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Children Love to Work and Play

By Tim Seldin - President, The Montessori Foundation; Chair, The International Montessori Council

Teach your children to take only one toy or book off the shelf at a time, and to return it to the same place when they are done. Most of us can be overwhelmed by the chaos that quickly develops around the house if we leave things lying around. Children are particularly sensitive to this. While they are most often masters at creating a mess, most find it difficult to clean up after themselves. The most efficient approach is to clean up as you go along. While some children may be born with a "neat gene," children can be taught right from the start to work and play in a tidy way without stifling their creativity or stripping playtime of fun.

The secret is to establish a ground rule and gently but firmly teach your children that while they may select anything from their shelves to work and play with for as long as they wish, they must return it when they are done, and may not remove something new until the last thing has been put away.

Some toys are better when used together with other toys-a set of building blocks and a collection of toy cars, for example. All you need to do in this instance is incorporate the two toys into a collection. Children can easily learn special rules, such as the idea that the toy cars and blocks go together, and it's OK to play with them at the same time. The key idea is to get all of the toy cars and blocks returned to the shelf before your child goes on to the next project.

Photographic labels
Use photos on storage containers to help your child return things to the right place. You can also place a photo on each shelf showing how the entire shelf should look when all the toys, games, books, and other items are stored there have been placed in proper order. This allows the children to use the photo as a control of error whenever they take the materials off the shelves to play, work, dust, polish, or inspect them for damage.

Practical storage
I strongly recommend against toy boxes. Set up low shelves to hold your child's books, toys, and games in his bedroom and in those rooms around the house where you and the family tend to spend time. Find ways to contain toys with many parts to keep them from going everywhere. Usually this would involve using some sort of container that is large enough to hold all the pieces and sturdy enough not to fall apart or look tattered with use. Depending on the nature of a particular toy, a heavy plastic container, a strong basket, a sturdy wooden box, or perhaps a large jar or bowl, are good options.

Defined work/play areas
You probably don't want your child finger painting in the middle of your living room rug. You certainly don't want her painting on the walls either. Think about each toy and activity that you are going to make available to your child, and determine where each can be used safely without creating a mess that would be difficult for your child to clean up. Some activities ought to be done in the kitchen or in a room that has a tile floor that makes it fairly simple to clean up spilled food or paint. Some might be okay to use in the family room, but not where people will have to step over them as they come and go. Still others are outdoor activities, such as woodworking or throwing balls, and need to be done in the yard.

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