Continuing on my multi-post series about what makes an activity Montessori, I will preface today’s topic with the importance of recognizing the difference between a Montessori classroom and a Montessori home. Knowing what a Montessori activity is doesn’t prevent you from introducing items into your Montessori home that aren’t 100% aligned. In fact, there are strong arguments, which I will present below, for having both Montessori activities and well-chosen, curated toys in your home. Before I go into more detail, let’s remind ourselves of the eight qualities of a Montessori activity.
have a control of error
activate the senses
aid in independence
The fourth quality of being close-ended can often spark some debate in Montessori parenting groups. There is a common misconception that open-ended materials like loose parts, Grimm’s rainbow, blocks, model cars, etc. are inherently Montessori aligned. This couldn’t be further from true! Montessori activities are close-ended, that is they have a clear beginning, middle, and end. There are few reasons for this:
- Children crave purpose. A close-ended activity gives them a feeling of accomplishment and ownership.
- Children crave order. A close-ended activity provides order in an otherwise large and mostly unknown world that children are trying to make sense of. It also gives the child an opporunity to practice a full cycle of activity: take the activity from the shelf, complete it, reset it and return it to the shelf. This appeals to their sense of order in that the space is cleaned up and activities are ready for the next use.
- Children crave challenge. A close-ended activity provides a specific challenge that meets the child exactly where they are and trains specific skills that they are interested in working on at the time.
- Children crave opportunities for mastery. A close-ended activity gives a child the chance to truly master a skill and obtain that wonder feeling that comes with completing a new task for the first time.
- Children crave chances to work on concentration. A close-ended activity gives a child the time and space to really get in the zone and concentrate on one specific skill and the associated sequence.
- Children crave logical sequences. Not only does a single activity have an internal sequence for the logical completion, the activities themselves have a logical sequence that prepare the child for the next more difficult or complex activitiy. Each new skill mastered builds on the past ones. This increases the sense of satisfaction when a child realizes that a new activity isn’t entirely new but just an extension of the last.
In addition to all the wonderful aspects that close-ended activities include, they also mostly contain a natural control of error, returning back to the last post in my series, which makes them even more Montessori aligned.
Also, there is no need to correct children who are not using the materials that make up a close-ended activity in the obvious way. As long as they are respecting the material, themselves and others, you can just let them go and enjoy their creativity. Make a mental note to present the activity at a later date so that the purpose and associated skills aren’t missed. Re-evaluate if they never use the activity as presented whether they are truly interested in working on that skill at the moment. Perhaps an activity more aligned with the other uses they are finding for the materials might be more appropriate. However, many children complete the activity as is and then also use the materials for other things. This is expected and normal.
Although close-ended activities have many benefits and should definitely be something you integrate into your home environment, there are benefits of open-ended materials as well! In a home environment, you should also be including open-ended materials, even though they are not necessarily Montessori aligned, for the following reasons:
- Fostering creativity: Open-ended materials encourage children to be creative about how they are used. Because they have no one specific purpose, children will find one on their own.
- Creating individiual structures: Without the more strict structure of a close-ended activity, children often find their own structure in playing with open-ended materials. For example, my son has a clear structure as to how he chooses to use his magnet tiles. He prefers to build in certain ways and they aren’t the same as we build with them. He likes to make garages but he closes the cars in completely in cubes made of tiles. As adults, we usually leave one side open when we build garages with him, as we know the cars have to drive out eventually in real life. But his structure is just as interesting and it is vital for his development that he be allowed to figure that out on his own.
- Processing events and story-telling: Children work through experiences very well by re-telling them over and over. You may have experienced this already with older children or you may implement this method when talking to your younger child about something that happened to them. Open-ended materials can aid children in re-telling experiences they have had and working through any uncomfortable, painful or fear-causing moments. It also helps children learn the aspects and inner-workings of story telling, like sequence of events, describing details and dialouge.
- Encouraging independent play: Although activities on a shelf are great and many children use them regularly, they usually need a presentation or maybe multiple presentations from an adult before the child can use them independently. Open-ended materials, particularly from about 2.5 years old and up, don’t need nearly as much adult involvement. When I observe my son, he usually goes for open-ended materials first when he plays independently. When I sit with him in the playroom and focus entirely on him, he chooses close-ended activities and brings them to me, even if he completes them alone. He needs some prompting on a occasion to finish the work cycle and bring his activity back to the shelf before moving on. He also needs help resetting some activities, that is putting all the pieces back in a way that allows him to come back and start the activity again later without much effort. Open-ended toys encourage him to play independantly and since we have added some to our playroom, he has been going in there alone more often to play.
Here are some ways you can integrate open-ended materials in your Montessori aligned home:
- Display the materials in an accessible way. Choose open baskets that allow the child to see the material inside or closed baskets with images on the outside indicating the type of material inside. For younger children, place the baskets of choice on a lower shelf so they can remove them on their own.
- Help the child keep the space orderly. Have set times of day where you clean up the playroom space together. Don’t ask them to clean up on their own, particularly not younger children, but invite them to help you clean up. Introduce a clean up song or a game to help motivate them to clean up.
- Reduce the volume of materials to an age-appropriate amount. A young toddler doesn’t need 100 blocks or 30 cars. It is enough to put out a selection of materials and increase the volume as your child shows interest. My son loves his magnet tiles and after offering 10 tiles initially, we have increased to 50 tiles over the last 4 months. He builds things using all 50 tiles and cleans them up reliably when we invite him to help. Those were both signs for me that he can handle all 50 tiles we currently own. We will be expanding his set for his birthday next month and we will observe first if he can handle all 100 tiles then or if we should leave it at 50-70 for now. Too much of one material can cause a sensory overload for some children and then they may not play with it at all!
- Choose well-made, age-appropriate materials. It is better to have a selection of high quality materials than have a large variety of random things. A set of wooden blocks, a small set of magnet tiles, a handful of realistic diecast cars, a selection of realisitic animal figures, some colored scarves: that really is enough. You can add to your collection and rotate materials out as your child gets older. Maybe your 3 year old loves balls so you add a set of materials to make a ball run. Maybe your 4 year old loves trains so you add a wooden train set. Start small and expand based on interests rather than collecting a large volume of different things and having it all out at once.
As you can clearly see, there are benefits to both close-ended activities and open-ended materials. Despite open-ended materials lack of Montessori alignment, they are still a vital part of any household with children and shouldn’t be overlooked in favor of only close-ended activities. A good balance of close-ended activities that meet a child’s interests and development needs, as well as curated, age appropriate open-ended materials presented in an accessible and non-overwhelming way is the golden standard for the home environment.