Have you ever been in a preschool and not had your ears assaulted by screaming, fighting, or crying? The first time I stepped foot in a Montessori classroom and saw a child barely old enough to walk spill his cup of water, waddle over to get a towel, go back to his mess, and clean it up unprompted, I was shocked. But learning the cost that came with that blissfully calm and focused classroom? I laughed out loud — and then realized the tour guide wasn’t joking. Montessori is a well-known method of education developed by Italian educator, physician, and scientist Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, based on the idea that “play” is a child’s work and that learning should happen naturally through real-life experiences. It centers around child-led activities in classrooms with children of varying ages and teachers who encourage independence among their pupils.
Montessori has become trendy in recent years, with big-name graduates like Jeff Bezos, Princes William and Harry, Julia Child, Sean Combs, and George Clooney, to name a few. There are a few problems with the Montessori method though; it’s inaccessible to many people, and it’s expensive. Really expensive. While it may not be for everyone, if you love the progressive Montessori philosophies but balk at the price tag that comes with sending your kiddo to a Montessori school, don’t worry. As a former Montessori teacher I can say firsthand there are ways to create a Montessori-friendly home to implement those principles — for cheap.
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Appeal to their senses.
Sensory materials are big in the Montessori world, as sensory play can help with language development, cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, problem-solving skills, and social interactions. Students use these materials to build their understanding of various sensory concepts, the more well-known Montessori sensory materials including the Pink Tower, Red Rods, Brown Stairs, Knobbed Cylinders, Color Tablets, and Smelling Jars.
Sensory trays and baskets are common in a Montessori classroom, so go nuts with sensory materials in your own home. Sand and water tables are excellent for sensory exploration — and you don’t need beautiful pastel hand-dyed rice for your sensory trays. Your own backyard is a great place to find natural materials for your trays like pinecones, rocks, sticks, flowers, and leaves. And while you can spend hundreds on mini tables or chairs — you can also find much of what you need for a Montessori household at Ikea for a fraction of the cost, like this double bin sensory table for just $50.
To nurture independence and self-esteem, everything for your kids should be child-sized and accessible. Yes, everything. Like a broom and dustpan, so they aren’t struggling with large ones to clean up their messes, or expecting you to do it. Miniature pitchers and glasses, itty bitty furniture, even hang art at their eye level. An easy way to do this is with low shelves or cubbies. Floor beds are used for babies and toddlers, not cribs. Floor beds provide freedom of movement in your kiddo’s space, and foster independence from a young age.
By keeping everything at your child’s level, you empower your kiddo to make their own decisions, so when you have guests over and they question why you have mirrors at knee height, tell them you’re fostering independence, dagnabit.
Organize your environment.
Having a clutter-free environment is important; it’s calming, allows your child to focus on each task at hand, and keeps them from getting overwhelmed, so keep in mind that less is more and bust out those storage bins. Organizing your child’s area is helpful in so many ways, (like not stepping on any Legos. For example. Hypothetically.) And if you’re looking for a specific item, try checking out your local Buy Nothing Facebook Group, doing a Goodwill drive-by, or looking on Ebay to find it for cheap. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, Amazon almost always comes through — like this woven basket set, perfect for setting up the environment for your child, with large handles so they can easily carry the work to a table or the floor.
Keep it real.
You won’t find much plastic in a Montessori classroom. That’s because the Montessori method emphasizes natural materials; wood, metal, glass, or fabric, that are healthy, safe, and innately enjoyable for children. Natural materials teach natural consequences — if you drop a plastic cup, no big deal. There’s no need to be careful or learn to respect the material. But if you drop a glass cup it’s a different story. Watching a glass — or a toy — break teaches a child to be more exact and careful, and to respect their materials and environment.
If you’re cringing and thinking ‘oh heck no am I handing my child a glass’, you’re not alone. But there are glasses that are quite thick, (never thought your shot glass collection would come in so handy, did you?) and by giving your kiddo a material like glass, you’re showing them you respect and trust them to handle it. Keep an eagle eye on them the first few times they use it, but you’ll be surprised by quickly they manage it themselves.
One and the same.
A good way to find Montessori materials for less is to search for ‘Montessori materials’ on Amazon, and when you see something you like, scroll down to the bottom where it says ‘Similar items’. Chances are, you’ll find similar items that are cheaper, and not being labeled ‘Montessori’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t do the exact same job. Much like name brands, calling something Montessori doesn’t make it better than a similar item, like these knobbed cylinders.
Rain or shine.
Maria Montessori was a big advocate of all-weather play, which is exactly what it sounds like; getting outside to play in literally all kinds of weather. Pouring rain? Go outside. Snowing? Go outside. Sunny? Cloudy? Windy? Six inches of mud? Go outside. Spending time outside has so many benefits, not only does it give children the freedom to explore, (plus gets them out of your hair and tires them out), but it also helps your tiny tots adapt their bodies to their climate, boosts their immune system, and creates a lasting love of Mother Earth.
Encouraging their outdoor play doesn’t mean you need to spend thousands on a swing set, or a huge outdoor trampoline, though — too much stuff detracts from the beauty of nature and limits their imagination. Just make sure they have the right weather-appropriate gear on, like this all-weather waterproof coverall with a hood, dual zippers for easy removal once they get covered in mud, and reinforced knees for all kinds of outdoor adventures.
Get the most out of your child’s play by getting open-ended materials. Open-ended materials are things like Legos, Magnatiles, nature play outside, art supplies, and imaginative play — basically, anything that you don’t have to show them how to use. Close-ended materials are great for teaching how to follow a specific order, there’s a way to start, and a way to finish. But open-ended materials are wonderful for independent play, creativity, and imagination. Open-ended materials could also be things like the famous Grimm’s or Grapat rainbow wooden items, which are in all the beautiful shelfies you see in Montessori Instagram photos. (Yes, shelfies. It’s a thing.)
But while both the Grimm’s and Grapat items can be used for so many different areas of play, and cross over into school subjects like math, they also cost big bucks. You can get more bang for your buck by DIYing your own larger rainbow wooden materials (just follow this easy peasy DIY for a Stepped Pyramid from This Harry Life) and purchase cheaper, smaller items like these pastel beads that can be used for lacing, counting, imaginative play, and more.
Before you go, check out our favorite ethical toy brands: