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Grand Rapids, MI 49503



Filtering by Tag: montessori

Our Montessori-Inspired Playroom

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Frigga Jacob, a Stepping Stones Montessori School Parent

Up until a year and a half ago, I knew nothing about the Montessori philosophy. You might imagine how mind-blown I was when I saw the clutter-free rooms, materials arranged neatly on the shelves, the miniature versions of things we use daily at home, the peaceful interactions, and the busy kids: some with laser-focused looks on their faces, some with a satisfied, contented looks on them. 

We had already toured  several preschools, but the tour at Stepping Stones Montessori School made a lasting impression. I mean, I just thought that those things were impossible to do in preschool-aged kids! 

It didn't take long after that to get motivated. I want that at home too! I mean, who doesn't? First off in the "List of things I need to change at home" was our playroom. 

It was Time to Change Our Perspective on Play

After three years of accumulating stuff, our play area was always messy. I tried getting more storage and put toys in bins to hide them. But I hadn’t seen any changes. 


I was still spending a significant amount of time reorganizing and feeling frustrated. It was also very difficult to encourage the kids to clean up after play. 

It was time to jump on the Montessori bandwagon. I looked on Pinterest, Google-searched everything related to Montessori, and got to work. It took me more than a month to finish and missed my intended deadline (before school started). But, it was for the better. After going to the Stepping Stones Parent coffees and reading school newsletters, I was continuously learning -- and our playroom benefitted from my new awareness.

Here are the things I learned along the way. 

Don’t Give Up

Initially, it seems impossible! The kids were constantly rediscovering a long lost toy at the bottom of the bins. They delayed me several times in finishing my playroom rehaul. Naptime and when they were out were the best times to work on the project. 

Get Organized

Toy bins just hid the clutter and made it inevitable for the kids to scatter that clutter around, as they search for a particular toy. I got rid of those and decided to use open shelving.


Next I automatically took out the toys that were broken or had missing pieces. 

Finally, I donated toys that mostly just made lights and noise by pressing buttons rather than actually helping our kids explore and be creative while playing. Our toys now are a mixture of Montessori toys, dollar store toys and hand-me-downs that they continue to play with and spend a lot of time with.

The only toys left in individual bins are the ones dedicated to building (wooden blocks, magnatiles, Legos). 


Follow the Child

 I try to regularly observe their interests and put toys related to those in a low, easy-access shelf.


 I keep the rest of the toys in the basement, and I will rotate those once my kids lose interest in the current ones or once their interests have changed. I noticed that the fewer toys that are out, the longer they spend time with them and the easier it is to take it out and put back after.

Emphasize Themes 

I arranged the toys by theme and matched them with books. This is a personal preference since I liked incorporating reading with play or they might pick the book instead of the toy depending on what they are currently interested in. 


I also liked that Stepping Stones provides lessons on caring for the environment. I own several orchids and decided to put those in the play area. My son helps out with watering them at times. It took awhile for my 2 year old daughter to learn not to pick the buds and wood chips, but she did it and now they're basically untouched.


Be Consistent

I like to continue the habit from the school of putting the bags on a hanger and shoes on the shelves. I dedicated a piece of furniture and an area for that, reinforcing that we respect our materials both at home and at school.


Our Montessori Playroom Encourages Peace and Focus

There were other unexpected advantages that I enjoyed after finishing our Montessori-inspired playroom. Though sometimes they don't cooperate in putting the toys back before the next (mostly when another person is taking care of them), I noticed that putting things back in order was a breeze compared to before, for the obvious reason -- there were fewer things to put back. 

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to minimize the number of toys. Surprisingly, the arrangement withstood many playdates. My kids' friends (not schoolmates)  were as engaged and focused as my kids were. Since the arrangement is by theme, it was easy to remember where things belong, even for the kids. Lastly, things do not get lost as often as before (even the puzzles) and they seldom break anything since we preferred and kept the wooden ones. 

If you are a seasoned Montessori parent, you already know our homes will never be like a Montessori classroom. However, I saw so many things that were doable in our household and it made a huge difference in our everyday lives. I am sure you'll find plenty too. If you have additional ideas, I would love to hear them in the comments! 


Montessori at Home

Elizabeth Topliffe

by Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

One of the most frequent questions I receive, as the Head of School of a small Montessori School, is “How can we make a Montessori home?” This is a great question. It tells me that a family is engaged in their child’s development and eager to learn about and implement Montessori philosophy. 

Keeping in mind that your home is not a Montessori school, and that unlike a classroom that is designed only for 3-6 year-olds, your home is a place for people of varying ages, here are some thoughts:

The Environment

Keep it Real

Our classrooms use “real” things. We use glass pitchers and cups. We use ceramic bowls and plates. We use real silverware. We use knives to cut food. Our classroom materials are made of natural materials wherever possible, utilizing beautiful wood, fabric, and metal. 

This part of our philosophy serves a few purposes. First, all of us react positively to beauty in our lives. Second, it demonstrates in a real way to our students that we take them seriously, and we trust them. Third, we can model that things are things. If a cup breaks, we clean it up. Knowing how to do that also carries a sense of independence and freedom. Fourth, it teaches students the importance of caring for things. If something is beautiful, we can model how to care for it, fix it, and make sure it lasts. When things are made from cheap plastic, we sometimes tend to toss it when it breaks rather than focus on care, maintenance, and repair.

Keep things in reach

If your child is old enough to set the table (starting at about age 2), they are old enough to have those plates, cups, etc. within reach. Imagine how frustrating it would feel for you, as an adult, to have to ask someone else for utensils every time you eat. Your child likely feels the same way. This is true for clothing, art materials, cleaning supplies (rags, water, non-toxic and natural cleaning sprays), and other things your child uses regularly.

A few things instead of all the things

Keep a few things out for your child to use, but the truth is that children play more creatively and better with fewer toys than with many. Also, when parents display toys on shelves with only 2-3 items per shelf, children can see what is available, and learn to return things where they belong. A toy box filled to the top with piles of toys makes it difficult to know what is available and where to return it. 

Modeling & Contribution

Work alongside your child

No matter what your child’s age, their classroom at Stepping Stones Montessori School will include a guide and peers who patiently explains, demonstrates, and partners with students to help them learn how to do things themselves. Whether this is setting a table, pouring water, ironing a shirt, or mending a chicken coop, when your child gains a skill, someone has modeled it for them and has often shown them the steps. Block time in your schedule to do this with your child. Even 10 minutes a day makes a difference.


Expect your child to contribute to the family and contribute yourself. Chores are important for children. They teach confidence, belonging, and motivation. Here are some ideas to get started.

Stay Peaceful

Provide unstructured time for your children and your family. Avoid the temptation and anxiety to provide lessons, museums, libraries and other activities at all times. Instead, give your children opportunities to become bored. Play a game as a family. Do a puzzle. Make up a silly play. Just sit and read together. After a full day at school for them and a full day at work for you, it is important for you both.

Be Realistic

Our guides are trained over the course of years. They have learned meticulous details for creating a Montessori environment. We do not expect our parents to do this at home. The best way we can support you as a parent is to help you be present and free of anxiety while you’re with your kids. You don’t need to have the perfect Montessori environment at home. We have one for your child at school. 

Thank You

We know that working, keeping a house, and being a family can be both overwhelming and rewarding. We have abundant grace and understanding for you. We hope you read this as thoughts to share rather than as a to-do list. Thank you for being so engaged in your child’s development. Stepping Stones Montessori School is fortunate to have such beautiful and committed parents.

Back to School Transitions: The Montessori Way

Elizabeth Topliffe

It is almost here. . . . Days are getting shorter. There are retail opportunities no matter where you turn for Back-to-School deals, vacations are over, and we have another year in front of us to anticipate with excitement, curiosity, and wonder!

The first week of school is a time of transition for every member of a family: our students learn new routines, adults establish new routines, and siblings and pets adjust to the new normal. Transitions, even positive ones like going to school, create stress. To ease your family’s anxiety, we thought we’d share some pointers for you as you prepare for back-to-school.

Maria Montessori categorized our children’s development into specific planes, which we focus on here. If you’d like to learn more about Montessori’s planes of development, fear not! Check out this blog post, contact our office, or look at our website.

For the Entire Family

Talk to Each Other. 

One of the best ways to ease into the academic year is to simply talk about it as a family. Have conversations, asking every member of the family what aspects of going back to school create excitement, anticipation, or anxiety. Helping your children understand that everyone in the family adapts during this time can be helpful to them.

Prepare What You Can the Night Before. 

As a family, pack a lunch, a backpack with indoor shoes, a change of clothes, and even a parent’s computer bag. Plan your breakfast in advance. Ask your child to lay out their clothes the evening before or, in the case of young children, lay out two outfits for them to select from in the morning. Planning ahead will make for a smoother morning. Going to school is stressful enough without running around and trying to complete tasks that could have been done the night before. 

Adjust Your Internal Clock.

We all want to squeeze every last moment of daylight out of summer, especially in Michigan where winters are long. Resist that temptation for the benefit of your kids. It takes five to 10 days to adjust to a new sleep schedule. Experts advise us to make the shift gradually, being kinder to ourselves and our families in the process. Set an alarm clock for yourself and your child. Having your child participate in the clock-setting allows even young children to develop a sense of time, and it allows older children to develop a sense of responsibility for waking themselves.

Establish a Send-Off

Don’t assume that the good-bye hug or kiss that you used last year will work again this year or that your good-bye preferences will work for your child. Establishing a good-bye routine in advance will allow your child to express their opinions and needs. Likewise, for a child who is new to a school, having an established (and practiced) good-bye will help them to confidently enter school and separate from parents. 

Ask About Their Day and Listen, but Don’t Get Hung Up on It. 

At the end of the day, parents often want to hear all about school. After all, we’re as excited to hear about their experiences. Unfortunately, kids don’t always respond with details to questions about their day. Ask something specific like, “Who did you eat lunch with?” or “What did you have for a snack?” That allows your child a specific place to focus. 

But, most important, move on! Play a game as a family, do some chores, go for a walk, relax together. That, more than anything, can reassure your child that everything is ok and that even though they go to school, they come home to a family where their participation is wanted.

Label Anything That You Hope Will Return to Your Home. 

No matter what the age, kids lose stuff. It would be impossible for our guides and our school to keep track of what belongs to each child. Our goal is to teach independence, and that sometimes means learning that things get left behind. If you want it back, it is much more likely to find its way to you if it has a label. Don’t think this is just for little kids, our 6th graders and middle-school students are just as likely to leave something behind or drop it in the parking lot! 

The great news is that you can get labels and support our school at the same time at Mabel’s Labels. Or, if your child is way too cool for that, they can use a Sharpie with some masking tape.

Dress Appropriately.

Your child will be most successful when they can participate whole-heartedly with their classroom and outdoor environments, and with all the work those environments bring.

  • For younger kids who are just becoming independent on the toilet, this means clothes that they can remove themselves. 

  • For adolescents on our farm campus, this means shoes that can withstand mucking goat sheds.

A Montessori classroom is generally not a place where fashion trends are most important, and your child’s clothes should reflect that. Clothes should be comfortable, modest, easily replaced (if they become torn, stained, or both), and appropriate for the weather. Please, no characters on clothing, backpacks, or lunch boxes.

For Children in the First Plane of Development (ages 0-6)

In the first plane of development, our children are concrete thinkers. It will help them if you can be as direct and concrete about the new schedule and separation as possible. 

Practice or Role Play Your New Routine.

Make the routine concrete by using toy cars and trucks to demonstrate the trip to school. Re-enact morning drop-off and pick-up by pretending to go to car-line (for Children’s House) or ringing the classroom bells (for Infant/Toddler). 

Encourage Independence and Participation.

Children can and should participate in packing their lunches. Establishing a protocol helps--something like one protein, one vegetable, one fruit, plus two other options (along with pictures of choices) will help them make decisions about their lunches. Or even better, search for a chart that is already made. We like this one from Nourishing Meals

Create a Positive Drop-Off Routine

Say your good-bye and leave. Don’t sneak out when your child isn’t looking and don’t dawdle. Explain when and where you will pick up your child (if it isn’t you, be sure to explain who will pick them up). Time is not a concrete concept, so say that you will pick them up “after outside time” or “after nap.” Make it short. 

Trust us, your child will be fine. Our classroom guides are trained and educated about the needs of children. They know how to entice a child into the classroom, but if you’re standing there, the guide’s work is much more difficult. If you’re really worried, feel free to email the office or call us. We get it, and we can check to be sure your child adjusted. 

Convey a Sense of Confidence. 

Your child senses your feelings and emotions. When you convey confidence in them, they will be more confident. When you convey confidence in the school, they will also have confidence in the school and in their teachers. 

For children in the second plane of development (ages 6-12)

In the second plane of development, children are not the cute preschoolers they once were. They are interested in their peers, in justice, and instead of testing limits with tantrums. They push buttons with rudeness or deliberate pokes at the rules. 

Remind Your Child That Everyone Feels a bit Nervous

At this age, it can be reassuring to know that friends and others are experiencing similar feelings and anxieties. 

Talk About the Positive Aspects of School

Having a conversation with your child where you reminisce about some of the fun times from the previous year can help them focus on positive memories.

Ask Your Child to Choose Indoor Shoes

Your child will be familiar with the concept of indoor shoes. Give them an opportunity to choose comfortable shoes that they would enjoy wearing indoors (just avoid characters and cartoons). 

Talk About the Schedule

Let your child know what time school starts and ends. For younger elementary students, this is a great way for them to start thinking about telling time. For older students, they can practice abstract planning for deadlines and time management.

For Adolescents in the Third Plane of Development (ages 12-15)

In the third plane of development, adolescents are interested in doing things themselves. It is something of a repeat from a toddler’s request to do it themselves! This doesn’t mean that they are not anxious about starting school. 

A Different Kind of Anxiety. 

At this age, your adolescent is less anxious about school and more anxious about peers. Talking with them about your expectations, such as “school is a place to practice doing your best work rather than doing perfect work”, can help alleviate some of that stress. Asking them about times that they felt successful and then asking what you can do to help replicate the factors that led to their success can help them create a mental picture of success at school.

Get Organized.

Your adolescent’s brain is developing faster than it has since they were a toddler. With it comes some brain fog. Having an organized room, dresser, desk, or backpack is likely not at the top of their list, but starting there can help them avoid some of their natural fogginess. You can’t put something away if there isn’t an established place for it, after all. Helping your adolescent organize their space before school starts, will help them stay organized for school.


It can be easy to step in with advice at this age, especially if and when your adolescent seems anxious about something “small.” Listening and asking questions is often better than giving advice (kind of ironic that you’re reading this in a blog full of advice). 

Well-posed questions can help your adolescent think rationally and logically about a problem; they can usually get to an answer that works well for them and is often better than any advice a parent could offer. It also helps your adolescent develop coping skills for managing their own life. 

Ask Them Serious Questions.

Ask them if one year from now they could say that this school year was the “best school year ever,” what would it take? Then, ask how you can create those conditions together. Ask them what they want from you as a parent for support. And, if you offer it, deliver. 

We’re Excited for Another Year Together!

The whole Stepping Stones community is looking forward to getting back to campus. We can’t wait to hear about all of your summer adventures! We’re also anticipating a year that celebrates meaningful work, growth, and community. We’ll see you very soon.