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The science behind Montessori learning materials

The science behind Montessori learning materials

One of the greatest differences between a Montessori classroom and a traditional one is the materials, or "works," that the students learn to use. Adults and children alike can observe these differences the moment they enter a Montessori classroom at The Summit Country Day School. Rather than scribbling with crayons, a young child might be carefully concentrating on pouring water from a pitcher into a bowl, or be seated on a rug on the floor spelling words with large, tactile letters.

Not only are these materials more engaging and enjoyable for the playful preschooler, but they are carefully designed, specific to the Montessori curriculum. Each material, no matter how seemingly small, playful or mundane, has a specific purpose and learning goal.

The Montessori classrooms at The Summit are replete with Montessori-designed objects and teaching aides: items not typically found in more traditional, non-Montessori classrooms. The professional Montessori faculty at The Summit, led by Director Kathleen Scott, utilize these materials as part of the self-teaching concepts that nurture self-control, concentration, order and independence.

“As Montessorians, we believe children learn to their fullest potential in a peaceful classroom where materials are carefully prepared and presented by highly educated, nurturing professionals who encourage children to learn independently and at their own pace,” Mrs. Scott said. "Our training in the Montessori philosophy allows us to meet the needs of our youngest learners by providing a prepared, language-enriched environment where they are able to practice care of self, care of the environment, exploration of the world around them, as well as gross and fine motor development. The materials facilitate this." 

Maria Montessori

One cannot discuss the importance and specificity of Montessori materials without discussing Dr. Montessori herself. Maria Montessori spent countless hours perfecting the nature of these materials through experimentation, observation and careful calculation. These materials have been deliberately constructed and organized in a responsive way.

Dr. Montessori considered the developmental needs of children and specifically created materials that would address those needs. She then watched children interact with these materials and refined them to perfection. These materials were created by Dr. Montessori with a clear intention to foster self-discovery and serve learning goals.

Control of error

“Control of error” is a major component in the materials of a Montessori classroom. This phrase means that, while interacting with a material, a student can observe if they have completed the task correctly. They don’t need a teacher to correct them — the correction is built into the material or work.

"Experiential learning from the materials promotes problem solving and cognitive development," Mrs. Scott said. "This includes noticing that water has been spilled on a table while pouring to having beads left over when counting to 100."

One graphic example of control of error in a Montessori material is the cylinder block. This wooden block has differently sized holes with cylinders that fit into them. It is impossible for a student to fit a cylinder into every hole without matching the sizes correctly. Thus, when a cylinder is “left out,” the student knows they haven’t completed the task. The intention of the activity is obvious and any mistakes will be obvious.

Control of error limits the amount of intervention or intrusion necessary from a teacher. This unique feature of Montessori materials allows students to learn independent problem solving and analytical skills, and increases their confidence and self-esteem.

These materials are built on the idea that children should discover the answers, not be told the answers. That “aha!” moment cultivates a passion for learning that follows the student throughout their life. Psychology pioneer William Kohler referred to it as insight learning – that sudden ‘dawning’ of understanding the problem and arriving at the answer without repeated trial and error.

Full-body learning and sensory engagement

Montessori materials are meant to engage and excite the child on all levels. Dr. Montessori was a firm believer in the connection between learning and movement. She felt that more active, sensory-engaging materials would increase a child’s interest in a task, and therefore their learning. By providing materials that address all of the senses and involve the child’s entire body, the Montessori classroom invites all children to learn.

A Montessori classroom gives students the opportunity to classify, compare and order various materials using all five of their senses. For example, many Montessori preschool classrooms have a set of tubes filled with materials that make different sounds — some soft and some loud. By shaking and exploring the tubes, the student can use their auditory sense to arrange the tubes from loudest to softest.

Variety and fragility

The objects in a Montessori classroom are made of a variety of materials that expose children to different textures and colors. Children have the opportunity to engage with materials made of wood, wicker, fabrics, metals and even glass. The Montessori classroom will also include a number of natural materials like twigs, rocks and leaves.

Montessori learning materials are often fragile, unlike the durable, heavy duty materials that preschoolers are often provided in traditional classrooms. This fragility is an important, intentional quality of these materials: carefulness, for example, is learned when something breaks. Montessori teachers demonstrate thoughtful, appropriate handling of the materials, and the students learn to respect and value their classroom. The pride and joy the students get from interacting with these materials help them to learn independence and responsibility.

While Montessori materials may be more fragile and provide the potential for learning “accidents,” rest assured they are also very safe. All Montessori learning materials are made according federal safety regulations.

Tools that grow with the child

Another highly unique and important quality of Montessori learning materials is that they can be used at all levels of learning. The materials that a child is introduced to in preschool will greet them in every classroom and at every level of learning throughout their Montessori career.

Each material in a Summit Country Day School Montessori classroom presents multiple levels of challenge that can carry through the child’s education as they build on more complex concepts. This feature is well-demonstrated by the concrete “golden beads” material that are used to introduce the decimal system to young children. Single, loose beads represent a value of one and a wire rod holds 10 beads to represent 10. Ten of those rods are wired together in a flat sheet to represent 100 and a cube of these sheets creates a representation of 1,000. Later, this set of materials will be used to perform functions of math such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. 

The familiarity of these materials not only makes the child comfortable working with them, but it also allows the child to see connections among various concepts of learning and how those concepts build upon each other.

The right materials – at school and home

Because these Montessori learning materials were so diligently perfected by Dr. Montessori, they are integral to the success of the overall Montessori curriculum.

The nature of this material-specific learning means that it is easy to continue a child’s education at home. Filling your home with the Montessori materials expands a student’s learning opportunities and helps them advance concepts in the two central environments of their life: home and school. There are a variety of online resources for purchasing Montessori materials to enrich your child’s home learning environment.

The importance of Montessori materials

The Montessori classroom is a holistic place that is designed specifically for serving and addressing a child’s learning needs. The materials a child encounters in their classroom will excite them, teach them independence and responsibility and help them build complex ideas upon simpler ones. The Montessori curriculum here at The Summit Country Day School would certainly not be possible without these uniquely designed materials.

Kathy ScottAbout Kathy Scott:

Kathy Scott is the Director of the Montessori Program at The Summit Country Day School in Cincinnati, Ohio. The program is one of a few in Greater Cincinnati applying the Montessori philosophy to children as young as 18 months. Mrs. Scott has a Master of Education in Early Childhood with Montessori three-to-six certification through Xavier University and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Webster University in St. Louis. Mrs. Scott can be reached at



Free workshop: Summit Montessori teachers Karen Koch, Amie Adkins and Lauren Guip will present "The Montessori Environment in the Classroom and in the Home" on Saturday, Oct. 28 at the Early Childhood Education Symposium. 

Meet the director: Montessori Director Kathy Scott will discuss the effect that extended playtime on a phone, iPad or other electronic devices has on a child's brain in her talk, "Screen Time vs. Free Time," at the Early Childhood Education Symposium on Saturday, Oct. 28. 

Register for the symposium here.