Montessori Inspired Toddler Discovery: California

My husband, Brian, and I are slowly visiting all 50 states together.  We had a blast in Maine last summer, so we were excited to squeeze in a trip to California before baby #2’s arrival in June.  We visited the San Diego Zoo, cooled our toes in the Pacific ocean, hopped on a boat for a whale watching excursion, hiked to scenic lookout points, and got to know this beautiful state.

While our trip to Maine opened my eyes to how Eli saw the world and how the world was beginning to see Eli, this trip ended up being a lovely examination of how we choose to parent Eli.  Grandparents were with us on this trip, and although they see Eli and how we parent often, living just an 8 minute drive away, there’s nothing like spending a solid week with a toddler and his parents (all out of their comfort zone) to really see the ins and outs of their choices and priorities.  Here are a few blindingly-clear-after-spending-a-week-with-us parenting choices we’ve made in regards to raising Eli:

Eli’s voice matters, and we’re not afraid of it. We welcome Eli’s opinion on what and when to eat, where to go and what to see next, and any other thought he has.  We never ignore his questions or desire to converse, which is pretty much all of his waking hours.  Ha!  And, we’re not afraid of his disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, or excitement, which all tend to be expressed at a non-”inside voice” volume.  At two years old, meltdowns are an age-appropriate way to communicate the big feeling these little humans have.  So, yes, that would be us crouching down next to our screaming child on the floor, speaking softly and acknowledging his big feelings, and not asking him to be quiet or to stop, and waiting for the moment when he feels heard and is ready to be comforted, which is exclusively how Eli transitions out of a meltdown these days.

We move at toddler pace.  Since Eli was a newborn, we’ve tried to protect his focus.  We wait until he is finished looking or working before speaking and moving on as much as possible.  This concept has taken practice on our part, for sure, and I know family members aren’t always used to this “toddler pace,” especially when out and about at places like the zoo.  Eli, our little lover of animals, can spend an incredible amount of time at one exhibit, and this was definitely the case when we visited the San Diego Zoo on this trip. There was a lot of “look over here, Eli” and “let’s look at something else now, Eli” from well-meaning grandparents, and my husband and I having to step in and say, “Eli, you can stay and watch as long as you’d like.” I know there is so much to see. I get it. But, isn’t a new two year old standing and watching one parrot eat a grape for ten minutes or patiently waiting for a sleeping alligator to open his eyes or move his foot despite all the other children and adults giving up after a moment even more important and beautiful than seeing everything? We think so. It is some of the greatest lessons Eli has taught us: slow down and enjoy the journey; take a moment or two or three and really see.

We provide freedom within limits.  Oh, the toddler’s discovery of the will and independence! Like with anything child related, we work hard to embrace Eli for where he is in his life journey, so we know and embrace his need to be independent.  At home in a constant prepared environment, that’s easy.  On vacation where expectations are new and change quickly, that’s a bit more challenging.  For me, it’s a lot easier when I’m focused on two tasks: trusting and observing.  For example, there was a lot of walking on this trip: city sidewalk walking, busy airport walking, crowded museum and aquarium walking, etc.  It was unreasonable to expect an active two year old to be contained during every walk, so he was often given two of the following choices based on the level of necessary safety: ride in stroller, carried by adult, walk holding an adult’s hand, or walk independently by our side.  We looked for every possible opportunity for him to walk by our sides independently.  We clearly stated the expectation, and then we trusted him to follow our instructions.  Yes, this meant walking independently in a busy airport or at a crowded aquarium.  It meant Eli learning how to maneuver in a crowd and to listen to our voices despite the noise of others when we needed to give directions such as “we’re turning right” or “let’s pause and let this large group pass.”  And at two years and two months old, he was capable of doing this.  He enjoyed the freedom and respected the boundary of staying close by, and it made the times when stricter limits had to be set, such as when walking down a city sidewalk or in a parking lot, so much easier. To be honest, it seemed our trust of Eli freaked his grandparents out a bit.  Ha!  But, I was in constant observation of Eli, noting especially when he was starting to struggle with the boundaries, exclusively due to hunger or exhaustion.  At that point, he welcomed a couple more options, which often resulted in resting a bit in the stroller with a snack.

We guide, not correct.  This is most commonly witnessed through our lack of “reactions” and our pausing to provide simple explanations to Eli.  While at the San Diego Zoo, we came across an invitation for children to crawl through and explore a manmade polar bear den. Although this invitation looked like a grand opportunity to also climb, a sign read, “For your own safety, please do not climb.”  Well, after about five minutes of watching other children climb on top of the dens and given Eli has been an efficient climber since before he could walk, Eli dead-weight pulled himself onto the top of the dens.  Instead of yelling “no” or grabbing him off the top, I calmly walked over (he was in no immediate danger) and explained the sign read that the den was not for climbing.  I asked him if he would like to climb down himself or if he wanted my assistance.  He asked for some assistance, and down and back inside the den he went.  But, of course, he is a toddler, and toddlers like to test boundaries, so up he climbed again, and we repeated this moment a couple of times until he settled into the fact the boundary was solid, not an easy conclusion as he continued to watch other children climb.  These moments in parenting are not easy.  In fact, they are exhausting, especially when you so empathize with your child.  The den did look like a really fun thing to climb, and I was slightly annoyed myself that something so low to the ground and intended for children was then restricted in a major way, and I’m an adult.  I could only imagine what Eli was thinking and his confusion and frustration over the unexpected boundaries being put into place.

Although I knew we wouldn’t have much downtime while on this trip, I wanted to create work connected to California that Eli could choose while on the airplane or in the hotel (and continue to use once back home).  I decided to place them in clear ziploc bags for easy, organized transportation and also a way for Eli to easily identify what work was in each bag.  I’ll definitely use clear bags in the future while traveling; it was so easy to line them up on a shelf in the hotel room for Eli to peruse and choose.  Here’s Eli’s California-inspired, easy-to-travel-with work:

Landmark matching cards: Hollywood Sign, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Balboa Park, and California State Capitol.  Eli’s been enjoying playing Memory with his matching cards lately, so I created a set of matching landmark cards to introduce Eli to the names of famous California locations.  This was a favorite to play with his daddy, especially when I was still getting ready in the morning, and they were sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for me.

California native animals language/matching: black bear, otter, dolphin, skunk, raccoon, beaver, squirrel, hawk, snake, coyote, and fox.  It’s hard to imagine visiting a location without bringing some animals along for the ride.  As usual, the animals were definitely a favorite.  A handful were new to Eli, so I presented a two period lesson to him on the airplane.  It wasn’t long before he was joyfully matching the large set of California native animals.  They were also popular for imaginative play during his hotel shower time.

California Gold Rush one-to-one correspondence and counting. Eli has been doing a lot of self-initiated counting lately.  Right before our trip, I watched him gather all his family figurines, pick them up one at a time, a count their feet: “one, two,” he point to each foot, over and over.  I thought he would enjoy an opportunity for some more counting and one-to-one correspondence.  I used the Gold Rush as inspiration and bought “gold” for him to count and match, creating a card with one, two, three, four, and five pieces of gold.  This work was a huge hit.

California fruit language cards: peaches, strawberries, grapes, oranges, plums, avocado, lemons, figs, and pomegranate. When I think of California, a few fruits come to mind. (Or is that just my pregnant hungry self?)  I pulled some commonly-grown-in-California fruits, some of which are new to Eli.  I gave Eli a two period lesson, and we also enjoyed finding fruits of a certain color: Can you find the fruit that is yellow?, etc.

Native Americans language figurines and cards.  I found this Safari TOOB, but just pulled out the Native Americans for this trip.  I also found black and white photographs to examine.  Eli enjoyed talking about the figurines and pictures and making his own connections between the two.

Books. What’s an airplane ride without a few books to keep you company?  Here’s what accompanied us to California:

Our California by Pam Munoz Ryan.


All Aboard California by Kevin and Haily Myers.


Hello Ocean by Pam Munoz Ryan.


A is for Acorn: A California Indian ABC by Analisa Tripp.


1 2 3 California: A Cool Counting Book by Puck.


We so enjoyed this trip, discovering a new place together as well as rediscovering the ins and outs of our family unit as seen through the eyes of others.  Our next state visit will be as a family of four.  Eek!  Can’t wait!


  1. Wow! This incredible! I loved your practical applications of parenting a child while traveling and also all the engaging work you created for him! Way to go, mama!

  2. Laura

    I really enjoyed reading how you parented Eli in every day situations and would love to read more about toddler limits and how you deal with boundary pushing. Sounds like you had a great trip.

  3. Lena

    What a wonderful trip!

    Lindsay, reading your posts always fills me with joy, the beauty of the materials, but mostly your loving, appreciative and respectful observation of your son’s steps, needs, interests.

    As a (non-Montessori) primary school teacher and (fingers crossed) soon to be mum, I’m loving every step of my independent journey into a Montessori view of childhood, and your blog has opened my eyes on so many things, so – thank you for sharing!

    All the best for the remaining month of your pregnancy. I’ll definitely stick around.

    • Lindsay

      Thank you for the kind and encouraging comment! I also started my Montessori journey while teaching in a traditional school (high school English). Montessori has truly been one of the greatest gifts to our little family.

      Fingers crossed and happy thoughts as you look towards motherhood!

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