Dr. Urban H. Fleege, Professor of Child Psychology, De Paul University
The central purpose of Montessori pre-school is to help each child develop a positive self-image. Through a carefully planned environment, he is led to develop the necessary insights, appreciation and skills for a lifetime of creative learning.
The basic idea of the Montessori approach to education is that every child carries unseen within him the potentialities of the man he will soon become. In order that the child develop his physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual capacities to the fullest, he must have freedom — a freedom to be achieved through order and self discipline.
The world of the child is full of sights and sounds which at first appear chaotic. From this chaos, the child must gradually create order; he slowly gains mastery of himself and of his environment. Dr. Montessori developed the “prepared environment” which possess a certain order and disposes the child to develop his capabilities at his own speed, according to his own capacities in a non-competitive atmosphere.
In brief, the Montessori approach is designed to help the child build within himself the foundations for a lifetime of creative learning.
Complimenting the Montessori approach in your home
Confidence and communication
1.Trust your child with respect and consideration.
2. Listen attentively to your child when he wants to tell you something.
3. Do not do anything for your child that he can do for himself.
4. Try to be positive in your dealing with your child i.e. Try to avoid using worlds such as ‘don’t, ‘must not’,’ you are a ……’. Negative words make the child feel badly about himself. Positive helpful reactions help the child to feel independent and successful.
5. Use precise language when talking to our child.
The prepared environment and work
1. Whatever your child is doing, encourage your child to work
2. Encourage your child to spend a significant amount of time
3. If your child shows no interest in certain toys, then put
4. Arrange your child’s activities in an orderly fashion
5. Some good examples of ‘work’’ that can
– orange squeezing
– carrot scraping and cutting
– bread making
– making of play dough
– beating / whisking water and detergent and when this has
– shoe polishing.
– sweeping, dusting and general care of environment.
– brass and silver polishing
– keeping clothes neat and tidy drawers or cupboards
– place setting at table.
The Montessori system of education aids children in the first years of life in a multitude of ways. Montessori education is an approach to teaching the whole child. In their first years, children’s cognitive, social-emotional, movement, and language skills are highly intertwined and enmeshed. Learning in one domain has impacts on learning in all other domains. Furthermore, learning in the first six years sets the stage for learning for the rest of a child’s life – the brain is so malleable and neural networks are being laid down in the child’s first years, and they do not get these years back for their healthy brain development. Montessori education for children birth to six years incorporates the needs of all children to not only be healthy, well fed, and safe but to learn a variety of skills when their brains are wired to acquire knowledge.
Montessori education enables children to develop self-control and self-regulation. Children in Montessori infant, toddler, and preschool classrooms are encouraged to seek out activities of their own interest, to engage with these activities for as long as they need, and to manage their own daily routines and activities. Rather than being herded from one activity to the next in groups, children individually pursue activities that spark their interests. This individualized approach enables children to control their own choices, movements, and activities; the adult increasingly steps back from the child’s active learning as children grow and become increasingly capable of managing their own activities. While children are arriving at this stage of self-directed autonomy, the adult and child partner with each other so that children can learn the skills that they will eventually handle on their own.
The materials themselves are inviting and intriguing to children, thus the adult does not need to constantly ask the child to choose some activity. She only needs to ensure that there are suitable activities that will inspire children’s natural interest, and she needs to give individual lessons to the child on how to use and manage the materials. The materials themselves are self-correcting, and this design feature enables the materials to instruct the child and not the adult. So after an adult has shown a child how to use an activity a number of times, she steps back and allows the materials to do the work of showing the child where he might need to make an adjustment or handle the materials in a more skilled way. In this way, children learn naturally how to solve problems and how to control their own errors. Natural consequences and these self-correcting materials are the ways Montessori has of helping children learn the proper ways of managing themselves. Rather than adults needing to verbally correct or intervene in children’s natural learning, children use their own observations to learn how to control themselves. Children are naturally going to make errors as they are learning how to do many things properly.
The way we respond to these errors is critical for it sends messages to them about how errors are perceived. We see errors as opportunities to learn- not as mistakes that need to be fixed. When children make errors, we notice them, we may comment neutrally on them, and then we partner with the child to find a solution to the problem. As much as we can we leave the problem solving to them; sometimes they know immediately that a spill, for example, needs to be cleaned and how to do this, and other times they many need some gentle suggesting or more instruction about how to clean up a spill. All the errors children make are opportunities for them to learn more, to work towards mastery, and to gain emerging self-control and self-efficacy. Self-regulation and self-control are highly correlated with all kinds of later outcomes in school and in life. Children who exhibit self-control in preschool are less likely to have negative outcomes like going to prison or being unemployed, and are more likely to succeed academically and be financially responsible.
Montessori enables children to move purposefully. In addition to having freedom of choice that develops self-control, children have freedom of movement. Free, unencumbered movement is critical if infants and toddlers are to progress normally through the stages of developmental milestones for developing large body movements. Rather than placing infants in containers like playpens, cribs, swings, and busy-chairs, we place them on floor mats to learn to roll over, sit up, creep, and crawl as they are able. We find that children handled in this way are more apt to progress through stages of movement development and pass through movement milestones at an early age than most. When they are able, they pull up on bars and furniture specifically designed to support the movement development of children as they learn to stand and walk. At mealtime, rather than putting children in high chairs, children sit at specially designed chairs and tables at their level and they participate in family-style dining, learning all the movements and habits that are part of our culture’s manners and routines during meals.
When children are walking, they are encouraged to walk independently and not to be carried so that they can both coordinate this movement and search out the activities that they choose. The activities we design for children to learn to move their fingers, develop eye-hand coordination, and learn a variety of early cognitive skills are purposeful. That means that each material has an isolated purpose (to put a ring on a dowel, or to learn the names of objects, or to learn the concept of conservation of volume). The materials are not open-ended or able to be used in a variety of ways such as one may find in other environments. Rather, our curriculum supports the use of materials for specific purposes. This enables children to focus in on certain qualities or attributes of a material such as the way it must be grasped- that develops the muscles of the hands; this focus also enables the development of concentration.
The purposefulness of materials also helps children organize their behaviors and become calm, orderly, and good self-managers. They learn that a pitcher has a purpose and how to handle it. Or they come to understand that the small replicas we use for teaching vocabulary and phonetics are for language development not fantasy play. This understanding contributes to their abilities to be self-directed learners that do not need the redirection of adults in order to make choices or to learn. This understanding comes in part from the highly ordered environment that we prepare for children, environments in which we say there is “a place for everything, and everything in its place.” The ability to organize activities, to understand that there is a purpose and a place for all things, helps children organize their brains as well. The external order of the environment and the isolation of purpose inherent in the learning activities enables children to internalize this order; they become calm, and strong neural connections are made along pathways of movement and memory that supports learning.
Montessori allows children to be active learners. We know that children are not born with minds that are empty vessels needing to be filled or blank slates on which to be written. They are born ready to learn, with all the architecture already in their brains; all the neurons they will have in their life are already in there- billions of them! What happens as young children learn and grow is that some connections among neurons are strengthened and other neurons get pruned or eliminated. Connections are strengthened by experiences that the child has; routine contacts between the child and a caregiver or between a child and a learning activity set up patterns of neural activity that are strengthened by repetition. This is the basis of all learning. One can see that the more active a child is, the more experiences he can have. Simply watching passively, listening without engaging, or generally being under-stimulated decreases the opportunities a child has of having the multi-sensory experiences that effect neural connections and learning.
So if we want children to acquire movement, language, social, or cognitive skills we have to both create the physical or psychological opportunities or conditions under which they can have these experiences, and we have to encourage them to actively participate in these learning opportunities. When children in Montessori environments are actively choosing a material that interests them or are exploring the use of materials using all their senses, they are engaging many parts of their brains at once and strengthening the neural connections that are involved in these activities. While some environments see the over-active child as disruptive or maladapted, we encourage children’s activity because we know they need to be highly engaged and moving all the time in order to take in the experiences that will build their brains.
Montessori enables children to concentrate. Because children are able to move freely and choose activities they are interested in, they are able to concentrate. We know that when someone is highly interested in anything, that is what he will put his focused attention to. We capitalize on this principle of learning theory to enable children to develop a high level of concentration at a very young age. In our Montessori environments, a child of four months may be found gazing up at a bright metal ring hanging from a ribbon, focusing in on the shape and movement of this ring, and making multiple attempts to grasp it. The focus that this requires inspires deep and lasting concentration, and the ability to concentrate and focus is associated with many other academic and cognitive outcomes, in addition to general task mastery. The critical piece here is that the child must be interested in the activity. If this same baby is tired, either not yet ready or too advanced for the challenge of grasping the ring, or otherwise disengaged from the activity, the focus and concentration will not happen. To properly match the environment to children’s abilities, adults constantly observe children to understand their development, temperament, and interests. Then they can outfit the environment with the activities that will inspire children and bring them to a level of challenge that keeps them focused. If activities are too simple children will not engage nor concentrate. And if they are too difficult, the same lack of focus will happen. Our Montessori trained teachers have a firm grasp of child development and of the purpose and use of the Montessori materials.
Montessori education also supports the development of sustained concentration by providing a long period of uninterrupted activity called the work cycle. During this time (one hour for infants, two hours for toddlers, and three hours for preschoolers), children are able to choose whatever interests them, to use it independently, and to continue to repeat activities until they are satisfied. We know that repetition is a key ingredient for learning, and we encourage repetition of a single exercise by allowing children to independently work at their own paces. There are not centers that children are moved into and out of on the teacher’s time-table nor are their “periods” that end when the bell rings. Concentration is a venerated part of the Montessori program and we honor the child’s need to engage in focused work by structuring this open period of free, independent work. During this time the environment is very quiet so that concentration can be maintained. Furthermore, in specific lessons on carrying materials and moving furniture, children are shown how to move carefully and respectfully so that they do not disrupt the concentration of others.
Montessori encourages children to speak, read, write and be excellent communicators. The language area of the Montessori curriculum is a subject of much interest and is unique in its approach. We know that children learn language innately, and that, barring abnormality, they acquire the language that is in their first environments. Because of the “absorbent” quality of the child’s mind under the age of six, the oral language environment that they are exposed to constitutes the substance of the language they will eventually understand and speak. We ensure that the language we speak to very young children who are acquiring language is clear, but not overly-simplified and that it is informative as well as engaging. Essentially, we want children to learn the best form of our language’s vocabulary and speech patterns so that is what we speak to them. We avoid using baby-talk or referring to things by their nicknames or slang. We speak to pre-verbal babies with all the rich language respectful speech that we direct towards older children and adults; in this way, in addition to providing information about language like vocabulary and syntax, we also give babies the idea that they are important people to talk to and that we want them to talk or babble back to us.
Montessori educators employ unique materials and strategies to formally teach vocabulary, reading, and. To build vocabulary and support children’s expressive and receptive language capacities, we utilize a technique called the Three Period Lesson. Maria Montessori found that children were inclined to use their hands to form the shapes of letters before they were interested in or able to acquire literacy skills, so Montessori schools help children learn to write before they learn to read. When children do learn to read, they do so learning phonetics and easily acquire advanced reading abilities. The language and literacy approach within the Montessori framework is aligned with research showing the best ways to acquire the skills necessary to be good language users, readers, and communicators. Indeed, children in Montessori programs show enhanced language abilities over their peers in traditional preschool environments.
Montessori teaches children to respect others and to contribute to community. Montessori is often mischaracterized as stifling children’s social development by encouraging children to work independently and not in groups. This misunderstanding can easily by corrected by simply observing a Montessori infant, toddler, or preschool environment for a few minutes. Children in our environments are naturally drawn to each other and encouraged to socialize and interact with each other all day long. Children have multiple opportunities to work side-by-side while they work, and research shows that children in Montessori schools talk to each other more than in other programs; what they talk about is related to their work and activities more than to play-based conversations. Children in our environments may join together to complete an activity and share their mutual successes as opposed to competing for who has the best outcome.
One of the ways that we encourage respect for others is by showing children how to do exercises in an area of the curriculum called Practical Life. The activities involved in Practical Life are those for care of the self and also for care of the environment. Activities for care of the environment include how to clean floors, how to clean and polish mirrors and furniture, and how to care for plants and gardens. All of these routine cleaning activities- the very things adults loathe to do- children love to do! They take great joy in learning to do the simple daily tasks of practical life that adults deem mundane or messy. Children focus deeply while dishwashing and sweeping, and in doing so, they both learn important skill and come to understand the value of taking care of a shared environment. In doing the exercises of practical life, of which there are many, children take on responsibility for the shared needs of their community of peers and adults. By preschool, they are psychologically able to look beyond their own individual needs and to conceptualize helping others and participating in a group effort. The practical life area is unique to the Montessori system, and any good Montessori school for toddlers and preschoolers includes an expansive repertoire of activities for children to care for the environment, both outdoors and indoors.
Another sub-set of the practical life area that greatly contributes to the positive social climate of a Montessori classroom is that for Grace and Courtesy lessons. These lessons specifically teach children manners and habits that help them adapt to their culture and live well with others. From infancy children are shown how to participate in a meal and are spoken to with all the respect, pleases and thank you’s that are afforded to older children and adults. We have a deep respect for the dignity of the young child, and we honor them by treating them according to the golden rule. Then when they are older, they have incorporated this dignity into their feelings about themselves and begin to extend these feelings to others. Even before they have advanced to this stage of social development, young children show an immense capacity for love, affection, and concern for others. In giving the formal lessons of grace and courtesy to young children, we formally teach them how to move gracefully and handle objects in a courteous way. We show each of these activities in great detail, for we know that while it is obvious for us how to carry a chair without making noise, it takes more time for children to master the coordination and have the understanding of how to do so. For example, there is a lesson for toddlers on pushing in their chair while sitting and a separate lesson for how to carry a chair from one place in the room to another!
Montessori empowers children to be leaders and advocates. Older children and younger children are mixed together in Montessori classrooms. Rather than grouping children by age only, we group them by developmental level, and a good Montessori program will not have a separate environment for children to learn to use the toilet- when children are ready to advance to the Primary classroom, then they will transition to this new environment. The advantages of a mixed-age classroom are conferred to both younger and older children. Younger children learn from older children and older children are able help guide younger children. Young toddlers in Montessori classroom watch older, more experienced toddlers use small child-sized materials and furnishings, and learn much from this modeling. In turn, older children are able to consolidate their learning by showing younger children what they know. Research shows that this benefits both the child who is teaching and the child how is being taught.
In addition to taking on the role of mentor and model for younger children, children in Montessori classrooms are able to develop strong leadership and advocacy skills. They learn to stand up for what they want and what they believe by constantly being given the power to make their own choices. This drives them to figure out what they like to do, and what is important to them. Once this empowerment becomes a normal part of their experience in school, they advocate for their rights to have these options everywhere they go. When they arrive in elementary school, they are typically outspoken and highly engaged in the learning process. A story is told about one little girl who had gone through our Montessori program, who, when asked to sit down during first grade, explained that she had gotten up because she saw that the plants needed watering and she wanted to take care of this. Montessori children know they have important roles in school and in life, and they are not shy about advocating for their interests.
Montessori aids children’s development of self-esteem and confidence. A focus on children’s independence is one of the key elements of the Montessori curriculum. We believe that children are able to do amazing and advanced things at a very young age if they are given the tools and opportunities and if they are given the impression that we believe in their capability. In the service of developing their confidence, we teach them many skills that enable them to do things by themselves and for themselves; we try not to do for children what we have seen they can do for themselves. In the service of developing their self-esteem, we instill in them our belief that they are capable individuals. The former is the root of functional independence- children can do many things on their own in Montessori environments. The latter is the foundation of psychological independence- children in Montessori classrooms feel autonomous and self-assured.
Functional independence is aided in large part by all of the Practical Life exercises. Particularly the lessons for the care of the self enable children to learn all actions necessary to wash their own hands, change themselves, brush their teeth, or tie their shoes. Learning how to do these things, assisted by a collaborative and caring adult, allows children to be free of the constant aid and direction of parents and teachers. Little by little, as children gain skills in this area, the adult can step back more and more and allow children to be independent. While functional independence is forming in the first few years of life, the adult works with the child as a collaborator, working in partnership to accomplish a task like changing clothes or washing hands. Then, when that moment comes, and the adult observes the child independently engaging in all of these activities, she steps back and allows the child to do what he is capable of.
All along the path towards functional independence, the adult has been sending the child the verbal and non-verbal message that she knows he is strong and capable and she has faith and patience that he will eventually do all of these things well and on his own. This message empowers the child and encourages him to keep trying and not to give up on himself and his positive energies towards work. This is hard work, the work of independence, and the emotional support that adults provide during this sensitive time of development is a required element if children are to become independent and feel good about themselves while the do so. In Montessori environments, we help children feel good about the learning process, however frustrating or time consuming it may be. We give children lots of time to develop the skills and we patiently wait for them without rushing them, knowing that all the small errors and imperfections are necessary for them to solve the problem themselves.
When they accomplish things, rather than overt praise, we share in the child’s sense of accomplishment by narrating their experience to them. For example, when a child completes a puzzle they have been diligently working on and concentrating hard to master, we do not shout for joy or tell them “good job”, we allow the child’s inner sense of accomplishment to lead. We know that that the inner feelings of self-satisfaction the child has in these moments are invaluable, and that often our congratulatory reactions can do one of two things. Either they can confuse the child if they do not feel as excited inside as we are acting, or they can make the child reliant on our praise to feel good about himself. However, we want to celebrate with children when they are feeling intense joy about their activities, and so we mirror their emotions, letting them know we are there with them all the way. This builds their self-esteem and strengthens their trust in the adults that care for them.
Montessori sustains children’s love of learning. There is an inner drive in every one of us, an inner voice that, if we listen to it, tells us which way to turn, which option to choose. If we allow children to listen to this voice, to follow their interests from birth, they are likely to learn a lot about themselves and their world as they grow. They will learn what they like and what they don’t like. They will come to know what they are good at, and how they are challenged. The focus that comes from doing what interests them will allow them to learn many things and become confident learners.
When learning is not overly prescribed, children love learning! They realize that the learning environment is one that support them and all of their needs and interests, rather than supporting the adults’ needs and interests. Children learn naturally, they are innately driven to explore, to seek out challenges, to practice skills until they reach mastery.
Montessori capitalizes on children’s innate love of learning by nurturing this inner voice. We follow the child- not to disruption or distraction, but to the place the show us they need to be for their own continuing development. The needs and interests of individual children change moment to moment in the first six years, so we make sure we give many interesting learning activities and a lot of freedom to move and choose.
In this way, children’s love of learning develops and carries them through a life of learning.