During the last trimester of pregnancy, mothers often find themselves scrambling to nest for the baby. This instinct can be very powerful! In those last few weeks, we prefer everything to be perfect for our child's arrival into the world, down to the color of the walls, a sleeping area, the changing area, a rocking chair, toys, books, and a nice stack of diapers at the ready.
During the first 4-6 months, however, a baby couldn't care less about a perfect nursery. He is focused on gazing into his mother's eyes, wanting comfort through nursing, bouncing, and snuggling. Even a baby who is less cuddly in nature doesn't need any structured stimulation. A few basic rattles will do. Mobiles can be fun to look at if baby is spending a lot of time laying down awake, but when your baby is being carried around in your loving arms and exposed to fresh air outdoors, be rest assured that the surrounding environment is plenty stimulating. Having a proper "playspace", however good it makes us feel, is simply not necessary for the first few months. When my sons were babies, I had a supply of baby blankets, and it was easy to lay down a blanket for baby to play on in whatever room I was in at the moment. A basket in our living room held the baby toys.
Once baby is scooting or crawling, it's time to think more carefully about the play environment. Here are a few tips for creating your baby's first Montessori shelf.
1. Make it safe. That means all the traditional child proofing in the room - outlet covers, etc. Make sure the shelf is heavy enough not to fall over on a climbing toddler. OR secure it to the wall.
2. Use the bottom two shelves. If your shelf is low already, that's great. If you are using a taller shelf, designate the bottom two shelves for baby; use the rest of the shelves anything that could be useful to you!
3. Select a few toys. Choose toys you think your child would like manipulating or exploring. These are your baby's first Montessori work choices! As much as possible, choose toys made of natural materials that can be twisted, stacked, mouthed, and shaken. Avoid the shiny, noisy plastic stuff with buttons and annoying songs. I'm talkin' to you, Tickle Me Elmo. Off the Montessori shelf! Those toys can live in the closet and can be brought out occasionally. You want to focus on toys that are nurturing to the brain and not overstimulating.
4. Space the toys out. When my first born was a baby, we chose this shelf specifically because it would provide designated spaces for toys. When a toy needed to be put away, it was obvious where it should go. I found that baskets were completely unnecessary with this type of shelf, and it forced me to choose only eight baby toys for displaying at one time. However, for a more traditional shelf, I would recommend a basket for the go-together toys like blocks. It pays to spend a bit of time spacing the toys in a way that looks appealing and utterly uncluttered. Your baby won't ever thank you for it, but when he's dragging everything off the shelf and making a big mess, you'll thank yourself for making the clean up easier!
5. Crawl in front of the shelf at your baby's head level. What do you see from that angle? Does it look inviting? Colorful? Is it easy to reach for? Sometimes what we see is surprising to us, like the unpainted bottom of a shelf or a sharp edge. Getting down low and looking at child level is how you'll know if you've done it right.
When a new mom is pregnant, she may worry about having enough "baby stuff", but the reality is most parents acquire an alarming number of toys and gadgets in just a few months. All of this stuff can take up an enormous amount of space! Contrast the careful placement of accessible toys on a baby's Montessori shelf to a typical American baby's play area, where you might see an exersaucer, a jumperoo, a play yard, a crib, a swing, and many, many plastic, flashy, singing toys overflowing out of a toy chest. If you feel that a crawling baby's environment doesn't really matter, consider Montessori's cautionary words from The Absorbent Mind:
"There are some insects which look like leaves, and others which look like stalks. They pass their lives on leaves and stalks, which they resemble so perfectly as to seem completely one with them. Something like this happens in the child. He absorbs the life going on about him and becomes one with it, just as these insects become one with the vegetation on which they live. The child's impressions are so profound that a biological or psychochemical change takes place, by which his mind ends by resembling the environment itself. Children become like the things they love. In every type of life it has been discovered that this power exists, of absorbing the environment and coming to resemble it."
- Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Taking care to arrange your baby's first play environment is worth it. Make it beautiful. Make it accessible. Fill it with things that you love and want to share with your child. The environment that you create for your baby will stay within him for life.