Montessori From the Start: The Toddler Work Nook

Montessori From the Start: Day 4

The Toddler Work Nook

“Imitation is the first instinct of the awakening mind.”

– Maria Montessori

Setting up a workshelf for your toddler in a central place in the home is the first step to creating a prepared environment in which your child can learn freely. However, the Montessori at Home approach sees the entire home as your child’s first classroom.

Anyone with a toddler knows that most often they want to be right where we are, getting into whatever work it is we are trying to accomplish. Many parents ask me, “How do I get my toddler to sit with something so I can actually clean up breakfast, do the laundry, write an email?” The answer to this is to shift from thinking of toys, games or screens to keep your child occupied, but rather to involve them meaningfully in the work of the home. By watching and doing along side you they are able to build vital skills of independence and self-confidence.

Guided by the Montessori-at-Home approach, I began considering each part of my home and the important work that happened there. Once my son was fully walking and free to follow me and assist with his own hands (around 15 months), we created a small space in each room where he could get involved in child-sized versions of that work.

Keep in mind, we live in a Brooklyn apartment and space is limited! These little work nooks can be fit into even the most compact home.

The Entryway

As soon as you enter the home there can be a place for your child to participate in removing their shoes, hat and coat and putting them away. A coat rack mounted at the child’s level is perfect and will serve them for years to come. 
While every household has their own way, washing the hands upon arriving home is the proven way to keep germs out. Most sicknesses enter our homes on our hands and good old fashioned soap and warm water is still the best way to prevent the spread. A simple handwashing station by the door includes a basin and pitcher, soap and paper towels. While your child puts away their shoes you can fill the pitcher with warm water and model how to wash hands together. This is especially useful for playdates with other parents and children!

The Kitchen

The kitchen is the heart of the home! At 15 months we got some space from the ever present sippy cup and began supporting our son to pour his own water at a low water pouring station when he was thirsty. Remember to provide a tray, a towel – and I recommend a child sized mop! Water will spill, and cleaning up is a part of the process. (You’ll note our tray got a bit rusty!)

You can also serve snack at this table. A small broom should be provided for cleaning up crumbs. As your child grows he or she can participate in preparing and cleaning up snack – slicing bananas with an egg slicer, spreading nut butter on crackers with a child-sized butter knife and clearing dishes when finished.

We all know the challenge of cooking meals and cleaning up with a toddler at our feet, pulling items out of the cabinets! While I do recommend leaving a low cabinet or drawer with safe materials for this exploration, a child-sized cooking station is a wonderful way to allow children to mimic us in the kitchen when they are not quite ready to actually join in.

Shown below are a set of IKEA cloth vegetables, Melissa and Doug pots, pans and cooking utensils and child-sized cleaning items. These have served us for years! On the right is a large basin and “splat mat” which can be spread out so children can help with simple food prep and clean up such as scrubbing a potato or two, rinsing vegetables or washing a few dishes.

The Office 

As an educational therapist, I did a significant amount of work from home all the way through my son’s toddler years. Setting up a corner with a low table and table-top work, including crayons, sensory materials and books, helped us both to engage in quiet work when I needed time on my computer. As children grow older they can be encouraged to spend more time at a desk and build their focus for fine motor activities. Especially if your child attends a Montessori school you will see them engaging in seated work for longer and longer periods.

The Bathroom 

Very important work can begin in the bathroom around 15 months…yes, in the Montessori at Home approach this is when potty training starts. The first step is of course the prepared environment. A potty, accessible wipes and some good reading material is all you need. When you would normally change your child’s diaper, begin encouraging some potty time. Sitting to read a book (we adored Potty by Leslie Patricelli) and modeling the process for your child makes the learning curve natural and even enjoyable. My son loved to sit and flip through books for up to a half hour at a time and the warm celebration he got for putting something in the potty provided all the motivation he needed to be fully potty trained – yes, in undies overnight – by age 2.

Multi Use Spaces

Then there are all the other things we hope to accomplish while parenting a toddler…a workout, laundry, a random household task that pops up. Here are a few ideas for these spaces. 

Exercise does not have to end just because you have a toddler at home! In fact, working out together has always been one of my favorite activities with my son. I keep a child-sized yoga mat, balls and some big gross motor works in the downstairs den. Shown is a Waldorf balance board and the Whizzy Dizzy. 

A child-sized laundry basket can be filled with some of your child’s clothes so they can participate in loading the machine or folding alongside you.

Finally, I can’t say enough about simply finding a spare drawer, cabinet or shelves in every room to place a revolving hands-on activity. This allows for simple redirection to safe and purposeful activity wherever you and your child might be at home!

Montessori From the Start: Handmade

Day 3: The Toddler Shelf

Making Your own Works

I want to start by saying that I deeply respect the meticulous design of the Montessori materials and the training with these materials that Montessori teachers undertake to be certified. The Montessori at Home approach does not seek to emulate the Montessori classroom. Instead, we are finding ways to bring the approach into our own home space and that will naturally involve a certain down-home feel.

Making is close to my heart as an early childhood educator and especially as one who embraces the Reggio Emilia approach for early childhood. A full discussion of Reggio is beyond the scope of this post, yet essentially it evolved in Italy at the turn of the century – around the same time as the Montessori Method. Reggio schools are all about recycled materials, sensory experience and learning through creation. There are many early childhood classrooms with curricula that draw on a blend of both Montessori and Reggio approaches.

As a parent incorporating Montessori for your own child at home, making works also allows for an environment that is tailored and responsive to your child on a different level. Children are often intensely curious about funny items they discover in the home; boxes, sticks, strings and things can all take on new meaning in a child’s hands. By noticing your child’s interests in their environment and using some creativity you can make some wonderful additions to the work shelf with materials you already have available.

Here are a few that have graced ours over the past years…

These Sensorial Scent Jars were made from large salt and pepper shakers. They can be filled with a variety of smells using spices, herbs, or essential oils on cotton balls. One summer we did vanilla, strawberry and chocolate as an ode to ice cream!

Another take on Sensorial, a set of Sound Cylinders. These began as recycled tea canisters and were wrapped in colorful paper. We filled these with dry leaves, rice and beans to create a range of sounds from soft to loud.

This Practical Life work, Chopstick Placing, gave new life to colorful chopsticks that had lost their partners and an old soap dispenser with a top that stuck. This task works grapho-motor skills as children try to insert the pointed end into an increasingly smaller hole.

This Practical Life work, Yarn Pulling, was created by the teacher of our Montessori From the Start Playgroup who also happened to be a fiber artist. Children loved pulling the different textured yarn as far as it would go. The yarn was threaded through the holes and knotted so that that turning the box provided never-ending opportunities to pull.

A paper cup, silverware, a play plate and a photocopied, laminated placemat become  Place Setting in this Practical Life Work. I loved encouraging my son to practice setting his place at his small table with his own plate, cup and silverware.

This Language work, The Color Pull Ball gave new life to play scarves and an O-ball from babyhood. The tactile action of pulling the colors from the ball held children’s attention for just the right amount of time to name the color. Finding the correct color once the scarves were scattered about reinforced color names.

Children in the 15 – 24 month range are in the naming stage of language. Simple word books are favorites and vehicles were all the rage in our home. This Language Work, Vehicle Matching was made by photocopying, cutting and laminating pages of a book. Naming and matching are important stages of language learning in Montessori and lay important foundations for expressive language and symbol identification.

Later the printed word is removed from one of the pictures and a child can match it, using the labeled picture as a guide. These are called Three-Part Cards.

This Math WorkThe Counting Box, was made with cardboard and construction paper. It served as a way to practice early counting using any kind of small object that was interesting: buttons, beans, acorns, pebbles, pom-poms, sea shells. Shown here are the classic Counting Rods.

I encourage you to use Pinterest to fuel your inspiration, there are a myriad wonderfully inspired ideas out there if you type in Toddler and Montessori. I also love the blog How We Montessori. 

Montessori From the Start: Top Five

Day 2

The Toddler Work Shelf: Top Five

So you’ve carved out a nook in the living room and set up your shelf. What comes next?

I do encourage you to select a few Montessori materials as an introduction for your child. Their addition to the shelf will naturally invite curiosity and the works are carefully designed to be just that. They are simple and purposeful – and are decidedly not toys.

DO make sure that your child is gently guided to roll out a work mat, bring each item, one at a time to the mat, and then return it to the shelf when finished. This cycle of activity is just as important as the work itself in terms of building a young child’s executive function skills, including initiation, planning, sequencing steps of a task, focus, impulse control and goal-directed persistence.

DON’T become over-involved in your child’s work. This space is your child’s and as a space needs to be respected. Once your child is set up with a chosen work, busy yourself if possible with your own work. There is no need to jump in when your child is struggling. Let them exert effort and build stamina. If they begin to show frustration by shoving or banging materials, gently suggest that it might be time to make a new choice. When they do complete a task successfully you can of course notice but try not to praise. They should be seeking their own internal satisfaction rather than yours!

If you had to pick just a few Montessori materials for your 15 – 24 month old these would be some of my top choices. This set of Sensorial materials builds concepts of object permanence, fine motor skills from full hand grasping to pincer, opposites such as open/close and vertical/horizontal. Work with the materials is rich in descriptive language and early counting skills.

These works are widely available online. There are discount Montessori retailers, though I recommend quality sources. If you are looking for the best quality, Nienhuis Montessori and Gonzaga Arredi make their materials directly from AMI blueprints.

Less expensive options include Montessori n’ Such and Kid Advance Montessori and FAC Montessori, the latter two available on Amazon.

Keep in mind that I purchased these for my son when he was a year old and he used them consistently for years. I have them carefully stored for my next child.

One: Object Permanence Box

We all know how children around 15 to 20 months love to take things out and put them back in! This is developing the important concept of object permanence, as well as the full hand grasp and hand-eye coordination.

Two: Coin Box

This work extends the concept of object permanence from a single ball to a set of five coins. It requires slow and deliberate motion of the hand and adjustment of the wrist and fingers to line up a coin so it drops into the spot. I clearly remember my own son sitting for nearly half an hour at a time with this box as he mastered the skill. It is fascinating to watch them experience the satisfaction of a smooth drop, discover the the coins inside the drawer and notice when one has wandered off the mat.

Three: Horizontal Serpentine Dowel

Success requires a delicate pincer grasp to move the ring along the dowel and builds the skills required for free posting.

Four: Vertical Cube Posting

This represents the next level, maneuvering a small object onto a post. Unlike large stacking toys this builds on the pincer grasp as the cubes are about one inch wide. Great control is required for younger children. Counting one, two, three as they place the cubes is a helpful way to offer encouragement.

Five: Horizontal Ring Posting

This requires a new way of thinking in order to slide the rings from right to left without the holes visible. It takes quite a bit of skill and coordination!

We will break for the weekend. Next week we will discuss some DIY additions to the living room work shelf inspired by creative Montessori-at-home parents.


Montessori From The Start: First Steps


First steps:

Ages 15-24 months

When friends or parents discover that I am a Montessori mom the first question is inevitably what activities they can do with their child to begin building in the Montessori-at-home approach. When is a good age to start? What Montessori materials are a must? Do they have space in their Brooklyn apartment?

 This two-week series will explore this question and will seek to answer it in a way that is simple, straightforward and ultimately doable in the joyful chaos that is parenting.

We will take it one day at a time…starting today!

Day 1

The Prepared Environment

As director of Neuleaph Early Learning over the course of three years, I had the task of consulting with the parents who volunteered to host our playgroups to incorporate a mini Montessori environment into their home. These homes, each lovely in its own way,  came in various shapes, sizes and styles. The goal was always to use as much of what parents already had in their home as possible and to stay within their unique aesthetic.

Of course Montessori is a way and a language, yet some basic preparations of the environment are necessary. The prepared environment represents the structure within which a child is given freedom to work. This balance of freedom within structure is at the heart of the approach.

The very first step is to consider each room in your house and what important work and play happens there. Then create child-sized space where your own child can participate in practicing the skills of this work in a simple and meaningful way.

It makes sense to begin of course with – what else? – the living room. Rather than allowing your child’s toys to drift out all over the home, a small shelf in the living room serves as a place for a rotating set of works chosen for your child’s interests and burgeoning developmental skills.

The shelf need only have two levels, enough to fit about six to eight works. It should have an open space large enough for a child to sit comfortably before it and should be accompanied by a container holding large and small work mats. Small framed pieces of art or a daily schedule hung at a child’s eye level can complete the sense that this corner is just for the child.

A child-sized table nearby is ideal. You might choose to use a low coffee table for standing work – added incentive to keep the table clean and clutter free when not being used for a specific purpose.


I personally love the classic Montessori wooden cubes which can be a chair or table for children learning to sit with sides that support. These can be purchased on various sites though I recommend a search in Etsy for the best quality.





Tomorrow we will explore what to put on this shelf!