Playful Hands-On Discovery in Montessori Education

The learning environment at Boulder Montessori School is rich with captivating and imaginatively designed educational activities and materials that beckon each child to explore.

To support the immense curiosity piqued by these innovative and thought-provoking materials, teachers first introduce students to the activities or “work” (in Montessori terminology), then step back to encourage students to make discoveries or refine a skill by repeating the work on their own.

The Importance of “Work” As Play

In the current emphasis on play-based learning for young children, today’s educators have a greater understanding of the role of the brain’s development in educating our little ones. In his article “The Value of Outdoor Play,” child psychologist David Elkind writes: “Because play is the dominant drive during early childhood, most learning during this age period is self directed. No one teaches the child to crawl, turn over, stand up, and walk. No one teaches the infant to babble all the sounds of all possible languages or how to put words together. We may model this, but it is the child who decides to follow that model.”[1]

Without the benefit of the direct knowledge we are gaining today into much of the brain’s workings, Dr. Maria Montessori, Italian physician and educator who studied pediatrics and psychology, learned through incisive observation that a child’s developmental readiness is determined internally, especially in the first six years of life. She used her insights over a hundred years ago to develop schools that capitalize on the child’s innate drive for activity that is:
1. self-chosen,
2. repeated at will,
3. enjoyed with little direction from adults (i.e., the very definition of play).

Because each child is continually learning, Boulder Montessori School provides an inspiring, thoughtfully prepared environment in which unintended negative learning is minimized and opportunities for a wide range of instructive activities and information are offered. The Montessori classroom displays a variety of colorful, engaging activities – ironically called “work” in Montessori terminology – that are easily accessible on low shelves, ready for children at any level who are interested.

Photo 3.1
Cleaning a shelf and materials for color discrimination

Dr. Montessori was also the first to recognize the impact of helping children gain autonomy and self-sufficiency by allowing them to master the daily “practical life” activities performed by adults in their families, such as getting dressed, cleaning up after themselves, and serving food at a table. The resulting motor coordination, concentration and focus, sequential learning, and sense of orderliness which develop through repeated practice while caring for the classroom or gaining self-help skills, give children the confidence and self-discipline to enjoy the other appealing educational materials Montessori classrooms offer.

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Sensory Exploration

An important group of Montessori activities termed “Sensorial” work involve a child’s firsthand exploration and experience of his environment using his senses, which is the only way he can communicate with, understand, and classify the world around him. Fundamentally, Dr. Montessori strongly encouraged all children to experience sensorial activities, especially in the natural world. Experiencing the outdoors is critical to connecting children with the environment that will later be studied in zoology, botany, biology, astronomy, chemistry, physics – and in short, all of the sciences. As a child scoops sand and water, or observes a worm or insect, he is getting feedback through his senses – the sensation on his fingers as sand and water combine, or the way a butterfly is frightened to flight with a rough touch.

Because of the Montessori education’s emphasis on connecting with nature, Boulder Montessori School’s physical space facilitates a free flow between the indoors and outdoors. Picture windows in the classrooms open to grand views of the outdoor playgrounds, which overlook Boulder’s foothills and scenic greenbelt. The school’s large playgrounds not only afford plenty of room for children to run and climb, but also serve as outdoor classrooms. In shady spots, children can quietly build a bug’s home in a pail, while in open areas, they can appreciate the grandiose sweep of the Colorado skies (“Look, there’s the moon in the day!”).

Photo 3.2

Working in the gardens at Boulder Montessori School also provides children with tremendous knowledge. They watch seeds they have pressed in the ground become plants that share tomatoes or green beans to reward them for the water they bring and weeds they pull. Teachers also bring the garden into the classroom in other ways. When watering and cleaning plants, a child has an opportunity to closely study the leaves that become shiny when washed and feel the thickened parts of a succulent. Classroom plants with differently shaped leaves help children understand diversity in nature and lead to materials that enable them to learn the names of many leaf shapes and kinds of plants.

Photo 3.3

 Observing is Not Only Seeing

The ability to make close observations is also developed in the sensorial materials. Observation is most often associated with sight, but other senses are imperative in communicating the external world to the brain. Dr. Montessori created activities for each sense, beginning with touch, to empower a child to examine ever finer differences in sensation. First comes matching identical stimuli; a good example is the color box which holds pairs of identically colored tablets that a child matches. A child at a more advanced level will lay out a box of color tablets in nine different colors with seven shades of each color that she arranges from darkest to lightest. Other senses, including sound, taste, smell, and the kinesthetic sense, are explored in a similar fashion with activities or “work” focused on each sense. Additional attributes of objects are also analyzed, for example, dimension and geometry (plane and solid figures). The sensory experiences come first then the vocabulary associated with the materials is presented to the child. Eventually children can make detailed observations of objects in their environment and communicate them verbally (“I saw a rock shaped like an ovoid, which is light brown with some shiny and black spots. It was heavier than this grey one”).

A solid grounding in sensorial activities prepares children for more advanced academic subjects, such as reading, writing and math, but even abstract topics are presented to students through hands-on activities. Dr. Montessori created ingeniously designed, multisensory “work” that translated abstract concepts into interactive activities and that could be enjoyed independently by children with minimal adult intervention because of feedback and self-correction from the material itself; furthermore, the “work” can be used at multiple levels for new and more advanced challenges.

Examples of Work

There is not space in this article to go into great depth, but these are two examples of abstract concepts made concrete in Montessori materials. Geography studies begin with a star’s eye view of the Earth. Special small globes initially show the child the land, water, and air it is composed of (with sanded areas for the land), and then illustrate the Earth divided into continents. Large puzzles that represent the Earth and each continent prepare the child to draw his own maps.

Photo 3.4

An example of hands-on, three-dimensional material that can be applied at increasingly advanced levels is Golden Beads, which represents the decimal system. Number work begins with learning to count and counting different objects. Once a child has firmly established knowledge of the numerals 0-9 and can match them with the correct quantity, she can learn about one unit (a small bead), one ten (ten unit beads on a wire bar), one hundred (one hundred unit beads wired into a square), and one thousand (a cube of one thousand unit beads). Four-year-olds and five-year-olds enjoy counting out the golden beads from 1-9, 10-90, 100-900, and 1000-9000; later they find the appropriate numerals to go with each quantity. Writing all of the numerals is often a final step. Many external cues telling the child that she has made a mistake are unnecessary at this point, but the visual cues of quantities growing in step fashion are clear to her.

Photo 3.5

[1] David Elkind, “The Value of Outdoor Play,” Exchange Essentials, January, 2015, “Taking Play Outdoors” Issue.

Future posts this month will discuss how children in Boulder Montessori School’s classrooms develop social connections with others and how they explore creative thinking and expression.

-Written by Patty West; edited by Dana L.

-Photos by Boulder Montessori School teachers

To learn more about a Montessori parenting and education, you are invited to join us for a free event open to the public.

Parenting Your Independent Child

When: Thursday, January 29, 2015
7:00-8:00 pm

Where: Boulder Montessori School
3300 Redstone Rd.
Boulder, CO 80305

RSVP to Amy at (303) 494-5814 or email

Boulder Montessori School is a nonprofit, nondenominational independent school founded in 1973 offering outstanding toddler, preschool, and summer programs serving children 18 months to six years old. One of the leading and longest-serving Montessori preschools in Boulder, it is nationally accredited by the American Montessori Society (AMS) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

Boulder Montessori School’s dedicated, highly qualified teachers are all American Montessori Society (AMS) or Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) certified.

Applications are accepted year-round, a variety of scheduling options and lunch from the on-site kitchen are offered, and scholarships and full-day summer programs are available.

Address: 3300 Redstone Rd.
Boulder, CO 80305


Phone: (303) 494-5814