Q & A with Montessori Minute’s John Bowman


The following questions were asked on our very first Montessori Minute post about sensory play.  Mr. Bowman was so generous to take time each day to come and answer questions in great detail.  I wanted to be sure to feature these awesome questions and answers because many are actually topics I get emails and comments about quite often! John was encouraged by the many comments and questions and enjoys interacting with parents to help them better educate their children at home!!! 


I had a question about pencil grip. At what age is it important to begin stressing this? I certainly don’t want my child to develop bad habits, so it’s important to start early. However, I wonder if my 3 year old really has the dexterity to hold a pencil correctly all the time. I don’t want to be constantly stressing something that may be developmentally over her head.


That correct writing grasp as pictured in the post is the product of a whole lot of small muscle exercise and practice. imageThat’s what you should focus on with your 3 y/o. Example: the Sensory Bins can be filled with lots of different materials – sand, coffee, unpopped popcorn, aquarium gravel, various sized beads, colored rice, etc. Put in some ping pong balls, marbles, and odd shaped gemstones. If you include different cups – plain, handled, cups with pouring lips, along with different size spoons, kitchen tongs, and tweezers, your child will gradually work through the progression of hand grasps from the basic ‘Claw’ or whole hand grasp, to a C-shaped grasp, to opposed thumb grasps with tongs and tweezers. When she gets to tweezers, let her move colored water back & forth between cups with an eyedropper. It’s all wonderful small muscle practice.

Make sure your little gal gets a lot of time with Play Doh – it is a fantastic small muscle material. Fill a basket with various size jars and lids, some snap on, some screw on, and let her explore with them. Show her how to hold a dull knife and cut a banana. Give her various sizes of nuts, bolts, and washers to put together. Drape clothing over a chair & let her sit backwards facing it and practice using the fasteners.

Small muscle (hand & finger) control & coordination takes time and practice. There is a lot of time for your daughter to develop a writing grasp. Hope that helps!


One question I have is in homeschooling two closely spaced children. My eldest is almost 3, youngest 21 months. The youngest one rips and eats almost everything he can so I can not put the activities on display as is usually done. He also tends to distract the older child by grabbing what she has. I’d love to see a post on activities to work with these two young ages side by side so one can do something independently while the other is being more closely supervised. Thanks!


This is a frequently asked question: how to manage that rowdy toddler so the older child can settle into doing some activities??? Carisa & other parents dealing with this – HELP!! I would really like to hear from other parents about how they are handling this, it will help me, too!
I think you have to separate them at times. If the younger child sleeps / naps more, that might be a window of opportunity. Search this and other blogs and the internet for age appropriate activities for the younger child and when he is occupied, get the older child started in another room on something else. Do cooking projects and play with free form manipulatives with them together when you can. Your littler one is almost 2, so it won’t be long before he’ll be able to use the basic Everyday Life and Sensory Montessori activities also.

At the risk of sounding sexist, 12 years working with 2-7 yr. olds made it abundantly clear to me that little girls are generally 4-6 months ahead of little boys the same age developmentally. Your description of your boy ‘ripping and eating’ sounds about right – LOL. I used to get such a kick out of watching four little girls ages 3-4 sitting at a table, each working on their own activity and continuously chatting each other up while the boys we’re wanting to run around, wrestle, and play guns and swords with the Red Rods! Your little guy probably needs a whole lot of large muscle activity to burn off some of that energy and be ready to use learning materials. Or, I guess you could give him an endless supply of bad tasting things to rip up until he was tired of it. Just kidding, hope you still have a sense of humor!

I hope we get some insight from the great parents who follow 1+1+1=1!

A {from Carisa}

I totally agree with the nap suggestion.  My children are not spaced close together {9, 5, 2} but I still deal with the disruptions of multiple children together.  Nap time used to be my time, now it is individual time with the boys. I try to do as much as I can while Ladybug is napping, although it’s not as much of a concern now that she is a bit older {currently 26 months}. I would LOVE for any of you who deal with multiple young kiddos to leave a comment of encouragement or suggestions on this post to help other moms out!  It is a question I get a lot and like John-I don’t have a ton of experience since my children are more spread out in age.


With Montessori learning, how much is one on one with the child vs the child learning and exploring on their own?  And when used with siblings, how common is it that an older child will help "teach" a younger sibling?  I’ve heard that with Montessori learning, often older children help younger ones.


Montessori materials and activities include many that children can pursue independently after a demonstration (demonstrations are something new for most parents). These are displayed on open, low shelves for easy access when the child wants to use them. There are other materials and activities where you work 1 : 1 with the child. Examples of these are the Sandpaper Numerals and Sounds, Three Step Lessons (a Montessori Minute topic coming soon), and various science activities. Independent activity and encouraging repetition are features of Montessori; but kids learn a lot talking to their parents, teachers, and each other also! Positive verbal interaction with adults and other children is a huge builder of strong brain architecture in young children.

Another feature of Montessori programs is mixing children of different ages together, usually about a three-year span. The younger children look up to the ‘older’ kids; and the older ones see where they came from and get to show the littler ones how to do things. It also allows children more flexibility with their developmental levels. Children’s development does not always conveniently follow our school system’s one year at a time grades. Kids usually are at different levels in different areas all the time. Example: a child may be far along in math but still needing ‘earlier’ small muscle activities to develop a writing grasp. In a Montessori school, the child gets what he needs in both – and all – areas all the time by being allowed free choice to a full range of materials all the time. He can be work at his ‘Learning Sweet Spot’, or the cutting edge of his development, all the time! That is a big reason children in Montessori programs progress a bit faster than average.

I hope that helps explain things a bit!  Take care.


I’ve been seeing  a lot of sensory bin activity on the internet, but I was a bit confused by it since it’s not a traditional Montessori material.  Is there a way to do it without having to constantly buy cheap plastic bits to put inside?  I’m not terribly interested in buying them, and I’m especially not interested in having to store them or having them underfoot once we move on to another bin.


Really, anything of sensory interest that is safe for kids to hold and manipulate can go in a sensory bin. There are a world of things you can use besides the omnipresent plastic items. Sea shells, pine cones, interesting rocks / gems (many are very cheap), silk flowers, marbles, small wooden crafts shapes, spiny rubber balls, shot glasses, small glass imitation crystal spheres, little ceramic figures, orange & lemon peels, spices, sand. coffee, unpopped popcorn, wood & glass beads, cotton balls, pieces of different fabrics – just try things. Be sure to include various spoons & types (metal, glass) and sizes of cups so your kids can pour and spoon up material. Tongs and tweezers will encourage the opposed thumb grasp as a preparation for writing.

Take photos of some of the items you put in the bin and have your child match up the items to their pictures-  this starts the process of developing abstract thought. Make name labels saying hard, soft, rough, smooth, etc – any words that describe things in the bin – and have your child match items to their descriptive terms.

If your child is starting the reading Sequence I describe in Montessori At Home!, you can find objects with phonetic names – hat, bat, dog, pig, mug, cup, etc. – and make name cards your child can read after she matches the items to their cards. If your child is into numbers, you can include up to 10 identical items in the sensory bin and have your child use cards with either colored dots or numerals on them to match up specific numbers of the objects or match amounts to numerals.

Sensory Bins are like many early learning activities for home – they can be expanded in all kinds of ways to teach a world of things using one material!


I am excited to give these activities a try.  I was wondering, is it best to try and group all of the materials in one location, or in different places?  We don’t have a specific school room, just an "area" so most of the time school items are put up, but perhaps it would be better to leave Montessori materials where they can always be accessed.


It is ideal if Montessori activities – which are really just self-contained materials – are displayed on open low shelves where your child can easily access them for repetition & independent work whenever desired. Really, any good manipulative or learning material can be put in its own nice box, bowl, bag, or on a tray and now it can be a Montessori material!

Montessori is both an approach and a very practical way of presenting young children with interesting materials that fit their developmental needs. There is a good bit of ‘theater’ in Montessori that rarely gets talked about. The way the teacher / parent slowly and quietly carries and calmly, slowly demonstrates an activity with exaggerated movements; the way each material has its own special spot on the shelf; the use of glass, wood, ceramic, woven textile, metal and other materials besides the ever-present plastic; creating a work space first – all these seemingly small elements add up to an experience young kids find fascinating! Rituals are designed largely to help participants focus on an activity or message. Whether it’s a religious service, preparing woodworking tools in a shop every morning, or the seating and introductions in a corporate meeting – rituals help people focus. The use of a Montessori materials is its own little ritual, with the goal of helping the child begin to focus on the activity. The materials themselves isolate experiences and activities to further encourage focused concentration. It is this attention focusing that, over time, develops into a heightened ability to learn anything!


I’m pretty new to the Montessori type schooling.  I don’t remember how I stumbled across this blog but I really have fell in love!!!  My 3 yo and 2 yo LOVE the tot tray activities.  I have a small problem sometimes though…my 2 yo wants to do EVERYTHING the 3 yo does, even though she is developmentally unable to do it. Do I try to direct her to her age appropriate activities or continue to let her attempt something that she can not do?  Thank You!!!


Yes, you need to provide activities suited to both kids developmental levels. The 2 y/o will still sometimes want to do what Big Sis is doing, that’s just siblings. Montessori materials are designed as a progression of increasingly complex skills and information. Over 200 activities are described in my book, Montessori At Home!, so you should be able to find activities for both. Also, some activities can be modified to appeal to both your kids ate the same time, you just have to be creative.


John, I really love this first Montessori Minute. I had no idea what Montessori meant until I read this post and have begun to explore this fantastic way of teaching and learning. My question: Is the sensorial learning meant to try and engage as many of the senses at once as possible or is it to individually stimulate the senses to eventually collaborate together for learning? Hope that makes sense. Thank you very much! Look forward to reading all your future posts.


So glad you like the first Montessori Minute! Carisa is a treasure and I am honored to have a place on 1+1+1=1. Montessori really is a wonderful approach to helping the natural development of children. I saw so many children make dramatic gains in self-esteem, muscle control & coordination, and brain development over the years using Montessori environments, all guided by their own ‘inner teachers’.

Most Montessori materials are self-contained activities. This helps children focus their attention right from the start. Most of the Sensory activities focus in on one or two senses, which again encourages concentration. The trick is adding conscious decision-making based on sensory input. Recognizing similarities and differences, and then gradations of sensory stimuli and acting on these perceptions builds strong brain nerve networks. Purposeful activity is a recurring theme of Montessori. The blindfold really helps a child isolate and concentrate on their other senses. Of course, many activities engage multiple senses, which is also great. Experience = strong brain nerve networks. Purposeful, decision-making activity based on sense perceptions = even stronger brain nerve networks! Hope that helps.


Carisa, I love that you and John are working together to bring us these great ideas on doing Montessori at home! Thank you!!

I have an 8yob (3rd grade), a 6yog (1st grade), an almost 4yog and a 2-1/2yob.

Carisa, I would like to know more about how you include the Montessori activities in your schedule with the older kids. Is it every day? Are you all working at the same time, with you flitting around between them, or do you have a focused one-on-one time with each of them? And how do you keep everything organized in your head? I know you’ve written several posts on storing Tot Tools, etc, but I still feel overwhelmed with keeping it all straight and planning for 4 kids.

John, my questions are about age appropriateness. Can activities like the ones shown above be used for both of my young children? Or do I need to vary or extend the activities for my 4 year old, and how much? Also, the issue I struggle with most is my 4 year old finishing her "work" quickly and then not being interested in doing it again, even on another day. For example, she’ll do a sensory bin one day and then she’s over it…she’s ready to move on to the next thing. Which I love! I’m not trying to hold her back, but as we move along, I see that she needs more direct instruction or hands-on help, and that also frustrates her because she’s very independent. In other words, mentally, she’s ready to move on, but physically she’s not, if that makes any sense (and there are no physical issues…she’s just an older 3yo trying to be 6yo). 🙂 Any advice on working with my almost 4yo and keeping her interested but also challenged?

A {from John}…

I’ll do my best on your questions. In Montessori At Home! I have a page titled ‘Ages & Activities’ that gives a rough idea of which activities are typically appropriate at which ages. Children at different ages and developmental levels definitely need different materials. My book has over 200 activities, so you should find something for each child! One of the beauties of Montessori is that you can have activities at varying skill levels out at the same time for the kids to choose among. They can do a different set of activities each day if they like! The idea is to trust their inner guide – that’s what Montessori did. When they find a material in their ‘Learning Sweet Spot’ (also in the book) that holds their attention, they use it until it is mastered then move to a slightly more challenging material / skill / information. This keeps them moving along. Self-contained, attractively put together Montessori materials have the nice feature of being really interesting to children, which adds to their focus. Repetition with materials a child likes is a really important part of Montessori – that’s how children achieve mastery. ALL young children are independent – that’s how they’re designed. Your 3 y/o should be using Practical Life and Sensory materials that interest her and hold her attention – try some out! These will develop her muscle control and give her successful experiences. Look through activity /material photos in the book with your kids and let them choose what they would
like to do. Hope that helps!

A {from Carisa}…

I am more Montessori based with the younger kiddos. Krash still does some, but it’s mainly Ladybug. Although I am entering into a new world soon and am going to begin continent studies with all 3 kids together using the Montessori method for that. I am also incorporating some Montessori based ideas into school this summer.

As for keeping my head straight-no way. Never. I always feel somewhat nuts! 😉


I’m not sure if this is the best place to ask or not, but how can I determine which hand is dominant in an almost three year old who still uses both hands frequently for all types of  activities (throwing a ball, coloring, picking up toys, holding his cup, etc.)?

I’d like to work more on some of the fine motor skills needed for writing, but I want to make sure I’m encouraging the use of the "correct" hand for him.


Some children start displaying dominance by one year of age. By 2-3 yrs. many develop a clearly dominant hand. Others remain ambidextrous until 5-6 yrs. Most pediatricians agree that it is not a good idea to try to direct a child into right or left hand dominance. It is largely a matter of genetics, with the rest determined by each child’s individual nervous system development. Keep providing all the small muscle activities you can that your child enjoys and you’ll be giving him what he needs to develop. Hope that helps!


Love the article — I remember hearing something about Montessori having a way they help teach children to properly hold their pencil. I have a 4 year old who insists on holding his pencil in a very funky way to write. He refuses to try to change and I was wondering what advise or fun activities John could give on helping him learn to hold his pencil properly. Thanks!


I’ll try to give you some ideas about your 4 y/o’s ‘creative’ hand grasp. I bet there are many parents with the same question! A proper writing grasp, as shown in the post, is a pretty complex small muscle skill. That grasp usually doesn’t just happen all by itself. It takes progressive small muscle activities to prepare a child for executing the grasp. Your son may not have had enough small muscle practice yet, so how about we give him some?

TRANSFERS are some of the best activities for this. He can start by squeezing water up in a sponge and squeeze it out into another bowl. Then try pouring beans or rice back and forth between plain cups. Next he can transfer rice then water between pitchers with handles and lips. Kitchen tongs and ping pong balls moved between egg containers comes next, which opposes four fingers to the thumb. Then he can use tweezers to move beads or peas. Finally, an eyedropper to move colored water between cups. Enough practice with each of these in sequence will help get his fingers ‘educated’. You can also get your boy various sizes of nuts, bolts, and washers and let him put together the sizes that match (Left is loose, right is tight). A basket of various containers and lids will also be good. Drape clothing over the back of a chair & have him sit facing it and practice using fasteners of all kinds. Teach him how to cut a banana using a dull butter knife, & how to hold the knife. Spreading peanut butter on crackers would be good (in more ways then one!). Spooning up things will also help.

Any kind of small muscle activity (small blocks, legos, etc) he likes enough to repeat will help him develop the control and coordination required for that writing grasp. Once he is holding a pencil a little better, have him TRACE things – wooden crafts shapes, jar lids, cookie cutters, etc. Tracing is great prep for writing.

After a bunch of small muscle practice, if your son still isn’t quite using a correct writing grasp, there is a little plastic thingy that goes on a pencil and puts the fingers in the correct places. You don’t want to use this too long or it becomes a ‘crutch’, but it can help get things going in the right direction.

I hope that helps!

Stay tuned for the next Montessori Minute post coming soon, I am editing the post to publish now and it is awesome.  John takes you on a tour of a hardware store in search of fun Montessori Materials to use with your child.  Ideas I never thought of!!!

Also, remember Mr. Bowman lowered the price of his awesome eBook, Montessori at Home! so more could be able to afford it!  You can now purchase this amazing gem for only $7.95.

Finally I wanted to be sure you have been to my favorite site for printable Montessori activities, Montessori Print Shop.  They sell many wonderful items at low cost and also have tons of freebies.  I have a HUGE giveaway coming soon too!