You’ve purchased your Montessori homeschool curriculum and you are thrilled! But, how do you get started and what’s the best way to organize everything to ensure a great homeschool experience for your family?
It’s exciting to begin a new homeschool year, but it can also be intimidating, especially if you’re new to homeschooling or new to Montessori (or transitioning your homeschool style to Montessori!). Knowing what to look for in a Montessori homeschool curriculum is the first and most critical step to a great start, but how do you organize your curriculum to best benefit your family?
Your organizational system can make or break your homeschool, so let’s dig in and get to planning!
I’ve personally been researching, strategizing, prepping, organizing, and reorganizing our Montessori homeschool curriculum for a long time (7 years as of the date of this writing)! And to be honest, there has been a LOT of trial and error. My goal in this blog post is to share with you the best strategies I’ve discovered after years of practice. Whether you’re a seasoned Montessori homeschooler or you’re just starting out, these organizational tips will help you stay on top of a new school year!
Begin With the End in Mind
One of my favorite sayings is "Begin with the End in Mind." What I mean by this is that the best way to start any project - big or small - is with a clear picture of the end goal. And organizing your Montessori homeschool curriculum is definitely a big project!
That’s why, although this blog post is about organizing your curriculum, it is imperative that I begin by suggesting that you consult the homeschool laws of your state.
All homeschoolers, Montessori or not, must follow their home state’s homeschooling regulations. And those legal requirements may impact how you choose to organize, store and document your family’s use of curriculum.
Homeschool Reporting Laws
The good news is that Montessori pedagogy meets or exceeds the public education standards in each and every state. So, if your Montessori homeschool curriculum adheres to the traditional Montessori scope and sequence (like M3 by Multisori does) you will not have to change the curriculum or supplement it in any way. (Whew!)
Once you are confident that your curriculum meets or exceeds your state standards, it’s time to think about how to organize everything in order to make your life - and your potential reporting requirements - easiest.
If you live in a state that requires a long list of subjects and/or extensive documentation, your organizational system will probably look different from a homeschooler in a state where few subjects and limited documentation is required. This is part of why you are the only person who can know what will work best for you and your children - and you will only know that when you understand your state’s homeschooling laws.
An authentic Montessori curriculum will follow the traditional Montessori age groupings of children (0-3, 3-6, 6-9 and so on). So, if you’ve got an authentic Montessori curriculum, you have 3-4 years worth of materials on your hands. That’s a lot to wrap your head and hands around! The task may seem insurmountable at first, but I promise that it can be done! And, the extra good news is that with Montessori pedagogy, the answer is almost always “Start with Practical Life.”
Begin with Practical Life
Practical life activities in the Montessori primary curriculum are thoughtfully sequenced in a way that develops coordination, motor control, and focus. They set the stage for a functional homeschool experience and are essential to a successful Montessori curriculum. Practical Life in an awesome Montessori homeschool curriculum is designed to quiet and focus the child's mind in the home environment, thus setting the stage for a functional homeschool experience. A great Montessori practical life curriculum will 1) meet your child where they are, 2) grow with your child and 3) allow you to easily track your child’s progress.
This is why, unless your child is explicitly interested in a topic (example: they are pointing out letters on your clothing, thereby expressing a clear readiness for learning letter sounds), I urge you to begin exclusively with practical life. Go slowly. There is NO rush.
Practical Life and Montessori
In addition to providing the best possible foundation for your child, the decision to begin exclusively with practical life will also benefit you. Since practical life rarely provides a finished product to “file,” you will buy yourself some time while your child begins preparing a strong homeschooling foundation. At this early stage, the best documentation device is your cell phone. Photograph things like your environment setup and your child completing the activity. Using a service that provides monthly photo books is an awesome way to make this process simple. This will also give you a reference point to refer back to as your child progresses through their homeschooling journey. If your state requires very strict reporting, file details regarding each practical life activity completed (If you are using M3 by Multisori, just file the activity cards - the work is already done for you).
And if you haven’t yet, now is a great time to begin transitioning your home environment.
Finally, in the early stages of starting out, it’s important to internalize that "more" does not mean "better" in a homeschool environment. This goes for shelving, time, lesson presentations, and almost everything you can think of except time outside and reading books. Write it down, hang it up and repeat it like a daily affirmation. More is not better, Mama!
Starting Montessori Lessons: the Power of Observation
Naturally, a Montessori approach means following your child’s lead, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use what you already know about your child’s age, interests and abilities to scan through your curriculum and begin identifying appropriate lessons. After all, you probably know your own child better than anyone else in the world, because you’ve been observing them from birth.
This process of connecting the interest-ability-curriculum dots isn’t easy. And if you’re new to Montessori homeschooling, you may not have been observing your kid(s) with this in mind. Ultimately, it involves understanding your child’s interests and discerning where your child is developmentally. And, I promise, it will come with time!
Observing the Child
For now, if you aren’t confident about connecting the interest-ability-curriculum dots, back up and spend some time observing your child. A GREAT Montessori curriculum will guide you on the best approach to observation, and will give you some kind of ongoing support if you need help with this. There are certain physical environment setups and types of questions that can help you hone in on what you’re looking for here.
Let’s use an example to make this a little clearer: A young child is extremely interested in math, but not ready for phonics or reading. You know this because the child loves counting and recognizes numbers on signs and mailboxes, but doesn't know or care about the letters on your t-shirt. This child can easily be accommodated using the Montessori approach.
In a case like this, you can advance your child to the appropriate place in math while slowly and playfully introducing beginning phonics concepts until your child shows readiness in that area.
This could take a few days, a few weeks or a few months. You won’t know they’re ready until well, they’re ready! Therein lies the importance of ongoing observation. Once you see the interest and readiness through thoughtful observation, you know where to go in the curriculum and what materials to prepare next.
Physical organization of curriculum
I understand the temptation of wanting to print your full 3-4 year long Montessori curriculum up front. I totally get it! Just the idea of seeing it all printed in one place at one time is so inviting. But, the truth is that it may not be the best option for a huge digital file.
Here’s why: an authentic Montessori homeschool curriculum is designed to allow each and every student to study each and every topic deeply. That's why you are likely looking at so many pages of materials. This is simply because it's the only way to allow for the customization inherent in the Montessori Method. Virtually no student will desire to study all of the topics so deeply. Kids, like adults, have different interests and abilities, and that uniqueness is what drives a lot of the "deep diving" that happens with young children.
Do I Print Everything All At Once?
My recommendation is to print as you go, using observations of and conversations with your child to guide you. You will find it much easier to follow your child and to customize the learning environment if you will simply select one day per week and commit a few hours to printing and environment prep. Perhaps equally important: this approach will keep you from feeling overwhelmed as a homeschooler when it comes to organizing so much all at once.
Here's how I hope you'll proceed: Each week, take notes on your child's interests and activities. I like to put my child’s name on the top of a half of a piece of computer paper, along with the date. Then, I pin these notes up on a board in my office. With time, themes tend to develop and upon reflection, ideas about how, when and why to introduce different lessons become clear.
After your notes are finalized for the week, set aside a few hours on the weekend to find corresponding parts of the curriculum to prepare. Don't rush! Don't try to do too much.
Just prep for one week (two if you’re feeling super ambitious and have some experience under your belt!). Then, use your curriculum’s built-in record keeping to record your child’s progress. A GREAT curriculum lets you easily see what’s completed and what lies ahead. I recommend a curriculum that lets you record progress in a checklist style. The time savings is tremendous.
Look to Last Year’s Lessons
If you are unsure of where to start, reintroduce some of the most important or interesting concepts from the previous year’s lessons as a refresher. While doing this, ask probing questions to see what they want to learn more about. Ask a lot of “I wonder…” type questions. If your child likes cheetahs, for example, say “I wonder where cheetahs live…” Or, for an older child, you might say “I wonder why cheetahs are endangered…” This is a great way to pique your child’s interest in learning about African culture and geography.
When you have a good grasp of your child’s interests and abilities, compare those with your scope and sequences. For the lessons that are within the foreseeable future, go ahead and print them, so that when it comes time to prep, they are readily available to you. I like to place these in a “Ready to Prep” folder.
Typically, I use binder clips inside this folder for each subject area. This way, my “Ready to Prep” folder includes the upcoming lessons for a variety of subjects and gives me and my kids lots to choose from for the upcoming week. This is where I start each weekend. I can use what I want and save the rest for later easily.
How Far in Advance Should I Plan?
Although I don’t recommend planning too far in advance, I’ve found it can be helpful to occasionally think about where your child’s specific set of interests and abilities may lead in 3 or 6 months.
That’s why I earmark what I think my kid(s) may want to learn once they naturally advance in their current studies. For example, a toddler who loves dinosaurs may become a young child who wants to read and journal about them. Keeping this big picture in mind allows you to easily find appropriate lessons as the opportunity arises. Just remember to be flexible here, as children’s interests and abilities often change quickly.
Get Familiar With The Curriculum
Once you’ve established what this week, this month and this year might look like (broadly), then you can start organizing the various aspects of your Montessori curriculum. Generally speaking, unless it’s language arts or math, a spark of interest will catch your eye and you will begin observing. You will then follow the interest-ability-curriculum path laid out below.
For instance, in the M3 by Multisori Montessori science curriculum, there is a unit on magnetism. This unit also happens to be available free on our Teachers Pay Teachers page! Using this unit as an example, let’s go through the organizational process.
First, you would likely notice your child playing with magnets on the fridge. You could use this as an opportunity to observe, asking perhaps “I wonder what other things would stick to the fridge,” for a younger child or “I wonder why those magnets stick to the fridge” for an older one. If your child shows interest, you know it’s time to act.
For an older child, your next step might be to dive right into the Magnetism unit.
Getting Started with M3 by Multisori
With M3 by Multisori, it’s simple to follow the instructions and be ready in a jiffy! First, you would print and laminate the “Magnets are Amazing” poster. Then, you’ll hang it in your learning environment at the child’s eye level. Next, you will gather your magnet and household items (some magnetic, some not) as listed in the supply list, as well as the sorting mat, and add these to a container on a tray. You are set for a week of science now. Don’t forget to earmark or print the sorting cards and scavenger hunt for the next week’s environment prep.
Utilizing Scope & Sequence
For a younger child, you would look earlier in the scope and sequence to see what activities might lead you into a more formal study of magnetism. Looking through the scope and sequence included in the free download mentioned earlier, you would see the “Plastic or Metal” introductory activities and start there. You would then earmark or print the entire magnetism unit for later on.
So, what if it IS language arts or math? Well, we need to work on these subjects fairly regularly and can’t always just base our works off of our child's interests. Even in Montessori classrooms, it’s quite common to have “math time” or “reading time.” So, don’t feel that you are deviating from Montessori pedagogy by setting clear, healthy and educationally appropriate boundaries.
Setting aside a certain amount of time each day for these subjects has been best for my family in terms of establishing a homeschool routine. My children lead by deciding the order of their work, the subject matter of their reading, science, geography and so on. But, they understand that reading and math are not negotiable and must be completed before the day is done.
Physical Examples of Homeschool Curriculum Organization
For organizing M3 reading, I use a single clear Photo & Craft Keeper. They allow you to see what you’re grabbing quickly, and they give a clear visual representation of the scope of the learning. In the past, I’ve been able to find them inexpensively at Michael’s, but just about any crafting shop will have something similar.
Math is by far the most difficult to keep organized for me, because of the size of the golden bead set (which we splurged on and DO NOT regret!). Because math requires spiral review, we are frequently revisiting materials. This is in contrast to science, where magnetism for example, doesn’t really relate to botany or zoology.
Making Space for Math Curriculum
For M3 math - or really ANY Montessori math - you are going to need space. The simplest way I’ve found is to use a large 3-drawer plastic bookshelf. I place 3D manipulatives in one shelf, 2D manipulatives in another shelf and presentation instructions and worksheets in the third. It’s not perfect, but it does the job.
I use the same process of printing as I go, earmarking what’s coming next and continually watching how my kids are developing in order to gauge readiness for the next concept.
Keep Things Accessible
Many people splurge and use sturdy, secure wooden bookshelves for curriculum materials. There is nothing wrong with that except for the price tag. I always strive for Montessori on a budget when possible!
I personally chose the $25 bookshelves from Target and asked my lovely hubby to anchor them to the wall. We then placed corner protectors on sharp edges. These came off when my kids outgrew the toddler years.
Outside of safety, the most important thing about your bookshelves is that they are built to the height of your children. You need to be able to bend over to add or remove materials, and your children need to be able to easily access their works.
One of the most important aspects of Montessori education is independence, so I try to organize all of my materials in a way that makes them easy for my children to grab and use. If you don’t have enough space for a setup like this, consider a daily box for each child, which allows exploration and excitement, and the same feeling of independence and ownership, without the need for so much space.
Labeling Your Homeschool Space
Especially when children are younger, it’s a good idea to label with pictures. I personally used picture/word combos so I didn’t have to change them out when they started reading. This allows an advancement of concepts, from a visual idea to concrete words and sounds associated with the items, while minimizing your workload.
Finally, make sure that everything has a place. Not only will this help you find what you’re looking for - which just makes sense - your child will learn to put things back where they belong. Building expectations and familiarity goes a long way in developing security and stability, which in turn are the foundation of confidence and responsibility. A child who knows where their items go and can easily put them back will do so more readily, and grow up self-reliant and organized.
In this way, the lesson information and associated materials are simple and easy to find. Organizing like this is good for future children going through the same lesson plans, or if you need to dip into the previous year’s lesson for a refresher.
Plan for next year
When the curriculum is up for the year, you should have a nice, neat storage concept that allows you to easily access last year’s and this year’s lessons, along with associated manipulatives and materials. Take stock of your child’s interests, pace, and last year of learning to get an idea of what to get for the year ahead.
Remember to not print off too much of the curriculum in advance, so you don’t overwhelm yourself with materials to organize. Take advantage of clear craft totes to easily organize your materials in a way that’s visible and accessible.
Use sturdy, small bookshelves to make materials easy to grab for youngsters, and easy to put back as well. Always keep in mind that you’re teaching responsibility, tidiness, and self-reliance, so organization helps children understand that everything has a place. Pictures with labels are the best for a seamless transition from pre-reader to reader.
Montessori learning thrives on organization, especially when it helps your child develop self-reliance, confidence, and responsibility. I hope that my experiences in organizing a curriculum and homeschool environment help you with yours.