What is Montessori?
Dr. Maria Montessori, working as one of the first female doctors in Italy in the 1800s, developed the Montessori Method through scientific and objective observation of children while working at a clinic in Rome. She dedicated herself to understanding how children learn and how this could be best facilitated. Dr. Montessori opened the first Montessori classroom in Rome, the Casa dei Bambini – House of Children – in January 1907. Dr. Maria Montessori called her work “an education for life” as her goals were not merely academic progress, but foundational skills and characteristics that prepare children for life.
1. Follow the child
The children are at the core of all Montessori classrooms. A deep understanding of each child within the community is crucial in order to provide a rich and fulfilling learning environment and experience.
When a child shows a particular interest in one area, it is known as a sensitive period. This describes a moment when the child is particularly attuned to learning a particular skill and concept and it happens with ease and without effort.Simone Davies, p.16, The Montessori Toddler
Catching these sensitive periods results in a burst of activity and development, fulfilling the inherent needs of the child. The specific sensitive periods for Toddlers are discussed in the following section.
Of course, children are still able to learn skills outside these sensitive periods. It may simply require more conscious effort.
2. The Prepared Adult
The adults in the school, the teachers and their assistants, prepare the environments to best suit the needs of the child. Our teachers are all specially trained to understand the needs of the child and to apply Montessori philosophy practically and flexibly depending on the specific groups of children in their classrooms.
Observation is the most crucial aspect of the Montessori teacher’s job. Much like Dr. Montessori, the teacher takes an unbiased and factual account of a child’s actions and of situations as they unfold. The teachers then reflect on these observations to determine the needs of the child and how best to guide him or her.
The Teacher as the Guide
The teacher facilitates the child’s learning as a link to the materials, to other children in the classroom, and to the environment at large. The teacher introduces lessons and activities best suited to the child, challenging enough to keep the child engaged, but not too difficult that it would provide a barrier to a child’s learning. The teacher is the role model and leader by which the expectations of the class stem from the top down.
“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.”Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
3. The Prepared Environment
The classroom – including the type of furniture, layout of shelving and materials – all comprise the prepared environment. The teacher is tasked with making the environment a child’s world with the child’s point of view carefully considered in every detail. The environment is safe and attractive so that:
- Children are free to explore, learn and flourish
- Children are able to be independent
- Children are provided with rich and real experiences
- It appeals to the child’s needs and sensitive periods
Further reading on the prepared environment: https://odysseymontessori.com/independence-preparing-the-environment-to-say-yes/
4. Carefully curated materials that foster hands-on, concrete learning
Characteristics of Montessori Materials:
- Targets one skill
- Children are given the opportunity to practice a particular skill through hands-on experience with materials; the skill is refined through practice and repetition
- Natural materials
- To provide children with rich sensorial experiences through exposure to natural materials – e.g. glass, brass, silver, wood
- All pieces are present so that the child can follow the activity through from its beginning, middle to its natural conclusion
- Easily accessible
- Sized appropriately to the children in the classroom
- Placed on shelves that are clearly visible and attractive for children to retrieve and return independently
- Appeals to sensitive periods
- Activities are created to pique a child’s interest and engage a child’s senses
- Invites the child to repeat the activity until skills are mastered
- Materials provide tactile feedback so that children often do not need external corrections
- E.g. the puzzle piece does not fit in a certain spot or the nut does not screw on when twisted in the opposite direction
- Allows the child to fully own the “Aha!” moments of discovery
- The teachers observe and respectfully step in only when necessary
- Materials provide tactile feedback so that children often do not need external corrections
5. Freedom and Limits
The classroom is set up as a “yes” space with appropriate activities that are easily accessible, tools close at hand and an air of respect and safety permeating the community.
Respect – a two-way street
Children are free to explore, work with materials, and do for themselves within the limits of purposeful work and respect for the community, the physical environment and all within. There is only one of each activity on the shelf. Children develop patience and respect while waiting on other children to complete their tasks.
In order to protect each child’s focus and engagement in activities, expectations are in place so that peers and teachers do not interrupt a child while this wonderful process in underway.
Further reading on freedom and discipline: https://odysseymontessori.com/freedom-and-discipline/
6. Independence and Responsibility
Help me to help myself.
Children are provided with all the tools necessary to succeed in an environment safely curated to their capabilities. Teachers provide lessons, showing children new skills. As children are given the agency to act, they are able to take on a variety of responsibilities – dressing themselves, cleaning up after themselves, helping others, contributing to the community, and completing activities independently. This allows the child to fulfill their need to be his or her own person, taking pride in one’s own accomplishments.
Further reading on independence: https://odysseymontessori.com/help-me-to-help-myself-independence/
An Overview of the Montessori Toddler Community
With the foundational Montessori characteristics in mind, let’s step into the Montessori Toddler Community, also known as the Young Children’s Community. This refers to our classrooms with children from 18 months – 2 ½ years old.
The First Plane of Development – Toddler Characteristics
Of course, as children and human beings are all different, milestones and characteristics can vary in terms of timing.
Our Montessori Toddlers fall under the first half of the first plane. This is the first foundational period of one’s life.
At this point, children are seeking physical and biological independence. They have a very literal and concrete understanding of the world; they are just learning about the world and adapting to their real-life situations.
Consistency and order are key to help children categorize and make sense of all that’s going on around them. They need and crave the freedom to explore but require limits to understand what societal and familial expectations are and what is safe.
These children live in the moment and follow their impulses. Their senses and their instant desires drive their will to explore and take in everything about the world.
These children want to feel involved and included; they want to contribute. They want to be able to do for themselves and be part of the community.
This is a period of rapid growth and change. They need to communicate their individual needs, wants, and thoughts.
These children are learning unconsciously and effortlessly internalizing all that they are exposed to. Providing children with rich, well-rounded experiences is crucial at this stage. Dr. Maria Montessori referred to this as the child’s absorbent mind.
….the tiny child’s absorbent mind finds all its nutriment in its surroundings. Here it has to locate itself, and build itself up from what it takes in. Especially at the beginning of life must we, therefore, make the environment as interesting and attractive as we can.Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
These children work in parallel with one another, working toward give and take and sharing by the second half of the first plane.
Sensitive Periods for Toddlers
As mentioned previously, sensitive periods are areas of keen interest to children where learning comes effortlessly.
These sensitive periods and Toddler characteristics are taken into consideration in the development of the activities within the Montessori Toddler classroom.
The Montessori Toddler – 5 Main Activity Areas
These activities are readily accessible on shelves for children to select and work with for as long as they would like. Activities are rotated and modified with the needs and development of the children in mind.
1. Hand-eye coordination
Children are refining their control over one of their most valuable tools – their hands. A variety of activities target specific movements – from grasping with the whole hand to grasping with two to three fingers.
He does it with his hands, by experience, first in play and then through work. The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
2. Music and Movement
Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of his mind comes through his movements.Dr. Maria Montessori
Music is a means of self-expression, community, communication, and movement. Rhythm, rhymes, musicality, melodies, and lyrics are wonderful tools to bring peace, joy and excitement to the children.
3. Practical Life
Practical life is a pervasive curriculum area in the Montessori Toddler Community as well as in the Casa classrooms. Practical life helps the child adapt to their environment, contribute to the community, and develop self-sufficiency and a sense of responsibility. These include activities of daily life such as food preparation, dressing one’s self, tidying up, care for plants, baking, and much more.
Activities become increasingly more complex as children develop their ability to focus for longer periods of time and their capability to follow through on an increasing number of steps toward its conclusion.
Further reading on Practical Life: https://odysseymontessori.com/curriculum-spotlight-practical-life/
4. Arts and Crafts
Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.Dr. Maria Montessori
Easels, chalkboards, colouring, and gluing activities are present and available for children to use. Seasonal crafts are also implemented as children use a variety of methods for self-expression and tangible outlets of their imagination.
Language is present in day to day conversations, through stories and music, and through dedicated Language activities on the classroom shelves.
Teachers speak naturally and selectively to ensure that children are exposed to rich, beautiful, and well-rounded language. Stories are chosen for their real, relatable content. Poems and finger plays are chosen for their intricate rhythms, word play and structures.
As with other aspects of the Montessori curriculum, concepts are introduced in the most concrete way possible and then abstracted as the children’s understanding solidifies. Vocabulary lessons are done with baskets of three-dimensional tangible objects that fall under the same category – e.g. fruits, vegetables, vehicles, animals. Children are introduced to the object and the corresponding name. These then move toward photographs, a more abstract representation of words.
Further reading – Language Preparation for Casa: https://odysseymontessori.com/language-preparation-at-school-and-at-home/
Math – A Natural Part of the Day
Although Math is not a direct curriculum area with specific designated activities within the Toddler classroom, Math is naturally present in day to day activities. This is apparent as children bake, complete activities, help themselves and others in the classroom, or have snack.
Children gain the sense of less versus more, of full versus empty, of too much water in a cup or bowl versus just enough.
Children may learn the names of numbers as part of their vocabulary acquisition, through stories, music, poems and songs.
Classification of objects and following activities through from beginning to end enhances a child’s logical and Mathematical mind. It appeals to the child’s sensitivity to order and tiny details.
In our work, therefore, we have given a name to this part of the mind which is built up by exactitude, we call it the ‘mathematical mind.’Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Further reading – Math in Casa: https://odysseymontessori.com/curriculum-spotlight-arithmetic-part-1/
Transitioning from the Toddler Program to the Casa Program
These children are moving from simply accepting and adapting to the world around them (0 – 3 years) to a child asking why and how (3 – 6 years).
These toddler children have gained some physical and biological independence. These children are:
- out of diapers, and
- able to maneuver bottoms and underwear independently, and
- able to toilet with little to no help from an adult, and
- able to eat and drink independently, and
- beginning to dress independently or with a little help, and
- able to communicate needs and wants
These toddler children are looking for more challenging materials and begin to show the seeds of self-discipline and longer periods of focus.
Of course, a child’s readiness to move to the next classroom can vary from child to child.
Much like the culminating year of the Montessori Casa cycle, some children benefit most from experiencing leadership in their current Montessori Toddler community. They have spent months learning and growing within the same classroom and feel safe and secure within the same routines and expectations. This security provides the child with an ease and confidence; this helps the child focus on consolidating his or her learning and acting as a role model for others in the community.
As with other aspects of a Montessori education, the teachers listen to the children’s needs and adapt the environment and activities within to fulfill these.
Further reading about the Full Casa Cycle: https://odysseymontessori.com/the-childrens-house-an-overview-of-the-full-montessori-casa-cycle/