The second most common question I get when I talk to friends and family about using Montessori in our home, after the question “What is Montessori?”, which is a topic for its own series of posts for sure, is about the activities themselves. They see our shelves when visiting (pre-COVID) or while on video chat and ask questions like “Why only wood toys?”, “Where are all his toys?”, “Why are there so few items?” “Doesn’t he get bored fast?” “When does he get time to be creative?” “Why is everything so strict?” “How come your playroom looks so different from what I know?”

I have summarized the answers to all of these questions and more into a multi-post series about what makes an activity Montessori. Notice I didn’t say toy! There are no Montessori toys. Maria Montessori herself developed specific materials for the classroom. She didn’t develop any toys. That being said, there are toys on the market that can be used for Montessori activities. I hope these different aspects in these posts will help you understand how to incorporate the toys you have into Montessori activities and aid in choosing future items for your home or making gift lists for holidays or birthdays.

Here’s a breakdown of the important qualities of Montessori activities.

Montessori activities:

  1. are child-led
  2. isolate concepts
  3. have a control of error
  4. are close-ended
  5. activate the senses
  6. are hands-on
  7. aid in independence
  8. foster concentration

Let’s break down the first quality in more detail:

Montessori activities are child-led
The activities offered on a shelf in your home should be child-led. This means choosing the activities based both on your child’s current interests as well as their developmental stage. This also means ignoring for the most part what you think your child should be doing right now. Yes, there are milestones that should be reached in a certain timeframe and you shouldn’t ignore anything that might indicate a need for medical or other therapeutic intervention. But some websites give parents the idea that all children know their colors by 2 or can hold a pen by 3. This just frankly isn’t the case. One child might know 100 different car types by age 3 and the next child doesn’t care about cars at all. One child might love puzzles (like my son) and do 48 piece puzzles before their 3rd birthday and another child might take more time developing that interest. There is no pressure to offer a healthy, normally developed child anything more than what they need right now, no matter what other children are doing at that age! Once you put the activities out, the child then chooses what they interact with and how long they want to do so.

Before I discuss how child-led activities might look in a home setting, let’s go to the original setting that Maria Montessori wrote about: the classroom. In a classroom setting, a guide (Montessori term for teacher) would carefully observe the child and when they show interest in a material, they would invite them to a presentation. They start by showing the child where the material is stored, how to carry it safely, and how to set it up on a table or work mat. They then give them a specific presentation, down to how they move the items from left to right and where the child sits during the presentation. They invite the child to work with the materials on their own and then invite them to return the material to the shelf for the next child.

This rigidity isn’t completely necessary in the home environment, but aspects of it can be translated to your playroom. Observing your child and then modeling the activity for them once they show interest would be a great way to help them interact with the activity long-term. Helping them work toward a full work cycle, that is taking the activity from the shelf, bringing it to a spot to work, setting it up, doing the activity, resetting it, and returning it to the shelf, would be an excellent way to prepare them for a classroom or to help them concentrate and encourage flow. Young children may need all of these steps modeled by you for quite some time before they will do them themselves.

When modeling the activity for your child, a great acronym to help remember how to model in a Montessori aligned way, coined by Simone Davies (click to visit her website) in her book The Montessori Toddler, is SHOW: Slow Hands Omit Words. Try not to narrate what you are doing, but just slowly show your child with your hands how to complete the activity. Then once you have shown them, let them go to town! If you notice that they are interacting with the activity in a different way than you imagined, don’t intervene. Make a mental note to find time to model the activity again for them in the future, maybe later that day or even the next day. Try not to interrupt their work unless they are harming themselves, others, or the material.

Tune in tomorrow to hear more about what makes an activity Montessori, with a focus on the second aspect: isolation of concept.

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