seem to be. But, that said, I am really excited about their approach.
I’ve found myself putting it to use in my parenting as soon as I read it, and I’m loving how it feels.
Understanding What Engages The Age
One of the biggest ideas for me was that what might look random to me, is actually evidence of my kiddo working super hard to master some very specific basic physical coordination. He’s working to actively learn the things that I do unconsciously. Which is why it looks random to me.
For example, he’s ultra-focused on getting that empty soap bottle to balance on top of the upside-down bowl because he’s mastering stacking and balancing right now. He’s obsessed with opening the lid of the box, taking the puppet out, putting the puppet in, closing the lid, opening the lid – on repeat – because it is the exact challenge he needs to master lids and the concept of object permanence, and he is driven to mastery.
The Power of Observation
This approach also changed how I structure our time together. Montessori is all about setting kids up to learn optimally – and then letting them go at it – stepping in to offer support only when they get frustrated or are obviously stuck.
I realized that I was stepping in way more than I needed to. Because I was impatient. Since reading I’ve started actively taking a back seat, and watching in amazement as my little wizard tries and tries, and eventually succeeds without my help. It’s super cool to see, and he is so proud of himself. His joy is contagious, and I know he’s building real confidence. And I’m happy knowing Orson is experiencing that he can learn anything he wants to learn.
I’ve started to consciously slow down, and noticing my impulse to butt-in the moment he comes up against a real challenge. Instead of acting on the impulse, I’ve been trying to use that energy to figure out what specific thing he’s working on. I ask myself “What is he learning right now?” – and suddenly what he’s doing becomes totally fascinating.
He’s exploring the world with his whole body, with cause and effect shaping much of his interest, and it’s cool to watch.
The Key to using this child-led strategy is to set up simple activities and materials for your child that are just right for what they are working on, and then let them decide what’s interesting, and how to use it.
Setting One-Year-Olds Up For Sucess
One main takeaway for me was how important it is for kids to have the right level of challenge. Too little, and they disengage. Too much, and they get frustrated and lose confidence. Neither is ideal if we want to help build confident, curious learners.
The method of figuring out that perfect challenge level is simple: just watch. Watch your child as they tinker and play. What is engaging them? What are they working on? What are they drawn towards? Then find ways to offer those challenges in their play – in a way that works for you.
Are they repeatedly putting their water cup into their cereal bowl at the breakfast table? Perhaps there are some break-proof dishes you could put at their play station.
Are they crazy about the recycling Bin? Maybe they are working on opening containers. Or putting things in and taking them out. Can you find some old containers – tins, sturdy jars, old wallets, or purses – to put in a basket for them to find and play with? (Hide some fun little things inside them to make it even more fun).
Are they super into stacking? Set some blocks out for them, and show them how you stack three high. Then let them try.
Are things too easy?
Are they getting bored with the toys available and wandering off? How can you add a layer of challenge to the activities? Perhaps showing them how to stack one more block on top of the pile.
Are things too hard?
Are they getting frustrated?
Part of the process is paring down more complex activities so that they can master just the part they are working on, then adding in more parts as they develop. This way they can build more complex skills out of lots of simple ones put together, a concept called scaffolding. Make a note of what is frustrating, so you can come back to it and think about if there is a way to simplify the activity so they can manage it by themselves.
How can you pare that activity down? Can you remove some parts? Then you can add them back in to ramp up the challenge as they gain mastery.
Finding the right level of challenge is fun and engaging for me too, and I find I’m more excited about our time exploring together.
Pare Down the Toys
The minimalist in me loves this concept. When we pare down the toys available, kids actually engage more, and for longer.
Montessori is all about creating beauty and making things the most appealing to little people. Toys are set out in an appealing display on a shelf at the child’s level.
By rotating what toys are out, it keeps things fresh and exciting. Then if an activity is less interesting, it can just be put away for a bit, and replaced by something else that has regained its novelty value in storage.
The trap is, it seems like adding new toys will entertain our babies more. But too many toys it actually engages babies less. There are lots of cool studies that document this with kids of all ages. Decision fatigue plays a role, as does simple overwhelm. I’ve noticed that when we reach our personal threshold of too many toys, my kid stops actually playing with them, and things devolve into a messy throwing episode.
I cleaned out a storage big bin and put most of our toys in there, and left out just a few things. It’s fun to bring out “new” old toys, and my baby definitely engages more when there are fewer options.
Plus, I’m happier with a simple, beautiful space too. And it’s so much easier to clean up when there are fewer toys! (And even better when each one has a place.)
Include Them In Household Tasks
One of the foundational ideas of Montessori is including kids in everyday life, and this is probably the place where I’ve experienced the biggest change. I’ve started including my toddler more in everything that I do. In one sense it slows me down, but actually, I think I get more done. Because rather than making a huge mess while I try to do the dishes, or clinging to my leg whining, he’s right in the mix of it where he wants to be.
He is so into it. I dragged a step stool into the kitchen, and now whenever I’m cooking he’s standing there next to me happily messing about with vegetables. I keep the knives and hot stuff out of reach, and we talk about them. Knife safety beginning early. A total win-win.
They want to be included, to be helpful, and to be relevant, and to have some control over their own lives – even if it’s just what shoes to wear. Teaching them life skills fosters independence, so they can be contributing members of the family.
Now no matter what chores I’m doing, I’m thinking of a way to include my little guy.
It feels like free activities for him, great learning opportunities, and it boosts his confidence and makes him feel awesome. He’s been helping wipe the table, put on his shoes, brush his teeth, putting dishes in the sink, and even rinsing spoons and putting them on the rack to dry. Sometimes it is even actually helpful! Like when he helped me wash a bunch of tomatoes in the yard yesterday. And when it’s not, I love knowing I’m raising an awesome little helper.
Another key takeaway I got from The Montessori Toddler, is how to teach activities to toddlers.
When introducing a new activity, can demonstrate how it’s done. Also, when they get stuck or frustrated, it’s a good time to step in and offer to show them how we would do it. (Offer is key – they may not want help! That’s okay too).
I love the Montessori method for this. The book offers the acronym SHOW: Slow. Hands. Omit. Words.
Instead of using tons of words to describe what your hands are doing, you just say “watch”. Then you slowly, deliberately demonstrate. Keep in mind how the child would succeed – for example, using two hands.
Kids learn so much by watching. If we stay silent, they don’t have to choose between our faces as we speak and watching our hands. It helps them focus and take in what we are showing.
If they are still stuck, we can offer a simple explanation. “Push”, or “Pull”.
I’ve started doing this and honestly, it’s amazing. After just a few days, if my timing is right (my babe wants my help) when I say “watch”, he totally stops what he’s doing and focuses in to watch my hands.
All in all, I love my new approach to setting up activities for my one-year-old.
Instead of waiting for my toddler to bump into something interesting, and then getting in the middle of what he’s trying to do, I’m more proactive about setting him up with awesome challenges that will help him practice his skills and grow. He’s more engaged, and our connection has even gotten stronger throughout the day, as I tune in more to what he’s interested in.
Have you tried any of these ideas? How do you include your little one in household tasks? Comment below, I’d love to hear from you!