Here’s a great DIY for anyone whose child is learning numbers, whether you typically use the Montessori method or not. Probably all parents have smiled as their very young child sang the alphabet song, long before the child could use those letters in writing or even identify the symbol for each letter. The same thing occurs with numbers – children learn how to verbalize a string of numbers in order long before they understand the concept of what those numbers actually mean. That’s where the Montessori Spindle Box comes in.
The Spindle Box has 10 equal compartments, numbered 0 through 9. The child puts the appropriate number of spindles in each box. Doing this work helps the child understand that each number, a quantity in itself, can be made up of separate objects. It also demonstrates in a concrete manner that zero represents no quantity. In addition, it is an indirect preparation for the fact that there are no other symbols but 0 to 9.
For some reason, I absolutely love this lesson, and I absolutely love the Nienhuis material for it. It’s a pretty easy DIY material, but I still had to convince myself not to spend the $30 to buy it!
Convince myself I did, though, and I must say that I love the result! Dr. Montessori emphasized that materials for young children should be beautiful, and I think this one really is!
My first step was to decide what to use for my 45 spindles. Popsicle sticks would work perfectly, but I didn’t have any of those on hand. Unsharpened pencils could work if I had enough. Q-tips were a possibility. Sticks would be awesome when doing this as an outside activity. I finally decided on toothpicks.
Next, I needed a container to divide into the ten sections. We have a ridiculous number of Amazon boxes of all shapes and sizes tossed into our garage at this point, but I wanted something prettier. I looked through the kitchen and found a beautiful tray that seemed like it could work quite well.
To make the dividers, I simply cut small strips of cardstock and held each in place with a piece of tape on each side. I did my best to make them centered and equally sized. I was a little off, as you can see, but I figure it’s close enough.
The only other material I needed was something with which to tie together each group of toothpicks. My manual says to tie ribbons around each group, but Drama Queen isn’t that good with tying bows yet. Rubber bands would work, but I couldn’t find that many small rubber bands. I was just about to decide to skip that step (I’ll explain all the steps below), when it occurred to me that I have a little girl. Which means I have hair loops. Lots and lots of colorful hair loops. I raided her hair accessory container and chose 8 loops, each of a different color (she doesn’t have 8 of any one color).
To add a little festiveness, I used Christmas items to hold the toothpicks and hair loops.
The next morning, both kids were immediately drawn to the beautiful new materials. These are the steps of the lesson, as Drama Queen did them.
1. Bring spindle box, toothpicks, and container of loops one at a time to the table.
3. Point at other numbers through 9, asking child to read them.
4. Tell child and demonstrate how to place the toothpicks gently one by one, counting out loud, into the compartments.
5. Demonstrate the first two or three compartments and allow the child to continue. (Drama Queen was very eager to do it herself!)
7. Show empty “zero” compartment.
8. Say, “There are no toothpicks because this number is zero. Zero means nothing, no quantity.’
9. Get out loops and tell child, “We will tie together each group of toothpicks.” Do not tie “1” since it is not a group. This gives the sensorial impression to the child that the separate objects represent one number. Double wrapping the loops was quite a challenge for Drama Queen at first, but she was determined to learn how to do it, so she kept working at it until she got it.
10. Remove all loops and place back in box. Return toothpicks to dish.
There’s also a fun Zero Game you can play with the child after she’s done some work with the spindle box. You can do this with multiple children or just one. Ask each child to carry out quick actions a certain number of times. After asking a child to do something zero times, plead with her, “Why are you not doing anything?” Allow her to explain that she was told to do it zero times.