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Create a Travel Kit with Montessori in Mind

In 1914 Maria Montessori wrote a succinct guide to her discoveries, Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook. According to Nancy Rambusch's introduction, Montessori aimed to deliver "a practical message of Montessori to the American home," offering parents the means for understanding and applying basic Montessori themes in the home.

Of course, Montessori could hardly have foreseen the coming transportation revolution. Yet, fast forward almost 100 years and you'll find the same key ideas Montessori offered parents then can help you create a travel kit now - one that will excite, enthrall, and absorb your child on the road.

Why pack a travel kit?

Gone are the days when children were greeted at the airplane door with a lapel pin and a deck of cards. These days, the wise parent packs a travel kit. In the Handbook, Montessori urges adults to generally resist "the monotonous and useless repetition 'Keep still.' We should rather give 'order' to his movements..." Certainly good advice for travel! The alternative to "keep still" is "give those small hands plenty to do."

Will a well-packed travel kit ensure a happy, absorbed child for hours on end? Probably not... unless you keep in mind that an adult prepared to spend seat time observing and engaging the child may be the most important part of the young child's travel kit! Along with providing materials for independent exploration, plan for verbal games to share with your child: I Spy, alphabet games, or rhyming games.

It's tempting to offer hand-held electronics and the children may even thank you. Resist! Plane and train travel in particular offer an opportunity for intimacy and family relationship-building all too rare in our busy lives. Why throw it away? Engaging travel activities create a context for laughter and learning to share with your child. What a joy it is to watch your child explore an activity specific to their interests and development!

Four-year-old Nate was glad to settle in and buckle up. He looked up at his mother expectantly. Was it time yet? She smiled and pulled an old tin lunchbox out of her big bag. It was!

Nate squirmed with excitement as he opened the lunchbox latches and lifted the lid. He lifted out one of several little boxes and put it on the airplane tray. Inside, there were lots of happy face stickers (his favorite kind!). He carefully peeled off a sticker and stuck it on his sleeve.

In the Handbook, Montessori urges adults to generally resist "the monotonous and useless repetition 'Keep still.' We should rather give 'order' to his movements..." Certainly good advice for travel! Surely the alternative to "keep still" must be "give those small hands plenty to do."

Consider the child's tendencies

As you put together a travel kit for children 3 to 6, recall that Montessori activities for this age group focus on motor and sensory education, and language. Montessori's observations showed her that children are deeply engaged in developing these skills during this period. Generally, then, pack items that satisfy these interests.

Nate took out the cardboard box and shook it gently. Something was rattling in there! He placed the box on the tray and lifted the lid. Inside, he found big popsicle sticks. He carefully peeled off another happy face sticker and stuck it on a stick.

Pack individual items in smaller containers the child can open and close. A variety of containers can provide a thoroughly absorbing fine motor exercise, an outlet for curiosity, and an opportunity for surprises (what's inside!).

In the Handbook, Montessori mentions the mats and rugs that define a child's work space in Montessori classrooms. To extend this idea to travel, use a small tray that allows lap work to define work space in a car. Even plane travel can be bumpy, so choose a tray with a deep rim that will help contain small items. On a plane or train a vinyl or rubber mat placed on the child's seat-tray says "I'm working now" and also reduces movement and/or rolling of travel kit contents.

Demonstrate new techniques the Montessori way

In the Handbook, Montessori wrote, "The instructions of the teacher consist then in merely a hint, a touch - enough to give a start to the child." These are words to remember as your young one explores his travel kit. You have carefully packed items with some ideas about how your child will use them. You may be eager to tell him all about it! Instead, sit back and watch.

Nate saw lots of bright colors peeking through a small, clear box. He placed it on the tray and opened it up. It had tiny papers inside that looked like stickers. He tried to peel the back off of one but it didn't work.

If you know the material is unfamiliar, wait until the child discovers it in the kit and let him ponder its use - he may figure it out on his own. If needed, demonstrate the basic technique and let the child discover variations. Young children don't need lengthy verbal explanations; they will mimic your movements spontaneously.

When the time comes to show an item's use, use the Montessori teacher's technique from the Handbook: "The teacher, sitting by the child's side, performs the necessary movements of the fingers very slowly and deliberately, separating the movements themselves into their different parts, and letting them be seen clearly and minutely."

Nate's mom touched him on the shoulder. He looked up. She picked up one paper. She picked up a popsicle stick. She licked the plain side of the paper. She put it on the popsicle stick and squeezed while she counted softly "one, two, three..." She opened her fingers. The paper was a sticker after all! Nate gave it a try. He stuck square after square on the popsicle stick until there was no place left to stick another one.

Nate gave the popsicle stick to his Mom. "A bookmark!" she said, and put it right in her book. "Maybe Grandma would like a bookmark, too?" Nate got busy. His mother smiled and looked at her watch, surprised to find half an hour had passed. "Okay!" she thought to herself, "Only four more to go!"

For children, getting there is just as important as being there. It's quite possible that the biggest obstacle to traveling with young children is our adult perception of the journey as the tedious process of getting to the "real" destination. Instead, think of the journey as an opportunity to enjoy your children. Pack a travel kit to engage children with developmentally appropriate activities tailored to their personal interests and don't forget to pack realistic expectations in your carry-on. The likely result is a more relaxed journey for the whole family and vacation fun that starts from the moment you step out the door.

Travel Kit Ideas for Children 3 to 6

For the youngest child, the destination may be no more than an abstract future idea whereas the child must immediately function in the here-and-now of the journey. Bring along variations of familiar activities that appeal to the child's tendencies toward motor and sensory development, and provide opportunities to acquire language for new things in the environment.

Choose variations of those closures your child has mastered to pack kit contents in. Can he open: a drawstring bag, a hinged box, a zipper bag, a box with a lid that lifts off, an envelope with a string clasp...? Using the zipper closure as an example, include zipper bags of different sizes and materials, and with different kinds of zippers (nylon, metal). If a hinged box is within reach, include cardboard, wooden, tin, and plastic boxes with lids that hinge open, some with simple latches and some without.

Motor Activities: Lacing & Sorting
Lacing and threading are satisfying and relatively compact activities. Shoelaces or yarn (with the ends taped) can serve as laces. Bring lightweight o-shaped cereal or macaroni to string. Bead stringing sets and lacing cards are ideal, too.

Sorting shapes will exercise children's fine motor control and visual discrimination. A lightweight sorting activity for travel might include different kinds of pasta or dried beans, beads with different shapes or colors, or small geometric shapes. Bring a deep tray to contain small items (and expect to lose a few of them!) and a dish with compartments for sorting into.

Sensory Activities: Mystery Bag Variations
An opaque bag with pairs of fabric squares that children can identify by touch alone is a simple variation on the classroom "Mystery Bag" activities. "Where before he had to touch," wrote Montessori, in order to match the pairs, "he must now feel the stuffs...the degree of fineness or coarseness..." Household sewing baskets and fabric outlet stores are good sources for fabrics with different textures. You might include burlap, cotton, wool, satin, velvet, and fake fur, to name a few. Cut the fabric into the same shape and size so only the material is different.

Language Activities: Give Them Words!
Any sorting activity can also be a rich language opportunity. Give the child the spoken "labels" (the words that name the characteristics) as he sorts. For color-sorting: "Those are red. These are blue." For shape-sorting, circle, triangle, etc.

Picture cards (with word labels) that can be sorted and matched are lightweight and portable. If you have time, make up cards that name things in the travel environment. Simply cut out images from magazines or travel brochures, glue them to cards, and write the words legibly underneath the images. Subjects for an airplane trip might include airport, counter, airplane, suitcase, pilot, flight attendant, window, sky, clouds, city (from above!)... For train travel, make cards for station, conductor, tracks, platform, ticket, etc.

To satisfy the thirst for language, bring books to read aloud and vocabulary cards; children will be fascinated with stories about children traveling and books or cards with photos of vehicles that will help them make sense of the travel environment. A drawing book already set up with space on top for drawing and space below for writing is a great mutual travel activity (you can write the words that match your child's pictures).

Travel Kit Ideas for Children 6 to 9

Travel kits for this age are very different than those for younger children! With their deeper understanding of geography and time, children 6-9 are quite interested in the destination. The break from routine suggests adventure! "Are we there yet?" is their eager refrain.

At this "going outward" time of life, children are full of curiosity about other people and places. The journey is a perfect time to help your child get oriented to the destination. Tailor activities to your child's unique interest and abilities, while making connections with some aspect of the destination when possible.

Time: Children who have mastered reading a clock revel in timekeeping and are proud to make a useful contribution. For road travel, pack a good atlas or map the child can write on (a write-on, wipe-off map is ideal), pens or pencils, and a watch. For train or plane travel, add a timetable and a route map. Show the route and how to mark time points on the map. ("Here we are. Here is Charleston. The timetable shows we should be in Charleston at 2:00."). Children can record actual times and keep you posted on your progress.

Mathematics: Older children with strong multiplication and division skills rise to the challenge of calculating real-world numbers. Working with figures like travel speed, distance, and gallons of gas, children can estimate arrival times, track gas costs, work out miles-per-gallon (or per-hour), determine how fast the car must go to arrive at a certain time, and so on. Provide a notebook, pencils, calculator, and a mental list of calculating questions to ask!

Cultural History: Make a historical connection by bringing along a book on historic vehicles and pondering aloud how long it might have taken by wagon, on a steam train, or on foot. Compare to modern travel. If the destination has a clear cultural heritage, find a related craft suitable for lap work. For example, the Navajo are famous for weaving rugs, so a visit to Arizona might include a small ball of yarn, a craft needle, and a cardboard loom the child can use to weave a "mug rug." You might also pick up a related craft when you arrive at your destination, to offer on the way home.

Puzzles: Tangrams (the Chinese puzzle toy) are perfect for travel, with only 7 pieces to keep track of and an infinite number of puzzles/solutions. Portable and/or magnetized geometric art and design tile sets are readily available and often allow open-ended creative play, as well as the challenge of solving a puzzle. Puzzle booklets with word-find puzzles, mazes, crosswords, etc., are popular, too; "themed" puzzle booklets related to the destination may even be available.

Geography: Keep track of states or countries you travel through (or over!) on a political map. Add a topographical map if travel will take you past visible land forms in daylight. The child can record elevation (from roadside markers) and identify features shown on the map. Flying? Identify land forms as you fly over. A book or card material about land forms will allow children to follow up when their interest is piqued.

Art: Children welcome any opportunity for creative self-expression. Rather than a project-oriented kit that can be used just once, collect and pack materials that can be reused or recombined in different ways. For example, stickers that can be lifted and re-applied, pipe cleaners that can be bent into their own shapes or used to connect two fluffy pom poms. Pack a pair of scissors, glue stick, tape, a stapler, and drawing tools, along with other art supplies. A box with a hinged lid that slants to form a work surface (a lap desk or a clipboard box) can make managing art supplies easier.

—Originally Published 2009

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