On 6 January 1907 Dr Maria Montessori, the first Italian woman to become a physician, opened the original Montessori School in San Lorenzo, Italy.
Dr Montessori based her educational methods on scientific observation of children's learning processes. Guided by her discovery that children teach themselves, Dr Montessori designed a ‘prepared environment’ in which children could freely choose from a number of developmentally appropriate activities.
Now more than a hundred years later the Montessori approach is a well established and very popular option in Australia's education landscape for both early childhood educators and parents. Please note that while the Montessori method is taught right through to high school this article focuses on early years education, specifically ages zero-six years.
A Montessori classroom
Children are grouped in mixed ages and abilities in three-to-six-year spans: zero to three and three to six. Montessori teachers believe this encourages constant interaction, problem-solving, child-to-child teaching, and socialisation.
Montessori classrooms are prepared with carefully selected materials that aim to engage children in a more hands-on learning approach. The materials are designed to be self-correcting, allowing children to learn independently through trial and error.
Each tool has a specific purpose, enabling children to explore and master various concepts at their own pace. These ‘tools’ or Montessori-style toys range from fine motor skill activities like stacker blocks, threading toys, and musical instruments, to practical life activities like button and zipper boards or washing baby dolls.
The Montessori method encourages educators to ‘teach by teaching, not by correcting’ and children's effort and work are respected as it is. Educators play the role of guides rather than traditional teachers.
They observe each child's unique strengths and interests, tailoring their guidance to meet individual needs. By observing and understanding each child, educators can provide personalised learning experiences and foster a love for learning.
They create a nurturing and supportive environment that encourages children to be active participants in their learning journey.
Three-hour work period
In the three to six year old class, there is a three-hour, uninterrupted, work period each day. During this time children have three full hours to choose and carry out their work and are not required to participate in any outside play, group story time, circle time, music, or any other activities which take time away from their own choice of activity.
Each child works at their own pace and rhythm. Some children may spend a significant amount of time on one activity, while others may move through multiple activities within the time. The aim is to promote concentration, focus, and engagement in purposeful work.
Adults and children are asked to respect each other's concentration by not interrupting each other.
Montessori and Learning
Supporters of the Montessori approach maintain that the first three years of life are the most fundamental in the development of human beings and their potential.
With this in mind, Montessori offers a range of learning environments. For example, for working parents, a Nido (nest) is used for babies from two to three months until they are walking well. Once children are walking well they move into the toddler group.
Maria Montessori observed that from birth to age six children have what she described as an ‘absorbent' mind enabling them to learn how to speak, move and internalise order. She also observed periods of special sensitivity in children when they are attracted to certain stimuli in the environment enabling them to acquire specific skills and knowledge.
Proponents of Montessori claim these periods occur universally for all children at roughly the same age and providing them with the right environment and resources to practice these skills leads to optimal development.
Montessori has four main areas in its preschool program:
- Practical Life
Some emphasis is also placed on:
- Creative Arts
- Cultural Studies
- Practical Life
The Practical Life component of the Montessori approach is the link between a child's home environment and the classroom.
Practical life encompasses four main areas:
- Control of Movement
- Care of Person
- Care of Environment
- Grace and Courtesy
A Day in Montessori Education
In a Montessori classroom, children have the freedom to choose their activities within a structured framework. A typical day begins with a warm welcome and a brief group activity to encourage collaboration and build social skills.
Throughout the day, children engage in self-directed learning, moving freely between different areas of the classroom.
In one space, you might find a group of children engrossed in a math activity while in another area, children might be exploring language through phonetic exercises or building their vocabulary with the help of reading materials.
Each child is encouraged to follow their interests, allowing them to develop a deep sense of engagement and focus.
The Montessori approach is rooted in a set of principles that guide educators in their interactions with children. They underpin the entire educational experience, creating an environment that values and supports each child's unique growth and development.
These principles include:
- Fostering independence
- Promoting respect for oneself and others
- Encouraging freedom within limits
- Nurturing a love for lifelong learning
Sensorial materials give a child experience in perceiving distinctions between similar and different things. Children learn to grade a set of similar objects that differ in a regular and measurable way from most to least.
Each piece of equipment is generally a set of objects which isolates a quality experienced through the senses such as colour, form, dimension, texture, temperature, volume, pitch, weight and taste. Precise language such as loud/soft, long/short, rough/smooth, circle, square, cube is used to describe these experiences to make the world meaningful to the child.
Oral language acquired since birth is refined through a variety of activities such as songs, games, poems, stories and classified language cards. Preparation for writing begins with the practical life exercises and sensorial training.
Muscular movement and fine motor skills are developed along with the ability of the child to distinguish the sounds which make up language. Children hear and see sounds but they can feel them by tracing sandpaper letters. When a number of letters have been learned the movable alphabet is introduced. These cardboard or wooden letters enable the child to reproduce his or her own words, then phrases, sentences and finally stories.
Montessori advocates believe a child's mind is awakened to mathematical ideas through the sensorial experiences described above. Once children can see the distinctions of distance, dimension, graduation, identity, similarity and sequence they will be introduced to the functions and operations of numbers.
Resources and materials available in the schools support the development of these skills.
Interestingly, the name Montessori is not legally protected and can be used by anyone for any purpose. This means it's important for child care professionals interested in learning more about the approach to ensure they contact reputable training organisations or industry groups (see below for a list).
The Montessori Australia Foundation has a stated goal of becoming a self-regulating education system by 2057, educating 15 per cent of Australia's children. To learn more about the Montessori approach check out the links below.