Can You Give a Toddler a Montessori Lesson?

Toddler sitting on grass looking at board books

Want to know the truth? Most toddlers don't really like Montessori three-period lessons: they are still learning how to control their bodies (and bodily functions!). They rebel against help and interference from adults, like diaper changes, getting dressed, sitting at the dinner table, and taking a nap...

And they insist on doing everything themselves! The trouble is they (still) need a lot of help! So you are always trying to help while letting them do it themselves!

So how does giving a three-period lesson work in a Montessori environment for this age group?

It doesn't!

(My son's Montessori toddler teacher--with over 30 years of experience, will laugh at you when you pose the question!)

If you are working with toddlers, my advice is to hold off on giving those three-period lessons until age three, and put out activities the toddler needs no help with.

And you can rotate activities: take out what is too hard or frustrating for her (what she swats off the table, or throws, or never chooses); as well as what she has mastered--what is too easy... while still keeping her favorite activities in the environment.

Why are toddlers so hard to pin down and give a lesson to? 

1) They do not have an attention span, or it is fleeting (one day they do, one day they don't).

2) They do not have the social skills (during a three-period lesson) to say, "I'm done, let's put this away!" or "I want to do something else, now."

3) They are still in a large motor movement stage of development, so they will not sit for long!

Suggestions: Again, have activities that do not require a lesson. What's important is to spend more time observing your toddler in the environment for his interests--likes and dislikes; and his skill level (can he hold a piece of chalk or pour pasta, yet?).

And by observing your tot, you can add, rotate, and change activities, based on your observations.

I loved the following email comment I got recently regarding "Can You Give a Toddler a Lesson," and wanted to share it with you:

I am a Certified Infant and Toddler Montessori educator in Lincoln, Maine and this age group is a true test of Montessori philosophy when Maria Montessori said, "Wait while observing. That is the motto of the Montessori educator."

We as Montessori educators are here as observers and guides only. It is the children who are our teachers. I leave my toddler Montessori materials out always and they are very drawn to the materials at that time when I see the interest, I attempt to make a very quick lesson introduction, like the knobbed cylinders. If you set up discouraging materials that are not appropriate, you will almost see them stay away from the whole shelf. I can probably count the number of times on my hand I have successfully given a three-period lesson with a child under three but, oh my gosh what a "Montessori Moment" when it does happen. --K. N., Building Blocks Montessori in Lincoln, Maine

Here are other comments I've received from readers on what appears to be one of my most popular blog posts:

This blog post is 'the missing link' for me with Montessori - I have never tried lessons with her because it seems insane - she learns by imitation and by doing things herself - but sitting down and watching - no way! And your post about mats was helpful too - thanks--Gypsy

Ah, confirmation! I am a homeschooling mom who has been reading everything I can get my hands Montessori related. I have simply provided an ordered environment and I rotate work/activities that my just 2yo can do themselves. Every once in a while the opportunity for a lesson presents itself but nothing steady yet. Thank you for the confirmation that this is normal toddler behavior. I love your blog!--Theresa, hs mom of 4

Ok, I know this is a really old post, but I ran across it by googling. As a Montessori Assistant to Infancy (0-3), I give toddlers lessons all day long. They look a little different than 3-6 lessons and have more turn-taking in the middle of the long ones, especially for Practical life. 3-period lessons: I drop the 3rd period, and wait for the child to verbalize the word on their own. Sooner or later, they usually will, especially once they hit the language explosion (somewhere 18 mo-2ish, usually. we bake bread, washcloths and dishes, button, and polish shoes... and so many other things. Some of the lessons take a few minutes. Some take twenty or more. I've seen 18-month-olds sit for over half an hour practicing, after a 5-minute lesson on a material. It's all in finding the right material for the child, at that particular moment. It can definitely be challenging... but so wonderful too!

But following the child is always a good beginning,,, and as someone who worked with toddlers for years before taking the training, I also understand how hard it is to figure out how to do it without all the practice a training specific to toddlers provides. Best wishes! --Monte Celery

This is encouraging to know... I'm just starting some Montessori-style learning experiences with my daughter. However, it appears we've been using Montessori principles all along! I'm now following your lovely blog - come say hi at Just for Daisy next time you sit down with a cuppa!--rebekah (at) justfordaisy

 ~Lisa Nolan

First photo credit: shanntastic / Foter / CC BY

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Montessori Sewing Works by Aimee Fagan, author of Sewing in the Montessori Classroom: a practical life curriculum

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