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If you’ve ever seen pictures of a Montessori classroom, you’ve probably noticed that most of the toys and materials are organized on shelves, like this: 

Montessori shelf, Canada, #shelfie, How to setup a Montessori shelf

There’s a couple good reasons Montessorians use shelves and not toy box boxes:

  • To Create Order
    The sensitive period for order starts at 6 months, peaks during early toddlerhood and generally lasts until around age five.

    This period is characterized by an inner need for consistency, organization, and repetition.

    Trays and baskets are used with the shelves to separate each activity, creating an external order, which in turn helps young children develop an internal order.

    This internal sense of order and consistency allows children to thrive and feel more relaxed within the world around them.
    • Encourages Independence
      Arranging the activities on a low shelf with trays and baskets allows a child to remove and replace the materials without help from an adult.

      This is great for building independence and confidence.
      • Better understanding of the activity
        The trays and baskets are intended to hold everything needed for that activity.

        For instance, a beading activity would include the beads in a small bowl with a piece of string, prepped with a knot in the end and ready to use. Everything would be placed on a tray.

        This setup provides children with more independence because they don't need to ask for any materials. They can simply bring their tray to where they want to work and get started.

        3 Steps to Setting Up A Montessori Shelf

        1. Limit The Number of Activities

          It's only recommended to have 5-6 activities on a shelf for a toddler or 1-3 for an infant.

          Too many activities and choices is overwhelming for small children.

          Limited choice also encourages mastery through repetition. 

          Just keep a close eye on what your child is interested in. When they lose interest in something on the shelf, you can remove that item and put out something fresh. 

          Note that it doesn't mean you need to get rid of the activity or toy you just put away. In the infant and toddler years, their interaction with items will change as they grow.

          Children so young have rapidly changing reasoning skills and physical capabilities.

          They may be able to interact with a toy or activity in an entirely different way in a few months. Bringing it out again at a later date, can feel like a brand new toy.  

        2. Arrange from top left to bottom right in increasing difficulty. 

          Montessori does most things in the same approach you would reading - left to right and top to bottom. It's a logical progression that also helps prepare the child for reading down the road.

          In the case of shelf setup, this means you would put the easiest activity in the top left corner and the most difficult in the bottom right. 

          This allows them to work through the shelf in an intuitive way.  

        3. Have your child help with shelf rotation

          Most children have a strong attention to detail and will immediately notice when something is different around the home, especially in 'their' spaces, like the playroom or bedroom.

          It will be less stressful to your child if you allow them to participate in shelf rotation, rather than just waiting until they're asleep and doing it by yourself.

          I wrote about my experience changing my son's shelf work and what happened when I did it while he was asleep versus when we did it together.

          Go here to read it > https://themontessoriroom.com/blogs/montessori-tips/why-my-son-now-happily-donates-his-old-toys

          The gist is that it doing it together so he knew what was happening and where the old activities were going, helped him to feel a lot more secure and made him more open to donating the toys he was no longer interested in.

          It's a quick read. Check it out here!

        **Bonus Tip**

        We say this to parents all the time. Don't try to replicate the classroom! A Montessori shelf at home does not have to look exactly like the photos you see in classrooms. 

        A typical school shelf won't have any open-ended play items, like the truck in the picture above. 

        They tend to have more purposeful activities with a clear beginning, middle, and end. 

        At home there's more time and space for open-ended, imaginative play so feel free to include your child's favourite toys on the shelf. 

        The main point of the shelf - to encourage independence and reduce clutter - will still benefit your child. 

        Putting a Montessori Shelf in the Bedroom

        Nothing in Montessori discourages toys in the bedroom so if you like, you can include a small shelf with calming activities. 

        If your child wakes up in the morning and wants to play quietly in their room or you want to encourage a quiet period during the day, for instance when they're no longer napping, a few calming toys are perfect for this space. 

        The only tip we'd suggest is keeping anything out of the bedroom that might be overly stimulating.