When I had my first child, I lovingly chose a baby mobile to place above her cot. If I’m honest, I didn’t think about anything other than aesthetics and whether it would match the nursery decoration I had planned. I had vaguely hoped it would help her fall asleep, but I really didn’t think too much about it.
Since then, and after spending many hours learning and researching, I’ve come to realise how important mobiles can be for a baby’s early development. Before that, I’d only ever thought about using a mobile as a sleep aid when actually, I now know they’re fantastic to use when the baby is awake and alert too.
Fans of the ‘Montessori way’ will likely have seen or heard of the use of baby mobiles to support the development of very young children (birth to around six months). If you’re not familiar with this approach, I will do my best to explain the main principles as succinctly as I can. Bear in mind that there have been books upon books written about Montessori principles, my guide here is simply a whistle-stop tour!
What do people mean when they use the word Montessori?
Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was an Italian physician and educator who became known as a pioneer in early childhood education. Her scientific approach to educating children meant she spent many years carefully observing and experimenting to develop her practice and find out which teaching methods worked best for her pupils. Her theories, still popular today, differed to others at the time, as she suggested the way to teach children was not to instruct them but to observe and guide them based on their interests. This was revolutionary at a time when teaching new skills by rote was commonplace.
She believed that children learn more successfully if the adult provides a learning environment that encourages them to discover, explore and absorb information for themselves. The idea that children have to experience and take ownership of their learning meant her classrooms became places that cultivated independence, enjoyment and active learning. Maria’s background in medicine meant that her teaching practices were heavily influenced by the science behind child development. Her philosophies have undoubtedly changed the way young children are taught. Whether or not you prescribe to ‘the Montessori way’, there are many characteristics of her work that are now considered to be good practice in mainstream education. That was a VERY BRIEF introduction to the works of Maria Montessori. As I said earlier, there are hundreds of books written about her theories so please take that overview as just that! It’s intended only to give some context for those of you who have not heard of her or haven’t known what people mean when they use the word Montessori.
But how does this relate to baby mobiles?
Well, we know that when babies are born their eyesight is their least developed sense. To begin with, their range of vision allows them to see just 20-25 cm (8 -10 inches) from their face and their ability to focus, track and coordinate their eyes is learned just like everything else. So, a mobile is one resource that enables babies to hone these skills.
During the first few months of life, a baby’s vision changes in terms of focus, colour, movement and distance. One way to nurture this progress, according to the Montessori approach, is to provide an environment in which a baby may learn. It should be “arranged by an adult…rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.” Dr Maria Montessori.
For this reason, rather than have one baby mobile, the Montessori way would be to introduce a baby to a new mobile design at different stages according to their interests and developmental needs. Each one has its own characteristics, based on the science of child development, to support the baby in their discovery and understanding of the world around them.
So one baby would have several different mobiles to look at?
Yes and no. A baby would indeed have multiple mobiles to engage with but they would not all be hung at once. They would work through them as they grew from a newborn until around six months. There are two sets of mobiles – the visual mobiles and the tactile mobiles. The visual mobiles (pictured above) are used from birth until around three months and are designed to be used by babies in the first three(ish) months of life. As the name suggests they work to support the development of the baby’s vision. The tactile mobiles come afterwards from around three months when the child is learning to explore their limbs and wants to reach, grab and interact more physically with each mobile. An overview of the visual mobiles (available to buy through my website here)
As I’ve already mentioned, each mobile has a specific purpose which, when introduced to a child’s environment will support the development of certain skills. I’ll run through a summary of the visual mobiles below – these are all available in the shop, either individually or as a multipack purchase.
The first mobile in the visual series is the Munari, named after the Italian designer Bruno Munari. Its lightweight design, deliberately uncomplicated in concept, does not overstimulate a newborn baby with flashing lights and loud noises, but will instead move very gently in the breeze of a room.
Usually introduced when the baby is around two weeks old, it is intended to be hung above a baby’s playmat at a height of around 25 cm (10 inches) so that the baby can use it to strengthen their eye muscles as they focus on its shape, colour, movement and design.
As newborn babies see the world predominantly in black, white and grey to begin with, this first mobile is made from a series of simple, high-contrast black and white two-dimensional shapes and a clear plastic (or glass) sphere to reflect the light. It’s not uncommon for babies of this age to spend several minutes gazing independently at the hanging mobile, likewise, you may find the baby chooses to look elsewhere or may even fall asleep while underneath it. Following the cues of the child and allowing them the opportunity to choose what they do is one of the fundamental philosophies of the Montessori approach.
The second mobile is called the Octahedron. It is made up of three eight-sided, three-dimensional shapes. The eight faces of an octahedron are all identically sized equilateral triangles. Four point skywards and four face down towards the floor. The angular shapes, folds and proportions are thought to subconsciously introduce babies to mathematical concepts.
The models are made from glittery or shiny cardboard in the primary colours (red, blue and yellow/gold) because, as babies’ eyesight develops, research has shown that these colours offer the greatest contrast to one another and therefore babies prefer to look at them.
This mobile is usually introduced at around six weeks old. The 3D shapes hang at different heights from a single straight dowel to encourage the baby to use both eyes together to track the mobiles’ movements as they sway gently. Although often introduced at six weeks, the baby will likely show more and more interest in the colours and shapes as their vision matures so it is perfectly possible to reuse the mobile even after another has been introduced.
The third design is called the Gobbi Mobile. It consists of five, thread covered balls in shades of one colour. Its purpose is to introduce the child to a graduated colour change. The spheres hang in a diagonal line so that the baby can not only identify and track the changes from one ball to the next but also develop the coordination and strength in their eye muscles to adjust their focal length as they look from the closest ball to the farthest and back again. This mobile is usually introduced between seven to ten weeks of age when the baby’s interest in the Octahedron mobile is starting to fade. Whilst the Montessori mobiles were designed to support the development at specific stages, it’s always important to follow the interests of the child. Every baby is unique and so, whilst I have shared the typical ages that each mobile is introduced, don’t feel as though you must stick rigidly to this structure – if your child is still showing interest in one over the next then respect their wishes and stay with the current mobile for a little while longer.
It’s also completely normal to find that there are times when your baby appears transfixed by a particular mobile, concentrating on it for several minutes and other times when your baby appears disinterested in it altogether. I wouldn’t replace a particular mobile after just one unsuccessful play session, use your judgement as to when you feel your child is ready for the next and don’t forget you can always switch back again if you think your baby would enjoy it.
Fourth in the visual mobile series is called The Dancer. So-called because it is made up of several curved shapes that when viewed together look like four stylised figures dancing in the natural air circulation of the room. Each piece is made from thick metallic, holographic paper so that the light catches and reflects off the sparkly surface as they twist and turn. They hang at different heights from a central ring so that the baby can switch its gaze between objects viewed at different depths. This mobile also encourages the baby to focus and track the dancers as they sway. This skill uses both eyes together and strengthens the muscles of the eyes and neck. The colour contrasts, shape and reflection of the light all work together to attract attention and encourage the baby to concentrate and maintain their focus.
The Rainbow The fifth mobile in the series is called the Rainbow mobile or the Rainbow Wings mobile. Its colourful felt pieces decrease in size and are hung vertically over the baby’s chest so that the child may choose to look up at it or elsewhere in the room. It is very lightweight and so, like the others, will spin and turn with very little air circulation. As bright colours are now becoming clearer and clearer for baby’s eyesight, they will now enjoy the spectacle of this mobile twisting and turning above them. It is typically introduced after the Dancer mobile until around three months of age when the baby is ready to start trying to reach and grab for the mobiles. At this time, the baby’s visual skills have developed well and it is now time to bring in the tactile mobiles to focus on motor skill development, strength and coordination.
The Tactile Mobiles
The tactile mobile series includes a bell on a ribbon, a ring on a ribbon, a grab toy, a bell chime and a ribbon mobile. They encourage the child to learn cause and effect, hand-eye coordination and motor skills as they learn to control their arm and leg movements. These are currently not available through my website but I hope to add these soon.
So there’s more to mobiles than a pretty design!
I hope that goes some way to explain the philosophies behind the Montessori inspired mobiles listed on the website. Whether or not you choose to follow a Montessori approach to parenting, I hope, like me, you found the idea of using mobiles as a learning tool interesting. They are definitely a resource I would use with my children if I could wind back the clock! If you’d like to find out more about each of the visual mobiles described here or would like to order them for your child or as a gift, click here to be redirected to the shop. They are available individually or as a money-saving group purchase.