Working with Montessori Materials

13 May

I love surfing the web to see what kinds of creative activities Montessori homeschooling moms come up with.  As a teacher, burdened with a limited budget and endless administrative duties, I sometimes have challenges keeping the Practical Life area interesting – especially towards the end of the year.  The range of activities you can come up with is only limited by your imagination and bank account, and yet it’s crucial to remember some of the tenets that make Montessori so effective.


When the activity is first introduced, is the name of the activity given to the child? Proper vocabulary is crucial at a young age, and the little ones love discovering the names of everything around them.  Is the child shown how to carry the material and then allowed to do so by himself? Letting the child take the material lets him know that you trust him with that work (and also allows you to gauge if the tray is too big, the bowls too heavy, etc.).  When adult and child sit down, does the child know to wait his turn? Most young children will want to start touching the materials right away.  Letting the child know that it will be your turn first and then he can have a turn instills not only the concept of turn-taking, but more importantly, the ability to delay gratification and use the sense of sight to absorb information.  Are your movements slow and precise, and do you use the least amount of words possible? “Economy of movement” is very important because the child’s brain is absorbing each gesture; limiting the number of words you use allows the child’s brain to focus on the movements, instead of becoming distracted by words.

Are you showing proper clean-up? We want the child to be successful and independent all the way through the activity, so it’s important to show how to put the material away, either right after the presentation or when it’s obvious the child has finished exploring.  Does the activity have a clear purpose, or is it just busy work? Practical Life materials should live up to their name and allow the child to develop practical skills, such as independence, care for the environment, and coordination.  A couple of busy work activities (such as beading) never killed anyone, but try to develop purposeful materials that meet the developmental and intellectual needs of your child.  Ask yourself: Is this a skill my child can use to fend for himself in the future?


When you finish presenting the material, do you allow your child to work by himself? Hovering near the child is something that most of us are guilty of.  It’s fascinating to see how the child explores, and it’s normal to want to evaluate how much information he was able to pick up from our presentation.  However, keep in mind that if the child feels judged or tested, he will not be able to focus on the purpose of the material.  He will begin to perform and will expect praise.  Is he allowed to work uninterrupted for as long as he wants? Once the child begins to work, the teacher should become invisible.  Resist the urge to help (unless the child specifically demands your assistance), and don’t interrupt him with praise or suggestions.  Even something as innocent as taking a picture can cause the child to lose concentration. 

Is he being successful? The child can be working with the material in a way that is different from what you showed him, and that’s perfectly fine.  However, sometimes he’ll meet an obstacle and need help.  Observe the child from a distance (while you pretend to be busy with something else).  If he’s struggling mightily and looks frustrated, he is obviously not concentrating and not feeling successful.  At this point, you can quietly approach and ask if he needs help (or let him know ahead of time that he can come to you for help).  Once you get the green light, ask the child to pinpoint the specific part of the activity he needs help with, give the least assistance to get him back on track (with minimum talking and maximum economy of movement), and once again step aside.

Will the clean-up be overwhelming? When young children are working with materials that involve water (such as pouring from a pitcher to a glass), sometimes more water makes it onto the floor than into the glass.  If the child is unaware of the growing spill, he will continue getting water and pouring.  It is therefore essential to interrupt the activity before the clean-up becomes overwhelming for him.  A good time to do so is when the child is standing up to get more water (never interrupt while he’s working with concentration).  At that point, you can provide a lesson on how to sponge up a spill, and let the child know that when he’s cleaned up the water he may return to his work.  Apart from creating awareness, this serves as a natural consequence: If you spill water, you have to clean it up, so it’s best to be careful!


When the child finishes working with the material, is there a specific spot for him to put it away? Young children thrive on order and like knowing that there’s a place for everything.  Does he know he can work with the material whenever he wants? The child might want to repeat the activity later if he feels he hasn’t mastered it, so it’s essential that he be able to have access to it.  Is there a new activity that takes the newly-learned skill to the next level? Children’s brains develop by taking the skills they know and applying them to progressively more challenging activities.  If your child stops using a material, it’s probably a sign that he’s gotten what he needed out of that work and is ready for a more advanced skill set.  Make sure that the materials you make both relate to the ones he’s mastered and offer a new level of challenge.

The joy of Montessori are not just in the materials, but in presenting them at the right time, in the right way, and allowing free exploration.  Following these tenets will allow your child to maximize his learning experience.  Have fun!


4 Responses to “Working with Montessori Materials”

  1. Carla May 14, 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    Hi Pilar,

    I have been quietly following your wonderful blog for some months now and I wanted to thank you for sharing your experiences and insights.

    I am from Brazil but have been living in Switzerland for one year. Last November I started a Montessori course in early childhood and it has completely changed the way I see children. Since I am still not working in a Montessori school, your blog has been a very useful source to me.

    Thank you!

    • montessorimatters May 14, 2010 at 1:36 pm #

      Hi Carla! Muito obrigada for your lovely comment! 🙂 I’m thrilled you got a chance to do a course on Montessori, it’s such a fascinating experience!

  2. Jennifer May 14, 2010 at 6:34 pm #

    Thank you for posting this. It really helps, although I can’t wait until the pressure is off of me in September when she can actually go to a Montessori school!!

  3. Marcy May 18, 2010 at 3:28 am #

    A good reminder of something I need to watch out for– talking too much, giving too much instruction. This was lovely to read, broken down and explained so well. =)

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