Let’s talk Montessori materials!

When discovering Montessori education, one of the first aspect you might come across are the specific Montessori materials.

There are no other alternative educational methods that has such a complete set of materials to help children to learn. The Montessori materials are unique to the Montessori method.

The Pink tower is iconic to Montessori.

If like me, you were not good in maths, you will want to explore the Montessori maths curriculum with a new passion for numbers.

Parents wonder if they need the whole set of sensorial materials at home.

The Montessori materials are indeed beautiful. Maria Montessori refined some existing ones that were already in use, such as the Seguin boards. She designed all the materials that are still part of the current Montessori curriculum.

How are the Montessori materials specific?

Each material has a specific purpose. She designed those material and activities by observing the children and the way they learn

Through observations, she discovered:

  • Children learn from concrete to abstract
  • Children learn by manipulating with their hands
  • Children learn first about the world around them
  • Children learn in a very sensorial way
  • Children learn from a general to a more specific way

She designed materials that:

  • Are easy to manipulate for the child
  • Are made of natural materials
  • Are based on reality principle
  • Are designed to teach one concept at a time
  • Offer the general idea then a more and more complex idea
  • Are very concrete, then more and more abstract
  • Provide a control of error, allowing the child to correct his own mistakes
  • Have an intrinsic order
  • Are aesthetic

Montessori materials are part of a step-by-step curriculum.

There is an order to those materials. When and how to present them is important.

It is not a matter of age even if observations since the time of Maria Montessori have shown an average age for each piece of material.

In the classroom, we observe if a child is ready for a specific material.

We will notice if the child shows an interest for a specific skill.

For example, we might notice that a child likes to match things, line up objects and notice patterns. That might lead us to present the touch board and touch tablets or the colour tablets…

We might observe another child who likes to carry heavy objects. We might notice that he is a bit clumsy, so he needs to refine his movements. S

So, we can start introducing the pink tower, insisting on carrying it, one cube at a time, from the shelf to the mat. However, knowing that he is still very young to the classroom and tends to run around, we hold on presenting the red rods that are trickier to manipulate.

I remember a little girl who loved to touch the sandpaper letters but had no interest in sounding them out. She was not showing interest into letters in books, or into rhyming sounds… I introduced her to the touch tablets, which is a tactile materials.

She was hooked and started matching them. She was not showing an interest anymore in the sandpaper letters as her need, refining her sense of touch, was met by the other activities presented.

A year later, as she was starting to show an interest in sounding out words, noticing how words rhymes, we reintroduced the sandpapers letters as it was the right time.

The Montessori materials fall into 5 categories:

  • Practical life materials: most of those materials are no costly, can be DIY or you can do with what you have at home. At the time of Maria Montessori, child-size furniture and tools were an oddity. She designed specific chairs, tables, and various tools for the children in her care. It is said that it is thanks to her that modern schools have child-size furniture. One specific Montessori materials are the dressing frames. The idea is that it was easier to learn how to button a shirt when it was on a flat surface laid on a table than on ourselves.
  • Sensorial materials: The primary purpose of the sensorial activities is to help the child to sort out the many and varied sensorial stimuli he receives from his environment. Those materials are the ones that are the most specifics to the Montessori education. Most of them are time consuming to make by yourself but if you learn about the purpose of each material, you can find an alternative way to allow your child to explore each of their 5 senses.   The materials were also designed as a pre-skill for mathematical concept and there are for example 10 items in a set to correspond to the decimal system. They are precise: for example, the rods are 10 cm to 1m, with each rod increasing by 10 cm.  
  • Language materials: while it was innovative for Maria Montessori to adopt a hands-on and phonetic approach to language, most educational systems have now catch up and teach in a similar way. It means that many other educational materials could be used to teach phonics and help your child to read and write.
  • Mathematics: I love how the decimal system is explored with the Montessori materials. The approach is logical and playful. I find that many other educational materials are generally too colourful and include many distracting elements. Again, when you understand the purpose of each material and the order in which to present them, you will be able to find cheap or DIY alternatives.
  • Cultural/Understanding of the world:  it’s probably the aspect of the original method that has evolved the most.    It’s also the one that you must adapt to your own culture, to the country you live in and to your current time. Our knowledge of history and geography has evolved since the time of Maria Montessori.  For example, at the time of Maria Montessori, she was only classifying living things into animals or plants while nowadays, we specify 5 kingdoms: animals, plants, fungi, and micro-organisms (protist and monera). What I like in this area, it’s that everything is colour coded.  The colour-code helps the children to explore each concept but as only Montessori  uses the code, it can be hard to find corresponding toys and puzzles to fit with the code. For example, you may have a book that show the 7 continents with 7 random colours while your Montessori maps, your Montessori printables about the world are colour coded.

Do you need the Montessori materials at home?

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If you think about the aim of the materials, you can refine each sense with other support & once again, with everyday life.

Take the example of the red rods: it's to teach lengths from 10 cm to 1m. Can you do that with sticks that you collect on your walk? Granted it will not be the perfect 1m but surely, your child will learn to distinguish various lengths.

Can you sort colours with what you have already?

Can you make the colour box 3 with your child by mixing up paint?

Can you collect some dry herbs & encourage your child to recognise them by smell?

Instead of touch tablets, collect various rough and smooth textures to compare (bark, fake fur, vinyl. fine and less fine sandpaper sheets).

Looking back, I definitely know that we can offer the same benefits with no materials at all.

What can you offer to refine smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight?

Are the Montessori materials worth the cost?

At the time of Maria Montessori, she designed them with the material of the time: wood and metal.

It was probably not that expensive as there were no cheaper alternatives anyway. In 1911, she asked a local company to make those materials. In fact, the original factory, in Italy, still produces the material according to the specifications of Maria Montessori herself. Those materials are made to last as they are made for the schools. They are made in Italy so the costs are higher than producing those toys in Asia.

When Montessori created the AMI in Amsterdam where she had moved her headquarters after the first world war, she also started to collaborate with another local company, Nienhuis to produce her materials. It was in 1929. Nienhuis still produces most of the materials in Holland, in Europe and owns a factory in Sri Lanka where working conditions are extremely good.

Since you may be curious, to this day, only 4 factories are accredited by AMI, included the 2 originals.

Those materials are still produced for the classroom, not for the home, are made of high-quality material such as plain wood and some specific wood as there is a need to achieve a certain weight and smoothness to fulfill the aim of each material. You couldn't achieve the same quality with plywood or MDF for example.

Each Montessori material requires a huge quantity of wood. Take the example of the red rods, you will need at least 5 meters of wood to make them.

In term of costs and quality, you can compare the Montessori materials to the Grimm’s toys.

Some factories will produce in masses some lookalike materials in a smaller version with lower grade materials & still sell them at a higher price just because they brand them as "Montessori". Or they will offer you a substantial cheaper version. You will need to decide what matters to you: local, hand-made, ethically and sustainability made, long-lasting quality, working conditions in the factory? It’s a question that only you can answer and it’s not a simple yes or no situation.

To conclude:

My advice would be to really think twice before buying a Montessori material for your home.

Think about what that material teaches, can you teach this in a more natural way? Can you DIY that material? Can you find it second hand? You can still embrace Montessori without the material!

If you buy the materials, be OK with your child not liking it or using it in a slightly different way at home. My children used to be creative with the Montessori materials. They used to mix them up with other toys and that is OK. 

Montessori materials are a beautiful addition to any home and high quality ones are long lasting investment. 

Remember, as always, what matters the most with Montessori is:

  • your understanding of your child
  •  how your respect their development
  • Quality over quantity
  • Relationship over materials

I like to say that Montessori is the food and materials/toys and child-size furniture are the extra snacks and sweets. 

Do you have some specific Montessori materials at home?

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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.