If you have poked around on the internet looking for information about Montessori homes or schools, you have definitely come across the term “prepared environment.” This is any space that is prepared to maximize the experiences of those that use the space. So a prepared environment can be a classroom, a bedroom, the kitchen, dining, living, backyard, park…really any space. It is a term used to emphasize that spaces are designed and the layout and the items in that layout are intentionally chosen.
When it comes to spaces for children, it can be difficult to discern if the environment has the right balance of opportunity and safety. I recommend to parents when preparing your home and routine for your child ask, “Does the space allow for the freedom of movement that my child needs? Is it free of obstacles?” This may lead to such questions such as:
Should we use baby gates? Safety should be your first concern. If you are using the gate to maximize independence and movement, yet keep your child safe from using the stairs or reaching the stove (as just a couple examples), then yes, use baby gates to create a safe home.
However, if you are using baby gates to keep your child from participating in family life, like helping in the kitchen, independently washing their hands, or choosing activities to play/work with, then you may want to rethink how and why you are using baby gates.
Does a harness allow my impulsive child freedom when we go for walks? I have heard from so many families that they choose to use a harness on their young child rather than use a stroller because they feel it gives them more freedom to move. This is actually a false sense of security for parents and child. When you use a harness, you send the message to your child that they are not trusted to explore, that you will control their body and keep them from logical consequences, and that ultimately, you are in control if their body and they are not.
I know, again, when it comes to safety, it seems that controlling them is the best way. Please consider, rather than controlling their body in this way, it may be more helpful to stick to experiences that they are ready to handle. One of my children, when young, was impulsive and would not look before ‘taking off’. But rather than controlling their body, we changed our patterns to have outdoor experiences where they could safely practice walking next to us, holding a hand, and then eventually just by our side. We would go to a park, or a small market to practice. And until they understood the expectations and were not as impulsive, we avoided large, busy parks and busy streets. This was a short period of time, but we dedicated our outdoor time to helping them learn this skill and then we were able to take our family walks again.
When we see our child as not being able to handle the freedom, our reaction is usually to “lock it down” rather than take the small steps to help them get there. Sometimes our own agendas, busy schedules, or plans get in the way of taking the time a child needs to learn and understand their body and control of movement. The truth may be that a trip to Disney World is not what a child can handle when they are in this phase. And you are not denying them the opportunity to meet Mickey Mouse, you are supporting their need to understand their body and all they can do with it!
Should I use “baby locks” on my cabinets? When we describe a kitchen that welcomes all family members to take part in food preparation, we recommend having snacks that are accessible and child-size dishes and tools that your child can reach. When you take the time to prepare cabinets with your child in mind, you do not need to use baby locks on these cabinets. Make sure to limit the snacks available to the amount you want your child to eat in a day. And when you have dishes and tools available, only make accessible what you have shown your child to use safely and seen them repeat the safe use. For more on this, my book “First Foods to Family Meals” explains how to create an accessible kitchen and how to prepare food preparation activities.
For cabinets with cleaners and other items that pose a safety hazard, locks are the appropriate limit. When we create spaces that invite a child to take part and also learn limits, we are creating an honest environment. It is OK for your child to learn that not everything they can reach is for them. And it is also OK for them to learn that there is usually a way they can participate safely.
These are just a few examples of how we can remove obstacles to a child’s freedom to move. It is through freedom of movement that a child learns controlled movement, refined movement, and purposeful movement guided by choice. As you prepare spaces to include your child, remember there is a balance to offering freedom and maintaining safe and consistent spaces.