You’re Right: Traditional Education Sucks

It is totally infuriating to me when someone says something like “Only 20% (sometimes 5%) of students think and work hard at school. The rest of them are lazy and will fail.”

Really? A 80-95% fail rate and the problem is the students? No wonder Progressives hate education: it’s a waste of time!

Yes, traditional education is bad. It’s bad because it’s evaluative. It puts too much responsibility on the child. It gives very little thought or support to the needs of a child in how they learn, then expects performance. Those who make it, make it. Those who fail–the 95%–are losers.

But I take serious issue with Progressives who say to simply delay education or to simply have less of it. It’s as if they want to fight poison by taking less of it. No, education needs a fundamental uprooting from bottom up and top down. We need to learn a better, more accepting, more playful language while educating our children. You see that’s the whole thing: it can be and should be a joy. But you need to get away from this blame-oriented and evaluative approach. Completely.

Bad traditional approaches start when children learn to read. When a child is learning to read, they are likely taught letter sounds, but when decoding the letters in a word, they get very little assist. All responsibility is put on them–and anything else is seeing as giving away the answer, which will somehow result in children “just memorizing words in any haphazard way.” They are told, for instance, to sound out “c-a-t” on their own. The adult might say, “Come on, you can do it, you have to do it … what does this say … come on, ‘c,’ ‘c,’ ‘c’ …. oh why bother. It’s like pulling teeth.” It’s too much. It’s too much to ask a child to decode the sounds and make a word, without any further assists.

In the approach I put together, how to do this is broken down into the simplest of steps and the child is given the most easy of assists to get to the happy result of reading. For instance, at one step, to teach a child to read, they match the movable letters “c,” “a,” and “t” to those very letters spelled out right in front of them with a picture of a cat there. Through this simple matching game, they start to get the idea. It’s so easy. It’s a joy. And they read.  See my program here: Get Children Reading! We can’t just delay reading until children are 7. We must get better at it. (And if you want to delay it, that’s your right, but please outline how you would do it. Simply delaying it is not enough of an answer.)


As far as “learning in any haphazard way,” actually their brain is geared to integrate. Giving them answers in straight forward ways doesn’t result in chaos, it results in remarkable clarity and precision. You see, that’s the whole secret: trusting their mind and its drive to learn.

Now take math. Math is an exciting topic. Read through the history of the development of math, and it’s a riveting, breath taking story with drama, persecution, and triumph. But children don’t know that. They aren’t taught the history of math, just the end results, which they are expected to master in nothing but a mechanical way. It is notoriously an awful subject for the majority of children.

Of course it meets this fate. The teaching of math is thick with the idea that the child must perform on their own, using methods that actually stunt their natural curiosity in numbers. See this study about the harmful effects of carrying and borrowing which found that teaching children to carry the 1 cause them to get worse at mental math between second and forth grade. Children aren’t allowed to have calculators when solving problems. They can’t look at the back of the book for answers. They might be expected to stand up and say memorization tables from memory.

There are much better ways. When a child must memorize addition facts or multiplication tables, they bypass crucial steps to play around with those tables and notice patterns. Like, “Wow. 9 + 2 is 11. I can break that up into 9 + 1 to make 10 and 1 more is 11.” If they learn it like this, they learn it. They also set up better foundations for later like “99 + 32 can be broken up into 100 + 32.”

When we do math at our house, we do it as a joy. We sit with calculators out. My children always have the right to look at the back for the answer. When I teach a new concept, the answer is right there in front of them. For instance, when my son wrote 1 – 100 on a 10 X 10 grid, I did one right alongside with him and gave it to him so he could see the answer. He still struggled with it. He still thought about it and did it. It was not just busywork to copy. It was a clear assist, a conceptually clear concept, a clear demonstration of what was right. It reduces needless complexity and confusion, which allows him to move on to bigger challenges. I let him have a calculator (he is currently 6) and he often uses it to solve real world problems. He loves to do patterns on it like “what happens if I keep adding 3 over and over again?” It’s an incredible learning tool. That it is ubiquitous for teachers and parents to deny a child a calculator out of a fear of cheating is … it’s maddening. It’s criminal. We’re not raising children to do only that which a calculator can do.

Here is my daughter, at 3, counting the dots on 3 dice to add 3 + 5 + 2. It’s a hand-on way to learn and the answer is right there: you can physically see that 3 and 5 and 2 make 10. We are playing a “Tic Tac Toe Math” game. I include also the picture of the look of joy on her face after she added the numbers:



When we do any educational activity in our homeschool, we approach it with joy. It should feel like you are cozied up in warm blankets, drinking a coffee, and learning. It should not feel like pressure or a fight.

This is my son happily doing work out of a workbook. Once I started doing “Workbook Buddy” with him where I do a question then he does a question, he finally liked this work. In fact, after a few questions, he often takes over. When I tried just giving it to him, after but a few examples, putting the responsibility on him to finish the work (something not important to him in the least) he all but revolted.


Or take history. History is a great adventure–the story of all stories to tell. Yet it’s reduced to facts and figures in boring text books.

We told history as a set of stories, one after the other, and put them on a timeline in my son’s bedroom. His memory of the stories is beyond stunning. We can bring up almost anything–from WWII to St. Nicholas–and he remembers it and applies it to life situations. Maybe because he wakes up to this timeline every day, which he can ponder at will:


Finally, the last subject I want to look at: science. One of the worst practices in traditional approaches is demanding a child develop a hypothesis before a science experiment is done. Teachers do this, “What do you think will happen Guess!” And that’s what it is: a guess. That’s not how hypothesis work. Hypothesis are educated guesses. Asking a child, who has no experience with what you are about to do, to guess is making an uneducated guess. And it shows the absurdity of this pure “cognitive” approach: a child is expected to have an answer literally before the information has been presented to him or her. I take this to further task here, “Stop Questioning Students Before Teaching Them.”

One science experiment we did: a melting point race. Which will melt first: water, butter, or chocolate? It’s exciting to find out!


My children exploring the results after we reversed it and froze them:


See the elementary science program that I am developing. It has hands-on experiments done in a highly conceptual and playful way. I give tips on how to teach without being evaluative.

When children are failing, we need to go to them, not the other way around. When a child is not reading well for example, stop labeling them and putting them in a remedial class or group. Identify, cater to them, and move on. Give them books at a level lower than average that they can handle and that they can enjoy.

The problem is not the students. The problem is the educational approach–the problem is the adults. This is THE problem: an inversion of responsibility, putting the problem on children instead of adults. Until adults take responsibility for this, you will not see a better success rate. You will also see the people it produces: blame-oriented people who seek to avoid punishment, not seek joy. This is THE issue of our lifetime, in my opinion. Want to reduce violence? Have better relationships? Have a world of problem solvers? End traditional education. Demand educational freedom and let those with alternative views try their hand at education.

If you know of anyone who is struggling with traditional education, please send them this article!

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years about the developmental stages children go through and understanding them to develop a highly sophisticated educational philosophy.

Misbehavior is Growth

When Caregivers Just Don’t Understand

I document age-related childhood difficult behavior and probably the #1 question I get is how to deal with caregivers who deal with a person’s children during a difficult stage. A child might start biting at school or hits their grandparent. Parents usually understand it’s a stage and work with a child, but the child just did something harmful to someone else, now what?

This issue is near and dear to me. It’s the main point of my work: I want people to understand childhood “misbehavior.” The idea behind my book series about this, Misbehavior is Growth, is that children are mentally growing during these difficult times. Therefore, go to them with love and comfort. Further, these times are developmentally critical. We can use them to teach them skills and give guidance. Each milestone is an opportunity. Children leave no doubt about their presence and their need for us!

The problem is real. I read once (an article which I can’t find but I’ll continue to look for) that when children who were punished the most in kindergarten were analyzed, it was found that they were all born in the same birth month. The authors concluded that this means they were likely in an age-related stage at the time of punishment. It actually infuriates me to think that children are punished for what is normal development. (I am opposed to punishment anyway and this especially infuriates me.) But it adds confirmation to what my work says: that even one month matters, especially around those kindergarten years.

I want to work on it on my end and reach out to daycares and schools and show them how my work can help them and their customers. I asked a group of people once if they would like to send their child to a school that understood the milestones. My work documents both age-related difficulty and the new mental advancements following this age-related difficulty. The idea is that the difficult stages are when the brain is growing and everything goes bonkers inside a child at those times. In such a school, the staff would be prepared to deal with this “misbehavior” in loving ways. And they would also be ready with activities to feed the new mental growth. People’s answer was a resounding “Yes!” they would want to send their children to such a school.

If you are in the position, please send my work to interested in schools. It is found here at my website,, under “Child Development.” Please see my first book about this Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years, in which I outline the milestones from 18 months to 3 years and describe activities you can do with children at that age, including a reading program. I have many other ideas for the preschool and early elementary years. I am working on those books now, but in the mean time, my website has a “Thriving” section for each milestone in which I am slowly building educational activities attached to each milestone. If you want to design a school around this, I am, at this time, happy to give a free phone consultation of my work in the effort to get it up and running.

I also want to help work it from the other end, which is the interface parents have with other caregivers. I like to tell success stories here on my blog. The thing is that I homeschool and so I don’t have many stories to tell about dealing with other caregivers. So I’m reaching out: would you tell me of a success story in this area? I’d love to include it in this blog to help others.

Thanks. Happy parenting (<–I mean that!) and stay strong!

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years


Misbehavior is Growth

3-1/2 Year Olds: They Are a Meltdowny Mess and Love Science Experiments

I have been doing work, done in a community of parents, to characterize the typical age-related behaviors of children. I have focused on the times when they fall apart, often becoming whiny, aggressive, clumsy, or confused, and then describing the new abilities that cluster around this age-related irritable behavior.

The late 3s can be very difficult for parents and 3 years, 9 months marks a time that the frustrating behavior typically increases. I called Preschool Milestone 12, which gets to be at its worst around 3 years, 9 months, “Thematic Thinking.” Children at this age notice and create more themes, such as drawing a highly organized piece of artwork (perhaps of a train with stunning detail), arrange their food in an artistic way, play games such as checkers better, and notice the moral themes of a story better, for instance, “Such and such character has to decide to be good or bad.” All of this is new perceptual awareness and it seems to feel scary and overwhelming at first. As they grow noticeably in their desire to create things, they become very possessive and possibly even aggressive about protecting their work. You might expect that no one else will be allowed to have the ball if you play a game of catch. You might be also dealing with extreme nighttime battles.

At closer to 3 years, 10 months is Preschool Milestone 13 which I called “Tests and Compares Complex Theories and Systems.” They start to compare themes: who is faster, what rocket flies higher, etc. Their favorite “theme” is themselves: are they the fastest and best compared to others? If anything suggests they aren’t, prepare, because they will not like finding this out. You may be dealing with a lot of whining or aggression, depending on the type of emotional release your child prefers.

Here is one tip for dealing with the meltdowns at these sometimes volatile ages: play a “would you rather?” game. I use this tool of distraction but in a more involved way in the preschool years. In the early 3s, around 3 years, 3 months, if my child is having a meltdown or is scared, I find if I start telling them their favorite story, they calm down and become so engrossed in the story, they forget what they were scared of or defiant about.

I have used the “would you rather?” question at Preschool Milestone 13, 3 years, 10 months, successfully. My daughter was once fighting me to be buckled in the car seat. She was playing a game where she kept trying to close the door instead of letting me in to buckle her. I at first tried calm, quick action, but when she was wildly upset about what I was doing, I thought a new tool would probably be needed. I tried telling her favorite story but it didn’t work. I then asked a “would you rather” question. In this case, it was “would you rather be on the swing or slide?” as we were just leaving the playground. She calmed down instantly and became engrossed in the question. Lost in her thoughts, she said, “ummmm, both.” While she was calm, I buckled her and all was happy afterwards.

I think this may work so well at 3 years, 10 months because of how much they like to compare things, although it may work at many other ages (one mom told me she was going to try it on her 11 year old). Some other “would you rather?” questions might be, “Would you rather live in a castle or on a pirate ship?” “Would you rather have a lake in your backyard or a forest?” “Would you rather be a cheetah or a dolphin?” “Would you rather go to Paris or London?”

The idea behind my first book about these milestones, Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years, is that these rocky developmental stages are a child’s brain growing. We can help them by coming to them with love and comfort. And by understanding the cycles, we can be ready with great, highly age appropriate brain building activities. The activities can help unleash the enormous potential in them. The activities can also help calm them down and give you a chance to connect and find your new flow with them as they change in dramatic ways.

Something children in their late 3s absolutely love are science experiments. In the early 3s, I do easy ones where there is only one element or step, such as watching ice melt. In the late 3s, I start to do more complex ones. With as much as the child likes to race or compare things, here is one example of a plant experiment that they might like, something great for the summer months.

In this lesson, you are testing the water retention of different soil types and how well they grow a seed. Fill three clear cups with one of the following: sand, dirt, and dirt. Put several seeds in the dirt, on the side of the cup such that you can see them, fit snugly down into the sand or dirt. I like sunflower seeds due to how quickly they germinate. Water each such that the sand and first dirt cup are watered reasonably and the last dirt one is waterlogged such that water comes up over the dirt. Be careful to pour the water slowly as otherwise the seeds will start to float. Put a card or something else over the cups, with a small vent for air, such that the water does not evaporate. Then watch to see how well they do. For sunflower seeds, it will take 2 or 3 days to germinate.

At first the sand one and first dirt one will germinate and the sand one will even seem to do better. The water logged one will never germinate. However, the sand one will eventually collapse. It may look like this if you wait several days:



My 3 year old loved watching the plants germinate and seeing which one would “win.” You could take this much further, and this is still a great activity for older children (and adults!). My 6 year old thought for sure the one with a lot of water would win. You can feel the sand and dirt. The sand will feel dry on top. All of the water will sink to the bottom. The dirt will feel damp on top. I like to go outside and dump them out. You’ll see the sand spread apart easily and the dirt will stick together in a clump. A preschooler will love the sensory experience of playing with the sand and dirt that has been dumped. See my page on plant science, designed for elementary students but which will still delight preschoolers, for more ideas.

Come see the summaries of these milestones at where I also include sections on Surviving and Thriving where I have tools to deal with meltdowns and ideas like this one to encourage their growing brain.


Amber has an Industrial Engineering degree from Penn State and worked in software in 10 years before becoming a stay at home mom who homeschools her 3 children. She has been documenting the developmental stages that children go through. Most of all she hopes the information helps others on their parenting journey.


Practice Safety by Building a Model Neighborhood

So often I hear parents worried about the safety of their children around roads. How can they deal with a sometimes out-of-control toddler while around roads?

One thing you can do, and build their mental skills while doing it, is build a model neighborhood. Then have a favorite figurine or doll pretend to walk around the neighborhood obeying traffic laws.

I recommend this starting at Toddler Milestone 10, which is 2 years, 9 months, named “Mental Picturing.” I will add it to several milestones around this time as it still applies. The dominant new skill at this milestone is an ability to conjure up an image in their mind and reason about it. As a simple example, they might point to an apple and say “that looks like a tomato,” even though a tomato is not in immediate sight. As such, if you build a model neighborhood, they can make the connection between the model and the real life thing it replicates. Therefore, practicing the road safety skills with the model will translate to the real life thing. Also at this milestone, they start to follow instructions better so it’s in high alignment with where they are at developmentally.

This was our model neighborhood. We had a wood block for our house. The blue tape was roads. I had some mini STOP signs. We have a pool at the end of the road, which we pretended to jump in.

Model of our neighborhood

In addition, this can build some new mental skills. Being able to see a map and then build a model is one skill. Being able to see the overview of an area is another.

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years for more ideas like this.

Easy Discipline: Doing “EXPERIMENTS!” with my Preschooler

Easy Discipline: Doing “EXPERIMENTS!” with my Preschooler

My son, 4, lately, has taken to taking things out of our pantry and doing “experiments!” with them. This includes dumping flour, cocoa powder, and sour cream on a paper plate as an … “experiment!” Or he dumped an entire bottle of refillable foam soap down the sink once.

I’m not one to stifle my son’s creativity, but sometimes I like having the stuff we bought not go down the drain. I have this book Help Your Preschooler Build a Better Brain. It has many scientific experiments to do with preschoolers in it. I like to flatter myself that if I guide my son’s behavior into something constructive, the undesirable behavior might stop; I might tap into a new interest of his; and his brain might grow–and I would be the genius who orchestrated it all. Ha. We’ll see. 🙂 But doing real experiments was super fun and provided a way to teach many very valuable lessons.

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Teaching Colors to Toddlers

Teaching colors to toddlers is one of my favorite activities. Teaching colors is by nature reality-oriented. You can only teach any color by pointing to it. It also lends itself so easily to good teaching methods, where adults don’t get overly wordy in explanations.

I found with both children so far that you can teach colors before they turn 2. I refined this timeline with my daughter, my second. I documented when she started to go through “leaps,” where irritable behavior is followed by astonishing bursts in ability. I found at the 20 month leap, she started to get the idea of colors. Then, at the 21 month leap, she demonstrated, towards the end of the leap, that she could accurately identify 5 colors. The end of this leap was around 22 months. So I would recommend starting these activities around 20 months, and getting aggressive about them at 22 months. I also found that my son, my first, knew colors really well by 2 years old (24 months).

To teach colors, shapes, or letters, at this age, I can’t get enough of matching games. Following Montessori principles, whatever material you use should be exactly the same except in color. For colors, Montessori directly advocates having the child match the like-colored objects together first. This precedes the three stages of learning. It draws the student’s attention to what attribute you are teaching. After they have matched them, you identify the color name, e.g., “Blue.” Identification (saying “Blue”) is Stage One of learning.

I had used magnets with my son, but, truth be told, he kept ripping them off of the refrigerator, breaking them, and throwing them. With my daughter, I used anything and everything that was similar in color, but I ended up using Unifix Cubes the most. Here are some examples of what we did at first.

These sorting apples were great. It is true they also change in size or feature, but the most striking thing about them was color. At the earlier age of 20 months, she showed she knew green and yellow pretty well.

When my daughter put the reds with the reds, the only thing I said was “Red. Red. Red.” Same with green and yellow. This is the first stage of learning. These lessons should be purposely simple. Usually I did the lesson one day and then the NEXT day I might ask her, “Can you get me a red one?” This is the second stage of learning. The second stage is essential to learning. The child needs to USE the information to really learn it–though I find most educators go to Stage Two much too quickly and tend to stay there.

I do think that doing two different lessons to teach the concept is powerful. It really cements an idea and isolates the concept. I try to do this with almost everything I teach. With colors, it just means sorting different types of objects. As many as you have or want to, really!

We sorted golf tees that we happened to have. I was really stunned when, after she did this activity, she went and found other items that matched the colors she had just sorted! Notice the cups in with the bins below. My toddler daughter did that. Like Montessori says: Spontaneous activity in education!


I noticed, around 22 months, that if my daughter was only presented with 3 sharply contrasting colors, she would identify them correctly. But if there were 5 or 6 colors, she would start to confuse them. She especially confused orange and yellow and also green and blue. My son had this exact same issue. I believe it is completely normal.

So I started to present very similar colors. At first, I was going to do only two colors at a time, in rainbow order. So I had wanted to do red and orange. Well after I did this activity, again my daughter wanted to find like-colored objects, and she found a yellow car and wanted to put it in the orange bin. So I upped the lessons to three colors, doing red, orange, and yellow. It seems to be the full context that she needed without overwhelming her.

Moving down the line to orange, yellow, and green:


But, by the time I got to orange, yellow, and green, my daughter lost some interest. She connected them together, based on color, as unifix cubes. But she mostly wanted to dump them, which she thought was hilarious. I found out later why: She KNEW colors. She was bored with the activity at this point. I found this out by asking her to point to the colors of a bunch of balloons found in one of her books that had red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. Well, based on some bad lighting, I had thought two of the balloons were actually both blue. I had asked her to point to red, orange, yellow, and blue, and she did, correctly, even with 5 colors before her. Then I said there were two blues. She CORRECTED me that one of them was green. I looked closer. It sure was.

Now if I ask her to point to a color, she points to absolutely everything that is that color. Her dad asked her to point to a green Christmas ornament in one of her books once. She not only pointed to the green ones, she counted that there were 4 of them. My husband welled up with tears and told me, “Our daughter is a genius!”

I find purple is hard to teach, because most toys do not come with a purple option. Blue and purple are a LOT a like. But unifix cubes (which do not have a purple color) are otherwise just great. They also typically come with brown, white, and black. Throughout these activities, my daughter would sometimes simply get the cubes out, on her own, and build rods of like-colored cubes.

I love these matching games for most abstract concepts, such as color, and also shapes and letters. Montessori taught letters with sandpaper letters, closer to 3 or 4 years old. I found at this age doing matching games with letters was powerful. This is my daughter with a letter puzzles. At 22 months, she again shows remarkable understanding of about half of the letters. It is unfortunate that these letters come in different colors. But, I am more comfortable with it, because she DOES know colors. That’s why I do colors before letters.


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Salt Dough Dinosaur Fossils

I had read an idea in Help Your Preschooler Build a Better Brain to make dinosaur fossils using dinosaur figurines and Play Doh. I had the thought: Why not use salt dough? You can then bake the fossils and do fun things with them. This turned out to be an enormously fun activity!

When I told my son we were going to do this, he was instantly excited. He told me, “We are going to be like work men who dig for fossils!”

The recipe I used for salt dough was roughly:

  • 1 cup salt
  • 2 cups flour
  • ~3/4 cup lukewarm water

I used a Kitchen Aid mixer to blend everything. I put the salt and flour in and added the water gradually, until everything just swirled in the mixer instead of blending. My 4 year old helped me with everything, including leveling off the salt and flour in the one cup dry measuring cup.

Then, the fun began. We took the dough out and rolled it out, using Play Doh tools we had. I found the dough was sticky so I added flour to it, so it didn’t stick to the table or dinosaurs. I found rolling the dough thicker instead of thinner was better. Then you can smash the dinosaur down in without tearing the dough. This was an example of a successful fossil:


One of the great things about this project is that the fossils absolutely don’t have to be perfect. After all, when scientists found fossils, they weren’t always perfectly formed. This is true process art. Here is a half formed fossil that we made, with just a bit of a clue as to what the dinosaur looked like. This provided for a nice lesson for my preschooler about piecing together clues when it was done:


We also did some plants. I made one in dedication to my favorite ice cream flavor, though it is not quite Moose “Tracks”:


My son had the idea to make tracks:


If you want a lesson on delayed gratification, ask your preschooler to wait almost 2 hours for his or her dinosaur fossils to be ready! I put what we made in the oven at 200 degrees F for one hour initially. I ended up putting it back in for another half hour, at 300 degrees F. I started to take them out as the fossils turned brown, but I found they did feel a bit brittle. So I started taking them out when they were just a bit soft. They will dry further overnight.

While waiting, we set up dinosaur fights, because why wouldn’t we? I showed my preschooler how the dinosaurs made tracks and one died, and perhaps had our fossils hardened, it would be a clue as to how the dinosaurs behaved.


Finally, they were done! My son absolutely loved these. We matched the dinosaur figurines to their fossils. Then my son wanted to put them in the sand box and dig for them. He noticed many things about the details of the dinosaurs as he did these activities: Some had long necks, armored plates, long tails, etc. This was hands-on, process art, notice more things about objects, hyper fun. I would recommend having some child-friendly books about dinosaurs on hand, because their interest in dinosaurs may be at a peak.




And, one of the best parts about this activity: When you are done, throw the fossils away!

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Teaching a Preschooler to Write Equations

We have done much hands-on work with my preschooler for learning to count and add. See: How I Taught My 3 Year Old to Count to 100.

When I went to teach him how to write out the equation, a level above this hands-on work, I took some unifix cubes, added, say, 1 cube and 2 cubes together, and then wrote out the equation on a white board on an easel that we have. My son totally gets how to add, but when he took his turn at writing out equations, without the cubes, he would usually write, “1 + 1 = 11.”

I tried showing him how 1 cube plus 2 cubes equals 3, then I would write it on the white board. It didn’t work. Once he wrote “1 + 2 = 3.” My heart jumped! Then he wrote “2 + 3 = 4.” Bummer.

This below activity resolved it. It’s just a slight difference from what I did, but a powerful one. I had read to put some number of objects in little bowls with a “+” sign in between them and an equal sign after, and another bowl. The objects and the equation would then be united: the objects being so close to the equation being written (as opposed to doing it then transferring to a distant place to write the equation).

I found the below to be even easier. I took our white board (a different one) and laid it on the floor. I then wrote “1” and put 1 unifix cube under it. Then “+” then another “1” with another cube under it, followed by “=”.  He totally got this. He picked up the cubes immediately, added them, and wrote the number “2.” He stayed with me for the next equations,


To reinforce the idea of an “=” sign, that either side of the equation is the same, we also did this activity, where we matched shapes, not numbers together. After I did this, he went to our chalkboard and drew a triangle and wrote “=” and drew another triangle. I can only hope that this is planting the groundwork for the Law of Identity, that something is itself, a foundation of objectivity, in his mind : )


I also showed him how to use a calculator. While doing it, I was saying “1 plus 1 equals 2,” as I punched it out on the calculator. But then I remembered Montessori’s advice that if you talk while giving a lesson, the child watches your lips. If you shut up and demonstrate, they watch your hands. So, I did. He was so enthralled with what result the calculator would give that he watched me as I used the calculator.

I did this yesterday, and today he came bursting into my room this morning to tell me, “Mom!! 10 plus 10 is 20!!!” Yes, that children do best with a lesson one day, the chance to sleep on it, then given a chance to execute it the NEXT day continues to be a tried and true paradigm.

He is now an equation writing, calculator using, unifix cube adding machine, without me even asking him to do these lessons. Set the groundwork, then let them practice, practice, practice – on their own initiative!

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Putting on a Beauty and the Beast Play with a Preschooler

Putting on a Beauty and the Beast Play with a Preschooler

One thing that has been really powerful in reinforcing story comprehension in my preschooler has been putting on plays about what we read. As a rule, I keep the production of the play very, very simple. You aren’t going to find me cutting out refrigerator sized cardboard boxes. 🙂 I focus on understanding the plot and recreating it as best as possible, with materials we already have. These plays have had enormous benefit for my preschooler.

It started when my son was just shy of 3 years old. We put on a Cinderella play. I was a little hesitant to do it, because there is always a balance of letting my son do an activity on his own versus doing something entirely for him. In Montessori, a child is given a lesson, then left to do it. If they don’t want to do it or if they are not persisting at it, the lesson is saved for another day. Well, a play is quite a bit different, because it is a very big “lesson.” Certainly when I put the play on for him, I did most of the work. Should I have?

I think the answer has proven to be an unequivocal “Yes. ” For that first play, though I did most of the work, I was in amazement as he filled in some details I missed, such as that the cat belonged in certain scenes. He clearly understood much of the movie, at just 2 years old. Cinderella is a perfect first play and movie, I think. It is not terribly scary and there are plenty of cat and mouse chase scenes to initially capture a toddler/preschooler’s attention. With my son, I did a lot of Cinderella “work,” including watching the movie, reading a book, and putting on plays. This is a scene from one of our plays. We had the opportunity to build a staircase out of Montessori pink cubes:


When my son just turned 4, I was able to take him to a Cinderella ballet put on by a youth group, which lasted about one hour. He sat through the whole thing, demonstrated an understanding of what was going on, and completely melted when Cinderella and the Prince danced. But – Sorry to the people around who had to put up with a 4 year old’s questions throughout!  :\ (We were at a matinee … )

Us at the play:


We also put on a Goldilocks plays. That was great because we got to explore concepts of too high, wide, hard, soft, etc. My son kept changing who played Goldilocks. Goldilocks was played by a train, then a stuffed bear, then a race car. I was really happy to see him learning that it’s the same story even if different actors are used. We had built chairs out of wood blocks: too tall, too wide, and just right. As Goldilocks changed, what chair was “just right” changed, on my son’s initiative. A tall stuffed animal found the daddy bear’s chair just right, and a long race car found the mommy chair’s too wide chair just right, when sitting on his side. It was great to watch how my son was actually thinking about what would fit the Goldilocks figurine he picked. And, in this play, though I narrated it at first, he eventually took over and narrated the entire play, which he did over and over. Montessori principles were kicking in: He was working through a big, difficult–but, fun–challenge, happily, entirely on his own.

I was pretty surprised this past weekend when we put on the movie Beauty and the Beast and my son said, “Let’s put on a Beauty and the Beast play!” Woah! Montessori principles–of children picking their own activity–were kicking in big time. I had suggested he build a castle out of wood blocks. I was expecting the outside, with towers. When I went to our toy room, this is what I found:


He had built a dungeon for Maurice (Belle’s father, who is put there after getting lost and entering the castle) such that we could put on a play. He also built a library, a ballroom, and an entrance way to get in and out. He tried to suspend the enchanted rose:


My son is the one who forwarded most of the plot. I was stunned he had remembered any of it, because he kept running away from the movie we were watching to play in the toy room. We do have a Beauty and the Beast book that we have read about a dozen times. In my son’s play, Maurice gets around by a Lego airplane, not a horse. He made Maurice, played by a Lego guy, look very inventor-ish with a backback and gidgets and gadgets coming out of the backpack. Bell was played by a lego figurine we have of Marge Simpson’s sister. Yup, that was our lovely Belle. To put a yellow gown on her, I had suggested wrapping her in yellow Play Doh, something I had seen done on YouTube. I was really thrilled to help him get resourceful in putting on our play, and to even accept that it is difficult to recreate the movie exactly, given limited resources–but we still try, don’t we?

Now, plays are a thing. After watching WallE, he wanted to put on a WallE play. (It was too late to do that night.)

When I look back at my youth, those stories that I put on a play about, I think, resonated much deeper in me. I remember vividly a babysitter organizing a play about Snow White with me, my siblings, and the neighboring family’s children. I have thought about the lessons shown in Snow White in my adult life: How older people may be jealous of younger people’s talents. I did not have much of a literature education, but these classics, told pretty widely and commonly to children, I did learn. And they helped me make sense of the world as an adult.

I am going to argue that putting on these plays, even if you narrate the entire thing for your child at first, are a very Montessori-like activity to do. The most important is that it is hands-on. The student actually recreates the story; they are not just a passive listener. In Montessori, the children work with the material. The goal isn’t that they finish the lesson, but they get hands-on practice with the material. It is as they practice, including and especially as they make mistakes, that they are learning. The material itself is designed to awaken the child’s mind to reality: to start to see height, width, size, color, etc. Activities are given to children to encourage them to start to notice more about reality. For instance, a coloring page of familiar objects. The child must then select the proper color to use. The next time they see the object, they may look at it closer, to notice it in finer detail. That is what the play does. As the child must recreate props for scenes or move actors around, they may notice more detail about the story the next time they watch or listen to it.  And my experience, as outlined above, is that there is a gradual progression from a teacher-given lesson, also central to Montessori, to the child eventually taking over the lesson themselves–doing it willingly and eagerly. Even if the process takes an entire year. 🙂

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Teaching My 3-Yr-Old to Ride a Bike using the Balance Bike Approach

I remember a lady told me once she used me to get her daughter to ride a bike. The daughter was an only child and so she said to her daughter, “You know, Amber [me] was riding a bike at this age.” She used me and my supposed past accomplishment to goad her only child into riding a bike. It is unnecessary to use this type of comparison to get a child to ride a bike. Instead, quality skill building can get even a very young child to ride a bike.

My son, 3 years, 9 months, rode a bike for the first time a few days ago! We used the balance bike approach to accomplish this. This approach has been written about quite a bit. Instead of using training wheels, the child uses a bike without pedals. They are able to learn the skill of balancing without the complication of pedals. They learn how to pedal by using a tricycle. Then the two skills are combined and, as many have reported, children often are up and riding in no time!

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