Dr. Maria Montessori was a pioneer in early childhood education. She believed that the purpose of early childhood education “should be to activate the child’s own natural desire to learn.” I lean on her teachings to fill in the gaps that the KonMari Method has yet to address when it comes to organizing with children.
Dr. Montessori identified eleven sensitive periods, defined by the American Montessori Society as “a critical time in human development when the child is biologically ready and receptive to acquiring a specific skill or ability.” These sensitive periods include reading, writing, language development, and order among others.
The sensitive period for order typically occurs between ages 2-4, which means that children this age are fascinated with routine, order, sameness. They are happiest when their surroundings are predictable and everything has a place. They enjoy putting things back where they belong.
This may surprise anyone who has observed a toddler remove all of the contents of a kitchen cabinet. The challenges we experience maintaining order with little ones at home is largely the result of lack of order and routine to begin with. Before we can expect the acquisition and execution of skills related to order, we need to do the critical first step of “preparing the environment” for the child.
Preparing the environment is another Montessori term, which refers to arranging the space so that a child can successfully navigate it, where the materials neatly are organized, and the space is beautiful. See this example from How We Montessori for a prepared home environment using Montessori principles. A complete work cycle in a Montessori classroom involves a child choosing their own activity or “work” which are usually arranged neatly on a tray or in a basket, then placing the items in a defined space either on a floor mat or a child-sized table and chairs, working with the materials for as long as it interests them, and then putting the items back on the shelf as they found it.
The work activities also further tap into this sensitive period. For example, a child may work on color-coding and learning about shades from dark to light using a color tablet. Boundaries are another important concept in Montessori teachings, children are taught to focus on their own work and not interrupt their friends. Only when a child puts back a piece of work does that activity become available for another child. This is what we teach in KonMari - to focus on your own stuff and don’t discard another’s belongings or move their items without their permission.
Everything from the classroom design to the rituals and routines promote a sense of order and consistency which is pleasing and calming to the child. The first time I stepped into observe a Montessori classroom filled with 20+ two-year-olds, it was shockingly quiet. The children were actively working in their own spaces, one child was washing the table to prepare for snack another was cutting fresh flowers for the table.
So where do you begin? Start by putting your own things in order, then move on to preparing the environment for your children. Start with clothing with the goal of creating a wardrobe that they can navigate - just a few tops, bottoms, pjs, and undies. Display items folded on low shelves and on a low hanging bar they can access themselves. Consider using a wardrobe like this. Include a mirror in the set up to support your child in getting dressed independently. The closet space can be reclaimed for other things - a toy library, an inventory of clothing items in bigger sizes or later seasons, sentimental keepsakes, or surplus diapering supplies.
Spend time together slowly, peacefully, and joyfully sorting items, folding items, and putting them back where they belong. This is not a means to an organized end, be deliberate with each step. Channel the energy of Mister Rodgers. Make this a regular ritual, perhaps anchored to another activity - after nap, before bedtime, first thing in the morning, etc. Marie Kondo models this for us as she works with her children to fold clothing.
With a little time, you’re sure to experience a shift in how your child gets dressed and how they take care of their clothing and their bedroom. Then move on to repeat the process with books, toys, art supplies and kitchen items.
Curation is key to the prepared environment, only display those items that support your child in their stage of development. Keep it simple, organized, and beautiful. As Dr. Montessori would say, “help them help themselves.”