Setting Up a Montessori Children’s House: The Essential Materials
As regular readers know already, I’m in the midst of planning and preparing to set up a Children’s House environment for some children in our community. One of the first things I did, before even deciding for certain that this was the right move, was come up with the list of materials I would need to purchase and do some pricing to see if we could afford everything we need. I first made my own list for each area, and then turned to my good friend google to see if I could check my list against those of others. I’d like to share my conclusions with all of you and hopefully add a resource to the surprisingly few available for others who may be starting a classroom or school.
I found one really incredible resource, which I’ll be referring to throughout this post, and which I would encourage you to read closely yourself if this is a topic of interest for you. You may have heard of the book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius by Dr. Angeline Lillard. Dr. Lillard has done some incredible research that has further legitimized Montessori by demonstrating the method’s success and putting it in the context of what we know about how children learn. It’s clear, even today, that Montessori was ahead of her time, and Dr. Lillard has helped show that to the world.
In my search for thoughts from others regarding the essential materials for a 3-6 clasroom, I came across an article in which Dr. Lillard summarizes and discusses the views of a number of AMI and AMS trainers on various materials and their usefulness in the classroom. This work, What Belongs in a Montessori Primary Classroom is both fascinating and useful. I was very interested in the differences between AMI and AMS trained teachers.
One thought that continually occurred to me as I was perusing this list was that many of these activities are certainly a valuable part of an ideal classroom and yet, in most of the classrooms I have seen would rarely, if ever, be used. An ideal Children’s House would have nearly equal numbers of 3, 4, and 5-6 year old children. The older children would have been in the same classroom since they were two-and-a-half or just three, with the same teacher and many of the same children. The younger children’s parents would intend to keep them in the classroom through kindergarten, and would bring them to the Children’s House five days a week. While I know programs like this exist, it is certainly not the norm today. Children move, they start school at different times, or they change programs as their parents change jobs. Montessori is especially popular in preschool, but many parents choose a public or more traditional option for elementary school. Because many prefer to have their children attend kindergarten in the same school that they will go to for first grade, Montessori Children’s House programs often have a difficult time retaining children for the kindergarten year. This means that much more time is spent on helping children to become “normalized” than would be necessary in an ideal program, and few children get to the point of using the more complex math and language activities in the Children’s House.
Exercises of Practical Life
Based on Dr. Lillard’s list, both AMS and AMI teachers agreed on the importance of the following Practical Life Exercises: Walking on the line, grace and courtesy, dusting, table washing, sweeping, folding clothes, pouring (liquid and solid), polishing, dressing frames, scissor exercises, flower arranging, dish washing, food preparation, care of plants, and washing hands. Table setting and cloth washing were also viewed as important by many.
There were divergent views on braiding, weaving, tools (hammer, screwdriver), spooning beans, using a sponge, opening and closing jars and bottles, dropper activities, tonging activites, shell scrubbing, grating soap, locks/lock box, and a peace table or stick. Some trainers felt each of these activities were necessary or useful, while others actually held negative opinions about their use in the classroom.
For me and many other Montessorians, the primary goal of Practical Life is to empower children by giving them the skills necessary to do things for themselves. For me, that makes each of the activities on that first list essential. Fortunately, few of them require specialized apparatus, but are instead a part of everyday life both in the classroom and at home. The most important materials to have in Practical Life, then, are tools that are the child’s size and allow for care of oneself and care of the environment: a small broom, a duster or small square of microfiber, sponges or small absorbent cloths, child-sized dishes, serving ware, and utensils, etc. Grace and courtesy, walking on the line, and the silence game are of inestimable value, but require no physical materials at all. A line can be made with a stick in the dirt, or with tape or string on the floor.
One, perhaps unpopular opinion of mine is that activities like polishing and a dedicated hand washing activity are wonderful in a well-established classroom, but are not necessary. There are multiple reasons why children are so drawn to Practical Life activities, but among them is an interest in doing the things that they see the adults in their lives doing. While polishing the silver is something many adults used to do, I know very few who do this today. There are certainly many benefits to following the steps of an activity like this, but it is not directly applicable to the lives of most children and therefore not crucial for those just setting up a classroom. Most of us no longer wash our hands in a basin using water from a pitcher either, but at a sink under running water. While the traditional set-up of a lovely pitcher and basin or bowl at a special handwashing table is incredibly appealing, in the modern classroom I do not see it as necessary, and think it’s actually more appropriate to give lessons on handwashing at the sink, where children will actually be washing up before eating, after using the bathroom, and so on. Practical Life should be culturally relevant and, when appropriate, in context. To that I end, I believe that the concern with Practical Life materials should be less about preparing specific activities and more about preparing activities that will help specific children on their quest for independence.
I already own a variety of trays and baskets, vases, small bowls, pitchers, creamers, spoons, tongs, spreaders, and other tools for food preparation and the like, so there’s not a whole lot I need to buy. My personal shopping list as I prepare to set up our new room includes: Dressing frames with stand, 1 polishing set (I’ll get more eventually), small watering can, a table washing set, a hammering set, an opening and closing set, and a lock box or board.
Per Dr. Lillard’s list, there was agreement among both AMI and AMS trainers that the following Sensorial materials were necessary: Wooden (Knobbed) Cylinders – 4 blocks, Pink Tower, Brown Stair (Broad Stair), Red Rods (Long Rods), Knobless Cylinders, Color Tablets, Geometry Cabinet, Sound Boxes/Cylinders, Rough and Smooth Boards, Smelling Bottles, Fabric Box, Mystery Bag, Geometric Solids, sorting exercises, Constructive Triangles, Binomial Cube, and Trinomial Cube. All of these items are on my list, and I agree with their importance. Some, such as the fabric box and sorting exercises, can be made by hand fairly easily. I’m not certain whether her mention of Rough and Smooth Boards is intended to encompass the Rough and Smooth/Touch Tablets, but I consider those to be important as well.
Lillard’s article mentions that fewer, but still a majority of trainers agreed on the importance of the Musical Bells, Thermic Bottles, Thermic Tablets, Baric Exercises, the Circles, Squares, and Triangles Tray, and the Smelling Exercise. It seems to be that these materials are seen less often in schools for various reasons that have little to do with their actual value for children. The musical bells are very expensive and take up quite a bit of space, so not all schools allocate the resources necessary for them. Because they are less often seen, some teachers (myself included) lack confidence in their use because they may not have been available at their training centers or internship sites. I’m hesitant to spend a large amount of money on a material I don’t feel I can present appropriately, but that does not mean the material isn’t a useful one in the classroom. My hope is to eventually purchase a set of bells and get a refresher lesson from another teacher before placing them on the shelf. The Thermic Bottles are time intensive, as they have to be prepared shortly before use. In my experience, the Thermic Tablets and Baric Exercises that can be purchased from discount manufacturers tend to be lacking in quality and, therefore, contrast, which makes them unappealing and more or less a waste on the shelf unless you can spring for the more expensive versions.
As for the other activities, to include the Inscribed/Concentric Figures, Musical Boards and Notes, Tone Bars, and the Pressure Cylinders, much seems to depend on training. None of these materials was actually taught directly in my training and I am therefore not inclined to view them as vital to the well-equipped classroom, as I suspect is the case with many of the trainers who rated them as less important.
My personal list of essential materials for our new classroom includes: Knobbed Cylinders (4 blocks), Knobless Cylinders (4 boxes), Pink Tower, Broad Stair, Red Rods, Color Tablets, Geometric Presentation Tray, Geometric Cabinet with Cards, Constructive Triangles, Blindfolds, Geometric Solids with bases, Stereognostic Bag, Touch Boards, Touch Tablets, Fabric Box, Thermic Tablets, Baric Tablets, Pressure Cylinders, Smelling bottles, Tasting Bottles, Sound Cylinders, Binomial Cube, and Trinomial Cube. When we’re established, and when next I attend a conference or visit with teacher friends, I’d love to chat about and get lessons on things like the bells and add them to our classroom afterward.
The materials deemed necessary by most of the trainers Dr. Lillard surveyed were: Vocabulary Cards (a.k.a. Terminology Cards, or 3 Part Cards), Sandpaper Letters, Moveable Alphabet, Metal Insets, Chalkboards for Writing, Phonetic/Phonogram Objects, Phonetic Cards, Phonogram Booklets & Cards, Puzzle Word Cards, Realistic Books. Slightly fewer, but still most agreed on the importance of Writing on Lined and Unlined paper, The Farm, and the Grammar Symbols.
Trainers had divergent views on the value of Grammar boxes, Punctuation exercises, Tape recorders, Sand Tray, Whiteboard with Marker, Fantasy books, Reading analysis, Word study, and the Detective adjective game.
I absolutely agree on the value of the materials in the first paragraph, and all of them are on my list. Most of them should, or at least can be teacher-made, so they take time, but don’t require a huge financial investment. Some of the more advanced materials, like the Grammar Symbols, can wait for us and likely for other new programs, however, as they won’t be used by children new to the Montessori reading curriculum. As you know if you’ve read my early math and language series, I’m a big fan of providing many, and varied tools for writing, so I consider lined paper, unlined paper, white boards with markers, and chalkboards to be wonderful additions to any classroom, but it’s certainly not necessary to have all of them.
I was very surprised to see how many trainers considered fantasy books to be an important material in the classroom. My view, which is based on Montessori’s writings and my understanding of child development, is that these have no necessary place in the Children’s House. Children are incredibly imaginative, and this is a wonderful thing, but I don’t believe that feeding them fanciful tales from adult imaginations helps children’s own imaginations to flourish. I wrote more on the idea of fantasy in Montessori here. In any case, books for independet reading are an important material for language shelves, but most of the books in any classroom can be borrowed from the library and rotated according to due dates, so there does not need to be much of a financial investment there.
Because I already have a wonderful collection of language objects, and an array of teacher-made reading materials, the only language materials on my personal list are: the Metal Insets (+trays, paper, colored pencils, and pencil cups), Sandpaper Letters, the Large Moveable Alphabet, chalkboards, and whiteboards.
Eighty-five percent or more of the trainers Dr. Lillard surveyed felt the following were necessary: Number Rods & Cards, Sandpaper Numbers, Spindle Boxes, Cards & Counters, Golden Beads (1 & 2), Decimal Numeral Cards, Teen Boards & Beads, Ten Boards & Beads, Unit Division Board, Strip Boards, Linear Chains with Squaring Labels, Linear Chains with Cubing Labels, Snake Game, Multiplication Board, and Multiplication with Beads. Nearly as many agreed on the importance of the Stamp Game, Small Bead Frame, and Fraction Insets.
There were divergent views on the importance of: Equation booklets, the dot game, finger charts and equations, the Large bead frame, story problems, and Racks and tubes.
Again, the first paragraph mirrors pretty closely what is on my list, but many of the more complex materials will be on my “buy later” list for our classroom in particular, since we will not have full vertical grouping at first, and I do not expect any children to be ready for those materials for some time. I will purchase more as we go along. For our first semester, I plan to purchase: the Number Rods & Cards, Sandpaper Numerals, Spindle Boxes, Cards & Counters, Golden Beads (1 & 2), Decimal Numeral Cards, and the Seguin (Teen and Ten) Boards. I will add more materials to our shelves as time goes on and children are nearing readiness. Because our group is younger at this point, I will also have some extensions available, such as a dice game.
Cultural (Science and Geography)
My training groups the sciences, history, and geography under the title “Cultural Subjects,” and I find great value in some of the activities and presentations covered there. Based on what I have seen, however, many of them are unique to MCI. I believe that AMS in particular focuses primarily on Science and Geography, and judging by Dr. Lillard’s article, it seems this may be the case with AMI as well. I have never worked directly with AMI certified teachers, so I’m not certain. In any case, these two areas seem to be all that was covered in Dr. Lillard’s survey. Four necessities were agreed upon unanimously: the Sandpaper Globe, Land and Water Forms, the Painted (a.k.a. Colored or Continent) Globe, and the Puzzle Maps.
There was strong agreement on the importance of Geography cards and folders or boxes, the Botany Cabinet, and botany and animal cards as well. Almost all AMS trainers agreed on the importance of sink and float, magnets, and botany and animal puzzles, but AMI trainers seem to have disagreed. Personally, I definitely intend to have the globes and puzzle map of the world as well as the animals of the continents when we open, and will add other continent maps, continent boxes, and landforms as we settle in. I see value in all of the other materials discussed, and will add to this area continually as we go.
I see geography as vitally important in helping children to respect and appreciate their own culture and the cultures of the world, and to begin to understand the world in which they live. Children are also naturally interested in the plants and animals around them, and are therefore drawn to materials related to these. The material of most importance, in my opinion, with respect to botany and zoology, is not discussed in Lillard’s paper: A nature table or tray atop a shelf is a wonderful way of bringing the outside world in and encouraging children’s natural desire to explore and save little artifacts from nature. I also love to have a “bug/insect jar,” for admiring and safely transporting small creatures from indoors to out. Many other materials are useful here, such as the botany cabinet, puzzles, and card materials, but I don’t think any in particular are necessary for every classroom all the time. Like many of the later math and language materials, few children in a new program will be ready for some of the more involved cultural presentations in the first year or two of a program.
Dr. Lillard found that all trainers agreed only on the importance of an easel and paints. Many others valued pastels and chalk, and the views were divergent on play dough, crayons, markers and colored pencils for drawing, crafts projects, and clay.
As for me, I see art as very connected with Practical Life and find that many art activities have incredible value in language preparation. Nevermind that art is simply good for the soul and a wonderful outlet for every child. I absolutely agree that every classroom should have an easel and paints. What else is found on the shelves should vary based on the specific children in the group, but I think there should always be a variety of implements for drawing. I was initially indifferent, even somewhat opposed to the idea of play dough, but I have changed my tune on that one completely. It provides a wonderful sensory and artistic experience and it is incredible to see how long the youngest children, who are still building up their powers of concentration, will spend absorbed in their work with the play dough. Dr. Lillard discusses the way that Montessori’s views on art materials evolved over time, and I have seen the same happen with my own. As with all things, I think it’s important to simply follow the children. Begin with a few basic creative materials and observe to determine what else ought to be added. Observation is the best tool we have in deciding what to place on any shelf in our classrooms.
I was interested to see that a good number of trainers felt that commercial puzzles, legos, building blocks, and the like were either necessary in the classroom or at least desireable. Very few seemed to have a wholly negative view of them. I certainly don’t have a negative view of them myself, but I see these types of things as transitional materials which are especially useful in a new program and at the start of a new year. I do intend to have some wooden blocks, simple puzzles, and other familiar playthings in our new classroom when we first begin. A child who is brand new to a program simply can’t be expected to spend an entire work period on the very limited array of activities he or she has had a lesson on, and so these materials are valuable in developing concentration and orienting children to the environment and the routines that go along with it.
Dr. Lillard’s article also discussed views on having duplicate materials, and on many of the more controversial materials discussed in each area. I highly recommend reading it if you have gotten this far in my piece and not clicked through and devoured hers already. Next week, I’ll discuss sources for materials and some of the variety of options available to those opening new classrooms.
What materials do you think are most important? Are there any traditional mainstays that you see as unnecessary?