Montessori Materials

Simple Is Better

egg-and-cupMost commercial toys try to cram a lot of “bang for their buck”. Imagine, with just one toy, your child will be able to learn colors, numbers and shapes! She’ll practice sorting and stacking while listening to classical music, and each time she does it right, the toy will light up and shout out “Good job!”

This sounds like a great toy, right? Wrong! The best toys are the simplest ones… Click here to find out why and watch a short video!

Language Development, Montessori Materials

On Our Shelves: materials for a 9-month-old and a 4-year-old

I recently posted a picture of 9-month-old Nadia’s shelves on my Facebook page, and several people wrote to me asking for links to her toys and materials.  I hope this helps you when you set up your baby’s shelves!


Top row of cubbies (left to right):

Takane ball: I made the ball for Zachary when he was a baby, and both kids have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it.  I used this tutorial from Beautiful Sun Montessori, but there are many other tutorials out there if you search for “takane ball instructions”.  I have very basic sewing skills, so if you have a sewing machine (and time), you can make one, too!

Wooden grasping toys: Ours were gifts from my lovely A-to-I trained friends, and Nadia has loved them since she was a tiny baby (I rotate them in and out).  You can find them on Etsy.

Wooden car: We have a set of wooden cars made by the German toy company  They are sturdy and lots of fun for toddlers to crash!  For Nadia I rotate one at a time, but when Zachary was a toddler he enjoyed racing them with mommy and daddy.  You can find them here.

Fabric shapes: Our lovely babysitter hand-stitched different shapes and stuffed them with cotton.  She used a solid fabric on one side and a patterned fabric on the other.  It’s an easy DIY project that could also be done with different textures of fabric (such as corduroy, denim, etc.)

Basket o’ rattles: These are different noise makers we’ve picked up along the way… A maraca from Mexico, a wicker rattle with pieces of tin inside, a doll with a rattle inside, and a couple of Hape rattles, including this funny one (link).

Bottom row of cubbies (left to right):

Object permanence box: She LOVED this from the moment I took it out of the box. The quality is remarkably good for the price, and we just switched out the object-permplastic ball it came with for a sturdier wooden ball because it has a more pleasing sound when it hits the bottom of the box.  Here’s the link. 

Peg and two rings: The peg comes from this Melissa & Doug toy (link) that we got as a gift, which she’s still too young to use, and the rings are napkin rings from the local thrift store.  I have different kinds of rings (metal, wood, ceramic) that I switch out for variety.

Geometric shape puzzle: The shapes are part of a Melissa & Doug three-puzzle set that includes six animals and three shapes.  I think the set I have is discontinued but this is a great alternative (link).

Wooden nesting/stacking bowls: They’re also from the Grimm compabowlsny, and they are one of her favorite toys.  We had a three-year old friend come over to play, and she had a great time stacking them, so it’s a toy with plenty of growth potential!  The wood is beautiful and very high quality.  You can find them here (link).

Geometric solids: These belong to the Hape Shape Sorter (link). shape-sorter She’s not old enough to understand sorting yet, but she likes how the shapes rattle (they have little balls inside).  Once she’s old enough to sort, she’ll already be familiar with the shapes!

If you’re curious about some of the materials on the top shelf that my 4-year old son uses, they are as follows:

World globe: I really like this one from Reprologe (link) because it has the tilting andglobe swiveling base that allows you to see the South Pole without having to flip the base over.  It has raised topography and up-to-date political geography.  The reviews are mixed on Amazon because sometimes the meridians don’t line up, but ours is defect-free and it’s been a HUGE hit with Zachary.

Sandpaper letters: These lower-case cursive letters (link) are a great investment, since the children use them from the time they’re learning sounds (around 2.5/3 years of age) until they’re perfecting their handwriting (lower elementary).

Basket of objects: These are miniature objects I’ve collected though the years, including animals, furniture and cooking utensils.  These are also a great investment, since you use them for language development when they’re toddlers, then Sound Games at 2.5 years of age, and then as inspiration for writing words with the Moveable Alphabet.

Moveable Alphabet: I am in love with this medium cursive alphabet (link)!  The letters mov-alphare made out of wood, they are sturdy and attractive, and they have a nicer weight than the more expensive plastic ones from Nienhuis that most AMI classrooms have.  Plus, each compartment has its corresponding letter printed on it, for easy clean-up (another thing that more expensive plastic model don’t have).  For a homeschooling family, I think this is the ideal Moveable Alphabet.

Feel free to drop me a note if you have any questions about any of these materials, including how I present them to the children!

Disclaimer: Some of these links are affiliate links, and The Full Montessori will get a few pennies from your purchase through Amazon.  Thank you for your support!



Why Boring is Good

You might think that the home of a Montessori teacher is like a miniature classroom, with shelf after shelf of perfect little materials and not a plastic object in sight. That might be true for some teachers’ homes, but not for ours! We have a little cupboard that holds a few activities: musical instruments, a basket of containers, nesting cups, and a couple of books. He also has a Ball Tower, a basket with assorted balls, a push toy, and a couple of stacking toys.  That’s pretty much it.


Sometimes I feel bad that I don’t have time to make beautiful little trays with activities Zach might benefit from.  But then I realize that his entire day provides plenty of opportunities for physical and mental development.

I want to share some of the things we do during the day so that if you’re in the same boat as me (working, cooking, cleaning) you will feel better knowing that when you give your toddler the opportunity to engage in the activities of daily life, you provide all the stimulation he needs. No cute trays or expensive materials required!

Toileting: He goes to the bathroom as part of his daily routine: upon waking, before and after meals, before and after naps, before leaving the house and upon returning, and before bedtime.  Apart from the obvious benefit of helping him develop independence, care of self and awareness, it’s also a wonderful time to engage one-on-one without distractions.  We sing songs, read books, or just look into each other’s eyes and smile.  He loves to empty his potty into the toilet (!!!), open the wipes container, and pull out a wipe, which are great opportunities to practice fine and gross motor skills (and help me develop nerves of steel).

Dressing and undressing: Zach sits on a stool in his room, then I tell him the name of each piece of clothing and explain what I’m going to do before I do it.  He helps by undoing the velcro on his shoes, lifting his arms and feet to put on his shirt and socks, and pulling off his shirt once I get it up around his head.  These activities help him develop language, independence, care of self, sequencing, order, and fine and gross motor skills.

Cooking: On the days I don’t have to go to work, he helps me to make breakfast by picking the eggs and scrambling them in a bowl.  Then he watches the rest of the cooking process from his Learning Tower.  Cooking is a great opportunity to develop independence and coordination.  It also lets him see that he’s contributing to family’s well-being, and allows him to develop patience.  Cooking is actually exposing him to a myriad different subjects, from language to chemistry to botany, although he doesn’t know it yet!

Mealtimes: He eats breakfast and dinner with mom and dad, using silverware (with a little help), real china, and a glass & pitcher.  He has lunch and post-nap snack at his weaning table, and is even learning how to pour a smoothie from his pitcher to his glass!  We are working on establishing a clean-up routine that keeps him engaged, because right now he’s more interested in dashing off to play than in sponging up spills (this will come with age…).  Meals allow him to practice grace & courtesy, and help him develop fine motor skills and independence.  Meals are also prime opportunities for establishing and upholding limits, and letting him experience natural and logical consequences. 2013-04-11_08-01-08_618

Play: Zach has lots of time for free, unstructured play, both at the park and at home.  At the park he’s free to roam, check out other kids’ toys, climb structures and go down the slide, and play in the sand.  I stay in one spot, approaching him only if he’s in danger of falling from a play structure or if he’s engaging in inappropriate behavior (like mistreating someone’s toy or eating someone’s snack).  These activities offer countless opportunities for developing gross & fine motor skills, independence, problem-solving abilities, social skills, and risk assessment. I have to say I underestimated the importance of socialization for young toddlers.  He has learned so much (both the good and the not-so-good) from watching other children who are slightly older.  He often gets into heated “arguments” over a toy.  These encounters sometimes end in tears but more often than not the two children figure things out on their own!  At home he can play with his toys, look at books, or work outdoors transferring dirt from one container to another.  We also put on music and dance!  I let him take the lead on what he wants to do.  If he seems restless indoors, I simply open the door to the patio and normally that will spur him into action.

Over the months, I’ve tried taking Zach to baby yoga, music & dance classes, baby sign language… You name it!  It seemed like “everyone” was doing it, and I wanted to see what the hype was about.  I quickly discovered that – at least for my child – these classes do not provide much benefit and are really just an added stress that interferes with our routine.  Adults welcome change in their day, and I know many moms find these classes a great opportunity to socialize, but babies can find the hectic schedule difficult to handle.  What has worked best for us is a steady, rhythmic, predictable day.  Boring is good: knowing what comes next gives your baby security, and it lets you prepare an environment that will support his growth.  No cute trays or expensive materials required!


The Power of Simplicity and Trust

The fundamental concept for the educator [and the parent] is not to become an obstacle in the development of the child.

-Maria Montessori, The Child In the Family

One reason I love to blog is because it gives me the opportunity to connect with many amazing parents.  After I wrote the post about Zach’s experiences with the Jaramillo soup, I began an e-mail correspondence with a reader (let’s call her Adriana) who felt the soup was right for her three-month old son (let’s call him Charlie).  We e-mailed almost daily while she learned the tricks to making a great soup.  Her baby was soon thriving, and fortunately we’ve remained in touch.

She recently e-mailed me to ask my thoughts on Charlie’s development, since he’s 5 months old and she’s concerned because he’s not yet rolling.  I told her that each baby has his own timetable and that if the pediatrician doesn’t feel there’s anything physically or mentally wrong with him, the best thing to do to encourage rolling is to place a favorite toy just out of the baby’s reach and let him make the effort of reaching it.

This exchange led her to open up a bit more about her experiences with Charlie.  She wrote:

I’ve invested in so many toys and activity centers for Charlie, to keep him entertained and alert. However, I feel like he is so bored by everything. He has a bouncy chair. A piano kick thing with hanging toys, a walker car thingy, a door frame jumper, not to mention tons of teething toys and other dangly colorful stroller toys. Nothing seems to hold his attention for long and he gets cranky and I have to continuously rotate him from toy to toy… I wonder if perhaps I have given him too much and therefore overwhelmed him and he just can’t deal with so much. I’m interested in the Montessori things you have talked about. Charlie is very determined, he hates when he can’t do something and gets frustrated when I help him. He tries to sit on his own but topples over and then pushes my hands away when I try to help him. His favorite thing is to stick things in his mouth or play with his hands.
My heart went out to her.  I think that at some point we all feel responsible for stimulating our babies and become puzzled when they respond by getting cranky and irritable.  I admire Adriana’s ability to observe her child and find the correlation between environment and behavior.  Here’s what I wrote back:
Each parent has to trust that their baby is an active being who can learn on his own without the constant stimulation of parents or loud flashy electronic toys.  The best way to come to terms with this is by observing your baby and giving him the opportunity to engage with open-ended objects.
Perhaps the reason he’s not rolling is because he doesn’t feel he needs to.  Place an interesting object – a metal mixing bowl or a shiny spoon or a pinecone – near him and go sit nearby.  Perhaps at first he’ll cry trying to get your attention because he’s used to being entertained, but when he realizes you are busy (pretend to be busy!!) he’ll eventually try to move towards the interesting object and interact with it.  This might take two minutes, two hours, or two days, but I guarantee you that it will happen!
You can also hang something like a couple of metal bracelets from a ribbon so that he can grab at them if he seems to be having too much trouble rolling and becomes too frustrated.  However, a little frustration and effort is a good thing!  Life is full of frustrations, and it’s important to let them experience a little bit of this so that they can also feel empowered when they overcome adversity.
I also suggested – among several resources – a great post from Janet Lansbury that offers suggestions for trusting in the child’s intrinsic learning process and learning to take a step back:
Adriana wrote back a couple of days later:
…Today I did an experiment. I took away almost everything away from Charlie’s play area except for his colorful mat and one teething ring. I put up a long mirror going along the mat and just put him down. He was so happy. Wiggled and talked. Very interesting to see him and understand that I didn’t have to entertain him. I look forward to understanding more and learning how I can help him be more interactive with his environment!
And then a day later:
Today I was playing with Charlie and he saw a toy he like that was a little off to his side around head level. He kept looking at it and trying to reach for it but unless he moved he could not get it. So I encouraged him to roll over and when he did, the toy was still a bit away. I just told him that he could get it and that he should. He reached out for it and got it himself!!! At that moment I almost cried because I knew that he just learned something. He eventually got frustrated because he couldn’t get it in his mouth properly and he got tired of keeping his head up, so I just showed him what he needed to do to get back on his back. He cried a bit after that, but eventually chilled out. It was just so neat to see that.
And the following day:
Today, I took Charlie outside to the yard and set up a blanket. I took two toys: a ball and a dangly bracelet that he likes. I could not believe it, we spent over 40 minutes together without one whine or cry. In fact, he laughed, like giggled, all by himself. We laughed together without me having to do anything. When the wind blew over the trees, he got so excited and started kicking and wiggling and talking. Today, he sat for a few seconds and actually grabbed a toy and played with it. He also reached for a toy by his side and with some help rolled over and extended his hand to grab it. In two days, his mobility and his eagerness to be mobile has changed so dramatically. I feel like crying when I think that I was completely keeping him from achieving these things.
Wow.  Simplicity and trust are two very powerful tools in the hands of a loving and humble parent.  Thank you, my dear friend, for allowing me to share your experiences with my readers.

He Likes to Move It, Move It…

I had the good fortune of capturing Zach on video while he worked on his gross motor skills. (Please pardon the wonky camera angle; I didn’t want him to know I was filming him.)  I want to share what I recorded because I feel it illustrates several key principles for supporting the development of movement…

Motives for movement: The development of movement is two-pronged.  There is an evolutionary drive to move that comes from within the child, but it must be met in the environment by a reason to move.  Fortunately, babies are curious by nature, and don’t require expensive, flashy, and noisy toys.  A simple pinecone becomes a delightful plaything in the hands of a baby, and offers him a bounty of information in terms of texture, smell, weight, shape, sound, taste, color, etc.  (Make sure to check your pinecone for any tiny inhabitants before you give it to baby!)  Use your imagination to offer your child objects from nature and from around your house that satisfy his current developmental needs.

Clothing for movement: When I put Zach on his blanket, he was wearing cotton pants.  He quickly rolled over onto his tummy and began to do his military crawl, but his legs kept sliding out from beneath him.  I removed the pants and his traction improved considerably!  At all stages of child development, dressing for independence and freedom of movement is a key element for success.  Common clothing-related obstacles include: sleeves and pant legs that are too long; fabric that’s too stiff (e.g., denim and taffeta);  pants and overalls that are difficult to undo for going to the toilet; long and frilly skirts that get in the way during crawling and toileting; and socks and shoes that don’t let feet get the workout they need.  What do you think is more important: a fashionable tot or an active and independent one?

Space for movement: Playpens, walkers, jumpy swings… They are all sold under the pretense of keeping the child safe and entertained while the parent isn’t around to supervise.  However, they are an obstacle to the development of movement at a crucial time in the baby’s life.  If nature is driving the baby to move, we need to let him move!  Remember, a baby’s intelligence depends on his ability to move naturally and freely.  There’s nothing natural and free about a walker or a jumpy swing; they are expensive containers that infringe on a child’s freedom to develop.  A room, or even a section of a room, that has been carefully prepared to meet the needs of the child is a lot safer – and more intellectually stimulating – than any contraption (Trust me, those lights and bells on an exersaucer aren’t helping baby learn a darn thing).

“If a child is prevented from using his powers of movement as soon as they are ready, this child’s mental development is obstructed.”

Time for movement: Babies are often the victims of our rush-rush lifestyle; many spend the better part of their day in buckets car seats, strollers, and carriers, being carted from stores to siblings’ extra-curricular activities to restaurants.  In order to support a baby’s development, it is essential to block out some time every day for him to move on the floor.  Get creative: if you’re taking your older child to soccer practice, bring a blanket and let baby hang out on the grass.  If you’re making dinner, set down a blanket in a safe corner of the kitchen for baby to roll around on.  If you’re working out while pushing baby in a stroller, pause halfway through your run and let baby stretch out on a blanket while you do crunches.  Yes, it’s important for children to adapt to our schedules, but we also have to keep their needs in mind!

Baby sets the pace: Infants move slowly and deliberately.  It takes a lot of effort to coordinate movements during the early months of life.  The brain has to process a HUGE quantity of new data all day long! Be patient when your baby is taking his time reaching, crawling, exploring a toy, or simply looking around the room.  If you get used to waiting and slowing down now, you’ll be in a much better position to support your child’s burgeoning independence during the toddler years.

Maximum effort: Babies exert 110% effort when trying to reach a milestone.  Those evolutionary drives are no laughing matter; they push a child to his limit in the quest for development.  When I see Zach straining and grunting, a part of me wants to make him happy by helping him to accomplish his goal.   Moving the pinecone just a little closer to him, or giving him a little nudge in the right direction, should help him achieve his objective, and that in turn will make him feel happy, right?  WRONG Unlike adults, babies don’t work for an external goal.  Zach might seem interested in reaching the pinecone, but his real (albeit subconscious) interest is in developing the ability to crawl. (Did you notice how he would toss the pinecone every time he reached it?).  They repeat the same activity over and over and over, not because they’re masochists, but because they want to perfect an ability.  By “helping” him, I’m actually hurting his development!

“The ostensible aim of the child’s work is not its ultimate purpose; all the child does is to obey an inner impulse.”

Work without interruptions: Seeing your child reach new milestones is exciting!  It’s normal to want to encourage your baby or to bust out the camera so you can capture the moment.  Sadly, every interruption to a baby’s work weakens his innate ability to concentrate; chronic interruptions lead to an inability to focus on any task.  It is therefore essential to get out of the way and allow the child to finish his work – even if what he’s doing makes no sense to you at all!

“There is a vital urge to completeness of action, and if the cycle of this urge is broken, it shows in deviations from normality and lack of purpose.”  (Normality, in Montessori terms, refers to a child who is peaceful, focused, happy, helpful and autonomous – all qualities that develop if the child is allowed to concentrate on purposeful activities.)

The next time you are observing your child hard at work, remember Dr. Montessori’s wise words:

“No guide, no teacher can divine the intimate need of each pupil and the time of maturation necessary to each; but only leave the child free, and all this will be revealed to us under the guidance of nature.”


The Items In Our Basket Go Round and Round

Zach just turned 7 months and he’s on the move!  I’m intrigued by how much effort he puts into his movements and can only imagine how difficult it must be to drag yourself around a room when your arms won’t hold you up reliably, your legs tuck under you but then splay right out again, and your head weighs the same as the rest of your body.  Regardless, our little boy continues to grunt and inch his way towards whatever catches his attention.

To support this developmental phase, I’ve placed in his Basket of Known Objects several items that roll.  He has a pinecone, a bottle, a rock and a napkin ring.  His other favorite “toy” right now is a beer cozy.  Not very Montessori, granted, but it rolls, it’s chewy, and it’s easy to grasp.  I also made him a little cloth ball with fabric remnants I had around; it has a little bell inside and rolls slowly.

This is what I love about Montessori – it’s so intuitive.  Observe your child, see what he needs developmentally, and modify the environment accordingly.  Then get out of the way and let nature do her work.  You know your child better than anyone else, and you don’t need an expert to tell you how to stimulate your child.  As a good friend once told me: “The best parenting book is taking the time to get to know your child.”



Dog Days of Summer

When Zach was a newborn, we had a hammock set up in our family room/bedroom.  I spent several nights dozing with him on that hammock in the fog of early motherhood.  We  eventually took it down to put up the mobiles, but a few days ago Zach was grumpy, so my husband decided to rock him.  Within minutes, our baby was asleep with his hanging wooden ring safely tucked in his hand (check out the toes!!)…

When my husband’s younger sister was a baby, she received as a gift a cloth frog that could assume endless poses due to its birdseed innards.  Over thirty years later, the frog – named “Bleh” – still lives in my in-laws’ basement.  We recently received Bleh in the mail with a request that I clone it, since the poor amphibian is losing its stuffing through tiny holes in its fabric.  Using an old pair of yoga pants and a felted green wool sweater, I whipped up Bleh the Second in two nap times and a swim lesson.  Zach cracks up every time he looks at the frog… Wouldn’t you?

And finally… What do you do with a baby who refuses to sleep on his bed?  Why, you let him choose where he wants to sleep, of course!  (If you look closely, you’ll see he took his stuffed animal with him!)


Book Review: Parenting, Inc.

Disclaimer: I wrote this book review several years ago on an old blog.  It’s still one of my favorite books and I thought some of my new readers might find the information useful.  Enjoy!


Parenting, Inc., written by Pamela Paul, goes beyond criticizing the baby product industry for its over-the-top marketing ploys, and analyzes how this exploding industry is impacting parents’ child-rearing abilities.  It is an eye-opening read for any couple thinking of having children, as well as for those parents who know they should trust their instincts but are getting swept away in the tide of marketing and societal pressures.

The book’s first chapter discusses the ridiculous amounts of gear that parents are guilted into purchasing even before the little one is born.  Forget diapers, baby wipes and onesies; parents are now made to feel inadequate if they don’t purchase every available item (including wipe warmers and baby-monitoring cameras) that could potentially minimize their child’s discomfort and maximize his happiness.  Sure, parents want their children to be happy, and there’s nothing wrong with happiness.  But, as Paul wonders: “Does it make sense to have a happy baby all the time?”  And do these items even ensure happiness?

In the book, Jack Shonkoff, chairman of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, reminds us that “babies need to live in a real world, a real environment, where things sometimes go well and sometimes don’t… They need some time to flounder by themselves and figure things out.”  The author then argues that by catering to the whims of children, parents are creating a generation of entitled and attention-seeking human beings, who look to others when problems need to be solved.

Paul reminds us that the worst part of all the paraphernalia peddled to parents is its impact on parental confidence.  The underlying message is that parenting is an overwhelming job that simply cannot be done well without the use of ridiculous amounts of expensive equipment.  And when the perfect family life doesn’t materialize, parents are left to feel that they and their flawed children – not the backed-by-experts products – are to blame.

Further on in the book, Paul contends (and I agree) that all those battery-operated toys children now play with are robbing them of their sense of creativity and empowerment.  She recounts stories of children who look for the batteries in every toy they pick up, or who pick up a stuffed animal and ask: “What does this do?”

Many parents who try to implement Montessori concepts at home wonder why their child doesn’t show much interest or respect for the materials they so lovingly purchase and create.  The answer might lie in this stunning fact: The average child in America gets SEVENTY (70!) new toys each year. According to the book, “the United States, with four percent of the world’s children, consumes 40 percent of the world’s toys.”  If a child is always getting new toys, she’ll come to appreciate them only for their novelty value and won’t bother returning to them for further exploration and imaginative play.

Paul focuses an entire chapter on “edutainment”, a catch phrase for the so-called educational DVDs (led by Baby Einstein) that have come to substitute the babysitter or the helpful relative.  Although the book was written before Disney admitted the products’ shortcomings and offered refunds, it presents a solid case against purchasing the useless – and even harmful – videos.  Why harmful?  Consider this: According to Paul, the A Day In the Farm DVD has six scene changes in a twenty-second segment.

Researchers interviewed for the book confirm that overstimulation “is damaging to the developing mind”.  They explain that “the brain’s orienting reflex is triggered when a baby hears a strange sight or sound: He can’t help but focus.”  When the scene changes rapidly, the new colors, sounds, and movements whiplash a baby’s brain back into the action.

This reminds me of friends with babies, who marveled at the videos’ ability to hold their baby’s interest.  Well, guess what?  They can’t help themselves!  Contrary to the manufacturers’ promises, not only are the babies not learning anything useful (since they are programmed by nature to learn through physical interactions, not passive absorption), but their future ability to concentrate is negatively impacted.

Parenting, Inc. also looks at the mushrooming enrichment class industry.  Parents spend dozens of hours – and hundreds of dollars – each month shuttling their children to classes that provide the same type of stimulation, which previous generations of children got from parents and caregivers, at home, for free.  While there’s nothing wrong with a swimming lesson, ballet class, or piano instruction, many children’s schedules are managed more tightly than a CEO’s, leaving little time for riding bikes, going to the park, and being kids.

What’s shocking is that this frenetic pace starts soon after the baby is born, with more and more classes being targeted towards infants.  One example the book gives is the popular music class for babies.  Proponents argue that exposure to music is essential for a child’s proper development and support their claims with the much-hyped Mozart effect theory.  Not only has the Mozart effect been discredited by well-founded studies, but what’s wrong with exposing your child to music at home while you fold laundry, saving yourself thousands of dollars a year?

Interestingly, the book points out that the only ones who seem to benefit are the mommies, who have a great excuse to get out of the house and meet other new parents.  There’s nothing wrong with meeting people in the same boat as you, but if I remember correctly, my mom used to meet her friends in a place designed to truly satisfy children’s needs – for free.  We called it “the park”.

Read this book if you want to restore a bit of sanity to your life and gain some perspective on the insane baby products industry!


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.