Below are types of materials and activities that can be utilised at home for toddlers/preschoolers.
Sorting and Matching
Here is a simple little activity for sorting and matching. If this is your little one’s first time sorting, only use objects that have one difference. Some things to remember: keep everything about the objects absolutely IDENTICAL apart from the one thing that differentiates them (eg the colour) as this isolates the concept of what they are sorting. Also ensure the containers you are separating into are also the same (if you choose to have something coloured in the bottom of the bowls to match against make sure the shade is exactly the same as objects at this early stage. Only use differences in the future when moving from ‘concrete foundation’ to ‘abstraction of concept’.)
After you have demonstrated to your little one how to sort and match, let them have a turn. Do not correct them if they make a mistake – they will be able to clearly see if they’ve got it right if they match themselves. In essence this is how montessori materials work, both by isolation of concept (only change the one thing you are working on eg the colour) and by control of error (it is very clear when something is incorrect eg something doesn’t match or won’t fit etc). Once your child has the hang of this you can move on to increasing the quantity or using tongs to sort with, or variances in shade etc.
Spending time with your child like this isn’t only beneficial academically, but also strengthens that special bond of love, connection and quality time – winning all round!
Note – for little ones with high/special needs you can modify this by making the differences more contrasting, being careful of the textures used and materials the bowls are made out of for sensory issues and use more easily handled objects and containers if fine motor issues. Once your child is proficient at sorting one difference you can add more differences for example the coloured cylinder blocks pictured above.
Remember that activities don’t have to be set up in a strict Montessori way – impromptu works too when you’re outside or out and about! Learning doesn’t always have to be pretty or Insta worthy!
Posting counters into a game such as connect 4/line up 4 etc (the mini version is pictured here as we try to save on space in our tiny house!) is fantastic for fine motor development, also you can do extension work making patterns and move towards playing the game. Another extension activity would be making the objects smaller (such as fine wood sticks into an old spice container).
Other posting ideas could be coins or buttons into money boxes (or any box that you cut a slot into), pom poms into bottles or jars or toilet rolls, pasta or chopped up straws into toothbrush holders. The possibilities are almost endless!
Here is an example of a simple transferring activity using tongs (this was not a ‘matching’ activity).
Important points to remember when setting this activity up are:
The size of the tongs in relation to the size of your little ones hand (imagine you trying to do a precise movement using huge bbq tongs!).
The ‘latch’ mechanism on the tongs (at first use a ‘pull in/out latch so it won’t automatically close, then progress to the ‘slide’ latch which will change how your child holds the tongs so it doesn’t lock closed) – note: in the picture I have jammed the ‘slide’ latch so it won’t slide down past the rivet).
The size and depth of the transferring bowls (make relatively shallow at first so easier to access, then increase depth to add complexity later).
Make the objects you are trying to transfer easily squished at first then can progress to harder or smaller objects or further increase the complexity by also incorporating a ‘sorting’ element).
Such a fantastic, easy to set up activity with many benefits such as building concentration, fine motor, building hand/arm and shoulder muscle strength (indirect preparation for writing), working left to right (also prep for writing), sequencing, hand eye coordination… the list goes on!
Practical Life– Food Preparation
Teaching our little ones important life skills (aka ‘practical life’) is so important. Set your little one up on the path to independence by taking the time to show them how to do simple everyday life skills. Given the opportunity, you’d be surprised at just how capable they are and how quickly they learn!
Expect mistakes, things to break and accidents to happen – not to mention mess! But even if all those things happen then guess what? Fantastic! You can use those ‘incidents’ as teachable moments too! (Eg oh you dropped the glass and it broke. Let’s get the dustpan and brush and we’ll clean it up together etc).
In the picture are the darling hands of my youngest little one using her Kiddie Kutter knife (on quite a hard banana as she has sensory issues and won’t touch soft things). Miss V was 18 months old when this picture was taken but started peeling skins off cut up banana slices at roughly 12 months old and on to cutting at around 14 months old. Remember every child is different, so follow the child’s interests and abilities.
Ensure that the rolling pin is appropriately sized for little hands and you’re good to go!
Fantastic for learning a real practical life skill, sequencing, strengthening the hands, arm and shoulder and hand eye coordination. Ensure that the teapot isn’t too big or heavy. The one pictured is borderline too big but made of fine china so it’s not too heavy (Miss V chose to use this one over the smaller one). Will your little ones break it? Maybe, but what a fantastic opportunity to learn about cause and effect, how to clean up and more importantly how to make their movements slow, controlled and purposeful.
Little ones are only rough and careless with their toys (and your household items) if they are only given plastic toys with no natural consequences for being rough (eg it breaks and they need to help clean it up or repair it). We use all glass, China and real items- no plastic cups or plates etc
Remember to use tea that doesn’t contain caffeine!
Fantastic for building strength in hands, arm and shoulder (indirect preparation for writing) and hand eye coordination. You will need to demonstrate keeping fingers away from the blade and that the blade is sharp. A lot of parents struggle with letting their child do this activity due to the sharp blade, with your guidance and practice your child will become proficient – trust me!
Practical Life – Care of Environment
Little ones love helping and doing things around the house that most adults consider chores. Spend the time to teach your little ones simple practical life skills like cleaning spills, tables, handwashing, dressing/undressing, tidying, mopping, sweeping, hanging out clothes etc – you get the idea! At first you will need to provide close monitoring and support (more scaffolding required for our little with higher needs) but this will pay off quickly as your little ones become independent and capable FAST! Not only are you setting them up for future life success and being functional adults but also boosting their feelings of feeling valued, a contributing member of the family, confidence and self esteem. These tasks are also great for practicing skills like sequencing which is indirect preparation for mathematics later on.
Making beds (pulling up the blankets, tucking in one side remembering how little they are and how tough some beds are to make) is a great activity to practice sequencing and strengthen hands, arms and shoulders. At first start with your child simply passing you items (eg pillows) to put on, move to them putting the pillows on, then helping you pull up the layers of bedding taking care to smooth them out. Work towards tucking in. It’s actually quite the process if you think about it!
Dip the cloth in a natural wax (only a little!), then demonstrate doing small circles on the wood. Bring attention to how it changes colour to darker – that means it’s done. To set this up as an activity on a shelf you would have a tiny dob of wax in a little dish or jar, a polishing cloth and a wipe down/buff cloth. You could also put in a small wooden ornament or bowl etc etc to clean so your little ones aren’t wandering the house trying to clean inappropriate items!
Wiping tables / surfaces
This is a simple activity that yields an instant result – the child will instantly see if the mess is cleaned up (or not!). It would be unrealistic to expect perfection in the early stages, the child simply attempting to do this activity is sufficient at first.
As a first preference I would always recommend practicing a skill in real life, e.g. pegging clothes onto a child sized clothes line after washing them. In this instance my little one, Miss V, was so into repeating this activity that I had put an ‘indoor version’ onto the shelves. Pegging is fantastic for strengthening the fingers, hand and shoulder in preparation for writing. It is also beneficial for hand eye coordination, building concentration, repetition and sequencing.
This is a fantastic activity for fine motor skills, hand eye coordination and learning a practical life skill. Contributing to the household also boosts your little one’s self esteem and feelings of inclusivity in the family. We use both metal and bamboo straws as we steer clear of plastic and try to be as eco as possible (plus children are intrinsically drawn to natural items over plastic).
It is so important for your child to utilise big muscle movement and gross motor skills. Young children love, and need, movement and using all their muscles through ‘maximum effort’. This is why you’ll see little people carrying big things like toys that are almost bigger than they are or even a half full 2lt bottle of vinegar they pulled out of the cupboard! You’ll notice them doing things like putting it on various surfaces before carrying it off to the next location, watching it slosh etc. Impromptu activities make beautiful experiences and memories – follow the child, it’s all learning!
Not strictly a ‘Montessori’ activity but super important nonetheless is nature play.
Is your little one bouncing off the walls or are you running out of ideas as to what to do for the day?
Why not grab a basket (child sized is best) and head outside, it doesn’t matter where – could be your own backyard, the beach, the forest or a local park. Allow your child to walk at their own pace and stop and collect ‘nature’. Pop these treasures into the basket to take home with you and explore.
Once home you can do countless activities with these – from using magnifying glass to inspect them, do flower arranging, see what happens if you wet them (works well for rocks!), or create a collage by sticking onto contact paper. Simple is usually best with children and you are spending beautiful quality time with them whilst also allowing them to explore the world around them, expanding their knowledge, language and concepts and also by using their imagination as to what to do with their treasures. A simple, free activity that has countless benefits all round!
Nature Sensory Walks
Take a basket (or not) and feel, smell and hear things on a walk. It could be around your yard or down the street. Really go at the child’s pace. It is about the journey and not the destination in this one! You are walking to experience not walking TO somewhere.
The girls took their baskets and collected nature. They came back with probably 60000 different weeds, rocks, 250,000 of the same looking white feathers plus who knows what else! And it doesn’t matter, they loved it! They were fascinated by it all. It would take us 15 minutes usually for this walk but as a sensory walk it took over 45. Time well spent in my opinion!
Outside Play Areas
Make your little ones outside play areas inviting! Outside play is so important. Take a look at your outside area and get down on your child’s level and have a really good look from their perspective. Is the space safe from sharp things, creatures, drop offs, things that can be pulled down on top of them, water, electricity etc? Is the space secure? Does it look fun, simple, inviting and happy? Simply by giving the area a good clean can make a big difference. Ditch anything that is broken, sharp, incomplete or no longer used. Make sure there is accessible storage for them to put things away when playtime is over. Slip on your sunscreen, slap on a hat – and hop outside and have a play! (Not sure I could make that sound any more Australian if I tried!)
Nomenclature cards and matching objects
Always follow the interests and capabilities of the child. Pictured here is Miss V when she was 20 months old, matching landmark cards and objects, an activity that I made up quickly as she was so into language at that time! I had people say “isn’t she too young to be doing xyz?” No! If she’s interested we do it, if she’s not – we don’t! It’s as simple as that for Miss V and for your child. Age or curriculum should not be the marker, only vague guides. Your little one’s interests, capabilities, needs, mood etc will determine by which work/play/games/activities you do! Trust them – they have an insatiable desire to learn and will soak it all up with their amazing absorbent mind!
For identical items you could encourage your little one to place the object on top of the card to demonstrate that they are the same. For more advanced matching (the object isn’t identical) you would demonstrate placing the object above the card (as Miss V was doing in the second picture, she spontaneously matched them on top in the first picture and you would not ‘correct’ that).
You do not have to have actual Montessori materials in order to utilise the Montessori philosophy in the home environment. You can simply go to a cheap shop and purchase scrapbooking stamps to use as a moveable alphabet!
Use the ends of fruit/veggies such as pak choy, leek, celery etc as stamps for painting. Super fun, interesting patterns and using scraps before you compost them is great for the environment – win!
So many classrooms I have been in have used scissors that are too big for 0-3 year old hands. Even toddler labelled scissors are often too big. Scrapbooking or craft ones usually work a treat.
When first demonstrating cutting be sure to show open and closing scissors first. Then move on to them cutting a single thin strip (must be thinner than the length of the blade) while you hold it, then when they are ready they can hold the paper strip. You can work towards cutting over a bowl to collect the offcuts. These can be used for glueing later on (completely separate activity) or recycled. Be aware that some little ones might like to keep the offcuts so having little envelopes to put them in is also handy.
Cutting is an important life skill, it’s also great for fine motor, strengthening the hand and wrist, hand eye coordination, building concentration plus so much more!
Bingo / dot pen art
I bought two bingo pens for $2.50 from a cheap shop and you can find so many dot pictures to print online (I literally searched ‘bingo pen dot art free printables’). I recommend putting placemats down underneath as the ink can go through the paper.
We used cardboard, paddle pop sticks, petals, chopped up petal ‘scraps’, misc nature bits, some random craft stuff Miss V found in a drawer and some leftover clay stars with crystals from another activity the girls made. We stuck all these things on with wood glue.
‘Painting’ with water
Art doesn’t have to be elaborate or even messy for that fact! Try ‘painting’ with water on a tile, concrete, your deck, etc. Writing with water and cotton buds is another great way to strengthen fine motor skills and help writing practice and letter formation in a novel way. Mix up the medium you use to ‘paint’ with (eg foam brushes, different size and shape brushes – even fingers!).
Fantastic for strengthening the hands, arm and shoulder and super fun! You can buy ‘colouring book’ versions, blank pads or make your own which is a great extension activity. Simply colour paper in with crayons then paint over with paint in a contrasting colour to make your own at home. Experiment with the ‘scratch’ tool you use (e.g. the tool that comes with it, a toothpick, butter knife, toothpick, etc).
Collect some items from nature such as leaves, sticks, rocks etc and paint them and decorate them!
Contact paper art
Stick things onto contact paper (the stuff you use to cover books). We used bits and pieces of craft things or you could use nature items you have collected. An extension of this activity is to clip the paper vertically against a window and create a collage that is see-through similar to a lead light effect. Working with a sticky medium like this is great for fine motor, cause and effect and planning out their work before they act (for older children).
Intricate art with gel pens
These pens have a fine point allowing the child to be super accurate. Adult colouring in books are great for this. This is great for fine motor control and building the all important concentration.
Salt dough creations
The spiral is a simple salt dough recipe and the girls went to town decorating it. Let the creativity flow using whatever you have on hand!!!
You can use paints or food colouring diluted in water in eye droppers for this activity. Firstly introduce the primary colours (red, blue and yellow). You could then demonstrate how to mix 2 of them. Invite your child to see what happens when they mix other colour combinations. Later you can introduce the language of primary, secondary and tertiary colours then which colours mix well etc.
Never underestimate your little one’s abilities – V (then aged 2 and 9 months) completely designed her round mosaic by herself, the pattern, layout etc. I just dobbed on the glue where she said to!! Pretty unreal I thought! Miss S did hers in a very eclectic manner using winter colours. These are a bit messy but super fun. You could use smashed up cd’s or rocks, shells etc to make a mosaic or you can buy kits that are ready to go!
Chances are that your child has been drawing on themselves with all sorts of pens and paint doing ‘tattoos’ so why not do a purposeful one – henna?!
I ordered some organic henna from @divinehenna. We had fun mixing up the ink (it was all pre-measured). Here are our creations (this mama is not the artistic creative type so please keep that in mind lol). Pop also ended up getting a massive horse drawn on his back by Miss S, nan got a butterfly and Miss S’s dad ended up getting paw prints drawn up his arm when he came to collect her! Our henna now looked even better when the ink had dried! So many great skills at work in this activity!
Dough making with nature play
We used homemade play dough coloured with berries, turmeric etc and scented with essential oils and decorated it with things found in the garden. Keep in mind any sensory issues for little ones with higher/sensory needs when setting up this activity (smell, textures, etc).
These are fabulous for developing imagination. There are so many sets available (we personally have this fairy set, beach, woods, ballerina, horses, farm…) or you could make your own by cutting out felt shapes on a felt background. For quite some time Miss V couldn’t handle the fact that the pictures laid down flat (she wanted them to stand up), and she didn’t like it if there was the slightest bump/crease/not straight so keep these sensory issues in mind if you have a highly sensitive or autistic child.
These packs are available from dollar stores, Kmart, etc and are great. The little square stickers are tricky for younger children to access as they tend to not rip off the sheet cleanly and they are a bit small for little fingers to manipulate. To remedy this I ripped them off and stuck them on my finger so Miss V could access them from there which solved that problem. Another issue to consider is how ‘precise’ your little ones feel they need to be. Miss V became upset that they weren’t sticking exactly in the squares perfectly. I explained that as long as it matched the colour it was fine (it took her some time to be ok with this). Getting the hands busy, calms the mind.
Why only paint on plain paper? Switch things up and paint on boxes. Bonus is you can use it to ‘wrap’ gifts later or as cubbies!
Colour by numbers
Fantastic for number recognition, sequencing, hand eye coordination and hand/arm strengthening in preparation for writing. Such a fun activity to do!
‘Sticky gem pictures’
They probably have a fancy name but that’s what we call them! These are great for building strength in the fingers, hands and arms in preparation for writing. They also promote exactness in hand eye coordination and require steps to be followed in set orders which helps with sequencing (indirect preparation for maths). These take a lot of concentration and perseverance which are fabulous skills to grow!
The Montessori philosophy doesn’t always have to be glamorous! Here is balancing with equilibrium, cause and effect, hand eye coordination, having fun plus lots more all in action!
Is it on a shelf or tray, no. But is it following the needs of the child, allowing for repetition and building concentration, yes! Hello Montessori principles. I was unpacking our groceries with help from Miss V when this activity manifested itself. Happy little one, happy mama. She was so proud of her tower making abilities. What a beautiful memory to stem from toilet paper! Go with the flow!
Treasure baskets are not Montessori strictly speaking, but they are a fantastic way to group objects on the shelf, keep structure and order whilst engaging the younger child’s love of ‘small objects’ (sensitive period for this!)
In this treasure basket we have a random selection of little objects that loosely fit “magical fairy stuff” – definitely not Montessori, more of a Wold of influence. Objects range from little plastic figurines (yes I hate plastic but the girls were given them and love them…), Pewter heavy foal, solid heavy penguin, tiny teapots, glass cups and saucers etc. I also put in different things to open, close and carry – the gauze and satin bags, little cardboard carry bags, etc.
The objects are fantastic for sensory exploration. The girls love spending time inspecting the objects rather than using them for pretend play (that’s their autism super powers shining through right there!).
Ideas for treasure baskets are endless! We have a basket for nature, crystals, cars, toys, ‘McDonald’s toys’ (don’t get me started on this one, the only reason these are tolerated and kept is because they all have mechanisms that are good for fine motor, cause and effect, etc. e.g. wind up to scoot around a table or such).
These are easy to make up using identical bottles, cotton balls and essential oils. Ideally in a Montessori environment the bottles would be opaque so the contents could not be seen but these are all I had at home on hand. You can do two sets and use them as a matching activity as an extension. You could also use herbs/spices (fresh or dry).
Lego is fantastic for fine motor, building concentration and sequencing (which is indirect preparation for maths). This Lego is for ages 6 and up but Miss V (then aged 2 and 7 months) did it with minimal assistance. If your little one isn’t up to Lego, don’t set them up for failure by giving it to them. Instead, use duplo. Take a photo of a simple car being put together step by step and then print it out or flick through on iPad (I suggest laminating if you plan to print and keep for multiple use) and sit with your little one and have only the pieces that are used in the photo. For the first few tries, have the pieces laid out in order and pass them the pieces as they need it and point to the picture for them to copy. Assist less and less as they become more competent.
Infants start with a single piece in a single shape cut to fit ensuring there is a large knob for bub to hold on to. Firstly start with a single circle, then triangle, then square (these increase in complexity). After the single piece puzzles move to multiple eg different size circles or one of each triangle/rectangle/circle – Montessori suppliers stock these.
The next step is to move to compound puzzles – puzzles that have different shapes that match into size matched holes with the picture visible for control of error (these could be farm animals, transportation etc).
Once your little one has mastered these, move onto jigsaw puzzles.
Some children look for the shapes of the pieces, others for the picture on the floor that is partially done (i.e. they look for the piece they need), others pick up a piece and look for where it can go. Here is how we do puzzles.
Categorise the pieces into similar areas of the puzzle (e.g. all the sky pieces, the grass pieces, the horse pieces, the ‘dunno’ pieces).
We then pick a point to start (usually Miss V’s favourite animal or landmark on the puzzle regardless of its physical location in the picture).
We then get that pile and make that thing.
Next we look on the box to see what’s beside/under etc and find that pile and do that bit. Continue that until it expands out and completes the picture.
I generally only point out that the ‘straight edge bits’ go along the sides only when we are up to that exact part. I run my finger along the straight edge and say “this is straight”, then run my finger along the straight edge of the completed side of the puzzle near it and say “these are straight. The straight edges go along the outsides”. I know some people like to complete the outside perimeter of the puzzle first and work in, however a lot of children will struggle with this level of abstraction. Try to limit how much unasked for ‘help’ you give, observe their beautiful minds at work.
They may need a lot of help and scaffolding at first but will quickly grasp how to match both the picture and shapes in appropriate places. Remember to follow your child. Too hard and you are setting them up for failure, too easy and they will be bored.
These can be done with nearly anything. Simply use something ‘little’ (sand, rice, pasta, chickpeas, lentils, pebbles, water beads, etc) then add ‘bigger’ elements. You could do a theme e.g. seaside, construction, farm, but it’s not essential. These are great for building imaginative play, fine motor skills, increasing sensory awareness, and as a calm down/self regulation activity.
Marble mazes and runs
These are great for fine motor, cause and affect, planning, sequencing, etc. Ours is years old and falling apart but it still mostly works so we will keep using it! There are some beautiful natural wood ones out there too which look stunning and are my preference over plastic (better for the environment, last longer and I love natural things). You could make your own out of cardboard rolls, toilet paper rolls, chopped up cardboard packets etc and stick onto a window or kitchen cabinet etc for temporary fun and exploration.
Pattern blocks (A)
These are great for open ended creations or for copying the pictures. This set isn’t the best (just a cheap one off eBay I think), but some sets are very good (e.g. Melissa and Doug) which include true to size patterns to lay the blocks over. This is the most effective control of error for young children.
Pattern blocks (B)
You can buy these in a set or you could make your own patterns using beads, blocks (anything really!) and photograph them to print out for you little one to copy. This helps with sequencing which is indirect preparation for maths. Having beads on a solid rod is helpful too as the pattern can easily be seen, whereas on a string it can bend and flop around. At first limit the changes (e.g. all the same shape, just the colour changes – isolation of concept) and build up complexity. It is helpful to only have the items in the picture out and available in a bowl or tray to choose from. This allows for them to get to the end of the pattern and check it against the picture (control of error). Over time you could have multiple pictures and multiple items out, but keep it simple at first.
This is a great activity to promote number recognition using gross motor. Line up numbers 1-10 along the grass. Sit down nearby and call out, “go run to number…3!” or “Go hop to number 9!” etc, etc.
An extension of this is a memory type game where you hold up a number for 2 seconds, the child then has to go run to find the same number and bring it back. You can do this with things such as geometric plane shapes, geometric solids or letters. For younger little ones you could do colours. It’s a nice easy but fun way to incorporate movement, memory, listening and recall.
The first step in this process is number recognition. Your child needs to be able to recognise the numbers before they can do this activity. Ask your child to lay out the numbers in sequence from a jumbled pile (you could do this for them if they aren’t up to that quite yet).
Next count out stones (could use buttons or whatever, but best to keep all items identical for isolation of concept) and lay them under each number, invite your child to participate or take over from you. Notice the layout of these stones (the layout is important for teaching future concepts like odd/even numbers). Talk about how much bigger 10 is than 1 drawing attention to the quantity of stones.
I highly recommend these kids’ affirmation cards by The Renegade Mama. They also have sets for parents such as the Empowered Women’s deck, Pregnancy and Birthing Support deck, Postpartum Support deck and Mindful Affirmations for Parenting deck.
The girls spread out the kids cards and choose a few each morning and I read them out. They have turned it into a bit of a self regulation and calm down activity and will ask for them specifically too. One card was so relevant I framed it in Miss V’s room so we can use it in a mantra. Use the code AMANDALEE to get a discount on checkout https://therenegademama.com/
Games are a fantastic way to teach so many skills whilst having fun, connected time with friends and family. Games like this oldie ‘Creepy Critters’ are great for fine motor, sequencing, turn taking, number recognition, building concentration and patience. Games give opportunities to role model good sportsmanship whether you are winning or losing.
Some games we enjoy are: Bluey – Shadowlands, Pop Up Pirate, Kerplunk, Trouble, Guess Who, Bingo’s Bingo, Pengaloo, Connect Four, Genga, Who Am I, Uno, Go Fish, Dominoes, Magnetic fishing game. For Miss S who is a bit older we play Scrabble, Boggle and Snakes and Ladders.
Children can find snakes and ladders too demoralising at first (going down the snakes) in my experience so it might be worth holding off on that one until they are well practiced in being ok with both winning and losing. A great game our fabulous OT played with us was Sneaky Squirrel – I highly recommend it, we all loved it! And no, we don’t play Monopoly as this Mama can’t deal with games that don’t have a defined ending that go on for eternity!