The first time I heard about Montessori was in a conversation with a friend. She was thrilled that her three-year-old got accepted into a Montessori preschool and wanted to share her good news with me. My curiosity was piqued. What was all the fuss about Montessori preschool? And more importantly, what or who was Montessori?
I soon discovered that Maria Montessori was an educator that promoted child-led learning and practical life activities for younger children. Before I knew it, I started learning about the Montessori Method and incorporated her simple Montessori classroom activities at home with my three young children.
Ten years later, and two more little ones underfoot, I’m still a big fan of the Montessori Method. Not only because Montessori activities help young children build independence and confidence, but also because these simple activities help toddlers and preschoolers develop physical literacy right at home.
Here’s a list of my favourite Montessori activities that you can do at home with your toddler or preschooler to help them develop movement skills. But first, a bit of information about Maria Montessori, the Montessori Method, and how the Montessori Method can help your toddler and preschooler.
Who was Maria Montessori?
Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was a woman who used her keen sense of observation to develop a unique way of teaching children. Born in a small town in Italy, Maria pursued her interests and passions from a young age. She entered a boys’ technical school at the age of 13 to pursue engineering, but switched to medical school later on. Maria was among the first women to become medical doctors in Italy, which was no easy feat! Initially she worked in psychiatry but moved into pediatrics and helped children with disabilities thrive. This shift eventually led her to explore childhood education and teaching.
What is the Montessori method?
According to Association Montessori Internationale, the first Montessori learning centre started as a challenge. There was a group of unruly children getting into trouble in a poor district of Rome, and Maria was asked if she could do something about it. She gladly accepted the challenge and opened Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House. People were shocked to see uneducated children so eager to learn. It didn’t take long for the Montessori Method of child education to become world renown. Today it’s estimated that there are over 22,000 Montessori schools worldwide.
Maria Montessori discovered that all children have an innate desire to learn and do purposeful work. To support this love of learning, Maria designed a unique method and environment that allows children to develop skills in a self-directed way. If you step into a Montessori school, you’ll notice that it looks quite different than most classrooms. There are communal child-sized tables, open spaces for movement, and low open shelves. In fact, a Montessori classroom feels more like a home than a school.
How does the Montessori Method help toddlers and preschoolers?
During the first stage of Montessori learning, toddlers and preschoolers are introduced to “practical life” activities such as making a snack, cutting with scissors, and cleaning floors. These hands-on activities can help toddlers and preschoolers develop their fine and gross motor skills, which makes them a great option for developing physical literacy at home.
Montessori activities that get toddlers and preschoolers moving at home
In the kitchen
The moment I step into the kitchen I hear the telltale sound of a step stool scraping across the kitchen floor. It’s my toddler coming to join me. She wants to be in the mix of things, quite literally! If there’s a bowl and a mixing spoon in arm’s reach, she’s happy. Toddlers and preschoolers love to help in the kitchen, and Maria Montessori was an avid supporter of encouraging young children to learn age-appropriate kitchen skills early on. Giving young children the opportunity to help in the kitchen is a great way for them work on their fine and gross motor skills. Here are some ideas:
Do you peel your banana from the top down or the bottom up? Apparently the easiest way to peel a banana is from the bottom up. Show your little one how to peel a banana and cut into bite-sized slices. If you feel nervous about giving your little one a knife, that’s normal. Since bananas are soft, they can be easily cut with a small butter knife. Peeling and cutting help toddlers and preschoolers develop their fine motor skills.
Freshly squeezed orange juice
Freshly squeezed orange juice is such a treat. For this activity, you’ll need a simple citrus juicer and a couple of oranges. Help your young child slice an orange in half, set it on the juicer, and show her how to press, twist, and squeeze the juice out. Before you know it, your toddler or preschooler will be finding every last orange in your fridge to squeeze into juice! This activity is good for developing grip strength, which will help with holding onto more challenging objects like pencils and monkey bars.
Washing the dishes
Scrub-a-dub-dub! Water play is a much-loved activity for toddlers and preschoolers, which makes this activity a favourite. For my toddler, I like to set up a wash basin filled with warm soapy water on the ground with plastic dishes. I always include a small rag for washing and hand towel for drying. Preschoolers can help wash dishes in the kitchen sink with the help of a step stool. Washing dishes helps to develop coordination and fine motor skills.
Get your toddler or preschooler scooping, measuring, and stirring during your next bake-off. Baking simple muffins and cookies is my toddler’s favourite kitchen activity. I’m convinced it’s because she gets to snack on nuts, raisins, or chocolate chips while we bake together. Stirring and scooping help to develop arm strength and coordination.
At the table
The Montessori Method encourages toddlers and preschoolers to eat carefully, use real metal utensils, eat with others, and help to set and clear the place settings. While some of these ideas might seem old-fashioned, there are known benefits to eating together as a family and learning these practical life skills at the table help with developing various movement skills.
Setting and clearing the table
Toddlers as young as two can help to set and clear the table. I suggest starting with non-breakable items like place mats and non-sharp utensils. Preschoolers are better able to help with heavier or fragile items like dishes and cups. Setting and clearing the table gets the whole body moving. Carrying and placing objects helps build coordination, gross motor skills, and fine motor skills.
Arranging flowers is one of the practical life skills toddlers and preschoolers learn at Montessori centres. For this activity, gather together these supplies: a container or vase, a small pitcher, a funnel, preschool scissors, and flowers. Start by showing your child the steps involved for this activity: pour water into the vase using the pitcher and funnel, cut the stems to length, and arrange the flowers. For very young toddlers you may want to start with artificial flowers. This is a wonderful activity for developing pouring, cutting, and placing skills.
Sweep it up
My toddler tends to be a messy eater, especially when crackers are involved. Instead of getting frustrated by the crumbs she leaves behind, I’ve used it as an opportunity to teach her how to sweep up. You might be surprised by how eagerly toddlers and preschoolers sweep up messes! My one recommendation is to get a small broom that you can find at most discount stores. Sweeping takes concentration and coordination, so don’t be too discouraged if your toddler leaves more crumbs behind than picks up at first.
Load and unload the dishwasher
Loading and unloading the dishwasher is another practical life skill that toddlers and preschoolers can help with. It also gets them lifting, carrying, and placing, which develop coordination and muscle strength. I always remove any knives or other dangerous items from the dishwasher before inviting my young child to help unload. With my toddler, I have her hand me the dishes and I put them into the cupboards. Preschoolers, however, can help put away dishes with the help of a kitchen stool.
Around the house
Maria Montessori noticed that young children thrive in orderly environments, so she was a big proponent of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” This practical life skill was taught through various activities such as putting away toys and tools and folding laundry. Showing toddlers and preschoolers how to keep a tidy space at home gives them a sense of ownership and pride for their space. It also helps them develop the coordination and movement skills that will lay the foundation for more challenging skills as they get older.
Toddlers and preschoolers are the perfect age to help with laundry. Some tasks young children can help with include placing their dirty clothing in a laundry basket, loading and unloading the washing machine, and folding and putting away laundry. My two-year-old really enjoys loading the washing machine and folding face cloths. Loading, unloading, and putting away clothing involves lifting, holding, and placing, while folding clothes works on coordination and fine motor skills.
Match the socks
Unmatched socks are the bane of my laundry efforts. In every load of laundry, there’s always several socks with no pairs. I toss the unmatched socks into a bin and once a month my toddler and I play a game of “match the socks.” The task is simple: we find pairs of socks, fold them together, and toss them into a separate basket. This fun little activity teaches toddlers and preschoolers about matching and tossing, which develops their fine and gross motor skills.
Toddlers and preschoolers make a lot of messes. It’s a normal part of learning. While it’s tempting to clean up after them, doing so takes away opportunities for growth and development. When your child is done with a certain activity or toy, guide her to tidy up. Make it fun by playing some tunes or turning it into a game.
Water the plants
Caring for and watering plants is a Montessori practical life activity taught to young children. For this activity, your child will need a small watering can and a plant to water. I recently brought my toddler to a commercial greenhouse and bought her a small potted hyacinth. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure the plant would make it home in one piece, but it did! Since its arrival, she’s been carefully watering it every day. Watering plants builds arm strength and coordination.
Taking care of self
Maria Montessori believed that children should learn to take care of themselves from an early age. At her learning centre, toddlers and preschoolers “learn to attend to their own personal needs, to wash themselves, to take showers, to comb their hair, to take a bath, to dress and undress themselves, to hang up their clothes in the wardrobe, or to put them in drawers, to polish their shoes.” While most toddlers and preschoolers don’t have shoes needing polish, learning a variety of self-care activities will boost their independence, confidence, and motor skills.
Brush hair and teeth
Holding and using a hairbrush and a toothbrush are great skills for toddlers and preschoolers to learn. Both these activities take quite a bit of coordination and fine motor skills, so don’t be discouraged if it takes a while for your child to master these skills.
Time to get dressed
My two-year-old takes great pride in choosing her own clothing and getting dressed. I find it helpful to give her the choice between two different outfits, otherwise she might come out of her room with a shirt and no pants, or vice versa! For young children struggling to get socks on, using hair scrunchies to practice the movement skill of pulling an object over each foot can be helpful. Getting dressed develops both fine and gross motor skills.
Clean those little hands
Teaching toddlers and preschoolers how to wash their hands can be fun! Plus, it will go a long way to reducing the number of illnesses in your home. Start by setting up a step stool, hand soap, and drying cloth by the bathroom sink. Next, show your child the steps to properly washing hands. It takes practice for toddlers and preschoolers to master the motor skills needed for hand washing, but practice makes steady improvement.
Wrapping it up
Montessori activities are great for teaching toddlers and preschoolers practical life skills right at home. Not only are these activities easy and accessible but they are great for helping your young children develop their fine and gross motor skills. Incorporating some of these activities into your toddler or preschooler’s day-to-day routine will also encourage independence around the home, develop self-confidence, and grow a love of learning. All good things!