Archive for December, 2010

December 29, 2010

Montessori-ing my home (the principles)

by Decemberbaby

As I was saying, I’ve decided to Montessori my home (and as I was saying, yes, that’s a verb now). Here are the Montessori principles I’m trying to apply. Keep in mind, I’m picking and choosing. There are many Montessori principles not represented here. This is my own quirky interpretation.

1. Children have an innate need for order. In practice, this means that every toy, activity, or tool must have its own clearly defined space. In the classroom each activity is in the appropriate section of the room, always on the same shelf, and arranged neatly on a tray or in a box.

This is probably the most difficult principle for me to adopt, seeing as I’m on the messy end of the spectrum. But we do have some cubby shelves that practically scream out for a single activity each… that will likely be my saving grace. Well, that and reducing the number of toys in here by about 90%.

2. Children have an innate sense of beauty. Children need to experience beauty, and they are drawn to attractive objects. Toys and apparatus should be attractive, clean, and in good repair. They should also be made of aesthetically pleasing materials whenever possible. In practice, this means that wood, ceramic, metal, and glass are more common than plastic in most Montessori classrooms.

I love this. I hate the gaudy plastic toys, especially the ones that play tinny electronic sounds. We all deserve so much better – the warmth of wood, the smoothness of stone, the coolness of ceramic (no, I wasn’t trying for alliteration. It just kind of happened.) Also, broken toys frustrate both me and the kids, and make the whole place look shabbier. The need for beauty is actually the driving force behind my desire to re-work our living space.

3. Children want to do meaningful work. If you provide properly sized tools and teach correct technique, children will happily work to maintain and beautify their home. Child-sized furniture, cleaning supplies, cutlery, and tools are necessary for a child’s success in this domain.

I am all for child labour. Seriously, if you spill a glass of water, you soak it up with a towel. And I truly believe that if I teach K  basic cooking skills now, I’ll be able to offload cooking dinner that much sooner (shh… please allow me my fantasies. They get me through the day.) There’s that, and the fact that if I teach her how to do certain types of work properly and safely, she won’t hurt herself by trying to reach tools and materials that she shouldn’t be touching.

4. Children can be taught to be graceful and courteous. Part of the Montessori curriculum is titled “grace and courtesy”. Children can (and do) learn that certain materials are fragile and must be cared for accordingly. They learn to walk carefully around others, use breakable objects responsibly, and leave things where others can find and use them.

Again, I’m not so good at the leaving things in the places I found them. But I do allow my kids to handle breakable objects gently. I also think that most children only need to see the consequences of dropping a glass once to know that it’s not something you should do on purpose (and no, I don’t mean the consequence of getting glass in your foot. I’m referring to the sudden, loud noise, the explosion of glass everywhere, and the seemingly endless cleanup).

5. Children need freedom to explore their space and choose their work. I think this one is self-explanatory. For parents of babies, this can mean not using playpens and exersaucers, as they restrict the child’s freedom.With slightly bigger kids (and with babies, come to think of it), it means that anything in reach is something the child is permitted and able to touch and use.

We’ve got this covered, sort of. We have baby gates at both entrances of our living room, giving the kids a 17×12-foot space in which to roam freely. Everything below a 3-foot height is available for their use.

6. Children want independence. The best way to foster this is by making their basic needs readily available to them. In K’s classroom the kids have easy access to a water cooler, containers of healthy snacks, a sink for cleanup, and so on. They very quickly get used to doing things for themselves.

When I worked with special needs kids, my policy was “don’t do anything for them that they can do for themselves”. I’ve created a grooming area (mirror and brushes) for K so that she’s not dependent on me to get ready, we have stepstools in all the right places, and K’s glasses and plates are in a place where she can reach them. To my surprise, she knows how to use the stepstool to access our fridge (freezer is on the bottom), take out some juice, pour it into a little glass, and put everything away again. This kind of independence is mostly beneficial to everyone.

I think that’s enough theory. Stick with me – on Friday I’ll post some pictures of how our house has turned out. In the meantime, do any montessori-oriented readers out there have anything to add?

December 28, 2010

Tiny Torah

by Decemberbaby

Almost a year ago, I decided that K should have a toy Torah. She could carry it around at shul, dress and undress it, open and close it… in short, it would be a great toy that would also nurture her budding sense of Jewishness. There was only one problem. Actually, two. The first problem was that the only toy Torah I could find was the same plush version everybody else had; the second problem was that this was basically a pillow shaped like a Torah, one piece with no bits to take off, put on, open or close. It seemed pretty unexciting to me.

I think you know what’s coming next…

I decided to make my own toy Torah. I raided a pile of scraps for a beautifully shiny fabric for the cover, a textured fabric for the parchment, and something brown for the wooden handles. A bit of ribbon off a package of washcloths, some stuffing, a bit of leftover velcro, and some gold thread later… a Torah was born.

I had other ideas for it, like doing a transfer onto the parchment with a sentence or two of Torah text or doing an applique on the cover to make it prettier and more like the real Torahs K has seen. But time won out over perfectionism, and it’s been well received even without those embellishments.

Have a look:

December 27, 2010

Montessori-ing my home (the preamble)

by Decemberbaby

Much to our parents’ chagrin, we live in a smaller house than either of us called home as children. It’s a bungalow, the third bedroom of which is quite narrow and mostly serves as a way to get to the back door. This house was built in 1946, and that date alone should give you some idea of the amount of closet space we have. We are fortunate to have a full-height basement, although the lack of insulation and the way the ductwork was designed have made it a warm-weather-only destination. The front entryway is small and its closet door is placed most inconveniently. We have upgraded the kitchen and the bathroom, both of which involved a good deal of sledgehammer action, but otherwise the dimensions and features of the house are largely unchanged.

All this by way of explaining that we don’t have a dedicated playroom or even a “family room” that is separate from the living room. The living room has to function as a playroom, entertaining space, laundry-folding station, and a spot to read. The dining room is equal parts computer space, crafting spot, and eating area.

Now, call me crazy, but I’d like to live in a home we can all enjoy. A home that doesn’t look like the big-box toy store just threw up in the living room. A home where kid stuff and grownup stuff mingles without the space looking either juvenile or unfriendly to kids.

I think that, inspired by K’s school – a Jewish Montessori program – I’ve figured out how to achieve that. I’ve decided to Montessori my home. Yes, that’s a verb now. I just decided.

December 26, 2010

Cookin’ up something good

by Decemberbaby

I have lots of thoughts, all over the place. I also have something else I never had on my other blog – some drafts that just need a bit of tweaking before I can publish them. Hopefully I can get some of that done today and then publish one a day for the next little while.

But first, I have some serious work to do. The dishwasher must get emptied. The bedroom needs tidying. I haven’t done any big-batch cooking in ages, and I plan to rectify that as well.

Anyhow, hang tight and I’ll get back to you as soon as the bedroom and kitchen are clean and the meat sauce is bubbling in the crock-pot.

December 19, 2010

Winter camping

by Decemberbaby

Saturday night. Shabbat was over… and still two hours to bedtime. What’s a family to do?

We went camping. I’ll let the pictures tell the story:

Once we had pitched K’s tent, it got very dark. Have you ever noticed how loud it is at night when you’re camping? When we listened, K and I could identify the sound of our white noise machine crickets and tree frogs. K took her flashlight and led Mr. December on an expedition to find flammable chemical goodness firewood, and, with our heat source ensured, we turned our attention to dinner:


Yup, we boiled on the stove, then warmed roasted hot dogs on the fire. To K’s delight, she was allowed a juice box (a great treat, and her second of the day) to wash down her dinner.


So… the campsite is set up, the fire is roaring, dinner has been eaten and cleaned up. Now what?



Well, sometimes nature calls. So K and Mr. December went to visit the potty kybo, with flashlight firmly in hand. Afterwards we entertained ourselves with a campfire sing-along.


Many songs later, our intrepid camper crawled into her tent and bedded down in a pile of blankets.




… and there she slept all night. Being the impulsive spontaneous people we are, we didn’t quite anticipate the loss of our living room for the evening. With our plans for Agricola and Big Bang Theory foiled, we took to our bedroom with some serious reading and went to sleep at a reasonable hour for a change.






So, to sum up:

  • One package of kosher hot dogs: $4
  • One flashlight from the 24-hour drugstore: $8
  • One dollar-store juicebox: $0.25
  • White noise machine: $30 (but of course we already owned this)
  • A Saturday night the whole family loved: priceless.
December 17, 2010

Shabbat Shalom!

by Decemberbaby

Mmmm... carby goodness

December 17, 2010

Follow the child.

by Decemberbaby

After I last blogged about it, I thought I had solved the pickup problem. We had a wonderful pickup on Wednesday: I grabbed K’s hand and ran with her down the hall to the steps she usually climbs. I sang, “I can climb the mountain!” and bounded up the steps. She followed. We did a “we climbed the mountain!” dance. Then I challenged her to “ski” down, and she did. After that she was able to cooperate in getting her outdoor gear on and going to the car.

I tried the same thing on Thursday. FAIL. Oh, sure, she was happy to go “skiing” again, but after that she decided to roll on the floor, go to the bathroom to wash her hands (with too much soap), wander back into the classroom, and scream every time I tried to put on her boots. She ended up having a loud tantrum in the hallway as the other students walked past and helpfully bent down to whisper in my ear: “I think she doesn’t want to put her boots on.” Oh, gee. Thanks, captain obvious.

I eventually engaged her in some silliness that put an end to the crying, and got her to “bunny hop” into her boots and coat. Total time from my appearance at the door to us leaving together: forty-five minutes. It’s a good thing that N is a patient baby. he was lying on the floor in his snowsuit the entire time.

So what have I learned? For starters, I have a remarkably determined, willful child. These are fabulous attributes when you’re an adult, but not so great during childhood. Second, there will be good days and bad days, just as in every other part of life. And third, Maria Montessori was right when she said “follow the child.” If K wants to be silly and play, then being silly and playing her game is probably what will get us out of school the fastest, with our dignity and patience intact.

December 14, 2010

The community we crave

by Decemberbaby

Mr. December and I have been reading and discussing the book “Radical Homemakers”. If you haven’t read it, you should. One of the things I love about it is the fact that it acknowledges the sick devotion our culture has to “work”, which we all use to mean a paid career. It’s killing, isn’t it, that people work a whole month to earn enough money to pay for their second car, which they wouldn’t need if they weren’t working? But I digress.

The thing about the book and its philosophy is that, in order to be more self-sufficient and become a “net producer” rather than a “net consumer”, it really is best to be in a community of like-minded people. Community support, bartering, and skill-sharing seem to be integral to the life of a Radical Homemaker. They are also essential to the kind of community I want to live in. And yet… it just doesn’t exist.

Today a friend remarked to me that she had moved into our neighbourhood because so many young families from our synagogue live here, and she was excited at the prospect of finally living within a community. Sadly, it didn’t live up to her expectations. People just didn’t get together very often, nobody was interested in the babysitting co-op she proposed, and in the end she felt as isolated as she had when she lived elsewhere. We discussed possible reasons why that was, and I came up with a few thoughts.

First, What she considered “the neighbourhood” was actually an area that stretched about two kilometres by half a kilometre – not exactly a distance you’d want to traverse to drop the kids with a neighbour while you run to the store, or to pop over and borrow some flour. It may seem that these homes are close together, but I think it’s just the size of this city that gives us that impression. In reality, the kind of day-to-day interactions my friend was envisioning tend to happen over much shorter distances, especially in winter.

The second reason is the real community-killer, though: all of these people work outside the home. Full-time. For very legitimate reasons – lack of time, exhaustion, different priorities – it’s impossible to develop a close-knit community if nobody is home all day. Like parenting, community-building doesn’t just happen over evenings and weekends. The neighbour kid gets locked out accidentally… at 3:45 p.m. on a Tuesday. A disabled neighbour has noticed damage to a car parked on our street, but can’t walk up the block to inform the owners. A subway commuter notices the vegetable garden on her way home from the nearby station and wants to ask a question about growing potatoes. These are all opportunities for community growth, for neighbourly interaction, and they get missed if you’re not around. If I weren’t home with the kids, and bored stiff around 5 p.m. every day, I’d never drop in on our elderly neighbour, a retired nurse who’s been living on this street longer than I’ve been alive. She would be lonelier and my children would have missed the opportunity to learn about social visits and neighbourly helpfulness.

In fact, we have a lot of retired folks on our block, and it’s mostly due to them that this street still feels like a neighbourhood. Granted, these are the people who complain that my vegetable garden is in the front yard instead of behind the house. But they are also the people who pay attention, who notice that someone hasn’t left the house in a few days and come to make sure everything’s ok. These people heard something in the night and discovered a man breaking into our car, so the husband simultaneously called 911 and ran outside, half naked, to scare the guy off. My neighbours participate in a thriving “curb economy” – one woman took the storm windows we no longer needed, another family put out some beautiful wrought iron benches they didn’t have time to rehabilitate (I haven’t had time either, but I’ll hang onto them until I do), and two of my neighbours were happy to rid my backyard of unwanted hydrangeas in exchange for getting to keep all the plants they dug up. With a single exception, all of the neighbours alluded to here are people who do not have full-time jobs outside of the home.

One of my frequent stay-at-home-mom laments is that there aren’t a lot of other moms around. Most of the young families around here are double-income families, so the park and community drop-ins are populated by nannies and their young charges. Sure, there’s a thriving nanny community, but when the nannies go home at night and on weekends the community goes with them. As we get more successful, as we pay more people to do our work in and around the house, we fragment the knowledge of what’s going on in our neighbourhood. The gardener knows who likes our flowers and the nanny knows who likes our kids, but neither the flower-admirer nor the kid-friendly neighbour knows the homeowner. Our affluence causes us to lose those connections.

I don’t intend this as a diatribe against hiring people to do the jobs we dislike. If you can afford it, if it makes you happy, go for it. I also don’t want this to come off as anti-career. If you genuinely have career aspirations and love the work you do, please continue to do it. And if you have to work to support your family, then do. Somebody has to keep the city humming and the banks running and the supermarkets stocked. But when we all do, and when we neglect the very important work of being at home, we lose the community we crave.


December 13, 2010

motivated mama

by Decemberbaby

For those who don’t know, I have struggled with clinical depression. I take antidepressants, the dose of which has been significantly reduced. I’m particularly affected when we “fall back” and the days get so much darker, and yet I’m hesitant to increase my medication.

So today I did the only logical thing… I finally hauled out my full-spectrum lightbox and sat in front of it for 45 minutes. I don’t know whether it’s supposed to affect me so quickly, but after my phototherapy session I was able to tidy my craft room, sew a waterproof mitten, pick the kid up from school, make an attractively-plated lunch, read half a novel, deal with some banking, and then whip up a quick dough for garlic breadsticks (recipe can follow, if you want it). All this between 10:30 and 5 pm, and I didn’t get that sleepy feeling I usually do in the afternoons.

I hope this was a result of the light therapy, and not just a fluke. I’ve got projects to finish: three personalized baby blankets, a pair of fleece pj’s for K, a mobile for N… and that’s not mentioning all the tidying and organizing that needs to be done. Ah, full-spectrum lightbox, how I love thee. Take that, Zol*ft!

December 10, 2010

If I knew now what I knew then…

by Decemberbaby

K is driving me crazy.

The school pickup is arguably the worst, although her (mis)behaviour happens all the time. She simply does. not. listen. I give a set of simple instructions, as in, “It’s time to leave. Please put on your coat and find your boots.” She ignores me. She curls up on the floor and claims to be a baby sheep in her pen. She screams and cries. It takes us 25 minutes to leave the school.

I remember, about ten years ago, being very successful at dealing with difficult behaviours. I used to work with kids with special needs, and tantrums were a regular occurrence. I was consistent, I was dispassionate, and I was effective. I feel as though my former self would have some good things to say to me on this topic. Maybe my former self should start an advice column. Maybe she will.