Thursday, July 26, 2012

Understanding the Montessori Infant Environment

by Mike Brown

As I prepare to welcome home a new family member who will eventually spend time in our infant room, I have begun the process to better understand his learning environment at school. I am accustomed to walking into a classroom and seeing distinct work areas such as tables, floor mats, pillows, etc. However, a traditional work area seems hardly appropriate for a developing infant who is learning to adapt to his new environment.

After birth, the development of movement is a child’s first major skill gained. The growth from being completely immobile at birth to involuntary and later voluntary movement is typically done in a rapid progression. This is a process that we all have experienced and witnessed but far fewer of us have an understanding of why. Lacie Russell, our infant teacher explained it to me in the following manner; “Infants have an internal need to move. Their movements first start as reflexes and then become more voluntary. As they begin to explore their surroundings and become more comfortable, they learn to trust the way their bodies move and begin to explore new things. The need to move drives them so quickly, they want to see and touch everything. From learning to lift their head to crawling on all fours, they get great pleasure from movement, and this pleasure keeps them wanting more.” Christie Stanford, founder of Aid to Life Education, a company based in Vancouver, British Columbia that provides Montessori services to children between zero and twelve years old, further explains the biological development; “This happens rapidly during the first year of life as the Myelin Sheath coats the neurons in the body, which is essential in the proper functioning of the nervous system. This Myelination moves from the head to the feet and from the center of the body to the fingertips. Due to this process, the first part of the infant’s body to be Myelinated is the throat and neck, then shoulders, arms, legs, etc. until lastly the child has control of his or her wrists and fingers (refined grasp), along with ankles and toes (child can now walk).” *

This brings me back to the infant environment. Infants require a safe, comforting area for movement. This movement area offers an assortment of materials; pillows of various shapes and objects of multiple textures and sizes. Objects such as mobiles are also suspended above the mat. The point of reference provided by the mat inherently offers reassurance and security to the child. The freedom to explore not only gives him the opportunity to develop muscles required for voluntary movement but also confidence and a sense of independence.
Much the same as in an early childhood classroom, the infant’s mat or work area is carefully prepared by his caregiver. For the youngest child, he is given both tummy time and the chance for sensorial development on his back. Mrs. Russell explains in her infant environment, children are placed on their backs to give them freedom to truly move as they wish. Some infant programs use bouncy chairs or other commercial movement devices, however, when a child is placed in one of these devices his freedom is taken away and his movement is restricted. Additionally, he may not want to be placed in the position forced by the confines of one of these devices. Once a child is ready to sit up, only one material is given for exploration at a time. When the child becomes increasingly more mobile, materials are placed on a low shelf. This encourages the child to move on his own to not only get the material, but also make a decision as to which material interests him. By allowing him these freedoms, Ms. Stanford concludes, “we offer him the greatest opportunity for natural growth in an unrestricted environment.” *

Mike Brown is part of The Boyd School's Support Staff. Mike has been with the school since October of 2004 and has served the school in a jack-of-all-trades capacity ranging from Art Teacher to Director of Admissions to his current role as Public Relations Coordinator.

* Excerpts from, “The Montessori Movement Mat - The Child’s First Working Table,” by Christie Stanford, January 2012