Montessori Zero Lesson

Contributed by Tula, with huge thanks for all her time and effort.

Whilst a young child is exploring the concepts of number and their value, they will inevitably encounter the ‘zero’ and question what it is exactly. “What is ‘zero’?” they may ask. “Nothing,” you reply, “Nothing is zero!”
How does the Montessori Method approach this curious mathematical moment? By playing ‘The Zero Game’. (See ‘Discovery of the Child‘ Maria Montessori p.269-270)

The Zero Game

The adult asks a child to come towards her ‘zero’ times. The child unsure of his task will inevitably go to her and be puzzled.
“But I asked you to come ‘zero’ times…Zero is nothing… you must stay quite still and do nothing!” she states.
“How can I come to you ‘zero’ times?” asks the still puzzled child.
“You must not move. You must not come even once. ‘Zero’ means no times at all!”

When the child begins to understand, the adult asks him to blow ‘zero kisses’. This time the child may sit still. With humour in her voice the adult asks again, imploring the child to blow ‘zero kisses’. Still the child blows nothing.

Now the adult may play teasing games with the child; “Why are you sitting still? I asked for zero kisses!” The child laughs at the joke played upon the foolish adult: “I did! I did! Zero means nothing. I sent you no kisses!”
“Thank you”, the adult replies and smiles. “Ah, I see, zero is nothing at all!”

In my experience as a Montessori Directress, I feel it is important not to make the child feel silly or dumb. I believe it was Montessori’s intention to make herself look the fool to the child in trying to ask the child to do something irrational whilst at the same time make him come to his own realisations about the ‘nothingness’ of zero.

The Spindle Box

This concept was first developed alongside the Montessori Spindle Box, a wooden box with ten compartments. This may be a complete unit with numbers from 0-9 written on the back of the box, or divided into two separate boxes, 0-4 and 5-9. The divided box makes the presentation simpler as only the numbers 0-4 need be introduced initially. There are 45 wooden spindles with a separate basket or box to keep them in.

Note: Montessori suggested using all sorts of objects to count with at this stage, “sticks, tiny cubes, counters”. Acorns, small fir cones, pencils etc are also ideal for this purpose.

For an explanation of how to use the Spindle Box, please look at:
Shu-Chen Jenny

Montessori herself advocated not directly teaching zero in the Spindle Box. She wrote: “We wait for the child to ask, pointing at the compartment for zero: “And what should I put in there?” We then answer: “Nothing, a 0 is a nothing” (‘Discovery of the Child’ p.268)

In this way the child learns to feel the zero, this ‘nothingness’, by playing a game with the adult. It helps if other number games are familiar to the child, especially those that count back towards zero.

Suggestions for number games to explore ‘zero’

Five little speckled frogs
Sat on a speckled log
Eating some most delicious bugs (Yum! Yum!)
One fell into the pool
Where it was nice & cool
Now there are four green speckled frogs. (Glub! Glub!)
Etc., etc……

Ten fat sausages, sizzling in a pan…
One went “Pop!” and another went “Bang!”
Eight fat sausages, sizzling in a pan…..
One went “Pop!” and another went “Bang!”
Six fat sausages, sizzling in a pan…..
One went “Pop!” and another went “Bang!”
Etc., etc……..

Ten green bottles, hanging on a wall (x2)
And if one green bottle should accidentally fall……
There would be nine green bottles hanging on a wall.
Etc. etc…….

Five little ducks went out one day
Over the hills and far away.
Mother duck said “Quack, quack, quack, quack!”
But only four little ducks came back.
Etc., etc……

Ten in the bed and the little one said:
“Roll over! Roll over!”
So they all rolled over and one fell out…
There were nine in the bed and the little one said:
“Roll over! Roll over!”……
Etc., etc…….

Five currant buns in a Bakers shop
Big and round with a cherry on the top.
Along came (Alfie) with a penny one day….
He bought a currant bun and took it right away.
Four currant buns in a Bakers shop…….
Etc., etc…..