Montessori Elementary Homeschool Blog - with documentation of our infant Montessori, toddler Montessori, and primary Montessori experiences; as well as preparation for the upcoming adolescent Montessori homeschool years.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Montessori Memory Development

Memory – something so many of us struggle with, despite 13 years of a traditional school model which required us to memorize pieces of information to regurgitate at test time. Shouldn’t we all have perfect memories by now?

In contrast, a Montessori education has no testing of those memory skills, no straight-forward regurgitation of facts; yet Montessori graduates go on to continue their lives with excellent mental skills, including in the area of memory.

Don’t we need tests to prove memory skills? Don’t we want to be able to remember a string of unrelated facts without any context? Well… yes… and no.

Montessori allows memory skills to develop by connecting the memorization of a particular fact to so many other areas simultaneously that almost *anything* can be a trigger for a needed memory.

Probably many of my readers here will entirely agree with that fact without me saying another word. But please allow me to extrapolate for a moment.

A child in the primary (ages 3-6) class is working on memorization of math facts – those equations based on adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing the numbers of 1-9. This typically kindergarten (age 5-6) child is probably quite adept at the following:

  • performing all four operations utilizing the golden bead material as well as the stamp game – both are kinesthetic to varying degrees, the golden beads require collecting material by walking and the stamp game requires fine motor movement and introduces writing out the operations;
  • this child has also probably worked on counting up and down the short and long chains, representing the squares and cubes of the numbers 1-10, introducing skip-counting and multiples (and indirect introduction to factors). Some Montessori environments include a writing-related extension for the chains. Many children turn the skip counting up and down into something of a chant, all on their own. 
  • the child may be using the snake game for addition and subtraction, which include a verification stage that utilizes multiplication.
  • the multiplication material itself involves some bead boards, strip boards and charts – before even getting to the writing portion with the booklets.

Thus this child has already worked with the math facts in the whole body; in the arms/hands; in some writing; and finally in the mind and fingers with the beads where the child isn’t moving just as much in the whole body. So as the child moves into the charts, we can say, “Check into your mind first – see if the answer is already there, before you use whatever material you want or need to verify your answer.”

Montessori develops memory skills in a variety of areas.

Memory isn’t just in math, but that is the first place we think of.

Order in the environment – Sensorial and Exercises of Practical Life:

From the child’s beginning days in the primary level environment, we invite them to think through their tasks. “As you put away the wood polishing tray, think to yourself, ‘What else needs to be replaced so it is ready for the next person?’” Not only that, but where does the tray even go? If it is put away incorrectly, someone will fix and may gently point it out the child.

Indeed, we set up our environments so that there is a place for everything and everything in its place. Establishing this sense of order is key to developing the child’s memory skills on an ongoing basis. It encourages the use of memory (“where does this go?”) and using context clues to locate the correct spot. It also helps the child when he is elsewhere and thinks about his learning environment, when everything is essentially in the same place, he can visualize it to make his plans for the next day or to tell someone else about his work. Or to wonder what will be new in an area the teacher/parent has said the day before “We have something new coming tomorrow! And I will place it in this spot when it arrives!”

Within the sensorial area in particular, the child see several groups of “ten”, the basis for our decimal system: the pink tower, the brown stair, the red rods, the knobbed cylinders, the knobless cylinders. What doesn’t come in tens, comes in pairs for the sake of matching and some items later for grading. There is a consistent order to things for the children to explore while experiencing an isolation of concepts with our “keys to the world” as Montessori called the sensorial materials. We have the materials on display in a way that highlights the item’s main attribute or teaching point. This aids the child in finding patterns in the world around him which only aids in memory skills as new experiences are ordered to the variety of patterns the child finds in his mind, organizing information in a variety of ways (this information I am learning is like the pink tower in this way; and like the bells in this other way; etc. – meaning that name of something new might sound like particular notes on the bells; or be equally as pleasant to hear).

Maintaining this order, causes us adults to consider making any major (and many minor) changes to the environment with the children present, so that the child can make the mental shift at the same time.

Nothing like a constantly changing environment to make memory development trickier! Those of us who have to change environment routinely with our children, should consider this need for order and look to what we *can* maintain. Whether it be routines around mealtimes and bedtimes, worship practices, consistent behavior expectations, family traditions, or other areas, children are not harmed in any way by moving a lot or long-term travelling, when they find consistent order in other areas of life.


We utilize three-period lessons to introduce new nomenclature to the children. We give the name in the first period, do a lot of action with the nomenclature in the second period, and when the child is successful at the second period (either in the first session or a future session), we move to the third period of asking the child for the name of the object or quality at hand. We can add more objects/qualities right away if the child was easily successful or we can review another time or day, and add more then.

We strive to use whole language (complete sentences, full words, real words), an extensive vocabulary (children can soak in any word of any length when used in context – we do not need to simplify our vocabulary for young children!), and full interaction with the children on a variety of topics (look them in the eye while having a conversation). It is a stronger impression on the child’s mind when we share in and discuss real life experiences. Instead of just watching a video about gardening and having pretend gardening tools and items, to actually garden, grow one’s own treats, have fun getting dirty – and talking about it, sharing ideas, trying out new things. These things provide a multi-sensory approach to learning that aids in memory development.


Beyond the 3-period lessons we use with the children to teach nomenclature in all areas, we also ask the children to tell us what they are going to bring after we tell them a quantity of beads or cards to bring to the mat. “Please bring me four thousands and 3 tens. (pause) What are you going to bring me?” (the child repeats – if they miss it, repeat the request and ask them to repeat it again; until they get it – please note if you are using two or more categories and a child cannot say it back, back down one less category and strengthen those memory skills first ;) ).

As the child works through math problems throughout primary and elementary, the child should be verbalizing the process. This helps to internalize the skills at hand - saying, hearing it, finding words to explain it, the physical manipulation, the visual acuity. 


The sensorial materials for matching are awesome memory developers because are intentionally spreading the experience out. The sound cylinders: shake a red one (switching hands and doing it in both ears), shake a blue one (both ears as well). Not sure if it matched? Listen again. If a “no”, the blue one is set aside; re-shake the red one before listening to the next blue one. Reinforcing that sound. Later, a challenge is to shake the red one, listen to the all the blue ones and select the one that matches.

With the bells, we have distance matching and distance grading. One of the extensions of this distance work is to listen to a bell, then go have a short conversation with someone before proceeding to the bells cabinet to find the match (or next in grading series).

And remember! The control of error is in one's own senses - there is NO OTHER control of error here! 

This memory work area is one area where the children do not ever really age out of the sensorial materials. A 4 year old might be done with the main ways to build the pink tower and may have mastered all the language by age 5; but can they feel a cube while blindfolded, go chat with a friend (having removed the blindfold but not looked at the cube), and only then find the next cube in the series when all the cubes have been scattered around the room. This challenge combines many of the extensions and is a fun challenge for most 5 and 6 year olds (and elementary children!). 

But it is never too late to get started.

Start using these same techniques at any age to get started, either for yourself or with an older child. Recent brain research shows the brain remains pliable throughout life, for as long as it is used. The only time things are truly lost is when one or more areas of the brain are left so inactive for so long, generally from so early childhood that the area was never activated to begin with. We used to think that the brain couldn’t learn much after so long because of the experiences with children found feral and without language in the wilderness. What we have found is that if those areas were activated at all in childhood they can be stimulated – perhaps not to the same extent as if they’d been active all along, but certainly something can develop under the proper circumstances! has an article on using the Montessori approach for people with Alzheimers. 

So what do we do to develop our own memory skills?
  • Eat right. Limit sugar intake which causes huge fluctuations in the blood and brain.
  • You learn something new, use it right away – many times over. You meet someone new, use their name several times in the next few minutes, while looking that person in the eye.
  • When you are going into another room to get or do something, repeat the plan several times in your mind or out loud.
  • Need to memorize something important? Make up a song for it.
  • If you are looking for a nutritional method of memory assistance, rosemary is an excellent herb of choice; if you don’t like the flavor, the rosemary essential oil can be utilized via aromatherapy to stimulate the memory centers of the brain.
  • If you have access to the Montessori materials, do the primary level exercises yourself! Challenge yourself!
  • Get up and move! Circulating blood brings more oxygen to all areas of your body, connecting multiple types of experiences to information you want to remember, and generally having more energy – all aid in memory retention. 

Now, please share some of your ideas – where have you seen memory practice in the Montessori environment (any age: infant, toddler, primary, elementary, adolescence) – and what others ways can adults enhance memory skills?

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