Raising a Low-Media Toddler: Ideas for Toddler Montessori Activities

montessori-inspired activities for a toddler

Note: This is the final (for now) post in my Raising a Low-Media Toddler Series. It started here, where I explained why we strive to be low-media.

In my quest to find meaningful activities for my daughter, in lieu of entertainment media, I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from Maria Montessori and her education methods. I’m not even close to an expert — I’ve just read a couple of books and blogs, and have tried imitating a few things in my own home. But I continue to be inspired by the overall philosophy and by many of the most common practices. I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve tried.

But first, a little background:

Among other things, the Montessori method emphasizes practical life skills for young children. By fostering the skills children need to care for themselves and their environment, we help to cultivate independence and self-esteem. Consequently, in most Montessori-at-home books, you’ll see activities that help children learn how to dress themselves, feed themselves, and help out around the house.

In my last post, I discussed some of the ways I try to get my two-year-old daughter involved in everyday tasks, which is a huge part of learning practical life skills.

However, Montessori educators also commonly use a number of special activities that break down the different parts of frequently-used, everyday life activities, to help develop these skills. For example, to help children learn to serve and eat food, they’ll practice transferring items with a spoon or pouring liquids from a pitcher into a cup. To help children learn to dress themselves, they’ll practice doing up buttons on a dressing frame. Things like that.

I really enjoy practicing some of these activities with my daughter. I’m amazed how much she seems to enjoy them, too, repeating the same simple steps over and over again, just for fun.

A really important value in Montessori education is the child’s concentration. It’s a foundational element in the child’s future academic and creative work.

A child who can concentrate is capable of completing a task, from beginning to end — enabling a sense of accomplishment. A toddler who can concentrate on cutting up a banana or matching cards has begun to master a fundamental skill needed to someday read an entire novel by herself or learn to play the violin.

It’s a beautiful thing to see a 20-month-old absorbed in the task of pouring herself a glass of water or stringing beads onto a pipe cleaner.

A child who is absorbed in a task just for the joy and satisfaction of doing it is too busy to whine for a DVD. She is too busy building up valuable life skills and filled with pride to throw a tantrum.

That’s one of the many reasons I feel Montessori activities are such a great fit for a low-media lifestyle.

Here are a few activities we’ve enjoyed. Some of them are practical life activities; others are meant to develop the senses and a sense of order (sorting). All of them give my child a chance to practice concentration.

*Important Disclaimer:*

You are about to see a collection of photos of my child working in silent concentration. Don’t let these photos fool you into thinking she spends the majority of her time like this, productive and quietly serene. Please don’t let them fool you into thinking I’ve got it all together or even feel like I’ve got it all together.

In fact, a goodly amount of our days involve her clinging to my leg, wailing while I drag her around, huffing impatiently, trying to get things done around the house and periodically exclaiming, “I just can’t do this anymore!

And in spite of the confident tone in which I discuss my ideas, I spend a goodly amount of my time wondering how in the world other moms get anything done, EVER, and feeling like I’m failing at life in general.

Got that?

Okay. On to the activities.

Practical Life

Pouring water (and cleaning up spills)

pouring water - montessori practical-life activities for a toddler*keep a sponge handy so she can wipe up any spills

Transferring water with a sponge:

transferring water with a sponge - montessori activites for a toddler

Transferring rice with a spoon:

transferring rice - montessori activites for a toddler(I find it’s easiest to start with a measuring spoon)


3D animal models with corresponding photos:

matching animals - montessori activites for a toddler(I describe how I put this together in more detail here)

Coloured buttons with corresponding plates:

Montessori activities for toddlers: matching colours (plates/buttons)(She’s using the buttons I mention in this post)

Further Reading About Montessori:

Just as with my last post on getting your child involved in everyday life, I’m still learning how to implement these kinds of activities. I’m still quite new to the Montessori method, and have never had a chance to see anyone else put it into practice.

I draw a lot of inspiration from the blog How We Montessori. Beautiful pictures, simple ideas.

One of my favourite books on the subject is Maja Pitamic’s Teach Me to Do It Myself: Montessori Activities for You and Your Child. Lots of easy activities that don’t require expensive, specialty materials.

And I have gotten lots of ideas here: 50 Montessori Activities for 2 Year Olds from the blog There Are Only Two Ways to Live Your Life.

Related Posts:

Raising a Low-Media Toddler: Why Bother?

Raising a Low-Media Toddler: Preparing the Environment

7 Simple Sensory Table Ideas

7 Cheap and Awesome Items to Add to Your Toddler’s Toy Shelf

Raising a Low-Media Toddler: Participating in Everday Life and Work

Raising a low-media toddler: ideas for getting young children involved in everyday work

Note: I’ve been working on a series exploring how to raise a low-media toddler. I started by discussing why we strive to be media-light; I then talked about preparing the home environment to encourage non-electronic play, and also shared some ideas for a sensory table.

And now for the most challenging (for me) idea . . .

One of the main reasons many parents turn to TV for their toddlers is to keep them occupied and out of the way so they can get some work done.

I can totally sympathize with this. I am about 18 times less efficient when my daughter is underfoot. I’m generally so completely unproductive for the first six hours we’re both awake that by the time nap time finally rolls around, I’m paralyzed by all the work I have to cram in the next 90 minutes.

It’s hard to get much work done with a toddler around. It’s difficult when they’re constantly whining for your attention, begging you to read them books or dress their dollies.  It’s exhausting when every time you turn around they’ve peed their pants or spilled their milk or emptied the contents of the garbage onto the floor.

Sometimes, you just wish there was something that would magically get them to sit still and be quiet and let you have some peace for twenty minutes so you can get supper on the table. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

I know. I wish for that too. But in the long run, I don’t think TV is the best answer. It’s not a terrible answer, but if there are other options, I would like to try them as much as possible.

One option, I have discovered, is to get them involved in whatever it is you’re doing.

Again: I know. This is hard. It’s by far the most challenging practice for me to actually carry out. When I’ve had my kid with me for every second of the last 24 hours, even sleeping with me and watching me pee, the last thing I want is to have her little hands in my bread dough or the dishwasher. I would reeeeeeally rather just do the work alone.

But oh, they love to help. And if you can actually arrange to have them help you, everyone ends up happier. A toddler who is busy helping Daddy build the garage or Mommy sweep the floor* is not whining for attention: she’s absorbed in the delightful rhythm of the hammer or the broom. She’s engulfed in the sensorial delights of sprinkling balls of dough with flour. And she gets to enjoy a sense of responsibility and belonging, the pride of contributing to the household.

And I find her so much more delightful in these moments myself.

For me, there are two essential elements in getting my toddler involved: the right ATTITUDE and the right TOOLS.

I’ll briefly go over both.


I’m always working towards seeing my daughter as a capable member of the family who wants to participate. I believe it helps build her self-esteem and sense of competence when I give her small responsibilities and opportunities to join me in my work. I truly believe that young children enjoy real work, as long as we are doing it joyfully ourselves and invite them to be a part of it.

(Read more about the Montessori approach to practical life here.)

And when none of this works because I’m just so desperate for her to leave me alone, I remind myself that in the long run, I’m doing both of us a favour: I’d way rather have a kid always getting in my way with her little broom than have a kid throwing a tantrum because she can’t watch another episode of Dora.

There. I said it.


To help facilitate my daughter’s participation in daily tasks, I’ve found a few key tools are incredibly helpful.

It’s valuable to have good-quality, child-sized tools and furniture suited to little hands. Not crappy plastic toy imitations that will break in two months’ time. Real tools.

Last Christmas, we got her a child-sized broom; for this upcoming Christmas I’m planning to add a mop, rake, shovel, and a few knives to expand her working opportunities.

The Learning Tower: Best Purchase Ever!

Since I spend so much of my time in the kitchen, I’ve found the most absolutely wonderful item for encouraging my daughter’s participation to be the Learning Tower.

If you can afford it and have the room in your kitchen, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

(We were SO BLESSED to have found ours at a thrift store. I totally wasn’t expecting to find it there. We paid $40 for it, when we were totally willing to dish out the $200 they were asking on Amazon. I am not getting paid to endorse this product; I just REALLY REALLY love it.)**

Lydia uses her Learning Tower every single day. Its allows her to watch everything I do from a safe place. It’s way more secure than a chair or stool (if she loses her balance, she just bumps against the sides and gets back up again). You can adjust the height, so we’ll be able to use it for many years to come.

She can help me…

Wash Dishes:

washing dishes in learning towerBake:

making bread in Learning Tower

making bread in Learning Tower

Transfer food items to containers:

Toddler helping in the Learning Tower

Or even just hang out while I cook, learning about all the different smells, colours, and textures involved in food preparation:


Other Ways to Help Around the House

Again: I would way rather do these things by myself without interruption. But I try to get her to help with:

  • Cleaning up toys
  • Putting her dirty laundry into the basket
  • Wiping up puddles (including pee when she’s had an accident)
  • Watering plants

toddler watering lettuce

  • Putting away silverware

toddler putting away silverware

I don’t do this nearly as much as I would like, and I want to get better at it.  I want to start getting her to wipe down her own snack table and set the table, among other things. We’ll get there. Baby steps.

Do you have any ideas to add? How else might a toddler help out around the house? What kinds of tools have you found helpful?

*(Sorry about the gender stereotypes at work here. That’s just how we tend to divide the work around here.)

**(You might find it ironic that I would recommend such a costly item, when I argued earlier that one of the reasons I avoid electronic media is to cut costs. The Learning Tower is a relatively expensive item when purchased new, but I justify it on account of the fact that it’s enabling my daughter learn valuable life skills, which TV would never do. Moreover, it’s very sturdy and could be used safely for decades, with multiple children and for many uses. It could be resold for a decent price after your family was done with it. You can also buy [or make] attachments to turn it into a puppet theatre or an art easel and get even more use out of it.)

Raising a Low-Media Toddler: Preparing the Environment

Some tips for preparing a low-media environment for a toddler

I shared the other day about how and why we’re trying to stay away from electronic media for our toddler. (In fact, I’m working on a whole series discussing this topic.)

I’ve found that an important part of maintaining a low-media lifestyle is preparing the home environment to encourage more beneficial play — namely, self-directed play that promotes movement, multi-sensory stimulation, concentration, and a sense of order, among other things. (You know, all the things that sitting in front of a screen doesn’t promote.)

Here are a few things that have worked for us.

(Note: if this post makes you feel anything but intrigued, feel free to move along. These are simply ideas meant to inspire reflection, dialogue, and perhaps some experimentation. I am not offering advice. As if I know enough about anything to offer advice!)

#1: Keep Screens Out of Sight and/or Inaccessible.

It’s pretty hard to watch a lot of TV if the TV isn’t anywhere to be seen.

We own a television, but it’s not on the main floor where we spend 98% of our time. Instead, we keep it in the living room in our basement. This means we have to make a special trip downstairs if we want to watch a DVD. During the summer we go down there about once a month, though in the winter we go down there a couple of times a week. The rest of the time, the TV stays out of sight and out of mind. Lydia doesn’t even know what a DVD is.

We don’t have a TV in our bedroom (which we share with our daughter) or anywhere else in the house.

We have one desktop computer, which we keep in our “office.” We have also made it a rule to keep smartphones off the table during meals.

If we didn’t have a separate floor on which to store the TV, we’d either give up the tube entirely (my vote) or keep it in a cabinet, only to be taken out for special viewing (my husband’s vote).

Since it’s not a part of our regular lives, Lydia rarely thinks to ask for TV. And I never think to offer it to her. When she’s driving me crazy, my only thoughts are generally

(a) whether or not Ben can take a turn with her outside;

(b) whether she can “help” me with what I’m doing;

(c) whether turning on some music will help [we rarely have recorded music playing]; or

(d) whether I can get her to play with her toys or play dough in the other room.

TV is not usually on either of our radar.

#2: Keep Toys on Open Shelves and in Open Baskets.

Montessori-inspired toy shelf

I’ve discussed this idea before. It works on the same principle as the above idea: your child will more likely to be drawn to the things she can see, and not the things she can’t see.

Instead of dumping all of Lydia’s playthings into a single toy box so that she has to dig through a tangled mess of plastic to find what she wants, we keep everything on low, accessible shelves. We agree with Montessori educators (and others) who argue that this makes play objects much more attractive and enticing.

Open shelves invite the child to engage with the toys that are in plain sight. They also encourage respect for each individual item, since nothing is stuck in the bottom of a dark box to be crushed and/or forgotten. They encourage organization of play materials, which helps make them more appealing.

When it comes to toys that consist of lots of small parts (like blocks, puzzles, etc), we keep them in open baskets or trays on the shelves. Lydia can see what’s inside them and choose accordingly. This helps cultivate a sense of order, and also invites play.

Open shelves and baskets also encourage independence, because your child can get things herself and move them to where she wants them. If Lydia wants to play with play dough, she can carry the play-dough tray to her table and start making “snakes” (her favourite play dough activity) without our help.

play dough snakes

#3: Store Books on Racks/Shelves That Expose the Covers

Again: kids will be drawn to what they can see.

Books are a great alternative to cartoons, but they’re a lot less appealing when they’re stuck on a shelf with only their skinny spines showing. So we’ve arranged them so that they’re easy to see:

I got this idea here. (We also considered making something like this or this, but my husband liked the above option best.) Ben purchased and installed rain gutters on our wall to hold Lydia’s books so that she can see the covers at a glance. With all of her favourite books spread out across her reading nook, enticing her to pick them up, I find that she spends a lot more time sitting and reading by herself. (Which translates into more time to myself. Score.)

toddler reading nookA nice touch is a comfy rug, chair or pillow to snuggle up on while your child reads. I like this sheepskin from Ikea.

So with her books and toys all set out in plain view, and the TV tucked out of sight, our daughter is encouraged to play and explore her environment rather than sit in front of a screen.

Next, I want to share some ideas for activities that also help keep our daughter busy and learning in the real world.

Do you have any ideas or suggestions for creating a low-media environment? What has worked for you?

*Previously, in this series: Raising a Low-Media Toddler: Why Bother?

*You might also like my post, 7 Cheap and Awesome Items to Add to Your Toddler’s Toy Shelf.

Raising a Low-Media Toddler: Why Bother? (An Introduction)

Raising a toddler in a low-media home

I’ve mentioned before that we’re trying to keep screen-time to a minimum in our home, especially with a toddler around.

I got a lot of really positive feedback from my post offering suggestions for inexpensive items to keep on your toddler’s toy shelf, and thought I’d continue with a series sharing ideas for simple toddler activities. For me, it’s been an interesting challenge trying to create a low-media environment for my daughter, in which she can learn and play and grow. I really value the ideas for activities and materials I’ve gathered from books, Pinterest, and conversations with friends. I thought I’d share some of what I’ve found that has worked.

But first, by way of introduction, I thought I’d explore why we’re striving to be a low-media family. Then, in subsequent posts, I’ll share some ideas for keeping a toddler engaged and absorbed in the physical world.

(Side note: when I say “media,” I’m referring to entertainment media in general, but particularly digital/electronic media, with a special emphasis on screens.)

I first want to emphasize that we’re not a media-free family. We do have a DVD player, a 26-inch TV, the internet, and two smartphones. Lydia has sat with me and Ben while we’ve watched pirated grown-up TV shows on our computer or a Pixar movie in the basement. Ben occasionally shows her YouTube videos of laughing babies or dogs playing the piano on his phone. She’s seen Curious George and Blue’s Clues at other people’s houses, and I’ve only harrumphed internally.

But we’ve never put on a cartoon or a Baby Einstein video just for her, and we’re hoping to keep it that way as long as possible.

In the meantime, I work hard (some might say obsessively) to create an environment and offer her materials that keep her interested in the real world around her. It can be a challenge in such a media-saturated world. Here’s why I make the effort.

#1: I cannot stand media designed for very young children.

Those grating voices. That jingly-jangly music. And in the case of live-action TV shows, those toe-curling facial expressions. They give me the willies. Have you ever watched The Wiggles for thirty seconds? It’s kind of horrifying. It’s enough to make me want to give up being a human to go join the much more dignified animal kingdom.

In young children’s programming, it’s like they’re doing everything in their power to create something that drives adults absolutely insane. (I know. I know. Kids love it. But still.)

I know other parents say it’s no big deal and you learn to tune it out, but I don’t think I’m that selfless. I just can’t stomach it. And since it’s not supposed to be great for their development anyway, I just keep it out of my home. So my #1 reason for avoiding toddler media is a selfish one: I don’t want to have to see/hear it myself.

#2: It feels consistent with our values.

I’ve written before about striving towards a minimalist lifestyle, decreasing our consumption, caring for the environment, etc. Minimizing screen/media time feels like a natural way to live out these values. Being a low-media family means we own fewer electronic devices, use less electricity/fewer batteries, watch fewer ads, etc.

#3: The Cost.

We don’t have Netflix. We’ve never had satellite or cable or data for our phones. We don’t even have that thing you need to watch television now that it’s digital. (Man, do I sound like an old lady. Writing that last sentence made me feel about sixty years old.)

We don’t own a laptop, a tablet, baby DVD’s, or any kind of gaming system. Living without all these has decreased our living expenses considerably. This is pretty essential when trying to live off of one (unimpressive) income.

#4: To Save My Sanity.

I know a lot of people claim that TV saves their sanity, but I’d personally rather not deal with a toddler whining about watching a particular DVD over and over again or begging for Dora clothes. There are too many negative behaviours associated with TV-time, including tantrums, moodiness, and hyperactivity, that I just don’t want to deal with. I’m not interested in spending precious moments of my day bargaining about screen time.

(We let Lydia watch five minutes of Bugs Bunny in our hotel room a few weeks ago and she couldn’t stop talking about watching “the purple rabbit” for days. No thanks.)

I know that there are lots of ways to watch videos without ads today, but another reason we avoid television is to avoid exposure to commercials. I don’t need a kid begging for Gushers or Fruit Roll-Ups or Puppy Surprise, thank you very much. (Okay, these are the things I begged for when I was a kid. I have no idea what kids beg for these days. Disney princess stuff?)

Instead, I would like to cultivate in my daughter a capacity for self-directed creativity and concentration. I also want to giver her as much opportunity as possible for movement/ exercise, reading, imaginative play, and enjoying nature. Screen time takes away from all that.

I want a kid who’s used to silence, and who’s not used to be entertained. It takes off a lot of the pressure off of me to keep her perpetually entertained. I think it’s easier to cultivate these kinds of things when we keep screen time to a minimum.

#5: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding screens until the age of 2.

I tend to be wary of what “the experts” say about how to parent. But I have to say that the AAP’s policy statement against television for young children feels intuitively right to me. I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject, and I’ve personally decided to avoid screens for my child until she’s older, for developmental reasons. (Here’s an article if you’re interested in reading more.)

A Few Important Notes

1. Please be aware that none of this is meant to be a criticism of families who spend a lot of time using electronic media. If Netflix, DVDs, and iPad apps are working for your family, more power to you. It’s just not something I want for my family at this time in our lives. A time might come when I discover that children’s television is my saving grace (especially if we have more kids). And we just might subscribe to Netflix someday if the Canadian version ever gets a decent selection of movies and TV shows.

2. Also remember that I have only one child. And I make zero dollars. If you are a working mother or have more than one child, you have to deal with challenges I can’t even fathom. So keep that in mind as I share ideas for going screen-free. If they seem unrealistic, feel free to roll your eyes and say, “That lady doesn’t have a clue.” I probably don’t.

3. Lastly, I want to highlight that I personally watched a lot of TV growing up. A LOT. I still feel like I had a richly imaginative childhood. I know I’m not the best judge, but I think I grew up to be a reasonably healthy and creative adult, too, despite all those hours watching Darkwing Duck, Bonkers, and Chip and Dale: Rescue Rangers. So I don’t think having a media-heavy childhood is necessarily a recipe for obesity, behavioural disorders, and a deadened imagination.

But if you’re looking for ways to live media-light as well, maybe we can brainstorm together. I have a few ideas that have been working for us. Join me?

Part One: Creating a Low-Media Home Environment

Part Two: 7 Simple Sensory Table Ideas

Part Three: Participating in Everyday Life and Work

Part Four: Montessori Activities


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