Montessori - It feels like the latest buzzword in the early childhood world these past few years. You drive by Montessori preschools, walk past shelves of Montessori toys, and see influencers showing off their Montessori playroom, but what does it actually mean to be "Montessori"? Is everything we see marketed as Montessori actually following its principles? Let's dig in!
Who is Maria Montessori?
In order to understand the Montessori approach, we need to first understand where it came from. It is an educational philosophy and method developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator born in the late 1800s. In 1906 she was invited to create an early childhood center in Rome, serving the most disadvantaged children in the city. Through careful observation, she began to notice that the children changed from unruliness to periods of concentration while exploring puzzles, preparing meals for themselves, organizing their classroom, and engaging in hands-on learning experiences. Montessori came to the conclusion that children are capable of learning independently, due to their curious nature, if they are in an environment that has been set up to allow them to do things for themselves. She created materials that would support this belief, and soon, she opened two more centers in Italy.
In 1911, the first Montessori school opened in America, but unlike its counterpart in Rome, this school served the most cultured and wealthiest families looking for the best education for their children. The approach picked up steam but, over the years due to World Wars and immigrant stereotypes, it lost traction. By the 1950s, frustration with the American education system was growing and Montessori was reintroduced and regained popularity. Now, there are 5,000 Montessori schools throughout America serving children from early childhood to adolescence.
But, what does it look like in practice?
As mentioned earlier, the Montessori environment is crucial to its success. Upon first glance, one might describe a Montessori classroom as "minimalist" since there are few things hanging on the walls, neutral wooden furniture - a stark contrast to the traditional early childhood environment that is full of color and visually busy.
There are spaces for children to explore materials on their own at a small table or with a peer at a long shelf or large round table with multiple chairs. Items are stored on large open shelves in containers that are easy to handle and open, which allows children to learn and clean up after themselves independently. The natural world is brought indoors in the form of safe, non-toxic plants and large windows.
The materials within the environment are carefully designed and chosen to support children's independent learning. They are real-life objects often made of natural materials. It is not enough to be neutrally colored to be considered Montessori.
The materials teach one skill at a time, which allows children to explore and deeply engage in order to master the outcome. Common materials in Montessori environments are child-size cups and open pitchers. These allow the child to repeat and practice pouring liquids on their own. The more repetition, the better they get at it!
Items are self-correcting so children are able to identify their mistakes and try again in a new way, such as a block puzzle with pieces that do not fit into the incorrect shape hole. (The cups and pitchers are also self-correcting! If a child pours too much or does not align it correctly, it will spill onto the table, an easily identifiable sign that they have done the task incorrectly.) Materials are also auto-instructional, meaning they are designed to be used by the child without having to ask an adult for help.
What is the adult's role?
With this emphasis on children directing their learning and increasing their independence, one may wonder - what is the adult's role in this?
Overall, in the Montessori approach, adults provide guidance, support, and respect for the child's autonomy. They create an environment that encourages exploration, independence, and the holistic development of each child.
Adults are responsible for setting up the classroom with materials to ensure children remain challenged. As children begin to show that they have mastered the outcomes for a material, adults will set out the material that works on the next progressive step. Prior to exploring a new item, adults will facilitate the introductory lesson that shows children how to use the material appropriately.
A key principle in the Montessori approach is observation. Adults in Montessori classrooms observe each child's interests, abilities, and developmental progress. They provide individualized guidance and support, creating lessons and offering materials that meet each child's unique needs and abilities.
Adults act as the spark for the children's curiosity, inspiring them to explore deeper. They provide ongoing support and guidance to children by offering assistance when needed, answering questions, and providing explanations.
Is this right for my child?
For more information on what a typical day in a Montessori classroom looks like and to find out if your child would thrive in this approach, based on their temperament, check out our Guide to Learning in a Preschool Classroom!