Montessori In-Depth

One hundred years ago in Italy, Dr. Maria Montessori uncovered fundamental truths about human development and discovered a successful way of educating young children.  She realized that children themselves were driven to be active participants in the learning process, not passive objects to be filled with knowledge.  She saw that children develop by having experiences in their environments and by weaving these experiences into the fabric of their beings.  Children, she believed were not vessels to be filled with adults’ knowledge or blank slates on which adults write their knowledge, but powerful individuals with infinite human potential.  Dr. Montessori incorporated her ideas and the work of other theorists into a comprehensive, universal method of education and a revolutionary vision of the child’s ability to change human society.  Montessori is not simply a system of education, it stands also as a theoretical approach to human development and a belief system about the path we must take to form a more peaceful world.

The four pedagogical walls in which the Montessori method is housed are The Absorbent Mind, The Sensitive Periods, the Human Tendencies, and the Four Planes of Development.  The Absorbent Mind is the quality of the young child’s mind from birth to age six years which allows him to take in impressions from his environments and to effortlessly learn from these impressions.  The Sensitive Periods are windows of opportunity for learning different skills that occur primarily through the first six years; these periods refer to times when children can most naturally acquire skills such as language, movement, and order.  The Human Tendencies are the activities that all humans are innately driven to engage in in order to express what it is to be human; some examples of human tendencies are the tendency to find order in the environment, the tendency to communicate with others, and the tendency to repeat tasks to achieve mastery.  Finally, the idea of The Four Planes of Development presumes that children learn and relate to the world in fundamentally different ways according to their different ages and stages of development.  The Four Planes are 0-6 years of age; 6-12 years of age; 12-18 years of age; and 18-24 years of age.

The teaching strategies that Montessori teachers, who are sometimes called Guides or Directresses, employ are different than those traditionally practiced by teachers in early childhood settings.  Montessori teachers observe children constantly using a formal and objective observational technique, and they document children’s experiences as they individually progress through the Montessori curriculum.  This way of observing children allows teachers to know what each child needs for his optimal development and what materials she should prepare in the environment to meet these needs.  In addition to observation, the adult’s role in the Montessori framework is to prepare the environment so that children can find everything they need to meet their needs.  Conventional lesson planning is not used, for this way of planning for children’s learning assumes that they will all be learning the same things on the same days in the same way. Montessori teachers do track and plan for the activities that individual children should be mastering in order to constantly challenge them to pursue excellence and progress along an established developmental spectrum.

Children have many opportunities each day to engage with the following types of activities in organized areas of the environment:  language and literacy; movement and sensorial development, dining and food preparation, practical life, mathematics; science and cultural; sleeping and toileting; and outdoors.  In the language area, children look at books, learn the names for objects and images, form words out of moveable letters, and eventually write and read on their own.  In the movement and sensorial areas, children refine the muscles of their fingers with a variety of manipulative materials, practice all the large body movements necessary to take their first steps, and engage in multi-sensory experiences meant to inform their senses and teach concepts like weight and volume.  In the dining area children prepare their own snacks, set the table, and enjoy meals in a family-style setting.  In the practical life area, children use materials designed to care for their environment and care for themselves; they may sweep the floor, brush their hair, or polish a piece of wood with specially adapted, child-sized items.  In the sleeping area, children sleep (as they are tired) on futons, and after nap, they are free to move off of their futons at will.  Learning to use the toilet independently is supported by dressing children in cloth underwear from birth and encouraging them to use the toilet from the age of around one year.  In the outdoor area, children can jump and run as well as care for plants and clean the yard.

The Prepared Environment is the physical and psychological context in which children learn and grow.  This environment is carefully planned in minute detail by the trained Montessori teacher, and it is vigilantly monitored and maintained by the adults who spend time in the environment.  The role of the adult is both to find and design materials that are very attractive and “call” to the child as well as to help the child attach to materials in the environment which stimulate interest and attention, and then to stand back and let learning unfold.  We acknowledge that even the most well-meaning adult can be an unnecessary impediment to typical child development by intervening in the self-directed activities of children, and so Montessori teachers aspire to ultimately sit quietly by as children themselves choose activities of interest, repeat them until satisfied, and continue unassisted in a cycle of work.

This work cycle is the period of time during which children are independently and individually interacting with materials in the environment.  During this time one child may practice opening and closing containers (refining the movements of the hand) while another elects to wash the leaves of a plant, and a third volunteers to mop the water that pools under the plant.  We believe that concentration is the seed of meaningful work and learning, but that concentration occurs when the work chosen is meaningful and useful to the child; only each child knows his individual needs of the moment.  Dr. Montessori found that children form a community with multiple interests and abilities when they are combined in mixed-age groups.  In this way, the older children become leaders and assist the younger children, and the younger children are able to learn valuable skills from their older peers.  In Montessori communities, children are encouraged to respect each other’s individual needs and feelings and to interact socially with grace and courtesy.  This is the basis for social- emotional developmental as well as the foundation for successful adaptation to civil society.

Indeed Maria Montessori was critically interested in the state of human societies because of the historical time in which she lived.  She saw the unrest in her country and its neighbors and the conflicts between a totalitarian government and its citizens as natural results of the mis-education of the world’s children.  She believed that the child is the maker of man, an agent of change, and the best hope for the future.  She saw that if societies upheld the rights of the child and invested in right ways of educating children, then there could be peace on Earth.  Maria Montessori, thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, devoted her life to the cause of the young child, and her educational methods and beliefs have served tens of thousands of children around the world.

Dr. Montessori’s system of education was originally devised for a group of children living in a housing project in an urban ghetto in Rome.  Conversely, most Montessori schools in our country serve children and families of relative privilege.  At Family Star, with the aid of our federally funded Head Start program, we strive to stay true to the original intention of Montessori’s work- to give all children a chance to receive all the best and most beautiful things in life.  We hope that our efforts are reflected not only in the peacefulness and beauty of our learning environments, but, more importantly, in the intelligence and joy of the children in our school.

“If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future.”      -Maria Montessori