Bringing up baby, the Montessori way

Beds, not cots, fewer toys, and definitely no naughty step – a new guide to parenting by 'following the child' is the antithesis of modern parenting manuals, discovers Sarah Cassidy

When it's teatime at Kathi Hughes's house, all the children are encouraged to help. Three-year-old Abigail will often push her chair next to where her mother is chopping vegetables for supper. "I'll give her the mushrooms and a butter knife and she'll chop happily next to me," Kathi says. "Do I give her a sharp knife? No, of course not. But she has seen me cut. It shows that older children and adults do these things and this is how it is done."

Kathi is raising her children the Montessori way. After attending Montessori schools herself, she later trained as a Montessori teacher. Since her own children were born, Kathi has adapted her home to bring them up using Montessori methods and ideas.

Her children have eaten off china plates and drunk out of glass tumblers since they were very young. Sometimes things get broken, sometimes things get spilt, but that is a small price to pay for learning independence and self-confidence, Kathi argues. And if her offspring are feeling creative they can help themselves to paint, glue or scissors. Nothing is kept out of reach.

"Sure, sometimes things go wrong," Kathi laughs. "But that can happen even if you were to try to control access to paint, scissors and crockery."

Kathi has written a new parenting guide, Learning Together: What Montessori Can Offer Your Family, which looks set to fuel the debate on how best to bring up children. The book is poles apart from more regimented approaches promoted by experts such as Gina Ford and Jo Frost, television's Supernanny.

The Montessori movement, which has more than 600 nurseries in the UK and which has published Kathi's parenting guide, believes that British parents can choose to learn a lot from Montessori methods. You do not need to send your child to a Montessori school or buy any special educational materials – instead parents can just benefit from the ideas.

It advocates a relaxed approach to parenting, with babies worn in slings, youngsters sleeping on floor beds rather than in cots, and no punishments for naughty toddlers. But the book says the most important thing is for parents to "slow down, stand back and tune in to the rhythm of the child".

"Follow the child" is the mantra of the Montessori movement. The adults' role is to create a stimulating environment and then leave the child undisturbed. One of the biggest mistakes parents make is to believe that children need to be entertained or engaged by an adult all or most of the time, it argues. The "most important thing a parent can do is nothing!" the guide advises. "Simply observe, without interrupting with conversation, questions, or offers of help," it says.

Although Supernanny has recommended parents reward children with star charts and treats, and punish them by confiscating toys, the guide believes parents should "create consistent boundaries" rather than "impose discipline".

"When it is all going a bit wrong, I remind myself that toddlers do not need 'taming' as if they are wild animals; we do not want to break their spirit," Kathi writes in her book. "Instead I like to see children who are assertive, at times even feisty, and who are aware of their own needs, but who can also co-operate with others."

Children should also have plenty of time to play outdoors and be given the opportunity to take risks. Many parents who have used Montessori methods with their own children have contributed their stories to the book. Helena Kay, 40, is a former banker who retrained as a Montessori teacher before having her own children, Skye, three, and one-year-old Cameron. "We've laid things out in the house to allow the children to come and go as they like around the house and to have the freedom to go out into the garden when they want," she says. "I think it has really boosted my daughter's confidence. If parents were to take one simple idea from the book I think they should think about observing their children to see when they are ready to do things for themselves."

Amalia Gonzalez is a qualified Montessori teacher who has used Montessori methods when bringing up her own children, Luca, seven, and Gabriel, aged four. "I am just bringing up my children the way I know, the way it feels natural to me," she says.

"Children have very simple needs, really: they want to be included, they want to be helpful, and they really like spending time with their parents. Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to keep up with the things that others do – extracurricular activities, sports and outings – but what they really enjoy is playing rough and tumble on the carpet, building train tracks or going for a walk in the forest."

Amalia believes that many parents have already adopted many Montessori ideas without realising it. It's about spending time with your children. "Take them out and let them experience and be exposed to all this cultural richness that we have around us. Follow their clues, they learn more when they are interested in something." The Montessori movement hopes to spread its message to more parents in parenting classes held as part of a government pilot scheme.

Jeremy Clarke, a Montessori-trained teacher, qualified primary-school teacher and father of Jack, nine, and Mia, two, will help to deliver the parenting classes and was one of the contributors to the parenting guide. He said: "Reading with my daughter at bedtime is something that I absolutely treasure. It doesn't always go smoothly, though. Mia will sometimes insist on choosing seven or eight books, on occasion she will close every story halfway through and every now and then will turn pages back and forth just so they are repeated again and again. But if Montessori has taught me anything, it is the value of 'following the child'. I remember that what we are doing is not just about reading a story from start to finish."

Philip Bujak, the chief executive of Montessori St Nicholas, the UK's Montessori charity which published the guide, hopes that it will attract many new followers to Montessori ideas. He said: "This isn't a manual on the right way to raise children. We simply hope this book will provide new insight and perspective… Sometimes it's the smallest activities that can make the biggest impact on a child's development."

Who was Montessori?

Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870 and became the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome with a degree in medicine.

She became interested in education through her work as a doctor treating children with special needs.

In 1907, Montessori began work with a pioneering project to teach poor children from a Rome housing estate.

She opened her first Casa dei Bambini, or Children's House, for about 50 children.

Montessori observed the behaviour in these young children and found that they showed deep concentration, liked to repeat activities and were sticklers for order in their classroom.

Given a free choice of activity, the children showed more interest in practical activities and Montessori's materials than in toys. They were not motivated by sweets and other rewards and over time, she saw a spontaneous self-discipline emerge. Her education methods were based on these observations.

As early as 1909, Montessori's work attracted the attention of international observers. Her ideas spread to the UK from about 1912. Today, there are more than 600 Montessori schools in the UK and more than 25,000 worldwide.

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