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Ahhh Montessori. What comes to mind when you hear the word?
Playrooms that look more staged than inhabitable?
Expensive wooden toys?
A whimsical way of teaching?
Although I am no expert on Montessori education, I have spent a significant amount of time learning about the philosophy. The more that I learn, the more that I realize Montessori is so much more than beautiful, calming spaces and expensive, natural toys. Montessori teachers are meticulous. The environments they create for children are thoughtfully and purposefully curated. They prepare and adjust based off of observation and are devoted to giving children the space and time to practice skills to mastery. Montessori is more focused on reaching milestones as a child is ready—not pushing or limiting based off of a scope and sequence. Montessori educators spend more time preparing a learning environment and modeling new skills than actively teaching step by step. It aims to develop independent, confident, and capable learners, and uses natural objects to steward earthly resources, encourage creativity, and to promote active, not passive, learning.
I remember the first time I visited a Montessori classroom while in college. The classroom environment FELT different. Montessori classrooms appeal to not one but all of the five senses.
See – It was as if entering a room designed for little garden fairies. Everything was small and designed to be seen from a child’s eye-level. Calming colors, dimmed lights, sensory tables, minimal decor, natural objects. Everything was appealing to both children and adults alike.
Feel – I walked around and felt carefully carved wooden toys, soft kinetic sand, cozy reading chairs, crunchy leaves, pencils made out of rough tree bark… every item was beautiful and placed intentionally.
Taste – Children were using real drinking glasses. Some effortlessly, some slightly wobbly—always paying special attention not to spill their cool water. They were serving their own snacks and had the option to choose what they wanted.
Smell – I used to teach first grade, and no matter how hard I tried… my classroom didn’t smell good for long. But this classroom smelled like a mixture of lemon, clove, orange, and cinnamon. It was inviting and warm and smelled something like Christmas.
Hear – Collaboration and respect. Montessori classrooms often have children of different ages in one classroom. I heard older children helping younger children. I heard kids excited to learn and teachers talking to them with respect and care.
Since visiting that classroom, I have been so intrigued by the Montessori philosophy of education. I tried to incorporate many of these aspects into my own classroom; however, I found that it is fairly challenging to truly teach using Montessori principles in a typical public school classroom.
Now that I am a mother myself, I have been incorporating Montessori into our daily lives from the time that Lincoln was born. It honestly has been difficult to truly incorporate these methods during a big transition when we are remodeling and still not very organized–but I believe we will eventually find a system that works for us and will make the most of this in-between time. The book The Montessori Toddler has been so helpful in providing ideas for how to use Montessori on a daily basis. It doesn’t have to be expensive or implemented using fancy toys. You can just use daily items you have around your house that won’t cost a thing! Here are five ideas for how you can get started with Montessori with items you might already have or that are fairly inexpensive and easy to find. If you don’t have the items listed below, you can use something similar, check local thrift shops and garage sales, or shop the links below!
1. Self-Serve Get Ready Station
Carson and I have a few peg rails in our house that we use for coats, cleaning supplies, and our dog’s leash because of the lack of closet space in our home. The Montessori Toddler book talks about how toddlers want to be independent and that they are capable of so much more than we think they are if we just give them time to practice, practice, practice! Lincoln has recently shown an interest in putting on his own shoes and trying to get dressed himself. We have a peg rail at his height with his rain jacket, child-sized cleaning supplies, and a mat with his shoes below. The book also recommends putting a mirror at your child’s height, but we haven’t done this quite yet! When learning a new skill such as putting on shoes, model for your child with few verbal instructions and then get out of the way. They won’t get it the first time or even the first few hundred times, but this space is important when developing important skills and a growth mindset.
2. Child-Sized Cleaning Supplies
Lincoln loves to make messes but he also loves to help me clean! I am planning on investing in a child-sized broom and dust pan, but for now, he loves to help me dust and clean up with a rag. We talk about the importance of taking care of what we have. It’s okay to make messes, but it is also important to take responsibility in cleaning them up.
3. Real Drinking Glasses
In Montessori classrooms, children often use regular, glass drinking cups. Scary, right? The thought is that if they drop the cup once and it breaks, they are less likely to ever drop it again. We have done this with Lincoln since he was a little over a year—only using breakable items under careful supervision. This is something that I recommend you do your own research on and decide if using breakable items, with supervision, is something that you are comfortable with. If not, the same principle applies using regular cups that are not breakable like these eco-friendly, biodegradable ones. Spills are inevitable, so only fill the cups with as much liquid as you are willing to clean up with your toddlers help!
4. Limited, Carefully-Chosen Toys
This is both for the parent and child’s sake. I get overwhelmed very easily when there are toys everywhere, and honestly I think it can be very overstimulating for some children. Before we moved, we had a shelf set up with 8-10 toys on display. These toys were carefully chosen based off of skills that Lincoln was in the process of mastering. I’ll share more examples of these toys in future posts, but you can always use what you already have at home! When my life was a little less chaotic than it is at the moment, we would switch out the toys on a weekly basis. Right now, I’m still figuring out how to organize his toys that are not being used in the weekly rotation, so once I figure out a better system, I’ll update you with what is working for our family.
5. Sensory Items
Sensory play is so important for toddlers not only for kinesthetic learning but also for vocabulary development. A few inexpensive ideas include sensory trays with water or whipped cream and plastic toys, making play dough, or going for a nature walk and sorting what you find. While allowing your toddler to explore, use descriptive vocabulary to describe what the sensory items look like, how they feel, what they taste like (if applicable), what they sound like, and how they smell.
Although I find value in so many Montessori principles, I strongly believe that some skills, such as phonics, should be explicitly taught. Reading is not a natural skill for our brains to learn. Yes, some children can learn to read without direct instruction; however, that is not the case for many children and the English language has so many spelling exceptions and rules that need to be directly taught. After receiving extensive phonics training and teaching phonics on both a classroom and individual tutoring level, I believe in its value and will be teaching my son using these methods—even if it doesn’t quite align with the Montessori approach. Personally, I believe that there is not one perfect model for education and there is immense value in pulling from a variety of resources to meet the needs of individual children. However, I do strongly believe in many Montessori principles—especially in regard to raising independent, capable, and confident toddlers.