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A Montessori Reminder: Teach the Real Before the Abstract

Otto visiting piglets at How we Montessori  22 months
Parenting a toddler can be tough. We are constantly trying to do the best by them while also surviving, looking after other family members and perhaps working long hours. Society is often working against us, offering electronic devices and underwater worlds of talking octapuses or singing pigs, that actually keep the little ones entertained. What Montessori found and what I've found is that what the toddler is actually interested in, is the world around them!

What fascinates a toddler is often the little things, the ants on the walkways, little rocks and stones, sometimes the big things, the banging recycling truck, it is the real, it is the everyday. Toddlers start to classify, start to categorise things around them and try to understand how they work how they interconnect, we can assist this by giving them opportunities to explore the real world around them, not an abstract false adult creation.

At home we have a matching insect set, my toddler (22 months) will take the ladybug from the set and place it outside. Always in the same spot. I don't see him do it, I just find this model ladybug on the worn concrete path out the back of our house. I'm sure he is releasing the ladybug. Perhaps he thinks it is real. Perhaps our model ladybug is too accurate, too lifelike, it shows how literal our toddlers are thinking. 

As Montessori parents, we are taught to teach the real before we teach the abstract. You will hear teachers say 'concrete before abstract', in the classroom this may mean using concrete materials such as the number rods and the sandpaper letters. Materials that are real, that the child can touch, feel and absorb. But what does that mean in the home, for the toddler, or for the child that doesn't go to a Montessori school?

"Concrete First and then Abstraction. We give the experience of the real object first. For example we might have a pet rabbit visit the classroom and show the child the feet, the nose, the mouth and so on, before we would introduce pictures of rabbits and other mammals, or language cards used to teach the exterior parts of mammals." - The Red Corolla, Montessori Cosmic Education

"When the child is approximately eighteen months old and his hands and fingers are sufficiently developed through discovering real items of his environment, we can give him miniature objects to explore: pots and pans, kitchen utensils, tools, domestic animals, birds, fruits, vegetables, and so forth. A small basket of three or more of these items belonging to one category can be placed on the child's toy shelf." - Montessori from the Start: The Child at Home, from Birth to Age Three. This is primarily for language development, naming the objects in their environment, and this is where it should start. Real objects from the environment first. Replica objects from the environment second.

We want our child's first experiences of an object to be multi-sensory. The taste of an orange, the touch of the cat's fur, the smell of the piglets, the sound of the violin. "The sensorial experience of real objects should come before pictures or names of these objects whenever possible. For example, if you have a new book with pictures of fruits and vegetables, take the child to the kitchen and handle, smell, cut up, and taste a piece of fruit; then give the vocabulary - the colours, texture, taste, names such as peeling, seed, juice, etc. The intelligence is built upon a wealth of experience followed by the vocabulary to classify and express experience." - The Joyful Child: Montessori, Global Wisdom for Birth to Three

Allow the child to experience the real before we use the items in language cards or language materials. We don't need to introduce all the instruments to the child but perhaps one or two, see an orchestra or band play (sometimes in civic places), perhaps visit an instrument shop or visit a friend who plays an instrument. To see the road workers or postal service workers out in the community, or see a tractor in the field. In the classroom, this may mean a pet or musician comes to visit. First puzzles can be of domestic animals, tools, toys, or local birds. First books can depict known objects for the child to name. Books of other cultures, other children and animals, are important too as the child can relate to them.

"We can help the child's language development with listening, eye contact, speaking well in his presence, and by providing a stimulating environment, rich in sensorial experiences and in language, providing a wealth of experience because language is meaningless if it is not based on experience...We can provide materials such as nursery rhyme blocks and books, vocabulary cards, books of subjects that are real and are related to the life of the child." - The Joyful Child: Montessori, Global Wisdom for Birth to Three.

Otto matching cat at 22 months at How we Montessori

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