As already described in the article "Learning for life - a look at education according to Montessori principles" , learning materials play a central role in Montessori children's homes and schools. Why this is so and what types of learning materials there are, we show you in this article.
Exercises of practical life
Maria Montessori noticed in her observation of children that they not only liked to imitate their parents, but were also interested in the "real experience". She took the children seriously and allowed them to clean the floor with a real feudel, to fold laundry if they felt like it - to prepare food to eat instead of playing with plastic carrots and sponge shavings, to make their own sandwiches.
In the educator's institution, the children had taken responsibility and managed their house independently. That's how it is in principle to this day. Children and adults manage the rooms together: they set the table together, cut vegetables and fruit, mop the floor, vacuum.
The children also take care of themselves: They wash their hands, brush their teeth, practice undoing and closing buttons and zippers on their jackets and pants. In this way, they become a bit independent of adults, gain security and self-confidence, and learn to cope with everyday life on their own.
While the children perform the exercises of practical life - whether lighting and turning off a candle, pouring a liquid from one vessel to another or tying a bow - they train their gross and fine motor skills or eye-hand coordination along the way. They learn to coordinate their movements. Many children's houses also include an old-fashioned washboard, which the children can use to train their gross motor skills.
In addition, these are really useful preliminary exercises that form a good foundation for writing. Even before the children take a pen in their hands, they have trained their fine motor skills on the basis of other exercise materials.
Knife, fork, scissors, light are not for small children - or are they?
The equipment of Montessori children's homes sometimes includes things that are commonly considered dangerous. In Centrum Edukacji Montessori in Gdynia, the children have a real iron that is turned on. Whereby it has been set to a very low level and the regulator is stuck so that you can't turn it higher. At the Montessorihaus village school in Waidhofen, Austria, older children even operate a drill. Of course, both ironing and drilling are done under supervision. In a Montessori children's house in Zhongshan there are - as certainly in other children's houses around the world - vessels made of glass and objects made of metal so that children can also have this sensory experience. Of course, every now and then a glass jar falls down; that does not fail to happen and is also part of the experience. Then the jar is simply replaced. The child learns through this experience to be more careful next time.
Overall, from Montessori's point of view, it is better to let children handle such objects under observation than to let them do it secretly.
Hans-Dietrich Raapke, author of "Montessori Today," describes our world as a world hostile to the senses, since it "opens up by pressing buttons, pulling levers and operating keys." While the two distant senses of hearing and seeing are permanently addressed and there is a sensory overload in these areas, the close senses of smelling, tasting, touching and the sense of balance atrophy. Therefore, it is especially important that children explore these through physical sensory experiences.
The sensory materials serve to make such abstract features as sound, color and weight tangible - just like the categories short/long, small/large or rough/smooth. It is precisely these features that are first grasped with the hands before the head can grasp them rationally. In this way, not only is the children's sensory perception trained, they also recognize the laws of the real world.
On the basis of the red rods, the terms "long" and "short" can be introduced. This is because the rods differ in length: the shortest is 10 cm long, the longest is 100 cm long, and the rods in between are ten steps apart. They also have different weights. The children can compare the length of the respective rods with those of objects from their environment.
The material of the brown stairs consists of 10 cuboids, which are the same length, but differ in height and width. If the child rows the cuboids together correctly, the result is a staircase whose steps are each one centimeter higher and wider.
On the basis of the brown staircase, the child learns to distinguish the pairs of opposites "thick" and "thin" as well as "high" and "low".
The pink tower
The pink tower is perhaps the most prominent Montessori learning material. It's pink because children around age 3.5 - the target audience for the tower - really like pastel colors (for the psychology of colors, see our article "Why is this tomato black?"). They are cubes with a volume of 1 cm3, 2 cm3, 3 cm3, etc. Like the brown staircase, it is composed of 10 parts.
Working with the pink tower, the child, together with the educator, carries the cubes little by little to his workplace, already noticing that the individual cubes are getting heavier. After the teacher has picked out the largest cube from the colorful pile of cubes, she places it in the middle and starts looking for the next smallest one. She slowly stacks the cubes on top of each other. Once the exercise is complete, she walks around the tower with the child and admires it, then releases it so the child can rebuild it as many times as she wants. At the end, the pieces are returned to their place, because putting things back is also part of working with learning materials.
On the basis of the pink tower, the child learns the three dimensions of length, width and height. It also serves as a good preparation for volume calculation with school children, who have already sensory grasped different volumes with its help as tots.
In all Montessori materials, the elements build on each other in steps of ten - a good foundation for later understanding of mathematics.
The insert cylinders are round blocks, with a knob on top for touching, each arranged in pairs of 10. They come in four different varieties: 1. blocks that differ in height but are the same width. 2. blocks that have the same height, but have different widths. 3. blocks where the diameter increases with the height. 4. but also blocks where the diameter increases while the height decreases.
The children use them to learn the distinctions between "low" and "high", "thick" and "thin", "big" and "small", "narrow" and "wide". Working on them is at the same time a good exercise for fine motor skills - so the insert cylinders form a basis for later writing or drawing.
To get to know the colors in more detail, there are color tablets with different shades and hues. The child gets to know the basic and mixed colors and can assign the shades to each other by the fact that the tablets appear in pairs. As a follow-up task, it could also compare the colors with objects in the room.
On the basis of the color panels, it is also possible to diagnose color blindness in children at an early stage.
The geometric solids are suitable for distinguishing shapes. These include a sphere, ovoid, ellipsoid, pyramid, cylinder, cone, cube, cuboid, and prism. All these objects are painted blue and are pleasant to touch. To "grasp" the shapes, the children can put on blindfolds and feel them individually after the educator has demonstrated it beforehand. In addition, the children will notice that some of the bodies tilt, others roll - and some even both.
During the performance, the educator could explain that, for example, the word "pyramid" originally referred to the Egyptian pyramids. This makes it clear that what the child is learning always relates to reality.
By the way, the geometric solids can be used not only in the children's house, but of course also later in school when it comes to calculating volumes. In this way, schoolchildren build on what they already know.
In order to bring surface and material structures closer to the little explorers, tactile boards can be used, for example, by means of which they can feel the quality of a surface. Or they can feel different materials with a rough or smooth surface that is either coarse or fine. As with the color boards, the materials come in pairs so children can match them up.
The weight boards, which go in gradations from light to heavy, give children a glimpse of different weight nuances.
Sounds and tones
To distinguish sounds and tones, there are different materials, such as noise cans filled with different substances - some fine, others coarse. If you shake the can, it rattles differently depending on what's in it. Some sounds are quieter, others louder. The learning cans come in two colors, blue and red, each filled with the same contents so that children can match the sounds.
Furthermore, in most children's homes, bells are part of the inventory, with which the little ones can distinguish pitches. They can arrange the bells depending on the pitches - or assign to each other, as there are also these in duplicate.
This didactic material for training the sense of hearing has - similar to the color tablets - also a diagnostic function, as thereby hearing disorders in children can be revealed. It happens every now and then that a child is regarded as a "slow learner", and yet he hears poorly.
To distinguish between smells, there are odor boxes filled with different scents, specifically with absorbent cotton that has been dripped with different essential oils. The child's task is to find two cans that smell the same. To address as much as possible only one sense, the cans are designed the same and in only two colors (two colors per smell) - and not colorful.
The taste jars, which are outwardly indistinguishable from each other, contain liquids with the flavors sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The child drips some liquid onto the back of his hand with the pipette, tastes it with his tongue, and assigns the same tastes to each other here as well.
With the help of heat jars, children can perceive temperature differences and learn terms such as "warm," "cold," "hot," and "cool."
As mentioned earlier, Maria Montessori designed the sensory materials so that she could use them to diagnose whether children's sensory functions were working. For her as a physician, it was important to combine diagnostics and didactics, just as it would make sense for educators and pediatricians to communicate more.
While children learn a language intuitively, it is not the case with mathematics. Here, the learning process must actually be supported. Maria Montessori has developed many materials that make this very abstract area of numbers and arithmetic operations more concrete. With these, children can experience numbers sensually: They see them and even take them in their hands.
The first mathematical preliminary exercises form the sensory materials. With them, for example, the child learns to estimate how far away is the table with the apple he wants to eat. How high is the table - does the child reach? How big a hole does it need to be so that the child can crawl through it without any problems? Even when crossing a street, numerous mathematical operations take place in the brain: The pedestrian estimates how wide the road is, at what speed the approaching car is approaching, how fast his own speed is or must be to cross the road safely. A child must first learn all of this. For this, the sensory materials provide a foundation.
Whereby this is by no means laborious learning: children aged 4 to 6 love numbers and find the first mathematical exercises highly exciting. There are diverse mathematical materials for different developmental stages.Here are some examples:
Digits and chips
The child lays out the numbers, made of wood, in the correct order (which he has learned beforehand). Under it it puts an appropriate quantity of small chips, in each case ordered under each other, so that it receives four two-chip rows with the eight, with the nine likewise, only that there in the last row still another additional single chip lies, placed in the middle.
On the basis of this simple exercise the child learns to put the abstract number in relation to the actual quantity. If one changes the exercise, even and odd numbers come into play: With the even numbers the child can push its finger between the two rows through, with the odd numbers does not go that, since the unit blocks "the passage". Thus, the concept of even and odd numbers can be experienced.
The hundred board
The child pours a small bag with platelets in front of him on the mat - on each platelet is a number. Now the little mathematician should arrange the numbers in order on a kind of chessboard, starting at the top left with the one. In this way, the child gets a feeling for tens, because it has formed rows of tens that are arranged one below the other. He also notices that the number 100 is a very special number. And last but not least, the search for the appropriate number makes him a lot of fun.
Also with the hundreds board there are numerous variations, provided that the child masters the first ordering of the numbers.
The golden bead material
The golden bead material accompanies the child on the threshold of elementary school. It consists of ones, that is, a golden bead; tens, that is, ten beads connected to form a string; hundreds, in which ten tens are connected to form a square; and finally, a cube of thousands, which includes ten tens.
Not only does the child get a sense of size relationships while learning with the golden beads, but he or she can also use them to form larger numbers: 4 individual squares of hundreds, 3 rods of tens, and 8 individual beads make up the number 438, for example.
The multiplication board is also built like a chessboard. Here, other bead material comes into play, namely different colored strands of two to nine beads. The single bead forms the one.
On the multiplication board, you can lay out numbers in the width at the bottom. A string of 8 beads in the ones place would make the number 8, in the tens place it would make an 80, in the hundreds place it would make an 800. You can lay out single numbers this way. A 746 would be a string of 7 beads on the hundreds place, a string of 4 beads on the tens place, and a string of 6 beads on the ones place.
To multiply two numbers, you lay out one number at the bottom in width, and the other number correspondingly on the side (and thus in height). Now multiply the numbers of the ones place with each other and put the result as a string of beads in the units field on the "checkerboard". If the result of the multiplication is 10 or more, the tens digit is placed in the tens field, i.e. in the multiplication of 3 and 5 the 1; it is added to the result of the tens digits in the next step. The 5 remains in the units field. In this way, the child multiplies the numbers digit by digit and, at the end of the arithmetic operation, has a feeling for how multiplication works in practice. The control serves a solution sheet, which is attached to the multiplication board; on each different multiplication tasks can be found.
The division is learned in its simplest form as a distribution task. To divide 30 by 6, the child distributes 6 tiles on the board and now divides the 20 beads he counted out beforehand evenly among the 6 tiles. In the end, there are 5 beads under each game piece.
In this way, the child has vividly experienced what division is all about. It can check its results using a division table.
Also the fraction is easier to see through with the appropriate material than thought: with a round shape and in it pie pieces of metal that can be lifted. Depending on how many plates you take away, you only have half the cake, a quarter or maybe three eighths. So the children not only see with their eyes, but also understand with their hands what it means to divide a number.
A child cuts out a square, puts a square of the same size next to it, so that it gets a rectangle. Next to the rectangle, in the next step, it puts a rectangle of the same size, making a larger square - and keeps doing this. The squares become larger and larger and the child realizes that this game could be played on and on. In this way, it gets a sense of infinity - incidentally, even if it plays the game in the other direction and the squares become smaller and smaller.
Maria Montessori noticed one thing: Children who realize they can write become downright euphoric and take every opportunity to write. In her opinion, this desire should not be inhibited by requiring them to spell correctly. Let the child write "brockoli" first if he or she feels like using the word but has not yet mastered all the spelling rules. It cannot learn everything at once; there will be time for correct spelling later.
The sandpaper letters
The sandpaper letters for memorizing individual letters have sandpaper on the surface of square plates, so that the letters can be easily felt. They are relatively large, so that the children can work well with it - in addition, larger letters help children with learning difficulties. They are in two colors, one for vowels, one for consonants.
Working with the sandpaper letters is a first preliminary exercise for learning to write and read. In the practical work, the educator chooses three letters that are visually different from each other and do not sound similar (so, for example, no P and B). First, the teacher traces the letter with two fingers, then pronounces it. Then it's the child's turn. After that, he or she is given small tasks: "Clap over the O", "Put the H in the middle", "Take the M to the kitchen". The crazier the action instructions, the better, the easier it is for the child to remember the letter. In the third step, the child is shown one of the letters and asked what it is called.
Three senses are involved in this exercise: Touch, when the finger glides over the letter; the sense of hearing, when the child hears the sound, and also the sense of sight.
As soon as children start writing, it is more than helpful if the things they write down can also be experienced by them in a concrete way - so that they do not just write the word carnation, but either look at the carnation in the garden, hold it in their hand as a small toy carnation - or at least see a picture of it. This gives the abstract written image a concrete component. The same applies to verbs: When these are learned, children jump, hop, stride, paint, sing - depending on which verb is on the turn. The real activity anchors itself much better in the brain than if only the word were recorded.
Montessori uses different picture cards to help children learn terms from specific word fields, such as the names of trees. Here, too, learning takes place in three stages: the cards are laid out and the child names the trees he or she already knows. The corresponding cards are put away. Three are chosen from the remaining ones and the educator calls out the name of the trees on them, for example "birch", "elm" and "willow". Then the three cards are laid out face up and the educator asks the child to show her, for example, the elm tree, to tap on the birch tree or to cover the willow tree with her hand. In the third step, the cards are laid out one at a time, each with the accompanying question, "Which tree is this?"
If the child still does not follow along with one of the steps and makes a mistake, the exercise is repeated at the previous level.
The child learns that words are made up of sounds and that each word begins with a particular sound, the anlaut. From a series of figures kept in a basket, the child should now pick out all the figures whose initial sound consists of the A, for example: "apple", "car", "anchor". The educator starts with stretchable sounds, such as vowels or, for example, an M. Plosives, such as the B or the T, are not suitable for the beginning.
The materials developed by Maria Montessori make grammar lessons colorful and interesting. The scientist has assigned a differently designed symbol to each type of word, each in a different color. The children now lay out a sentence and assign the appropriate symbol to the different words that appear in it. In this way, grammar is also absorbed through three different senses: hearing the word type, seeing the symbol, and touching the symbol while matching it. This anchors much better in the brain than if the teacher would explain everything on the blackboard.
Correlations also become clear: the verb is a round red circle, the adverb is also round, because it belongs to the verb, but turns out a little smaller. The noun is a black triangle. All the parts of speech related to it, such as the article, the pronoun, or the adjective, are also different colored triangles of different sizes. The preposition is an arc, the conjunction is a connecting line.
This method makes for an exciting and insightful text analysis, as described in the book "Montessori Today." After laying out the symbols, does the child have a boring text with many large black triangles, the nouns, in front of him, such as an instruction manual or a news text? Or do the red circles, the verbs, predominate, making the text more dynamic - as it might be in a fairy tale, for example? Is the text colorful and linguistically embellished? Are verbs expanded with adverbs, for example, so that the sentences become more descriptive? Or does the text always contain the same text structure, i.e. the same symbols in a similar order, making it monotonous?
For older children, it would be interesting to compare an artfully written novel, an interview, or a legal text in this way. It also proves exciting to analyze the same sentence in different languages in this way, thereby revealing the differences in the structure of the languages.
Cosmic education involves materials from the fields of science and the natural sciences that children use to understand the world around them. In part, the institutions use models for this purpose, in part experiments, including outside in nature. Other things are made clear through analogies. Here theory and practice intertwine.
The globe and other planets
One of the well-known Montessori materials is the globe with continents made of sandpaper, which can be felt. In a geography lesson, an educator might begin by asking the children what they already know about the Earth. Two analogies are appropriate to then address the rotation of the earth: The educator could ask if the children have ever stood around a campfire. Perhaps, while thinking about this together, they will remember that it gets warm in the evening when you stand by the campfire. Whereby only the front side gets heat. The back, on the other hand, which is turned away from the heat source, remains cold. It's similar with sausages on the grill, which you have to turn so they brown evenly.
From there, it's not far to the rotation of the earth with the resulting different seasons. The children could continue to consider what would happen if the Earth stopped rotating - perhaps coming to the conclusion that we are very lucky that it does!
Other materials from the field of cosmic education include a globe cut through, which makes it clear what the center of the Earth looks like. To illustrate the different sizes of the planets, different sized spheres serve. Furthermore, the Montessori inventory often includes a world puzzle with different countries, which are put together to form the individual continents. If the puzzle is completely laid, the children know all the countries of the world without having learned them by heart.
Some Montessori facilities even have material for distinguishing clouds.
The book "Montessori today" has many more illustrative exercises at the ready: to help children realize how short man is on earth, the earth evolution of mankind is transferred to a calendar year: until the end of February, there is still no life on earth; the first living cells are formed in early March, in August, life awakens in the oceans. The dinosaurs do not appear until the end of December, but are already extinct around Christmas. Two hours before New Year's Eve, Homo sapiens appears on the surface of the picture, and at 11:59 p.m., humans as we know them today. To illustrate the human development in such a way, provides with the children certainly for an Aha experience.
The University of Uppsala would like to make again the archaeology understandable and developed an archaeological chest of drawers. It contains models of fossils and various other materials such as Plexiglas tubes with stones and sand, which make the process of sedimentation vivid. The children can also walk the Earth's history on a tape glued to the floor, on which the sections described above are marked.
Beads could serve to make them aware of the increase in the world's population. A pearl symbolizes thereby the world population before 6000 years. In the meantime, the human pearl chain has grown to a proud 60 pearls. Also this insight will provide with the children for astonishment.
The Montessori education center in Wiesbaden suggests a presentation, in order to bring the aggregate conditions of water closer to the children: The children fill a glass halfway with water, mark the water level with tape and put the glass in the freezer overnight. The next day, they are amazed to see that the ice rises above the mark, even though most of them had suspected that the water level would stay the same or even get lower.
Movement and stillness
Exercises on movement and stillness are an integral part of the Montessori concept. To perform them, in many cases, you don't even need materials. Maria Montessori noticed that children who move around a lot - preferably outside - become calmer and fight or fight less. That's why she gave children plenty of room for movement in her children's house - as we've seen, even during practical life exercises.
Walking the line
In addition, she has introduced many mindfulness and stillness exercises such as walking the line, because in addition to romping, children need moments of stillness. A variation on the walking on the line already described in the Montessori article would be, that the children hold either a lit candle, which must not go out, or a glass of water, where the liquid must not be spilled, if possible. Walking on the line is exhausting, but it is relaxing at the same time: although the children have to concentrate to complete the task, they are physically and mentally balanced in the process.
Another exercise comes once again from the book "Montessori Today": the children sit around a large blank sheet of paper and have different materials for painting or creating a collage in their hands. Their task is to make a picture out of it together. The difficulty here is that they are not allowed to talk to each other. This is a good exercise in mindfulness and nonverbal communication - and a great challenge for the children, because they are not used to not talking to each other.
Many Montessori children's houses and schools include an open space or playground. It is ideal if the children's house is at the same time a forest kindergarten; this variant is also represented in Germany. Some children's homes have a garden where the children plant vegetables and herbs, sweep leaves, water the flowers - and thus train their gross motor skills. Along the way, they learn what it's like to be self-sufficient in food.
Montessori material - or rather toys?
Maria Montessori did not think much of toys. She was of the opinion that children do not like to pass the time with useless and pointless things, but much prefer to use learning materials. Learning materials and toys are not contradictory at all; both can coexist. There is nothing wrong with the child playing with toys at home, as long as he or she has this need.
If you as a mother or father would like to offer your children a particularly suitable toy, you can consider a few things: The toy should be of high quality, so that it is pleasant to the touch and does not break after a few weeks. It should not appeal to too many sensory stimuli, so it is better not to be a battery-operated flashing plastic toy. On the other hand, it is good to choose a passive toy - then the child has to show effort and ingenuity when using it. The offspring thus becomes more active and is not merely entertained.
"Our desires are premonitions of the abilities that lie within us, harbingers of what we will be capable of accomplishing. What we can do and want presents itself to our imagination apart from us and in the future; we feel a longing for what we already possess in silence. Thus a passionate reaching ahead transforms the truly possible into a dreamed real."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Coloring books are also not suitable for promoting children's creativity, according to some die-hard Montessorians. For example, if a child is coloring a farm, an adult has told him what a horse, cow and tree should look like. It is better to have a pad and pencils ready so that the offspring can draw animals according to their own imagination.
Educational toys designed to teach children under 3 numbers or the alphabet are also not necessarily suitable - simply because they come far too early in the child's development. Usually children signal independently when they are ready to learn writing or arithmetic.
People who take the Montessori principle very strictly even do not want to allow storybooks because the real world is not depicted there. Whereby this view is highly controversial.
We at QUADRO are of the opinion that a child should occupy himself with what he enjoys - as long as he does not harm himself or others in the process. If it wants to color a picture: be my guest. Then it doesn't matter if the pony is pink, the dog orange and the sun black. The same goes for educational toys - if the child is focused and happy, everything is fine.
We also don't see anything bad in fairy tales, because they are a kind of reverie that can be inspiring, for example in role-playing games. However, from our point of view, what should be kept away from children is toys that have a commercial purpose alone and do not take into account the child's abilities.
Difference Montessori material and toys
But what is different about Montessori material compared to toys? One fundamental difference is that in learning materials, the beginning and the end are clearly defined. The task is completed when the child has done it successfully - several times if needed. This is different with toys: on the one hand, there is no clear beginning, and on the other hand, the child can stop doing it at any time.
While "working" with the learning toy is called that, it is basically a game after all. One in which the child gets to know the world around him better and continues to learn through play. This makes it a purposeful and constructive game.
Want to dive deeper into the Montessori world? Then read our article "Learning for Life - A Look at Education According to Montessori Principles".
All sources can be found at the end of the article "Learning for life - a look at education according to Montessori principles".