Creating a Prepared Environment with the Right Learning Toys
Prepared Environment is a term used in Montessori for a thoughtfully created environment, whether a classroom, a corner at home, or a beautifully created bedroom with suitable learning toys suited to your child’s needs.
It is an environment that has been set up to cater to the child's requirements right from birth. Think of low tables and chairs, low shelves with the toys and things your child plays with and can easily see and access without or with negligible help from an adult.
A prepared environment also means that the things in the environment cater to the sensitive period the child is in and facilitates independent learning.
If the child is going through a sensitive period of reading, then the area would have the books and learning toys that your child loves to read stacked in a clearly visible manner
If your child loves a posting activity, there could be a coin box or mailbox on the toy shelf for the child to pick and play from during playtime.
For babies, this environment serves as a form of security and aids in developing the absorbent mind, which develops through a series of sensitive periods.
The environment must be set up with points of reference that provide comfort, using learning materials and furniture that look like other parts of the home. This allows your child to relax, display natural development urges, and explore the prepared environment independently.
How do we use appropriate learning toys and prepare an environment for our baby’s sensitive periods?
The prepared environment in early childhood needs to cater to the child’s innate sensitivity toward order and structure in an environment. Children during infancy and early childhood experience sensitive periods because it assists them in developing various skills and traits inside of themselves. In this way, your child can develop a well-collected mind to think more rationally and achieve goals constructively later in life.
From the time of birth, your child will experience sensitive periods that will cause him or her to become sensitive to specific types of activities or materials when they are placed in the prepared environment. You must introduce correct Montessori materials in their life explicitly suited to each period. For example, if your child is experiencing a sensitive period for movement and wants to dance and move about frequently, then you need to prepare a particular environment for them. When this happens, it is essential to prepare an area in your home or in your toddler’s nursery where he or she can move about, independently switch on and off music and have a shelf of movement games like Twister, a yoga mat, and a pop-up tunnel tent to put up and crawl through quickly.
While preparing, only the learning toys that your toddler is going to need must be placed on the shelf. It is important always to remember that less is more and to prepare for the sensitive period by also considering that you need to cater to your child’s limited sense of concentration, which requires activities to involve as little variety as possible.
How do we place learning toys and activities on the shelves to cater to our toddler’s developing needs?
Less is More: It is because of a sensitive need for order and structure from the external world that the environment needs to be well ordered, with as few materials as possible, so that your developing baby can glean from the order and space in the environment
Order of Difficulty: The Montessori learning toys and activities that are placed on the shelves need to be put in order of difficulty, so the most effortless activity should be placed on the uppermost shelf, always from left to right. In this way, we can indirectly prepare our children for other skills to come such as writing, and also cater to the ongoing sensitive period for order, which takes place for the first few years of life.
Natural and High-Quality Materials: Activities and learning toys that involve one or a few objects, for example, paper, a drawing board, and a crayon for drawing, must be placed on a tray on the shelf. Some activities, like bead threading or puzzles, can be placed in baskets. The materials used in the activities need to be as natural and beautiful as possible. For example, for water and dry transfer activities in practical life, it is best to use glass, steel, wooden bowls, or porcelain containers because they remind your toddler of the same kind of materials that are used in the kitchen. This helps your baby to relate the activity being practiced to real-life activities he or she observes in the home. This is important because your baby's imagination is still developing for the first few years of life and will require this type of support.
Social Interactions and Learning Toys
We expose our children to different people, and they, too, contribute towards development in a prepared environment. Babies must be allowed to socialize with other babies to help develop social skills. While it is true that during the first few formative months of life, a baby should have only the fewest, nearest, and dearest family members around, it is also true that between a year and three years old, toddlers thrive off of social interaction as well. Adults in the environment and older children are also significant because your baby will learn from each person’s attitudes, mannerisms, and behaviors in the environment. Mixing social interactions with suitable learning toys and introducing other babies or adults into your child’s life will help facilitate positive learning. Therefore, it is most beneficial to expose your toddler to other children from the age of independence, beginning at three years old. This is also why it is important to prepare other adults and older children with any necessary information about how to be around your developing child to help them develop from social interactions with others in the prepared environment.
A prepared environment supports the sensitive period your child is in and enables maximum independent learning. So, observe your child, understand their child's sensitive period, and design your home environment to cater to it. Bear in mind that a prepared environment is ever evolving as your child will move on to the following sensitive period once they have mastered the current one and return to it later. This is when you rearrange the environment to cater to the current sensitive period. E.g., if the child has been solving puzzles for a long, they made need a more challenging puzzle or may need to be introduced to another activity that they are showing sensitivity towards.
Following are some tips to create a prepared environment at home for your active child:
You don’t need to spend a lot of dollars to create a space for your child. Make it a mix of what you already have and complement it with minimal buying. Remember, it must be intentional and purposeful to the child’s inner needs.
Everything in the prepared environment is child’s size – encourage independent learning through ways like low shelf so they can reach any toy they want to work with; low hanging paintings so the child can appreciate the art from her eye level; child-size jugs for pouring, water to drink, etc.
Less is more – keep the shelf simple with 4-5 choices so that the child has clarity when she sees the material, and it doesn’t overwhelm her. This leads to the toddler deciding for herself and knowing exactly where to keep it back. A sense of confidence comes to them as they can choose, work, and put it back by themselves. Don’t overwhelm the child by bringing every learning toy from the market. It just becomes a big chaotic mess in their room, and later the child loses interest in playing, concentrating, or cleaning up.Keep it real – all the work in the environment must be real objects and not pretend play. The child is making his/her first impressions of the world right now through their first environment at home. Keep it as real as possible. From jugs that pour water to glasses they can drink from, try to incorporate real things as much as possible.
Rich Environment – natural, purposeful work, books with real-life imagery, and own experiences make the deepest impressions on the child that eventually becomes his/her personality. An environment rich with art, music, cooking, sensory work, eye-hand coordination work, etc., helps to present the whole world to the child
Developing focus – make sure every toy or material in the room is to help the child’s focus and independent learning. So, the work mat that the child uses to work with is a plain, simple mat so that she can concentrate on the work rather than getting distracted by the design or cartoon character on the mat. Montessori toys target one skill at a time, this helps the child to focus and master it.
Choosing Art - The art on the wall and the colors or murals on the wall should not be distracting. It should be there to help the child focus and appreciate. E.g., when you have the written word ‘Love,’ it has no meaning to a child who cannot read yet. Instead, a painting of a real elephant with its baby will make a deeper impression of love to him/her. Hang them low to the child's eye level for them to appreciate it. Keep a few books, apart from learning toys, with paintings, sculptures, wonders of the world, etc., for him to flip through during the calming times between big w.
Toy/Shelf rotation – Store the rest of the toys somewhere away from the child’s eye and rotate the toy when you observe the child is not working with a particular toy or needs more challenge. You can rotate the whole shelf bi-weekly or simply rotate a particular toy
Order – Little humans like order. They are most sensitive towards order at that age. So, take the time and show the spot for each material. Whether it’s the learning toys on the shelf, mop hanging on the side, watering can, handwashing, etc., keep it back in the same spot. Do not keep changing things in the environment till it is necessary to avoid hazards. The child will learn to clean up behind him/her, and if in the middle of some focus work, if they need a dustpan and brush, mop, etc., they know exactly where to get it from so the flow of work does not break.
Books – Go to the local library and get books with clear pictures, real pictures, and real stories. Steer away from fantasy if you can. Remember to teach them that pigs don’t fly and dogs don’t talk. As the child is connecting to the world for the first time, don’t confuse them. By the age of 5-6, they can understand imagination. Until then, give them more language and connection to reality through books.
Always follow the child's interest and let the child be the guide when choosing learning toys for preparing their environment.