Updated: Aug 7, 2020
Do you remember being a child visiting the homes of people without little ones? One of two scenarios may ring a bell; either you spent the whole time being told "don't touch" or everything slightly delicate within your reach had been whisked out of the way "for safety". Now I'm not saying safety and young children isn't a good thing, on the contrary, keeping children safe is the most important responsibility we, as adults, have. However, if we always remove anything dangerous from a child's experience, how will they ever learn the crucial life skill of making judgements about risk?
In every Montessori early childhood setting, you will find glass and other breakable objects are part of the learning experiences offered (including in some of our boxes!). I can hear you already shouting "No!", "This is a terrible idea!" and "Why would you do this?"
This is why ...
Glass is heavy which helps small hands to make judgements about the amount of force needed to lift, carry and pour;
Glass is clear so the contents can be easily seen, teaching your child the concepts of full and empty;
Glass containers, when used for filling and emptying, make a wonderful sound as materials hit the inside (our 17 months box contains tiny glass jugs to pour corn kernels from one to the other. The sounds created draw the child to want to repeat the process and we all know that practise make perfect!);
Glass is a material that is smooth and changes with temperature so provides additional sensory information;
Glass objects are not toys; they are just like the things your child sees adults using. Young children are particularly drawn to copying what they see familiar adults doing as they go about everyday tasks;
Glass is fragile; your child will learn that you view them as capable when you trust them with this 'real' object;
Glass breaks; when your child sees this can happen it provides a visual explanation of why they need to handle it with care;
Things break all the time and introducing your little one to how to react to and safely deal with breakages in a controlled, planned way will help them to manage unforeseen accidents sensibly in the future.
There is no getting away from it; glass can break and when it does break the resulting pieces can hurt if picked up or stood on and I would have to agree; giving a baby or toddler a glass object to play with freely is a really bad idea.....
But (you knew there would be a but, right?) ....
No Montessori parent or teacher would ever suggest doing this. When you introduce a child, whatever their age, to a new learning material, act as a guide first, then observer. For example, when you introduce these tiny open drinking glasses at the time of weaning, we start by modelling how to grasp, raise and tilt to take a sip. Only when you see that your baby is showing interest themselves (by watching you intently and reaching out for the glass) will you know that they are ready to begin using it for themselves. The next step is to give them their own glass whilst simultaneously sipping out of one of your own in front of them. There will definitely be spills but, if you only put a tiny drop of water in at a time, it wont be the end of the world and you can show them how to use a cloth to wipe up the spills.
What if they drop the glass?
Well, they probably will at first but if they are strapped securely in a high chair and that chair is not on a very hard surface then the chances of a) the glass breaking and b)them cutting themselves are virtually none. However, broken or not, the glass will be gone and they will be left without their drink so, over time, they will learn that they need to handle their drink with care to keep it available. Once babies are around 9 months old, many of them discover the joy of throwing which clearly carries a greater risk with glass than plastic. However, if you introduce the idea that they need to take care with their drink at 6 months, as well as teaching them that some objects are ok to throw and others are not, then by the time they are at the throwing stage, they will have begun to understand that they are responsible for looking after their drink themselves.
Once older babies and toddlers can follow simple instructions, both verbally and non-verbally (by watching you demonstrate), they will be able to begin using glass objects whilst taking part in playful learning activities. Again, you need to introduce the activity by first showing them how to handle the objects you have provided so that they have an idea of how to use their hands, eyes and bodies to achieve their aim.
In the case of our pouring activity for children around 17 months, we begin by asking the child to watch, tell them we are going to pour the corn from this jug into that jug, slowly grasp the handle with one hand whilst supporting the jug by placing the fingertips of the other hand just below the spout. Then, we are ready to pour! By doing this, we are giving the child all the information they need to be able to succeed when they try it themselves.
The next part of the adult's role is to observe. If your little one more or less copies what you demonstrated, well done; you did a great job! However, most children will need many opportunities to watch and absorb before they are ready to carry out this activity independently. So if your little one starts throwing the corn around the room, banging the jugs together or anything else, you will know they are not quite ready and you can invite them to help you put it away for another day.
After all of that, what if the glass actually does break?
It is not as likely as you think, but yes, there is a chance glass might break. How you then respond can be a hugely valuable learning experience for your little one. Here are some suggestions for things to do and say:
Say "Oh, the jug/bowl/cup is broken, that's ok" in a calm, matter-of-fact voice;
Move your child away, explaining that the broken bits of glass might hurt them if they touch them with their hands or stand on them;
Invite your little one to help you clear it up, explaining you'll need a container to collect the broken pieces and a dustpan and brush to sweep it up;
Remind your child how you both need to be careful because the glass is sharp and might hurt you;
Encourage them to sweep the glass into a pile;
Ask them to sweep the pieces into the dustpan;
Get them to slowly tip the pieces into the container ready for you to throw away;
Thank them for helping and move on; you don't need to talk about it any more as being involved in the whole process will be enough for your child to absorb what has happened.
Of course, you should make up your own mind about whether to introduce breakable materials into your child's experience. Many parents will find the whole idea quite horrifying, as did I when I first began my Montessori training! However, on those days when you have the time to give it a go, I would say, just try and see how capable your little one is ... they might just surprise you!