The Garlic Peeling Work: A Lesson in Mindset

If you ever find yourself wanting to practice patience, I suggest no greater classroom than a house with a toddler. 

Case in point. One morning, as I sleepily stirred oatmeal on the stove, I glanced over to the fridge just in time to see the door fly open and my youngest son jump out clutching a bulb of garlic. I hear him "oooooh" and giggle mischievously to himself.

He brings the garlic over to his child-sized kitchen table, sits down, and begins to peel the cloves.

I think to myself, "Garlic?  Yuck. That's going to make a mess."

I close my eyes and imagine myself wrestling the garlic bulb from his baby fingers and then enduring the tantrum that will likely ensue.

Not worth it, I think.  I'll clean up the mess later.

So I just turn around and pour my coffee. The smell of garlic starts to mix with the smell of coffee. Gross.

The Work Finds the Child

The melange of oatmeal, coffee, garlic combine with frustration and helplessness. Then I turn around and see that the concentration on his face. With extreme care and focus, he's getting those papery garlic peels off with his itty bitty fingernails.

At this point, some part of my brain recognizes that this is his work. It is taking focused effort, and I see that he is using the pincer grip, developing his fine motor skills.

In fact, Montessori believed that this kind of fine motor skill practice was essential in preparation for writing.

The Garlic Peeling Work

In Montessori classrooms, you will see many different ways teachers inspire their youngest learners to strengthen their fingers.

I have never heard of the "garlic peeling work", but that's probably because it is very smelly and the entire classroom would end up smelling like my kitchen.

The child is very aware of the strong smell, too, and he loves it.  He rubs his nose all over the garlic.  He tastes it.  He sucks on his fingers.

He is very intense and not aware of me at all. He gets two cloves of garlic totally peeled, stands up, and rummages around in the kitchen drawer. He emerges with the cherry pitter and says, "This?"  

It dawns on me that he is looking for the garlic press.  I retrieve it from the drawer and exchange it for the cherry pitter.  "Yes, this!" he exclaims.

He returns to his table and proceeds to press the garlic cloves one at a time, squeezing as hard as he can.  I wordlessly set a bowl down on his table, and he carefully places the garlic cloves into the bowl, throws the garlic press into the sink, and races upstairs because he hears his brother.

Recreating the Lesson

The house is reeking of garlic, and I sip my coffee thinking... the garlic peeling work.  What a great Montessori idea. Except for the smelliness.

I think about how I would set it up in my classroom.

A tray, preferably easily washable.

Two little bowls on it. 

On the left, a bowl just big enough to hold the garlic bulb. On the right, another bowl for the peeled cloves.  

Maybe a red tray with little white bowls.

A garlic press between them.  

The teacher would model cradling the garlic bulb, probing it with her fingers and sniffing it. She would pick at the garlic and act surprised when she revealed the clove inside. She would demonstrate how to peel the garlic, press the garlic, and perhaps quietly suggest that the peeled, pressed cloves will be stored and used for cooking later that day.

She would show the child how to put the garlic skins in the classroom compost bin and make sure the tray is all clean and ready for the next person before returning to the shelf.  She would finish the lesson by washing her hands and drying them.

This is how I see "doing Montessori" as a teacher.   

Preparing the Environment

Do you know that in general, Montessori teachers spend hours thinking a simple work through like this - every single work in the classroom! The perfect sized tray is selected and the perfect bowls are chosen...the bowls that are the most functional and aesthetically appealing.

The teacher practices both the activity and the lesson several times to make sure no steps are left out. The work on the tray is set out from left to right, to mimic the way a person reads and writes. This is the teacher preparing the environment for the children.

Montessori is A State of Mind

When I talk to parents how to "do Montessori" at home, they are often amazed. In their minds, they're imaging the famously beautiful, prepared Montessori classrooms. This is not what they would see if they walk into my perpetually messy home. 

What they would see, though, is respect for the child's choice - a cornerstone of Montessori. Example:

  • In the classroom, the child chooses the garlic pressing work off of a clean, inviting shelf, takes it to his table, and performs the work with concentration.
  • At home, the child sneaks into the fridge, selects the garlic to work with, takes it to his table, explores it, retrieves the press from its home in the kitchen, and feels purposeful about it.

Different but no. In both, the adult is driven by a respect for the child's choice and his work. She honors this moment. She allow it. She recognizes that it is the child's real work and that is what makes you "doing Montessori" in your home, not because you have set up some pretty shelves with works on trays.

How do you see yourself  "doing Montessori"?  I bet it's more often than you realize!