What is Montessori education? For more than a century now, the child-focused approach that Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, developed for educating children has been transforming schools around the globe. As soon as you enter a classroom, you know that something different is afoot.
Montessori classrooms are immediately recognizable. You will see children working independently and in groups, often with specially designed learning materials; deeply engaged in their work; and respectful of themselves and their surroundings.
The Montessori Method fosters rigorous, self-motivated growth for children and adolescents in all areas of their development—cognitive, emotional, social, and physical.
Montessori education is student-led and self-paced but guided, assessed, and enriched by knowledgeable and caring teachers, the leadership of their peers, and a nurturing environment. Within the community of a multi-age classroom—designed to create natural opportunities for independence, citizenship, and accountability—children embrace multi-sensory learning and passionate inquiry.
Individual students follow their own curiosity at their own pace, taking the time they need to fully understand each concept and meet individualized learning goals. Given the freedom and support to question, probe deeply, and make connections, Montessori students grow up to be confident, enthusiastic, and self-directed learners and citizens, accountable to both themselves and their community.
They think critically, work collaboratively, and act boldly and with integrity. What better outcome could you wish for your children?
The Montessori education system was developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori. Emphasizing independence, it views children as naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning in a sufficiently supportive and well-prepared learning environment.
It discourages some conventional measures of achievement, such as grades and tests. Montessori developed her theories in the early 1900s through scientific experimentation with her students; the method has since been used in many parts of the world, in public and private schools alike.
Montessori Education Practice
Infant and toddler programs
Montessori classrooms for children under three fall into several categories, with a number of terms being used. A nido, Italian for “nest”, serves a small number of children from around two months to around fourteen months, or when the child is confidently walking.
A “Young Child Community” serves a larger number of children from around one year to 2 1⁄2 or 3 years old. Both environments emphasize materials and activities scaled to the children’s size and abilities, opportunities to develop movement, and activities to develop independence. Development of independence in toileting is typically emphasized as well. Some schools also offer “Parent-Infant” classes, in which parents participate with their very young children.
Preschool and kindergarten
Montessori classrooms for children from 2 1⁄2 or 3 to 6 years old are often called Children’s Houses, after Montessori’s first school, the Casa dei Bambini in Rome in 1906. This level is also called “Primary”. A typical classroom serves 20 to 30 children in mixed-age groups, staffed by a fully trained lead teacher and assistants.
Classrooms are usually outfitted with child-sized tables and chairs arranged singly or in small clusters, with classroom materials on child-height shelves throughout the room. Activities are for the most part initially presented by the teacher, after which they may be chosen more or less freely by the children as interest dictates.
A teacher’s role within a Montessori classroom is to guide and consult students individually by letting each child create their own learning pathway. Classroom materials usually include activities for engaging in practical skills such as pouring and spooning, washing up, scrubbing tables and sweeping.
Also materials for the development of the senses, mathematical materials, language materials, music, art and cultural materials, including more science based activities like ‘sink and float’, Magnetic and Non magnetic and candle and air.
Activities in Children’s Houses are typically hands on, tactile materials to teach concepts. For example, to teach writing, students use sandpaper letters. These are letters created by cutting letters out of sandpaper and placing them on wooden blocks.
The children then trace these letters with their fingers to learn the shape and sound of each letter. Another example is the use of bead chains to teach math concepts, specifically multiplication. Specifically for multiples of 10, there is one bead that represents one unit, a bar of ten beads put together that represents 1×10, then a flat shape created by fitting 10 of the bars together to represent 10×10, and a cube created by fitting 10 of the flats together to represent 10×10×10. These materials help build a concrete understanding of basic concepts upon which much is built in the later years.
Elementary school classrooms usually serve mixed-age 6- to 9-year-old and 9- to 12-year-old groupings; 6- to 12-year-old groups are also used. Lessons are typically presented to small groups of children, who are then free to follow up with independent work of their own as interest and personal responsibility dictate.
Montessori educators give interdisciplinary lessons examining subjects ranging from biology and history to theology, which they refer to as “great lessons.” These are typically given near the beginning of the school term and provide the basis for learning throughout the year. The great lessons offer inspiration and open doors to new areas of investigation.
Lessons include work in language, mathematics, history, the sciences, the arts, etc. Student-directed explorations of resources outside the classroom are integral to the education. Montessori used the term “cosmic education” to indicate both the universal scope of lessons to be presented and the idea that education should help children realize the human role in the interdependent functioning of the universe.
Middle and high school
Montessori education for this level is less developed than programs for younger children. Montessori did not establish a teacher training program or a detailed plan of education for adolescents during her lifetime. However, a number of schools have extended their programs for younger children to the middle school and high school levels.
In addition, several Montessori organizations have developed teacher training or orientation courses and a loose consensus on the plan of study is emerging. Montessori wrote that, “The essential reform of our plan from this point of view may be defined as follows: during the difficult time of adolescence it is helpful to leave the accustomed environment of the family in town and to go to quiet surroundings in the country, close to nature”
Benefits of Montessori Education
Choosing a Montessori environment for your child has many benefits. Known for individually paced learning and fostering independence, the Montessori Method also encourages empathy, a passion for social justice, and a joy in lifelong learning.
Given the freedom and support to question, to probe deeply, and to make connections, Montessori students become confident, enthusiastic, self-directed learners. They are able to think critically, work collaboratively, and act boldly—a skill set for the 21st century.
5 Areas You’ll Find in a Montessori Classroom
When you visit a Montessori classroom to find out if it’s right for your child, one thing you might notice is that the classroom is organized a bit differently than other classrooms. There’s a good reason for that.
The layout of the Montessori classroom isn’t random or accidental. Classroom objects are deliberately placed in different areas that correspond with the five curriculum areas that will be addressed in the classroom. Take a look at the five areas that you’ll find in a Montessori classroom.
The Language Area
In the language area of the classroom, your child will begin learning about letters, phonics sounds, and reading. Here, you might find sandpaper letters that your child can trace with their fingertips to familiarize themselves with the ABCs.
The language area is also where you’ll find storybooks, the movable alphabet, paper and writing implements, and other objects that your child will use to learn about language and develop early literacy skills.
The Sensorial Area
In the sensorial area of the classroom, your child will learn to notice details like color, shape, texture, smell, sound, weight and temperature. In other words, they’ll use their five senses to learn important details about their world.
It’s in the sensorial area that you might find items like knobless cylinders and smelling bottles. There may be color tablets that your child can look at to learn to distinguish between different colors and shades. Your child will be encouraged to manipulate the items in the sensorial area to learn to heighten their senses.
Thermic tablets are a good example of a sensorial area activity. This is a collection of tablets that have naturally have different temperatures, like felt, marble, wood, iron and cork. Your child will learn how to touch each tablet with the inside of their wrist to feel the difference in temperature. They may wear a blindfold to see if they can distinguish between the different materials by touch alone.
The Math Area
In the mathematics area, your child will learn skills that will help them master math courses later on. Montessori materials are meant to be self-correcting, which helps your child become an independent learner. They can see for themselves if they made a mistake, and then correct it.
A good example of this is the Number Rods. The Number Rods introduce the child to quantity 1-10 and their corresponding number names. Through exploration with the material, the child also develops concepts in sequence of number, combinations of 10 and basic arithmetic. The material consists of 10 wooden rods, divided into units by alternating colors of red and blue, progressing in 10 equal steps from 10 cm to 1 meter. The materials in the math area are meant to appear throughout a child’s education, introducing different concepts at different times.
The Number Rods is just one of many materials that you’ll find in the math area, but it’s a good example of how mathematics learning works in a Montessori classroom.
The Cultural Studies Area
The cultural studies area is where your children will learn about the greater world around them. This area contains items pertaining to geography, history, science, art and music. In many classrooms, this is also where you’ll find items related to botany and zoology.
That means that you’ll see a great diversity of items in this area. There may be maps, globes and flags. There may be instruments, art work and art supplies. You may also find classroom plants in this area.
Your child will learn to appreciate their own and other cultures in this area of the classroom. They’ll be encouraged to express themselves through music, art and dance. This helps your child develop their social and emotional skills as well as cognitive skills.
The Practical Life Area
In the Montessori philosophy, independence is valued, and it’s important for children to practice daily practical skills that are useful in life outside of the classroom. That’s the focus of the practical life skills area of the classroom.
Here you might find items that your child can use to care for their classroom, take care of themselves, and practice manners and social graces. For example, small children will learn how to roll and unroll mats, sharpen pencils and tie shoes. You may see child-sized brooms and feather dusters so that children can practice cleaning up the classroom.
There may be child-sized tables and chairs and maybe even a selection of plates and cutlery. Your child will practice setting the table and sitting down with classmates to eat. Your child’s teacher will help guide the class in learning about manners, like saying “please” and “thank you” or shaking hands.
Understanding the layout of the Montessori classroom can help you understand the philosophy behind the Montessori teaching method and what your child will be doing in the classroom. Ask the teacher to point out the various zones and show you what kind of activities your child will be doing in those areas.