Home   Early Learning Topics   Montessori & iPads

Montessori & iPads

I believe high quality educational tablet apps can be positive additions to a young child’s learning experiences. Further, I believe that excellent apps, properly used, perfectly complement the materials in a Montessori school. Tablet apps can significantly enhance one of the most beautiful, powerful ways in which a Montessori environment optimizes children’s development in the years from 3-6.

The emails I receive from outraged Montessori teachers when I mention this indicate that these opinions are not shared by many in the Montessori world. To save time responding individually, I will explain why I support 3-6 year old children using iPads by answering the two most frequent arguments I hear against it. If you are already upset, at least read the rest before sending angry emails, ok? The first objection I hear a lot is:

Young children should not waste their time staring at screens.

I wholeheartedly agree. Passively staring at a television is not productive. Hours spent on mindless video games are similarly wasted. An exception, IMO, would be watching well made You Tube or Vimeo videos. Young children can be fascinated by short videos on topics they are excited about. This is a growing trend as children of all ages become ‘show me‘ rather than ‘tell me‘ learners.

Tablet apps are another exception. Apps do not involve passive staring. The child constantly interacts with what is happening. Decisions are made and actions taken. The child exercises logic, memory, and critical thinking. Challenges are presented and mastered. Choices and comparisons are made and the results are clear. Mistakes are noted and corrected. Appropriate repetition reinforces concepts. Excellent tablet apps promote high interest, involvement, and mental activity. This is quite the opposite of passive staring.

Have you app detractors tried using some of the best iPad apps for young children? How a teacher or parent could say that apps like Bitsboard, Bugs and Buttons, Magic Matrix, Intro To Letters, Montessori Crosswords, Sight Words 1-300, and the math apps from Montessori Tech are not well designed learning experiences for young children is beyond me. These are just a few of the over 200 wonderful apps I recommend in the Montessori At Home! eBook. Don’t knock something you haven’t checked out yourself.

Watch a young child focused on and having fun using a high quality educational tablet app. If spontaneous interest and focused attention are trusted as guides – as they are in Montessori – then quality tablet apps deserve a place in a child’s life. The second objection I hear is this:

Montessori is about learning by using real objects. Tablet apps damage a child’s development by taking attention away from real world experiences. 

To this, I would offer a different perspective: Montessori for 3-6 year olds is about more than real objects. The statement that Montessori uses only real objects is inaccurate, and inhibits a greater understanding of one of the most beautiful, vital ways that Montessori helps a child’s natural development.

A printed image is not related to as a three dimensional object because it is on a card. We don’t order at a restaurant based on the weight, shape, and feel of the menu. We relate to the images and words. A young child looking at a printed image is relating to ink spread on the paper, not the paper itself. This is a much more abstract experience than handling three dimensional objects. Similarly, a child holding a tablet is focused on the images, not the tablet. The card and tablet are both mediums for delivering visual images and symbols.

knobless cylinders chase cheeriosMaria Montessori included a large variety of printed images, shapes, symbols, letters, and numerals in the prepared environment. Geometric shapes, leaf shapes, sensorial material control cards, hundreds of different three part cards, name cards, letters, numerals, and many similar materials are an important part of every Montessori school. Montessori Print Shop alone offers over 1400 different printable materials to Montessori schools. Paper and ink were Montessori’s tools, and she did a wonderful job with them.

Photo: Chasing Cheerios

Did Montessori violate her own supposed rule about using only real objects? Of course not. Montessori included abstract graphic depictions in the environment because they serve a critical purpose in helping young children achieve one of the most important developmental tasks of the years 3-6: transitioning to abstract thought. Montessori speaks about this In Spontaneous Activity In Education:

“….in the first period of psychical life, the material corresponds to the primitive exercises of the senses…..and permits an exercise of the activities sufficient to mature a superior psychical state of observation and abstraction.”

Montessori talks about allowing a child to progress from object based experience into abstract thought, and recommends that we not direct the child to objects when the process of abstract thought is happening:

The child turns away spontaneously from the material……as if impelled by fresh energies, and his mind is capable of abstraction.” ” It is essential that the child’s attention should not be directed to the objects when the delicate phenomena of abstraction begins.

From The Montessori Method:

We give a number of cards to the child with the corresponding wooden insets. In this second series, the figures are repeated by an outline of blue paper. The child through these exercises is passing gradually from the concrete to the abstract.”

All of Montessori’s writings describe a process by which young children gather sensory and neuromuscular impressions in their brains, classify and organize them, and then refer to them using abstract thought. This is the core of the psychical and spiritual developmental process Montessori wrote so eloquently about, and designed her environment to assist.

Two to four year olds spend most of their time using three dimensional objects to gather a storehouse of mental impressions. As children reach five and six, they become increasingly able to unlock those impressions using images, symbols, and words. They start making inferences, using logic, and giving plausible answers to ‘What if?’ questions. They become increasingly able to use abstract thought. The years 3-6 are when we largely develop the capacity for abstract thinking.

The sensitive periods for language and numbers are great examples. Montessori children prepare by manipulating groups of objects, 3D shapes and forms, and sequencing left to right. Then they use phonetic objects, images of objects, groups of counting objects, sandpaper letters and numerals, numeral cards, and the phonetic sounds – a nice mix of sensory and abstract work. Gradually the objects, tactile, and auditory impressions are left behind. The child learns to relate directly to words and numerals, which unlock mental impressions. The real world experiences provide the foundation for the passage into abstract thought.

Moving back and forth along a path of object – image – word – thought, children gradually learn to think in the abstract. To say that Montessori is only about using real objects diverts attention from what the objects are – useful first tools in a process of helping children develop the capability for abstract thought. Rather than say Montessori schools use only real objects, it is perhaps more accurate to say this:

A Montessori prepared environment for 3-6 year olds facilitates the development of abstract thinking through progressive experiences with three dimensional objects, image-based materials, and written and spoken language.

Tablet apps have a definite place in this process. High quality educational apps deliver well designed, interactive, image-based experiences that help children make the transition to abstract thought. A static image on a screen is no different than one on a card. Tablet apps take image experiences to a new level by incorporating movement, interactivity, incredible variety, logic and critical thinking, memory work, and specific information about colors, shapes, letters, numbers, and other common aspects of a child’s learning. They are the next step in the evolution of image based materials, and prepare children for the type of learning they will be doing later. They are also great fun!

Using tablet apps in programs for 3-6 year olds

Used to extend the Montessori printed materials, tablet apps can fit easily into any Montessori or other preschool program. The key to success is in the details. Specifically, when should children be allowed to use them, for how long, and what apps are appropriate?

There are well designed apps for 2-3 year olds, which are okay if used in strict moderation as an introduction to digital experience. After this, a child’s interest level in language and math can be a good indicator of readiness to use educational tablet apps. A child who has progressed far enough into abstract thought to start using letters and numerals is also ready for app work.

It is always important to insure safety. Here are some good ideas:

How to keep your child safe on an iPad

iPad parental controls from Mobicip

Setting up ipad parental controls and content filtering

Content should be strictly controlled. I recommend iPads and educational apps from the Apple App Store. I tested over 500 Apple and Android apps while writing the Montessori At Home! eBook, and the superiority of Apple apps was clear. The 200+ apps I recommend in the book are a starting point. Common Sense Media is another good app guide and resource site.

To prevent tablet mania, control availability and time of use. Children often have to wait to use Montessori materials, the same should apply to the iPads. Having two or three self-limits their use. To control time usage, a ten to twenty minute limit using an egg timer the child operates is a place to start, adjusted for each class.

These are just a few ideas on how iPads can successfully become an integral part of Montessori and other preschool environments. I know many will continue to disagree. If you have comments or points that add to the discussion, please share. If you just feel like yelling, at least I know you read this far! Here are more good resources:

NAEYC position statement on technology and digital media

Meaningful technology integration in early learning environments


iPads for Education

To iPad or not to iPad

John Bowman is the Author of Montessori At Home! (eBook), Help Your Preschooler Build a Better Brain (paperback & Kindle Store, Amazon), Teach Your 3-7 Year Old Math (Kindle Store, Amazon), and Teach Your Preschooler To Read Using the iPad (iBooks Store)

© May 2014, John Bowman


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *