The child can only develop fully by means of experience in his environment. We call such experience ‘work.’ Such Experience is not just play… it is work he must do in order to grow up. ~Maria Montessori
Excerpts from the book The Joyful Child: Montessori, Global Wisdom for Birth to Three, With permission of Michael Olaf.
The First Year: the Senses
We can feed the child’s intense interest in language and prepare for later spoken language, by speaking clearly, by not raising our voice to the unnatural pitch often reserved for speaking to pets, and not oversimplifying language in the presence of the child. We can tell funny and interesting stories of our lives, recite favorite poems, talk about what we are doing, “Now I am washing your feet, rubbing each toe to get it really clean” and enjoy ourselves in this important communication. And we can listen: to music, to silence, and to each other. (Page 9)
An adult can engage in a conversation with even the youngest child in the following way: when the child makes a sound, imitate it—the pitch and the length of the sound: baby “maaaa ga” adult “maaaa ga,” etc. One often gets an amazing response from the child the first time this happens, as if he is saying, “At last, someone understands and speaks my language!” After several of these exchanges many children will purposefully begin to make sounds for you to imitate, and eventually will try to imitate the adult’s sound. This is a very exciting first communication for both parties. It is not baby talk; it is real communication. (Page 10)
Age One to Three: Language
Language needs to be natural, exciting yet controlled, playful, real and in tune with each child. We need to examine our own language usage and become a better role model from which to absorb language. We must remember we are the most important language material in the environment. —Judi Orion, AMI Montessori 0-3,Assistant to Infancy, Teacher Trainer
Long before the child expresses himself clearly in language he has been listening and absorbing everything he hears. Often we are not even aware that the child is doing this, but once he begins to speak it becomes very clear. Three times in my life, with each of my three children, I have purposefully polished my language as they repeated everything I said! In a rich language environment adults talk to the child from birth on, not in baby talk, but with respect and with a precise vocabulary. If we want to help our children be well spoken we must model this long before we might have previously thought necessary. (Page 115)
A Second Language
The child absorbs all the languages of family and community, starting in the womb. This continues to be an important part of the child’s experience in the first months and years. At this age children show an uncanny ability to absorb language in all its complexities, and not just one language! Here is some advice that supports the learning of more than one language at a time.
The language must be used in the child’s environment in the first years of her life, in the sense that one or more persons should speak the ‘extra’ language to the child and in her presence. If we could have two, three, four, or five different persons speaking different languages around the child, she could easily absorb all of them without any particular effort, provided that each person speaks to her ALWAYS AND ONLY in their language. But this is possible only in the first years of life. —Silvana Montanaro, MD, AMI Montessori 0-3 Assistant to Infancy, Teacher Trainer (Page 116)
Listening and Including the Child in Conversation
The attention we give to a child when he first begins to talk to us is significant. Often a child is so excited about talking and being able to express himself that he stutters. This is a very natural stage in the development of verbal language and a sign for the adult to stop, look, and listen, NOT to supply the missing word, or to comment on the stutter. When the child is sure that he will be listened to, he will usually calm down and learn to speak more clearly.
Language development begins before birth and continues to be a major part of the child’s development for the first three years of life. We can best help a child develop good language by including the child in our conversation from the very beginning.
Years ago I was having lunch at the home of my Montessori teacher-trainer Silvana Montanaro in Rome. Present were her daughter and her very young grandchild Raoul. After we had finished eating I was holding Raoul in my lap as we were conversing. Silvana saw that he was intently watching my mouth as I spoke, perhaps because he was used to Italian and I was speaking English.
I turned away from him to answer a question and Silvana signaled me to keep looking at him. She said that I must maintain eye contact with him until he was finished watching me. I could talk to him or to anyone at the table, but my face must be turned to him. This went on for some time, and it was clear to all of us when he had finished watching my face.
I have never forgotten this lesson and have shared the advice with many people. It is surprising to see the pleasure on the face of babies, even strangers in a grocery store or on a bus, when one makes eye contact and does not look away. It is all too often a new experience for the infant, but a pleasant one. (Page 117)
Along with the words from the child’s own home and community, this is the time to introduce words, phrases, subjects that are not part of the everyday life. This includes poetry, nursery rhymes, and songs. Acting out some of them teaches what the words mean, but just poetry that the child does not understand is valuable, and he will understand the meaning later.
One of the favorite poems I have always done with children is “Jack be nimble, jack be quick, jack jump over the candlestick.” I place an unlit candle in an old-fashioned candleholder on the floor. I say the nursery rhyme, and as I say the word “jump” I jump over the candlestick. Children love to do this and will repeat if over and over, first you saying the words and then he jumping. And we all know the fun of “falling down” at the end of the song “Ring Around the Rosie.”
But beautiful adult poetry is enjoyed just as much as rhymes for children. They can provide images, an introduction to metaphor, and they do not have to rhyme! A good example is Carl Sandburg’s poem Fog:
The fog comes
On little cat feet.
It sits looking
Over harbor and city
On silent haunches
And then moves on.
Storytelling, Reading and Writing
Of course spoken language comes first, and the adult is the most important piece of language material in the environment. Children love for us to talk to them, and simple stories, (“What I had for breakfast” or “Once upon a time a little boy sat on his father’s lap while his father read to him. He was wearing red pajamas . . . ”) are more pleasing than something long and fantastic.
Most children will also sit enthralled for hours if we read to them, so this is our chance to pass on the love of literature and of reading, to teach facts, values, and the pronunciation of words, even those not often used in everyday speech.
The foundation for a child’s love of reading begins with seeing others around him reading, and enjoying reading, even when they are not reading aloud to him. And even though many of us do our writing on the computer these days, it is important for the child to see us writing on paper with a pencil or pen, thank you notes, birthday cards, grocery lists, and so on. It is no accident that some children are good at reading and writing and others are not, that some find joy in this work and for others it is tedious. The joy of exploring language begins early, and is the most intense, throughout the first three years of life. (Page 125)
Supporting Language Development
For success in language a child needs confidence that what he has to say is important, a desire to relate to others, real experience on which language is based, and the physical abilities necessary in reading and writing.
As I have said, the adult, the human environment, is the most important consideration in the support of language development for a young child. The adult and older children will be the main models for listening, speaking, writing, reading, loving language.
We can help the child’s language development with listening, eye contact, speaking well in his presence, and by providing a stimulating environment, rich in sensorial experiences and in language, providing a wealth of experience, because language is meaningless if it is not based on experience.
First this is inside the home, but soon it can be out in nature to experience, and talk about, the flowers, trees, animals, and then to the grocery store to experience foods, and so on. We can provide materials such as nursery rhyme blocks and books, vocabulary cards, books of subjects that are real and are related to the life of the child. We can share good literature in the form of rhymes, songs, poetry and stories, which will greatly increase the child’s love of language.
All of this will set the stage for sharing our favorite poetry and great literature with the child as he grows. This is the time, rather than in school, or university time, when humans really learn language. (Pages 132)