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Blog

The Genius of the Montessori Materials

Sarah Danielski

by Sarah Danielski, Admissions

Have you ever wondered why there are so many items on the shelves of a Montessori classroom? Was your interest piqued when your Elementary student came home and talked about how large of a division problem she was solving with the Racks and Tubes? What in the world is the Brown Stair all about?

Dr. Maria Montessori created learning materials in response to the needs of the developing human. Even in the early 20th century, she was adamant that education was in need of reform to be human-centered and decided to implement change where she was able to influence it. In contrast to the traditional approaches of her time, she focused on the goal of education— which she defined as “the development of a complete human being, oriented to the environment, and adapted to his or her time, place and culture.”

French physicians Edouard Seguin and Jean Itard heavily influenced Dr. Montessori. They had designed materials for children in the deaf community, as well as for children who were labeled “mentally deficient” at the time— and their materials were successful in allowing these students to learn. Building on successful prototypes, Dr. Montessori went on to develop her own materials based on her theory of the Four Planes of Development. She described her early classrooms as laboratories, where she had the opportunity to observe the students and how or if they engaged with the work. 

This revolutionary approach—looking first to the needs of the child for healthy development rather than getting lost in the frenzy of adult assessment—is key to the timeless success of the materials. The intention and the thought that went into making each piece, as well as the attention to details, is where the genius lies. Montessori education serves humans from birth to 18 years. The traditional materials are present throughout the First and Second Planes of Development. The materials take different forms, but there are common threads and universal expectations that need to be met. 

What makes these materials so unique? How do they continue to entice children in the thousands of Montessori schools scattered across six continents? 

Montessori Keeps It “Real”

Typically made of wood, metal, or glass, materials offer the child differing textures, temperatures, baric comparisons, and real consequences if not handled carefully. Providing “real” materials demonstrates a high level of trust —trusting a child to learn how to properly care for objects in their environment (including through mistakes and mishandlings!). 

A four-year-old student uses the orange squeezing work to prepare juice. She uses a glass and metal citrus juicer, pours it into a glass pitcher, and finally into a child-sized glass to drink from. Her work isn’t over until she has washed off all the pieces and returned it to the shelf. There is a lot of care and balance required for all these steps!

A four-year-old student uses the orange squeezing work to prepare juice. She uses a glass and metal citrus juicer, pours it into a glass pitcher, and finally into a child-sized glass to drink from. Her work isn’t over until she has washed off all the pieces and returned it to the shelf. There is a lot of care and balance required for all these steps!

Works Are Attractive and Well-Kept

Guides and assistants take care daily to ensure all pieces are in good repair and present for each material. The child is also taught how to be active in this endeavor. Children’s House Practical Life materials are color-coded by specific work so children can visually keep work items organized. In Elementary, the precise number of beads must always be returned to their tubes for the next student to find the correct quotient in the Racks and Tubes.

A second-grade student works on a division problem into the millions with the help of the Racks and Tubes. That’s a lot of beads to keep track of!

A second-grade student works on a division problem into the millions with the help of the Racks and Tubes. That’s a lot of beads to keep track of!

Works Are Sized by Age

Montessori classroom visitors should instantly be able to predict the ages of children based upon both the size of tables and chairs, but also the materials themselves and where they are positioned. All materials should be easily accessible, within reach, and fit the hand of the child who will be using it!

A three-year-old student takes care of a plant in his classroom. Notice that the bowl, water pitchers, and cotton balls are all the perfect size for his hands.

A three-year-old student takes care of a plant in his classroom. Notice that the bowl, water pitchers, and cotton balls are all the perfect size for his hands.

They Are Presented in Order

Dr. Montessori knew how important it was to respond to the needs of the child. Her theory of the Four Planes of Development was specific about delineating the sensitive periods of each age and how the environment must be carefully prepared to meet the needs of these time-sensitive windows for developing humans. Order is one of the most important sensitive periods in the First Plane of Development. All materials in this level have a place on a shelf, usually from left to right (culturally specific for tracking that helps with reading in our English language), and start with the most simple and concrete through to the most abstract and complex.

A Practical Life shelf demonstrates the precise order of the materials starting with the simplest on the top left to the most complex on the bottom right. Isolated skills are practiced repeatedly and incorporated successfully into the works with more complex steps. (Photo credit to  Montessori Institute of San Diego )

A Practical Life shelf demonstrates the precise order of the materials starting with the simplest on the top left to the most complex on the bottom right. Isolated skills are practiced repeatedly and incorporated successfully into the works with more complex steps. (Photo credit to Montessori Institute of San Diego)

They Have Direct and Indirect Purposes

Each material is designed to “teach” a concept. That’s why you will often hear us Montessorians refer to the adults in the environment as “guides” who act as the “dynamic link” between the materials and the child. The materials are presented in a complete set to avoid frustration or distraction. They are designed and presented to be repeated in order to encourage concentration through repetition. The direct purpose for the child may be as simple as hearing grains of rice fall onto a porcelain bowl in a transfer exercise, while the indirect purposes of the work are to orient the tracking of the child’s eye from left to right; encourage concentration; and strengthen muscles of the hand—all pre-writing and reading skills!

A three-year-old student uses the wood polishing work to help keep her classroom looking beautiful (direct purpose). The indirect purpose is to prepare her for writing: strengthening the hand, sequencing the steps in the process, and working toward increased level of concentration through repetition.

A three-year-old student uses the wood polishing work to help keep her classroom looking beautiful (direct purpose). The indirect purpose is to prepare her for writing: strengthening the hand, sequencing the steps in the process, and working toward increased level of concentration through repetition.

They Allow for Control of Error

Our very traditional, adult-centric viewpoint automatically assumes that an adult needs to be actively coaching a child in order for learning to occur. In fact, “learning”—defined as the acquisition of knowledge— is more often achieved through the individual experience of interacting with the environment or a specific material. Many of the Montessori materials have been designed specifically to empower the child to logically arrive at the correct answer through the inherent structure of the work. Adult correction is unnecessary for the student to progress, and the connection the child has made is that much stronger for having the hands-on auto-correction. The child is actively doing the learning, or acquiring knowledge, versus being led by an adult presenting a lesson.

A three-year-old student manipulates the Brown Stair. Made from solid wood, this work helps the child refine her baric and visual discrimination. She has seen how it is graded from “thickest” to “thinnest” and is allowed as much time and repetition as is needed to put it in order. She doesn’t need an adult to correct her as the size and weight will help her organize the prisms accordingly.

A three-year-old student manipulates the Brown Stair. Made from solid wood, this work helps the child refine her baric and visual discrimination. She has seen how it is graded from “thickest” to “thinnest” and is allowed as much time and repetition as is needed to put it in order. She doesn’t need an adult to correct her as the size and weight will help her organize the prisms accordingly.

Materials Are a Gift That Keeps Giving

Montessori curriculum is often described as a spiral rather than a continuum— explaining the use of the same materials used throughout the three years that the student will spend in any given classroom. Some materials reappear in later years again with a deeper connection to advanced studies of writing or geometry. Of course, the students are progressing through different, age-appropriate lessons, and the materials adapt to the development and skill level of the child. 

Puzzle maps, introduced in the Sensorial area of Children’s House challenge our three-year-old students with shape discrimination. Four year olds, who by now have had ample time practicing with the maps, begin comprehending the words written on the control maps — connecting with both language skills and geography. In the third year, the five- and six-year-old students will be labeling the maps and challenging themselves with the already printed labels that are part of the Language area. It is a cycle of mastery with many interconnected parts.

A five-year-old student works to create her own map of he world. She traces the continents onto colored paper and then uses an awl to perforate the paper. She will eventually punch out the shapes and adhere them to a large piece of paper to finish her work. Her final step will be writing the names of the continents.

A five-year-old student works to create her own map of he world. She traces the continents onto colored paper and then uses an awl to perforate the paper. She will eventually punch out the shapes and adhere them to a large piece of paper to finish her work. Her final step will be writing the names of the continents.

A third-grade-student labels the shapes of the Trinomial Cube to understand the mathematical equation that the material represents. She would have first used this as a 3-D puzzle in the Children’s House, absorbing the information by repeatedly creating the cube.

A third-grade-student labels the shapes of the Trinomial Cube to understand the mathematical equation that the material represents. She would have first used this as a 3-D puzzle in the Children’s House, absorbing the information by repeatedly creating the cube.

Learn More About Montessori Materials

Would you like to see the genius of Montessori materials in action? We invite and encourage you to reach out to set up an observation with your child’s guide. If you are a prospective parent, please contact us for a tour. We promise that you will walk away with a deeper understanding of your child’s skills and a greater appreciation for the intentional design of the Montessori environment and its materials.

The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.” ~Dr. Maria Montessori