I know I will get rolled eyes when I start making claims about every parent, but this is something I feel very strongly about. The first thing that makes Montessori "Montessori" is the Prepared Environment, which has two critical features: freedom of movement, and everything child sized. A Prepared Environment will do tremendous things for your babies and children, and you don't have to be a homeschooling stay-at-home parent to do it.
Let me start by sharing a picture of a sample Montessori nursery, and don't skip this if you co-sleep, because the principles apply in that situation, too.
This Montessori nursery was featured on Ohdeedoh, the kids rooms version of Apartmenttherapy.com. The first thing I want to draw your attention to is the mattress on the floor. Next, notice that there is art at baby level and toddler level, and the shelves and desk are small. The room has been child-proofed so that instead of a crib or playpen, the baby is free to explore the whole room at her own discretion, with nothing to hamper her movement or curiosity.
MichaelOlaf.net puts it perfectly:
"Every child follows a unique timetable of learning to crawl to those things he has been looking at, so that he may finally handle them. This visual, followed by tactile, exploration is very important for many aspects of human development. If we provide a floor bed or mattress on the floor in a completely safe room—rather than a crib or playpen with bars—the child has a clear view of the surroundings and freedom to explore.
A bed should be one which the baby can get in and out of on his own as soon as he is ready to crawl. The first choice is an adult twin bed mattress on the floor. Besides being an aid to development, this arrangement does a lot to prevent the common problem of crying because of boredom or exhaustion.
It helps to think of this as a whole-room playpen with a baby gate at the doorway and to examine every nook and cranny for interest and safety. If the newborn is going to share a room with parents or siblings we can still provide a large, safe, and interesting environment.
Eventually he will explore the whole room with a gate at the door and then gradually move out into the baby-proofed and baby-interesting remainder of the house.
These are the beginning stages of independence, concentration, movement, self-esteem, decision-making, and balanced, healthful development of body, mind, and spirit."
Here is another room I found on Flickr:
The mama designed this room for her 14 month old. Until he turned 14 months, he slept in a small mattress on the floor of their bedroom.
Another child's Montessori-style bedroom from Flickr:
We bed-share with our children, and have our mattress on the floor. As soon as they could crawl, they were climbing in and out of bed on their own. Soon they were selecting their own bedtime stories from a low child's shelf in our room and bringing them to us in bed, before they could even talk. The only time we restricted them was if I was home alone and needed to cook on a hot stove.
I love that this is not a forced, artificial independence, such as when we tell ourselves that babies need to learn to "self-soothe." The prepared environment provides the OPPORTUNITY, and then the child chooses his own pace of exploring and developing. He has soft, safe, colorful toys, a good selection of beautiful books, art and mirrors on the walls at his level, sturdy furniture to help him move about the room.
As the baby learns to crawl and then walk, they are able to reach things on low tables, and pull themselves up to sit on small chairs, use little cups and utensils, poor their own juce and milk, reach the sink to wash their own hands, and do the things that the adults around them do, but on a level that is feasible for them.
We keep snacks on a low shelf in the fridge that they are allowed to have whenever they want, such as apple slices or hard-boiled eggs. We have low hooks by the door so that they can hang their own coats, and are getting hooks for the bathroom so they can hang their own towels. We have a bench at the sink, and I made special placemats so the kids can set their own table.
(picture complete with one Deirdre chipmunk who stuffed her cheeks for the picture)
Their underwear, socks, shoes, hats, all of it is low and accessible. They have child-sized gardening tools and watering cans, a small wood and cornhusk broom, and towels under the sink so they can clean up spills themselves.
Maria Montessori described the classroom enviroment in her book, The Montesori Method:
"With this in view, I first turned my attention to the question of environment, and this, of course, included the furnishing of the schoolroom. In considering an ample playground with space for a garden as an important part of this school environment, I am not suggesting anything new.
The novelty lies, perhaps, in my idea for the use of this open-air space, which is to be in direct communication [Page 81] with the schoolroom, so that the children may be free to go and come as they like, throughout the entire day...
I have had tables made with wide, solid, octagonal legs, spreading in such a way that the tables are at the same time solidly firm and very light, so light, indeed, that two four-year-old children can easily carry them about...I also designed and had manufactured little chairs...Another piece of our school furniture consists of a little washstand, so low that it can be used by even a three-year-old child....
In each of our schoolrooms we have provided a series of long low cupboards, especially designed for the reception [Page 82] of the didactic materials. The doors of these cupboards open easily, and the care of the materials is confided to the children. The tops of these cases furnish room for potted plants, small aquariums, or for the various toys with which the children are allowed to play freely. We have ample blackboard space, and these boards are so hung as to be easily used by the smallest child. Each blackboard is provided with a small case in which are kept the chalk, and the white cloths which we use instead of the ordinary erasers...
Above the blackboards are hung attractive pictures, chosen carefully, representing simple scenes in which children would naturally be interested...
Our little tables and our various types of chairs are all light and easily transported, and we permit the child to select the position which he finds most comfortable. He can make himself comfortable as well as seat himself [Page 84] in his own place. And this freedom is not only an external sign of liberty, but a means of education. If by an awkward movement a child upsets a chair, which falls noisily to the floor, he will have an evident proof of his own incapacity; the same movement had it taken place amid stationary benches would have passed unnoticed by him. Thus the child has some means by which he can correct himself, and having done so he will have before him the actual proof of the power he has gained: the little tables and chairs remain firm and silent each in its own place. It is plainly seen that the child has learned to command his movements."
Along these last lines, everything in the house was real, made of glass, and breakable. If a wood or plastic bowl is dropped, nothing happens. If a glass one is dropped and broken, the child saw immediately that they needed to be careful or else lose the bowl.
I have done this with both of my children, and broken a couple of glasses in the process, but they both learned very quickly to be careful with cups and bowls and pitchers.
It is the job, the DRIVE, of a small child to imitate his parents and the adults around him, to copy them in order to learn how life works, what it means to be a person. When we place them in a playpen, or restrict them to a walker, or keep everything out of their reach, it hampers them in negative ways. It goes against their very nature.
"During the first three years the child will absorb, like a sponge, whatever is in the environment, ugliness or beauty, course behavior or gentleness, good or bad language. As parents, we are the first models of what it means to be human." - SunriseMontessori.com
One of my favorite catalogs to browse through is For Small Hands, which sells real things in child size. No plastic vacuum for pretend vacuuming - everything in here is real but smaller; small baking pans, safe graters, little colanders, mini clothesline, small hammers and saws for woodworking, a steel kid's wheelbarrow instead of a plastic one, everything scaled down for a child, everything really cuts and rolls and bakes and picks crumbs up off of the floor.
My kids love to play, but when I bake bread, they want to help. When I garden, they want to help. When I hang clothes, they want to help. When I sweep, they want to help. It's their job to do what I do and what Bryan does.
This is something every parent should do for their babies and children, whether crunchy or mainstream, homeschooling or public schooling, natural or technological, stay at home or gone for work. When we force independence on our children before they are ready, we harm them, but it is the same when we hamper it when their time has come.
“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” – Maria Montessori
For additional reading, I love how this mama describes preparing her apartment for her daughter.
This is also a good article called “Oh, Baby! Preparing a Montessori Environment for the Littlest Ones”