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6 min read

Setting up a Montessori shelf in your home can be confusing at first.

Most parents want to know:

  • What do you put on the shelf?
  • Can you put just any toys on it or only "Montessori toys"?
  • What makes a toy Montessori?
  • Should I get rid of all other non-Montessori materials?

First, The Basics (skip this section if you already know what Montessori "toys" are)

What's the difference between Montessori toys and all other toys?

Montessori "toys" are often referred to as shelf work or Montessori materials. They generally have a specific purpose with a clear beginning, middle, and end to the activity.

Montessori materials are designed to develop confidence, focus, and a sense of satisfaction upon completion. Examples would be puzzles, lacing cards, or ring stackers

A Montessori classroom often has exclusively purposeful, Montessori materials BUT at home, there’s often more time for open-ended play and activities, like blocks or pretend play with kitchens, dollhouses, etc.

These types of open-ended toys and activities are great for developing social skills, language, and imagination.

The Toy Box Vs. The Montessori Shelf

So you have a mix of pretend toys and Montessori materials. How do you incorporate both into your playroom?

Rather than combining your Montessori materials with all the open-ended toys, it can be helpful to set up a specific area for Montessori materials.

Here's 4 things to keep in mind when setting up your Montessori area:

  • Ideally you want a low-traffic, quiet area of the home where can set up a Montessori shelf with 2-6 Montessori activities, depending on your child's age and interests. Choose the materials based on your child's current interests and the skills they seem intent on developing. 
  • If you have the space in your home, ideally this would be seperate from the playroom. This will make it easier for your child to focus rather than getting distracted with all the other toys around.
  • It can also help to have a little workspace, like a table and chairs or even a comfortable spot on the floor with a rug or playmat.
  • The activities can be organized in baskets or trays and placed on a low shelf that your child has access to. This makes it easy for them to remove the materials independently and find everything they need for the activity in one place.

Everyone’s home is different so there's no one way this space has to look.

Here are some examples of how to prepare Montessori shelves in your home for infants and toddlers:

Infant Shelves

Montessori Shelf Set up for infant, how to setup a Montessori shelf for an infant, baby

This is an example of a Developmental Aids shelf for an infant, approx. 6 months of age.  

All the aids are exploratory, will help develop the hand, and encourage movement. Perfect for this age range. 

On the top shelf, we have a sphere in a bowl and a maraca.  

On the bottom shelf, we have a Wooden Roller and Water Blocks.  

These materials are rotated once the parents observe that the child has lost interest.  

Infant Montessori Shelf, Infant Montessori ideas, Infant Montessori toys

This is the next step of the infant shelf. These activities are suggested once the child is starting to sit up and spending longer stretches of time awake, resulting in more time for activities.  

On the top shelf, we have the sphere in a bowl and have now added the egg in a cup. We have added the Object Permanence Box and a second rattle to the basket with the Maraca.

On the bottom shelf, we continue to have the Wooden Roller and Water Blocks but have now added Plan Toys Hammer Balls (without the hammer).  

The additions we have made to this shelf invite the child to repeat specific movements, develop their hand-eye coordination, explore object permanence and cause and effect, and build upon skills developed in the previous shelf setup.  

For example: the child has worked with the sphere in a bowl and now the Object Permanence Box and Hammer Balls (without hammer) builds on this skill by using spheres to explore object permanence and cause and effect.  

By putting the sphere in a bowl and egg in a cup on the shelf, the child now has the choice to work with one or the other, or both. The same goes for the maraca and rattle.  

Montessori shelf toy rotation

This photo is an example of shelf rotation. You will see that most of the materials are the same, because the child is still showing interest in them, but perhaps they’ve lost interest in the Object Permanence Box or have mastered the sphere in a bowl and egg in a cup.  

Now you add new challenges to the shelf through the Imbucare Box and Peg in a Pot. 

The Imbucare Box requires the child to push the knitted ball through the hole and open a drawer to retrieve it. We continue to develop object permanence but have now added 2 new elements.  

The Peg in a Pot refines the hand through the use of the peg, inviting the child to use their pincer grip to remove and replace it.  

Toddler Shelves

Montessori Toddler Shelves, Toddler Shelf Ideas, Shelf Rotation, Montessori toys for a 2 year old, Montessori toys for a 3 year old

This is an example of a Developmental Aid shelf for a Toddler.  We have now added another shelf of materials since the child is standing and walking, able to access and retrieve activities independently.

On the top shelf we have a Wooden Stacker and Peg Board.

On the middle shelf we have Bead Stringing and Hammer Balls (now with hammer)

On the bottom shelf we have a Clatter and the Water Blocks (now 6 instead of 3)

We continue to build on the materials found on the Infant Shelf examples. The Wooden Stacker and Peg Board continue to develop hand-eye coordination but now with more pieces and smaller holes.  

We have introduced Bead Stringing to the shelf, starting with fewer beads and adding more as the child grows.  

The child is also now invited to use a tool to develop their hand-eye coordination and push the balls through the holes in the Hammer Balls activity. 

The Clatter is an extension of the Maraca and Rattle that have been removed from the shelf.  

The child now uses two hands to manipulate the Clatter to make a noise and explore cause and effect.  

In this example, the child also continues to enjoy working with the Water Blocks but now we have added the rest of the set to further their exploration. 

In these photos, we have rotated some of the materials and added a second shelf. These shelves could both be set up in the area of the home where the child spends most of their waking hours or you could put one shelf in their bedroom and the other in their playroom. 

A second shelf is added if you observe your child needs more than 6 activities to choose from throughout their day.  If they seem content with fewer choices, a second shelf may not be needed.  

We continue to build on skills developed in the previous photos. 

On the left, we have added a Lock Box to the top shelf. 

On the middle shelf, we have moved from spheres, which use the palmer grasp, to the Slotted Box with Chips which uses the pincer grip to drop the coins through the narrow slot. We have added the Geometric Sorting Board which continues to develop hand-eye coordination and now introduces the concept of sorting shapes. 

On the bottom shelf we have an Owl Puzzle which uses visual discrimination skills and hand-eye coordination to match the correct head to the body. The basket of beads remains but now more beads have been added.  

On this shelf, you can see how the activities are similar but slightly more complex.  

On the right, the top shelf has instruments, in this case, a Drum and Bell Stick.  In the classroom, I included instruments with Developmental Aids because of their sensorial properties. They develop the hand, invite exploration of cause and effect but they also develop the auditory sense. If you prefer a quieter home, you may not want to put the instruments out and put other activities in their place. No judgment here!   

The middle shelf has a Scooping Activity and Lacing Frame. These are activities that invite the child to repeat and refine their skills and can often aid in the development of concentration and focus too.  Scooping is an activity that can be found on the shelves of Montessori Classrooms from 18 months to 6 years. As the child grows, the spoon and objects to be transferred get smaller and smaller to continue refining all the skills being used. 

The bottom shelf is a Wooden Fruit Cutting Set (great for some extra cutting practice!) and Wooden Screw.  

Not pictured are Art and Language activities. These activities can be included on the shelves as well.

What about the Practical Life Activities?

At home, you don’t need to have Practical Life activities on a shelf.  You can simply integrate them into the areas of your home where the activities naturally occur.  

  • Set up a little area in the kitchen where they can find their Practical Life tools, like a little cleaning caddy that holds a spray bottle, squeegee, sponge and cloth.  
  • Keep a small watering can and sponge next to a houseplant your child can access whenever it needs to be watered.  
  • Buy a smaller basket for your child to help with the laundry, i.e. loading and unloading washer/dryer, sorting clothes, etc.