Let's Make: DIY Montessori Sandpaper Numbers

After picking up my daughter from school one morning, she said, "Mommy, I did the sandpaper numbers today! Can you buy me those?" E had been finding it challenging to adjust to the Montessori method, so this seemed like a milestone. Finally, she'd enjoyed the work! Still, I hesitated to answer. If you're familiar with Montessori didactic materials, you can probably guess why: a set of sandpaper numbers costs upwards of Php1000 locally! It would be a great investment for a school, or even a mom who does Montessori homeschooling or has raised her kids in the Montessori way (and if you are looking for a beautiful, high-quality, Montessori-teacher-approved set, do check out the online store of the wonderfully inspiring Mars Medina of Montessori on Mars). But for a mom with limited resources and patience whose daughter is not strictly Montessori-raised with the tendency to get creative with her usage of materials, the thought of spending over a thousand pesos on a set that might end up painted on, glued together to make a dinosaur house, or used as a raft in a water bin made me feel a bit queasy. I needed a budget-friendly mom hack.

So I decided I'd make a set myself.

Some of my favorite Montessori materials are the sandpaper letters and numbers that help kids learn the letter and number forms to prepare them for writing. Watching a Montessori demonstration a few weekends ago really impressed on me how kids learn best using their senses—not just the eyes (seeing the numbers and letters on paper) but their fingers (touching and experiencing the strokes that make up the letter and number forms). It makes perfect sense (no pun intended)—after all, their fingers and hands will be doing the writing work eventually.

With that in mind, I was really excited to experiment with this method. If it worked, I could eventually make sandpaper sets for the uppercase and lowercase letters, in print and cursive. Four different sets of 26 letters each; my hands hurt just thinking about it, but my wallet pats me on the back and says, "You can do it." And, if I can do it, you can, too! Let's get started!

What You Need

  • Vinyl tiles in your chosen color
  • Adhesive (contact cement, all-purpose adhesive, or wood glue)
  • Sandpaper (fine grain, 200 or higher)
  • Matte sticker paper
  • Metal ruler or straight edge
  • Foam brush or paint brush
  • Cutter
  • Scissors
  • Cutting mat
  • Printable file of numbers 0-9 (letter/A4)

A few notes before starting:

Choosing tiles

This DIY was inspired by the faux wooden table top I'd made recently for E's Reggio/Montessori-inspired play/work space. I'd seen other great tutorials on Pinterest that used laminated cardstock (too flimsy for E), wooden boards (hard to find pre-cut locally), and foam board (not weatherproof). However, I didn't want to have to keep interrupting her work to remind her to use the materials gently and with care; they needed to be E-proof.

Vinyl floor planks and tiles are my new favorite DIY material for many reasons:
  1. They're readily available at any hardware store. 
  2. They can be inexpensive, depending on the brand.
  3. They are easy to work with, to cut, and to adhere to.
  4. They come in a wide variety of colors and finishes. 
This last point was especially important for this project. I'd considered doing the set in a faux-wood finish, of which there were many, but then I decided to go with the Montessori color-coding—red for vowels, blue for consonants, green for numbers—to help E and our house help organize the sets in the future. The colored vinyl tiles were also the cheapest—yay!

(Note: Being the cheapest, they also get scratched up the easiest, so if that's a concern for you, go for the wood-finish planks.)

The tiles I chose were 12-inch squares, so each tile would give me 4 cards measuring around 5' x 6'. For the number set, I bought 3 tiles at Php19.75 each. If you choose to use a vinyl plank (36' x 6'), you could get 7 cards per plank.

Since I used the square tiles, the instructions below are specific to those, but the method can easily be adapted to any plank or tile size you use.

Printing the number template

Although there are many number templates available online, I decided to make my own to make sure the size of the numbers was right for the tile cards I would be using. It's interesting the things you don't notice until you have to notice them, like the different ways one can write 4 and 1. Should 1 have a serif or be a straight line? I chose the serifed 1 to help E differentiate it from the lowercase l and the uppercase I. Should the 4 be closed or open on top? I went with the open top so E would get used to starting her strokes from the top instead of from the bottom, as would be her tendency with a closed 4. (These considerations are my own personal preference and not based on Montessori teaching.) 

Download and print out the number file (letter/A4) on matte sticker paper. Using sticker paper is my preferred method for cutting out shapes rather than creating a stencil or using tracing paper. You'll notice that the numbers are flipped in the template so that the sandpaper side comes out facing the right way (see photo below).

What to Do

Preparing the number shapes

1) Stick the number templates onto the back side of the sandpaper (the smooth side). The template prints out on A4 sized paper, which is longer than the sandpaper, so be sure that all the numbers are on the sandpaper. 

2) Using the template as a guide, cut out the number forms from the sandpaper. This is the most time-consuming step and, depending on how meticulous or OC you are, can take a pretty long time. I used a pair of scissors and cut as smoothly as I could. A rotary cutter might be helpful for curves and numbers with internal spaces, like 6 and 8. After cutting out all the shapes, peel off the sticker paper template from the sandpaper if you can. You don't need it anymore.

Preparing the vinyl cards

3) Take one tile square and mark off 10". Using the metal ruler as a guide, cut off the excess edge using the cutter. Score lightly first, then press down harder the second time. Vinyl tile or planks snap cleanly and easily!

4) From the shorter edge, measure 6 inches (or 15 cm—the tile wasn't exactly 12' as marked) to get the center mark. Score, cut, and snap the tile in two. You'll now have 4 vinyl pieces. Repeat step 3 and 4 for the rest of the tiles until you have 10 cards.

Assembling the sandpaper numbers  

5) Wipe down the vinyl tiles so they're clean (DIY tip: you should do this for any surface you are planning to use adhesive on—being dust-free helps things stick better). Position the sandpaper number where you want it. You can be as exact as you want about centering it. Me, I eyeballed the horizontal centering but measured and marked off .75 inches from the bottom edge for some semblance of uniformity.

6) Apply adhesive to the back of the sandpaper. Using a paintbrush or foam brush, make sure to spread the glue till the edges. Don't worry about getting glue on the sandpaper side; most adhesives dry clear.

7) Place the number on the vinyl card where you marked it. Pat lightly to stick it into place. Place under a heavy object (I used a book) to flatten it and help it bond. Allow to dry weighed down for about 30 minutes to an hour (check the directions on the adhesive).

8) Repeat steps 6 and 7 for all the numbers.

There you have it! All in, I spent Php148 (phew, good thing, because I only had Php150 in my wallet when I checked. No mysterious credit card expenses to explain to the husband, haha). I'm so happy with how they turned out. Next project: a set of lowercase sandpaper letters. But, first, some finger stretches (ouch, cramp!).

How do you use sandpaper numbers? Will you be making your own? I'd love to hear about it!