Montessori at Home: Care of Animals

I’d like to present a mini-series of lessons or activities that are often available in a Montessori classroom that translate easily to the home environment.  These lesson and activities are from the curriculum area “Practical Life,” which is focused on Care of the Environment (meaning the classroom or the home) and Care of Self.  Maria Montessori observed that even young children could take care of their environment (the classroom) and themselves, if given simple lessons (step-by-step demonstrations presented by the teacher) and child-sized tools with which to accomplish the task.  Additionally, Dr. Montessori observed that while doing these activities, the children not only gain the skills directly related to each task, but they also gain independence, coordination, concentration and a sense of order.

Here are some examples in each category:  Care of the Environment includes: dish washing, dusting, sweeping, mopping, taking care of animals and plants in the environment, and table setting.  Care of Self includes: dressing and undressing and the isolation of the skills needed–e.g., buttoning and zipping, washing hands and face, brushing or combing hair, clipping nails, brushing teeth, and preparing and serving oneself a snack.

As you can see, this curriculum area is rich with activities that can be done at school and home.  To decide where to begin, the adult needs to consider the child’s interest:  what is the child showing you that he/she wants to do?  What activity is she always asking to join or mimics your actions?  Then the adult can think about the activity and what child-sized items/tools are needed, where to store these items for the child to gain access, and how to slow down one’s adult actions so that a child can see the steps.  Lastly, cultivate a friendly attitude towards messes, spills, and other “imperfect” attempts.  The child isn’t going perfectly execute an activity; she perfects her actions over time as she practices the skills again and again.   Most of the time, the process is more important to the child than the end result, and the process/practice is where the child gains  her/his sense of independence, capability, and confidence, and the sense of purpose or belonging when one makes a meaningful contribution to the classroom or home life.

Let’s start with the practice of taking animals in a classroom or home environment.  Children can be given the opportunity to provide food, water, and other items that an animal needs.  Here are a few examples:

Feeding Fish:  in my experience, the biggest challenge is to avoid overfeeding fish.  To facilitate the child giving a small enough portion, the adult may actively dispense the food into the child’s hand.  Another way would be to use a very small container that holds just a pinch of food.  The adult can fill this container daily and place in an area that is accessible to the child.  This second method gives the child a bit more independence and also gives the child who is eager to feed the fish multiple times per day, a gentle reminder when the activity has been done for the day (empty bowl=fish have already been fed).

Feeding dogs, cats, rabbits:  dry food can be scooped by child into animal’s bowl.  The size of the scoop can be selected to help the child give the correct portion.  The water bowl can be lifted to the sink and filled by the child, or the adult can provide a child-sized pitcher or cup for the child to take to the sink and fill, and then pour into the animal’s water bowl.  Animals like rabbits, also need hay; and the child can bring in a daily portion of hay that is retrieved from a larger storage container.

*Please Note:  Please use common sense.  To avoid contact with animal feces, young children should not take part in the cleanup of litter boxes, rabbit hutches, etc.

Finally, I would like to give an more specific example of dog feeding routine.  Please note, my goal in giving the details is to provide inspiration for thinking through the steps of the activity and then creating the process that works for the children and animals in your care.  As always, take what you need, and leave the rest.

The Set-up:

  • The dog food is stored in a large bin with a hinged lid.
  • The scoop (a plastic measuring cup) is stored inside the bin.
  • Dog bowls are stored on top of the bin.
  • Towel (to place on floor under bowls) is folded and stored on top of bin.

The Process:

Remove dog bowls and towel from bin lid.  Spread towel on floor.  Open bin lid.  Place bowls on floor or inside bin (varies depending on which child is doing this).  Use measuring cup to fill one bowl with two scoops and the other with three scoops. Close bin lid.  Carry bowls to sink.  Fill each bowl with enough water to float the dry kibble.  Carry bowls one at a time to towel where the dogs eat.  After the dogs eat, place towel and bowls back on top of closed bin.

In our home, as the children’s interests and abilities have evolved, this activity has been adjusted.  For example, when I first presented this activity at home, I pre-filled two small containers with dog food so that a two year old could simply dump one into each bowl.  I quickly realized that the child was more interested in scooping, so I coordinated the measuring cups with each dog’s food needs: “a big scoop for the big dog” and “a little scoop for the little dog.” We even used those phrases as a verbal cue, when needed.  Now the two year old is four, and he and his sister are interested in counting, so I exchanged the different sized measuring cups for a single smaller one; and now they count out two scoops for the small dog, and three for the larger dog.  The children have also needed help at other points, such as adding water to the dry kibble in the bowls.  Sometimes, they have asked for help from an adult at the sink; other times, they have chosen to use a stool to reach the faucet and independently completed the entire process.  I try to observe and wait before I jump in to help, and because of this, I have noticed that the children are often eager to give the dogs extra food (as an act of love for their dogs or as a result of really enjoying the action of scooping the dry kibble… or maybe some other motivation?)  Because of the health risks of constant overfeeding, I have to be aware of how much food is given to the dogs.  So I give the children the space to scoop (without hovering) but I pay attention to the amount in each bowl as it gets carried to the sink.  Then I can gently remind the child with something like this, “That’s too much food.  We want to help Pip stay healthy.  Let’s dump this out and scoop two scoops this time.”  Then we can go back to the bin together if they are reluctant, although most of the time, they are ok with re-doing the scoops.  Lastly, this activity is initiated independently some days, and other days, if I notice it’s undone, I simply ask the children, “Do you want to feed Sandy and Pip?” and at least one child will jump up to do so.  In conclusion, feeding the dogs twice every day has given our children the opportunity to count, scoop, plan, problem-solve, work together and independently, and has given them a tangible way to contribute to the well-being of our dogs and feel a sense of purpose and belonging in our family’s daily routines.  This is one way we “Montessori at home.”


Next post we’ll look at care of plants.  Thanks for reading!