Encouraging autonomy in toddlers through kitchen play

I love Maria Montessori for her philosophy on play.

Montessori says that all children learn through play or work. All children learn through active participation, by being involved in a practical way and by attempting to do something themselves, especially by using their hands.

Montessori turned on a light in my head with her conviction that children will make mistakes, but they go on making mistakes considerably longer if adults never give them the opportunity to attempt and perfect their skills.

I am not a child development expert but have witnessed the truth of Montessori’s wisdom over the past few years, simply by observing our children. Kids (including toddlers!) can and are willing to work. For them, work is virtually indistinguishable from play and vice versa.

As a new mom and complete novice in any area with regards to children (take this from someone who allowed her 6 month old to wallop 3 tablespoons of Japanese sweet potato just because he seemed to like it and vomit violently for a few days thereafter), I embraced Montessori’s challenge to let my children go and try as often as possible throughout the day to perfect fundamental skills.

I did this with Puppy and Lamb and after not only some premature white hair but also hair loss, I’m going through the whole rigmarole again with Piglet, the Terrific Two boy-baby that he is.

When Piglet wants some special Mama-Piglet time, he wants to do what I’m doing. He wants to see if he’s capable of doing something else other than his favourite jigsaw puzzle.

Most of the time, the kitchen presents tremendous opportunities – washing vegetables, watching me prepare them (loving that he can guzzle some raw tomatoes along the way), massaging marinades into raw meat and baking, just to name a few.

After lots of living room play and seatwork activities on any given day, I hustle my 14 week pregnant body to the kitchen and holler, “Who wants to help me wash rice?”

Little eyes light up. Feet come pattering. Piglet is delighted, he is all smiles.

I show him how to avoid spilling rice outside the bowl and he is all ready to go. With a toddler’s hands on deck, I have to spend double the time I’d usually take washing rice, so I keep my peripheral view on Piglet and his rice while picking up another task alongside, like slicing carrots.

Do I use this brush to clean veggies? Piglet, 1 year 10 months
Do I use this brush to clean veggies? Piglet, 1 year 10 months
Gingerbread dough. Better than play dough. Work/play ... eat!
Gingerbread dough. Better than play dough. Work/play … eat!

Piglet thrives on such activities. Over time, I have learned that play like this fosters independence, encourages a healthy sense of curiousity and generates how-to conversations that I wish I could record and recount for always.

As we work together, my memory wanders to days when I could engulf both of his tiny hands in my one big one.

I watch him take in every texture and smell.

I breathe in the wonder of his blossoming vocabulary even though he drives me almost insane at times with a million repetitions.

I laugh because this little human being is discovering how awesomely red a capsicum is.

I am glad because my Boy-Not-A-Baby-Anymore is growing in autonomy and self-respect.

I see these things – autonomy and self-respect – developing at other times when he asks to be excused from the table after meals, when he puts his tin cup in the sink after use, when he tidies his toys after playing.

And I see Piglet in a few years time. He’ll follow in the steps of his older siblings. He’ll fry eggs. Slice vegetables using a proper knife. Assemble his own sandwiches and cereals when I nap. Take his own dishes to the sink and (on a golden day) wash them sometimes.

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He’ll create a fair bit of mess.

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And have his own chore chart one day...

IMG_3659 Piglet’s growing up. It’s been nothing short of amazing to see how much a small person can progress in just two and a half years from the confines of the cradle.

I try not to mind my newly washed kitchen mat. The adult in me occasionally ponders boring issues like striving for personal responsibility, establishing healthy habits and cultivating a sense of accountability to other family members, eventually to society at large.

On the usual run-of-the-mill day though, these are far from my thoughts. I want rise above the discomforts of a new pregnancy.

I want to continue breathing in the excitement of a toddler’s exploration.

The delight of a world with endless possibilities.

And the glory of learning to stand up properly on one’s own feet.

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You might also like: Teaching children to serve.

Upcoming: Our chore chart and how we make it work (and not).

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Learning the alphabet and honing glueing skills

Learning the alphabet and honing glueing skills can be combined in just one fun activity.

Your child will not only learn the alphabet but also letter formation as he can trace his finger over the textured result.

Here’s 10 tips on how to get your child’s alphabet learning and glueing skills going.

1. Print each alphabet on an A4 size paper.   Ensure the size of the alphabet is large enough to glue materials on. Lots of free alphabet downloads are available on the internet.
Choose between print or cursive, whichever your child will eventually be using.

2. Collect a wide range of material.   Sometimes 5-10 minutes is all a 3 year old will take to enjoy an activity. That’s ok, but that’s also why having different textures to work with is important to stimulate interest, encourage longer participation and avoid boredom. Tissue paper, hard card, coloured felt, sequins and scrap cloth are just a few ideas. Separate all these in different little boxes and label for easy reference.

3. Pace yourself.   If your child is new to glueing, introduce only a few materials at a time. Offer perhaps 2-3 choices.  On special days you could bring out your whole arsenal of resources and see what she comes up with.

4. Don’t glue everyday.   Eventually your child may get tired of glueing so use stickers instead. Choose small stickers and again, offer a variety to make it interesting.

5. Be prepared.   Make glue tubes or glue sticks available and UHU for hardy material. Have a damp cloth handy for clean ups midway. Don’t always jump in to wipe your child’s hands though. This would interfere with the fun and discourage your child from getting used to the messiness that is a natural part of crafting.

If your child’s work table is made of wood, it helps to line it with a plastic cover to avoid glue spoiling it. We like IKEA’s table protector.

6. Introduce the alphabet.   If you are teaching your child phonics, introduce the sound of the alphabet first rather than its letter name (as in “SSSS” rather than “Ess”). We are using Jolly Phonics at home, so I start by telling a story and emphasising a few words with the letter sound.

Jolly Phonics: Finger Phonics Book 1
Jolly Phonics: Finger Phonics Book 1

Then I show a flashcard of the letter, pronounce the sound clearly and ask the child to follow suit.

Jolly Phonics flashcards (cursive)
Jolly Phonics flashcards (cursive)

Finally I bring out the alphabet print out and we start glueing.

7. Encourage independence.   If your child is new to glueing, start by demonstrating what needs to be done. Show how squeezing the glue tube too hard will make a gluey mess. Show how to angle the sticky part of the material downwards and place it on the intended space. Then sit back and let him take over, stepping in to help only if really necessary. (This is such great fun for 3 year olds. Actually even my 2 year old Piglet loves this.)

8. Keep it relaxed and fun.   Enjoying crafts is a process that takes time. From the beginning, participate with your child in a positive way and demonstrate how fun it can be. Discuss the colours you will be using. Feel the different textures together. Talk about how soft or hard, rough or smooth the textures are. Praise him for every effort made. Don’t make a big deal about mess.

Rice
Rice
Sequins. Get an assortment of colours - gold, purple, green, silver, blue
Sequins. Get an assortment of colours – gold, purple, green, silver, blue!
Punch outs. Use coloured paper and a puncher.
Punch outs. Use coloured paper and a puncher.
Beads
Beads
Stickers
Stickers
Tissue paper, torn and rolled into little balls. A great activity to  strengthen fingers for writing
Coloured tissue paper, torn and rolled into little balls. A great fine motor activity to strengthen fingers for writing.
Coloured felt
Coloured felt
Wooden pieces, cut from an ice cream stick
Wooden pieces, cut from an ice cream stick.
Satiny ribbon
Satiny ribbon. Any scrap cloth is great. Waste not!

We have also used toothpicks (cut into small pieces) and semi-hard transparent plastic (saved from a discarded toy box).

Keep finished print outs in a folder so your child can trace the letters with his index finger.

9. Respect your child’s boundaries.   By all means encourage your child to finish what he’s started, unless he’s genuinely tired. Also be careful not to force your child to go beyond what interests him otherwise the activity may lose its appeal and he may be discouraged from trying again later.

10. End well.  When you observe your child getting tired of the activity, start to wrap up. Usually I say something like “Have you had enough? (Wait for an answer, and if yes:) Right, looks like you’re done for the day, let’s pin your work up (on our display board), pack up and do something else now ok?” This way, the activity ends on a positive note, the child feels some pride that his work is valued and there is proper training to tidy up before moving on to the next thing.

Enjoy!

What interesting crafts have you used to teach your child the alphabet?

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