Q&A with Joel Mendes: The Prepared Environment at Home
Joel Mendes is the Executive Director of The Prepared Montessorian, an organization under Higher Ground Education dedicated to creating Prepared Adults and Prepared Environments. It is one of only four MACTE-accredited teacher-training centers in the world providing mentorship, high-fidelity trainings and resources to educators preparing to work with children as young as infancy all the way to high school. A California native and lifelong educator, Joel is also a Montessori parent of three children and part of the Guidepost Montessori family.
For families taking that first leap into preparing their children’s space at home, what are some of the key pieces of advice?
Most of a home is designed for adults to meet their needs like cooking, eating, cleaning, relaxing or working. Most homes with children do have a dedicated space by way of a child's bedroom or a playroom, but many times what is overlooked is creating a young child’s dedicated workspace. This does not have to be its own room within the house; it could be a defined space within an existing playroom or even a defined space in an otherwise adult-centric room.
Children don’t need a distinct understanding of “Am I playing or working?” By work, I’m referring to those moments of meaningful engagement where a child has opportunity to focus. A defined workspace, then, facilitates a child’s innate need to develop their skill of concentration. Oftentimes, it can be through play that a child finds this meaningful focus, but as adults, we can influence the type of activity that a child engages in – drawing them to ones that help them focus on something that will add up to a more solid understanding of themselves or the world around them.
So how should we define a child’s workspace?
Imagine what you need when you’re setting up your own workspace. I like a dedicated seat, desk, and organized space. They, too, need a clean table and chair at their height. They will also need floor space, with some sort of distinguishing marker like a rug or towel, so that whether they are working on the table or the floor, their work is visually defined in front of them. Then, their activities and materials should be on a low shelf in order to be accessible.
I’d also say, that we shouldn’t forget about what we as humans love about being home – it’s beautiful, decorative, calming. For a child, it’s important to think about what it feels like to be in their space, too. I suggest plants and muted, calming aesthetics rather than bright colors and excess stuff. We want to communicate peace, purpose and independence in a child’s space.
Is there a difference between organization and accessibility? I noticed a huge shift this week with my own children when I tried something new. We have always had their art materials accessible with an art board hung low at their level, but it often goes overlooked. When I took an additional step of pulling materials from this board into coordinated trays – a hole punching tray, a paper cutting tray – it was a game changer and instantly boosted their engagement. Why?
What you experienced mirrors the Montessori concept of freedom within limits. One of the things Maria Montessori said is that freedom means you have the knowledge of how to do something and the ability to choose it. If you just say you can do whatever you want, or only offer children the ability to choose without the knowledge of how (so, here is a bunch of art supplies, go piece something together), then they will be frozen because that’s high-level thinking. When you define things for young children, it is liberating for them because now they are acquiring the knowledge needed to do more things independently.
It’s too much to expect our young children to just piece together the components like we do. Accessible means that we prepare everything they need and only those things that they need to help them be successful.
For parents who have older children in elementary, do these principles stay the same?
The prepared space is never stagnant. As children grow, their needs change, and so the environment should grow with them. When it comes to elementary, it is different.
Older children move beyond needing tangible, concrete experiences to more abstract mental processes. Their environment should be conducive to that. For them, it is a good time to present things in a way that introduces options as opposed to being so narrowly defined because now they’ve acquired the foundational knowledge needed for higher-level, creative thinking. So, here is the place for pencils, here is blank paper – what can you do with these supplies? At this age, it’s no longer a question of “Am I capable to use this?” but, “How can I use this in a new way?
As children get older, too, they’re going to want more of their own space because they are shifting from self-discovery to social discovery. They may want to have their own desk in their own room.
Let’s talk toy rotation. Why does this aspect often feel overwhelming, and how can we simplify this in our homes?
It can be overwhelming depending on how much stress you put on yourself. Kids aren’t thinking about them in categories like we are. Sure, it would be great if we had materials out that offered a variety like something to count, something for art, something for music, something for practical life, but don’t overthink it. If they’re responding to something, they’re responding to it – and if they’re not, it’s okay!
In our classrooms, parents often ask, “What if my child never goes to the math area?" The reality is that just does not happen. We are naturally curious as a species, and so if there is a whole area of the room that they’ve never touched, how long will they resist that? They’ll want to do something new, soon enough, on their own developmental timeline. This applies at home, too. Don’t worry if they aren’t touching this thing you have had out. Take it off the shelf and put it back out later. Rotate. Experiment. Have fun.
How do I know if the items I rotate are too hard or too easy?
Children will show you through their behavior if they’ve mastered something, or if it’s too hard. Both of those things will look like boredom. When it comes to rotation, it is not advised to rotate a whole shelf at a time. You don’t want everything to be new at once. Maybe change one item every day or so.
You will know they have mastered something and might want a new challenge when they stop taking that material out, but also, don’t feel like you always have to offer work that is challenging or next level. There are times when I, as an adult, just want to do something I know I can accomplish. It’s the same for children, so it’s good to have work out that both challenges them but is also familiar to them. That’s why in our own home, we have some easier peg puzzles as well as more challenging 30-piece jigsaws.
What else is on your shelves right now?
We have some things for them to work around the house with us, such as a window washing tray. Our youngest is also super into building challenges, and so we have magnatiles out. Another hit is a basket of “open and close” containers, with little jars, bottles, coin purse. Then, we have art trays for collage work with paper and glue, as well as a stringing beads activity.
During school closures due to COVID-19, Joel has been mentoring Montessori educators around the world to come together and support parents through the launch of Guidepost at Home’s Family Framework, a virtual distance learning platform. Here, parents can join for free and prepare their homes and routines using the same Montessori principles embedded in the Guidepost Montessori school network, or they can join a paid tier to enroll their child in a virtual Montessori classroom with one of our trained educators. The paid tier also enrolls the parent in a Parent Concierge service where families have 1:1 unlimited access to a Montessori educator and parent coach. One of the most common topics covered in the new Parent Concierge service is personalized support on cultivating practical and effective prepared environments at home.