Five Tips for the Montessori Beginner

So you want to do Montessori in the home but aren't sure where to start. Maybe you follow those Instagram feeds filled with achingly beautiful photos of some fantastical Montessori home and think "if only I knew the secret, my house, too, could look like that." Perhaps you've toured a Montessori classroom, beautifully prepared with neat shelves of learning materials and thought, "if they can do it with 17 kids, certainly I can do it with just one!"

Well, I have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is you can't replicate the Photoshopped fantasy nor the carefully managed classroom. The good news is you aren't supposed to. Montessori is much more a philosophy of child development than a set of things to do. Plus, you're doing it in your home -- under real world conditions. Expect the mess. 

So where does that leave the aspiring Montessorian?

Mastering the philosophy can be a life's pursuit, but there are a few tips you can incorporate right away to help you along the way. You might now 

#1. Follow your child 

This is number one for a reason. Learning new skills will not occur without your child's interest. Following your child means seriously observing your child's stage of development.

What toys does your child keep coming back to over and over? What is he/she trying to do? Learning to crawl? Pouring and spilling water everywhere? Spending hours turning the pages of a book? Going to the potty to (ahem) play in it? Catching bugs constantly? Picking out a shirt to wear, discarding it, only to put on another shirt?

I can't tell you what activities to focus on in your Montessori home because that's your child's job. Many classroom teachers will tell you that they can't truly design the shelves without meeting the children and observing them. This is even more important for you, Montessori parent, because unlike a classroom filled with child centered, ready made curricula, you are incorporating your child into a family-centric environment.

You most likely have limited resources and space, so focus on your child's interests. You can (and will!) change the environment as your child grows older and has different needs. Write down a list of your child's current obsessions, whether it be banging pots, throwing blocks, or matching colors, and ask yourself, "What is he/she trying to learn from this behavior?"

#2. Invest in shelves and baskets

While you're not likely to achieve immaculate, you do want to make your Montessori environment as organized and peaceful as reasonable. It also keeps your house from becoming too cluttered with random kid stuff because you can't stuff everything on a few shelves like you can in, say, a toy chest or some bins.

Unlike toy chests, shelves naturally encourage you to limit quantity.

Shelves are cheaply found at stores like IKEA and Target plus garage sales and thrift stores. You can find excellent baskets at Goodwill for less than a dollar. If you can afford it, invest in several shelves and LOTS of baskets and trays. Check out our Montessori shopping list to get a better idea of what to look for at a thrift store.

Remember, you don't have to get everything at once. Start with baskets and shelves. You won't be disappointed.

#3. Choose some of your child's nicest toys 

Toys are fine when the quality and quantity is appropriate. If adding toys, pick ones your child loves; that inspire and nurture; and (if at all possible) are beautiful and made of natural materials. Likewise, steer clear of flashy, noisy, battery-operated toys as much as possible and focus on toys that spark your child's imagination.

And the toys that you aren't choosing to put on your beautiful shelves? You don't have to throw the rest away, but do keep them away from your child's shelves, hidden wherever you have available. A closet? The basement? The laundry room? Giant plastic storage tubs are great for this, as are heavy-duty black garbage bags, as long as you have them labeled "not trash"!

And if you find yourself acquiring a massive amount of toys, it's a great idea to donate them in batches regularly.

#4. Limit quantity

If you have a toddler, you probably won't be needing all 286 blocks that came with the set. You might need about 20. Just enough to stack into towers and topple down. Put those in a basket and store the rest. You also don't want to crowd your shelves. Space the baskets on the shelves so that it is obvious where the work should be returned.

Space the baskets on the shelves so that it is obvious where the work should be returned.

Are you wondering how many toys to put out at a time? I can't tell you that, but your child will. If you have a toddler who is into "dumping" making a big awful mess for you to clean up every time, or if you have a four year old who is having a hard time putting things away, you probably have too many toys.

You also might want to select one type of toy and rotate within the category. For example, if you have a lot of puzzles or different sets of building blocks, consider displaying one or two and put the rest away for now.

#5. Get Support

You can't make this journey alone. You need help! Start with spouses, partners, or others who are actively participating in raising your child, such as grandparents. The goal is to have a shared vision for what Montessori in your home looks like. This may require you to have some hard, deep conversations -- especially if your partner isn't totally onboard -- but it's critical.

Go further, though, and reach out to friends and other parents. Talk to them about what you're doing, even if you aren't completely confident in it. In fact, talking about it will help you better understand your own perspective and dissolve the feeling of isolation so common in parenting. 

Lastly, look for mentors in other places. The Internet is filled with wonderful resources for parents at any stage of their Montessori journey, including our own Montessori 101 Facebook group. Join the conversation!