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Early Math and Language Skills: Part Two

Last Monday, I talked a bit about early math and language skills. I mentioned that I don’t believe teaching numerals and letters is typically the best focus with toddlers or young preschoolers. I also described the complexity of the prerequisite skills children develop as they prepare to read, write, and do basic math – with foundational math skills actually being an important preparation for early language skills. Today I’d like to look at how some of those prerequisite skills are fostered in the Montessori classroom, and how we as parents can nurture them in the home.

For my fellow parents, I’ll reiterate something that I have to remind myself of frequently: Most, if not all of these skills are learned naturally and implicitly. If creating activities and trays is not your thing, your child will still learn to sort various objects. They will eventually figure out that when we count, each number corresponds with one and only one object. Don’t worry. If you enjoy creating trays and coming up with games, go for it! They’re sure to be enriching and fun. If that’s not your thing, just an awareness of the skills your child is building will hopefully help as you go about your days together, by giving you ideas for language to use, attributes to point out, and the various ways you can approach the experiences that come up in your everyday life.

So, if we’re not focusing on letters and numerals just yet, what can we work on to help prepare our children for reading, writing, and math?


First, we can organize our home environments in an uncluttered and predictable way. Outward organization seems to have a positive effect on cognition, as described by Dr. Angeline Lillard in Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.

Order in larger spaces has been shown to influence a range of developmental outcomes…studies showed that children performed better on cognitive tests to the extent that their homes were more ordered and predictable-for example, they had established places for their toys.

Other studies have also found that an orderly environment is associated with better functioning, and that less organized homes are linked to a range of negative outcomes, from poorer cognitive competence, to less adequate language, to more difficult temperaments, to lower mastery motivation, to more accidental injuries (see Wachs, 2000).

Angeline Stoll Lillard

Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, pg 306

Organization is not every parent’s strength. It is certainly not a strength of mine, and I’m sure our children will learn and develop in spite of our shortcomings, but it seems that creating and attempting to maintain some level of order in our homes is likely at least as useful a pursuit during the early childhood years as creating flash cards and letter and number worksheets (both things I’m not a fan of, by the way!). As our youngest children are working on the prerequisite skills for math and language, we can help them by creating environments where their belongings all have a place, and can consistently be found in that place.

Organization and the Montessori classroom

Not only are Montessori classrooms ordered in a very deliberate way, with all materials being returned to the same place at the end of a work period, and found again in that place the next day, but each activity is ordered in a specific way to help prepare children for reading and writing.

As English speakers, we read and write both words and numbers from the top to the bottom of a page, and from the left to the right side. This is so ingrained that it’s easy to forget that children must learn to follow, and to write text in this way. In the Montessori classroom, all materials, whether directly related to language or not, are organized in this way. Materials are arranged on the shelves from simple to complex, with the most basic activities on the top shelf at the left side, and the most complex on the far right. Individual activities are arranged on trays with the first item a child will use on the top left section of the tray and the next item to the right of that. Activities for pouring, spooning, sorting, and the like are set up so that the objects to be transferred are in the leftmost container and the empty container sits to the right of that. This way, all of the work that children do in the classroom is indirectly preparing them for reading and writing from top to bottom and left to right.

Simple organization ideas for the home

Involve your children in daily household tasks

Not only does the work of the home build a number of skill sets, but getting housework done together makes it more possible to actually do housework, thus maintaining an orderly environment. You are only one person, and you can’t be expected to engage with your child in focused play and educational activities during all of their waking hours, and follow that by spending a large portion of their sleeping hours cleaning and organizing your home.

Rotate toys

If you are reading this, it’s very likely that your child has more toys than he or she needs. Figuring out how to maintain an uncluttered and orderly play space can be an incredibly daunting task due to an overwhelming amount of stuff. Keeping only some toys and materials out and available to children not only makes it much easier to organize and maintain them, but it also keeps children engaged and interested. It’s much easier to choose something to play or work with when there are a reasonable number of options, and all of the options can be clearly seen, and novel activities have an appeal that things children have seen every day of their lives simply do not. Taking a regular inventory of what is interesting your child and what isn’t, what gets played with and what gets ignored, and storing or bringing out new items to maintain interest and foster more creative, active play and learning can really help maintain order in the child’s environment.

Keep like objects together

This is something most of us are probably already doing, but it’s worth mentioning. One way of creating order in children’s play spaces is to keep similar items in the same place. Vehicles can go in one shelf or basket, dress up clothes in the same corner as dolls and other pretend items, and so on. I don’t think anyone needs much guidance on this one!

Make a habit of organizing things from left to right

While not all of our children’s toys and activities will be graded for complexity as in the Montessori classroom, we can make a point of placing their spreading knife to the left of the butter dish and their toast to the right of that, so that they progress from left to right when putting the finishing touches on their breakfast in the morning. Offering a small pitcher of water or juice at snack or mealtimes, and placing the child’s cup or glass to the right of that so they’re pouring from left to right works as well. If we lay out clothing, we can place things in the order that they need to be put on, from left to right. It’s a habit that quickly becomes ingrained, for current and subsequent children, after you spend just a bit of time cultivating it.

I am by no means a shining example of organization in the home. It’s something I struggle to provide daily. You can see, however, some photos of how Annabelle’s toys, materials, and belongings were organized in our previous home in the posts Our Montessori Home, Sans School and Personal Care in a Montessori Home. I’m still struggling to organize our new home, but we’ll get there eventually!

Visual Discrimination

Last week I mentioned the skills of visual and auditory discrimination and their importance in helping to prepare children for reading, writing, and math. Learning to differentiate between similar objects is an important preparation for learning to differentiate between the various letters of the alphabet and the numerals, many of which look quite similar to the untrained eye.

Visual discrimination in the Montessori classroom

In the classroom, visual discrimination is fostered in more ways than I can list here. The Sensorial curriculum provides a beautiful and systematic way of training the eye to detect the most subtle of differences in attributes such as thickness, length,  color, and form. To use just one well-known piece of material as an example, we have the Pink Tower which is composed of ten cubes which vary in size from 1 to 10cm at every dimension. In working with this material, children not only develop their powers of visual discrimination, as they get to know, visually, the difference between the smallest cube and the largest, and grade the eight that come in between, but they experiment simultaneously with weight, width, height, mass, and so much more. They learn basic principles of physics as they discover how a tower must be constructed for maximum stability. We also have the Knobbed and the Knobless Cylinders, the Broad Stair, the Red Rods, and a number of other materials that give children repeated and varied experience with visual discrimination, as well as other important concepts that build a strong foundation for math and language skills. While the Sensorial curriculum provides the clearest and best example of activities that help foster visual discrimination, many other examples can be found around the classroom.

Activities for Visual Discrimination in the Home


Simple matching activities are a great way to begin refining the visual sense and building the concepts of “same” and “different.” One of my favorite large objects for pairing early on is wooden play fruit. We have a set that includes two tomatoes, two ears of corn, two onions, and so on. Once matching two identical objects becomes old hat, you can match two dimensional objects to cards. Rather than buying specially designed cards, you can simply take photos of small objects you have around the house and print them off for matching activities. Matching two identical cards or photos can come next.

Matching activities outside the home can be great as well. If your child accompanies you when you do the grocery shopping, you can prepare a “list” for him or her in advance, with photos of items you need to buy. Present your child with the list when you get to the store and have them use it to help you hunt for objects as they ride along in the cart. Not only does this keep them happy and engaged while you’re doing errands, but it helps build visual discrimination as well. This idea can be adapted for other outings, too. You can print out cards with photos of animals you plan to see at the zoo, flowers you plan to see at the botanical garden, or objects you’ll find in an airport on an upcoming trip.


To continue to build visual discrimination, you can move from matching to sorting, beginning with simple activities for sorting by obvious attributes like color. The plastic bear counters and cups most any parent has seen at some time or another would be one simple sorting activity, though I’d recommend beginning with just two colors, two cups, and a small number of bears, and adding more only when the child has mastered that. To build on the complexity of sorting activities, you can gradually introduce different things to sort until the child is working with objects that are extremely similar. A simple activity might be separating flowers from leaves, while a more complex one would involve sorting between different types of leaves.

Sorting activities can be found all over the home, too. Your child can help you empty the dishwasher by putting the silverware away, sorting the forks, knives, and spoons into their respective compartments in the drawer. Sorting laundry by color in preparation for a wash provides another great opportunity.


When children have become skilled at pairing and sorting objects, a new level of complexity can come in the form of grading activities. Various manipulatives can be ordered from largest to smallest, from lightest to darkest, or by any attribute you can dream up. One of my favorite materials in the Montessori classroom is Color Box Three, which includes seven shades of various colors, which the children can order from darkest to lightest or vice versa. A similar activity can be created for the home using handmade swatches of color, paint samples, or anything else you can think of or find. This activity can be surprisingly challenging, so I recommend starting with one color only, rather than giving children nine different colors to grade at once.

Auditory Discrimination

Auditory discrimination is particularly important for language learning, as it helps children to pick out the individual sounds in the spoken word, and to translate those to their own writing as well. We seldom stop to think about how subtle the differences between some of the sounds in our language actually are.

Auditory discrimination in the Montessori classroom

Like visual discrimination, this skill is fostered most deliberately through experience with some of the Sensorial materials. First, we have the Sound Cylinders, which are introduced as a matching activity. There are two boxes of cylinders, one with red and one with blue tops. The difference between the red and blue is purely visual, as the sounds made by the cylinders in each set are identical. Children listen to the sound of one cylinder at a time, and then search for its pair in the matching set. Once children have mastered this exercise, they can also work with one or two sets of cylinders at a time, grading them from loudest to softest or matching them in order. We also have the Montessori Bells, and the Silence Game, which trains the ear to pay attention to sounds in the environment and has many variations that can be used at home – a few of which are discussed at the link provided.

Activities for developing the auditory sense in the home

Music, sound and silence games

Music in general, if carefully chosen, can encourage children to pay attention to different sounds in their environment. The same is true for any games involving sounds that you can come up with as you go about your routine, pass time in the car, or wind down for nap or bedtime. On a rainy day when you can’t get outside, try playing freeze dance to get the wiggles out. If things get a bit too silly while you’re setting up for or cleaning up from a meal, try talking to your child in a whisper. Many children find this hilarious and/or fascinating, and will slow down and really listen for your voice.

Picking out sounds that occur on a regular basis in your environment can also be a fun activity that helps build auditory discrimination. Simply drawing attention to it when you hear a noticeable sound can spark an interest in your child, who will quickly come to notice and identify sounds you may not even have paid attention to previously. Like many toddlers, my daughter can easily tell just by hearing when the trash truck is driving down the street, and distinguishes this specific sound from ordinary cars and trucks. Thanks to her dad, she’s also better than I at determining whether a sound she hears overheard is being made by an airplane or a helicopter. All I have ever done to encourage this is stop when I hear a sound and, with enthusiasm ask, “What’s that!?” If she doesn’t identify the sound easily, we can find its source together. In the car, you can pass the time by making the sounds of various animals or objects together. Impromptu guessing games, where you make a sound and have your child guess what you’re mimicking can be great, too. Of course there are a number of popular songs that can fill the gap when you’re not feeling creative, like “The Wheels on the Bus.”

Matching, Sorting, and Grading

Beginning with simple matching activities and progressing to sorting and grading is beneficial for the auditory sense as with the visual sense. You can experiment with filling toilet paper tubes with various objects, such as beans, rice, gravel, sand, or salt, closing the ends, and listening to the differences between the sounds each one makes. You can create your own Sound Cylinders by making identical sets of tubes and matching or grading them. Film canisters, if you still have that sort of thing around, or empty jars and bottles work well for this purpose, too.

Image Credit: mtsofan on Flickr

Work with instruments

If you’re musically inclined, or even if you’re not, you can add various instruments to your child’s play space one at a time, or bring out your own instruments to explore together and put away for safe keeping afterward. As the child becomes accustomed to the distinct sounds of different instruments, you can begin pointing them out and identifying them in recorded music together. “Does that sound like a guitar, or a piano?”

If you have a whole basket of instruments, you can get down on the floor together and play them one at a time, deciding which makes the softest and which makes the loudest sound and grading all of the instruments in between. You can sort them by type, letting the child come up with their own criteria or suggesting some of your own: “Hey, the xylophone and the drum are similar, because you hit them both!” Compare them to other sounds you’re familiar with, “The drum sounds like thunder!” or just explore how they make you feel, what they remind you of, etc.

These skills and activities are all intended to provide a strong foundation for more deliberate work with specific math and language concepts, and hopefully they’re a good jumping off point for some ideas of your own (which I would love to hear, by the way!). Next week, I’ll move on to skills and activities that prepare children for writing letters and numbers, and then I’ll finish up the series with some specific math and language activities to build on what we’ve talked about today.

Do you have suggestions or activities of your own for building any of the skills above? I’d love to hear, and I know others would as well, so please share in the comments!

13 thoughts on “Early Math and Language Skills: Part Two

  1. Niki

    Love this Melissa! Thank you for sharing! I have been doing some matching games with Jaxon that he has done well with. He likes to match the mommy animals to the baby animals the best. I have tried to introduce sorting to him. He will sort by color with me for a few minutes, but looses interest very quickly or wants to do something else with the items we are sorting other than sort them. I figure it will click with him in hood time. I love your idea for the pictures to take to the super market and zoo!! Please keep sharing your wonderful ideas! I can’t wait to prepare the activities for Jaxon!

    Thank you!!

    1. melissa Post author

      I’m glad you found an idea or two you could use, Niki! I feel like deliberate sorting activities can be hard at home with a lot of children. It’s so much different from the classroom where children are used to moving from one specific activity to the next. I still haven’t quite figured out what the right approach is with Annabelle, but less formal things like the grocery lists seem to be the most likely to appeal to her right now.

  2. Deb @ Living Montessori Now

    Great ideas, Melissa! Organization wasn’t my strongest area either, so Montessori education was especially important for me both as a teacher and a parent. I always loved having that foundation of how to organize the environment and place activities top to bottom and left to right. It does become second-nature after awhile. I was in a public restroom a few months ago that had both soap and hand lotion. The hand lotion was on the left, though, and I had to laugh at how wrong that felt to me.

    It’s so true that many of the best preparatory activities are some of the simplest. I love the idea of taking photos along for shopping and zoo trips. And I always loved the power of whispering! Thanks for linking up with Montessori Monday. I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/LivingMontessoriNow

    1. melissa Post author

      Thanks, Deb! I’m glad to know I’m not the only Montessorian who isn’t naturally well-organized. I shudder to think what our living space would look like if Montessori hadn’t drilled some basic principles of order into me!

      I would probably have switched the soap and lotion without even noticing I was doing it ;)

  3. Monique

    I’m just starting to look into the Montessori method for my 18 month old and I learned so much from this article! I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

  4. Amy

    This is such an incredibly helpful post! I loved the quote about organization. While I consider myself an organized person, dh and I have a clutter problem. Mainly because we are reading multiple books and magazine at one time and then just leave them open on the counter, table, dresser, etc, etc. We are working on it! Also, your descriptions of the types of and importance of discrimination are wonderful for a Montessori newbie like me.

    I loved the idea of matching fruit. It was actually just on how we montessori, and I’ve wanted to try it this week. One type of visual discrimination that I see with Q-ball is recognizing images in books and finding them in the house. We have a book that shows cats playing with a toy that looks like one of the Montessori rattles. I didn’t even notice the picture, but Q-ball instantly saw the toy and started making the sign for “rattle.” Books are wonderful!

  5. Christine @ African Babies Don't Cry

    I was just thinking of this the other day, when we were playing in the sandpit and Jesse was sorting stones from sand into a container, Im all for trays etc, but Jesse battles to hold his attention to anything unless we are outside and it is informal… working for us for now. I do, however, think I am in trouble with the uncluttered and ordered home, lol, motivation to do a big tidy up ;) Thank you so much for this! I am so looking forward to the next post too!

    1. melissa Post author

      Outside and informal learning is just about as good as it gets if you ask me. It’s a beautiful thing to watch when children are spontaneously focusing on activities they dream up themselves. This post was motivation for me to tidy up, too! ;)

    1. melissa Post author

      Thanks, Rach! Loved your post, and will definitely carve out time to reply and write my own soon!


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