The Montessori Method
Updated: Feb 3, 2019
A look at the story of Maria Montessori, her Method and impact on Modern Childhood Education.
In many modern classrooms and homes, you can find traces of Montessori’s philosophy and practices. Today in the 21st Century, shopping for a toddler’s room often involves picking out child size furniture. Things were different before Montessori’s customised classrooms and her publishing became widely accepted. In the early 1900s, the adult was the focus point to the ways in which we related to children and educating them. Children were often thought to be a weaker, inferior version of us (adults). It was the status quo to believe that, children needed to simply sit still, remain quiet unless addressed, and adjust to the world we had designed. There wasn’t much thought given to learning curves, exploring the world through play and experiment, and the need for respect towards a child. Except for the seat in a classroom, children really had no say or place in their own education. Even the seat wasn’t designed with the child’s measurements in mind. It was simply be born, be taught, and become an able adult body who knows enough to work.
Who was Dr. Maria Montessori and the development of the Montessori Method: A brief history.
In 1907, the “Casa dei Bambini” (Children’s House) opened its doors, in Rome, to 50-60 children between the ages of 2 and 7 years old. The House was in an apartment block and formed to educate the children of lower income families in the San Lorenzo district of Rome.
It was the vision of a then 37 year old doctor called Maria Montessori.
This wasn’t the Doctor’s first time breaking new grounds. In 1890, against the advice of the Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Rome, she enrolled in a medical degree course that would earn her a “diploma di license”. This diploma allowed her to g o on and become one of the first female doctors in Italy.
A few years before the Children’s House became a reality, Montessori spent time in 1897 as a voluntary assistant, educating mentally disabled children. These children were living on the fridges of society, with many of them put in asylums and not given an opportunity to study. Simply because as many of them displayed physical abnormalities and character trades, they were then also not considered able-minded. During her visits to the asylums, Maria had many nuance observations: discovering their natural ability, desire and processes in comprehending the world. Her observations would go on to become the fundamentals to her educational works.
Appointed Co-director of the “Scuola Magistrale Ortofrenica” (Orthophrenic School), the school’s first class was comprised of 64 teachers. They came to study psychology, physiology and anatomy of the nervous system, specific methods of orders, characteristics associated to mental disability, and physical human measurements. It was during this period that Maria advanced in completing a large part of her method and materials. The work done here proved that education was possible and not wasted on disabled children. Some of them even went on to sit for public examinations and passed. The school’s success attracted attention from the Government’s Ministry of Education and well respected figures in the fields of Psychiatry, Education and Anthropology.
From 1901-1906, Montessori took to further independent studies and conducted experimental research in mainstream schools (both public and private). It was during this period that she started adapting her methods of education to typical children.
By 1908, the second Children’s House at via Solari in Milan was opened. A year after this, Maria held her first training course (in the method) to 100 students in Rome. That same year she wrote her first book, “The Montessori Method”, which would be translated into over 20 languages months later. During WW2, after escaping Mussolini’s demand for her method to be used in public schools to promote Fascism, Maria and her son Mario fled to India. While in India, her philosophy and educational method continued to spread in the West. She also took to writing
and publishing two books: “The Child” (1941) and “Reconstruction in Education” (1942). By the late 1940s, after the war, Montessori schools became accepted and revered educational institutions. Springing up in many major cities such as London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Barcelona, New York, Geneva, Berlin, Helsingor, Amsterdam, and Bombay (to name a few). In 1952, she passes away in the Netherlands, having left behind her namesake method and 10 published books that still act as guidelines in the studying and application of her method.
What is the Montessori Method?
“Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire ‘to make him learn things,’ but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called the intelligence” (Montessori, 1965, Dr. Montessori's own handbook, p. 240).
The Montessori Method is best explained by its distinct characteristics.
These characteristics fall under very specific philosophies and practices.
The Prepared Environment.
Mixed age classrooms.
Structure and Routine.
The Absorbent Mind and Sensitive Periods.
Approach to learning through independent work.
Four Planes of development
Care of one’s self, others and nature.
Respect for nature and natural law.
Respect for the child and their abilities.
The use of specific Materials in learning natural law and abstract concepts.
Approach to communication and discipline.
The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.” ( Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, 1949, p.84)
In her book, The Absorbent Mind, Montessori highlighted that the provision of a beautifully crafted environment needed to be prepared in line with the following natural law: “development comes from environmental experience” (Montessori, The Advanced Montessori Method, p. 89.) It is thus fair to say that the prepared environment is considered a cornerstone of the Montessori Method. In a classroom, this set up comprises of furniture made of natural materials (like wood, metal, stone, etc.). Pops of naturally occurring colour and natural elements like plants that helped to keep a neutral environment and reduce visual distraction. Communal tables and materials are sectioned into both conventional school subjects like Geography, Science, Language or Math’s, as well as Montessori focused activities like Practical Life. The space and objects was designed to allow for easy and free manoeuvre, access and thus could be maintained by a toddler. Furniture and objects (even sinks and paintings) are child-sized and if not, made accessible (with add-ons like boosters). Materials are deliberately displayed in open shelving. In preparation of the environment, objects are placed using simple logic which enables children to remember its place. Montessori encourages inspection of this environment on ones knees, as to gain the toddler’s perspective of the environment. In her book, “The Child in the Family”, these and more key features are also discussed and approved for a home environment.
Throughout her career as an educator, Maria commissioned the creation of simple but effective materials made of natural elements like metals, wood and glass. These materials aroused an interest in problem-solving using the human senses and gave visual aids to better grasp abstract concepts. Materials we often characterised by a self-correcting (in built control of error) design which promoted independent learning and logical natural laws and grow with the child (can be used over and over at direct ages to grasp evolving concepts). Working with them notably helped to calm especially undisciplined children.
In the First Children’s home, Montessori had days structured to a defined routine. Days generally began with greetings, note of personal cleanliness, exercises of practical life, conversation periods that stressed grammar and vocabulary in language, and both religious and intellectual exercises. Middays went along the lines of gymnastics, lunch and time for free “work” (play).
School days typically ended with cleaning up, creative work (like modeling) and collective gymnastics, gardening and/or singing in open air. While the Montessori schedule can come across very structured, it did leave room for freedom in each individual child’s choice of work. A vital part to each day was to have the children go outside for fresh air and to connect with nature. Montessori stressed that the human needed to be reminded of his place in relation to nature and that this had a way to refresh perspective and calm an individual.
The Montessori way of teaching, when compared to mainstream teaching methods of the times in which it was born, was and is still unique. In her books, she often wrote of the child’s instinct to work: "The child is by nature a worker, and when, by working in this special fashion, which is according to his nature, he can accomplish a great deal of work without ever feeling fatigue. When he works in this way he shows himself to be happy and by working in this way he also becomes cured of certain psychic anomalies that he had, and by curing himself of these he enters into a more natural form of life." (Montessori, 'Child’s Instinct to Work',AMI Communications1973, p.4, p.9).
Play is often referred to as “work” in this method. Replacing the word simply defines the importance of this activity. The use of the word, then tells the child and reminds the adult to recognise and acknowledge the necessity of “play” in education and thus development.
Enabled by the prepared environment and encouraged by the adult, children get to choose work based on their needs and interests. It is more likely that a child who has chosen to do something, over an adult making the choice for them, will dedicate himself to completing it. Teachers focus on working with not more than 2 children at a time. This goes as well for independent work with materials or on tasks. Unfamiliar materials and new processes are explained at first. Explanations are done with an emphasis on doing and showing rather than verbal instructions. Optimising the focus on materials and how they should be used and handled.
“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.”(Montessori,The Absorbent mind, p 24).
The absorbent mind of a child looks to mimic adult displays of behaviour and attitudes. This is especially evident in how they then function. With this in mind, adults conduct themselves in a calm manner with confidence and precision (attention to detail). Once this is done, a child is then given the opportunity to independently try to complete the task. Teachers observe from a distance to provide a peaceful environment for children to work at their own pace.
“The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, `The children are now working as if I did not exist.`" (Maria Montessori) Montessori believed this spoke to natural order and that children functioned and strived for success in such an environment. Children were given reasonable freedom in independence and responsibility.
Forceful and unnecessary help is to strip a child of recognising their capabilities, develop independence and succeed. It handicaps them by implanting self doubt in their own abilities. Help is thus only offered and only given once a child agrees to it. If danger will follow, the adult tells the child he will intervene to help or acts immediately based on immediate urgency. We are told not to interrupt the child’s concentration and processes in work with unnecessary verbal or physical guidance. This even goes for acknowledgement and praise as it takes away from the needed concentration, observation and absorption needed for learning.
Children are approached with respect (just as is expected of them to others), and adults are to come down to their eye level when communicating with them. The child was given an opportunity to learn how to care for himself, others and his environment. This is highlighted through activities in practical life. Learning and mastering independence in clothing themselves, using the toilet and brushing their hair and teeth. Helping others to clear up after free play together, or handing over ingredients to each other when cooking in a communal setting. And finally putting back objects in their rightful place after use, or wiping up a spill. In allowing for these opportunities, these types of work, we promote self-awareness and care, build confidence in oneself, arise respect and helpfulness towards others and their environment. We believe that with this self-discipline, an openness to outside moral guidance follows.
“Respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and try to understand them.” (Maria Montessori). This sums up the Montessori approach (for me) to discipline. Anything that sits outside of reasonable form in a child’s actions and behaviour needs to be addressed. Everything else needs to be understood in order to be praised, refined or further guided.
"The greatest development is achieved during the first years of life, and therefore it is then that the great care should be taken. If this is done, then the child does not become a burden; he will reveal himself as the greatest marvel of nature”. (Montessori,The Absorbent mind, 1949) Montessori’s observations were groundbreaking. Especially in regards to her ideas about the absorbent mind and sensitive periods. She observed that children had an absorbent mind till the age of 7. This meant they were at their most ideal and ready to learn at during these first years of life, simply because they had no preconceptions of the world at birth and thus had the ability to absorb anything they were exposed to. During the first 7 years of the absorbent mind, children had periods of heightened sensitivity to certain topics, and concepts. Montessori thus believed that at these sensitive phases, they should be educated on these topics of interest, and that compatible concepts of interest should be introduced and focused on. Some of these innate interests like for Math patterns, which appeared from birth to 3.5 years old, later on continued as a topic of more traditional education, Math. Others were associated with lifelong character forming, like emotional control which Montessori believed formed between birth till 2.5 years old. There was also attention to physical developments like movements that advanced from uncoordinated motor skills at birth to fully coordinated motor skills by 7 years of age. Sensitive periods like movement while consistently developing from birth till 7, still evolved when they overlapped with other sensitive periods. Like a sensitive period for small objects from 1-3.5 years old, or the special period for sensations from 2.5-6.5 which went hand in hand in the development of the consistent 7 years of Sensitive towards Movement.
The Montessori Method outlines 4 distinct Planes of Development.
These are simply 4 main stages of where the absorbent mind develops in different ways, thus affecting a child’s approach to learning and gives way to character forming. Maria explained each stage in great detail from birth (0) till adulthood (18). Classrooms are of mixed age ranges, usually broken up by these 4 planes of development.
Above all, these planes were fundamentally noted for changes in mental developments.
Birth to 3 and 3 to 6 Years Old (Infancy)
Children in this plane are referred to as “Sensory explorers”. Exploring and starting to learn about their environment, language and culture their senses. The Method covers these specific interests in two halves called sub-planes: 0-3 years of age and 3-6 years old. In the first sub-plane, the absorbent mind is still unconscious. Not yet conscious of her actions, reactions and the consequences they have in the real world. The child simply absorbs all that is offered to her without constructed self-filtering. The second sub-plane is when the absorbent mind becomes conscious. There comes the realisation of cause and effect, becoming conscious of her thoughts and her ability to think. This is the time a child will actively search to participate and be independent in action.
6 to12 Years Old (childhood)
In the Second plane children become “Reasoning explorers”. Applying their previously acquired knowledge (from the first plane) to the world through logic and experiment.
12 to 18 Years Old (adolescence)
This period is most comparable to the drastic strides in developments during the first plane. A lack of energy and motivation due to physical, emotional and mental growth is characteristic of this phase. Montessori believed it was at this phase that adolescents should be educated on how to independently care for themselves in the real world.
Likewise the first plane, this period can be broken up into two sub-planes: 12-15 years old and 15-18 years old. There are questions regarding identity, in an attempt to shed their childhood and make sense of this awkward and emotional middle point in their development.
18 to 21 and 21-24 (transition to adulthood)
This plane was also sub-categorised into two parts. From 18-21, an adolescent moves away from home and is learning hands-on how to function independently out in the world, a period of questing and working towards a specific career path. Often referring back to and applying skills developed in all the previous planes. During a person’s 21-24 sub-plane, the adult begins to settling into their identity and situation. They start to define the endeavours they want to continue on with.
A Societal Impact.
“Early childhood education is key to the betterment of Society”. (Maria Montessori). One-hundred years on, Montessori’s philosophies and practices have spread throughout the world. Many aspects of the method, described in this post (and more), are still well and alive in both private and public school systems, and in Montessori schools around the world
Here are some effects of the Method and its practices on Modern day schooling and philosolphies:
The importance and logic be associate with child size furnishing for schools, home and even places of public use. Placing emphasis on allowing the child to freely manoeuvre and access.
The current trend of toys to be educational, in built control of error, minimalistic, made of natural materials, and simple (clean cut) in design. Most of all ones that grow with the child.
The understanding most of the west has for play being a learning process and necessity towards child development.
Parenting approached and philosophies such as Elimination communication, Coming down to eye level of the child when communicating, some aspects of Physical freedoms in order to explore and learn found in parenting types like Free-Range or unschooling, when discipling a child giving them time out to rethink and reflect of behaviour, minimalistic approach to the accumulation of experiences over toys, keeping track of milestones in relation to parenting etc.
In teaching to read, the focus on sounds rather than memorising words from they way they appear (Phonics).
The mentality of Teaching children through doing rather than saying.
Developing motor skills through work with buttoning, zipping, lacing (dressing frames) etc.
The use of concrete objects to teach abstract concepts.
The emphasis be place on the observation of children while they play and "study" in order to recognise milestones, behaviour and needs.
Discovering the world through sensory activities/objects such as smelling bottles, taste tests, sensory books (books with patches that can be touched to feel and understand what textures feel like).
The use of Montessori developed materials and activities such as black and white infant flashcards, vocabulary pictorial cards, 3D geometric shapes, Colour matching, stacking blocks, picture to object matching, golden be a material, short bead stair bars, Hierarchical material,
Practical life activities as part of a curriculum or emphasis on learning to independently do these tasks even at home (watering or arranging a plant or flowers, hand washing, feeding an animal, laying the table, moving furniture, grace and courtesy, washing dishes, nose blowing etc)
The necessity we see for outdoor time and activity.
Including creative activities such as arts and crafts into a curriculum
Classroom materials for Infants and toddlers that promote movement such as inclined planes, stairs with rails, bars, wheelbarrows etc.
Music and dance as part of a curriculum, especially for infants and toddlers.
Keeping track of and understanding how to educate a child based on milestones/ phases in development (physical, metal and even sometimes spiritual).
Just to name a few.
Maria publicly advocated for social responsibility for ALL children and the greatest of efforts towards their treatment and education in school, at home and in society, regardless of creed, colour, disability, and economical/social standing. Her work has changed not only the way we educate today, but its influences reach beyond and deep into our understanding of children and our approach to them. Many of her philosophies have been proven over time with the advancement of Science and Child Psychology. For the most part, if your education did you some good, it is more than likely it had something to do with Montessori’s life works and advocacy.
The Montessori Guide
Four Planes of development
The Child’s work
What is the prepared environment?
Quotes from Maria Montessori
The kavanaugh report
The editors of Encyclopedia Britannica
Timeline of Dr. Maria Montessori’s Life
The Absorbent Mind
The ten secrets of Montessori - no.4 Sensitive Periods
Maria Montessori Biography
Dr. Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method, 1909
Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, 1949
Dr. Maria Montessori, Dr. Montessori`s Own Handbook, 1914