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What can I do with my one year old? Part One 12-18 months.

Meet Megan and her Montessori family - Sydney, Australia

Montessori and Me Honey, Banana and Toast

I haven't known Megan for a long time however since reading her blog Montessori and Me I really felt a connection to her parenting style. I have found Megan really relatable and down to earth yet inspiring. She writes with real clarity and is passionate about Montessori. Today I am thrilled to share with you Megan and her story. 

 

Can you tell us a little about yourself, your family and where you live?

I was born and raised in the U.S. While I was studying my degree in Child & Family Development (Human Development) in Georgia, USA. I met my wonderful Aussie husband, Ky-Anh who was there for two years obtaining his post-doc. After I graduated in 2007, I packed my bags and boarded a plane for Sydney, Australia to follow him. I had no idea what was in store for me. It was just pure love that brought me here. Our family now includes the three other loves of our lives: Lachlan (age 6), Noelle (age 4) and Oliver (age 2). My husband is originally from Vietnam (escaping when he was just 7 years old) so our children are 50% Vietnamese, 50% American and 100% Aussie! This mix of heritage is really important to who we are as a family as it shapes our values and belief systems. It certainly makes us more open-minded and I hope, my children more well rounded.

Our brood are typical Montessori children: very independent, self-sufficient and love learning. Lachlan our eldest is highly gifted. We do not like to label him as such but sharing our experiences in raising a child with particular traits helps to connect with others in the same boat and offer support. It has certainly helped me assist my clients much better in this area of development. There are a lot of challenges that come from the perfectionism of a gifted or talented child. Even with my degree, I had to seek out additional guidance as typical parenting strategies just were not enough. It was an emotional roller coaster for me from being in denial to worrying about how he will fit in when he is in school and he was only a toddler at that stage! My sister one day said, "Stop being in denial. He's reading and writing at 18 months! You need to stop worrying about the label and focus on supporting him. He couldn't ask for a better mum than you for this!" I woke up and accepted it and was on a mission to find the best way for him to learn and blend in and that was Montessori! He is the 6-9 Cycle right now but spends much of his time with his 9-12 peers too. The teaching staff say the children just love to pick his brain about anything science, his particular interest. He's become a leader socially among his peers and is someone others look up to. It has eased all worries I had in the past. I suppose I thought he might be seen as a black sheep, but I was so incredibly, wrong. In regards to his perfectionism, he now sees making a mistake as a learning opportunity, which is exactly what we were hoping for. We had to make a conscientious effort to foster this. My sister sent him the book, Beautiful Oops! when he was two years old and it helped achieve this goal so much.

Our daughter Noelle is the creative one. Put a large amount of art media in front of her and she is as happy as a clam. She's very soft spoken; a little "Snow White." Animals and insects just make their way to her. She is such a nurturing, gentle soul and a true daydreamer. She has an amazing talent for storytelling and writes very amusing plays and songs to share with all of us.

And Oliver... he is your typical third! He is active, energetic and full of life. The other two were so placid and we have never seen that with him. He keeps me on my toes. However, when he finds something he wants to engage with he will sit for a very long time in full concentration. He is fixated with the Solar System at the moment!

As for me, I am really passionate about my work as a developmental specialist. I own a small practice in Sydney called Growing Minds. I feel really blessed to have the education that I do. My degree encompasses development of the life cycle from prenatal to the aging adult. It examines nutrition, psychology, family systems and pedagogy, to name a few. It compliments so many of the ideas of Dr. Maria Montessori. She was one of the rare doctors that often would write a prescription of new routines and contributions for different members in the family to help support the pateint's recovery. It is a very broad and wholistic way of examining the development of individuals.

Montessori and Me Megan Nguyen at How we Montessori

You are one of the few Montessori parents I know who were trained in Montessori including 0-3 before becoming a parent. How do you feel your training influenced your parenting especially in the infant/toddler stage?

My Montessori experiences and training have certainly influenced my parenting in so many ways. I didn't really get the breadth of my training until after I had Lachlan. At that time, for work, I was researching both Reggio Emilia and Montessori pedagogy after spending a little time in Italy. The "Italian experience" was my first real eye opener on how interactions with children should be. While traveling around Italy and examining their education systems and family dynamics I was just mesmerised! The importance and value they put on children is such a gold standard compared to the US and Australia. They really believe that children should be seen and heard. I would see it on the streets when a new baby was born and out for his first walk in the pram. The mum could only go a few paces before someone would pass her and want to meet the baby. This little bub would be unwrapped and picked up each time from the blankets, whether sleeping or not to meet each passerby in the community.Every person welcomed the child in a way that a grandparent or uncle would; with such warmth and hope for who the child will become. I would see subway walls and even theatre curtains all designed by the children in the local schools. It just felt like how all children should be living their lives: valued members of society.

I wanted to take that experience home with me and I just immersed myself even more into Montessori training; formal and informal. It began for parenting purposes with Lachlan but I soon realised I couldn't run my consultancies without sharing Montessori. It was forever embedded in me. By the time my second and third children were born I was well established with my Montessori practices. It is wonderful seeing them grow in confidence from all the independence and freedom of movement from birth. Of course being a "Montessori Parent" can seem so strange to those around you who have never heard of the Approach. It was hard for others to keep their hands out of our toddlers' processes to feed or get dressed. I am sure that a number of family and friends thought it was a bit cruel to make our 15 month old prepare his own fruit for lunch or put on his own socks. They just couldn't see that our children desire to do the tasks. I do love the look on the adult's face of amazement after they witness the child's success. It makes any external clashes so worth it! And of course it is always so rewarding when you unintentionally win people over to this way of parenting and education. I still beam from ear to ear when people tell me they are considering looking into Montessori.

Montessori and Me Sink Float

Did you do your training in the US and if so can you comment how or if you noticed a difference in Montessori parenting in the US compared to Australia?

My formal 0-3 training is from North America and 3-6 training I did right here in Australia, through Montessori Australia Foundation. However, I use every opportunity I can to observe other 0-3 programs. I do a lot of extra shadowing work through connections with the numerous AMI Directresses here in Sydney. It is really the best informal training. I love to gain their perspectives and vice versa. It is nice to be part of such a supportive professional community. I don't think I will ever stop seeking training!

I think parenting is very similar between the two countries. We all have the same hopes and worries for our children. I think the main differences come down to politics and regulatory standards which affect the quality of life parents can offer their children. With things in Australia like our universal healthcare, parental leave schemes, paid holidays and childcare rebate and benefits, it already gives parents a better advantage on their parenting journey to provide for their children. Montessori education can even become an option for many if a preschool is registered for the Childcare Rebate. It can be done while still providing authentic Montessori education, so I hope more schools will do so to allow more opportunities for all families. Quite frankly, if the opportunity is there, I believe as educators we have a duty to make it happen. I hope more Montessori schools will register.

On the other hand, when it comes to mainstream child care standards, we are really lagging behind in Australia. This puts stress on parents when having to go back to work and choose child care. So many of my clients and friends have switched childcares several times before they can find the right fit. This happens everywhere in the world of course, but I do not feel that our early child care programs and educators are well supported; training-wise and financially. It was the first thing that I noticed when I moved to Sydney and took my first job as a Director at a traditional long day care. Other overseas professionals who visit for research or consulting make similar comments. We have a very long way to go to change the quality of care for young children in this country. We just do not seem to be progressing enough. I believe it can be done, but I think that Australians are still trying to find their voice. My hope is eventually it will be loud and heard. This is one of the reasons I love Montessori. It is a progressive education that has lasted over a century! The emphasis on educating parents really provides much needed support at home. This is true in any country where you find a Montessori school. It is comforting to know that you can walk into any AMI recognised school in the world and find the same materials and values in education. This really eases any parents mind.

Another difference I really notice when travelling between the two countries with our children is the public facilities for families. We are spoiled (and rightfully so!) in Australia with many shopping centres purpose built to attract and provide simple conveniences for parents and their children. In Australia (at least where I live) we have fantastic parenting rooms with separate breast feeding booths for each person, sometimes each equipped with a TV and wall mount activity board to occupy your other child. The many nappy changing stations and small kitchens with sink and microwave for feeding prep help many parents when out and about. I found it really frustrating when I went back home to the States after becoming a parent for the first time and could not find any place designated for breastfeeding. Often I had to just sit out on a bench in the middle of the shopping mall while people walked by. I never sensed that my fellow-Americans are as comfy with breast-feeding in public as in Australia. I mean, in Sydney I can lay on the beach with my top off if I want, I would never do that back home! I felt at times people didn't appreciate my child feeding so openly. Perhaps, I was a new parent and more self-conscious then and I have it all wrong. I would love some thought on this from your readers! There is comfort in Australia knowing that I can breastfeed anywhere I want in public by law.

Montessori and Me #1

You have some really thoughtful parenting posts on your blog, how do you do it? How do you find time to observe and be present when you are meeting the needs of three children?

First, thank you for reading and allowing me to share my journey with you. Those types of posts really show the true essence of our home. I have to be honest though and say that being present is a work in progress. Like the child, we never stop growing. I am constantly evolving as a parent. I have always been a really conscientious person. I think it is just in my nature; one of the reason I worked as a research scientist in my field. I really enjoy observing and there is no better joy than watching your own child discover the world. We have to be able to do that to be present.

Before I was a mum I practiced yoga and meditation regularly. I connected with nature daily and fed my soul all it needed to thrive. However, after becoming a parent all of that somehow just went to the back burner. My story is the same as so many parents: you end up putting your children's needs first and often forget about your own. I was so happy and focused on being a mum, I didn't even realise that there was another part of me that was diminishing. Last year, when Oliver was one year old, I completely burned out. I was worn down so much I lost a lot of weight, developed health issues and found myself in the emergency room with a panic attack. I was so far removed from that yoga-zen chic I was 5 years before. It was a major wake up call for me and also for my family and friends who thought that I was some sort of super mum, always coping so well. The truth was I wasn't, but I even had myself fooled!

I really didn't know how to take care of myself after putting everyone first for so long. It felt selfish and self-serving. Yet, if I didn't I was a hypocrite. How could I not take my own advice that I give to my friends and clients. So I decided then and there that I was going to regain control of my life. I was going to give the gift of "myself" back and that would be the best gift I could give my children. I talk more about that journey in my post Becoming the Parent You Want to Be .

So earlier this year, I resigned from my roles as Directress of a Parent-Toddler Program and Nido Program. I began those programs myself from the ground up so it was a hard thing to let go. However, I knew that my Montessori journey would continue, just at a different capacity.

With less responsibilities on my mind, it makes it easier to give my attention to my children. I set specific times to write my blog, Montessori and Me and to work on any continuing education. I turn off my phone, shut down my laptop and really look into the eyes of my children when they are speaking to me--this is so important! I want them to know that when it is our time together, they have all of me and I value their presence in my life. Our school weeks are logistic nightmares with children at two different schools and a half day pickup for one, plus a few activities after school. I look at that time so differently now. I turn that into quality time and use it to our advantage. If one child is swimming, I converse with the other two, read or play tic-tac-toe. No devices. Waiting time becomes "us" time. It makes a big difference. We all benefit from connecting during these times. I am happy to say that all three children will be at one school next year so that will give us some time back.


Can you tell us about your Montessori work in a professional capacity? Do you work with educators and parents?

As mentioned, I was Directress of both a Toddler and Infant (Nido) program at our local Montessori school. Because of my background, I am passionate about educating parents to ensure they feel empowered; I made this a key component in both of the programs. I particularly enjoyed my time in Nido as the sessions were the parents first step on their Montessori journey. It was so rewarding to guide the families through their parenting challenges and but also witness their triumphs as well. It allowed me the opportunity to see these parents grow and mature with confidence. Sharing the Montessori perspective with them was such a wonderful gift. While I was there to educate parents, I took away so much from my interactions with the families and infants.

Currently I have some exciting plans in the works to offer my wholisitc approach of development in a Montessori setting to support parents and children once again while also reaching out to the local community. I will keep you posted! Right now I am keeping busy doing parenting consults and workshops and also training early childhood professionals. I love training traditional carers because it gives me the opportunity to share the ideas of Montessori from independence to freedom of movement with them. It is a wonderful feeling when a participant e-mails me a month later and says that they have removed high chairs from their long day care or have now introduced food prep. I think the best feedback I received was a woman who told be that she now allowed the toddlers in her care the freedom to choose toys from the shelf. That alone can transform a child's world of learning.

 

Can you describe your at home approach to Montessori and how does it impact your everyday living?

Well, Montessori is our everyday living! We certainly see it as an "education for life." We are all driven by these desires to self-master and be independent. Our home is set up to cater to this regardless of age. We are in some great stages with our children right now, one in each of the first three Montessori cycles: 0-3, 3-6 and 6-9. Each of them is developing something really different at the moment. Lachlan is thinking much more in the abstract and obsessed with chemistry and physics. The independence and problem-solving allows him to research a lot of things on his own and plan ahead for what he would like to learn next. I feel more like a librarian; providing him with the right resources to achieve his goals. While Noelle is really growing in her social-emotional development at the moment; her confidence and communication with others has blossomed tremendously the last few months. Oliver is in a huge sensitive period for language. I am always amazed by the vast amount of new words he speaks each day. I prepare the environment to ensure their needs are well met in these areas. Since all my children have a strong passion for reading, I support their interests with a lot of books!

The Approach is a part of everything from getting dressed in the morning, making lunches, problem-solving and simple grace and courtesies. My children certainly recognise these needs not just in themselves but in their siblings. Montessori is just natural! I always talk about getting back to our roots, back to the basics.This is Montessori. It is simply allowing children to develop the way nature intended.

I am not sure how life would be for us without Montessori. With young children, I would feel so overwhelmed if I had to do everything for them. It has always been a relief knowing that if I was breastfeeding one, my 4 year old could make his own sandwich if he was hungry or my toddler could help herself to the potty. The family system as a whole just works so much better. We all know each other's capabilities and expectations. There is security and comfort in this.

Montessori and Me Montessori Family Sydney Australia

Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from? Are there any resources such as books, websites, blogs that you could recommend?

My inspirations come from my own children, my husband and the families that I am blessed to work with. They all challenge me with their thoughts and questions. It motivates me to research more and as a result I become a better parent, professional and person in general. I also stay connected with others in my field. Montessori professionals seem to gravitate towards each other for life, I think. We find great encouragement from one another. A big challenge at the moment is keeping up with the modern world and still being true to Montessori. I belong to a Montessori Research Network where we discuss topics like these. I gain so many insights and perspectives to help me form my own opinions.

My favourite book that I refer to time after time is Understanding the Human Being by Silvana Quattrocchi Montanaro. It is usually my gift of choice for new parents. That along with Montessori from the Start by Paula Polk Lillard and Lynn Lillard Jessen are must reads for anyone that has been a part of my programs. I also pick up from time to time the sweet, little poetic read from Aline Wolf, Look at the Child. As far as books from Dr. Maria Montessori herself, I really like The Child in the Family and also The Secrets of Childhood.

Blogs such as yours with great visuals are wonderful as a simple photo can tell a story or spark an idea; great for a time poor mum, like me who may not be able to sit and read the whole post. On instagram I enjoy following Our Montessori Life. We seem to have similar thoughts about reconnecting with our children and to nature so they speak to me as a parent. Following other professionals is fun too such as Montessori Toddler. It is so interesting to take a peek into other Toddler Programs; a wonderful advantage of social media. I can be found on instagram at montessori_and_me and also on Facebook.


Finally do you have any tips or suggestions for parents beginning Montessori in the home? What are the key elements you have found useful that you can recommend?

If someone is new to Montessori, the best advice I can give is to not worry about doing a whole house of lifestyle transformation in a weekend. Start slowly from one area to the next. Focus on practical life starting with meal times. Invest in a sturdy stool for the kitchen and a small table and chair. Those items alone will open up so many opportunities for independence. Making a list of your daily routine and examining what things you know your child can or could do independently with the right set up is helpful. You can start gradually preparing an environment that will foster his development with little hindrance for an adult.

If your child attends a Montessori school, trust the quality of care that he is in. There is no need to replicate the classroom into your home. Remember that a Montessori Directress is specifically trained to use the materials in her classroom and all the extensions that stem from them. Children engage for an uninterrupted cycle at school and they work hard! They want to return home to unwind and free up their mind a bit, just like you after a long day. If they are not as excited about some new material you purchased or made, it is probably because you have chosen a great school that has fed their brains all day; one reason Montessori schools have a different definition to "home work."

Home should be a place to freely play, create and bond with family. This time can be used to further explore interests by going to the library or a museum. I see many families who spend a lot of time purchasing or making materials for their children at home, which could be used in the child's classroom. While I admire the dedication and thought that this takes, I also remember that our time is precious as parents. I might make a few resources up from time to time on hard to find subjects, (more for the toddler stage) but I really leave the rest of that for their teachers, who do it beautifully. I do not want to be cutting and laminating activities for them when we could be baking or going on a nature walk. Instead, I communicate with their teachers about their home interests and they will expand upon that more at school or perhaps take out certain materials. For example, Lachlan likes to work with the periodic table so his teachers designed a huge, moveable one as a work tray available for all the students. I donated a wall poster as a reference and it sparked the curiosity of other children as well, a beautiful thing. The school choir even ended up singing the Periodic Table of Elements song for the Soiree last term! The teachers want your child to succeed so share your thoughts. Montessori schools strive for a strong, involved parent community, so use it your family's advantage and your child will reap the rewards.

There is no need to make the Montessori journey overwhelming. Some parents have the time and resources to prepare all they imagine, but for many that is out of reach. It need not be a time or financial burden when applied at home. While it is important to prepare the environment, use what you've got! After all, we all know that children will find more inventive things to do with a box, then the object that was packed in it, don't we? That is exactly what Dr. Montessori had to do. Have you ever noticed that the botany cabinets in your child's classroom look similar to furniture found in your dentist's office? This is what she was donated at the time she had little resources. They served as great storage for puzzle work and insets and therefore further designs were inspired by them. (A fact my dentist husband loves!)

When I talk to adults who were Montessori children, they look back on their time in school and can actually see and feel the materials in their hands just by thinking about them. They say sometimes if they have to recall a skill they haven't used in awhile, they can visualise the material and it helps them. The sensory experience of hands on learning is forever imprinted. They take this away with them after they leave school and have it for life. However, when your children look back on their time with you as a parent and the moments that you shared, I am quite sure it will not be what was on their shelves at home; it will be the feeling they got from spending time with you. Perhaps it will be a song you always share, or the softness of your hands, or the smell of your shirt. These are the things that last and come out of quality time together. I just try to remember that the best I can offer often comes from the most simple, ordinary things. If we look to the child and follow his lead we can see this very clearly.

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You can read Megan's blog Montessori and Me, follow her on Instagram and Facebook. Thank you so much to Megan for taking the time to share with us and for her ongoing contribution to Montessori in Australia. It is so important that as Montessori parents we keep on sharing, supporting and uplifting each other. It is also really important that there are images and discussion on what Montessori in the home can look like and Megan is an excellent example. 

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