Incorporating aspects of Montessori into your setting
by Wilma Grier on April 15
Many years ago, when our children were small, my husband and I decided to emigrate to Australia. At that time there was a demand for Montessori teachers and during the interview at Australia House the officer made a humorous comment saying “Montessori? Is that some type of disease or something?” I had a good chuckle as I retorted “Indeed! Once infected, life is never quite the same again.” Montessori as a philosophy has its fans and critics and misconceptions abound but in reality, there is no mystery. Montessori classrooms are peaceful and purposeful. Based on an understanding of human development, meaningful engagement and the joy of learning, they are places where children’s increasing autonomy and self-confidence is fostered and guided.
What is it about the Montessori approach that resonates deeply with so many people? If I had to summarise it in one word, it would be; respect.
Respect is a powerful word and has many applications. Essentially it underpins Montessori philosophy and is evident throughout the school or setting in the way that the learning environments are prepared, the way families are welcomed and included as well as the social interactions between all members of the community. With the idea of respect as a corner stone of Montessori philosophy let us take a look at how this is articulated throughout the learning environment in practical terms and consider aspects of the philosophy that can be incorporated into any educational programme.
In her book “To Educate the Human Potential”, Dr Montessori states, “The first step to take in order to become a Montessori teacher is to shed omnipotence and transcendence and to become a joyous observer”. (Montessori, 1973a, p.121) The role of the Montessori teacher as observer of children’s work and development is crucial. The teacher is also caretaker of the environment and facilitator of the learning process.
The adult in the Montessori environment is a keen observer of children on a daily basis. Notes are made on overall interests, skills or difficulties the children are displaying, which in turn inform decisions about their individual programmes.
Children are active participants in their own learning thus caring for an environment that stimulates and challenges them has great importance. Maintaining a clean, orderly, attractive space with activities that are complete, in good repair and easily accessible, invite and entice the child to interact.
The teacher is a facilitator, presenting an activity to a child at a precise time in development, based on observed interest. The activity should meet and challenge the child’s physical and intellectual capabilities. The teacher analyses the activity before presenting to determine its purpose and where a child might encounter a difficulty in the process. The activity is then practised so that the presentation to the child is smooth and fluid. After a presentation the teacher then withdraws to allow the child to explore the activity freely without further adult intervention. This is hard to do as we instinctively wish to help when we see children experiencing difficulty. However, every time we do something for children, we take away the opportunity for them to succeed through their own efforts. If the teacher observes the child experiencing continued difficulty with an activity, then a presentation is repeated at a time when it is not related to a failed attempt.
Young children learn through their senses and through movement. Dr Montessori designed many manipulative learning materials that allow children to explore and discover various concepts. She believed strongly in the connection between movement and brain development, particularly the use of the hand. Although these special materials are an important part of a Montessori classroom it is also possible to create a respectful, stimulating and supportive learning environment without them. Let us look at the following ways this can be done.
Young children are developing independence and this is supported using the environment as teacher. It is the interaction between child and environment that fosters autonomy. This is greatly assisted by a learning space that is stimulating to the intellect, encourages exploration and is orderly and aesthetically pleasing. For example:
- Overall colour scheme is a neutral backdrop for the learning experiences provided.
- Shelving and furniture are made of natural material wherever possible.
- Low open shelving allows children easy access to a range of activities.
- Activities are displayed in an orderly way in baskets or on trays with space on either side for little hands to pick them up easily. They are in good condition and complete with no parts missing.
- There is a place for everything and everything goes back to its place when finished, each activity having an assigned position. Young children have an in-built sense of order and thrive in a well-organised learning environment that is both simple and tidy.
- Activities are grouped into five major areas: practical life skills, sensorial (education and refinement of the senses), language and literacy, mathematics and culture. Although there are a variety of materials and activities to choose from in all five areas, there are not so many that children feel overwhelmed. In this instance, less is more from a creative point of view.
- The environment feels uncluttered and there is floor space for children to work on mats and at tables.
Using a mat to define the working/playing space is greatly appreciated by children and provides an alternative to working at a table. The mat space is respected by the other children who walk around it rather than across. The young child under six years of age is in the act of self-construction so providing individual tables in addition to those for groups, provides opportunities to work alone when desired.
Introducing practical life skills that use real materials is an excellent foundation for play. In a Montessori environment you will see children preparing food, scrubbing tables or chairs, mopping floors, washing windows, wringing cloths and polishing wood or metal. This not only assists the child’s feelings of competence and belonging to a particular community, it also supports the development of fine motor work and concentration. Children will always engage in play and this is enriched by experiences in the real world.
The adult working with children greatly influences the psychological environment. Children flourish in a courteous learning space that is error friendly and non-judgemental; where they feel respected and accepted. The Montessori classroom typically has mixed ages which provides scope for much positive social interaction. For example, the “Casa” room accommodates children aged three to six years of age. The child stays in this group for three years allowing the child to progress from being the youngest member to being an elder in the small community. These elders become role models for the younger members of the group. Government regulations sometimes influence age groupings but whenever possible having children of mixed ages is beneficial.
Montessori activities and materials have certain characteristics which can be applied to activities in any setting. They are simple, attractive and complete. They are also limited in number with usually only one set of each, apart from pencils, scissors etc. Having just one of each material assists social development and self-regulation as children learn to wait for a turn.
The materials or activities isolate a particular quality. This means that the objects are identical in all aspects apart from the quality being focused on.
An example of this would be introducing the colours in the form of rectangular shaped cards or painted timber. First box contains a pair of each colour, red, yellow and blue. The second box contains pairs of secondary colours and the third box contains nine colours in seven graded shades. The rectangles are exactly the same size and the only difference is the colour. This simplicity appeals to the young child’s sense of order. Many educational toys do not isolate a specific quality with the result that they are too busy and this can cause confusion.
Activities are designed to encourage movement and repetition resulting in meaningful engagement as well as providing opportunities for vocabulary enrichment. For example, matching the colour cards to objects in the environment is simple and very popular with the children.
Providing learning experiences that contain a control of error supports a child’s increasing autonomy and sense of success. For example, a tangram puzzle provides children with the opportunity to explore various shapes using the seven pieces of the puzzle. However, the pieces will only fit back into the square frame in a particular way. This is an inbuilt control of error. Many Montessori materials are designed with a control allowing a child to perceive errors and so learn to correct them without adult intervention. This builds self-esteem.
The bi-nomial cube is a puzzle made of cubes and prisms which form a cube when placed together. If done incorrectly, it will not fit back into the box. The pattern on the lid supports the process by being an additional control of error. Children spend long periods of time with this puzzle experimenting and exploring various combinations.
To further support independent work, the Montessori teacher always introduces an activity in a formal presentation, after which the child may repeat and explore the activity freely, returning the activity to the shelf when finished. This reflects the idea of respectful interactions within the environment.
One of the greatest gifts we can offer children is time. Time to explore, experiment and discover through their own efforts. From the earliest days the exercises of practical life help the child to develop concentration resulting in the ability to focus and stay on task naturally. No pressure is applied and children are free to repeat activities and engage with materials for as long as needed. Long periods of uninterrupted time allow the children to follow their interests at a deep level. This is called the work cycle and usually lasts for three hours.
There are no rewards or punishments as intrinsic motivation is the driving force and respectful interactions the result.
Thoughtful preparation of the outdoor environment is just as important as indoors. Having easy access to an outdoor area provides a seamless transition to continuing activities outside. Depending on climate, children can engage in many activities outdoors. Having a sink and tap at child height installed in the garden is a distinct advantage. This in itself facilitates independent water play, messy play and sink and float experiments, as well as a host of practical life exercises involving water. Tables and chairs can be set up in shaded areas of the garden as well as on a veranda, if available and children can carry mats out to work on various tasks.
Children love gardening and the physical exercise it involves develops core strength, improves powers of observation and builds confidence.
Art and music also lend themselves to the outdoors.
Providing children with the opportunity to climb, run, hop, skip and roll is essential, so how the outside area is organised has a significant impact on children’s behaviour.
Fixed equipment has its place as it caters for the need for challenge and persistence. If you have monkey bars that are too high for very young children, you will find them observing the older children as they swing from one bar to the next. Eventually with patience and persistence the day will come when they can finally reach that first bar. What a sense of achievement they feel!
Loose parts allow children to move things around and support creativity. This can be in the form of lightweight wooden pieces both large and small to build structures or collections of items that cater for reflective engagement such as ephemeral art.
To conclude, the Montessori approach is one that involves thoughtful planning within a prepared environment. The physical environment is uncluttered, orderly and attractive. Purposeful activities engender a joy of learning and respectful interactions promote personal autonomy and care for others.
The Montessori materials, although an important element of the philosophy, need not be viewed as prescriptive but rather as learning experiences meeting the developmental needs and interests of children. Any activity, thoughtfully prepared, based on insightful observation and presented to children at an appropriate time, can meet these needs.
And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.
Maria Montessori (1973b, p.6)
Montessori, M. (1973). To Educate the Human Potential. Madras, India: Kalakshetra Publications.
Montessori, M. (1973). The Absorbent Mind. Madras, India: Kalakshetra Publications