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Montessori: Welcoming the Newborn




Excerpted from
Montessori from the Start; The Child at Home, from Birth to Age Three
By Paula Polk Lillard, Lynn Lillard Jessen

For nine months the unborn child's environment is established for us. We have no role in its preparation beyond caring for the mother's well-being. As soon as the baby struggles from the mother's womb, however, we are faced with the task of preparing its second environment. This is our opportunity to consciously prepare for the infant's needs in self-formation. Because sustained attention and the will are central to every other aspect of self-construction, we must concentrate upon the development of these capabilities as soon its possible. The first weeks are a period of rapid and crucial development; we cannot wait while precious time passes. Our task is to give opportunities for concentration in the first weeks of life.

Let us consider, then, the newborn's bedroom. What do we typically find there? There is a crib, a changing table, perhaps a rocking chair for the adult. I n effect, we are already saving, "This is a place where the baby is not awake." From the outset we take children to busy places in the house as soon as they awaken. They have almost no opportunity to be awake in their own rooms or to sustain their attention undistracted. We are going to discuss how to develop an environment where the baby can spend time alone in deep involvement, even on occasion for several hours.

For this deep engagement to occur, we must create an environment that brings the baby to the edge of his skill level. We have to find the right balance of challenge to the baby and support from the environment. We are able to do this by understanding and following the path of the child's development. At first glance, such a room for the baby looks plain and simple, especially when we compare it to the brightly colored and decorated nurseries that we commonly see. But this plainer nursery has an atmosphere of calm that is missing in busier environments for babies. It is soothing and beautiful in its simplicity.

Recently; we visited the home of parents who are expecting their first baby and have just completed our parent child course. Let us describe what the room prepared for their new baby looks like. The walls are a rich sky blue. They are bare except for a framed photograph of a landscape. It hangs next to a rocking chair where the infant can see it when she is on her parent's shoulder being patted and burped after feeding. There is a large window giving the room natural light, and there is a ceiling light that gives off a warm glow. A large, double-bed-size futon is in the corner of the room. Stiff, cream-colored bolster pillows line its edges next to the walls. The futon is covered with a clean, fitted sheet and on it there is a Moses Basket (a flexible sleeping and earning basket, available in baby stores and catalogues), where the newborn will spend her first nights. There is a mirror attached to the wall at one end of the futon, and in the ceiling above it there is a hook for hanging mobiles. A low, wooden shelf holds a small basket and one tiny silver rattle. A childproof space heater in the corner (it is winter time) is set to maintain the desired room temperature. A colorful pile rug covers the wooden floor next to the futon.

One area of the room with the rocking chair is for nursing. There is a footstool and a small table for tissues, a small clock, and a glass of water for the mother. Another area is for changing the baby. This space has a small wooden armoire about three and a half feet high, just right for serving as a changing table. It has a white pad with a dozen reusable sheets of white rubberized flannel piled on top that the mother has found at a fabric store and cut to fit the "table." Next to the armoire is a simple trash can for soiled diapers. It has a foot lever for opening and closing the lid. There is a second smaller can for tiny washcloths and the rubberized sheets when they are soiled.

Inside the armoire is a neat pile of tiny cotton washcloths and a bowl for warm water to use for wipes, a stack of folded cloth diapers, newborn size, and other items for care (olive oil, nonpetroleum jelly and non-talc powder). There are three small drawers on the light for clothes and on the left, a tiny closet with a small basket for the baby's laundry. A two-by-three-foot piece of blue fabric with pockets hangs on the wall above the armoire. The pockets hold items to care for the baby: thermometer, cotton balls, nail clippers, hairbrush, and so forth.

The room is thus carefully, if minimally, furnished to address the four areas of necessity for the infant: an area for sleeping, for changing, for nursing, and for activity. Almost everything within the child's room is low to the ground and each item will adjust to her changing needs as she grows. The shelf is sturdy enough for her to use when first pulling herself up and learning to walk, and it will hold her toys. She will use the same armoire for dressing herself when she is old enough to do so.

For now, this environment gives the baby ample space both to lie down and to be active. Even as a newborn she can wriggle her body and move a short distance. When she is on her back, a hanging mobile allows her to practice focusing on and following the slow movement of its attractive objects. When she is on her stomach, she can work on lifting her head and see herself in the mirror placed in view on the wall by her futon. As she struggles to lift her head, she builds the strength to hold it up for longer periods of time, and will soon be able to view the whole room. From her stomach position she also works her legs and builds strength in her arms by repeatedly pushing up from the mattress. Finally one day, she will get her knees up under her and get across the room to something.

Following the information given in the parent child course, these parents will give rattles to her hand in logical progression, thus creating new challenges to the baby's grasp and discovery. By three months, they will hang an object just within her reach, allowing her to practice aiming her hand. Over and over she will try, finally managing to touch it. Eventually she will perfect her aim and will grasp the object, pulling it to her mouth for inspection. When she is old enough to sit, her parents will give her a wooden box with a hole in the top for a ball (large enough that she cannot swallow it) to go through. They will do this not to develop the skill of getting a ball through a hole but to give the child the right amount of challenge to develop her intelligence through sustained attention.

For this outcome, the task for the baby has to have just the right amount of challenge: not too easy, not too hard. J. McVicker Hunt, a prominent American psychologist of the 1950s and 1960s, called this "the problem of the match" and gave credit to Montessori for her unique solution to this dilemma. Montessori made the concentration that develops in the child through this "match" with the environment the cornerstone of her educational theory. Children in Montessori environments, whatever their age, concentrate deeply and are intensely focused because each material offers progressive levels of difficulty, thus ensuring that the child always has just the right level of challenge.

The awe that many visitors feel when they see children so entranced with their environment gives Montessori classrooms a spiritual quality. It is our capacity to become altered by sustained attention to our surroundings that is the most spiritual quality of human beings. We enter creation as a new species, we are made of dust just as all other species, vet we mold that dust into another being-each one an original. Our genes and our DNA do not make a human being. Our destiny is to construct our own personalities through a lifetime of learning and experience. If you doubt this mission of the human being, visit a Young Children's Community of Montessori children between the ages of eighteen months and three years and watch their intense involvement in and absorption of their environment. They are working as hard as possible to further their self-formation into complete human beings capable of independence, coordinated movement, language, and will.



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