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Cards and Counters

Montessori Activities

If we were hard pressed to describe the Montessori approach to education, in a practical, systematic way, we would start by trying to highlight the methodical, progressive nature of the activities, showcasing just how they build upon one another, slowly moving from the concrete to the abstract.

The Montessori materials are intricately, harmonious connected, with precision, thoughtfulness, and an overarching aim. As Montessori writes, in My System of Education, “it is not a simple theory, but has been experimented with and put into practice. Its results constitute a scientific proof of its value”.

This ingenuity is never more apparent, than in the famous Montessori cards and counters activity, in which we literally observe children increasing their mathematical understanding, piece by piece, as they link physical red counters, to their corresponding numerical representations.


As Montessori reminds us, however, her method is about much more than just the ‘attainment of knowledge’. It is equally inspired to contribute to what may be the single defining characteristic of Montessori itself, the “formation of character”.

From one perspective, the cards and counters afford children the opportunity to verify their understanding of the concept, by matching the qualitative, or the concrete, with the quantitative, or the abstract, before slowly removing the concrete all together.

While on the face of it a pretty straightforward exercise in numeracy, it’s also, a methodically crafted activity in persistence. Exactitude becomes important, but in many respects, it always remains second hand to staying on task.


By staying on task, of course, we don’t mean merely ‘mindlessly keeping yourself busy’. We mean something much more spirited. Something along the lines of having the confidence to just keep going, which is an integral and necessary part of the learning process.

“Latter rung by latter rung we climb, until we eventually realize that the ladder is no longer there.”

We often like to visualize this action in terms of scaffolding. Montessori creates a temporary structure, with the necessary support, safety, and comfort level, to pursue the ultimate goal. She is slowly building up our confidence and knowledge, so we can reach for new heights.

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The Activity

Keeping in mind the dual nature of the activities, to strive towards the procurement of knowledge and simultaneously create favorable conditions that will help with the personal development of the child, we would like to introduce some of the basic concepts of Cards and Counters.


The Material

  • A series of cards with the Numerals 1-10
  • A box with 55 red counters


The Purpose

  • To reinforce that each number is made up of separate quantities
  • To verify the sequence of numbers 1-10
  • To indicate the odd and even numbers
  • To prepare for the divisibility of numbers


As with all of Montessori, and this is another example of her brilliance, there’s a natural “control of error” implemented into the activity. What this means is that the child, without the supervision or correction of an adult, can explore the world of numbers in a tangible way, and also completely independently.

“With time, persistence and confidence, exactitude will discover itself.”

If a mistake does occur, with too few or too many counters left at the end, the child can then turn towards themselves to correct the mistake. Imagine the sense of confidence, and assertiveness, and aspirations towards figuring out the world, that this method enables. Montessori describes the process rather silver-tongued:

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“The desire of the child to attain an end which he knows, leads him to correct himself. It is not a teacher who makes him notice his mistake and shows him how to correct it, but it is a complex work of the child’s own intelligence which leads to such a result.”

There are so many lessons that we still have to learn from Montessori, things that she is teaching us on almost a daily basis. We continue to be impressed by the constant, persistent ability for her to demonstrate the nature and evolution of child development. Hopefully, as a society, we can continue to be receptive to her insights.

Many years ago, and in an effort to try to showcase some of this ‘gritty greatness’, we shot a little film to try to elucidate the cards and counters activity. While rough and unedited, we thought some of you might like to see the footage.

Written by:

Angela Leinen

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