I am often asked whether, in my opinion, does one need to buy a set of albums if you plan on implementing Montessori at home? (edited to add) Presuming you have thoroughly studied Montessori philosophy my thoughts are as follows:
Short answer: No.
Medium answer: If you are using Montessori materials at home (not required) in my opinion all you truly need (for albums, not for complete study of Montessori philosophy) is David Gettman's book "Basic Montessori" and a supplement of your choice for the non-geography subjects that fall under the heading of "culture." You potentially may wish to also own Elizabeth Hainstock's "Montessori at Home: The School Years" to cover late language and math presentations. I also recommend reading Meg's albums available for free through the Yahoo Group "Montessori by Hand" for the practical advice provided in the "notes" sections of some of the presentations.
The Long Answer:
I have been experimenting with Montessori at home for at least three years now. I own most of the books available, a set of albums, and have used many of the free online albums over the course of that time. Now I have a child back at the beginning of the sequence and feel that I have a very strong sense of what works for us and what I would keep if I had to choose a few things and get rid of the rest.
An argument could be made for using all of these resources because if your child is having trouble grasping a topic there could be something in one of them that could provide the key. In reality I think that this would be much too overwhelming. It would be a fool's mission to try to do every activity and extension in just one album. Every album seems to have its own "extras." If you are actively using several there will be an exponential increase in the amount of extras and I feel the temptation would be great to try to do them "all." Also, there are many different "styles" of Montessori so different albums are not necessarily compatible.
To be clear, I recommend the Gettman book and consider this book to be somewhat equivalent to a traditional set of albums. A traditionally trained Montessori instructor would probably disagree and they would have valid points. However, I would argue that differences between a traditional set of albums and the Gettman parallel the differences between a traditional Montessori classroom and implementing Montessori at home and that what is missing isn't necessarily needed in my situation. It is also brought up very often that there is no comparison between buying a set of albums and creating your own as you go through training. Well, of course. However, most students creating their own albums are not simultaneously implementing those albums in an actual working classroom either which is what an at-home parent is doing. Most of us who have decided to do Montessori at home have children who need to start now. They don't have time to wait for us to build the curriculum from scratch first.
So, why the Gettman rather than a traditional set of albums? My traditional albums take up a good 24 inches of shelf space. Traditional albums can be (but don't have to be) very expensive. I find it difficult for me to actually use the online albums. I like to have something to actually hold in my hand, write on, and stick post-its to.
Some other reasons... When a newbie comes into possession of full set of albums the temptation is very great to start them all at the same time at the beginning and do every activity in order. This is simply not how they are designed to be used. Not all of the albums are meant to be started right away. Even a single album often represents several parallel paths for the child to follow. An activity on page 20 may be intended to be worked on parallel to an activity on page 86. For this reason I find that traditional albums are unusable for me without cross-referencing the "overview of the sequence" from the Gettman book. The overview of the sequence on pages 22-27 explains how to align the presentations across subjects. These pages are a must-have for any self-training Montesssori Mom. And, if you own the Gettman for the overview of the sequence then you don't also need the albums.
The Gettman book covers all five subjects (language, math, sensorial, practical life, and culture) but can be held in one hand. The descriptions of the presentations aren't any different than those I've seen in the many traditional albums I have used. However, unlike most traditional albums he details how to make the materials yourself if he feels it is possible to do so. There are also several nice chapters at the beginning of the book regarding Montessori philosophy and the realities of doing this at home.
Another reason I like to use the Gettman as my "go-to" album is that I feel like it sticks to the basics. I feel like the type and number of activities and extensions available are comparable to what might have been on the shelf in a Montessori classroom 50 years ago. It is in the nature of any teacher to add-to and adapt. Nearly all of the traditional albums I have seen have the "extras" of multiple teachers included as pages in the album. That is my understanding of how they are meant to be used. The albums are created by the teacher to be used by the teacher and is a living and changing representation of the activities used from year to year in their classroom. However, it is too much for me at home. I will be going through the sequence two times in a classroom of two. A traditional Montessori teacher will go through the sequence hundereds of times with up to 30 kids in that classroom year after year. I think that a trained Montessorian is probably well aware of which presentations are "core" and which are "extras" but that a self-trained parent at home will not be. As we use an album we must understand that things have been added and that when we add to it we are adding to an already added-to curriculum. I think this is where a lot of us start to burn out. I feel more comfortable working with just the Gettman knowing that if I did just what was in that book my kids would be getting a pretty great education. This way I have the energy to add to the sequence when I want to and it is fun, not a chore. This is a good time to point out that if you have purchased materials and are using just what is in the Gettman (which does not use the pink,blue, green series for language) you will not be making a whole lot of stuff. I feel like most of what I do is observing and gathering. Now, the "culture" subject is another can of worms I will open momentarily.
Okay, so clearly I am quite the cheerleader for Gettman and only Gettman. I should find a way to get a kick-back. That said, I really enjoy reading Meg's albums available for free on the Yahoo group Montessori by Hand. Many of her presentations have "notes" at the end that talk about all kinds of practical things I haven't seen anywhere else. In the tradition of a "living document" these seem to be her instructor's and her own thoughts on little things like whether to allow them to knock down the pink tower, the easiest kind of tie to provide with the spindle boxes, etc., I didn't print them, I just read them through several times and keep a digital copy on my computer to refer back to occasionally.
So, why NOT the Gettman? It is not perfect book by any means. One potential problem is that he divides the sequence into seven "periods" and the book only consistently details the presentations up through period five. There are several reasons I feel this is not a problem. First, the book is subtitled "learning activities for under-fives." I assume he means "five and under." While the primary sequence is ages 3-6 the young-elementary sequence is 6-9. If you are planning to continue Montessori into the young-elementary sequence these periods overlap with the beginning of 6-9 albums which you can find for free or may choose to purchase at that time. Or, alternatively I feel that most of these topics are well-covered in Elizabeth Hainstock's book "Montessori at Home: The School Years." The ones that aren't can be picked up from a free online album or are something that don't really need one such as "presenting early Sensorial Activities to younger children" or "serving snacks and meals." I think that the overview of the sequence in the Gettman book is something that someone working with lower elementary students will find useful as well because most lower elementary students will be starting somewhere in periods 5-7.
The other problem is that while the book covers geography quite well it doesn't give presentations for other "culture" topics (physical science, zoology, etc.,). I personally think this is not only because the book would no longer fit in your hand, but also because the activities available in a traditional Montessori classroom are not necessarily a good idea for Montessori at home. So, once again I don't think this is a reason to not use the Gettman but rather an opportunity to approach this subject in a personal way that works for your family. I think one needs to supplement the book in this area but not necessarily with albums.
I am not convinced that families implementing Montessori at home should be approaching the area of "culture" the same way that it is done in a traditional Montessori classroom. I think it involves making way too many materials that are destined to be used anywhere from "not at all" to "for just a few minutes." I think the subject can be approached in a "Montessori way" without the materials that you might see on the blog of a full classroom. Many at-home Montessorians are eclectic by nature and this is a good time to incorporate your "Charlotte Mason" or "Unschooling" elements.
I think that what people crave in this area is some kind of scope and sequence of what they are going to cover. Albums are certainly one way to do this. I love the albums that I purchased through Karen Tyler at Worldwide Montessori. I want to tell you why and discuss the course and my other options further, but this post is plenty long. I will try to do that sometime next week. I will say that the Karen Tyler albums are high-quality, include a lot of the printables that you might otherwise purchase, and are priced appropriately for a Montessori homeschool. It was the most economical way I found to obtain a Montessori "culture" curriculum for our home. However, I find that it is not practical to do every activity in the album for every topic. For example, I find that my boys are not interested lots of printed images. I would find myself spending an afternoon printing, cutting, laminating, and cutting many little pictures of "liquids" "solids" and "gases" for the matter studies and the boys turned up their noses at them. If I was lucky, maybe they would look at them for 60 seconds. Then, they understood it and they were done. The work might be justified if I had 10 new students to use them every year for 10 years but I don't. The boys were VERY interested all the examples of actual liquids I gathered up from around the house and put on a tray. That tray only took me a couple of minutes to put together.
So, my strategy is to use the Karen Tyler albums as an outline and idea book for physical ways to work with materials. For each topic I can usually achieve maximum understanding with minimum effort by finding a good library book and gathering up materials from around the house or taking a little field trip.
I also don't think that you need a "Montessori" curriculum to teach culture in a Montessori way. This same thing could be achieved with any of the good science books for kids that are available. We have a little stash of books full of science experiments for kids. You could use a kid's science encyclopedia as an outline and a jumping off point. There are a lot of inexpensive ways to do this.
I will (finally) end with a disclaimer. This entire discussion applies to the 3-6 sequnce. My oldest is only just barely five. I have no practical experience with doing this at older ages, only ideas. Also, I am afraid that Moms and Dads with 18 month-olds and are just getting interested in Montessori are going to run out and buy the Gettman and start the activities. The activities in the Gettman are intended for ages 3-5. This type of Montessori environment suits an entire range of children from challenged to gifted. The feeling that your child may be gifted is not a reason to try to get your 24-month old to do spindle boxes. I see people try to start the sequence that early and wind up doing all the activities "with" their child. That is not technically "Montessori." Remember, you can do Montessori with no materials. Likewise, you can have all the materials and still not be providing a Montessori education. While I feel Montessori can fit any child, I don't believe it fits every parent. I wrote a post back in the day about starting out which can point you to a more appropriate place to start.
I probably should have edited this post about five more times, but I may never post it at that rate. My apologies if it is as clear as mud.
Edited to add: After reading the comment from the Education of Ours...I am answering the question of whether someone who has thoroughly studied Montessori philosophy needs to buy Montessori albums or not. While I think that the Gettman is all you need REGARDING ALBUMS I am not implying it is all you need PERIOD. It is important to read everything else you can about Montessori philosophy. Long-time readers probably understand how I feel about this, but newer readers may not. I talk quite a bit about what I've read throughout the blog, especially in earlier posts. I make a partial list in the Things I don't Know and My Search for the Answers post. Again, I wrote a post a long time ago titled "So...You've Decided to Become a Montessori Mom" and I would assume you've already done the steps outlined there before you would be making decisions about albums.