about letting toddlers under 2.5 years old do preliminary activities of practical life at home.

Firstly, I love this well-written explanation of preliminary exercises by Trillium Montessori. I’m not primary trained so I found this to be a great explanation to enlighten myself.  It is concise; and I think it is a wonderful guide for parents who send their children to Montessori programs.  The short article with photos will do a great job to help you decode what’s on the shelves in a primary environment and why you’re paying thousands of dollars just so your child can pour water back and forth or spoon beans, LOL.

Parents of primary-aged Montessori program attendees is for sure a target audience of that article.  It was probably not meant, however,  for untrained parents trying to DIY and implement homeschool Montessori  with a toddler under 2.5.

Inspired by my friend who is trying to homeschool her young toddler in another state of the USA, I thought I’d write this post for further clarification about preliminary exercises of practical life for young toddlers.  She sent me a photo of her child, still between 18 months and 2.5 years old, pouring two pitchers of water on a tray back and forth.  

What’s wrong with my baby pouring water back and forth between two pitchers, the average parent might wonder? Isn’t that an amazing skill?

As a trained 0-3 AMI Montessori guide,  I have distinct feelings about exposing the younger toddler to preliminary exercises of practical life, based on my observations of watching young toddlers try these.   

When my friend asked me for my opinion on whether or not this was a good idea for her child,  I sent her the link to the trillium article to help her better understand what preliminary exercises are for, dissecting what was written through my 0-3 AMI trained professional’s eyes. And then, I realized I was basically creating a blog post!

 I want to help other parents better understand why I personally don’t feel like preliminary activities of practical life for toddlers under 2.5 in the home environment is necessary; and what you can do instead, to achieve the exact same learning outcomes using “real”, “natural” , or “functional” practical life opportunities around the home.  With richer functional outcomes for your child, to be honest. 

Here are some main key points parents might consider before you feel compelled to DIY preliminary activities of practical life you find online:

~ Preliminary activities of practical life are not necessary for a young toddler in the home environment, because real life is way more appealing to them (go back and find my research article by Angeline Lillard).  They prefer the real things and don’t need to pretend or do nonsense activity that has zero relevance to real life when they can just be engaging in real life.  Do you sit around scooping beans from one dish to another? No.  So why would you expect your toddler to do that?  They’re watching everything you do; and they will want to do what they see you doing, alongside you.

~  Using Montessori education, we’re educating as a preparation for life.  Real life.  We aren’t just trying to “keep children busy” with random activities that are essentially meaningless. Nor are we trying to marvel and boast about “look what this child can do”, when what they’re doing isn’t something to brag about.  I feel that a child who can focus and concentrate on something meaningful, purposeful, and applicable to human life is superior to the child who can complete a random task that is odd to be doing at all; and is disconnected from people or the rest of real life.

If you as an adult would never sit around and do an activity, neither should a young toddler be expected to do it.  If the outcome of the activity can’t make a positive impact or contribution for the child’s functional life skill set, in your family, community, or world, people don’t really care what your child can do.  And this truly is why Dr. Montessori wanted this method of education to spread. For global good.  World Peace. To create better human beings who are more functionally capable at living life.

Take a deep breath but…  no one in real life cares if your child can scoop beans from one bowl to another.  LOL, sorry.  If your child can scoop beans from one bowl to another, but they can’t even feed themselves pasta with marinara without making a huge mess of themselves, or get dressed independently, well …

People will marvel and be in shock though, if your toddler can prepare their own bowl of cereal for breakfast at age 2; or if they can pour their own cup of water from the dispenser, and then sit down and have a drink — at 20 months old.  This is what AMI-caliber toddler Montessori looks like.  This is the kind of Montessori I recommend for toddlers. It lends to the kind of person they become, not just what they can do.

~ Real activities of daily living are superior for a child’s learning and development, even if the child is less than perfect and far from precise when they first start out doing an activity.   With repetition and practice over time, it will become perfected.  The toddlers from my last job could practically prepare muffin batter by themselves after I measured out the wet ingredients.  We repeated the process for every birthday and going away celebration we had; and by 5 birthdays in, I could stand back and snap photos the whole time while they did all the work.

They get so much more out of being able to prepare muffin batter than they ever will scooping raw beans back and forth between bowls. They’re engaged in a multi-part process. They’re taking turns. They’re spooning, scooping, pouring.  They’re smelling. They’re watching liquids mix with solids and a chemical transformation happens before their eyes. They’re contributing to the food offerings of the family or community. They’re engaged in pre-math with indirect measurements. Then they get to wait and exercise patience while it bakes, and finally experience through their senses the fruit of their labor.  Forget pouring water back and forth when we can get down with some real life fun and bake muffins.   And then eat them! LOL.

~ Preliminary activities of practical life were originally designed for a primary classroom environment, not for the home, and not necessarily for children under 2.5.  Montessori for 0-3 developed later than the original 3-6 program.  In my observation of giving toddlers a preliminary activity,  it distorted and confused their understanding about how the activities and materials are designed to work.

Pitchers aren’t for pouring back and forth between pitchers.  Q-tips aren’t meant for poking into spice jar lids.  Spice jars aren’t meant for q-tips.  Water is not naturally blue, or pink, or any color of the rainbow (keeping water clear actually challenges your vision and something called “figure ground” , when you can discern spilled water on a surface, or discern poured water in a clear glass vessel).

But in the context of a Montessori primary school environment, the preliminary activities of practical life make perfect sense because the environment was designed to “host” 30 children who are expected to utilize the materials by themselves or with very little adult support, and progress into a progressively more difficult sequence of activities they need “preparation” for.  

The out-of-home primary Montessori educational environment is designed and refined precisely over 100 years of observation, down to the last drop, in a specialized way by educators with specialized training, just like a university lab.  Remember, the creator of all of this was Dr. Maria Montessori, M.D.

  Here are some other key phrases from the trillium article about preliminary exercises that a trained guide would discern, but the average parent might miss or not fully understand without the lens of training behind it… 
Phrase 1: “The Practical Life activities in a Montessori classroom… lead the child to an understanding of his environment and how it works” 
 Yes, practical life is absolutely supposed to lead a child to an understanding of how their environment works. But notice the article does NOT say preliminary exercises lead to an understanding of his environment and how it works.  
Additionally,  “the environment” they are referring to is the Montessori Primary school environment. Not the home environment.  A young child in the 18 months to 2 years old window, at home, interacts with the world in a different way from a child 2.5 and up in a primary classroom.  A toddler at home sees… home life.
Phrase 2: “These indirect goals help prepare the child to handle more complex activities in other areas of the classroom.”   —> Notice they didn’t say “in other areas of life”.  Because if doing preliminary exercises was a necessary prerequisite to be able to do things in life, we would all be raised to do preliminary exercises.  But we aren’t.  We all typically learn at home through sheer observation of our parents and older siblings, and then we get to jump in whenever our parents decide it’s time to allow us to participate and help.  
 The truth is, toddlers can jump in and start helping and participating at much younger ages than most adults realize.  If you are able to adapt the experience to make it accessible, and to help them be truly successful at whatever part you’re allowing them to do, they can do it, too.  It doesn’t matter that they’re only 18 months old. 
Phrase 3: “… Then the skills [from preliminary exercises, i.e. the pouring, the spooning, etc] can be combined to lead to more advanced, longer sequenced work”.  Exactly.  Put this all together, though,  in the context of the primary Montessori classroom environment.  Again, we’re talking 30 children going around doing a lot without direct adult assistance, and a progression of activities in a sequence.   Notice how they say this line, and then follow up with the example that… 
“Phrase 4: Making Corn Bread involves spooning, squeezing, and pouring. ” Point proven. Making corn bread is a wonderful example of what practical life was meant to be. It was never called “practical artificiality”, it’s called practical LIFE.  Because these are real, practical activities for every day living we’re trying to help the children learn to be able to do, just like we adults can.  If we try to ask ourselves as adults raising toddlers, “ how can I let my young child participate successfully in an activity at home if they are interested?”, then we’re on the right track trying to come up with practical life ideas for toddlers in the home setting. 
For a toddler at home, you can just skip spooning cornmeal back and forth, back and forth, back and forth (bored yet? LOL) , and jump straight to making the corn bread at home.   Put the liquids into smaller pitchers, pre-measure them, and let your kiddo pour them into the bowl.  Let them spoon the cornmeal out of the bag into a bowl.  Let them mix the batter using a fork.  Let them help you put the muffin liners into the muffin tin or rub butter into the bread pan, and put their hands on one side of the bowl while you pour the batter into the bread pan.  Let them help use the spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl.  

Cast your pride aside if in fact you are not Montessori trained, and oops, didn’t know what to do. If you’r not a trained Montessori trained educator, how could I for sure didn’t know anything before I got trained. I didn’t even know what a disc was 😂. Even if anyone can go online, look up alleged Montessori activities, and imitate what you see, you could never know what a trained professional knows. Simply remove those activities from your kids’ shelf, and choose similar real activities to replace them.

Instead of preliminary activities of practical life,  a toddler at home can: 

~ practice self-feeding skills.  So many toddlers suck at feeding themselves neatly.  The looser the food item is, the harder it is to spoon.  The goopier the food item is, the harder it is to spoon.  The more liquid the food item is, the harder it is to control in a spoon.  Challenge your toddler with very small servings (no more than 2 heaping tablespoons per serving) of things like apple sauce, purees always squeezed out of the pouch, poi, puddings, mashed potatoes; and then increase to much harder things to spoon and control like diced carrots, peas, or ditalini or stelline shaped tiny (cooked) pastas, and cooked beans like black beans or lentils.  Forget bowl-to-bowl when they haven’t even mastered bowl-to-mouth.  Solids-in-liquids, and clear broths is probably the hardest spooning challenge of all; so soups and milk+ cereal.  Once your child can eat things like yogurt, or soup neatly, they have mastered the skill and precision of spooning.  Hooray!  and it didn’t take a preliminary activity to get there.

~learn to pour their own cup of water.  Either from a small pitcher you refill during snacks and dinner, or from the dispenser.  Put a basin under the dispenser to catch any spills; and always supervise to monitor any misuse of the dispenser.  Do NOT include paper or disposable cups with a water dispenser ever; and always use real cups, be it plastic or stainless steel.  Only when this skill is 100% mastered might I introduce a glass.

~ They can help with baking, cooking, and food prep during meal times. See my “cornbread” example.

~ They can be shown to prepare their own simple breakfasts like scooping cereal out of the container, and pouring their own prepared creamer of milk into the cereal.  then eating the milk and cereal.  It’s work!

~ They can help water houseplants using the tiniest watering can you can find, or using a cute creamer.  Only put in like an ounce or two of water tops– enough to pour into one plant and then require a refill. (just a heads up the urban outfitters mini watering can got horrible reviews and will kill plants b/c it is made of copper, but  the size is really good for a reference).

~ Provide unstructured play in a sensory bin, in the sandbox, at the beach, or in the bath.  They can work on all of their transferring skills uninterrupted and independently, to their heart’s content, using these play opportunities. Add various spoons, containers, funnels, and moulds; and let them have at it.  Just maintain the limit that they are not to pour the sensory materials outside of their intended container (so if they pour sand outside of the sandbox, bath water outside of the tub, or sensory materials out side of the bin, you cut them off and invite them to be done).  I love the Flisat sensory table from IKEA; and these sandbox ideas from pinterest .

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