Early childhood is a time for play. And for Dr. Maria Montessori, play is the work of the child. It’s how they learn to interact with the world. You don’t have to teach a child — they come into their lives ready to soak up all they encounter.
Have you noticed how the smallest thing can lead to intense interest and scrutiny in your toddler? They can drop a bowl over and over, delighting each time in how it tumbles to the ground. They watch butterflies and ants with wonder. They’re full of questions, eager to label and classify everything they see.
It’s this curiosity and desire to learn that the Montessori philosophy aims to preserve.
Montessori philosophy basics
It’s no wonder Montessori education has taken off in recent years. It took many years of observation and research by Dr. Montessori to develop this philosophy, and it perfectly suits how children are designed to learn — especially toddlers.
If you have a 2-year old, you’ve likely found yourself battling their independent nature. They want to do everything themselves — even when they don’t yet know how. This is when Montessori can really shine.
With the help of a prepared environment, you can give your child the independence they seek, reducing daily battles while building their skills and confidence.
Prepare the environment
This is the hallmark of a Montessori education. Instead of bringing moments of learning to your child throughout the day, gift them the space and freedom to do it for themselves. This can look a number of ways.
Put everything at their level, or provide a sturdy step stool to help them reach the sink. Then keep what they need within reach — soap for handwashing, toothbrush and toothpaste, and a hairbrush. Make sure everything has a place, and encourage your child to replace things after using them.
For many families, getting dressed is a daily battle. Ease the stress by allowing them to choose their own clothing. Then be sure to leave plenty of time so they can dress themselves.
They may not choose matching sets, but you can help ensure they’re dressed for the weather by only keeping seasonal clothing out and within reach. And try buying clothing that is simple to put on and take off (think elastic waistbands and velcro shoes) to set them up for dressing success.
Meals and snacks are central to a child’s day, so they naturally want to have a say. Help your child find independence in the kitchen by placing approved snacks within reach. Have a low shelf in both the pantry and refrigerator filled with their favorite healthy snacks. And set out a pitcher of water so they can refill their cup.
Even better, let them help you with meal and snack prep. Find age-appropriate choppers and demonstrate how to slice a banana or cucumber. Place everything at a low table, or try a learning tower so they can safely reach the countertops, and let them get to work.
Your child shouldn’t need your help reaching their toys and puzzles. Look for low shelves your child can easily reach and be sure to not overcrowd them. Give each activity its own place on the shelf and encourage your child to return them once they’re done playing.
Respect your child’s need for independence
Your young child is looking for respect and independence. They still love a good cuddle, but they also long for opportunities to practice and grow their skills.
If your child is climbing everything in sight, they’re not thinking about safety. All they know is they need to practice their new skill. If they see you slicing apples or folding laundry, they want to learn to do it too. So take a deep breath, harness all your patience, and try to let them help.
By giving them more opportunities to explore and learn, you’ll find yourself dealing with less tantrum-y toddler frustration. And that’s not a bad trade-off for the extra 25 minutes spent working on laundry.
Montessori and child-directed learning
Montessori follows a child-led learning approach — allowing children to choose how they spend their day. If you take the time to set up your home for learning and toddler accessibility, then they’ll have a chance to choose what they’d like to work on.
As they choose their tasks, try to give them ample time to explore and complete their activities. They may keep going back to the same shape sorter over and over, but that’s ok — they’re learning something new each time.
Repetition is an important part of how children learn. They are first sorting out how it works, then experimenting to discover if it always works the same way. Then they continue practicing until they have full confidence in their abilities to complete the activity. Only then will they move on.
Give them time to find their flow and grow their confidence with a Montessori approach to learning.
Ways to bring Montessori philosophy to your child’s playtime
Even though there’s a lot of talk about a child’s work in Montessori, don’t let that confuse you. Play is a child’s work. But often for toddlers, their play looks a little different than with older children.
Toddler play is often based in mimicry rather than fantasy. That’s why they love a play kitchen with wooden food or taking care of baby dolls — they are practicing the tasks they see you perform every day.
Here are a few ways to bring Montessori work to your child’s playtime.
Practical life activities
Follow their lead and give them plenty of practical life activities to explore. Show them how to fold washcloths, shine silver, or wash windows. Even though it’s a chore for you, they’ll delight in these small tasks.
And if you have the kitchen space set up for them, invite them to help you cook and bake. Pop the top of a banana, or cut it in half, and have them peel bananas for some homemade banana bread. Invite them up to their learning tower to help measure and pour the ingredients.
Simple activities are a great way to introduce them to new concepts, numbers, and words while also helping them improve their fine and gross motor skills.
Engage their senses
Your toddler is the perfect age for exploring. Take them outside and observe nature. Talk about what you see, hear, and smell. Watch as they dig in the dirt and share in their excitement as they bring you a variety of nature treasures.
Help your child categorize colors, smells, and tastes. You can lay out a platter of fruit, discussing the details of yellow lemons, red apples, and green grapes. Compare the weights of rocks, then compare the difference between rocks and leaves.
Sensorial work is a great way to help toddlers classify their world. They’ll learn new words and uncover early science skills through play and discovery.
In Montessori, teachers and parents serve as guides — offering help only when needed. By taking this step back, you encourage independence and give your child a chance to discover their own answers.
You can promote independence in learning play by bringing self-correcting activities, like puzzles, to their shelves. If a shape sorter or puzzle only works one way, then your child knows to keep experimenting until they find a solution. Or if they’re sorting objects by color, then it’s easy for them to see if they’ve completed an activity correctly.
Provide freedom within age-appropriate limits
Your child needs freedom to explore and choose. Montessori’s philosophy of freedom within limits provides the perfect balance of independence within rules for young learners.
After you set up your home for Montessori learning, let your child choose how to spend their day. They may spend hours slicing strawberries or practicing their climbing skills, but those are learning moments just as much as puzzle solving. Trust your child to learn and soon you’ll see the learning everywhere.
Montessori learning is built for all children
The basics of Montessori philosophy help children build the skills they need for future success. With a mix of hands-on learning, movement, nature studies, and respect for the child, you are setting your child up to enjoy years of independent learning.