Our Infant Community program focuses on three main areas: practical life skills (care of self, care of the environment), motor development (gross and fine motor) and language development.
Our toddlers spend their day in an environment designed for them, a true "infant community": Furniture is of the right size for their small bodies. Simple shelves display simple activities that draw a toddler’s attention: simple puzzles; play-dough, little figurines; a simple book shelf with books displayed cover outward and a toddler-sized chair close by, child-sized easels, sinks, clothes hooks and tables for washing up dishes or art materials.
Not only is the environment toddler-sized, the speed of the day is slowed down, so young children have the time to learn to do daily tasks for themselves, instead of being hurried on by adults with a schedule.
- Learning self-care skills. At AIM, every small activity is a learning opportunity. Take getting dressed: When your child arrives at school, he takes off his outside shoes and puts on his slippers. At first, this simple task is difficult! But over time, his teacher helps him to master it. She’ll sit behind him, carefully demonstrating how to hold the shoe at the heel, firmly, while he slides his toes inside, then pulling up the back strap. Trying himself, your child may take 10 minutes to get one shoe on at first—and we provide the time for him to try, and try again until he succeeds. Every day, several times a day, he’ll take off one set of shoes and put on another. In no time, he’ll have mastered this skill, and will move on to the next.
All the skills your child needs to take care of his own needs are learned in this slow, deliberate, respectful way: putting on pants, jackets, socks; washing hands, brushing teeth, brushing hair; putting on sunscreen; hanging up a jacket or folding pants to put into the cubby. For toddlers, these skills are a huge milestone: many toddler tantrums result from the child’s urgent need to do things for himself being frustrated by his inability to achieve his aim. Children who can take care of their own needs gain tremendous confidence—and are much easier and fun to be around, at home, too!
- Indirect preparation for later academic skills. All of the activities in the toddler program have both a direct purpose (the immediately visible skill being learned) and an indirect purpose, which is often longer-range, and in many cases constitutes a foundational skill for later academic success.
Take painting. At AIM, toddlers have access to an easel and watercolors, and love to paint, just like at other preschools. But where other preschools focus on the painting, because of our Montessori approach, we design the whole process as a learning experience. Children learn to start by putting on an apron; they then set up their own work station, carefully placing the paper, filling a small glass with water and carrying it slowly to the easel, getting one color from the shelf, unscrewing the cover, getting one brush. After they finish painting, they learn to take off the wet paper, and clip it to a line outside to dry. They then empty the dirty water in the sink, wash the glass and the brush, dry them and replace them on the shelf; they take a sponge and clean the easel and wipe it dry; they remove their apron and fold it up to leave it ready for the next child to use. They learn that a work cycle has clear steps (getting ready, doing the work, cleaning up); they learn motor skills (carrying the glass so no water spills, opening the paint container, clipping the paper to the line, cleaning the easel with big movements that strengthen the arm muscles later needed for writing); they learn how to keep track of multi-step processes, how to problem solve (e.g., to clean up if they do spill water), and to take pride in their surroundings.
The Infant Community environment abounds with this type of learning, with activities that children love to master, that give them critical immediate skills, and indirectly prepare them for later academic work!
- Social and executive function skills. Young toddlers are very self-centered: they want things, now, and they are known to have little impulse control. One key task of learning to grow up is respecting the feelings and rights of other, being able to control one’s impulses to live harmoniously together with other people.
Our Infant Community students systematically learn these skills. For example, we only offer one item for each material: there’s one clay dough box, one easel, one reading chair, one wash basin. And there’s a simple rule: when one child is engaged with another activity, no other child may take it. Only when the activity is returned to the shelf may another child use it.
Learning to abide by this rule is hard for toddlers! We help them by giving them guidance on what to do: to stand with their hands behind their backs, for example, when they watch another child engaged in an activity that interests them. Knowing positively what to do ("stand with your hands behind your back") is more powerful in helping them control impulses than telling them what not to do ("don’t touch!").
We also acknowledge and give words to their feelings: "You’d really like to work with this puzzle. Too bad Suzie has it: it’s hard to wait, isn’t it? Would you like to watch until she is done? Or would you like me to help you find something else to work with?" Giving words to feelings helps the child in question deal with his emotions.
We also use words to help children understand and learn to accept each other’s feelings. For example, if someone falls, we may say "It looks like Max is hurt; he’s crying and his face is all scrunched up. Mary, do you think you could go get a washcloth so we can clean his knee?" Children learn quickly: it’s not unusual to see a 2 ½ year old walk over to another child who is crying, put his arm around her, and say, gently and in Mandarin or Japanese, "You hurt. Feel better." That’s social skills in action – and it exemplifies the feeling of benevolence to each other that is the spiritual essence of our Infant Community program.