Montessori parenting: ideas for the child who likes to throw!

One of the most common questions in my Gentle Discipline course is this one:

“How do you stop a child from throwing food from his highchair?”

Throwing is a powerful need for young toddlers.

Toddlers are like little scientists. They experiment, they observe the results, and they repeat.

Respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and try to understand them. Maria Montessori

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Young children don’t yet have the ability to manipulate you. They don’t do things on purpose to annoy you even if their “experiments” can be annoying/upsetting.

The highchair scenario is so frequent in toddlers that there is even a specific toy that you can attach to the high chair so they can throw it and it bounces back. 

Throwing is super fun for a toddler. They observe the food smashing down on the floor. Some make noise, some bounce, some change when they reach the floor. The child experiments: he can drop the food, or he can throw very hard.

Not only does your child like to throw food, cups, cutlery and toys from his highchair, but he probably also likes to throw any kind of toy or object when he plays with it. And I bet that he loves all sorts of balls!

Throwing requires maximum effort.

Maria Montessori observed that children, soon after they have learned to walk, have a strong need to exert their strength. They want to do hard and heavy work. Throwing is one of those maximum effort works. Other typical examples are: carrying heavy objects (such as bottles of water), helping with your shopping, pushing heavy boxes, emptying the washing machine and so on.

In the 1946 London lectures, she said:

"The must be able to do things which require a great effort. They need big, heavy, things."
"The greater the effort, the greater the child's pleasure and the worse any interruption"
"Children make a great effort to conquer the environment. They do as much as they can as soon as they can. They apply a maximum effort."

Throwing is also part of what is called the “trajectory schema.”

A schema is a “pattern of play.” It is a repetitive behaviour. By repeating some actions, your child explores some of his environment's characteristics. In a case of the trajectory schema, he explores lines and direction.

Throwing, jumping, and running are typical of that schema. Posting objects is also characteristic of that schema. Children in that schema have an interest in how they create movement with their bodies.

So, your child is not naughty when he throws from his highchair. But it’s normal if you don’t want him to throw at others or to break objects or waste food.

You can set up some boundaries and teach your child other ways to nurture their vital need.

For the highchair scenario, here is what I would do:

While showing and collecting the food on the floor, I would say, “I see that you are throwing the food on the floor, you are having fun.” Showing the food still on the plate, I would say, “the food is for eating, do you still want to eat?”. Invite your child to eat some more. If he still wants to eat and starts to eat more, I would reinforce the “appropriate” action by saying, “We eat the food and we keep it on the table.” As soon as he starts to throw again, I would give an alternative saying, “I see that you still want to throw, shall we leave the highchair and throw some balls around in the garden?”.

The key is to be prepared. You must have some alternatives for your child.

You must be OK with ending the meal. The need to throw might be so strong that your child will eat less of his meals (and maybe drink more milk or eat more snacks for a few days).

Of course, your child might throw food for other reasons, but for this blog post, I am going to focus only on maximum effort and the trajectory schema.

Redirecting your child towards appropriate activities is the best way to handle those inconvenient needs.

But you must do it immediately. This is the key. To be effective, the redirection needs to be immediate.

The more you give appropriate opportunities to throw, the less your child will need to throw other things.

So here are some ideas for a child who likes to throw:

  • Baskets of balls of different sizes available to throw at any time (have soft ones for inside the house).
  • Light-up balls (as the child will have to tap them hard on the floor to make them light up).
  • Games with bean bags and a target.
  • Cut holes in a large cardboard box and give your child a set of small plastic balls to push through.
  • Go out in the garden and play catch or football.
  • Outside, you can show how to bounce a tennis ball against a wall.
  • Climb on play equipment and throw some soft balls from up there.
  • Throw coloured balls, bean bags, or anything small and light enough to not hurt in corresponding coloured containers.
  • Count the items as your child throw them.
  • If you are OK with it, throw a soft ball from up the stairs.
  • Have a track balls toy.
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  • Build a ramp with cardboard tubes and let your child rolls balls in it.
  • Teach how to roll a ball between you and your child, show the difference between throwing and rolling.
  • If you have access to water features, let them throw stones and sticks in the water.
  • If you have a dog, let them throw a ball or a stick for a fetch game (under your close supervision of course).
  • In parallel, provide many opportunities to exert “maximum effort”:

  • Empty the laundry basket in the washing machine.
  • Push sibling who is sitting in an empty laundry basket or box around.
  • Transfer the wet laundry to the dryer.
  • Help carry and empty the shopping.
  • Give them a large bottle of water to carry.
  • Provide a trolley or wheelbarrow to push (filled with heavy toys).
  • Let your child move all your cans of food from one cupboard to the other.
  • Show your child how to water plants (the watering can be heavy when full).
  • Let your child carry large objects (let him bring the loaf of bread to the table for example).
  • Give them a small stool that they can move from one place to another as needed.
  • Give them a backpack that they can fill and carry.
  • Playing catch with a super large ball.
  • Let them bring the jug of water to the table to pour their drink.
  • Let them empty the wastepaper bin into the recycling bin.
  • Allow them the opportunity to climb.
  • Let them walk for long periods without any goal in mind.
  • Make an obstacle course inside the house.
  • If you have a sandpit or access to gravel/stone or soil in the garden, give them buckets to fill and dump. A dump truck is also super fun for that.
  • I hope these ideas will  prove useful.

    Let me know, does your toddler like to throw? How do you make it work for your family? 

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    About the Author Carine Robin

    Carine Robin has a Master’s Degree in Psychology, specialising in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006. It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew and she qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a preschool. Carine has been running a Montessori based parents and toddler group and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 14000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world. In 2018, Carine realised families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.

  • Bethany Woodford says:

    Thank you for this article!!! My 3 year old has both a language and sensory disorder and throwing has gotten out of control. Not only did this article give me alternative options for him, it gave me a huge insight into WHY he’s doing it. I feel like I can come from a much more informed position now in first understanding him and then helping him. Thank you!!

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