“The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six. For this is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement, is being formed. At no other age has the child greater need of intelligent help.”
—Maria Montessori, M.D.
Origins of Montessori Education
In 1896, Maria Montessori was the first woman to graduate from medical school in Italy. Gifted with the ability to see the familiar in a new way, Montessori combined her medical specialties of psychology and pediatrics, delving into the mysteries of the developing human mind.
What she found shook the world of educators and parents alike: Very young children, she observed, could effortlessly absorb information from their environment. From birth to about age six, children were constructing themselves—their minds, their language, their character—from the materials in their environment, by means of their senses. Current research in neuropsychology confirms what Montessori discovered more than 100 years ago about early brain development. Montessori education, it has been confirmed time and again, is effective for all children, including those with particular gifts and those with special needs.
The Montessori Philosophy
Basic to the Montessori philosophy is the concept that children are motivated from within by a natural curiosity and love of knowledge. The goal of Montessori early-childhood education is to cultivate this natural desire to learn. This goal is achieved through a specially prepared environment.
Contemporary research is reinforcing Dr. Montessori’s observations that children pass through various “sensitive periods” of intense fascination for learning a particular concept or skill. The Montessori classroom supports and encourages the child during these sensitive stages with appropriate learning materials. Within a framework of order, the child develops according to his or her own will and readiness, under the guidance of the teachers. Children who acquire basic skills in this natural way gain an early enthusiasm for learning as their inner personal dignity, independence, and self-discipline develop.
Everything in the Montessori environment is proportioned to the child’s size. The equipment is readily accessible, movable to permit flexible arrangement, and attractive. The children are aided in gaining independence and developing freedom to choose and work with materials and activities they can successfully complete.
The Montessori Program
You won’t find traditional “toys” in a Montessori prepared environment. Instead, the emphasis is on real-life activities that a young child can master. That doesn’t mean there are no soccer balls or places to climb outdoors, but it does mean, for instance, that children use a real kitchen to prepare food that they share with classmates. They “own” their classroom by returning materials to their place, sweeping and dusting when they see a need, and being careful not to disturb another child’s work in progress. Dr. Montessori found that concentration on real work, freely chosen, fulfills a child’s need to feel competent and begins his or her quest for self-actualization.
The Montessori program develops the whole personality of the child—not merely the intellectual faculties but also the powers of initiative, deliberation, and independent choice. Living as a free member of a real community, the child learns the fundamental social qualities that form the basis of good citizenship.
The primary (preschool) Montessori program comprises four curricular areas: practical life, sensorial, language, and mathematics. All four areas are suffused with cultural studies, including music, art, and geography.
Practical life activities make up the foundation of the Montessori program. They are intended to help the child adapt to his or her environment. Children learn to button, snap, and tie; to shine shoes, sweep, dust, and polish. They also learn the forms of good manners in our culture, such as shaking hands, closing doors quietly, and not interrupting. Practical life activities in the classroom are designed in a sequence of steps through which the child comes to realize order and logic in an activity. Attention, concentration, carefulness, and independence originate with this work.
The sensorial material is intended not to give new impressions but to help the child order, relate, classify, explore, and realize the sense impressions he or she has had before coming to school. The materials are designed to aid the senses in discriminating form, shape, size, color, sound, and touch. Each piece of equipment isolates a single quality, a single sense impression.
The sensorial materials serve as keys to all other areas of learning. The sound exercises lead to music; the child’s interest in sound, form, and texture comes into play when learning the shapes and sounds of the alphabet; form also extends into geometry, botany, and geography.
Language is woven into all parts of the Montessori program. The child learns that words are made of sounds, and then that each sound has a symbol. Knowing the sound and symbol for each letter of the alphabet, the child begins to build words.
Stories, poems, plays, and ordinary conversation have an important place in the environment. The aim is to increase the child’s knowledge, organization of thought, confidence, and ability to communicate his or her ideas.
Dr. Montessori observed that the tendencies to abstract, investigate, calculate, measure, imagine, and create are universal to all humans. If the child is allowed to develop these tendencies through manipulating concrete materials, with time and space for repetition and concentration, he or she will easily move into abstract thinking and a love of mathematics. The Montessori child is introduced to numbers by way of both the symbol and the quantity. Later materials introduce the decimal system (units, tens, hundreds, thousands), along with basic arithmetic operations.
The classrooms at Montessori Center School are alive with art, music, and other forms of self-expression. In Montessori, these are thought of not as special subjects but as an integral part of learning, sharing, and living together. World studies include geography as well as investigations into world cultures through books, artifacts, song, dance, and food. A highlight is International Children’s Day, celebrated every October by our staff, children, and parents, featuring a parade of flags, multilingual choruses, and an amazing international buffet.
The rhythm of the school calendar is guided by opportunities to learn about traditions and values that are treasured parts of our children’s lives. Children and parents share information about the holidays they celebrate. Examples include an Easter egg hunt, Diwali celebration, Navajo traditions and rugs, Lunar New Year, and Veterans’ Day.