Screen-Free Alternative: Self-Directed Learning with an At-Home Montessori-Inspired Shelf


Screen-time has become synonymous with “me-time” for parents. However, screens are not necessary to get your “me-time” and may result in less “me-time” in the long-run because your child is not learning to direct their own play and may also have limited experience with boredom. We have plenty of “me-time” without the use of screens in our house. It often requires a little bit of pre-planning but we wouldn’t trade the results for anything.

Our four-year-old attended a Montessori pre-school for several years, but that particular school no longer works for our family. We miss the school dearly and all that a Montessori education fosters (a love of learning, care of self and a positive attitude towards independent work). Because I don’t want our two-year-old to miss out on all that Montessori offers and my four-year-old was missing some of her favorite Montessori activities, we created a Montessori shelf in our kitchen.

Overview of Montessori

I am not an expert in Montessori, but for us, Montessori-inspired activities are simple table-top mental and physical “jobs” a child can accomplish. The target is jobs that children can do independently or with a bit of coaching that keep them engaged as there is some skill involved. Since I have re-organized a shelf in our kitchen to contain rotating Montessori jobs, my children have spent about an hour or more every day sitting at their nearby table busily working on their “jobs.”

Maria Montessori was the first Italian woman to become a doctor. She believed that children were born capable and with great potential, which meant they required respect and stimulation during the first few years of life. She made great educational advancements by founding several “children’s houses” or early education centers. She created an educational environment which allowed and encouraged children to care for themselves, each other, their environment and their own learning.

Montessori makes use of a prepared environment. The prepared environment is organized and minimalist. This allows the children to easily complete tasks and clean-up afterwards. We utilize lightweight wooden trays to present each task, which both children are capable of carrying back and forth. Everything required for a particular task is included in the tray.

Dr. Montessori believed in child-directed learning. The environment is prepared with materials that will encourage advancement in key areas, but children are free to choose their own activities. They chose when they are done with an activity as well, developing their ability to focus and concentrate.

Montessori Versus Screens

A Montessori-inspired area in your home provides an excellent alternative to screens because the “jobs” are completed (mostly) independently. They provide children with a sense of pride and accomplishment that no time in front of the screen would ever provide. More importantly, the way a Montessori area is designed promotes independence, attention and self-directed learning. Therefore, a child who participates in Montessori activities is building the basic skills needed to play and work independently, guiding their own fun and learning.

The child does not require the input of a screen to entertain themselves. They are accustomed to working at their own pace and guiding their own activities. They will choose from the materials available to them. In other words, while screens entertain a passive child, Montessori-inspired activities encourage self-directed learning and play.

How We Montessori

I keep a few cabinets in our mudroom stored with Montessori materials and jobs. Every few days, I switch out the “jobs” available to my children based on my observations of what has been appealing to them and what they are capable of completing mostly independently. This rotation takes 15 minutes of my time and my children will often spend an hour or more working in their Montessori area.

Some of the “jobs” are geared towards my two-year-old and some towards my four-year-old. Some are home-made by Screen-Free Dad and I. Some contain classic (but affordable) Montessori manipulatives. Some contain free printables from some great Montessori blogs (noted below). We keep eight “jobs” available each day. Here’s some of our children’s current favorites.

  1. Stick Job

My daughter is now able to complete this job independently. It encourages introductory math skills and one-to-one correspondence. With coaching, my son can complete the lower numbers. Left to his own devices, he is happy to work on fitting the sticks into the tubes which is a great fine-motor challenge for him.

  1. Cork Bottle Counting Job

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This is a simple task which promotes fine motor control. My two-year-old loves it and refers to it as the “pellet” job. We have a wood pellet stove which burns pellets and he apparently sees a similarity there. He will happily feed the “pellets” into the jar for 10-15 minutes.

  1. Cylinder Job

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This is a classic Montessori manipulative. It contains cylinders of different circumferences and depths. In that sense, it is encouraging early logical thinking required for later math. It is also self-correcting, meaning it is apparent when one does not fit properly and the child will not be able to complete the cylinder work if one is placed incorrectly. My four-year-old enjoys this and can complete easily independently. My two-year-old is obsessed with this task. He loves it and with only minimal introduction happily works on it for 15+ minutes.

  1. Alphabet Parking Lot

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This was inspired via Pinterest. I simply drew out parking spaces and wrote a capital letter in each. I then taped a piece of masking tape to 26 matchbox cars with corresponding lower case letters. My four-year-old loves this job and it takes her about 15-minutes to complete it. She is not perfect yet, but it is self-correcting in that if she chooses a wrong letter match early on, she usually figures it out later. My two-year-old enjoys driving the cars around, taking them out of the basket and putting them back in.

  1. Shape Puzzle/Tracing Job

This job contains 8 classic geometric shapes. My son works on matching the shape inset to the outer puzzle. For my daughter, I leave pieces of paper labeled with the shapes and she is able to figure which is which and trace the shape on the appropriate piece of paper. She will often then cut the shape out.

  1. Cutting Job

My two-year-old loves cutting and is starting to get the hang of it. I have strips of colorful paper for him to cut up and a glue stick for him to begin working on gluing. My daughter is working on cutting more elaborate shapes. I included a ruler here and she enjoys measuring different lengths, writing the number and cutting the length of paper.

  1. Counting Job

This was another affordable Montessori manipulative that we invested in. It teaches seriation, one-to-one correspondence and number recognition (all important early math concepts). Both children enjoy working with it and my four-year-old is capable of completing it accurately. As with all Montessori manipulatives, it is self-correcting because the pegs only allow a certain number of rings on them due to height. If she puts the pegs in incorrect order, she discovers her error later on.

  1. Grapes

This is a practical-life task that our kids do weekly. I simply leave the clean grapes and small Tupperware on a Montessori shelf. They pick the grapes off, put them into snack containers and replenish our snack center.

  1. Nuts and Bolts Match-up

Screen-Free Dad created this one with our four-year-old. It’s different sized bolts with matching Nuts. To make this all you need is a wooden board, six different sized bolts with two matching nuts for each.  Drill your holes, insert the bolt from below and one nut goes on tight to hold the bolt in place and the other goes in a cup for the child to manipulate. The cup holds the nuts while the job is stored. This is important because if the job is stored with the nuts on the bolts, the job is already done and thus less interesting to children.

  1. Pine Tree Cutting

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Because both kids already like the challenge of cutting, this job just provides a different texture. They cut the pine needles off the branches.

  1. Muffin Tin Color Sorting

To encourage both counting and color-recognition skills, I created a small muffin tin with color and number designations along with these great animal counters. Alternatively, Learning Resources has a toy already produced for this purpose with great child-sized tongs for the added fine-motor challenge.

  1. Rubber Band Counting

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This is a super-easy DIY. I grabbed some spare wood, hammered in a few finishing nails and labeled them from 1 to 10. I added a few rubber bands. My daughter can follow the numbers (too easily so I may create another up to 20). My son just likes to try to stretch the rubber bands onto different nails which is great for promoting hand strength.

  1. The Money Job

When my daughter attended Montessori school, she often reported that the “money” job was her favorite. I’m not sure if this is what they had there but both my children enjoy sorting the money. The ramekins are glass intentionally because it is important that they learn that glass is fragile.

  1. Pouring Job

This practical life job is often present in some variation on my children’s shelves. They practice pouring bells, beans and water. For my daughter, I will sometimes include cups with different fill lines, since she is now a pro at pouring.

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We wrote an update with more Montessori Jobs.  Check it out here!

More Information on Montessori

As I said before, I am not an expert on Montessori education. There are many great books and blogs to look for further information if you think Montessori principles would fit well with your screen-limited life.

Here are a few great Montessori books I have read:

  1. How to Raise an Amazing Child: The Montessori Way

This book gives a good overview and some great suggested activities.

  1. Teach Me to Do it Myself

This book also gives a good overview and great suggested activities for 3-5 year olds.

  1. The Absorbent Mind

This book is by Dr. Maria Montessori and is a wonderful in-depth study on her philosophy and why children should be considered and treated as capable beings.

If you are not a book person, there are many beautiful Montessori blogs that can deliver a quick education and tons of great ideas for your young children. Here are a few great Montessori blogs that I follow:

  1. How We Montessori

This blog is full of great pictures and activities.

  1. Living Montessori Now

She has excellent activities and loads of free printables.

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