The Montessori method of education — of which, notably, Prince George is a student and Beyoncé is a graduate — is built on the idea that children are naturally creative and curious, and therefore already have the keys to learning about the world around them. They just need a little encouragement, with the right alphabet toys and sets of building blocks, to become independent learners.
This can happen just as easily outside of the classroom: Parents and babysitters can set up a DIY Montessori space at home to keep kids thinking and playing over the summer. Or for any time of year, really. But we think it’s an especially useful summertime hack: “Work,” the Montessori word for an activity, is usually centered around analog toys that require focus, meaning kids (and adults) can take breaks from hot and noisy parks and pools, and loud and noisy blaring screens. To find the best toys for young creative minds, we consulted with Rika Motohashi, a longtime Montessori teacher in Vancouver. Here’s her advice on what to get.
A work mat
A clean workspace is essential to the Montessori method, so start with picking out a cloth mat. Think of it like a desk: It’s where the “work” happens. A good work mat should be small enough to be manageable by little hands because Montessori kids are responsible for unrolling it, setting materials on it, and when work time is over, rolling it back up and putting it into a safe spot. We like this light-blue option, which is neutral enough for any style of décor.
For learning the alphabet
Montessori schools teach the alphabet through phonetics, and often with activities that go way beyond flash cards. One good way to start is with these sandpaper letters. Young children trace the letters with their fingers, both in upper- and lowercase, to create muscle memory. At the same time, kids are encouraged to learn and identify the phonetic sounds — so while tracing S, they can make an sssssss noise.
This book employs the same method — tracing letters and numbers with your finger — but keeps it all bound together in one place and comes with some suggested activities for mixing it up.
The Montessori method also puts a premium on tactile play and learning. These colorful place-mat-size plastic letters snap apart so that kids can physically learn how to form each character.
For learning about nature
“Montessori is all about connecting children to nature,” Motohashi says, so it’s always a good idea to bring the outside world indoors. Exploring the life cycles of nature is an important part of educational growth. Rather than raise insect colonies in your living room, Motohashi recommends looking for some beautifully made games that showcase how nature works — like the metamorphosis from larva to butterfly seen in this layered puzzle. It combines pre-K entomology with the hand-eye coordination and hands-on application of puzzle work.
For slightly more advanced puzzle masters, these intricate painterly puzzles will get kids studying and thinking about all kinds of animals, as well as how the rain-forest ecosystem is connected, branch by branch.
From the same company: an underwater menagerie scene.
For learning about numbers
Counting from one to ten by memory is simple, but Motohashi says demonstrating the concept of quantity and the sequence of numbers requires some visual aides. She calls it “counting that is concrete.” Toy sets like these basic counting cards and checkerlike chips make it easy for kids to spread out and start connecting numbers with amounts. For little ones, getting to ten takes concentration — and a bit of quiet time.
These mock canned-food items ask kids to perform a similar task, by associating the number of items with the number on the can. In the meantime, they might learn a thing or two about fruits and vegetables, too.
Same goes for this stacking owl game. This one also comes with a spinner, so kids can task themselves with learning how many owls correlate to a given number.
For slightly older kids — like 4- and 5-year-olds — Motohashi recommends this monochromatic set of wood blocks that asks children to use small wooden dividers and colorful blocks to play around with math. The kit comes with numbered tiles, for basic adding, but can also be configured in a few different ways to get kids thinking about adding and matching up patterns.
Fractions are considerably more sophisticated than learning numbers and doing some basic addition, but for any math-minded kids, this colorful, kind of retro set makes it easy to visualize what a fraction really means.
A classic in the Montessori classroom, the Pink Tower is an important part of sensorial activity, which tries to incorporate all five senses: tactile, visual, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory. Not every activity can be touched or tasted, but whenever possible, as many senses as possible should be engaged during “work” projects. To work, the Pink Tower needs to be stacked by size, which requires balance and coordination.
And one with animals on the blocks.
These blocks don’t follow the same incremental size scheme as the other towers, but they require balance and coordination, and — significantly — will please parents with minimalist homes.
Books about the ABCs
Developed by kindergarten teacher Bobby Lynn Maslen in the 1970s, Bob Books are still perfect for children who have mastered the phonetic alphabet and are right on the cusp of reading. All of the books use simple illustration and repetition and rhyme to tell a short story.
And if we’re listing retro books for new readers, how could we resist Dr. Seuss’s ABC?
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