Adventures with Montessori and Autism: Land and Water

When I got to the geography section and saw “land and water” I was pretty sure this lesson would be a hit. Beth loves water. I mean REALLY loves water. I would describe it both as an obsession and a useful interest. It is an obsession when we go to the park (all she wants to do is water play in streams to the exclusion of everything else and it dominates her entire attention) or anywhere we encounter fountains/ponds, etc..  But water is also an interest and a strength. Beth basically taught herself how to swim (a sort of breast stroke, see here… and she is more social with other kids during swimming and some types of water play.

An Overview of Traditional Montessori Land/Water Lessons (My Interpretation)

The book I am following (1) said to just introduce this sand globe in period one and have the child explore the globe independently. Also, high-level geography terminology is introduced in period 1, such as earth (“we live on earth”), land (“land is something that is dry we can stand on”) and water (“water is something fish swim in and boats float on, etc.”).

Sand Globe

Sand Globe


And according to the book in period two (1), something called land water trays come after the globe presentation, where the children pour water in trays and learn where the water settles in various land/water presentations.  Many people online also use land/water sand cards to connect the sand globe to a flat surface presentation (a bridge to flat maps).


Land/Water Trays

Land/Water Trays


Land/Water Sand Cards

Land/Water Sand Cards

Eventually the children go on to name the bodies of water and land formations they explored in the trays and sand cards so they can identify features on a globe (for example, they learn isthmus, straight, gulf, island, peninsula). Also, they eventually do tons of map work, starting from continents, then countries within continents, and finally a map of the states within the U.S. (there is more, but I will stop there for now).

Sample of Land/Water Language Cards (Head over the Montessori Print shop for traditional cards and extensions).

Sample of Land/Water Language Cards (Head over the for traditional cards and extensions)

With Beth’s love of water, her direct interest in and experience with certain every day bodies of water (for example, river, stream, ocean, pond, and lake), and because I felt she needed a more concrete approach to relating what she knows to the globe, I customized the lesson. So I am mixing period 1 and period 2 and modifying the land/water forms and terminology in a way that make sense for Beth.  Also, I changed the presentation order, and we explored DIY custom trays and land/water sand cards before exploring the globe (I even changed the globe to be more meaningful to Beth and to tie in better with the custom land/water cards). Why go through all this effort? Because this lesson directly relates to terminology I have been trying to teach Beth for a very long time. I want her to understand all these things she loves….ponds versus lakes versus oceans, rivers versus streams. The sensory approach and the Montessori approach are perfect for teaching her these concepts.

Our Version of Intro to Land/Water with Montessori

1. Sticking with what Beth knows and absolutely needs to know in the real world, what she needs to understand to bridge from direct experience to the globe, and thinking forward to flat map work, I settled on these target terms for land/water:

  • Continent
  • Island
  • Ocean
  • Lake
  • Pond
  • River
  • Stream

2. Custom Land/Water Trays: Many people have done the land/water trays in a DIY way to reduce cost so this was easy, because it is just clay + cheap aluminum or plastic trays + colored water. I used Crayola terra-cotta colored clay and it was messy, but she seemed to get that it was dirt/land. I combined trays to reduce the clay need. For example, we started by making a lake, poured the water off and added more clay, then made a pond. After we were finished, I poured the water off and stored the containers so we could re-use the clay. This was by far the best part of the lesson. Beth absolutely loved it!

Making a Lake

Making a Lake


From left to right: Ocean, Island, River

From left to right: Ocean, Island, River

Land/Water Sand Cards: There are many do it yourself options out there, such as gluing sand paper to blue paper. I had some blue paper and adhesive foam board and sand, so I opted for pressing the blue paper onto the sticky foam board for the water and then rubbing the remaining sticky foam board in sand for the land. It worked surprisingly well (sand did not come off much when Beth rubbed it), but I suggest buying a stickier brand of adhesive foam board (Try Just Stick It, because I was not happy with Elmers and there are lots of complaints online about it


On left pond/lake/ocean, middle river/stream, right island/continent

On left pond/lake/ocean, middle river/stream, right island/continent

Sand Globe: Beth has grandparents on Lake Michigan and she loves long car rides, where I point out every river we drive across. Unfortunately the sand globe (bought on ebay for a reasonable price) does not have the great lakes or a river in the Unites States, so I did my best to add those features with some blue paint:

Our Sand Globe

Our Sand Globe

Land/Water Language Cards (for later use, have not introduced yet): While I was at it I made the matching language cards. Basically printed out some blue background squares in Word, and got creative with sand-colored construction paper and contact paper:

Three Part Language Cards

Three Part Language Cards

Basically I just let Beth do the sand trays and stated the terminology while she was doing the exercise. I had the sand cards next to the trays and later she rubbed the sand cards. When she becomes independent with the trays and sand cards, I will move to the globe,the language cards, highlighting language in natural environments, and real pictures online to supplement.


(1) This will be a quick and poorly edited series because things are happening fast and I just want to write it all down. My daughter is almost 7 years old and we are starting the Montessori program from the beginning using this book, you tube videos, and common sense alterations. We homeschool and do other standard K activities. Montessori is an attempt to fill in developmental gaps and increase independence. See this fellow blogger’s post on the division of the work into periods as outlined in David Gettman’s book: We are starting with period 1 activities (taken from the book), with adjustments of course:

Period One

  1. Practical Activities – pouring beans between two jugs, opening and closing containers; buttoning; buckling; other simple dressing frames; carrying and laying out floor and table mats; saying please and thank you; carrying a tray; lifting, carrying, and putting down a chair, sitting down and getting up from a chair at a table; climbing up and down stairs; walking on the line; folding, hanging clothes on a hook;  brushing hair; dusting
  2. Sensorial – Cylinder blocks; pink tower; box 1 of the color tablets; presentation tray of the geometric cabinet; sensitizing the fingers; touch boards; presentation of Geometric solids; stereognostic bags presentation
  3. Language – Classified pictures exercises; speech stages – I Spy; book corner and library
  4. Math – none
  5. Culture – land and water presentation

Period Two

  1. Practical- pouring water from a jug, medium difficulty dressing frames, simple braiding, setting table, polishing surfaces, washing hands, washing cloths, scrubbing a table top, sweeping sawdust, brushing clothes, folding clothes, hanging clothes on a hanger, handling a book, scissors exchange, greeting people, kindness to visitors, being silent
  2. Sensorial- advanced cylinder blocks exercises, brown stair, red rods, boxes 2 and 3 of color tablets, geometric cabinet exercises 1-4, binomial cube, blindfold, tactile tablets, stereognostic bags exercises, sorting grains, sound boxes, preliminary presentation of bells, three stage lessons and the names of Sensorial qualities
  3. Language- classified picture exercises 3 and 4, stage 4 of I Spy, exercise 1 of single letter sandpaper letters, metal insets, frequent speech questioning
  4. Math- none
  5. Culture- Land and water exercises, first maps, places classified pictures, preliminary work for classification by leaf.

montessori book



2 thoughts on “Adventures with Montessori and Autism: Land and Water

  1. I love what your doing! The Gettman book is phenomenal! Montessori for Everyone has free printouts on landforms (or at least they use to). You can also take paper and have her do landform rubbings with the fabulous sandpaper landforms you made! When you’re doing the first and second period, you’re actually using a method in ABA called discrete trail teaching. The programs in DTT are expressive and receptive programs which are …”Touch” (essentially period 1), “give me” receptive (is period 2) and tact programs are, “What is this?” (Essentially period 3)!

    The similarities are astounding in how the methods are the same. The differences are that DTT programs don’t connect the child to meaningful curriculum where as you are. Keep up the great work!

    • grahamta says:

      Yes…I noticed that about DTT. Also I think most ABA programs launch into expressive language too soon and don’t give the child enough time to process receptively and explore with many senses. Touch a picture 85% of the time correctly then bam…drag the expressive language out of the kid. That part never worked well for us, so I hope this works better.

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