What Are Nesting Boxes in Montessori?

Anyone who’s ever been around a young child for more than a few minutes has likely seen them using whatever is in their vicinity to build or stack. Whether it’s pots and pans or cardboard boxes, kids seem to be fascinated with fitting objects inside other objects. This type of play can be referred to as nesting play.

There are Montessori toys designed to help children engage in nesting play. These toys are called nesting toys or nesting boxes. Nesting boxes are Montessori toys made out of boxes of different sizes that fit together. These toys can be used in Montessori to explain abstract concepts and build a variety of developmental skills.

What makes nesting boxes such an important toy in any Montessori household? Read on to find out!

Montessori Wooden nesting and stacking boxes
Montessori Wooden Nesting and Stacking Boxes from QToysAustralia on Etsy

Montessori Nesting Boxes and Cosmic Education

Though nesting boxes might seem like a simple children’s game, they actually directly connect to one of the most powerful concepts behind the Montessori method: Cosmic Education.

So, what is Cosmic Education and how on earth does it connect to a bunch of wooden boxes?

Cosmic Education is one of the foundational beliefs of the Montessori method. In Cosmic Education, everything within our world – from a single ant to an entire solar system – is understood as part of a greater universal whole.

Within the Montessori method, children learning new concepts are first presented with the whole and are then encouraged to examine the parts that make up this whole, which they will inevitably link back to the whole in an exploration of interconnectedness and interdependence. In this way, children will come to understand themselves as an important part of a greater vision and will develop a deeper, more intentional interest in this vision and its component parts.

Sounds complicated? Let’s look at this concept through a different lens. How about we use…cosmic nesting boxes!

Montessori Wooden Nesting Box Set
Montessori Wooden Nesting Box Set from GreenElephantHome on Etsy

So, let’s say you have a big wooden box, maybe something that looks like this or the picture above. This box represents the Milky Way Galaxy. We can think of this box as our “whole” because we won’t be adding anything onto this box or exploring anything outside of it. Instead, we’re exploring what it contains.

We look inside the box and guess what? There’s another box fitted neatly inside. This smaller box represents our solar system and, when we take it out of the Milky Way Galaxy Box, we can see how it’s both a part of the Milky Way, while also having capacity to contain its own parts.

And so we can continue – pulling the Earth out of the solar system, then North America out of the Earth, then the United States of America, and so on and so forth until you get to, well…you! You can even go further, pulling out smaller and smaller boxes representing parts of your body, your cells, your atoms!

When we look at these boxes (which you can buy or make yourself), we can see how every part of our known universe is contained within that universe, how nothing is separate, how everything is connected! This is a powerful lesson that provides a fundamental understanding of more complex ideas like systems, empathy, natural processes, community, interdependence, cause and effect, and many more. And this is exactly what children can learn when they play with cosmic nesting boxes.

Montessori Wooden Nesting and Stacking Boxes
Montessori Wooden Nesting and Stacking Boxes from Amazon

This is also a great example of why Maria Montessori refers to Montessori play as “work.” While a child playing with cosmic nesting boxes may look like nothing more than a little kid stacking wooden boxes on top of each other, what’s really going on is so, so much deeper than that. The lessons children learn through play are the lessons that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Cosmic nesting boxes are one very important type of nesting toy in Montessori, but they are not the only type. Let’s explore what else is out there!

Other Nesting Toys in Montesori

While cosmic nesting boxes address a specific type of learning, there are plenty of other nesting toys that can be perfect for your child’s Montessori toy shelf!

To start, there are lots of different types of nesting boxes for children. There are wooden nesting boxes, cardboard nesting boxes, colorful nesting boxes; nesting boxes with animals, numbers, letters, jobs, buildings on them! Any nesting box you can imagine probably exists out there somewhere.

Cardboard Nesting Boxes for Coloring
Cardboard Nesting Boxes for Coloring from Etsy

And even if you can’t find the exact type of nesting box you’re looking for, they couldn’t be easier to make. There are quite a few tutorials online, but the process is simple enough that a tutorial might not even be necessary. All you need are several boxes of different sizes that fit neatly together. You could use cardboard boxes, make them out of wood, or even create origami nesting boxes. This is an activity you could even do with your child or a challenge you could set for them to try and figure out themselves.

Beyond nesting boxes, there are countless other nesting toys that can be used in Montessori households. There’s the Matroyshka doll, also known as Russian nesting dolls or stacking dolls. These wooden dolls can be pulled apart to reveal a series of smaller dolls stacked inside until the final tiny wooden figure is uncovered. While the classic dolls are already great for Montessori, you can also find Montessori-specific blank nesting dolls and dolls that depict things like animals or acorns.

Plain Wooden Nesting Dolls from Amazon

There are also the incredibly popular plastic or silicone stacking cups, which any of you with infants or toddlers are likely already aware of. While these would not be a preferred Montessori toy given the material they’re made of and their typical bright, distracting colors, they can still pass on some the same benefits as other nesting toys. There are also alternative, Montessori-friendly versions available for sale.

Montessori Round Wooden Nesting Boxes
Montessori Round Wooden Nesting Boxes from GreenElephantHome on Etsy

Benefits of Nesting Boxes

So, what are the benefits of nesting toys?

Nesting toys are wonderful tools for developing dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and fine motor skills, particularly for younger children. Larger toys can even promote gross motor skills, and stacking the boxes can help children learn about balance and force. To determine size in order to nest the boxes together, children need to engage their visual perception and spatial reasoning.

As children begin exploring language, nesting toys can help them develop their use of comparison terms like “bigger” and “smaller” and their understanding of size and shape. Counting, sequencing, and sorting skills will also likely come into play, as children ponder questions of how many? and what kind? As with many Montessori toys, nesting toys promote concentration, problem-solving, and perseverance. Since their typical function is so simple, they also promote creativity! Now that your child has nested the boxes together, what will they do next? Will they build with the boxes like blocks? Use the boxes to make a fort? Wear one as a hat? The possibilities are endless!

Animal Nesting dolls
Animal Nesting Dolls from Amazon

As is the case with the cosmic nesting boxes, nesting toys can also be a fantastic visual and tactile tool for describing complex ideas, particularly ideas about part-to-whole relationships. This can be applied to many different concepts – from the classification of living things to types of shapes to the structure of a home. In particular, using the same nesting toy to explain different concepts can be a great way to help children learn about natural patterns and abstract reasoning.

Which, of course, brings it all back to Cosmic Education, the cornerstone of the Montessori method.

“To have a vision of the cosmic plan, in which every form of life depends on directed movements which have effects beyond their conscious aim, is to understand the child’s work and be able to guide it better.”

The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori

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Stacy Jones

When I became a foster mother, I started researching different parenting and education ideas. Learning about the Montessori Method has been intriguing and fascinating, and I have enjoyed watching the little ones in my life learn and grow from incorporating Montessori elements into our family's lifestyle. Montessori For Today was started to provide answers to my own questions, which will hopefully become a great resource for others to learn about the Montessori Method, Montessori Schools, and how you can incorporate elements of Montessori into your own home and lifestyle.

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