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Discover the secret of childhood from 0-3 year old:

3-4 years old

Wanna Nurture Will, Determination and Concentration? Help Your Child Find His Work

Thursday, November 13th, 2014 7:58 am | By Stephanie Woo

Brooke Washing Dishes

In Montessori, we talk about the child ‘finding his work.’ This means helping the child discover a piece of work that grabs his attention so much that – when undisturbed – he will work at it for long, long time. Preferably, it is a solitary piece of work done with his hands, using real objects, accompanied by increasing precision and concentration. Play kitchens, dollhouses, legos and most other conventional toys do not fall in this category. Don’t get me wrong, those activities serve wonderful purposes and are important, too. But in this case we are referring to activities like polishing a shoes, cleaning the windows, sweeping the floor, ironing, sewing, etc. Again, to review, these are 1. solitary activities 2. done with the hands 3. using real objects 4. requiring increasing precision 5. accompanied by concentration.

Helping a child find his work is a science and an art. You need to create the right environment. You must observe the child to see what he’s capable of and interested in doing. You have to respect the child when he finds his work and never interfere when he’s working. And you have to never give up on the child. Some children take a really long time to find their work and you have to keep presenting new materials till it sticks. Once found, nothing should stop you from protecting those critical moments of concentration.

I’m telling you this because when a child finds his work, you’ll be the happiest parent ever. Here’s how I know.

I have two very different children. Mackenzie loves to work. She is constantly busy. The quintessential Montessori child, she’s always coming into the kitchen saying, “Mama, I want to help you.”

Before you ask why I should be so lucky, I have another child, Brooke, who is the exact opposite. She’s more of a floater. She doesn’t like to work much. When I offer her lessons, she wanders off. Her favorite activity is to lie on my lap and suck her thumb. She’s not a passive child though, as 90% of the tantrums in our house originates with her. Cleaning up is especially painful and can take her twenty minutes to put away three pieces of Lego.

If you remember this post, she found her work here: changing into swimsuits. That has continued to be something she loves doing, changing outfits, doing her hair and putting on accessories. But recently, we went through another difficult spell with her. “I’m at my wit’s end,” was the exact text I wrote to my friend.

Then, about a week ago, after we made breakfast together, I asked Brooke (3 years 10 months) if she wanted to do dishes. I did a double-take when she said yes. For half an hour, she stood in front of the sink and washed those dishes with precision and care. She would sponge up a cup inside and out, put down the sponge, rinse away all the soap suds, then place it carefully in the dish rack. She worked for such a long time, I checked on her several times. When she got to the bottom of the sink, I found more dishes and quietly slid them into the sink. I even put in a few clean cups. I wasn’t going to let the lack of dirty dishes stop her from working with this level of concentration! When the sink was finally empty, she said, “I’m done.” Without any prompting, she noticed and wiped up the (very wet) floor too. Then she took off her apron and put it away.

After that moment, I saw a change. For days, she didn’t throw tantrums. She’s been working with intense concentration on other things. Overall, she’s been a much happier child. But you know who’s even happier? Me!

M washing fruits and vegetables to juiceM washing fruits and vegetables to juice

B and M have been doing Practical Life activities since they started walking. And they haven’t stopped. Now that they’re older and more capable, I give them more complicated Practical Life activities. Take juicing, for example. At 2-years-old, they juiced pre-cut oranges, all presented to them on one carefully-prepared tray. By 3, they learned to slice fruits and vegetables before juicing them. Now, they fetch the fruits and vegetables from the fridge, wash, cut, juice, clean up everything, then serve it to the whole family. A 1-year-old can only do one step of the process. At 4-year-old, the child can do the whole sequence.

Now that B and M are almost 4, I feel some pressure for them to learn to write or do math (it’s in the Asian gene, what can I say?!). We work on some of those things, but the bulk of their time with me is still spent working around the house. I know Maria is right when she placed her first emphasis on Practical Life. That is where the child builds will, determination and concentration. That is where the foundation is set. If you’re wondering how to ‘fix’ the child who loves to throw tantrums, or one who can’t concentrate on anything, or one who is overly aggressive or overly clingy, or if you’re simply wondering what activities to do with your child, try practical life activities. Ones that fit the criteria I mentioned in the beginning: a solitary piece of work done with the hands, using real objects, accompanied by concentration and increasing precision.

I think you’ll be happily surprised.

Video: How To Teach Your Child to Tie A Bow (or Learn Anything)

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014 10:00 am | By Stephanie Woo


Just a few days ago, Mackenzie, 3 years 10 months, successfully tied her first bow. It was a huge victory for her. This did not happen overnight. She had been watching, practicing (and failing) for 18 months!

In Montessori classrooms, we have bow-tying dressing frames to teach children how to tie bows. We generally present this dressing frame to the 4.5 year old child. Unless the child is very interested in learning, then like everything, follow the child.

Mackenzie was always trying to tie bows. I’ve helped her by demonstrating it very slowly every time I tied her apron or dress. When you teach a young child anything, don’t talk, just move your hands slowly and precisely. Invite the child to participate if you know there is a part she can do. For example, starting very young, M could pull the two hoops together at the end. Not long ago, she figured out how to tie the first knot before the bow. So for a few months, I would let her tie the knot, then I would do the middle part and finally let her pull it tight at the end. I also never rushed her when she was trying to figure it out. After I’ve shown it once that day, I would just let her do whatever she was doing. Even if she was struggling, I would just let her. If the opportunity presented itself the next day, I would slowly demonstrate it again, and then let her work on it for as long as she wanted without correcting her.

What do you say when your child is successful? There’s no need for effusive praises or rewards. Just a simple description of what she did, “You tied a bow!”

Of course it’s easier said than done because it’s SO exciting when your child learns to do something new, isn’t it?

What We Did All Summer (of 2014)

Saturday, October 25th, 2014 7:17 pm | By Stephanie Woo

Mackenzie learning the Chinese Alphabet

Mackenzie learning the Chinese Alphabet

Since I haven’t written for such a long time, I keep thinking that the first blog that comes out must be perfect. I’ve been waiting for perfect, but perfect never happens and, really, it’s the wrong way to look at it. So if this blog post rambles on, forgive me, I’m just gonna give it a go. 

What a summer we’ve had! 

This was the most upheaval we’ve gone through together as a family, and I wasn’t ready to write about it till we’ve come out the other end. Our friends and family went through all the ups and downs with us. We’re lucky they still love us after what we’ve put them through!

I last left off in June, when Mark and I both got our AMI certifications in Portland and were on our way to Taiwan. We spent two months there. Brooke and Mackenzie attended my mother’s school, Ms. Lam’s Montessori school, while Mark and I worked in the school. He taught soon-to-be first graders, while I observed and taught in both primary and toddler classrooms. 

I grew up knowing that our family ran Montessori schools. But it didn’t mean much to me because I didn’t have kids and Montessori was just something Mom did. Now that I’ve been trained in two levels (0-3 and 3-6), I’ve taught at a few schools, observed at many other schools and been a parent with children who have attended a couple Montessori schools, I have a lot more experience evaluating schools. As strange as this may sound, I was completely surprised to discover for myself just how excellent my mom’s school is. Mark and I were so impressed, we even decided to forego our own egos and opt to continue what my mom started. What does that mean? We are going to open a Ms. Lam Montessori school here in the US. 

We left Taiwan in August, where we continued the next part of our summer adventure in California. I’ve always thought I would love California – sunny, beautiful and the perfect place for a school. Well, dream and reality did not mesh this time. Because everything was new, it turned out to be extremely difficult for us to accomplish all we wanted to do. I was also pregnant when we arrived in California, and when I had a miscarriage – most likely due to the stress of the situation (more on this later) – I knew this was not the place for us.  One month after we arrived, we decided our future is where we came from: back home in Brooklyn, NY. 

We landed in New York in mid-September and moved back into our own building in Williamsburg. The second we arrived, we were immediately surrounded by friends and family – don’t know why we ever thought we belonged anywhere else. We immediately started working on opening our new school. There’s permits, handbooks, websites, classroom design. We’ve got a long to-do list!

Meanwhile, we did something radical. We decided to send Brooke and Mackenzie (3 years 10 months) to public school until our school opens. Why? The school is right next to our house; there were two open spots; it’s just for 2-3 months; we need to save every penny to renovate our school and buy the best materials for our future school. Sometimes logistics win.

I’ve had moments of doubt, but overall, public school has been an interesting experience. The most surprising thing is this: everyday, when they come home, they don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. Not even the park. They just want to stay home and work. They are totally concentrated and self-sufficient until dinnertime, which is about 3 hours.  I don’t know what they do all day at school, but I think some part of them craves working independently. 

Brooke washed ALL of those dishes in the drying rack with just sponge and dish soap

At home from school, Brooke washed ALL of those dishes in the drying rack!

After school activity - Mackenzie builds with Magnatiles

After school activity – Mackenzie builds with Magnatiles for hours

Well, here we are, at the other end of our summer adventure and settled into our new – hopefully permanent – life and home. It feels FANTASTIC to be writing this blog from a home I can finally call my own.