Our Culture Shelves

I haven’t done any “themed” shelves in a while, but today happens to be Singapore’s National Day, while we are here in London. This is also possibly my last set of shelves before I return to Singapore – so I thought it significant to end with a cross-cultural celebration. Your shelves will not look like mine, nor should they, for our shelves must reflect the cultures they are drawn from.

If you think about it, even the concept of a tray is cultural. I seldom saw trays used in Singapore (apart from fast food and hawker centres), but here in London trays, both singular and tiered, are used in serving English afternoon tea. The plain wooden trays we see in Montessori environments support a child’s sense of order by keeping everything he needs for one task in one place, making it easier for him to carry. But perhaps, just perhaps, we might see shallow fabric baskets used in one country, or bento boxes (below), as long as it fulfils the function of a tray.


(The wonderful books about children in different parts of the world are recommendations from Our Montessori Life here and here.)

As with all other forms of first-plane learning, culture must be experienced concretely rather than abstractly. Rather than filling the child with facts from every single country, we use human connections to introduce the children to the cultures of their Japanese classmates, their French-speaking teacher, our English neighbours. The respect and affection for fellow human beings from another culture sets the foundation for peace education. Here are some trays inspired by our travels.

1. Flower/ fruit tea smelling tray

Blutorange (blood orange) from Germany, blue pea (traditional Peranakan), and osmanthus (Chinese) from Singapore.

The trays on today’s shelves were meant to evoke all the senses. (In the pink vase behind, edible bay leaves freshly plucked from a city farm.) This one encourages smelling to differentiate the teas (give an eye mask to heighten their olfactory sense if the child is comfortable)…

And the natural extension is to add a coaster and taste the teas!

2. London Spotter Cards

Pulled out several of these to spark conversation about the landmarks we had visited in the past year.


3. Writable globe

I didn’t want to replicate the cultural materials in the children’s AMI-accredited classrooms, like the sandpaper globes, so I went with this plain globe and two markers. Yellow to represent Asia and red to represent Europe, which corresponds to the Montessori color coding for the continents. The children can color the two respective continents plus doing so on a curved surface will add a layer of difficulty.


4. Singapore and Europe bento boxes.

A mini version of the Montessori continent boxes. Here we have curios collected during our travels or sent to us from Singapore, stored in two bento boxes which stack neatly atop one another. 

The Singapore box on the left has a Milo van, a feathered capteh (traditional Malay game), a handwritten postcard featuring Gardens by the Bay and some postage stamps with scenes of local transport, wildlife and people.

The Europe box on the right has an Eiffel Tower and macaron keychain, a Christmas tram ticket and wood and lace ornaments from Munich, and a red London bus and Tower Bridge with raised drawbridges.

5. Water scroll

A water scroll with a Chinese calligraphy brush. This isn’t actually commonly used for calligraphy writing practice in Singapore, but if you know where this is prevalent do comment away! The plate was a gift from a Japanese friend. The namecard that came with it says it supplies the Japanese Imperial Household 😱

Dylan works on writing Chinese characters with water that when applied to the scroll looks like traditional black ink. The water scroll remind me of why the chalkboard is used for writing: the “ink” dries up and slowly vanishes so one is free to write without the pressure of the marks (and mistakes) being made permanent.

6. Our Singapore flags. 

We have one simple lesson: the flag must never touch the floor.

Also, that gorgeous navy blue fabric is a batik scrap from the iconic kebaya worn by aSingapore Airlines flight attendant (a friend’s friend). That of course will lend itself quite nicely to some folding exercises when we begin packing.

I mentioned that we must engage all the senses; some invisible works that you cannot see on this shelf involve hearing (playing and singing world music), and taste (today we will cook laksa, a complex spicy soup loved by Singaporeans, and we make it a point to offer the children many types of cuisine. Shall we just say the Belgian hot chocolate went down very well…)

Ending with a fantastic Montessori quote displayed in the lecture room at Maria Montessori Institute, London: “The child is both a promise and a hope for mankind”.

Our Singapore unit here, our Japan unit here and our ideas for an Asia continent box here.

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2 thoughts on “Our Culture Shelves

    1. And thank you so much for stopping by to reply, Beth! Congrats also on the feature on The Montessori Notebook, your comments about your tipi were very thoughtful 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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