Age Three:  The First Montessori Year of Transition, Part Two

Welcome back! Let’s take a look at how the Toddler House supports this transitional year.

Most children will turn three during their final year in the Toddler House.   Many parents are eager for their children to move up to the Children’s House immediately upon turning three.  However, mid-year transitions are not common practice at The Springs.  We strive to keep children in the same class for the duration of the school year to avoid unnecessary transitions and regressions, ensure full readiness for the next level, maintain appropriate Montessori age groupings, and safeguard the leadership opportunities for even our youngest students.  Developmentally, moving a child to a new environment simply because he or she reaches a date on a calendar is rarely appropriate.

For this reason, you will notice that Montessori age grouping are defined as 0-3 for the Infant-Toddler level and 3-6 for the Children’s House level.   Three is included in both curriculums as it is a significant year of transition in a child’s development. Therefore, most children turning three are experiencing the capstone year of the Infant Toddler curriculum, while children entering their first year of Children’s House have already turned three prior to the start of the school year and four is in sight.   The transitional period has passed.

Thankfully, Montessori education strives to provide a three-year-cycle and true mixed age groups at each level through careful attention to the Montessori principle of the Prepared Environment.  This concept of the Prepare Environment demands that teachers observe the children and their needs.  The teacher alters the environment accordingly and does not require the child to adapt to an inappropriate environment.

Unfortunately, toddler environments are often viewed as “less than” the Children’s House classrooms, sometimes referred to as “holding pens” or “waiting pools” for the “big kid class” or “real Montessori,” which is a gross misrepresentation!

Parents often harbor the impression that young children are doing more advanced work by being in the Children’s House, when in reality, they still do Toddler curriculum work.  Just as a Toddler teacher will bring in more advanced work to meet the needs of a three-year-old, a Children’s House teacher has to bring in less advanced work to meet the needs of the same three-year-old in her environment.   Bottom line:  It’s the same work, chosen and presented in accordance with the individual child’s needs.

The two and a half or young three-year-old does not magically skip a year of curriculum just by virtue of placement in the Children’s House.  To do so, would seriously impede the child’s future academic work.  Instead, that same level of work is simply occurring in an environment that has different behavioral and social expectations and does not have as much tolerance for the older toddler’s needs or instincts.  And, most sadly, the child has missed the opportunity to experience his first year of leadership, a year which promotes confidence and independence that most three year olds never get to experience, essentially fulfilling the needs that create the dreaded “threenager.”

This also affects the ebb and flow of the classroom communities.  For the toddlers, the removal of older toddlers now waters down the experience of the younger toddlers who are left without leaders and are not developmentally ready to step into that role.  For the Children’s House students, they must coexist with a child who still has very different needs then they do.  Imagine it is the middle of the school year, a brand new three-year-old hops around the classroom knocking over work in the innocent pursuit of his need for physical activity. Is it fair to ask the 4.5-year-old who seeks order and calm while working to tolerate this behavior? Is it fair to ask the older toddler who needs this release to stop?

When we allow older toddlers the time and space of an environment that supports their needs, these students flourish.  We see this time and again during the final year of the Infant Toddler curriculum.   At the American Montessori Society Conference in 2015, one presenter called this age group the “Toddler Kindergartener.”  She went on to detail the characteristics that these children gain and how they mirror the benefits achieved by true Kindergartners during the final year in the Children’s House.  Her words echoed our experience.

In the Toddler House, the new three-year old thrives on being a leader and enjoying opportunities to help younger students.  He basks in his confidence with the lessons and Montessori materials.  He proudly demonstrates his capabilities which are new and exciting.  For the very first time in his short existence, he is not the littlest, he is not the most incapable, his skills and abilities are sought out and admired, younger children look up to him, and he is entirely comfortable and secure in his role. This experience, which is quite unique to a three-year-old, creates immense joy for the child, develops his budding leadership skills and most importantly builds his confidence to a degree that will support his inevitable transition to Children’s House.  Children who complete the capstone year in the Toddler House enter the Children’s House at the start of the school with other friends and new children, they experience less regression and demonstrate more confidence, which in turn sparks their desire to learn in the new environment, thus accelerating their academic experience.

By contrast, children who transition mid-year (or are placed too young), without completing the capstone year, often have the “deer in the head” lights look.  They have just been plopped into an environment that already has well established, but unknown routines and procedures for the toddler.  The child must “catch up” with maybe only one or two other true peers, if any, by his side.   Older children have already turned six; they are huge and towering, transition to another plane of development themselves.  The choices of work have increased exponentially and are overwhelming.  The behavioral and social expectations are significantly more demanding.  They have missed the slower paced, beginning of the year period of review and repetition. The length of the work cycle has doubled. They pine for their old teachers and classmates who seemingly continue on without them.  They don’t understand why they have been moved. Their new teachers are warm and caring, but mostly strangers whose expectations are quite different.  A child in this frame of mind is not ignited with a desire to explore or learn.   The enticement to work takes longer and is less natural.

With this knowledge and experience, the Montessori curriculum of the Toddler class is well planned-out, developmentally designed, and academically supportive to all the ages represented just as the work of the Children’s House or Elementary House is designed for their age grouping. The Toddler House environment, beyond the work, to include the number of children, the number of teachers, the size of the furniture, the frequency of communication to parents, and the structure of the day are all better suited to support older toddlers than that of the Children’s House.   These environmental considerations in turn create a space that supports the young three-year-old’s increasing, but tentative, development towards more academic work.

All the work in the Toddler House has a purpose and builds towards supporting advanced work and preparation for the Children’s House.  The goal is to establish strong, but developmentally appropriate foundational skills.  Unfortunately, the current educational climate is to expect children to do more, earlier, despite overwhelming research indicating that introducing advanced material before a child is developmentally ready has a negative impact on their retention and later academic performance.  Reading is a prime example of this trend.

Parents, understandably so, are very eager for their children to read.  While an exciting milestone, fluent reading takes years or pre-work to accomplish.  Montessori children do tend to read earlier than students in traditional schools because of the phonetic, materials based approach.   Most importantly, they do so because the Montessori approach pays particularly close attention to pre-reading skills and allowing the skill of reading to develop organically when the child is ready, not by forcing concepts early.  These essential pre-reading skills represent almost the entirety of the Toddler Language curriculum, yet the Toddler curriculum barely scratches the surface when it comes to the most recognizable indicator of early reading: introduction of letters.  This is precisely because children need to hone so many pre-reading skills before even picking up a Sandpaper Letter.

Certainly, we could sit down and have the toddlers memorize the shapes of the letters and their sounds.  With enough drilling, they might start blending three letter, consonant-vowel-consonant words, but it would all be for naught if they have not made the connection of spoken word to print, or if their auditory skills cannot distinguish the separate syllables of a word, or if their little mouths still cannot form that proper sound for an “r”, an” l” or, a “c,” or they have never had the word they are reading introduced to their vocabulary.   When children miss the opportunity to develop such pre-reading skills, the long-term impact on fluency and comprehension is severe because it is incredibly difficult to go back and strengthen these skills. This holds true for other subject areas as well, particularly math.  We see it in Children’s House when children do not have a firm grasp of place value before moving on to operations.

You will see that the three-year-old in the Toddler House is actually doing a great deal of academic work.  Even the work that may seem non-academic, for the toddler, is actually preparing him for academic work.  His body needs to be ready.  He needs to build strength, precision, concentration, order, and independence.  He needs experiences to build his frame of reference.  Without these “soft skills,” later academics become a struggle.  The following link  will give you an idea of the variety of work the “Toddler Kindergartner” does and how it correlates to preparation for academics as well as social and emotional growth.  Most importantly, you will see that the Toddler House is focused on not rushing children and assisting them in developing strong foundations in a developmentally appropriate and appealing manner.

Now that we have explored the philosophical basis of the three year old year, in Part Three of this series, I will share my personal experiences as a Montessori parent navigating this transitional year.


Toddler House Curriculum: Three Year Old

Area of Curriculum Work or Lesson Purpose
Gross Motor Development and Movement Walking on the line

Balance beam

Climbing up and down play  structures

Maximum Effort activities (carry large/heavy objects)

Balance boards

Yoga poses

To develop concentration, coordination, and physical mastery of the body.  These activities support freedom and independence, encouraging the child’s detachment from the adult.

This area must be wholly mastered at the toddler level as these are not “in classroom” activities at the Children’s House level

Language Object Baskets:  Physical representations of vocabulary groups such as fruits, vegetables, animals, etc.

Object to Picture Matching

Picture to Picture Matching

Sounds Games: I Spy, Go Find, etc.

Picture Cards

Pretend Play (Vocabulary Building)

Sandpaper Letters (mostly used sensorially – just to touch)

Easel painting (Prep for writing)

Chalkboard drawing


Reading Aloud (one-on-one and as group)


Silence Game

Sharing (Show and Tell)

To develop language in support of verbal communication, self-expression and the establishment of solid pre-reading and pre-writing skills such as

  • vocabulary building
  • connecting spoken work to print
  • auditory discrimination
  • speech development
  • preparation of the hand for writing
  • phonological awareness
  • introduction to letter shapes
  • representation of written word
Practical Life Dressing Frames:  Large Buttons, Velcro and Large Snaps

Dry Pouring

Wet Pouring

Window Washing

Table Washing

Baby Washing and Dressing

Dry Spooning



Cutting with Scissors

Pin Punching


Food Preparation: Slicing, Spreading, Cutting, Juicing, etc.

To support development of gross or fine motor skills along with promoting ability to care for self, others, and the child’s environment.  Practical Life lessons encourages concentration, coordination, order, independence, sequencing, and planning.  These represent development of executive functioning skills which support strong academic performance and leadership.
Sensorial Knobbed Cylinders

Sound Cylinders

Tasting Bottles

Shape Puzzles

Rough and Smooth Boards

Stacked Tower

To provide manipulative experiences to support refinement of isolated senses.  Sensorial lessons support vocabulary building, listening comprehension, and pre-math skills like grading, comparing and contrasting.
Math Pattern Work

Quantitative Experiences:  Less vs. More, Big vs. Small, etc.

One to one correspondence activities (pre-counting)

Number Peg Box

Numeral recitation

Numeral shape recognition, (1-9)

Introduction to quantity (1-9)

To introduce early quantitative experiences and number recognition in support of facilitating the connection between symbols and quantity.

The five major components of the Toddler House curriculum are Movement, Language, Practical Life, Sensorial and Math.  This chart includes a few examples from each area, but is not exhaustive in any way and mainly focuses on late toddler work.   The Toddler House also presents very basic lessons on science in relation to the child’s immediate experiences and culture that reflect the make-up of the class.   These lessons are aimed to help draw the child’s awareness away from the toddler’s ego-centric nature and vary from class to class as well as year-to-year.

Grace and Courtesy is the final component of the Toddler curriculum.  These lessons are not represented by work or materials on a shelf, but rather teach children how to navigate experiences and situations.  Grace and Courtesy lessons help children learn manners and respect.  They are especially important to the Toddler curriculum as this age group demonstrates a specific sensitivity to exploring social relationships.  Some common Grace and Courtesy lessons or skills in the Toddler House are:

  • Pushing in a chair
  • How to interrupt an adult
  • Waiting for a turn
  • Closing a door quietly
  • Shaking hands in greeting
  • Answering when spoken to

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