Functional Independence

Dear parents, are you wondering how you can make day-to-day life smoother for both you and your child? One way is by facilitating independence.  

From ages zero to six, during what is known in Montessori as the First Plane of Development, the type of independence that children aim to acquire is called Functional Independence. This means they want to function well in their environment, and to do so it helps if they can wash their own face and hands, feed themselves, comb their own hair, clean their own nose, change their outfit, put on and take off their shoes, and so forth. These acquisitions are physical and come through careful honing of skills, but the reward they yield is psychological and emotional: the child feels empowered.

When a child feels that they can accomplish a task without an adult doing something for them, then they feel more competent and capable. This taste of freedom fuels them to take a greater quantity of safe risks and to attempt new activities more often, which fuels his learning overall.

In the classroom, everything is already set up to encourage the children to do independently. The clothing cubbies are within reach, should they need a dry shirt. The house shoes are on a shelf they can access, so that they can prepare to be indoors.  The hand towels at the sinks are hung on low hooks. The water pitchers are small enough for wee friends to pour into drinking glasses. A mirror at their height and a miniature basket of tissues, plus a teacher’s Grace and Courtesy lesson, sets up the child for success at cleaning his own nose.

The prepared environment is designed with the child’s developmental needs in mind, and we modify the classroom on an ongoing basis depending on our group’s evolving needs. For example, a child might begin by practicing carrying a small water pitcher from the sink to the table, but over time we would ask them to carry things that are heavier and more challenging, such as the larger waste water basin. Similarly, a child might go from mastering a very simple food preparation activity to taking on a vegetable peeling activity with more steps.

The teachers maintain a watchful eye; we will rush to protect the children if needed, of course. But this close supervision paired with a carefully prepared environment support the child to thrive.

In your home, there are some simple steps you can take to prepare the environment. Even beginning in the entryway, a low hook for the child’s jacket and a teeny shoe rack for the child’s shoes let them know that everything has a place, so they may refine their sense of order. They can hang up his jacket without assistance, and will find comfort in placing their outdoor shoes in the same spot each day.

One very useful item is a stool. The stool can be moved around so that the child can see their own reflection when it is time to brush teeth, or they can reach the tap when it is time to wash hands. It can also be brought to the kitchen counter when the child helps you chop vegetables or juice citrus, for example.  

In the kitchen, a basket of tools that are proportionate to their dimensions but that do work are handy. The basket could contain a knife that they are permitted to use, such as to slice cheese alongside a parent or to spread nut butter on toast. There could be a vegetable peeler, a juicer, an egg slicer, a whisk, and a couple more items that they will come to recognise as old friends if they are truly included in meal preparation.  

A bonus is that these activities are super enriching for the child’s vocabulary in any language. Think of “garlic press,” “rasp” and “salad tongs” and the nuance they convey.

In the bathroom, the child can participate in brushing their own teeth and can put their toothbrush back into a cup that is the right size for their hand to grasp. A face cloth is useful. There can also be a laundry basket so he may toss in wet underwear when learning to use the toilet, and a container of a couple of clean, dry pairs so they may reach for the change themself.

In the child’s bedroom, a low bookshelf with just a few books at a time helps the child develop their sense of will: without being overwhelmed by choice, the child can confidently practice selecting their own book to read. Regularly rotating the books that are available keeps up their interest.  

When they open their wardrobe, there can be two outfits within reach. Make them choices with which you as a parent are comfortable, such as two possible T-shirts and shorts options in the hot summer months. The child then feels that he is picking for himself, when really you have given him limited choices.

In the living room or playroom, make sure there is a table and chairs that are the right size for your child. If there are art supplies, limit how many are out. For example, a very young child does not need more than three crayons at one time. You can leave just a few sheets of drawing paper at one time. This teaches the child to value what they have and thus to take care of it.  

Toys should have designated boxes or baskets and should have usual spots.  Then the child can participate in tidying up, even from a very young age. Again, children find huge comfort in knowing where things go, as well as in knowing where those things will be there when they go looking for them.

Even in the garden, tools the child’s size such as a lightweight watering can allow the child to participate in the family’s activities. A broom they can manage goes a long way to helping them care for the environment as any other member of the family would.

For all of these modifications of your home, you need not buy new items; it is perfectly fine to repurpose items you own already or to use secondhand items. An orange crate could serve as the holder for the kitchen tools just as easily as an empty cylindrical coffee can could hold coloured pencils.  

So why go to this effort? Why make these changes at home? Because your child will navigate the normally adult-sized, adult-oriented space with more grace. They will help themselves more often, and in doing so will not only learn independence but also lighten your load. When they call for you, it will be to share with you a lovely drawing they did or a part of the book that they are enjoying.

By no means should you attempt to recreate the entire school environment at home – far from it. Rather, just add a bit of Montessori spirit to your home environment, to support the child’s acquisition of Functional Independence.

And beyond the items, what more should one do? The trick is to offer just enough help.  

First observe your child closely to isolate the difficulty. When are they the most frustrated: when they are trying to lace their toes into the sock, or when they are trying to pull up on the sock with just one hand? By ascertaining what is irksome, you can practice with your child at a neutral time and give them pointers.  

One of the greatest acts of service is to model. Let them watch you brush your hair. They can brush their hair alongside you. Or tie your shoelace as if in slow motion, so they can see how it is done.

Whenever possible, allow more time to breathe. Taking the pressure off the goal permits the child to focus on getting the job done, and also to find revelry in the process. Children will wash and rewash windows longer than adults deem necessary. They will soap and scrub tables even once the tables are squeaky clean. To say they get lost in the bubbles is true, but there is something more transcendent about it.

Demonstrate that some actions are more difficult than others for you, like threading a needle. Doing so demonstrates to them that you are fallible and human.  

You will be amazed how much your child is capable of doing, if we just let him try. A baby can tidy a few toys into a container. A toddler can help set the table for lunch. A primary-aged child can eventually bake bread, fold linens, and polish metal, just to name a few highlights!

After all, as Dr. Montessori once said:

Under the urge of nature and according to the laws of development, though not understood by the adult, the child is obliged to be serious about two fundamental things … the first is the love of activity… The second fundamental thing is independence.”  

What You Should Know About Your Child, Chapter 3, p. 11)

If you have any questions about how to support your child’s Functional Independence, please reach out! We love discussing our favorite topics with parents!

Ms Callie

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