Making Montessori Materials at Home. What Makes an Activity "Montessori"?

Read this before you make any more "Montessori-inspired" activities for your toddler or preschooler.

It's important to be able to assess "Montessori-inspired" activity ideas critically so that you can focus your time, money and energy on activities that will meet the needs of your developing child. 

Let's look at the specific properties of Montessori materials so that you can simplify Montessori at home by filtering activity ideas.

Montessori activities involve the senses and movement.

Montessori materials appeal to a child’s senses because the brain develops via information coming in through the senses.

Neuroscience confirms that humans build intellect based on information received through the senses. Every sensory experience leaves an imprint on the brain. The most used neural connections become strengthened.

The Montessori sensorial materials are specifically designed to help children refine their sensorial perceptions. The activities involve perceiving information, comparing and contrasting, and making judgements so your child understands abstract concepts like colour, size, shape, texture, temperature, weight, taste, pitch and volume.

All Montessori activities also require motor activity because the nervous system completes itself through movement. Repetition of movement builds neural pathways in the brain. 

The Montessori practical life activities focus on fine and gross motor development, hand-eye coordination and strengthening the hand, wrist and arm. Your child gets to make movements and see something happen, such as transferring water from one jug to another. This is very attractive to young children because they have an inner need to control and coordinate their muscles and mind.  

Even the Montessori language and math materials are very sensorial and require movement. Tracing the sandpaper letters and numerals uses the sense of touch to help your child develop muscular and visual memory of the symbols. Concrete items, such as tiny objects to represent words or number rods to represent quantity, are used to help your child absorb abstract concepts. 

Think about how your child needs to learn by interacting with the environment using the senses and movement.

Montessori-inspired ipad apps and worksheets just can't compare with using sensory-rich Montessori materials that your child can manipulate with his or her hands. 

Montessori activities are culturally relevant.

During the first six years, children are in the process of adaptation. This is a slow and unconscious process of creating themselves to be able to survive and thrive in the cultural and ecological surroundings specific to where they live. Children need to figure out how the world works because nobody is born with this knowledge. 

Some "Montessori-inspired" practical life activities you'll see on Pinterest don't make sense because they use tools in a way that we don't normally use them.

Let's look at a few examples:  

  • using a garlic press to squeeze a sponge
  • grating soap or wine corks
  • using chopsticks to transfer cotton balls from one dish to another
  • hammering golf tees into a pumpkin
  • using a toothbrush to clean or polish an item
  • using a spoon to transfer marbles from a dish to another container
  • using tweezers to pick up plastic insects
  • using a salad spinner to remove water from sponges
  • inserting toothpicks into a container with holes in the lid
  • using a spatula to flip beanbags 

It's true that all of these activities will facilitate fine motor development, hand-eye coordination, and strengthen the hand and wrist for writing.

But they also can be an obstacle to adaptation because we squeeze a sponge with our hand, we use a grater to shred cheese or carrots, we spin lettuce in a salad spinner to remove excess water, we hammer nails into wood, and we use a toothbrush to clean our teeth. 

It's so much better to make time to include your child in everyday tasks with a real purpose, such as food preparation and cleaning the home using child-size tools.

Not only will your child develop fine and gross motor skills, but he or she will also figure out how the world works in terms of activities of daily living.

All humans worldwide do practical life activities, but the specific way the tasks are done and the tools used are culturally dependent.

Tools need to be used in the way you actually use them in your culture to facilitate your child's process of adaptation.

Montessori activities are self-correcting.

Self-correcting means that the activity is designed so that your child notices and corrects any mistakes independently.

The control of error is mechanical when a piece of the material will not work if it's not in the right order, such as when a thicker cylinder will not fit into a thinner hole in one of the cylinder blocks.

The control of error is within the child when your child’s sense of order is disturbed and the child notices something doesn't feel right, look right or sound right and so he or she fixes it.

During the presentation of a material, you can highlight points of interest that, if your child notices them, will help him or her be more successful with the activity. Having bowls touching each other side by side and cupping a hand under a wet sponge will result in less water spilled. Aligning the red rods to the left will help your child see the differences in length so he or she can put them in the right order. 

Self-correcting materials build self-confidence because your child has to think and judge if he or she is correct or mistaken without relying on someone else to say so.  

Self-correcting materials also help your child become a better observer. When building the roman arch or a puzzle map, visual discrimination of shape and size stops when another person says where to put the next piece, and your child doesn't get to refine sensorial perception and experience the pleasure of solving the challenge.

Montessori activities isolate a concept or skill.

Some Montessori activities focus on one step of a more complex task. Squeezing water out of a sponge is one step of washing a table.

Similarly, sound games isolate the individual sounds of the alphabet letters to prepare your child for writing and reading. 

Mathematics knowledge is also scaffolded. A solid understanding of the numbers to 10 is the foundation for the rest of mathematics.

Other Montessori activities isolate an abstract concept such as the qualities we use to describe things (shape, size, color, taste, volume and pitch, texture, temperature) and allow your child to explore the concept using the most appropriate sense.

The pink tower isolates size. The cubes are the same shape, colour, texture, etc so that your child can focus on discriminating differences in size using the visual sense.

Similarly, the tasting bottles are all exactly the same except for taste so that your child must rely only on the gustatory sense to match the bottles according to his or her perception of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. 

Montessori activities are child-size.

Montessori activities and their parts are physically proportionate to your child so he or she can easily work with them independently.

  • Activity trays must not be too heavy or awkward for your child to carry.
  • The short version of a screwdriver is easier for your child to handle than the regular size.
  • Cloths and sponges should fit in your child's small hand.
  • Jugs and buckets must not be too heavy for your child to lift and carry when they are full of water.
  • Aprons with a velcro closure are great for young children who do not yet have the fine motor skills to tie a bow.
Montessori Infographic - Read before making "Montessori-inspired" activities for your toddler or preschooler!

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Lisa. I'm an AMI-trained Montessori teacher. I help parents of toddlers and preschoolers get started with Montessori at home. Get my latest articles via the blog RSS feed. Connect with me on Pinterest and Instagram