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On Beginnings

Most of us have probably experienced the sort of day when everything goes awry—when we hit the snooze button too many times and finally find ourselves alarmed by our own lateness as we’re jolted into wakefulness. Those are the days when a dish slips out of the hand and breaks before breakfast even begins, when the car won’t seem to start, and when our children have fits about going to school. I’ve had such days—more than I care to admit—and I notice that one disruption of the morning routine tends to lead to another and then another. Just as I find myself overwhelmed those days, my daughter will behave, on such days, as though she’s overwhelmed—not only by the deviation from the typical routine, but also by the fact that her mother is a bit “off”—a little on-edge and less present than usual. It makes some sense to me that children throw tantrums precisely when we’re the most rushed and eager for them to comply to our desires: they are keenly aware of the tones we set for our (and their) days.

As we’ve gradually settled upon morning rituals that work for our particular family, I’ve often thought of how important it is for an orchestra to tune itself before any rehearsal or performance. The practice of tuning one’s instrument is an opportunity for the orchestra to unify its disparate parts and for each instrumentalist to assume the mindset that is required for the performance. Athletes also establish their warm-ups, stretching routines, and visualization techniques to get their bodies and minds prepared for what’s to come. One of the things that I love about the Montessori philosophy is its emphasis on preparing the mind and body for what comes later—even much later. The shelves in the classroom of children as young as two years old are organized so that the materials’ level of difficulty increases from left to right and from top to bottom. One reason for this organizational principle is so that the child gradually becomes prepared for the movements of reading and writing that we make in Western languages: we read from left to right and from the top of the page to the bottom of the page. A 2- or 3-year-old might not consciously perceive these aspects of the Montessori classroom, but somewhere in his or her unconscious, the child is absorbing the ways in which our society works through these various details. This young age is the morning of a person’s life—when the tone is set for the habits that will later become deeply ingrained.

To maximize the child’s ability to absorb these beautiful aspects of the Montessori curriculum, it seems important that every morning’s routine is carefully planned and is, most importantly, consistent, so that when the child sets foot in the classroom, he or she is ready to separate from the parent and independently enter into the community of the classroom. It is the spirit of the Montessori method, after all, to prepare the present for an easy transition into the future. In our home, we have the same bedtime (8:00 PM) and wake-up time (6:45 AM) each day (if all goes as planned). After dinner each night, my daughter picks out her clothes for the next day. In the morning, we eat a healthy, filling, sugar-free breakfast together, without any devices to distract anyone from eating, as such devices will not be a part of her day in the Montessori classroom. We chat about the works that my daughter will get to do at school or what her show-and-tell presentation will be about, and when our morning meal is over, she puts on her own clothes, brushes her own teeth (with a bit of help), goes to the bathroom, and puts on her shoes and coat independently. All of these actions are meant to enhance and support the child’s independence, which the Montessori curriculum fosters. As we drive to school, we keep the radio to quiet music so that she and I can talk about the friends she’s excited to see. All this while, we’re preparing her for the mini-society that she’s about to enter. And when, finally, we set foot in the classroom at 8:30, it feels like we’ve been planning this moment since the night before. Our goodbye is therefore short and to-the-point. This way, she can focus on the world she’s entering, rather than the parents from whom she’s separating. Though every morning is certainly not always smooth, we keep this ideal in our minds so that we can make the most of the thoughtfully prepared environment of the Montessori classroom.

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