toddler Montessori play

Do toddlers need “Montessori” shelf work?

Do you have a toddler who ignores the Montessori friendly work and activities you have set up on his shelf?

Let me tell you that it is normal!

The concept of the Montessori shelf comes from the Montessori classroom.

More precisely, it comes from the 3 to 6 years old classroom.

Montessori shelf work

Although babies and toddlers benefit from having their toys on view, it doesn’t mean they will use the works on the shelf in the same way that a preschooler would.

Children from 3 to 6 make conscious choices. They choose what to play with, what to learn about based on their current interests. You will observe your 3 years old being deeply interested in “insects” for example. So you will set up various activities based on that interest. They will be attracted by those shelf works and they may ask for more!

Babies and toddlers are in an “unconscious” stage. They explore! They come upon opportunities. They will see their toys and explore. Some of those toys and activities will be well-loved because they allow your child to practice a specific skill such as pouring or posting. But if it’s not the skill they are working on, right now, they will have zero interest in that specific work.

Children under 3 explore in more open-ended ways. They constantly make connections and try to figure out how the world works! They are little scientists so they tend to mix up their activities, they tend to be more physically active because they are still learning to move their bodies!

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Montessori toddler work

A 3 years old has mastered walking, climbing, and grasping. He can talk and he can make a decision. So he is ready to organize the world. He wants to sort and classify. He wants to name everything. He is in a stage of accumulating knowledge.

So if your toddler is not interested in shelf work, rest assured that it’s not your fault. It is not because Montessori is not working or because Montessori is not suitable for your child.

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So what shall you do if the shelf work is untouched?

  • Keep shelf work activities to a minimum: as parents, we might have expectations. We are well-meaning but our children will “feel” the weight of those expectations and respond by being even less interested in those activities.
  • The shelf can be used to display any toys you have. Maybe it’s time to focus on open-ended toys that are so valuable at home and compatible with Montessori.
  • Focus on what toddlers enjoy the most: being active! Provide more physical activities. Give them a pop-up tunnel, some soft balls, juggling scarf to blow away!

Toddler playing with tunnel Montessori
  • Nurture your toddler's language: Toddlers are learning to talk. It’s more important to chat with them, to explore books, to sing than to match pictures to toy animals.
Montessori toddler reading
  • Encourage practical life activities: cook and bake together, clean the house, sort the laundry! Most toddlers want to constantly be with you so doing “chores” together will cover many of their needs: fine motor skills, language, sensory exploration, and time spent with you!
Montessori toddler baking
  • Display a new activity on their table as a play prompt. I used to set up a processed art activity or a new shelf work on my child’s table. I was setting up during her nap and she would enjoy for the day. It was not constantly available on the shelf as she was losing interest if it was there.
Montessori toddler craft

But on Social media, all I see is toddlers being focused on shelf work!

On Social Media, you probably see many "shelfie" and many accounts showing pictures of a specific "shelf work". 

It's true that toddlers will enjoy a pouring activity, will enjoy threading beads, will enjoy matching pictures. But it's not all day long! 

A toddler might choose a "Montessori friendly toy", complete the activity, leave the toy on the floor after use then decide to run around the living room, climbs and jumps from the sofa, joins you in the kitchen, pulls on your legs and asking you to read them a book.

The life of a toddler is busy!

Taking pictures of a Montessori inspired work is easy. And it is what you see on Social Media! But it is not what a toddler does all day long. 

I have personally enjoyed the toddler's stage because my two children were busy!

They were constantly doing something even if "shelf work" were not the main activity.

I remember long stretch of sliding on our indoor IKEA slide and jumping from that slide on the floor bed. I remember climbing up and down the stairs for a whole afternoon. I remember chasing the cat around the whole neighborhood (gently chasing). I remember blowing bubbles and catching them. I remember painting with wellie boots. I remember sticking stickers. I remember pouring pasta between two bowls and using the bowls as hats. I remember reading stories for hours and knowing the plot by heart! 

I could go on and on! And yet, I dont' have hundreds of pictures of their shelf work, of their shelving units to prove you that they had some marvelous toddler years.

I hope this blog post is reassuring. Enjoy those very active toddler years!

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About the Author Carine Robin

Carine Robin has a Master’s Degree in Psychology, specialising in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006. It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew and she qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a preschool. Carine has been running a Montessori based parents and toddler group and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 14000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world. In 2018, Carine realised families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.

  • Esmeralda says:

    Just wanted to say THANK YOU for this post. My 23 month old will barely touch any of her shelf work. She prefers everything you described; playing with stickers, reading books over and over again, making a slide out of our couch, blowing bubbles, etc, is what she prefers. At first I would get so frustrated but I’m so glad to see this is normal. I wish more Montesorri mamas would show the reality with toddlers under 3!

    • Carine Robin says:

      I am glad it was helpful! Make sure you follow this blog and don’t hesitate to connect on Instagram or Facebook.

  • Emma says:

    This is exactly what I’ve been looking for advice on lately and EXACTLY what I needed to hear. Thank you for clarifying that shelf work is really more for 3-6. All your emphasis on those little wild, repetitive, spastic, clingy moments of toddlerhood made my heart so full! Thankful for the reminder to follow the child. 💛

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