Borrow this deceptively simple idea to transform your child’s play, attention—and thinking skills
Here’s what you see when kids start a new activity in many Montessori classrooms (it’s so simple you can easily miss it): They get out a special mat.
It’s as true for toddlers as early elementary students. They do it before they start into their block play or alphabet cards or a practical life skill activity—even before they choose which thing they’ll do.
Activity starts with a mat.
Sometimes called a “work mat,” “play placemat,” or “work rug,” it’s a clever tool that can be borrowed for use at home to get more bang from play and learning experiences.
It’s ideal for introducing new things to your child. Think how, when you play together, you’re often showing how something works, like how to stack blocks or make a new pop-up toy work—a kind of play called directed play.
The basic idea is simple: You put the play items on top of a mat that’s placed either on the table or the floor.
You can start this with babies as young as 6 months old, according to educator Jill Stamm, the cofounder of New Directions Institute for Infant Brain Development in Phoenix and the author of Bright From the Start: The Simple, Science-Backed Way to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind From Birth to Age 3.
What’s so great about a mat?
For a little thing, it packs a lot of subliminal punch. A work mat:
At the immediate level, a mat is a focal point. It signals to your child where and when to pay attention, Stamm says. Think of it as a concrete clue to the brain to attend to the activity—attention is the very foundation of all learning.
The attention system wires up naturally through all your child’s experiences, but this is an easy way to develop a routine for it: Mat = attention = something cool happens here.
Defines the “work” (play!) space—for more focusing power
In preschools, a child’s work mat is considered almost “sacred space” that’s his or hers alone to concentrate on. This also hones the ability to focus. (It’s how we grown-ups might think about our desks.) Also, nobody else gets to play there or, if it’s on the floor, step on it. If your child needs to get up to use the bathroom or take a snack break, she can leave the activity safely on the mat and return to it with the expectation that it won’t be disturbed.
Fosters interest and excitement about learning
Over time, when you introduce a mat to your child, you’re building an association: When that placemat comes out, something interesting is going to happen. This also helps your child link learning with fun, both because the activity is new and interesting but also because you’re doing it together!
In Montessori, the activity starts and ends with the mat. After the child is done, it’s her responsibility to put the toys or materials away—and then put away the mat, like a period at the end of the sentence. She learns to take ownership of the mat.
(All that learning to roll and unroll the mats is also good for developing motor skills, by the way.)
Here’s how you can use a mat at home:
- Set out a special, solid placemat that you’ll use just for this purpose. Place it on the floor or table, without drawing any attention to it.
- Put the activity or toy on the placemat. Show how to do something. Say, “Watch.” Then stack the stacking cups. Scribble on paper with chalk. Or roll out the play dough and press a cooky cutter into it—whatever the activity you’re introducing is. Then say, “Now you try!” or, “Now it’s your turn!”
- Use the mat every time. It becomes a learning cue.
- You can use a mat on a table or on the floor. If on the floor, walk around it, not on it. That emphasizes that the mat is for the work. And everything stays on the mat.
- When you’re showing your child how to do an activity on the mat, keep it fun. Go slowly, so your toddler can follow you, and be enthusiastic. That also builds that subliminal link: learning = fun!
- As your child gets older, when the activity is over, show how to clean it up and put it away.
In many preschools, the activities are each stored in their own baskets, buckets, or trays on a shelf. You can also borrow that idea at home as a way to cut down on playroom toy-explosion chaos. What helps: Having a limited number of playthings available at a time.
Almost any kind of mat will do.
You don’t need to buy anything fancy. You probably have a placemat in a drawer somewhere. A solid mat works better than one printed with ABCs, patterns, or characters because it’s not distracting. But it can be made out of any material and can range in size from table placemat size to about double that or more. Ideally, it’s one that’s different from those you use at the table—a different color, say—so it has a special purpose.
(Note: these placemats for play are different from the “Montessori placemats” with outlines of dishes and utensils that a search engine will turn up; those are for eating and table-setting. This is for play activities.)
Other things parents use:
- A shallow tray, like a cafeteria tray
- A solid carpet square (with a flat surface) or a small lightweight rug
- A cut-up yoga mat
- A piece of heavy felt
You don’t need to use a placemat when you want your child to play alone. But teachers say kids often wind up using them for this purpose at home on their own.
Before long, you might find your child bringing out the placemat as a signal that she wants to play with you.
—Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the Start; The Happiest Toddler on the Block; Like Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.