Learning Without Flashcards

By Rebecca Fry | Power Of Play

Aug 25

When my son was just over a year old he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.  At the time, he was attending an in-home daycare that we loved for the personal home like feel it gave him.  But with this diagnosis came the need for occupational therapy and more attention given to his hands. We began to research alternatives for day care and I was immediately drawn to Montessori.  My liking for Montessori grew initially out of the emphasis on hands on activities. I knew that each day he would be encouraged to use his fine motor skills throughout different lessons. At the time, I just knew I wanted him using his hands as much as possible.  Over time my appreciation for Montessori methods has grown. The hands-on learning style not only encourages fine motor skills but also helps kids to better and often more quickly grasp concepts.

When I transitioned to being a stay-at-home mom a little over a year ago, I knew I wanted to incorporate learning activities into our weekly routine.  I began to develop activities based off of Montessori ideas and methods. We are about the most unstructured Montessori learning family you will come across.  Our materials are not classic materials and I try to use what we already have around the house, because one income also means the need to budget better. I wanted to be sure to emphasize understanding over rote memorization, which meant eliminating many of the standard “flashcard” type approaches to learning.

My kids are only 2 and 5, so most of our activities are for the early learning crowd.  Montessori focuses on five learning areas: practical life, sensorial, language, mathematics, and culture.  Practical life, sensorial, and culture activities are truly some of my favorites as they teach children respect for themselves, others, and the environment as well as how to make sense of the world around them.  Here I will focus on the other two areas, language and mathematics, which should be helpful for parents about to send their kids back to school (or to school for the first time) who are looking for ways to supplement their kids’ learning experiences at home.


Language learning for the younger crowd focuses primarily on letter shapes and sounds.  Instead of flat cards or toys with flashing lights, I like using materials which can be held, touched, and manipulated.  We love using alphabet puzzles and 3D letters like an alphabet magnet set. With the alphabet puzzle I will keep most of the letters behind me and present my son with three puzzle pieces and point to where one of the pieces goes and ask him “Which letter is B? B says ‘buh’ like basket” and then let him choose which piece to try and put in the B’s spot.  If he chooses the wrong letter I will gently say, “This is E. Can you find the B?” This way he is not receiving negative feedback but still receives correction. Once we have done this with the three letters presented, I give him three more until the puzzle is completed. I try to avoid giving him letters in alphabetical order and in the beginning, try to avoid giving him letters that look similar like O and Q.

With the 3D letters we like to do letter stamping.  This can be done in Play Doh, slime, or even paint if you’re feeling brave!  The goal here is to just let him feel the letters in his hand and play with them.  As he plays with the letter I tell him the letter and the sound it makes. Sometimes I will stamp the letter and ask him to identify which letter matches the imprint, much like our game with the puzzle pieces.

For my 5 year old, language starts to focus more on putting letters together to make words as well as writing letters and words.  When he was about 3 he began working with sandpaper letters at school and we made our own version of this activity at home with a flat dish and sugar.  The idea is to have the child use their pointer finger to trace out the letter over something that will provide tactile feedback. We have also done this with finger paint.  Play Foam makes a great medium for this activity and is less messy than sugar or paint. As letter formation became easier I then began placing objects that started with that letter in front of him as he formed the letters in the sugar.


Once he had a hold on letter sounds I would start to encourage word formation.  In Montessori, they encourage word formation before reading using a moving alphabet.  We don’t have a traditional moving alphabet and just used what we had on hand. Alphabet beads can make a good alternative here, because there are multiple beads for each letter.  It is not a perfect solution, as the moving alphabet is made intentionally with colors to indicate consonants vs vowels and also to provide the sensorial input of the shape of the letter but, again, we are on a budget here. This activity is about letting the child practice forming simple words with the moving alphabet without correcting mistakes.  The temptation to correct is strong, but at this stage, the focus is on letting their minds create words and form a positive relationship and strong interest in writing and spelling.

We are now at the stage where we do some correcting by pointing out sound patterns; still utilizing the moving alphabet and sugar dish.  We also introduced phonograms last summer and this allows him to form and read some more difficult words. Phonogram introduction we did much like learning letter sounds.  I would set out pictures of objects that contain the same phonogram, such as a fork, horse, and corn and have him write “or” in his sugar dish and then advanced to using the moving alphabet to spell words using the different sounds. As his writing and word formation skills have improved, I have seen his confidence and capabilities grow with his reading.


For our 2 year old, mathematics involves basic counting and ordering activities.  Counting or number rods are often used in Montessori classrooms for the youngest crowd.  We use our peg set for this, but something like Legos or any blocks that stack can also work well.  I present each stack and say “this is one” and ask him to show me “one” with pegs. Then, “this is two” and then he will copy and show me “two” pegs. When mistakes are made, just like with the letters, rather than saying “no” I will tell him how many pegs he has and will show him how it is different from the one I have. As I present the pegs I will also give him the symbol for each number to hold and look at.  Pieces from a number puzzle or magnet set is a great way to do this. Another great activity is to pre build the pegs or blocks into units 1 to 10 and then ask him to order them from shortest to longest.

For our 5 year old, I love using our version of bead bars to learn about addition, subtraction, and even multiplication.  The idea is to have bead lines with 1 bead, 2 beads, and so on up to 10 beads. We used construction paper to make these, but you can also use a set of multi colored crafting beads and pipe cleaners.  We choose specific colors to represent each number, for example a white paper strip will always have 10 dots on it. The activities we can do with this set almost seem limitless. Here are a few of our favorites.

Adding to 10: I adapted this from the Montessori snake activity. I lay out nine of the pieces of paper with 10 dots.  One number at a time my son will lay one of the other numbers beneath a 10 line and then find the other number that makes the bottom line the same length as the 10 line (placing a 2 line next to an 8 line). We do this for numbers 1 through 9.  This is a simple way to show kids which numbers add together to make 10.

Making teens:  I adapted this from the Montessori Teen Board activity.  I write the number 1 on nine pieces of paper and numbers 0 through 9 on separate pieces of paper. I then make the numbers 10 through 19 by pairing these.  My son will then use a 10 line and add whichever other number line is needed to make the corresponding number (eg. He will use a 10 line and a 5 line to make 15).  This teaches him to recognize teens as well as gain an understanding of how to make these numbers.

Counting by tens and intro to multiplication: I adapted this from the Montessori Tens Board Activity.  Similar to the previous activity, I write the numbers 1 through 9 on pieces of paper and write 0 on nine pieces of paper.  Using these, I make the numbers 10, 20, 30 etc. up until 90. My son then works his way through placing one 10 line, two 10 lines, three 10 lines, etc up through nine 10 lines next to the corresponding number.  This introduces him to the concept that three 10s is equal to 30 and five 10s is equal to 50. Once he had a firm grasp on this we began to mix things up and I covered the 0s with varying numbers in the ones place, like 33, 54, 76, etc.  He would then work his way through placing three 10 lines and one 3 line, and so on. This gave him an understanding of how different numbers are formed as well as an introduction to what the tens place and ones place mean.

Addition and subtraction activity:  Recently we started working with adding and subtracting and our number lines are a huge help for this.  I will lay out numbers for him to add and he will then use his lines to quickly find the answer. His foundation of knowing what numbers add to ten from the first activity help him to add numbers quickly and the lines give him a visual representation of whether the number will carry over into the next set of tens or not. For subtraction, he will turn the line over and cover part of the bigger number and he is then able to tell how many dots are left over.  The foundation he built from the previous activities allows him to look at the lines and pretty quickly give me an answer without having to count each individual dot.

There are much more detailed descriptions about these activities and how to present them to a child that can be found from bloggers like Homegrown Montessori and How We Montessori.  What I pull from the more formal framework of Montessori is to utilize as much hands on and sensorial input as possible when teaching new concepts. The colors of the number lines and separating the numbers in the tens and ones place are visual reminders of concepts that can often be confusing for young kids.  Just the other day my son asked me the difference between odd and even numbers and rather than trying to explain this to him with words or just telling him to memorize 0, 2, 4, 6, 8 indicates even, we sat down with the pegs and I showed him how even numbers can be split evenly in half but odd numbers cannot. He mastered the concept almost immediately and also gained a full picture of what those words mean.  

I am not a trained Montessori teacher and am definitely more casual with my approach and presentation of materials.  There’s probably a Montessori teacher out there cringing at the way we have incorporated these activities into our learning.  But I love to draw from this framework because I can see how it benefits my kids to manipulate objects when learning. Not only that, but neither of my boys are sit down and trace numbers and letters in a workbook kind of kids. Changing up the routine and presenting new ways to look at problems helps them to stay interested, engaged, and having fun.  It also encourages kids to take the lead in their learning; picking out what they are interested in doing that day and telling me when they are ready to move on to something new rather than sticking to a strict timeline. Your kids may be too old for these activities to apply to their skill level, but I encourage you to think of hands on ways to present material to them that they may be struggling with.  This will allow them to take a break from the pen and paper methods at school and incorporate multisensory learning.

About the Author

Rebecca, originally from Texas, migrated to Michigan with her husband and two boys aged 2 and 5 years old. Rebecca is currently a stay-at-home mom but has a background is psychology with a special interest in early childhood development and parenting. She keeps up to date in the latests techniques in both areas whenever she can!