More Than Blocks

By: Alex Chiu and Hannah Ferris

There is no question that Montessori materials are beautiful and intriguing.  However, there are often many questions asked about how these materials help children learn. Today, we’d like to give you a peek inside one of our Montessori classrooms with a close-up view of some of the most notable Montessori materials.

Maria Montessori, as a medical doctor, applied her knowledge of the developmental stages of the child to her educational method.  She understood above all that children learn by doing.  The materials that are used by our students today are specially designed to allow children to learn a lesson by engaging with them.  In fact, many of these materials are designed according to specifications left behind by Dr. Montessori.

In our mixed-age (3-6 years) classrooms, the materials first are presented by the teacher and then utilized by the students at different levels of difficulty according what is appropriate for each child.  The teacher introduces materials in a formal lesson where the teacher demonstrates how the materials are meant to be used.  The child will then conduct the lesson independently according to teacher’s (usually non-verbal) demonstration..  Materials are controlled for error and the use of physical objects allows abstract, complicated ideas to become accessible to young children.  As children become ready to learn more complex concepts, the same materials ‘grow’ with the children, offering new information to add to their understanding, moving from very concrete to more abstract learning.

This post will highlight one material from each of the five main areas of the prepared learning environment that MCA provides in its 3-6 classrooms.  It will serve as an introductory guide to the Montessori curriculum and to the science behind the materials that your children encounter daily.

Practical Life

The Practical Life area of the classroom contains activities that are designed to improve fine motor skills through daily functions like spooning, pouring, and hand washing.  Dr. Montessori believed that learning how to carry out daily functions fostered independence, coordination, concentration, and confidence even among her youngest students.  At MCA, the youngest members of our family begin their Montessori journeys in the Practical Life area.

Parents and visitors alike are always amazed to see our students engaged in Food Preparation, using real cooking utensils, inviting friends to eat snack with them, and then cleaning up when they are finished.  Child-sized tools welcome students to the Practical Life area and provide greater opportunity for success in completing the activities.  Parents are delighted when the confidence and skills gained in this area transfers to home life and children participate in cooking, setting the table, and cleaning up with their families.

Preparing Snacks

Recently, during our Montessori Education Week celebrations, our students demonstrated their Practical Life skills for parents and visitors.  Using the ‘flower arranging’ materials, they made lovely decorations with fresh flowers for their classrooms to mark the 109th anniversary of Montessori education.  This task required planning, measuring, careful handling of the flowers, and resulted in making our classrooms bright and cheery.  It was a popular Practical Life activity!


The Sensorial area of the classroom contains materials designed to develop sensory perception.  The most basic materials, designed for the youngest students in the classroom, may force the isolation of the senses.  For example, Color Tablets focus on the visual sense and Sound Boxes focus on the auditory sense.  As students grow and progress in this area, the activities become more complex and begin to prepare children for reading, writing, math, and logical thinking.

Pink Tower

The Pink Tower is perhaps the most famous Montessori material.  The Pink Tower is more than blocks; the ten cubes are classified in size from one centimeter cubed to ten centimeters cubed.  A child is able to visually and physically differentiate between large and small as he or she carries one cube at a time from the shelf to the workspace to construct the tower.  This pattern of movement forces the child to be aware of the surroundings, to control the body, and to concentrate on the task.  Over time, understanding of the ten size classifications of the cubes will help prepare the child’s mind for math.


Although our classrooms have a specific Language area, language lessons are not restricted to just one part of the classroom.  Students practice their spoken language and vocabulary skills through conversation with their teachers and classmates, by singing songs, and when engaged in reading or listening to stories at circle times.  Like the Sensorial area, the materials in the Language area of the classroom gradually become more advanced, and the children’s language skills progress into independent reading and writing exercises.

Sandpaper Letters

Sandpaper Letters help with both verbal and written language skills.  Consonants (pink cards) and vowels (blue cards) are introduced to students by their sounds to teach recognition of the letter.  The focus is on the sound the letter makes rather than the name of the letter. This allows for greater ease and understanding when moving from sound identification to reading words and later, sentences and entire books.  After the sound of the letter is presented, students are instructed to trace the letters with their middle and index fingers – the fingers they will later use to hold a pencil.  Again, as we have seen with so many Montessori materials, this provides the foundation for future skills.  Sandpaper Letters may be used in a variety of other activities, like forming patterns and complementing sound games.  Students will move on to the Moveable Alphabet to make words and sentences once they have mastered recognition of letter sounds using the Sandpaper Letters.


Montessori math allows students to physically hold the materials they are counting.  This teaches them to recognize and distinguish between quantities of the numbers 1 through 10 and beyond.  Such a hands-on approach makes understanding abstract math concepts easier when the student is ready to forgo materials and do math in his or her head.  More complex math lessons for children ages 3-6 years include an introduction to the decimal system with the Golden Bead Material and forming large numbers with Number Cards.  Montessori students graduate Kindergarten with a very strong foundation of mathematical ideas.

Counting Hearts

Number Cards and Counters are used by children who are ready to demonstrate that they recognize the numbers and can relate quantity to numbers.  Our students often use seasonally-themed objects to count instead of beads or discs.  These Valentine hearts nicely complemented our February holiday celebration, which is part of the fifth and final area of the classroom: Culture.

Science and Culture

The area of the classroom dedicated to Science and Cultural studies encompasses many activities, including maps, flags, calendars, and holiday celebrations, as well as the study of plants and animals, changing seasons, simple machines, and how things work.

Through the study of geography and different cultures, tolerance, grace, and curiosity are fostered and contribute to the Montessori ideal of Peace Education.  At MCA, we are fortunate to have families and staff from various cultural backgrounds across all three of our campuses.  These members of our community truly complement the study of culture when they come into the classrooms and share traditions from their home countries.

Students use Puzzle Maps to gain understanding of both physical and political geography.  This promotes curiosity about different countries and demonstrates to the children that the world is a big place!

Map Puzzle

Science exploration often overlaps cultural studies as students learn about animals and climates in the regions of the world that they are studying.  Creating a relationship with nature by observing the changing seasons, collecting natural objects to study closely, and caring for plants and animals in the classroom also shows our students that there are connections to be made across all disciplines and in their lives both inside and outside of school.

In every 3-6 classroom at The Montessori Children’s Academy, you can distinguish between Practical Life, Sensorial, Math, Language, and Science and Culture areas.  When observing our students during a work cycle, you will likely see materials from each area being used diligently and appropriately.  Our teachers, who are skilled observers, determine when a child is ready to advance in a particular area to further sharpen his or her skills.  Such careful observation on the part of our teachers provides great insights into each student’s personality and learning style, and therefore allows MCA’s teachers to give each student individualized lessons that will lead to their success.  It is a very special environment indeed! The best way to learn more is to spend time in one of our classrooms.  Call us to schedule a visit:


(973) 410-9669


(973) 665-0071

Short Hills

(973) 258-1400





References for this post include:
Montessori Matters by Srs. Mary Ellen Carinato, Agnes Julia Cluxton, Anne McCarrick, Mary Motz, and Marguerite O’Connor (1973).
The Pink What? by Deede Stephenson.