12 - 48 Months

A more accessible Montessori

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“Montessori is really about just allowing your child to be part of the environment in which your child lives.”

Nikki Johnson @cultured_montessorian

Many new parents struggle with decisions around learning outside of the home. When is the right age? Is daycare or preschool the answer? If extended family isn’t available or other help isn’t affordable, should parents keep their children at home while also juggling work or all the many other responsibilities? Then there’s the decision regarding what learning philosophy to follow.

Jessica Rolph, your host, welcomes Nikki Johnson to today’s episode. Nikki struggled with these decisions, and landed on a homeschooling arrangement that aligns with Montessori. In addition to homeschooling her four year old, Marley, Nikki is an attorney and entrepreneur; she is also behind the Instagram account cultured_montessorian. Nikki and Jessica examine Montessori through a modern lens, from screen time to clutter.

Key Takeaways:

[1:40] What went into Nikki’s decision to start homeschooling her child?

[2:40] What made Montessori a good fit for Nikki’s daughter?

[3:48] Has Nikki seen any evidence of greater equity and inclusivity moving forward in the Montessori community?

[5:08] Nikki talks about the ways Montessori benefits children of color specifically.

[6:54] How does Nikki carve out time from her clearly very busy schedule as an entrepreneur, lawyer, and teacher to her daughter?

[10:27] Where does Nikki come down on screen time for Marley and how does this fit in or not fit in with Montessori?

[12:51] Are there any other ways that Nikki has interpreted Montessori through this more modern lens?

[14:59] Nikki’s daughter has a sensory processing disorder; she shares how she has tailored her learning to support that difference.

[17:10] Nikki shares how she approached decluttering and keeping her home environment more minimalist.

[19:01] What is the rhythm of a typical day for Nikki?

[21:35] Nikki spent time living in a homeless shelter as a child. How does that experience inform the home life that she has created for Marley?

[23:28] Nikki encourages families to do Montessori in whatever way works for them.

Mentioned in this episode:

Check out Nikki’s Instagram @cultured_montessorian


Jessica: I started our conversation by asking Nikki what went into her decision to homeschool.

Nikki: So for us, it was mainly the pandemic. We just are still very uncomfortable with sending her back into like an in-person learning atmosphere. The numbers in our area are just too high and we just really felt better keeping her at home. We’ve quite candidly thought about hiring someone part-time to come in to kinda help me a little bit so that I can have more time for work, but again, we’re just uncomfortable with having anybody else in our little bubble right now. And then also with Marley’s needs, she was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder late last year, so when she was about two and a half, close to three, and keeping her home and being able to tailor everything to fit her very unique needs just feels better for us and it feels right. We’re big on trusting our gut when it comes to parenting, and keeping her home during this sensitive period just felt right for our family.

Is Montessori right for you?

Jessica: And then you needed to make a decision on kind of what philosophy would guide you. What makes Montessori a good fit for your daughter? 

Nikki: So Montessori, it was something that we always wanted to do and we felt it was a good fit just because of how it nurtures the whole child and takes into account every developmental phase, and then that it’s child-led. So the children are actually kind of telling us, “This is what I’m ready to learn and these are the skills that I have right now,” and we’re responding to that, and really, again, just letting them lead their learning process. The reason that we didn’t go for an in-person Montessori program before we started homeschooling was just, frankly, we couldn’t find one that had Black people who were doing more than serving food or cleaning up, and that’s something that’s also important to us, having cultural representation in every part of her learning environment.

Montessori method and children of color

Jessica: You know, I think that there are some ways that Montessori can benefit children of color, specifically, because you’ve talked about that in why you chose Montessori for educating Marley. So this gap is really especially frustrating, I’m sure, for you. And so, can you talk about what ways Montessori does benefit children of color specifically? 

Nikki: From my perspective, the fact that these children are being taught to, one, trust their instincts, two, to just be confident in everything that they do and everything is just centered in so much joy and appreciation for the little things in life, from my perspective, that helps build resiliency. 

Making time for Montessori

Jessica: You know, I think so many of us are inspired by Montessori for many different reasons. It’s often perceived as being a major time commitment, so how do you do this? How do you carve out time from your clearly very busy schedule of being an entrepreneur, having your own legal practice and homeschooling Marley? We want to know all the details. [chuckle]

Nikki: So I think it definitely is a major time commitment, it’s been a major time and financial commitment for our family. The way that I’ve done it is, once we made the commitment that we were going to do this at home for at least the next two years until she’s six, I decided that I needed some help. I needed a professional to swoop in and tell me exactly what to do because as capable and as smart as I think I am, I cannot learn a decade worth of training overnight. And so one of the things that I did was, I hired a coach. Someone whose professional career pre-COVID was staying in Montessori schools and training Montessori teachers and developing curriculums. And she taught me how to implement all of that in my home and she kind of tailored the program to me hourly. So she taught me basically exactly what I needed to know and nothing extra, everything from how to source materials, what websites are going to give me which quality, what things I can use today and things that I might still be using in two years so that I could decide what to buy and what to make, the amount of time that I could realistically expect to have to dedicate to Marley’s lessons, are they really going to take me no longer than 50 minutes a day or am I going to be spending you know, four hours a day. So that really helped me put things into perspective.

Another thing is that I have the luxury of being full-time self-employed, and so I get to dictate my schedule. A lot of times what that means is, I’m working early in the morning before she wakes up and then I’m putting in another few hours at night after she goes to bed so that I can have my quiet time to just kind of focus on work without any distractions. And then, I also have a very supportive partner who essentially goes along with whatever I say we’re doing for Marley. He completely trusts my decisions that I’m making for her. So, said I want to home school her and keep working, he’s like, “Okay, what do you need from me?” And sometimes that looks like he’s taking a day off every couple of months so that he can take care of Marley while I get work done, or maybe on the weekend, he’s the primary caregiver and I’m holed up in the office doing all the work that I didn’t get to do during the previous week. It’s really a juggling act and I’ve really had to release all my expectations of, one, what I can do, how much time it takes me to do certain things, and what I’m going to, I guess, just really allow to dictate my happiness. So am I going to be sad and upset that I didn’t do all 50 things on my to-do list or am I going to be okay with just getting three things done knowing that I got to educate my kid in the way that I want to educate her? 

Screen time and Montessori

Jessica: That is really inspiring grounding for so many of us. And you referenced on this thread, you reference some websites that you use with Marley, where do you come down on screen time for her and how this fits in or doesn’t fit in with Montessori? 

Nikki: So, you know, everyone’s going to have their opinions. One, I am of the belief that it’s 2021. My four-year-old needs to know how to use a tablet, she needs to know about the cell phones and the Zooms and the FaceTime. This is the reality that she lives in so she’s going to have these things and she’s going to know how to use them and it’s up to us as her parents to implement the limits that we need to implement. She’s using her tablet right now because I need this time to be quiet without interruption. And as long as she doesn’t have her tablet or is in front of the TV all day every day, when she gets this… You know, an hour to her is like unlimited, it’s the whole day, so when she gets a time like this, it’s a treat, she’s excited. I got her french fries and she’s got her tablet, she is on top of the world. It wouldn’t be like that if she had her tablet 24/7. I also think about her developmental needs. For my particular child, if she has her screen for more than an hour or two a day, she’s going to have trouble sleeping, she’s going to have some tantrums when I take it away or if she can’t use it the next day. So we just try to implement age-appropriate limits, but we also keep in mind that the technology is a part of her world in a way that it wasn’t a part of ours.

Make it your own

Jessica: And are there any other ways that you’ve interpreted Montessori through this more modern lens, like what other ways have you kind of made it your own? 

Nikki: I think that the true Montessorians probably won’t like this, but I try to think of Montessori in the way that Dr. Montessori did it. She didn’t have the materials, the materials are something that are more modern, that’s something that we created as the practice evolved over time. So I am very much like, “Marley’s not getting a completely separate kitchen.” She’s going to use the kitchen in the house, we’re just going to make it accessible to her. So she has her little stool that she can climb on and so she’s using maybe a toaster oven, but we’re not having like the water dispenser on the play kitchen with all of that stuff as completely separate and independent. We don’t do, “You get your own whole space in the house,” it’s just that we make the other spaces in the house accessible to you.

Another thing, I try to incorporate some real life stuff that I don’t remember being taught into Marley’s world. So for example, we talk about investments. We have rental properties and we talk to her about what we’re doing with the rental properties, or you know, the rent’s coming in, “So come on Marley, let’s go online and see who paid rent.” And this is… We might take, for example, whatever the equivalent of the amount of rent is in her math materials and try to show her, “This is how much we’re getting this month for this place.” I think we try to make the practical life part of Montessori apply to all parts of life, if that makes sense. So everything that we’re doing, we’re doing it with her and she’s involved in it and it’s a part of her school day.

Learning with a sensory processing disorder

Jessica: I think Maria Montessori would have been really impressed. [laughter] You also mentioned, earlier in this episode, that your daughter has a sensory processing disorder, so how have you tailored her learning to support that difference? 

Nikki: We are still learning. Yeah, we are still learning. Things like, for example, she’s at the age… She’s four, so there typically, people will do lots of songs and music and things like that. She doesn’t like that. She can’t handle the noises and the kind of high-pitched sounds that come with some of the pre-school music, so we have a mostly quiet workday when we’re at school or work.

Another thing is cues for transition times. Sometimes there’ll be something audible for that or maybe the lights are changing. I can’t do that with Marley because the sudden disruption in her environment, whether it’s visual or auditory, that is very disruptive for her and it causes her a lot of stress and anxiety, so we don’t do those kind of things. Another one is, a big one, I think, for the Montessori folks, is touching. So typically, to get the child’s attention when you absolutely need to transition or you need to interrupt them, you might lightly tap them on the shoulder. We are big on consent and asking permission, and we know that for Marley, different types of touch can bother her and so I don’t touch her. I might just raise my hand in front of her and try to get her attention. So we really just try to give her whatever she’s telling us that she needs. Of course now, she has more words and she can express things a little better, so she can say, for example, “There’s a lawn mower outside. It’s too loud, I can’t concentrate.” And she’ll go get her noise-canceling headphones. It’s evolving, it’s an ever evolving process, I think, for us.

Bringing the Montessori method home

Jessica: So decluttering, it seems like these Montessori spaces are always so thoughtfully procured and displayed. And I know my home doesn’t look like that, but decluttering and kind of keeping the home environment actually more minimalist feels like a never-ending task. How do you fall on this? 

Nikki: I have… Marley has named it “The pack up room.” And that is the room where I keep all of her school supplies. They’re supposed to be organized and tidy and very Montessori-ish. They are not. They are literally just all over the floor, I’m having some piles, it’s not Instagram- worthy. Her classroom is, though. Her bedroom is. That’s also one of the things that I’ve had to let go. I can’t do all the things although I would like to. So we have certain areas that are always going to be perfectly clean. Kitchens and bathrooms, that’s the rule. At the end of the night we do what we can to tidy up the spaces.

Every now and then, of course, it gets out of hand, life happens. This is a perfect example, our dog was sick, I haven’t slept, she hadn’t slept, and so the house is, of course, quite a mess because we haven’t put anything up when we finished using it. And this morning, she says something like, “I don’t have any room to do my work, I don’t have any room to play. I can’t find this, I can’t find that, I can’t concentrate.” And so I use that as an example to say, “Well, maybe if we clean up and reset the room, you’ll be able to think clearly. Your space is a reflection of how you feel, let’s make it feel, or look the way you want to feel.” And we cleaned up and she’s like, “I have space now.” She’s laying in the middle of the floor with her arms and legs stretched out, and she’s like, “I can breathe and I can play.” And so it’s really just a teaching moment. I’m more focused on her learning how to live her life and how to have balance than I am with making sure it looks picture perfect all the time.

Jessica: And then can you walk me through… I’m so curious, what is the rhythm of a typical day for you, Nikki, that you work, educating Marley, where does your partner fit in? How does it all line up? 

Nikki: So my husband, he just can’t be really hands-on during the day, just because of the nature of his work. So it’s basically all me. He does come down for meal times with us. And we’ll have breakfast together. That’s a really big part for us. If we don’t eat together, and she doesn’t have us sitting at the table without my phone, without my laptop, then she’s… It’s like she’s kind of craving that physical connection throughout the day, and so I have to give her that time.

What we’ve done this summer is, we typically spend the morning outside, that’s when we go to the park or the zoo or whatever it is that we’re going to do, and then we come in for the afternoon and have our work cycle. So I’m really digging in with work and she’s doing her thing from the shelf. Typically, I will give her two presentations or two lessons a day, and they’re maybe not even five minutes each of me actually demonstrating something for her, and then the rest of the time, she’s just kinda working on her own and I’m observing, taking notes, and doing my own work.

At the end of the afternoon, usually around 3 o’clock, we stop the school and work for the day and we do our chores, so that would be our practical life time and that’s when we’re cleaning the bathrooms and the kitchen, getting the beds ready for night time, making sure that everything gets reset and ready for the next time we need it, and then we, we typically make dinner together and at 5 o’clock, until her bedtime, that’s family time. My husband comes downstairs, he’s done working, they hang out, I have some time to do a little bit of work by myself, and then we just go on with our night and start over the next day.

Jessica: What an inspiring environment you’ve created for Marley and your whole family. It’s gotta feel really good.

Nikki: Thank you. I should probably stop and take a minute to feel it, ‘cause honestly, I’m just typically running and trying to make sure all the parts are working together that I don’t really take time to see what we’re doing here, so thank you for saying that.

Jessica: I mean, I can’t help but be emotional right now because I saw your most recent Instagram post that you spent time living in a homeless shelter as a child. And so how does that experience inform this home life that you’ve created for Marley? 

Nikki: It is really the inspiration for everything… We were chronically homeless when I was a kid, and even until I was a young adult, I think the last time I experienced homelessness was my sophomore year of college, and so it’s still very fresh and very new for me to be on the other side of the poverty line. And it takes reminders for me that, a lot of reminders, that it would take a lot of really bad things happening for Marley to have those kind of experiences.

Yeah, it’s just making sure that she has a home that is nice and safe and pretty, like literally nice to look at, is something that’s really important to me, but it’s also something that’s challenging to me. For example, we moved into our new home, which is not new anymore, we moved here in 2018. We have yet to decorate anything other than Marley’s spaces, because it still feels so… It feels so new and it feels kind of scary to spend good money on nice furniture and things that, for me at least, have always been a privilege and a luxury, and it’s something that I want to do, it’s something that I’m still pushing through and struggling with. But I want her to have nice things in her space, I just have to figure out how to make myself comfortable with giving them to her.

Jessica: You are such an inspiration, Nikki, on so many levels. I’ve loved this conversation with you. Is there anything else that we’ve missed that you want to share? 

Nikki: I think… So what I hear a lot of from parents on social media is that they feel like they can’t do any Montessori at home because everybody has these nice fancy and materials that are really expensive. Or they don’t have the time, or they don’t know where to start. I just want people to feel like they can do it. You can absolutely DIY some materials or not, you don’t need Numberise to teach your kid how to count, you have fingers and toes and you have spoons in the drawer. You have things around the house that you can use.

Montessori is really about just allowing your child to be part of the environment in which your child lives in and living through that environment, and so if you’re the kind of parent that’s gotta take your kid to work with you, your kid can learn how to do what you’re doing and that counts as learning too, they’re… Zero to 6, they’re absorbing their environment, as long as you’re engaging with them, they’re learning something. I just really want people to feel empowered to, if they want to adopt this lifestyle that they can adopt it.

Jessica: Nikki. Yeah, thank you so much for all this encouragement. You’ve made this feel so accessible and possible for so many more of us through this episode. So it’s been such a pleasure getting to know you. Thank you so much.

Nikki: Thank you so much, I appreciate being here.

You can find Nikki Johnson on Instagram @cultured_montessorian. Learn more about Montessori teachings on Lovevery’s blog, Here with you.


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Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, 18 - 48 Months+, Real World Play, Montessori, Home Setup, Sensory Development, Child Development, Playtime & Activities, Parenting

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