7 Components of a Montessori Activity

Our Montessori Journey

Before our homeschooling journey, the boys spent a few years at the local Montessori school. Have you ever been inside a Montessori classroom? The kids are each expected to take complete responsibility for their personal items and educational activities. The vibe is less of a classroom and more of a hive. Each tiny human is on their own personal mission!


A child smiling in their Montessori classroom.
This is my Sweet Boy explaining the classroom system at his Montessori school.

At the boys' Montessori school, before a child begins their work, they grab a rug and find a space in the room to spread it out.


Then, they choose the job that strikes their fancy and take it to the space they have chosen. This is the most important part of the Montessori system: The child holds the freedom and the responsibility!


The Montessori method places faith in the nature of children to work out their own education. Such a thing terrifies many modern adults!


In the Montessori classroom, the teacher is responsible for creating an environment that allows the child to discover and learn independently.


A quote on a Montessori curriculum blog saying, "Children acquire knowledge through experience in the environment," by Maria Montessori


Imposters

Just because advertisers have slapped the term "Montessori" on a toy, do not assume the activity has earned the name. For reference, an activity is either called child's 'work' or 'jobs' in Montessori terms. For example, a Montessori teacher may say, "I see you are having trouble choosing where to work. May I suggest a job?"


But, what qualifies as a legitimate Montessori job (or activity)?


Now that the public has shown such an interest, marketing has found quite an ally in the label.

There are plenty of people without a moral compass who would gladly use your good faith to sell you snake oil. Let's take a magnifying glass to the subject and find out exactly what makes an activity deserve the label "Montessori".


What are the 7 Components of a Montessori Activity?




#1 Work needs to have one foot in the door of practicality.


Children follow the path towards independence without ceasing to question why they do so. Given half a chance, even toddlers will wash dishes, set the table, and stir a bowl of ingredients.



Pursuits like these are usually stopped by adults with the best of intentions.

  • the bowl may break

  • the food may spill

  • Mother can do a much better job

  • the speed of modern life demands the dishes just get on the table already

I understand--I really do! But these jobs are a young child's bread and butter, and Maria Montessori recognized this.


Activities like pouring water, sweeping and mopping with child sized equipment, folding laundry, washing windows, tying shoes, operating buckles and latches, and mastering knives, hammers, and scissors are all practical life activities.



Picture of four children camping and toasting marshmallows smiling at the camera. A quote from Maria Montessori is on the picture, "Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed."


#2 The child at work needs to be able to find his own errors.

Most of a young child's pursuits are skills that they develop, rather than facts to be absorbed. Giving control of error to the child means they can practice until they master a skill without constant adult evaluation.



Independence is the goal!!

In the picture above, one of our good friends is working on a set of nesting dolls. She does not need me to sit at her side warning that a chosen piece is too big or too small. The pieces speak for themselves. If she snaps on the largest set and still has a few pieces left over, I do not need to tell her she mistook the sizing along the way, the game is self correcting!



As much as possible, allow the child to discover his own errors.

The alternative to a built in control of error is constant intervention and correction on the part of the teacher. Neither the adult, nor the child enjoy this much. If necessary, you can always reteach! It is much more fun to sit again with a child and play than to provide constant criticism.





#3 One Thing at a Time!!

It is important to note that a work can only teach one concept at a time. Children are little scientists, testing theories and carrying out experiments.


Remember Science 101?

An experiment can only have one variable or you don't know which one is responsible for your results!


Take a look at this puzzle from Alison Montessori. You can see which variable the child will be expected to manipulate. This is a great example of singularity for an younger toddler.


Now jump over to this vendor. Your child will have difficulty gleaning information from a toy like this. There is way too much going on!






#4 A Definite Beginning, Middle and End

Montessori activities are not open ended in nature!! This is where most people miss the mark when labeling things as a Montessori activity. Each job in a Montessori classroom has a very specific beginning, middle and end. The teacher presents material so that children may understand how to use the material. The material itself does the teaching.


Beautiful scarves, building blocks, and pretend play are all wonderful things to provide your child. I am not suggesting that you remove open ended toys and fantasy play from your child's life. (Strict adherents to the method may do so.) I am only clarifying so that you do not spend extra money for an misleading marketing campaign.



#5 Developmentally Appropriate Timing

The work should be developmentally appropriate. Montessori coined the term "sensitive periods" to pin down some of the earlier transitions children pass through.


There are six phases of sensitive periods (explore more here) :

  1. sensitivity to order

  2. sensitivity to language

  3. sensitivity to walking

  4. sensitivity to the social aspects of life

  5. sensitivity to small objects

  6. sensitivity to learning through the senses


Montessori is not the only scientist to point out such phases and shifts in perception. The last couple centuries have amassed quite the collaboration from developmental psychologists throughout the world.


The role of the teacher is to understand the developmental stages of the child, and to fill the environment with appropriate materials. The teacher is the farmer, providing nutritious ingredients as the seasons change. The child is the chef.



#6 Realistic Materials

As much as possible, aim for high quality, natural materials. There are two reasons for this.


Our goal is independence! We do not buy plastic, pretend pots and pans for our play kitchen. We buy realistic metal pots and pans. (Even better, just pick up small sauce pans at a garage sales!) We want our children to develop the pride that comes with developing independent life skills.


Ideally your child's "toy" should be able to function as well as the real item it is imitating. Think same, but smaller!


Secondly, children take more pride in their activities when their materials are "fancy".


This does not mean that every plastic item in your home should take a one way trip to the garbage bin. Look around your home. Your table is wood. Your child's table can be made of wood. Your cup is glass. Your child's cup can be glass. Your remote control is a plastic. Your child's Legos are perfectly fine. Don't let Instagram fool you.



#7 Effort

The toy should not play for the child. If you push a button and the gadget lights up, sings, and puts on a show, the toy is not suitable from a Montessori perspective.


This wagon does nothing until the child participates in the adventure while this one encourages passive observation. The first give the child the space to play. The second entertains.

Development of skills is a productive enterprise. The effort should be the child's, not the toys.



Putting it all together

Look how fun it is for Bubs below as he fills a pot of water and carries it to a thirsty peach tree. Let's go over our 7 components of a Montessori activity one more time and see how they fit together.

  1. This is practical! My peach tree needs water.

  2. There is child-led error detection: When he spills, he notices and has to refill his pan.

  3. There is only one variable. How high can I fill the water without spilling as I walk?

  4. While water play can be open ended, in this instance we have a job to do. We must water the plants!

  5. Timing analysis: At this age, Bubs was strong enough to carry a heavy pan. Developing the wisdom to know how much water can be carried without spilling was another matter entirely. He was also going through a time when he needed daily maximum effort activities. This activity filled his need for heavy work and helped him develop wisdom in regards to his strength and movement simultaneously.

  6. Take a close look at that pot... Notice it is a real one?

  7. Take a close look at the effort involved... Is bubs doing the work or the pot?

What a fun way to develop the strength and wisdom needed to carry a full pot of water from the sink to the stove!! It will not be too long before Bubs (my boy below) makes my boiled eggs for me. Until then, the view is perfect.


A picture of a child filling a pot with water from a hose. A Maria Montessori quote is on the picture, "To simulate life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the first duty of the educator."