Adventures with Montessori and Autism: The Pink Tower, Brown Stair, and Red Rods

The Pink Tower

The pink tower is classic Montessori. It looks easy…just arrange the solid wooden blocks from big to small and make a tower. The goals are to improve fine motor control, develop visual discrimination and scanning of volumes, and gain an understanding of big versus small. There are many tall tower cardboard nesting block sets in stores and we had a set of those when Beth was younger. The problem was that Beth would only nest them and she absolutely refused to build a tower. This is one example of Beth’s “motor planning holes.” Maybe Beth’s rigidity caused her eventual motor planning limitations, or an underlying motor limitation plus the rigidity led to a further motor development issue. Even today I am not clear on what happened. But the good news (from a new motor planning perspective) is that the pink tower blocks are solid, and Beth’s only choice it to build a tower with them instead of nesting them.

The traditional approach for building a pink tower is described in the book I am using (1) and shown in this video:

The first step in the process is understanding the tower through taking it apart. Then the blocks are supposed to be placed in random fashion on the mat, so the child can use visual scanning to find the biggest, next biggest, and so on. To not randomize the blocks misses a key developmental step. But Beth insisted that she must order the blocks in a line when she placed them on the table, and telling her to “mix them up” or “just put them anywhere” didn’t help her randomize the placement. This is not Beth being stubborn…it is her inherent autistic tendency. Many kids on the spectrum are driven to line things up and order by size. One approach I used was to mix the blocks up after the fact, as shown in this video (this is an exceptionally “perfect” effort by Beth, she makes the occasional error):

After Beth had taken apart the tower many times and understood it, I used a basket storage approach that allowed Beth total independence. I put a mat on top of the blocks in the basket…this was a prompt to place the mat first before beginning the work. The mat size, slightly larger than the largest square, gave Beth a visual cue to help remind her she was to build a tower instead of line up the blocks. Beth still tended to order the blocks when she put them back in the basket, but I just randomized them at the end of the morning work so they were ready for the next session. Here is a picture of the basket/mat and a video of Beth working using the basket system independently:

Pink Tower in Basket

Pink Tower Blocks in Basket

The Brown Stair

The brown stair is used to make a horizontal step pattern, and later used to teach the concept of thick versus thin. I used the same basket approach with the brown stair as I did with the pink tower. Since Beth is driven to line things up, building the brown stair was very natural and easy for her. Here is a picture of the stair blocks in the basket and a video of Beth building the brown stair:

Brown Stair in Basket

Brown Stair Blocks in Basket

The Red Rods

The red rods are used to teach long versus short, and later alternating red/blue pattern rods that are the same sizes as the red rods are used for introductory counting. The red rods are too big to be placed in a basket, so I bought a stand on eBay which worked well. Surprisingly she tends to put them back randomly into the stand. Beth was good at finding the “next longest” or “next tallest” rod, and only makes the occasional error, but placing the first rod on the mat in the right position (upper left corner) proved to be very difficult. For now I am placing the first rod for her and reinforcing the lining up on the left side, which is also hard for her. Any time Beth has to work to create a boundary in empty space it is a challenge due to working memory problems, focusing on a part instead of a whole, and general motor planning issues. Here is a video of her completing the red rod pattern and a picture of the finished red rod pattern:

Red Rods

Red Rods


When to Move On…

Deciding when to move on is tougher for me than figuring out accommodations. The goal with these Montessori activities is to teach the concepts while refining motor control. But Beth’s movement is much different from a child without special needs, so getting every detail right (doing everything quietly, perfectly flowing movements) is not my biggest concern. I think I need to strike a right balance…expose her to motor plans she may have missed, allow the occasional mistake, and accept imperfection so we can move onto the language lessons she desperately needs to understand the world and communicate better with others. I am calling the pink tower, brown stair, and red rod building good enough to start the language lessons, and we are working on big/little and large/small with the pink tower, thick/thin with the brown stair, long/short and tall/short with the red rods. It is unfortunate that “large” and “little” begin with the same letter and are total opposites, because this tends to confuse Beth as she relies heavily on initial sounds to figure out words. It is the same with long and little…both start with l and are the opposite ideas (which one is the longest? Not the littlest, the longest). It will take us awhile to sort through this language issue, but the pink tower, brown stair, and red rods are exceptional teaching materials for these concepts.


(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



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