The following is a letter that was shared from Wildflower Schools Partner and long-time Montessorian, Castle O’Neill, to our school network. The aim is to support parents and caregivers who may be home with children due to the spread of COVID-19. We are sharing this letter in full with hopes that it may be helpful to the broader community of parents and caregivers navigating these challenging times. For a curated library of home learning activities we’ve compiled for our network, click here and for our running list of resources that we’re finding helpful click here.
At Wildflower, we’ve been thinking about how to support families during the pandemic as they move into this new way of being together. Within the network, we’ve been sharing a lot of ideas and one landing spot is thinking about getting prepared for the first week. Montessori teachers see the first week as a pivotal time to create community culture, develop routines and help children develop the habits and ways of being together that will carry them through the year. Children thrive on routine and easily absorb new habits and ways of being as long as the expectations are clear. They want to understand what the different parts of the day will look like and what boundaries and ground rules exist.
A way to start setting the new culture at home is to have a family conversation. Explain that this is a new way of being together. Even though we’re all home, this is not a weekend when parents often don’t have to work, are mostly available and the time is for fun family events and errands. It’s also not a vacation where parents don’t have to work and children have lots of free time. This is the work week, it’s just a work week at home rather than at school and the parent’s workplace. During the work week, parents need to do the types of things they normally do at work and children can do many of the things they would normally do at school. Children will be curious about what this week will look like so be prepared to share a plan for a daily schedule. A predictable routine helps children to feel safe and grounded, they want to understand what these days will feel like. Children like to know what’s happening – a completely open-ended day can feel overwhelming, especially when they’re already picking up on the nervousness that we’re all feeling. Children want to know that the adults have a plan and that they can depend on them to keep them safe. One way this could work would be to wake up, get dressed, etc in the usual way. Children usually burn off some energy traveling to school so do something active – go outside, dance around the living room, whatever works for your family.
The next part of the day would be “work time”. This phrase is familiar to all Montessori children, they know that this is the part of the day when everyone chooses work and does their work in a way that doesn’t disturb the work and concentration of others. Parents need to have time to do their work, either paid work or work to support the family or community. Children also need time to do their work, uninterrupted and with an understanding that their work has value – just as adult work does.
You are the curator of what options are available during work time – it could be playing with toys, doing activities sent home by a teacher or suggested by a teacher, looking at books, doing art. You determine what the options are and then your child makes their choices within the options. You don’t get to make the choices for them and you don’t need to ask them to list what they’ll do – this gives them independence and autonomy as long as they stay within the options you listed. To ensure independence, you’ll need to make sure that everything that your child will need is within their reach – your child’s teachers will be sharing lots of ideas for how to set this up and sharing lots of activities to do at home. Your children are capable of doing this. Every day at their Montessori school, they independently make choices and work on their own or with friends. This may not be the way that things normally are at your house. If your parenting style is to be completely available to your children during the few hours you have together on work day evenings, there may be a period of adjustment as your child understands that you’re fully available in the evenings but not during the day because everyone has work to do.
I’d set a clear amount of time for “work time”. Depending on your child’s age, this could be an hour or an hour and a half. Set a timer, or better, let your child set the timer. Explain that once work time is over, you can come together to read a story, have a snack, run around outside – whatever feels right. You could go on to a second work time and then come together for lunch. Older children could make sandwiches for the family as part of their second work time. This means that parents used to working through their lunch break need to stop and honor the schedule in the same way as the children are asked to do. After lunch, young children can nap and older children can have some quiet time with books, audio books, etc or they can start the afternoon work time as they do everyday at school. Another option is some active time and then a second work time. If your children take a long nap (yay!), you can get some real, focused work done and then be available to them when they wake up. For older children, you can continue this pattern of individual work and coming together. I’d try to save any screen time for as late in the day as possible. Montessori families are generally encouraged to avoid screens but these are remarkable times and if you and your children truly need the separate time that a movie can provide, do it and don’t beat yourself up about it. In the Montessori world, we see children as active, capable members of the community, members who want to contribute to their community – whether it’s their school or home community. We believe that everyone has something to offer. On social media, I hearing parents worrying about how they will get their work done and what they will do with their kids in order to get time for themselves. That’s a real and valid concern but the last thing that we want children to feel, is that through no fault of their own, they have become a nuisance and a problem to be solved. A mental reframing of this could be – we’re all home together, going through a scary and unknown challenge. It will take all of us working together to help our family get through this. Your children want to hear this from you. If you give them the opportunity to step up and support the family, they will. During a difficult situation, we all feel powerful and capable when we have a clear role and way to contribute. Children can feel proud and how good it feels to be responsible and useful in contrast to feeling like the victim of a situation or a passive, bored bystander who isn’t capable of being helpful.
Even the youngest child can contribute. A two year old can pull the clothes out of the dryer or scrub potatoes if you give them a bowl of water and a little scrub brush. If they spill some water as they triumphantly bring you the clean potatoes, who cares? Next time, put a towel under the bowl. The Wildflower teachers will be sharing lots of ideas about how to set your children up for success in a wide variety of activities that will help them to care for your home and the people, animals and plants who live there.
You can also extend this beyond your immediate family. Folks over 60 are being told to stay in their homes and are likely feeling isolated. Older children can write letters to older family members and younger children can draw pictures or make cards. These folks are likely to write back enthusiastically – checking the mail could become a highlight of your day! You could also stick notes and drawings in the mailboxes of isolated members of the community. I’ve been describing children at their best. The reality is that few of us are at our best when we feel stressed, or the folks we trust to take care of us are clearly nervous or when we have to adjust to a new routine. Children are going to test the ground rules of this new schedule and way of being together. They’ll wonder, are my parents really serious when they say that they’re going to work for an hour without being disturbed? Testing is what humans do when we’re figuring out the boundaries of a new situation. My advice is to hold firm to the boundaries you’ve set. This may make the first days a little rough. If you can calmly hold tight to the boundaries without feeling sorry for your child or that you’re being mean, then everyone will be on the same page about where the boundaries are and the rest of your time together will be much smoother. You can also model holding boundaries for your child. If, during the agreed upon work time, your child is wheedling to have the next chapter of a story read, you could use language along these lines: “I can’t wait to see what comes next either but I promised the people I work with that I would have this piece of work finished by the end of the morning. I need 30 more minutes to finish my work and then we can read the next chapter. Can you set the timer for 30 minutes? This is going to be a challenge but it’s also an opportunity to come together as a family, to come together within our communities and to come together globally as we truly understand how interconnected we all are. We all have a role to play in this coming together, even the youngest child. Please know that your child’s teachers are here for you, Wildflower is here for you and we’re going to stay connected to you and help you out as much as possible during this challenging time.