6 - 12, Cosmic Education, Montessori Theory, Theory and Practice

Craving Freedom and Needing Structure

Amidst all the color-coded hour-by-hour homeschool schedules flooding social media, I want to offer a different take on how to help your child organize their day if you have a child who paradoxically craves freedom and needs structure.

I created for my eight-year-old twice-exceptional second-grader a pie graph showing the amount of time (out of a 24-hour day) he can spend exploring/reading/playing/learning what he’s passionate about, vs. the amount of time I would like him to focus on practicing and developing specific academic skills (writing, math, grammar, spelling).


Need For Structure

The structure comes in the form of a weekly learning journal that shows him the concepts we’ll be working on.  We choose the topics together, based on what we’ve covered the prior week. The order in which we visit the subjects is up to him.  Together we decided that this type of work was best done immediately after lunch, when he’s already downstairs at the kitchen table and isn’t engaged in creative projects or silent reading.  However, he gets to choose daily whether he completes his academic practice in one sitting or takes 15-minute breaks between subjects.  Breaks can include making popcorn, throwing the ball outside, walking the dog, etc.


Need For Freedom

The freedom comes in the form of a prepared environment, free of screens or other electronics (including no audiobooks Monday to Friday).  He has a big selection of books (fiction and non-fiction at all reading levels) and spends hours a day reading.  He has lots of LEGOs and spends many hours building crazy contraptions.  He can whittle, draw, do experiments, ride his bike, play Hot Wheels, explore the neighborhood, and cook.  We do daily read-alouds in Spanish and English, read a bit of poetry a couple of times a week, listen to beautiful music in the car, and he knows I’m available to have conversations about random questions that pop into his mind.  (Before quarantine, we also spent time in museums, at a STEM maker-lab, with our Montessori learning community, and enjoying nature with friends).

Freedom and responsibility are the yin and yang of the elementary years; they’re the rhythm of the delicate and ever-evolving dance between parent and child.

“The emphasis on freedom is for the development of individuality. The emphasis on discipline is for the benefit of the individual and of society.” – Maria Montessori


3 - 6, 6 - 12, Math and Geometry, Montessori Materials, Uncategorized

Long Live the Short Chains

The Montessori Short Chains and Arrows pack a big learning punch and are often under-utilized.IMG_4716  They’re great for a homeschool environment because they don’t take up any shelf space.  Their initial purpose is to help the child first count linearly and then skip-count.  But when your child is comfortable with these two concepts, you can use the chains for much more!  Here are four ideas…

IMG_4657Find the number: Ask the child to set out the hundred chain with the corresponding arrows, while you cut up a few blank paper arrows (cut little rectangles and trim the corners to make arrows).  Write a number on the arrow (any number between 1 and 99) and have the child place the arrow on the corresponding bead.  If you notice mistakes, you can either let it be for now (and encourage more practice) or invite the child to count from the nearest tens-arrow (e.g. if the paper arrow says “26” and it’s in the wrong spot, invite the child to count linearly from the “20” arrow).

When they get comfortable with this activity, you can place blank arrows on random beads along the chain and ask the child to write down the numbers on the arrows. Later the child can do the same activities but without the tens arrows as guides.  You can ask questions like, “What number would you reach if you added 10 beads to 26?” or “What number would you reach if you counted backwards 8 beads from 45?”  You can do all these activities from around the age of 5 if counting skills are solid.

Find the missing number in a sequence: When a child knows how to skip-count, youIMG_4500 can present a new challenge by having them find the missing number in a number sequence.  The first few times you do this, you can use the regular arrows for any chain and hide one behind your back.  Ask the child to lay out the arrows and tell you which one is missing. (e.g. The child lays out 5, 10, 20, 25 and tells you that 15 is missing.)

Later, with the ten-chain, you write sequence numbers on paper arrows and the child has to use addition and subtraction to figure out the sequence and which numbers are missing. (e.g. Make arrows for the numbers 2, 19, 36, and 70 and the child has to lay them out and then figure out the pattern in the sequence and what number arrows are missing).  Help the child verbalize the process he’s using in order to solidify the concept and extend it to any number sequence without the material.  The first part of this work is great from the age of five, and the sequence activity is great from six onwards, increasing in complexity.


Rounding to the nearest ten: The concept of rounding is not presented in isolation in the Montessori elementary, but is instead part of an ongoing conversation when working with money, estimating, etc.  However, if a child isn’t understanding the concept, you can use the hundred chain to support their comprehension.  Have the child match the tens arrows to the bead chain, and then talk about how the tens are numbers that we can work with easily. Give examples of when we might want to work with numbers rounded to ten instead of exact numbers.

Write the number 62 on a paper arrow and ask the child to place it on the corresponding bead on the chain.  Then ask him what “ten” the arrow is closest to, and explain that 62 can be rounded down to 60 (or is closest to 60).  Do the same with a couple of numbers with the units under 5.  Then make an arrow with a number that has the units higher than 5 (e.g. 68).  Ask the child what “ten” that number is closest to and point out that 68 rounds up to 70.  Then write a number with 5 in the units (e.g. 65) and tell the child that our rule is that if a number has a 5 or above in the units, you round UP to the nearest ten.  Give a couple of examples for the child and then encourage him to make his own examples.  The book “Sir Cumference and the Roundabout Battle” has a lovely story that fits well with this activity.

IMG_4719Polygons: The chains provide a fun exploration of shapes, from triangle to decagon.  Have the child carry all the chains on a tray to a large rug and ask her to make a closed shape with each chain imagining that the center was pressing out evenly on all sides.  Then ask her how many sides each shape has.  If you have a Geometry Cabinet, ask her to find the corresponding shape from the cabinet and put it inside or next to the bead shapes.  The child can write on a slip of paper the number of sides each shape has, and then you can give the names.  You can do a three-period lesson with a Primary child, and you can make an etymology chart with an Elementary child.  The child can also build the shapes around each other, with the square surrounding the triangle, the pentagon surrounding the square, etc.

I hope these fun chain activities bring new life to your bead cabinet!

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How to Montessori Your Home

Welcome!  Come on in… I’m Zach and this is my home.  I was born in my parents’ bedroom upstairs and have spent my entire life – a whopping 16 months – living here.  I love what my parents have done with the place and I want to share my favorite spots with you.

Let’s begin in the kitchen.  When I started being strong enough to open the drawers on my own, my mom had to do some re-arranging.  She moved all the chemicals to the bathroom (the only cabinet in the house with a child-proof lock).  She put her glass tupperware in a higher drawer so I wouldn’t accidentally break it while playing with the other containers, and she moved the silverware (except the sharp knives) down to a low drawer so I could have access to it.  Other than that, she left everything else as it was.  A few times I tried investigating the delicate items she had in some of the drawers, but she would come over and tell me “no, those are not for you”.  She would then show me which drawers I could play with.  Now I know!  I got my fingers caught in the heavy drawers a couple of times, but now I’m really skilled at closing them.  My favorite item in the kitchen is my dad’s old blender.  I spend hours assembling and disassembling it!


Next to the kitchen is the little wooden cupboard where I keep my toys.  My mom found it at a swap meet and I love it because it’s the perfect size for me!  We keep my cars in one basket on the floor and my balls in another.  Mommy says baskets are great, and I agree!  I especially like to dump everything out of them and then put things back (or walk away and leave a giant mess behind, depending on my mood).


Next to my toys is my weaning table.  This is where I had my first meal with a bowl and a spoon!  When I first used the table, at 4 months of age, I needed help sitting up.  Now, all mom has to say is: “It’s time to eat!” and I run to my table, pull out my chair, and sit down on my own!  Sometimes I share my weaning table with my friend James.  We have so much fun eating lunch together!  My dad and my aunt Debbie made the weaning table from plywood he had lying around in the basement.  They also built my Learning Tower, which we move into the kitchen when I need to wash my hands or help with the cooking.  I hope one day I can be as crafty as they are.


I have breakfast and dinner with mom and dad at the dining room table.  I have a Tripp-Trapp chair that was a present from my grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins.  I love knowing that my entire family has contributed to my independence.  I am learning to climb in and out of the chair on my own, and it’s so nice to share meals with mom and dad.  We always light a candle and use real china, silverware, and glasses.  I love feeding myself, which can get a little messy but it’s also a lot of fun.  I’ve broken a couple of glasses and plates, but now I have a lot of respect for them.  I am so careful, that now I am in charge of taking the plates and silverware to the table when it’s time for dinner!


OK, moving along… Squeeze by the couch and follow me outside.  Here are my geraniums, which I water every day (I’m working on getting more water into the pots and less water on the floor).  Over there is my water source, and my watering can.  I quickly learned how to get water to come out of the spigot, and now I can fill my own watering can.  My mom put a large container underneath to catch spills, and an old cooling rack serves as a surface for resting my watering can.  I also have a pot with a lot of dirt, and an almost-empty pot that I am slowly filling up with dirt and toys and pinecones and rocks and everything else I find in the patio.  My mom always says that she needs to “put more work into the outdoor environment”, but actually this is my favorite spot in the entire house!


Let’s come back inside.  Careful with those steps, you might want to hold on to the low railing my dad installed so I could go up and down the steps on my own.  This way, I can get to the bathroom when I have to use the potty.  Here’s my little toilet; I have another one upstairs.  Here are my underwear and my books.  Mom and I spend a lot of time here, reading books, singing songs, and waiting for me to do my business.  When I pee or poop, I proudly empty my potty into the toilet on my own, while my mom flinches and tries to pretend like she’s not dying to help me.


Oh, look, right outside the bathroom is the dogs’ water bowl.  I used to make a giant mess every time I walked by – I couldn’t resist turning over the bowl and spilling the water everywhere!  I’m much more mature now; I notice when it’s empty and take it to my mom so she can fill it up.  She didn’t understand me the first time I took it to her and said “agua“.  She told me, “No, there’s no water in the bowl right now”.  Moms can be so dense!  I persisted, and eventually she understood and got really excited at my new “level of awareness”, which is what she called it when she told daddy.  Call it whatever you want, mom, but someone had to give the dogs water!

Let’s go upstairs.  Mind the gate at the bottom of the stairs, which nowadays is only used for keeping the dogs downstairs.  We still use the one at the top of the stairs when mom has to take a shower and I am hanging out  upstairs.

Here’s my bedroom.  I slept on a floor bed for many months.  It was a crib mattress placed on the floor, and I really enjoyed the freedom it gave me to explore my room after my nap or if I wasn’t feeling sleepy.  Unfortunately, I am a big-time roller, and in the winter I would roll out of bed and get very cold sleeping on the wood floor.  My parents found the perfect solution: this neat bed from IKEA!  Instead of using slats to raise the mattress off the floor (like the original design intended), my dad came up with the idea of putting the mattress on the floor so that there would be a low wall surrounding it.  There’s a little entry/exit built into one end of the bed’s frame, but I’m also really good at climbing in and out the side of the bed (I landed on my face the first few times I tried this, but now I’m a real pro).  Next to the bed is my stool and my laundry hamper.  Mom says I’m a wiggle worm; she tries to get me to sit down to get dressed, but I often end up running around the room half-naked.  However, I do love to put my dirty clothes into the hamper!


In the upstairs bathroom I have a stool to reach the counter so I can brush my teeth, and I also have another potty like the one downstairs.  In my parents’ room I have a few toys on a shelf, which I mostly use only when mommy is getting dressed.  This was my movement area when I was younger; I had my mobiles, mirror, and a bar for pulling up and cruising.  We’ll soon turn it back into a climbing wall so I can give mom more heart attacks start bouldering!


Well, that’s it, folks!  I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour of our Montessori home…  Thanks for visiting, come back soon!


A Place for the Potty

We have two of the world’s tiniest bathrooms, so when I decided 7 months ago that I would help Zach develop toileting awareness, I had to find a way to incorporate potties and clean & dirty underwear bins into pretty tight spaces.   Our arrangement has worked out beautifully, which is great because I spend a big chunk of my day kneeling by the potty!  We use the Baby Bjorn high backed potty, and I got the underwear bins at the Container Store.  We keep a couple of books on rotation between the potty and the bin… And that’s it!  Proof that you can ALWAYS find effective ways to modify the environment to accommodate your child’s changing needs.





Zach’s Activity Area

We live in a small two-bedroom condo, which has posed some fun challenges as we work to continually adapt Zachary’s environment to meet his growing needs.  One of the four areas that make up a Montessori baby room is the activity area, where the little one has the opportunity to stretch out, roll around, observe mobiles, and play independently.  It is a simple set-up, consisting of a low mirror and a thin pad or large rug.  A hook or tripod for hanging mobiles is also essential.  Eventually, a low bar should be added when baby starts sitting up.  There should be one or two low shelves where a few toys are kept.

Our baby’s bedroom is tiny, and the only bare wall is actually a sliding door, so it was impossible to set up an activity area there.  Luckily, our bedroom is pretty big, and we’re hoping to turn it into a family room once my husband finishes building the loft that will be our new bedroom.  Therefore, it made perfect sense to set up the activity area there, since it will eventually become a place where the whole family can hang out.  I should also note that my husband turned one of the walls in this room into a rock climbing wall several years ago, which came in handy during the mirror set-up!

When Zach was a newborn, the activity area was nothing more than a pad, a low mirror attached to the wall, and a hook on the wall from which to hang mobiles.  This worked for about 2.5 months, until he started rolling and trying to grab the mobiles.  I tried putting a picnic blanket on the floor, but instead of rolling towards his toys, Zach would lay on his tummy and pull the blanket towards him until the toy got close enough to grasp!  Sneaky little bugger… 😉  We bought a couple of cute and sturdy IKEA rugs, and the problem was solved!

My husband added the low bar that will eventually encourage Zach to pull up and cruise back and forth.  He chose copper piping instead of a wooden rod because the bar has to be thin so the baby can grasp it; a wooden bar long enough to cover the amount of mirror space we set up would be too weak.  We have a huge length of mirror because we had the space, but one standard mirror (like those that you can put on a door, but placed horizontally) is plenty for a young baby.  When you choose the bar, make sure your baby can wrap his fingers around it!  We got our mirrors at IKEA; they’ve withstood plenty of banging and were very easy to mount.

The shelves are also from IKEA and they are just the right height so that when Zach starts pulling up he can reach the two upper cubbies.  I love to see Zach roll over to the shelves and pull out a toy on his own.  Having only a few toys makes it very easy to clean up when he’s done playing; each toy has a permanent spot, and I only rotate out one toy at a time every week or so.  We have 5 books available at any one time, and we also rotate those out every two weeks with other books that are kept in his room.  (Note how my husband used to bar to stabilize the shelving unit so it wouldn’t topple over.)

The toys we have out right now are not necessarily “Montessori” toys (if such a concept even exists), but they are all toys that have an intelligent purpose and satisfy Zach’s current interests.  A few of the items Zach explores right now actually belong to toys that are designed for older children.  I’ve offered the part of the toy that Zach currently finds interesting and put away the part that he’ll be into later.  For example, we have several wooden geometric solids that go into a hexagonal container.  He’s too young to be interested or capable of inserting the shapes into the corresponding holes, but he loves to take them out their basket and shake them (they have little beads inside that make them rattle).

These are some other examples of the toys we have out:

  • Four fabric rings of different colors, sizes, and textures (these are actually stacking rings, which Zach is not interested in stacking yet, so I haven’t shown him the pole)
  • The Takane ball (this ball hung from the wall when Zach was younger, and he developed enormous leg strength from kicking it.  Now it helps encourage him to roll and crawl, and is great for him to practice grasping and hand-to-hand transfer.)
  • The geometric solids (I found a great basket for them at a thrift store and made a liner out of an old felted woolen sweater.)
  • Stacking/nesting cups (I only set out three cups right now for Zach to explore.  He’s not really interested in nesting or stacking yet; he’s currently happy to explore them with his mouth.)
  • The Squish (This is another great rolling toy that’s also perfect for grasping and has a lovely rattling sound.)
  • A rattle (Our wooden Haba rattle is actually quite heavy, so it’s a great workout for him, especially now that he’s using wrist motion instead of just whole arm motion.)

There’s also a ring with a bell hanging from a string and an elastic; Zach loves to pull on and let go because the ring bounces back and makes a jangling sound against the copper bar.  Sometimes I hang the Takane ball from there, as a variation.  We have a bead maze that he’s too young to really play with, but it’s too large to store and he does roll towards it to inspect it sometimes.

Not surprisingly, Zach’s favorite activity right now is simply moving.  If I leave him in his activity area and return five minutes later, I will find him halfway across the bedroom.  He wants to explore and he’s trying to figure out how to crawl, so toys are of secondary importance to him right now.

We recently had two 13-month twins over for a visit.  It was amazing to see them being sucked in to the activity area.  They were delighted by a space that was just for them and spent a long time exploring.  They especially loved the bead maze and the Takane ball (which was hanging at that time).  Their parents commented on how peaceful and orderly the environment seemed, and how in contrast, the toys they had at home were “positively ADD-inducing” (these were the mom’s words, not mine!).

Our room is almost completely baby-proofed in preparation for Zach’s crawling stage.  It makes me happy to think that he’ll be able to crawl from his room to ours when the sliding door is open, so he’ll have a large area in which to move, explore, and play independently.


As easy as a ribbon, a bracelet, and a bell

While Zachary observed his Gobbi mobile recently, I realized that from one day to the next he had started moving his arms. These movements weren’t the reflexive jerks of a newborn; they seemed to have a different energy and trajectory.

I mentioned this to my husband, so he decided to hold out a rattle near Zach’s right arm to see what would happen. Zach flung out his arm repeatedly while keeping his eyes fixed on the rattle, and several times struck the toy, causing it to chime happily.

This discovery prompted me to introduce a Montessori hanging toy designed to support this stage of Zach’s development (which started at 8 weeks). I stitched a wooden bracelet and a metal bell to a bright ribbon and hung these over Zach’s activity area, rattling the bell once to show Zach what the sound was. Then I stepped back to observe.

It took him a few tries, but soon Zach was swatting at the bell with singular glee. At first the arm movements were random, but after several days they have become more purposeful, and he will routinely lay on the floor mat for 20 minutes trying to make contact with the bell. The effort he puts forth is inspiring; his entire body is involved in making his arm move.

This simple material is a powerful tool to aid the development of the will. Dr. Montessori used the word “will” to mean “I want something to happen and I have the power to make it happen”. It is one of the most powerful developmental phenomena, because it is the fore-bearer to resilience, determination, and a healthy self-esteem. Think about it: How powerful is it to know that you have the power to set your mind on something and accomplish it?

With this simple material, Zach is beginning the development of his will; while the first few swats are random and not purposely meant to make the bell chime, he soon realizes that he can control when the noise is produced.

In case you’re thinking “Big deal, I could teach my dog to swat at the bell”, consider that (as often occurs in Montessori) the obvious purpose of the material is often not as important its developmental purpose. Yes, your dog could probably make the bell rattle, but he would want a treat or some praise in exchange. Your dog wouldn’t be driven from within to hit the bell.

For Zachary, the conscious reward is the sound of the chime, but sub-consciously he is being driven to hit the bell by an unavoidable impulse that Dr. Montessori called “the inner teacher”. He’s not doing this for praise (as a matter of fact, young babies are immune to praise!), he’s doing this for his own development.

You can’t speed up the work of the inner teacher; you can only thwart it or support it. Create obstacles for your baby (through excessive swaddling, caging, etc.) and this developmental energy will be deviated into temper tantrums and regressions. Support this creative force and watch your child flourish to the peak of his potential. The choice is yours. And it’s as easy as a ribbon, a bracelet, and a bell.


Montessori Materials, Uncategorized

Mobiles, part I

Our baby is due in 4 weeks, so I’ve been working feverishly to create materials that will support his development in the months to come.

One of the first materials a newborn is introduced to (after a couple of weeks of adapting to his surroundings) is the Munari mobile. This black & white mobile hangs close enough to the baby’s face so he can focus on it with his limited range of vision (about 12-14 inches) but far enough so he can’t accidentally swat it with his flailing arms and legs.

Why black & white? Because these two tones provide the most contrast of any two colors. Contrast is an important tool for developmental materials (not just in infancy but throughout development) because it gives the child sensorial boundaries that will allow him to recognize more nuanced differences as his senses sharpen. In other words, they allow the child to make comparisons and organize the impressions he receives from his environment as he begins to experience other colors. Of course, this all happens sub-consciously, but if we waited to provide stimulation until the child was conscious of everything that was happening in his mind, we’d miss the most important years in terms of development!

The next mobile that’s introduced is the Octahedron mobile, composed of the three primary colors. This mobile is introduced around one month of age, around the same height as the Munari, and is also only for the visual sense (the baby shouldn’t accidentally hit it). The three primary colors again provide boundaries that allow for even greater mental organization. Apart from the importance of their colors, these two mobiles are important visual introductions to two- and three-dimensional geometry.

I’ll post more mobile information in the days to come (I’m working on a few more!). It’s important to note that these mobiles are all hand-made at home, with basic materials (paper, scissors, glue, tape, wooden dowels, fishing line). All you need is a little bit of time and creativity, as well as the desire to provide your baby with the right developmental tools at the right time of his life.