What is Montessori?

Let’s begin by asking: Who is Montessori?

Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. She excelled in science and mathematics, and used her knowledge and determination to become one of the first women in Italy to receive a medical degree. Specifically interested in the fields of pediatrics and psychiatry, she began working with and observing children. In 1907, she opened a school in Rome for impoverished families. It was here at her first Casa dei Bambini that she developed all that she had learned and observed into the Montessori Method that we know today.

Maria Montessori spent the rest of her life developing and sharing her method with the world. She was a pragmatist, a visionary, and a humanitarian; a three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize; a friend of Gandhi, a guest of Woodrow Wilson, and an inspiration to Alexander Graham Bell. Today, we know Dr. Montessori best for the educational method that bears her name and continues her message: “follow the child, they will show you what they need to do.”

What is Montessori education?

Montessori education is a method based upon the life work of Dr. Maria Montessori. In 1907 Dr. Montessori founded a school where she developed and refined a method of education based upon her scientific observations of the children. Her approach to education was sustained by her belief that education was a means to create a better society. She observed children around the world and found that the laws of human development were universal and inherent in children of all races and cultures. The Montessori approach to education continues to be respected and practiced internationally today.

Dr. Montessori called her school “Casa dei Bambini” or Children’s House, and through her observation of and work with the children, Dr. Montessori came to a deep understanding of the fundamental characteristics of human development beginning at birth and continuing through adulthood. It was around this understanding that she constructed an educational setting, called the prepared environment, where children could develop along their own path and at their own pace. She meticulously created and maintained materials and classroom environments that, put together with a well-trained adult, created the perfect conditions for children to teach and construct themselves.

The Prepared Environment

The Montessori prepared environment is a living children’s house, a “home away from home.” Children choose their work from among the materials displayed on open shelves, and they work in specific work areas. There are a number of key elements that constitute a Montessori prepared environment:

  • Mixed-age rooms where children can learn from one another: Those who are younger and rely upon the assistance of older children and eventually those that become leaders themselves.
  • Freedom within limits. Children are free to choose activities of interest to them so long as they handle them respectfully, receive an initial presentation by the guide on a given material’s use, and its availability.
  • Uninterrupted block of time to “work” where the children may choose what to do and spend as much time as they need with any material given the conditions already mentioned.
  • A well-prepared environment that is child-sized and child-focused. The idea being that this is a place where the children are central and it is truly their environment.

Over a period of time, the children develop into a “normalized community,” working with high concentration and few interruptions. Normalization is the process whereby a child Montessori Children's Housemoves from being undisciplined to self-disciplined, from disordered to ordered, from distracted to focused, through work in the environment. The process occurs through repeated work with materials that captivate the child’s attention. For some children this inner change may take place quite suddenly, leading to deep concentration.

It is important to provide children with an early foundation that includes a positive attitude toward school, inner security and a sense of order, pride in the physical environment, abiding curiosity, a habit of concentration, habits of initiative and persistence, the ability to make decisions, self-discipline, and a sense of responsibility to other members of the class, school, and community. This foundation will enable them to acquire more specialized knowledge and skills throughout their school career.

The Role Of The Guide

Another extremely important component of any Montessori environment is a well-trained adult who is intimately familiar with the Montessori materials and their purposes. At Cathedral Hill Montessori School, we refer to our teachers as guides. The primary tasks of a Montessori guide are to:

  • Awaken the child’s spirit and imagination
  • Encourage the child’s natural desire for independence
  • Help the child develop the kindness, courtesy and self-discipline that will allow her to become a contributing member of society
  • Model for the child how to observe, question and explore ideas independently

To achieve these goals, the guide must first prepare a beautiful, orderly and simple environment that provides the necessary variety of purposeful activities for the child. The guide must also have a solid understanding of the developmental characteristics of the age range of the children he or she is working with, understanding that children’s needs evolve over time. The guide then will observe the children to know their individual needs and interests and direct the children toward work that is developmentally appropriate for them. This is combined with a dedication to observing the children constructively and and tailoring interactions with each child to know when, and how much, to intervene, is one of the most important talents the Montessori guide.

At the center of a child’s experience in a Montessori environment is a drive toward independence. This includes independence in self-care, thought, and action. A Montessori environment educates and helps develop the whole child by creating an environment where a child has freedoms within limits, an ability to practice both social and academic skills, and the room to nurture his or her emotional and spiritual needs. Dr. Montessori believed that each child can develop into his or her best self: an independent person who is able to act appropriately as a global citizen and contribute to helping create a better world community for all of us.