The Montessori Toddler

date Jan 23, 2021
authors Simone Davies and Hiyoko Imai
reading time 23 mins

Needs of a toddler

Challenges and learning

Toddlers thrive in an environment that challenges them; they seek to be understood, and they take in the world around them like sponges… She referred to this as the absorbent mind.

Impulsive, and not morally tilted at all

But they are not mean-spirited, spiteful, or vengeful. They are simply impulsive, following their every urge.

Self-identity and autonomy

Toddlers need to say “no.” One of the most important developmental phases a toddler passes through is the “crisis of self-affirmation.” Between 18 months and 3 years, children realize that their identity is separate from their parents’ and they begin to desire more autonomy.


Toddlers need to move. Just as an animal does not like to be caged, our toddlers will not sit still for long. They want to keep mastering movement. Once standing, they move on to climbing and walking.

Setup spaces for safe exploration

Toddlers need to explore and discover the world around them. The Montessori approach recommends that we accept this, set up our spaces for our child to safely explore, get them involved in daily life activities that involve all their senses, and allow them to explore the outdoors.

Boundaries and limits

Toddlers need limits. These limits will keep them safe, teach them to respect others and their environment, and help them become responsible human beings.


Toddlers need order and consistency. Toddlers prefer things to be exactly the same every day—the same routine, things in the same place, and the same rules. It helps them understand, make sense of their world, and know what to expect.

Intermittent reinforcement

When limits are not consistent, toddlers will keep testing them to see what we decide today. If they find it works to nag or melt down, they will try again. This is called intermittent reinforcement.

Hard times for toddlers themselves during tantrums

Toddlers are not giving us a hard time. They are having a hard time. I love this idea (attributed to educator Jean Rosenberg in the New York Times article “Seeing Tantrums as Distress, Not Defiance”). When we realize their difficult behavior is actually a cry for help, we can ask ourselves, How can I be of help right now? We move from feeling attacked to searching for a way to be supportive.

Brains are still in development

Toddlers are impulsive. Their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that houses our self-control and decision-making centers) is still developing (and will be for another twenty years).

Time and patience

Toddlers need time to process what we are saying. Instead of repeatedly telling our child to put on their shoes, we can count to ten in our head to allow them time to process our request. Often, by the time we get to eight, we’ll see them start to respond.


Toddlers love mastery. Toddlers love to repeat skills until they master them. Observe them and notice what they are working to master.

Work along with parents in doing all sorts of household chores

Toddlers like to contribute and be part of the family. They seem to be more interested in the objects their parents use than they are in their toys. They really like to work alongside us as we prepare food, do the laundry, get ready for visitors, and the like.

Accepting a child as who she is

It’s about encouraging a child’s curiosity, learning to really see and accept a child as they are, without judgment, and remaining connected with the child, even when we need to stop them from doing something they really want to do.

Unique child

In a Montessori approach, we see the child as their own person on their own unique path. We support them as their guide and gentle leader.

Montessori way

Child-led approach in Montessori

In Montessori education there is a dynamic relationship between the child, the adult, and the learning environment. The child is in charge of their own learning, supported by the adult and the environment.

How to prepare the space

I prepare the space so it is simple and beautiful. I remove any clutter, I set out a few, well-chosen activities, and I make sure that activities are complete and not missing any parts so the children can work with them independently.

Observe what they are interested in learning and create a fun challenge

If a toddler is interested in climbing on the table, they are likely in a sensitive period for movement and need to practice those skills. Instead of allowing them to climb on furniture, we can create an obstacle course with pillows, blankets, things to balance on, and things to climb.

Few rules for limits of safety

At school or at home, we can have a few rules for children to live by to learn respect and responsibility for themselves, others, and the environment around them. Within these limits, children have freedom of choice, of movement, and of will.

Encouraging independances

Through independence the child learns how to be responsible for caring for themselves, others, and the environment.

Treat them as an adult respectfully

A Montessori teacher will have such respect for the child that they will treat them the same way they would an adult. We can see this in the way they speak to the child, the way they ask permission if they need to touch them.

Montessori activities for toddlers fall into five main areas:

  1. eye-hand coordination
  2. music and movement
  3. practical life (activities of daily life)
  4. arts and crafts
  5. language

Simple toys, single-focus

Montessori activities usually target one skill. For example, putting a ball into a box through a small hole allows the child to master this one skill. This differs from many traditional plastic toys that target multiple skills at the same time, with one part for pushing, one part where a ball drops, another part that makes a noise, and so on.

Natural materials

We also prefer to use natural materials. Toddlers explore with all their senses. Natural materials like wood are lovely to touch and generally safe for putting in their mouths, and the weight of the object is more likely to be directly related to its size.

Completion = Mastery

Montessori activities are complete. Completing an activity is important for their sense of mastery.

The process:

  1. Let the child lead Follow the child’s pace and interests.
  2. Let them work with the activity as long as they like
  3. Avoid quizzing the child
  4. Put the activity away when finished
  5. Model, model, model
  6. Allow any use of the materials, but stop when they’re used inappropriately
  7. Modify to meet their level
  8. Arrange the activities on shelves from easiest to hardest
  9. Use what is available
  10. Be careful with small parts and sharp objects

Prompting is not helping!

Now I see that this prompting is a kind of test for a child. And there is generally only one correct answer, so if the answer they give is wrong, we have no other option than to say, “No, that flower is yellow, not blue.” Not exactly great for building a child’s confidence.

Ask questions instead

Instead we can continue to name things, ask questions to arouse curiosity, and use observation to see what the child has mastered and what they are still practicing.

How to set up an activity

  1. Display it on a shelf.
  2. Make it attractive. Putting an activity into a basket or tray can make it more appealing to a child.
  3. Show what belongs together. A tray or basket keeps all the necessary items together.
  4. Prepare everything so our child can help themselves.
  5. Undo the completed activity.


If possible, we can head outdoors for movement in the backyard, nearby forest, playground, town square, beach, mountain, river, or lake—even if the weather is not great. “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” as the Scandinavians like to say.

Here are some ways children can help around the home:

- Plant care - Food preparation - Snack time - Mealtimes - Cleaning - Learning to care for themselves—blowing nose, brushing hair and teeth, washing hands - Dressing themselves

  • Helping with the laundry—bringing dirty clothes to the laundry basket,
  • Trips to the supermarket—making a list with pictures, getting things from the shelves,

Focus on the process

Focus on the process, not the result. When the child helps, the task will take longer and the result may not look perfect, but the child is learning to master these skills and will become a lifelong helper at home.

How to help

  1. Try not to be prescriptive.
  2. Give feedback.
  3. Use good-quality materials.
  4. Show by example.

Montessori activities outdoors and in nature:

  1. Seasonal activities. Collect leaves, acorns, shells, sticks, rocks, stones, and pinecones. Fruit picking varies by season, too.
  2. Grow vegetables. It isn’t necessary to have a garden to grow vegetables at home.
  3. Movement opportunities. Climb trees; balance along walls, tree stumps, or logs; hang from branches;
  4. Notice the beauty of the outdoors together.
  5. Find moments of quiet. Find a place to sit and watch the clouds, to sit in silence, or just to breathe.
  6. Make treasure hunts. Make a list of pictures and work together to find all the items on the list. It
  7. Build a hut, cubby house, or obstacle course, and invite over some friends. 8. Make outdoor art. Use mud, water, leaves, flowers, soil, seeds, grass,
  8. Make a musical wall.
  9. All-weather exploration. There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.

Have complementary home activities

If a child starts attending a Montessori preschool program, I’d advise against replicating the Montessori materials at home so that they will stay engaged at school. Instead we can continue Montessori at home by including the child in daily life and making sure they have time for unstructured play, opportunities to create, time outdoors, and time for rest.

Ssetting up your home

  1. Child-sized.
  2. Beauty in the space.
  3. Independence.
  4. Attractive activities. Have age-appropriate activities beautifully arranged on shelves—rather than in toy boxes—that
  5. Less is more.
  6. A place for everything and everything in its place.
  7. See the space through their eyes, height and perspective
  8. Store and rotate.

Child accessibility at hom

  1. small table and chair
  2. low shelf
  3. bookshelf/book box
  4. low bed/floor mattress child can get into themselves
  5. low stool for reaching sink, toilet, and so on
  6. low hooks with cleaning equipment
  7. stepladder/learning tower for helping in the kitchen 8. low hooks for coat and bag by the entrance

Tackling the clutter

  1. Reduce the number of toys, books, and arts and crafts materials, and the general mess that accumulates in our homes.
  2. Rotate and reintroduce these activities when our child needs a new challenge.
  3. This will be an ongoing process that will eventually include our child, developing ideas about reusing, recycling, charity, and taking care of our toys with the idea that they can be passed along when we are ready for something new.

Everywhere in the house is “yes” for them to go

Remember, we want our homes to be “yes” spaces that are safe for our toddlers to explore. When we find ourselves saying “no”—for example, when our child is touching something dangerous or banging on glass—we can look for ways to set up the space to remove the temptation.

Five ingredients for curiosity

  1. Trust in the child
  2. A rich learning environment
  3. Time For children to develop and follow their urge to discover, explore, and wonder, they need time.
  4. Fostering a sense of wonder

Seven principles for curious humans

  1. Follow the child—let them lead.
  2. Encourage hands-on learning—let them explore.
  3. Include the child in daily life—let them be included.
  4. Go slow—let them set their own pace.
  5. Help me to help myself—let them be independent and responsible.
  6. Encourage creativity—let them wonder.
  7. Observe—let them show us.

I don’t know is a fine answer!

When they start to ask questions, instead of simply giving them the answer, we can say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out together.”

Messier and slower - but memories for life

Having young children involved does mean that it’s messier and slower. But we are making connections and memories that will last a lifetime. Those of us struggling with fitting this into our days and weeks with work and life commitments can start with moments when we do have time.

Don’t like to be rushed

With toddlers, the “tempo giusto” will often be a lot slower than we are used to. Toddlers do not like to rush.. Going slowly gives our child time to explore and be curious. And we would do well to learn from them. They remind us to slow down and be present.

Scaffold skills

We scaffold skills as the child gains competence and maturity. The skills will become more difficult or have more steps or require them to follow multistep instructions.

Instead of punishing, lecturing, or correcting them, try this:

  1. If they get the name of something wrong, we can make a mental note that they don’t know it yet. We can teach it again at another (neutral) time.
  2. If they break or spill things, we can have supplies at the ready for them to help clean it up.
  3. We can support them while they make it up to someone they have hurt.
  4. We can model not taking ourselves too seriously when we make mistakes and show them that we apologize.

Bring bored is great

Allow boredom. When we have unscheduled time in our day to sit without anything planned (and without technology to entertain us), our child has a chance to be bored. Their mind can wander and daydream, they can come up with new ideas, and they can make new connections.

Behaving well

Feeling significant and belonging

Toddlers want to feel significant, they want to feel like they belong, and they want to be accepted for who they are. If we understand this, we can move away from doing battle with them or being triggered by them, and move toward being able to guide, support, and lead them.

If they are beating their sibling

“It’s okay to disagree, but I can’t let you hurt your brother/sister. You sit on this side of me, and you sit on the other.”

Dont’ praise, but develop intrinsic motivation

Montessori teachers believe instead that a child will learn to behave if we help to develop their intrinsic motivation—their internal radar that tells them that something is right (or wrong) and recognizes what helps (or hurts) themselves or someone else.

Avoid labelling

As the adults in their lives, we need to be careful about labeling our children. We likely have someone in our life who has been labeled “the clown,” “the shy one,” “the naughty one.” Even positive labels can be difficult to always live up to (e.g., “the clever one,” “the athletic one”). These labels can last a lifetime—something the child never grows out of.

Involve both the siblings

Once a new baby is born into the family, a young child suddenly becomes the “big brother/sister.” It is a huge responsibility to have to behave all the time and show their sibling how to be a “big kid.” Instead of always leaving the eldest in charge, for example, while we are in the bathroom, we can get children to look after each other, regardless of their age.

Common but wrong ways to deal with toddlers

Cultivating cooperation in a toddler is a tricky thing. Toddlers are naturally curious, they are impulsive, and they are servants to their will. Common ways of trying to get cooperation from toddlers include threats, bribes, punishment, and constant repetition.

Threats, bribes, and punishments are extrinsic motivation

When we threaten a child with punishment like a time-out, we begin to erode the trust between parent and child. Two things can happen. They can become scared of the adult and cooperate out of fear, or they find a way to do what they want sneakily, without their parent finding out.

How can we even scaleup threats

They simply want to avoid the negative consequences (punishment) or take advantage of the positive ones (rewards). Threats and bribes may need to get bigger and more elaborate as the child grows.

Coming up with solutions together

The child is not in charge, but they can have input into how to solve problems. We can ask, “How can we solve the problem?” and then come up with solutions together… In addition, the toddler is more likely to take ownership of the planned solution and follow through. It’s also a great skill for solving problems with others.

Checklist together

One way to solve problems with toddlers is to make a simple checklist with them (especially one with pictures)… When they are involved in making and using the checklist, they take ownership of the solution.

Use positive language

Instead of telling a child what not to do, we can tell them with positive language what they can do instead. Rather than, “No running” (what they should not do), we can say, “We walk inside”

Humor in anger

Humor is particularly useful when we are on the verge of losing our temper. Something as simple as singing a silly song can relieve some tension for us and coax a smile from them. It’s a simple way to start fresh.

Age-appropriate expectations

Have age-appropriate expectations and be prepared We cannot expect our toddler to behave in the way we like all of the time. Sitting quietly in a doctor’s waiting room or in a cafe or on a train can be very difficult. Remember that they have a strong will to explore, move, and communicate, and are very impulsive.

Adjust our own expectations for a few years

First, we may need to adjust our expectations — we may not get to read a magazine, check our phone, or make a phone call. In a cafe or restaurant, be prepared to take them for a little walk when they start to get agitated or loud, perhaps to see the chef at work or look at the fish tank together.

Be prepared with snacks and toys

Second, be prepared. Don’t forget to pack plenty of water, food, a few favorite books, and a little zippered pouch with a few favorite toys—a couple of small vehicles, a bottle with a coin to drop in, some shells, and so on.

Problem solving with our toddler

  • Ask, “How can we solve the problem?”
  • Make a checklist. INVOLVE THE CHILD
  • Give age-appropriate choices.
  • Give them information.
  • Use one word.
  • Get their agreement.

Talk in a way that helps them listen

  • Use positive language.
  • Speak with a respectful tone and attitude.
  • Ask them for help.
  • Say “yes.”
  • Use humor.
  • If our child is going through a “no” phase, adjust our language.
  • Show them. Manage expectations
  • Have age-appropriate expectations and be prepared.
  • Try to wait until they have finished before making a request.
  • Allow time for processing.
  • Keep a daily rhythm.

Create ground/house rules. Example:

- We are kind to each other.

  • We sit at the (dining) table to eat.
  • We contribute to the household. No matter what our age, we help around the house, and our help is valued.
  • We engage in rough play by mutual consent.
  • We may need to revise them as our children grow. Not in the middle of an argument, though. Do it at a neutral (ideally, planned) moment.


Meltdowns are fine…

We are saying it’s okay for them to melt down. Rather than trying to get the tantrum to stop as soon as possible, allow them to express all their feelings safely until they are calm, and show that we are there to help if they need us.

Training our own patience

If we find it difficult to sit and watch a toddler get dressed at toddler pace, we can find a way to make the process enjoyable, like bringing in a cup of tea or coffee (keep hot drinks out of their reach) or putting on some relaxing or upbeat music.

Serving food

Rather than filling up a toddler’s plate (which can feel overwhelming or end up on the floor), we can start with a small amount of food and let them serve themselves more if they would like.

Feeding and food

Leave the child in charge. Trust that they are taking enough. Children at this age generally will not starve themselves. They will take as much as they need if we remove our control around food and trust them to listen to their bodies.

Fluctuating appetite

If our child is not a big eater, we will often observe that their appetite fluctuates. Sometimes they don’t seem to finish anything on their plate, yet during growth spurts, they may eat three meals a day, plus snacks, and still be hungry. Their bodies know exactly what they need.

Throwing food and asking them

Throwing food off their plate can be an experiment to see what happens when it falls. Usually they start throwing their food when they have had enough to eat: They are telling us they are all finished. We can ask them, “Are you telling me you are all finished?”

Diapers are natural

Our children pick up our attitudes toward dirty diapers from infancy, and if we are screwing up our face, they will learn that it is a dirty thing instead of a normal bodily process.

Healthy attitude towards toilet traininga nd accidents

Next we can help them go to the bathroom to change. Montessori teachers generally say, “You have wet clothes. Let’s go change,” rather than, “You had an accident.”

Involving a toddler with a newborn sibling

Some toddlers like to be involved in caring for the new baby—fetching a clean diaper or getting soap for the baby’s bath. Some won’t be interested, and that’s okay, too.

Resolving sibling disputes

Siblings like to draw us into their disputes to take sides. My favorite advice (which I need to remind myself of at times) is to stay neutral and not take sides in these conflicts.

Tips for building concentration

  1. Try to avoid interrupting
  2. Watch what they repeat
  3. Less is more
  4. Help as much as is needed and as little as necessary
  5. Have a work area

Struggle is great!

The child’s struggle is important. The child will enjoy mastering activities that are hard enough to provide a challenge, but not so difficult that they’ll give up easily. We can wait until they are about to give up and, as before, step in to give a small amount of assistance before stepping back again. Types of help we can give our child:

Screens and modeling the behaviour

To remove temptation, put screens out of sight and out of reach. We can also be conscious of our own use of screens while our children are around.

Speaking languages

If there is more than one language in the home, we can use the One Person, One Language (OPOL) approach. Each parent chooses their mother tongue when speaking with the child, while the family uses one agreed-upon “family language.”

Learning language = 30% immersion

If the goal is to have the child be able to eventually study in a language, they need to spend around 30 percent of the week with that language.

Aim is to be a fun and relaxed family

We are not aiming to be perfect parents. When I tried to be (or appeared to be) a perfect parent, I was stressed and disconnected from my family, busy worrying about everything. Rather, we are aiming to have fun and feel relaxed with our families, starting from where we are today.

Other help is great!

The help could be a babysitter, a grandparent, a friend who will swap with us, a partner. Our toddler will learn that there are other special people in their life whom we trust and with whom they will be safe. So it’s a win-win.

Daily rituals

My morning and evening rituals probably have the biggest effect on how I show up as a parent. It’s not strict, but it’s fairly consistent most days. It helps me be intentional about how I live each day, rather than reacting to what life throws at me.

Immediate reaction is not always required

Unless our child is in immediate danger, there is generally enough time to at least count to three in our head before reacting to any situation.

Saying sorry

can always say to my child (or anyone, for that matter), “I’m so sorry. I should not have . . . What I could have said/done is . . .” This sets a far stronger example for our child than blaming someone else.