DIY Montessori activities for toddlers

A few years ago I worked at a Montessori nursery and the experience changed my view of early years and, to some extent, of learning.

I walked in on my first day expecting children shouting and running around, and for my job to involve managing this. (Children are noisy, aren’t they?)

That wasn’t what I found. Instead the atmosphere was calm and the children were engrossed in what they were doing. They’d work intensely for twenty minutes or more on an activity. When they’d finished, they’d put away the materials, bring out some more and start working with those. No screaming. Very little running. Hardly any arguing. As a learning environment, it just worked. To say I was impressed would be an understatement. Sometimes, you have to see something that works really well to realise how well things can work; this was how good nursery education could be.

So why did this nursery work so well? I think there were two reasons. First, the activities presented just the right balance of challenge and ‘achievability’. Not too easy, not to difficult. The second reason, and the more interesting one, is that the children were exploring concepts fundamental to the physical world, and so their ‘work’ allowed them to make sense of their wider experiences. The success of this nursery was largely down to the type of activities available to the children.

The activities were aimed at motor control or basic mathematical concepts – activities like counting, measuring, pouring, transferring items between containers and arranging things in size order. Many involved everyday objects, so they were easy to set up. Some of the activities involved what might be called ‘educational resources’ but these were relatively simple.

Since then, I’ve found some of these same activities described on blogs written by parents. Looking through them has reminded me of the calm atmosphere in that nursery, where the toddlers sat totally engrossed in what they were doing.

As a birthday present for my two-year old nephew, I’ll be sending him (or, rather, his mum and dad) the best of the Montessori activities that I’ve found online. In this article, you will find background information to the activities, including links to the Montessori blog entries that I like most, and photos of the Montessori-inspired resources I’ve made. I’ll add updates as I find more links and create new materials; you might like to bookmark this page.

Number Rods

Grooved timber strips - a DIY variation on Montessori number rods

This resource consists of ten wooden strips of different lengths. The activity is to line them up in size order. It works best if the strips are placed on a rectangular tray or a tea towel, to stop the rods ending up all over the room.

This provides a visual and tactile experience of quantity; it shows that ‘ten’ takes up ten times more space than one, and that it weighs ten times more.

As an activity, it may not need demonstrating. Sorting the rods into size order is what you want to do when you see them, and young children have an instinct to create order when they are playing.

DIY Monmtessori number rods laid out to demonstrate number bonds
This resource can also be used to explore addition, for instance the fact that ‘nine’ and ‘one’ together are the same length as ‘ten’. Again, this might not need demonstrating.

This is a variation on Montessori’s number rods shown here. Rather than painted red and blue units, I left mine as plain wood and marked the units with grooves. I think they’re more attractive when you can see the grain of the wood and the grooves make them more interesting to handle.

The backs of my rods are unmarked, so the activity is slightly more difficult when it’s done plain side up. I was planning to cut grooves all the way round, until I realised that the difference between front and back could be a feature.

My number rods were made from Richard Burbidge pine, from B@Q. The wood is 25mm wide and a 2.4m piece was good to make ten rods with a bit left over; there was enough to make twelve. I did the cutting with a tenon saw and I used a mitre box to set the cutting angle at 90 degrees. A mitre box can be bought from a tool shop, or they can be made by gluing together a few blocks of wood, which is how I made mine. I chamfered the edges of my number rods using medium and fine aluminium oxide paper. The rods were left unvarnished.