Friday, January 23, 2009

ask annie, aka Mrs. L, aka itty bitty love

I recently received an e-mail from a homeschooling mama who's setting up some Montessori inspired activities for her 2-year-old daughter. She asked me about cylinder blocks and geometric solids - which was easy enough to answer. And then, she asked me this: "Are there any other Montessori materials that would be beneficial if purchased for home use?" Yikes! I ended up writing her a whole book! :) Once I get going on Montessori, it's a little hard for me to stop... Anyway, I decided to post my response on here, in case any of you are interested. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, too!

1. Coordination and Control of Movement (Practical Life)

Most practical life activities can be put together with things you probably already have in your house and treasures you can find at thrift stores and garage sales. Since your daughter is 2, I would probably suggest activities like these:

-scooping rice from one dish to another
-squeezing water with a sponge between two bowls
-find a container (coffee can, yogurt, etc), cut a hole in the lid, and put together some objects that can be pushed through it
-stick a chopstick to a tray with a ball of clay, and have your daughter *string* the chopstick with chunky beads

The possibilities for practical life activities are endless! Usually you can just follow your child's natural interests, but do keep in mind that the purpose of these exercises is to strengthen motor control and develop a sense of order and independence.

2. Sensorial

The Sensorial activities are quite a bit harder to put together without buying a lot of materials. Their purpose is to help your child refine her senses by isolating one particular quality at a time. For example, the knobbed cylinders are all made of the same kind of wood and all have the same knobs on top; they only differ in height and diameter. If I were you, I would go for the mini knobbed cylinders - I've never used them, but they're significantly cheaper and they look like they achieve the same purpose. As for the for the geometric solids, that's great if you can put your own set together. In my classroom, we usually work with a set of 6 - cylinder, cone, cube, sphere, rectangular prism, and ovoid. These work the best for us because they're all fairly easy to find in the environment. I'll be honest, though, they are not especially popular with the children. We have a set of cards that have pictures of things like balls, blocks, cans, and eggs, and the children will match them to the geometric solids sometimes. Otherwise, they rarely get used unless a teacher is directing the activity.

These sensorial activities tend to get used the most:
-the pink tower
-the broad stair
-the knobbed cylinders

Mystery bags and fabric matching are also popular, and you can put them together yourself. -Mystery bags are cloth bags that contain objects you can identify or match by "seeing with your hands."
-Fabric matching involves matching pairs of fabrics that vary in texture by touch alone.

Basically, just keep in mind that your purpose is to refine the senses. There are a lot of activities out there that accomplish this without involving "official" Montessori materials. For example:
-make different sounds and have your daughter guess what they are (example: ring a bell, whistle, clap,laugh, unzip something, etc).
-taste test salty, sweet, and sour by filling eyedroppers with sugar water, salt water, and lemon water
-match smells like citrus, peppermint, and cinnamon by putting drops of essential oils on cotton balls in jars

Oh, one more thing! This is what I was taught about the sensorial materials: the child should have the experience first - without language. Later on you can give her the names (for example, loud and soft). I find that this varies with each child - many already know the names, and sometimes it just feels natural to add them into the conversation. Next comes matching, then grading, and finally, the language that goes along with grading (big, bigger,biggest).

As for math and langauge (can you tell I'm running out of steam?), they're pretty straightforward for little ones. 3-year-olds are the youngest children in my classroom, and the majority of them spend most of their time in the practical life and sensorial areas of the classroom. What I would suggest for a 2-year-old is simple (please correct me here if I'm wrong!) - be conscious that you're speaking in a clear voice with real words, play "I spy" and games that involve matching, and model making a 1-1 correspondence between numbers and objects when you count things out.

The end!


  1. Thar sounds just right for a two year old. The only thing I would add is that a lot of practical life work that is done in the home is often based around what is going on in the kitchen - sweeping the floor, setting the table, washing the table (endlessly!). Also that having a cupboard or shelf set up for the child with cup, plate and cutlery and bib and wash cloth all accessible allows independence and all counts as practical life. Anything that the parent does can be helped with by the child in some way - wash the veg, stir a pot (my kids started stirring pots as soon as they could safely stand on a chair, much to my mothers horror and they do have to be watched closely, but none of them have ever got hurt and they can all cook meals from scratch now aged 4,6 &8), scrape a carrot, cut cheese. The list is endless!

  2. annie -

    thank you so much for posting this. i contacted you a few months ago about concerns with my sons preschool and you were so helpful. i am sorry that i didn't respond after our last exchange, i sorta just dropped the ball. i got very involved with what was going on at his school and how i was feeling as his mama (you know - they don't talk about mama instinct for nothing!). i finally decided that the pit in my stomach wasn't something i could continue to ignore.

    we decided to remove him from the school, ultimately. at first i switched him to afternoons and things got better. but the straw that broke the camels back was when one of the teachers (my favorite one, even! you sorta remind me of her -- in the best of ways!) told me that they are ENCOURAGED by the director not to communicate with parents! WHAT???? shouldn't that be essential?

    i have decided that, for the time being, i am going to do some home learning with my son. therefore, this post was amazing (all of your posts are, really). please continue giving us ideas! it's so helpful. i am going to include my younger son as well (older turned 3 in october, youngest will be 2 in april) so i can use all the advice i can get!

    thank you, again, so much. your kind words and advice were so helpful and ended up helping me make the biggest choice of his schooling thus far. i am sure that there are many more choices that are far bigger to come, but you've helped equip me by giving me some knowledge of what your school is like! xox

  3. These are great suggestions, with one exception! I don't want to be a Debbie Downer here, but I wouldn't reccomend for 2 year olds to do the Mystery Bag or Geometric Solids. These are on the later side of the sensorial spectrum.

    Here are the reasons why I would wait, and I'll let parents decide for themselves.

    The geometric solids are to be shown after the child has mastered the shapes in the geometry cabinet. The reason for this is that concepts should be presented from least complex to most in sensorial. 2-D is less complex that 3-D. In addition, the child can then make the discovery that the geometric solids have "faces" that are shapes from the geometry cabinet.

    The mystery bag is one of the last presentations of the sensorial area. This is more appropriate for a 3.5 - 4 year old. The purpose of this material is refinement of the stereognostic sense (visualizing an object by touch) Thus, the child should be able to identify its shape and/or describe it with scientific language when using the mystery bag.

  4. Wow! Thanks for leaving such fabulous comments!

    Anna - great suggestions! Children love helping with real, useful work, and making it possible for them to do things all by themselves is a must, too!

    Sara - Yikes! It sounds like you made the right decision. After talking to you, I become even more conscious of maintaining clear communication with moms and dads. It sounds like you should start your own homeschooling blog, too! :)

    Debbie - jk!(I love her character on SNL! wompwompwoommmmp....) Thanks for pointing that out about the geometric solids and the mystery bags. I guess I was thinking that concrete concepts should be presented to children before abstract concepts, and geometric solids are about as concrete as you can get. Hmmm... the geometry cabinet is fairly concrete material, too. I'll have to think about that one!
    But, I agree, I wouldn't present that lesson to a 2-year-old.

    Also, the mystery bag picture I posted was the most complex one we have in our classroom (matching buttons)... oops! I'm such a sucker for buttons! I think that you could set up a fairly simple mystery bag for a little one, though. I would put just a few objects that the child was familiar with in it - of course, identifying them with the child before hiding them away in the bag. This would probably be more suitable for an older 2-year-old or young 3-year-old, though.

    Yay! I love discussing child development and Montessori materials! What a fun way to spend a Friday night! :)

  5. Thanks for this! I also wanted to recommend for homeschoolers a book called "I Can Do It! I Can Do It!". It's out of print now, but can be had cheaply on amazon. It's not expressly for homeschoolers, but it shows how to make many, many homemade Montessori lessons.

  6. This post is (once again!) *so* helpful!

  7. Thanks Annie!

    I really liked how you kept bringing it back to the purpose. Giving an idea of scope for the activities but reminding us that the purpose is to refine the senses (Sensorial) or to strengthen motor control / order/ independence (Practical Life). I sometimes find that in my eagerness to find some way to create a similar-to-Montessori activity at home I lose track of the purpose.

    Any more tips for home-Montessori-wanna-be's would be much appreciated ;)

  8. So so useful. Thank you - once again! (:

    Similar to Amber I really like the way you describe the purpose. When I read 'Coordination and Control of Movement (Practical Life)' it all clicked. I knew - sort of - that that was the key purpose, but when you wrote it like that, so clearly and succinctly it went in that little bit more and it all makes more sense now.


  9. Thank you so much for this, the good Montessori schools in my area are too expensive for my budget, but I love the Montessori method. So, I was looking for someway to supplement my 2yr. old's current daycare instruction! I just found your site today and I am so happy that I did!


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