Last week, I wrote about the essential materials for a well equipped Children’s House environment. This week, I wanted to talk a bit about the options available for purchasing materials, and about what I’m doing for our program. At this point, I have ordered most of our materials, but have received very few, so I’ll definitely be posting an update when I’ve had the chance to work with them for awhile.
The first option I sought out when I began shopping for our materials was used. Occasionally, a school or training center will downsize and teachers or trainers will offer their entire lot of materials for sale together. If you’re plugged into the Montessori community in your area and looking for materials, you can begin by simply asking around. Shipping can be a huge cost, as many of the items you’ll need are large, wooden, and therefore heavy, so it would be ideal to purchase from someone within driving distance. Other places to look would be the Montessori Swap group in Yahoo groups and classified sections of various Montessori association websites. On a quick search, I found materials for sale that had been listed on the web page for the Oregon Montessori Association. The North American Montessori Teachers Association has a popular classifieds section as well. Other places to check before giving up on the idea of used materials would be ebay and craigslist.
If you can buy locally and avoid shipping costs, you stand to save quite a bit of money buying used and it’s possible that you’ll get some wonderful teacher made materials in addition to the Montessori classics, which is something you can’t buy from any material manufacturer. Of course the drawback is that materials are likely to have some wear and tear already and you’re not able to choose specific options, such as the script of your sandpaper letters.
DIY and Handmade
For those with the time and skills, many materials can be hand made. Living Montessori Now is an excellent resource for tutorials and inspiration for handcrafted materials. There are a number of Etsy sellers who offer variations of Montessori materials as well. I have seen some lovely sandpaper letters and numerals and a number of enrichment materials there. You can always look into collaborating with a local woodworker, too. Unfortunately, it’s often more expensive to support local companies, but if you can get together and make it work, you’ll be saving a lot more than money.
There are a host of different companies selling Montessori materials at bargain prices and this can be an excellent option for new programs. The last classroom I set up was outfitted with a classroom package from a discount manufacturer and I was amazed by the wide range of materials we had to get our classroom set up. My original plan for our new program was to purchase a classroom package from Montessori Outlet, which would have given me everything I need and much more for less than $3,000. Shipping is free on large orders with Montessori Outlet and many other discount manufacturers, which is a huge bonus as well. Alison’s Montessori has comparable packages, as do a number of other companies. I mention these two because I have dealt with them in the past and know them to be legitimate. There are more complete lists out there, so I won’t create yet another. If you want to compare the many companies available, you can visit this post at Living Montessori Now. Many of the same manufacturers also sell on ebay, where you can sometimes get better shipping deals on small orders. I found in my own searches that I had the most success in finding items there when I looked for specific things, such as the Montessori Geometric Cabinet, instead of for Montessori materials in general. Amazon also has a handful of items available through various sellers at discount prices.
With discount manufacturers, the major benefits are the low cost and the often free shipping on large orders. I love that these companies make Montessori accessible and relatively affordable. Of course you also get what you pay for, and while some materials are indistinguishable from those made by the more well known manufacturers, others are of noticeably poor quality and the free shipping you may earn with your order doesn’t often apply to returns. Because of the low prices, items are often out of stock and company websites tend not to indicate this before you order, so you may end up waiting a long time for back ordered materials1 Most of these materials are manufactured in China, which may or may not be of any consequence to you, but is certainly something to be aware of.
The Gold Standard
Probably the most well known and widely respected source of Montessori materials in the world is Nienhuis, founded in the Netherlands to manufacture materials for Dr. Montessori herself. Materials sold by Nienhuis are of the highest quality and tend therefore to be available at the highest prices. Nienhuis has had a longstanding relationship with the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) and continues to ensure that their materials meet AMI standards. In addition to the quality, another benefit of working with such a well established company is excellent customer service. Unlike most discount manufacturers, Nienhuis also sells spare parts, so it’s easy to replace a single missing cylinder, triangle, lid, or knob. This means many materials can have a much longer life than they otherwise would.
Comparable to Nienhuis is Gonzagareddi, an Italian manufacturer that Montessori worked with directly to equip Children’s Houses in Italy. Gonzagareddi materials are also certified by AMI and are manufactured in the EU. The same benefits and drawbacks apply when working with both companies. On many materials, Gonzagareddi seems to offer a lower price, but on other items the price is higher, so it’s worth doing comparisons if you don’t prefer one company over the other. One thing to keep in mind when pricing materials and making a decision on where to purchase is that shipping costs are added to orders from both Nienhuis and Gonzagareddi and because of the size and weight of many materials, these can be considerable. Both have a presence in the US, so at least the shipping is domestic for those of us here as well as many in Europe. Thanks to Deb’s helpful post at Living Montessori Now, I learned that there is also an AMI approved material company in Japan, called Matsumoto.
Enrichment and Specialty Materials
While the manufacturers discussed above offer the full range of traditional Montessori materials, there are a number of other things teachers need to outfit their Practical Life and Science and Cultural areas. Montessori Services specializes in Practical Life materials for the Children’s House with classroom ready activities as well as items you can use in creating your own. Language materials, Sensorial activities, rugs, trays, and baskets are available there as well. Priority Montessori Materials makes beautiful Science and Cultural materials, but is not accepting new orders at the moment. Hello, Wood makes classical materials in Tennessee as well as some enrichment items. These are companies I have purchased from myself or browsed at conferences, but many other companies exist for printables and more. There’s a great list of other places to shop on Deb’s post.
Making Your Decision
Where to purchase materials is a big question, and there are several factors you’ll want to consider when answering it for yourself. The biggest one is who will be using the materials, and for how long. Homeschoolers who will work only with their own children don’t have to worry much about wear and tear and may find it hard to justify the cost of premium quality materials, preferring to go with a discount manufacturer. If you’re opening a large program that you plan to operate for many years, you may want sturdy materials for which you’ll be able to purchase replacement parts. Of course quality, used materials are a great value in either case and no matter who your materials will be used by, you have to look at how much you’re able to invest. Ethical questions come into play as well – are you okay with purchasing materials that are manufactured in China without knowing for certain what the working conditions of those making them are?
As for me, my original plan was to purchase a classroom package from a discount manufacturer. I typically avoid products from companies manufacturing in China without a solid reputation for providing fair wages and safe working conditions, but I also wanted to create a well-equipped Montessori environment for the children I’m going to be serving and this seemed like the only way to do that with my budget. In thinking further and looking at all of the websites of companies I was considering, however, I made a change of plans. The prices on the discount package deals are amazing for what you get, but many of the items included are not necessary, so you end up with a lot of stuff you won’t necessarily use. Lower quality means a few materials will simply be unusable, too. Of course most companies will replace materials with defects, but there ends up being a lot of waste here, too. I remember in my last workplace that we had two or three geometric cabinets that were unusable and just sat there collecting dust and taking up valuable cabinet space.
As I browsed through Nienhuis’ offerings, I got to thinking how beneficial it would be to be able to purchase replacement parts for virtually everything in my set of materials. There was one year in particular when we had a few children who must have been deep in their period of sensitivity to small objects because small cylinders, cubes, and other objects were disappearing on a daily basis and many things had to be taken out until the missing parts could be found. Of course things are legitimately lost or broken sometimes, too, and the money saved by purchasing discount materials is lost quickly when some of those materials have to be replaced each and every year.
Another issue was back ordered items. I learned that many of the things I needed would be on back order for a while, and our program begins in January. It’s really important to me that we have all of the basic materials as soon as we begin, and I didn’t want to risk being without the Pink Tower during our first month of class. The ethical question and all of these other drawbacks were more than enough to cause me to reconsider.
In the end, I pared down the list of items I felt we needed to open and decided to order just the essentials from Nienhuis and Gonzagareddi, plus Practical Life items from Montessori Services. I compared prices between the two material companies and, knowing that both offer exceptional quality, chose the less expensive of the two in each case. Even before making my final lists, I had ordered my globes from Gonzagareddi. These are not included in the discount package I was looking at and, in my mind, are essential, so I opted to get a quality set that would last. I ordered them on a Sunday and they arrived that Wednesday. Knowing how quickly items come makes me comfortable with the decision to order only the basic essentials now, since it will be easy to get things children show readiness for before the window of opportunity has passed. Since I ordered fewer materials, I did not go much over the original budget I had in mind for our first set of materials. In the end, I’ll spend much more, but it will be staggered over time, I should not need to replace any materials, and if I decide to change course a few years from now, my materials should be very easy to re sell. You get what you pay for, and I’m pretty excited about what I’m getting.
Have you ordered any Montessori materials yourself? What manufacturers have you worked with, and how was your experience?
Disclosure: All of the opinions in this post are my own. I did not receive any compensation for writing this post, but I do earn a small commission on sales through my site on Montessori Services. I am not connected with any other company listed above, and only recommend products and companies I can support with a clear conscience and truly think you’ll love as much as I do. See full disclosure at the bottom of my about page.
- Note/Update: I ended up ordering through Nienhuis and Gonzagareddi, and found that a number of items in their catalogs were back ordered as well. I just received my last item in February after placing my initial order in November. I did appreciate that both companies made it easy to cancel parts of an order that were back ordered if I wished, could estimate arrival times for most items, and did not charge for items until they had shipped. ↩