What Is The Montessori Method?
The Montessori Method was created at the beginning of the 20th century by the Italian physician and pedagogue Maria Montessori, creator of what we know as scientific pedagogy. Maria Montessori was the first Italian woman to finish university training as a medical doctor. She spent many years of her life studying the development of children, and in 1907 she created the first Montessori nursery in Rome, which she called Casa dei bambini.
Dr. Montessori concluded that children’s minds have the ability to absorb knowledge effortlessly. Not only that, children have the innate power to educate themselves. They are also able to carry out all kinds of useful tasks willingly. Punishing, threatening, offering rewards and comparing some children with others through qualifications and points were found out to be unnecessary and even harmful techniques. She realized that "To spare the rod is to spoil the child" was an approach that, in addition to being cruel and outdated, was doomed to failure. We know now that learning is a basic need for children, and during their early years they absorb knowledge from the environment as if they were little sponges. This will happen as long as the surroundings provide them with sufficient stimuli.
In her book, The Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori compares the functioning of the mind during childhood to an imaginary planet without teachers, in which anyone can learn just by walking through it:
If I told you that there is a planet where there are no schools, no teachers, no need to study, and where, living and walking, without further fatigue, the inhabitants get to know everything and firmly consolidate all that knowledge in their brain, would not it seem like a beautiful fable? Well, this, which seems so fantastic and sounds like the invention of a fertile imagination, is a fact, a reality; because this is the child's way of learning (...). It learns everything unconsciously, going slowly, from the unconscious to the conscientious (sic).
Taking these discoveries as a start point, the first Montessori schools established a pedagogical method that recognized the child as a being who was avid to acquire new knowledge and gifted with an innate ability to initiate the learning process without outside help. The centre of attention was transferred from the teacher to the child, who became worthy of the same respect due to an adult.
When the Montessori Method is applied in schools, they work very differently from the conventional schools that most of us attended during our childhood.
If an outside observer were to come to such a classroom by chance, the first thing that would catch their attention would be the reigning peace and concentration, despite the young age of the students. The children’s workspace is always neat and clean, and they contribute voluntarily to keep it in this state.
The classroom is divided into several learning areas, with materials displayed on shelves within the reach of children. The students freely choose the material they will work with, and for how long. There is only one material of each type, and children learn to patiently wait their turn if the one they want to use is already taken.
Classrooms are mixed-age, and all children collaborate harmoniously: six-year-olds are willing to help three-year-olds if they ask them to. Mixed-age grouping is not casual, and it helps children to put themselves in the role of teacher and student at the same time, as it naturally occurs in a mixed group of children who interact outside school. When an older child explains an activity to a younger classmate, he is forced to express what he already knows in a clear and concise manner, which reinforces his knowledge of that subject.
Montessori teachers don’t lecture in front of a blackboard, and students do not listen passively sitting at their desks. This peculiarity is much more surprising in groups over six years-old, the age at which the relationship blackboard-desk-passive student becomes the norm in almost all schools. On the contrary, teachers in a Montessori environment are known as "guides" because their role in the classroom is to guide children while they decide how to learn. Guides are not the focus of the class: their job is to follow the child's lead. The conventional approach, on the other hand, is much easier for teachers: their job is to set the pace while the entire class tries to follow. Some children find this pace too slow (which makes them get bored and labelled as “mischievous”), while some find it too fast (and soon get labelled as “bad” students). Montessori guides have to trust their pupils and have faith that they will concentrate appropriately once they find a topic that sparks their interest. A Montessori teacher’s role is to guide children to that very topic which will awaken their inner teacher, without interfering in their process of self-learning. Tasks performed by children in Montessori schools are always considered “true work", and as worthy of respect as the work done by an adult.
1. Parenting the Montessori way
The principles to be followed in the home are very similar to those used in a Montessori school. In our daily dealings with our children we will abide by the following key concepts, which will be expanded throughout the book:
- Instilling courtesy and patience by giving example,
- Letting the child learn while working and while teaching others,
- Giving priority to practical learning with physical materials (as opposed to abstract or digital ones),
- Accepting that, as parents, our role is to guide our children while they learn on they own, and not “to fill their heads with knowledge". Show them how to do something, but never force them to do it: that should be their choice.
It’s important to remember that using Montessori materials is not synonymous with educating the Montessori way. Just buying materials is pointless if we ignore the basics of this philosophy.
Some people find it strange that we are not supposed to interfere with a child’s learning by forcing them to do what we want them to do. Isn’t our role as parents to educate our children? Will they really manage to learn anything if left to themselves? How? Why? What takes place inside a child’s head to allow him to absorb knowledge just like that, just by existing?
The key to understanding this phenomenon can be found in the so-called sensitive periods and the inner teacher, which were discovered by Maria Montessori and whose main function is to build the personality and intelligence of children during their first years.
Children tend to seek independence from birth. Maria Montessori defines this as "a vital impulse that every child carries within", and warns parents of the need to allow this vital impulse to take its course, ignoring our parental need to make life easier for the child at all times: "In general, our efforts tend to be directed to prevent children from doing what they want to do: but the adult who counteracts a child is not only opposing this child but nature itself".
This vital impulse to seek independence is the child’s inner teacher, which guides him in his eagerness to get to know the world and progressively become an adult.
As educators, we must discard the archaic concept of children as an empty container which must be filled with (our) knowledge. In order to implement the Montessori philosophy in our household, we have to trust that children have the innate capacity to learn, when placed in an environment that provides them with enough opportunities to do so.
For example, a baby who is allowed enough freedom to move and investigate will start to crawl, stand and later walk, all in its due time and without being taught. We don’t need to sit a baby up nor drag him by the arms: all healthy babies end up learning to sit and to walk nevertheless, simply guided by the wisdom of their inner master. The same happens with speech and the rest of skills that are learnt during childhood: babies listen to adults speaking in their mother tongue and one day just start talking in that same language, although no one gave them a vocabulary list or grammar lessons.
We are not supposed to lift a child and move his legs in order to teach him how to walk. If we actually tried to do that before his body were sufficiently developed (for example, with a three-month-old baby), we would just cause physical harm, and the child would not learn to walk faster because of that.
Our true role as parents or teachers is to give children the opportunity to discover how to do things by themselves: in order for a child to learn to walk we just have to provide him with a safe place and enough space for practice. Nothing else.
Children learn at their own pace, which is not necessarily the same for everyone, but sensitive periods, which will be discussed later, can give us an approximate timeframe to know when certain milestones should be achieved.
3. Guiding the child
Leading by example
Montessori philosophy is not limited to the classroom, but it is a way of life. Therefore, even if your children already attend a Montessori school, there are many things that you can do at home to support what they are learning in the classroom.
The most valuable gift we can give our children is the possibility to grow up in a peaceful home, where calm and harmony prevail. We can buy all the Montessori materials on the market and create the most beautiful prepared environment at home, but it will all be pointless if we start shouting at them each time they make a mistake. Children whose parents often say thank you learn to do it too, on their own and without the need to ask them to remember "the magic words". Montessori education is meant to educate for peace and respect for others. This is the main goal, and it should be kept in sight, no matter how attractive Montessori learning materials may seem. Children’s brains keep absorbing and internalizing experiences throughout the whole day, and not only during the hours we decide to label as learning time.
Working with Montessori materials is a great experience for all children, but it shouldn’t be considered a substitute to going out, exploring and spending time in nature. Your Montessori endeavours are not meant to be enclosed to only a classroom. Movement is closely linked to the development of intelligence. Therefore, if there is a forest near your home, try to visit it frequently. If you live near the sea or a lake, make time for a stroll along the shore and pay attention to the changes brought about by the seasons of the year. Puddles, snails, sticks, stones and dogs: everything around us is new for a child, and offers many practical learning opportunities.
Finally, Montessori education begins by teaching respect: toward oneself, toward others and towards the environment in which we live. This includes things as simple as giving example by greeting our neighbours, asking for things politely (at home, too), striving to take care of our belongings and the planet we live on, etc.
Following the child
Guiding the child is synonymous with following his pace and accompanying him on his development.
As an example, let’s say my friend Hellen wants to go to buy a handbag. Probably she will call me and say: "Would you come and help me choose a handbag?”. Surely, she will not say "Will you come and choose me a handbag?”. Hellen wants us to walk together while we chat pleasantly. Once we arrive at the shop, the two of us will look at the bags, and I will give my opinion about them. If I see a bag with a broken zipper, I will warn her of the danger of taking a defective item home. But in the end, Hellen will choose the bag she wants and will pay for it herself, even if I don’t fancy that particular model.
This is an example where I accompany Hellen to the store. If I were to behave with Hellen just like we do with children when we try to teach them something, I would probably lead her to the shop and say: "This is the handbag that you must buy, and you’d better do it now!" The difference is remarkable!
Accompanying children in their development is something very similar: as a mother, I accompany my children by being present and by their side while they explore the world. I offer my skills and my opinion, but, in the end, I must leave them enough autonomy to carry out their tasks when they feel capable of accomplishing them. If my child believes that he can pour milk from a jug on his own, I am meant to accompany him while he does it, observing the process without intruding. And when he spills some milk (which will happen, without doubt, the first few times), my job is to remind him where he can get a cloth to clean the mess. If he has never wiped a table before, I will show him how to do it, so he can learn by watching me.
Every day we are presented with many similar situations. It’s common for a child to resist when situations such as the following arise:
- The child wants to put on his shoes by himself (probably wrong), or get dressed on his own,
- The child wants to bring a glass of water to the table (he might spill it),
- The child wants to brush his own teeth (and we as parents are worried about tooth decay).
- The child doesn’t want to ride in his stroller: he wants to walk (which means that it will take ages to get anywhere),
Finding the way to say “yes”
As parents we have to weigh the pros and cons of each situation, instead of saying "no" by default. In an ideal world, we could be Montessori parents 100% of the time and spend two and a half hours walking to the grocery shop so that our child is not trapped in a stroller against his will. In my opinion, it will be necessary to find balance by weighing up each situation separately. The goal is to be able to say, at least most of the times and with a big smile: "Yes, of course, you can do it yourself!"
Is there a way to approach the situations presented above from a point of view that respects the autonomy and self-learning impulses of the child? Is it possible to follow the rhythms of our children without moving to a parallel reality where time doesn’t exist?
If children want to get dressed on their own, it is very beneficial to allow them to do so. If they ask for help, we will try to do as little as possible (for example, instead of fastening their shoe, we can just show them with a movement of the hand how it should be buckled, without actually doing it). If they put their shoes on the wrong foot, we'll point it out instead of taking them off ourselves. If the child refuses to wear a jacket on a cold day, we will explain why it is a bad idea, and if they insist we can take the jacket and allow them to get out the door to check that, yes, it is cold indeed, and it would be much more pleasant to walk around wearing a warm jacket. Like this, we teach our children to be responsible and to be aware that every choice they make has its consequences.
When a child wants to take his glass of water to the table, we can show him first—slowly—how we do it, so he can imitate us. And if the water ends up spilled, we will help him to clean the floor.
If he wants to brush his teeth, we may let him do it. Once finished we will have a look and point out which teeth look clean and which weren’t washed properly, so that he can do it better the next time.
Finally, if a child wants to walk instead of riding in a stroller, we must encourage him to do so as often as we can manage it. The fastest way to learn to walk properly is to practice. The obvious solution to be able to allow children to walk at their pace is to get out of the house with plenty of extra time: but of course, in real life this is not always possible. So, we will try to encourage them to walk as much as possible, and take advantage of this time together to explain whatever we find along the way. Clearly, if our destination is too far away from home and we must take the child with us, we will have to take the stroller and use it if it starts to get late. My opinion is that each parent must assess the level of importance of each case, without becoming obsessed or feeling guilty if we can’t “Montessori” at all times.
The key concept is: "Teach me to do it myself."
Autonomy benefits our children, and time invested during their first years will be rewarded later:
- On the one hand, we will have children who know how to help at home and take care of themselves,
- And on the other, we will help them to become independent adults, who will have enough confidence to face any problem that life throws at them.
Each child follows a different rhythm
Following children in their development, without forcing them, means that some children will master certain skills much earlier than others. There is no need to worry: this is a basic fact of life that we have to accept.
Implementing the Montessori method does not necessarily mean that our child will be able to peel a banana or learn to read much sooner than his peers. A child might learn certain skills faster, indeed, if supplied with a rich environment which provides incentives and opportunities; but at the end of the day, how long it will take him to master a skill will depend solely on the child. We must remember that no two children are alike.
The prize is to get to the finish line
It is important to avoid competitiveness, rewards and punishments as far as possible. For example, sentences like: "let’s see who can finish their breakfast first" or "if you pick up your toys I'll give you some chocolate" are definitely not in accordance with the Montessori principles. Such an approach might get children to put away their toys, but their motivation would be external (receiving a prize) and therefore wrong. For the same reason we should not punish a child for spilling his milk, but instead show him how to pour it properly.
The biggest prize that a child can receive after doing something on his own is the inner well-being and satisfaction which comes with each achievement. It doesn’t mean we must behave with indifference or dismiss the efforts of the child. But it is important to let children take the initiative and let them be guided by their inner motivation: that is, by their curiosity and their will to learn new things and become better persons. Otherwise, they won’t be acting in accordance with their inner master, but led by the desire to receive a reward, which means that they will expect a reward each time they achieve a certain goal (i.e., every time the child manages to get dressed alone, or each time he walks all the way to school), and they will lose interest as soon as we remove the rewards.
Our goal is to raise children who behave well thanks to their own self-discipline and their own free will: children who discover how good it feels when you achieve something on your own and feel proud of yourself. If a child is "good" because he has learnt to obey without thinking and to fear his parents’ punishments, then we cannot say that this child has been educated in the Montessori philosophy, peaceful and obedient as he may seem at first sight.
4. The sensitive periods of the child
The sensitive periods are certain phases in the life of a child during which the child focuses on a specific aspect of his development; for example, speech, writing, etc. The child channels all his concentration and efforts until he achieves mastery of a particular skill, by following the steps dictated by his inner master. The role of adults during these phases is only to support the child's interests and provide an environment conductive to learning.
We, as parents and educators, must promote these sensitive periods when they present themselves; otherwise we will be obstructing the child’s desire for learning and his natural rhythm of development. This obstruction creates frustration in the child and can later have harmful effects on the psychology and the intelligence of the future adult.
On the other hand, we should not rush and try to push the child to try skills for which he is not yet prepared, especially if he does not show interest in them, since this would cause him anger and frustration.
There are four main sensitive periods that occur between birth and six years:
- Sensitive period for order (from birth until 4.5 years-old). During this sensitive period, the child feels a great need for routine and repetition. During this stage children need an orderly environment in order to be happy; everything must be kept in the place and events must always occur the same way. The world is a huge place, full of new and changing stimuli, therefore, at this age, the child needs order to understand the complex environment they live in: routines help them to anticipate the reaction that will follow a certain action. Order is a vital necessity for the child, and its absence causes a great mental distress.
- Sensitive period for movement (from birth to 4.5 years). This period is the most intense during the first year of life, during which the child develops both gross and fine motor skills (learns to walk and to use his hands skilfully). The environment must leave the child enough space to crawl and climb. If a baby spent the whole day lying in a small cot, where his movements are very limited and there is nothing interesting to grab, his necessary development would be held back right during the sensitive period for movement. Children learn the basic skills first (that is, picking up objects and walking) and gradually refine their movements: for example, they acquire new types of manual grip, which are more refined than their first attempts. The ability to move is, according to Montessori, closely linked to the development of intelligence.
- The sensitive period for the refinement of the senses (from birth to 4.5 years). During this stage, the child strives to understand and refine their five senses (taste, hearing, smell, sight and touch). The child begins to distinguish flavours (sweet, savoury, bitter…), rough and soft objects, loud and quiet sounds, etc. Learning to discern and classify the information that comes through the senses is a basic need in order to be able to explore and learn further. In Montessori schools, a great emphasis is put on sensory activities, which are designed to help the child to refine his five senses.
- The sensitive period for language (from birth to 6 years). Since birth, the child is fascinated by the sounds emitted by the rest of people around him. Thus, he starts by observing his mother’s mouth with great interest, and tries to imitate her and produce the same sounds, which at first are just meaningless babbling for his environment, but slowly become intelligible words. The language learnt during this period is known as the mother tongue, and it is absorbed effortlessly: we don't need grammar lessons, or to study vocabulary for hours. Children just have to listen to people talking around them. During this period of life, it is very easy for the child to learn a second or even a third language if he just gets enough exposure.
There is some confusion about the exact number of sensitive periods, and there is no consensus among researchers about which ones should be appointed and which should not.Therefore, aside from these four periods, we sometimes find references to the following ones:
The sensitive period for reading and writing (from 3 years on): when a child is continuously exposed to letters and written words in his environment, at a given time he will begin to express interest in replicating them (trying to write) and understanding them (trying to read).
The sensitive period for numbers and mathematics (between 4 and 6 years-old): the child begins to count objects and to think mathematically, thanks to the materials and experiences that we offer him (example: "give me five marbles").
The sensitive period for social interactions and courtesy (from 2.5-3 years on). The child realizes that he is part of a group and begins to play with other children. Up to this point he has played mostly on his own, perhaps parallel to other peers, but without interacting with them much. Once this sensitive period begins children start to discover the basic rules of coexistence with other people, and once they discover these rules they will probably try to break them in their quest to better understand them: they learn social norms by experimenting with them.
Some authors add the sensitive period for weaning to this list (which begins at the age of 6 months, although this does not imply that we should wean the baby exactly at this age!) This period officially begins when the baby begins to consume solid foods and ceases to be totally dependent on milk, taking one more small step toward his independence. The duration of this phase depends on the individual needs of each child and his mother, especially if the baby is breastfed. Currently, the World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for infants up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond. Montessori wrote about the benefits of breastfeeding (up to two years or more), not only because of its beneficial influence on the health of the child, but also because it allows babies to always be close to their mother, to watch what she does throughout her day and to learn by observing her as she goes about her daily chores.
5. The principles of Montessori Philosophy
So far, we have seen that children learn thanks to their inner master and the existence of sensitive periods, during which they feel called to practice a certain life skill.
The next step is to understand the basic principles of this philosophy, in order to be able to apply them to the activities we do at home:
- Accepting the existence of the absorbent mind and respecting the child’s sensitive periods: as we have seen, the child absorbs knowledge from their environment and passes through stages which focus on a specific skill (for example, reading).
- Following the child: learning must be individualized and adapted to the interests and needs of each child. To do this, parents and educators have to closely observe the child and recognize his needs and his preferences.
- Respecting the child as an individual: most adults, in general, do not show enough respect to children. Sometimes we force them to do unnecessary things without taking into account their individual needs, with an attitude that would be offensive if used with another adult. We forget that children admire us and wish to imitate us, and that the key is to treat them with kindness and respect, because they learn to behave the way we do, and one day they will turn into people just like us. Sometimes it’s possible to ask children to do something just like we would an adult, instead of imposing our will on them.
- Allowing children enough freedom: allowing your child autonomy is the key to discipline. Many people think that children are mischievous and naughty by nature. However, it does not have to be this way. If a child is allowed to choose what they want to learn, for as long as they want and the way they want to, the result will be a surprising capacity to self-discipline and concentration. Children who are allowed freedom to learn according to the dictates of their inner master tend to behave in a more disciplined and peaceful way than those who are forced in a direction that is not in line with the sensitive period they are going through. Children need freedom to explore, both inside and outside the home. Of course, we must watch them closely (for their safety), but we should let them investigate on their own as much as possible, even if this means they will get dirty in the process. If you are worried about stains, it is best to take them to the park in older and easy to wash garments.
- Learning by doing: we start with physical materials that the child can hold in his hands; abstract concepts come later. For example, it is much easier for a child to understand what the number "three" means if we show him three lemons, three pencils or three books, instead of just writing the number three, which is an abstraction and therefore harder to comprehend.
- Not disturbing the child while he is working: when a child is immersed in an activity which interests him, he is capable of carrying it out with a surprising capacity for concentration, and he can repeat it for long periods of time. For example, sometimes a child can transfer lentils from one pitcher to another for a long time. In the meantime, he is experimenting and absorbing unconsciously the position of his hands, the variations that occur if he rotates the jar in a certain way, what he can do to avoid spilling the beans on the table, etc. If you interrupt him, his stream of thoughts and self-learning will probably come to an abrupt end.
- Providing the child with appropriate activities: during the first years, we should give priority to sensory and practical life activities, because they support the development that takes place during the sensitive periods.
- Providing control of error: when selecting an activity, it is desirable that it allows the child to see for himself if he has solved it correctly or not. Montessori activities always offer a way to check for the results: this is what we call the control of error. The control of error can be a card with the solution (for older children) but, in many cases, it is just obvious: for example, after cleaning a table we find traces of stains in one corner, or we realize there is one box left after trying to sort them by size.
- Showing the child the right way to do things: if we want the child to learn to do something, we must demonstrate the activity first by doing it ourselves. More on this later.
- Creating a prepared environment: if the child's environment is carefully planned, it will enable him to carry out most tasks by himself. This way it will be easier for the child to take advantage of his full potential. In a prepared environment all the materials and experiences are always at your fingertips: for example, a child may have access to a water jug and glass whenever he is thirsty. This kind of environment offers many opportunities to learn new things every day (in the example, the child would easily learn to pour water without spilling it and otherwise to wipe the mess). The Montessori prepared environment allows children freedom of movement and choice, and they in turn become more active, curious, and hardworking than other peers who are not allowed to do anything by themselves (I know many three-year-olds who aren’t even allowed to eat soup on their own, in order to avoid stains on the tablecloth and on their clothes!). The prepared environment contains learning materials and everyday tools, such as a small broom and dustpan, ordinary crockery and cutlery, etc., and is adapted to the size of a child. It must always be clean and tidy, and children must contribute to keep it neat and in good condition.
In the next chapter, we will look at the steps to follow in order to create a Montessori prepared environment at home.
6. How to create a Montessori environment at home
Creating a stimulating environment at home, the Montessori way, is really easy and does not have to be a big expense: if you have not yet begun to furnish your nursery, creating a Montessori nursery can be even cheaper than a conventional one.
A children's corner in each room:
All the rooms in the house should be accessible for the child: a two-year-old measures less than forty inches, but he needs to wash his hands just like an adult. The child, from the moment he starts to walk, will benefit from having free access to the objects and appliances he needs during his day-to-day, just like the rest of family members. The easiest way to achieve this is to get a stool, which will allow for easy access to higher places, and leaving the lower closets and drawers for the child’s belongings.
Important notice: before implementing the ideas described below please don’t forget about basic safety guidelines, which apply to any household, Montessori or not. For example, tall dressers must be tethered to a wall, in order to prevent them from falling on the child while he tries to open a drawer. Lighters, knives, medicines, etc. should always be kept out of the reach of children.
The child's bedroom:
A well-planned child’s bedroom should respect the child’s need for external and internal order. The best way to achieve this is to use soft colours and natural materials, and try to keep the decor as minimalist as possible. An excess of toys and decorations creates external chaos.
Top picture: a baby's room.
Below, the same room prepared for a toddler.
The bed: ideally the bed should be placed very low. Low trundle beds are ideal, but a simple mattress on the floor can do, as long as it is kept clean and we regularly vacuum under and around it. This kind of bed allows the child to decide when to stand up after a nap, without the need to cry loudly in order to be withdrawn from the cradle by an adult. A crawling baby can get in and out of his bed in an autonomous way. When children are older than 9-12 months a low bed becomes almost a necessity, as many babies have been injured while jumping over the railing of a cradle in their attempt to escape.
The Carpet: next to the bed we can put a rug or mat. A soft rug is a nice surface to rest our feet when we wake up, and it offers a cosy place to play on the floor. Furthermore, it can be useful if a child rolls out of bed by accident, so that he doesn’t fall directly to the ground.
Decorations: decorations on the walls should be pictures with pleasant scenes, at the child’s eye height, so they can admire them with ease. Two or three framed pictures can suffice, and it’s better if the images are easily recognizable. An excess of ornaments, patterns, wall stickers, etc. is not recommended. It is best to choose pictures with realistic scenes (for example, children playing or taking care of a garden) and avoid cartoon characters and abstract art.
The mirror: we should choose a safety mirror and securely bolt it to the wall. We can further protect it with a bar (such as ballet mirrors), which should be installed at arm height so that babies can use it to hold themselves and stand. Mirrors are ideal in newborn bedrooms, but they can be overridden in older children’s bedrooms.
The furniture: the lowest drawers and hangers in the wardrobe should be reserved for the child's clothing so that he can access them without help. We will facilitate the task of choosing a proper outfit by providing a selection of clothes appropriate for the current season of the year and daily activities. The rest of clothes can be kept out of their reach to avoid confusion. The child must have at its disposal a low hanger on the wall, where he can hang his coat and his backpack when he gets home from school.
Books: we will offer a small book selection, which should be appropriate to the age, interests and reading level of the child. The best is to place them on a low shelf, where they will be able to see them and pick them up for reading whenever they want. It is a good idea to rotate the titles so that there are only a few available at a time, and they change every week.
Learning materials: if the child’s bedroom is going to be used as a working space, we will exhibit our Montessori materials in the bedroom, using low, open shelves as explained below (see living room).
Tables and chairs: ideally the child should have a small table and a chair where he can eat comfortably. If we do not have enough space at home, we can opt for a highchair at the family table which allows the child to safely climb in and out (we have been successful with Stokkes’s Tripp Trapp chair, starting around 18 months). High chairs have the disadvantage of making the child dependant on an adult in order to move it up against the table, and they are relatively difficult to get in and out of it if they drop some silverware.
Decorations: we can decorate the child’s table with a natural plant. The child will be responsible for watering it regularly. We must provide him with a small watering can, a rag to clean splashes and a place to keep his utensils when done.
A low drawer for the child’s crockery and cutlery.
Storage: we will reserve a drawer or a closet for the children’s plates, cups, bowls, cutlery and napkins. This way they will be able to set the table from a very young age.
Crockery and cutlery: children can use crockery and ordinary glasses, as long as they are supervised by an adult. Normally, if a child breaks a dish or a glass, he will learn from his mistake and try to be more careful next time. When this happens, we must help him collect the shatters without unnecessary admonishing, so that they can learn the right way to solve the problem. We probably would not tell off an adult friend, but we would say instead: "What a pity, it broke. Let’s clean this mess and find another plate for you".
Food: ideally, we should provide food that the child can eat by himself: baby-led weaning is not an intrinsic part of Montessori, but it is very much in accordance with Montessori philosophy, as it promotes autonomy from babyhood by offering the baby small pieces of food which he can eat without help. Sometimes it can be difficult, as parents, to allow a child to feed himself: the first few times there will be a lot of cleaning, and the baby might not eat as much as we’d like him to. However, it is worth insisting. To practice the use of a spoon we can start by offering yogurt or thick purées, which are easier to take to the mouth that a runny soup. A child that is allowed to use a spoon will eventually learn how to do it!
Step stools: it is desirable to have a step stool that allows the child to help us while we cook. Ikea Bekväm stools (see illustration) are very popular among Montessori families, as they are ideal for this task: they are lightweight, easy to carry and high enough for a child to reach all the necessary surfaces. Some parents decide to add a railing to the stool to make it safer and prevent falls, but in our home, we have always used conventional step stools (without railing) without problems. Anyhow, little children in the kitchen should be monitored closely and never left unattended, especially when using a step stool. Potentially dangerous items must be kept out of reach, such as stoves, knives, etc., and it is our job to take care that the child does not fall off the stool.
7: This sketch shows how to add a railing for a step stool so that children can help in the kitchen. Most shops such as Home Depot can cut wood strips for you if you don’t have the necessary tools at home.
Kitchen tools: we will provide the child with real working tools (avoid toy tools which can’t be used for actual cooking and are solely meant for pretend play), and if possible, adapted to children’s size. For example:
- A wooden spoon to stir food,
- A mixing bowl,
- A plastic knife (or a butter knife) which can be used to cut fruit or soft cheese,
- A cutting board,
- A plastic grater (use with care),
- A manual egg beater,
- Cleaning utensils adapted to their size (broom, dustpan, cloth rags, scouring sponges…),
- Cookie cutters,
- A rolling pin, etc.
Kitchenware suitable for small children: from top to bottom: 1) Plastic Knife "lettuce knife"; 2) Dull butter knife; 3) Plastic tweezers; 4) Child-sized rolling pin.
The living room
Most modern urban families do not possess a separate child’s playroom, and therefore the living room becomes their dedicated Montessori space. If you have the luck of possessing a nursery or a dedicated room for Montessori materials you can, of course, set up a prepared environment in there, but if you don’t, don’t worry! Just use your living room, children’s bedroom or whatever space you have at hand.
Shelves for learning materials: Montessori materials should be visibly set out on open shelves, within the reach of the child.
We must avoid crates and big toy boxes where toys get mixed and lost. These only create confusion and imply a lack of respect for the materials: educational materials should never be thrown into a box, but picked up and brought back to their place orderly instead.
Only a few materials should be exhibited at a time. When the child loses interest in a certain material we can remove it and offer another one. For practical reasons, especially if you have space shortage at home, materials which are not currently in use can be stored in boxes out of sight, in high cabinets out of the reach of children. However, the current materials should be available at all times, properly set up on open shelves.
Learning materials set out on shelves.
Other items which can be useful in a living room: an analogue clock (with hands) and a wall calendar (to learn the hours and the passage of time), a CD player, some musical instruments (piano, guitar, xylophone…), etc.
Step stool: we must provide the child with a safe step stool that allows him access to the faucet, in order to wash his hands before lunch or after a walk in the park.
Potty or toilet seat adapter: children can empty their potty into the toilet on their own; a toilet seat adapter will spare us cleaning the potty, but the child will need a stepping stool in order to climb on it.
Personal care items: the child should have basic personal care items at his disposal, such as:
- A small comb or hair brush,
- A toothbrush,
- A towel and a place to hang it,
- A bar of soap or a liquid soap dispenser,
- A mirror, set at the right height (if there is no space to hang an extra small mirror at a lower height he will use the mirror in front of the sink, climbing on a step stool).
Basic properties of a Montessori material
Learning materials or toys?
Montessori educational materials should not be confused with toys. In a Montessori home, the number of conventional toys should be minimized, especially those which are made of plastic, are noisy, or feature many bright lights and buttons. Today, almost all toys on the market are advertised as "educational" or "early learning", but sadly they are far from that (just step into a toy shop and check for yourself). It seems most parents would like their children to learn while they play, and many sellers want to jump on the bandwagon of early learning without much effort or research on their part. In fact, some of those “early learning” toys are not educational at all, but instead cause confusion and overstimulation and hinder the use of imagination (interestingly enough, it is not uncommon for young children, given the choice, to choose sticks and stones as toys instead of highly manufactured plastic items). I don’t imply that you have to go and get rid of all your children’s toys right now if you have already bought them (please don’t! For the planet’s sake, if you decide to purge, donate or sell them, but don’t send them to a landfill). It’s not about forbidding children to use certain toys, but just like we wouldn't eat sweets for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it’s not a good idea to overwhelm the child with dozens of noisy toys at all hours of the day.
Nowadays, there are still many adults who think that it is impossible for a child to have a happy childhood if he owns just a few toys. Advertisements, TV commercials, and aggressive holiday campaigns push us to believe that a joyful childhood is synonymous with buying many toys, be it dolls, stuffed animals or plastic figures. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Maria Montessori reports how, when she began to work in her case di bambini, they decided to let the children choose which items they would like to have in their environment: "In the beginning there were many toys, but [gradually] the children started to put them aside.”. It was the children themselves who decided that learning materials and practical life utensils were much more interesting than conventional toys.
At home, we have to attract children’s attention with eye-catching materials that will be able to arouse their interest. In my experience, this is a little more difficult to achieve at home than in a classroom, because children who attend a Montessori school spend many hours a day in a prepared environment, which is orderly, limited and full of beautiful materials, and there are many other children to watch and imitate. At home, however, our environment tends to contain many more distractions and disorder: ordinary toys will compete with learning materials, and the child will find many more distracting items than he would in a Montessori classroom. Children do love working with Montessori materials, but older toddlers, especially if they attend a mainstream school, will tend to prefer strongly advertised toys that their classmates have (usually related to cartoon characters, videogames and commercials you can see on TV). As a parent it’s hard to compete against whole marketing teams whose sole focus is to sell certain toys to our unknowing children. Luckily for us, most children will quickly get tired of fad toys and decide of their own free will to try the Montessori materials that we have prepared for them. Then they will most likely devote themselves to this work with great joy and concentration. The only real problem of fad toys is that, more often than not, our children possess too many of them, which causes chaos in the environment and consequently in the mind (and the behaviour) of the child. Most children I know have whole trunks filled with toys, and instead of playing with them properly they tend to entertain themselves by taking them out and spreading them all over the house. I often meet parents who are skeptical and don’t believe that children could prefer having fewer toys and more educational materials. In these cases, I like to invite them to do the following test: hide all the toys except for the three favourite ones, and see what happens. Usually, their child appreciates the new order and starts to play in a much more quiet and peaceful way. My suggestion is to limit access to a large mass of conventional toys, as otherwise the child will spend the entire afternoon picking them up and forgetting them in random places, and in the end, it will be time for dinner and you will realize you haven’t done anything useful. With toys, less is more: two or three is enough, and they can be rotated on a weekly basis.
Montessori learning materials
Learning materials, just like their name implies, are meant to help children learn something. They imply true work for the child and they should be treated with respect, just like all professionals address the tools of their trade: a gardener takes care of keeping her shears sharp and a tailor oils his sewing machine regularly. We must honour the materials which help us learn, and respect the child who is using them.
Children, unlike adults (who, more often than not, do not enjoy their work much) often perform their tasks with great joy. For them, working is learning, and learning is a fascinating experience. You only have to look at the happiness of a two-year-old child who is allowed to water the plants or use a miniature broom to sweep the floor.
Characteristics of educational materials
In order for an object to be considered a Montessori educational material, it must meet the following requirements:
- The material must isolate one particular property, which is appreciated with one of our five senses. For example, a Montessori activity must focus on colours, or shapes, or smells, but never on these three things at the same time.
- The material must allow the child to realize mistakes on his own: children take critical decisions constantly as they work, with the intent of discovering the solution to the problem that is presented to them. The control of error at the end of the activity allows children to assess whether they have done it correctly or not. If they have done something wrong, they can consider it a challenge and try again, without feeling judged negatively by an adult (there is no need to tell them "you have made a mistake" because they can see it for themselves).
- The activity must be limited and contained (for example, in a box without a lid or on a tray), to minimize confusion and disorder. It will also avoid pieces getting scattered and lost.
Isolating one quality: in this case, we have isolated geometric shapes: they are all made of the same material and of the same colour.
- Appealing appearance: the materials must be pleasing to the eye so that they can attract the child's attention and invite him to explore. Even adults prefer to write with a beautiful pen or to read a book with an attractive looking cover.
- Materials can be classified into three main categories:
- Sensory materials, which stimulate the five senses and help build cognitive skills
- Practical life materials, which are common household objects that we use daily (jugs, brushes, forks, brooms…). They help children to become independent and self-assured,
Academic materials, which can belong to one or several disciplines:
- Natural sciences,
- Foreign languages, etc.
- Finally, as we already discussed, Montessori materials should be set up attractively on open shelves, always in sight and within reach of the child. Children must be able to decide when to use them and for how long.
How to present Montessori materials
We need to present or demonstrate each material to the child before leaving him alone with it, so that he can find out the right way to use it.
Montessori schools have a defined way of presenting each material. This allows for consistency if different teachers demonstrate the same material to a child at different times, and ensures that the presentation is optimized, so that it can be easily understood by the majority of children in the school. However, in the family environment, it is not strictly necessary to learn the accurate presentation of each of the materials, as it would probably take too much time and effort.
If we take into account certain rules before handing out the materials, we will be able to apply the Montessori Method successfully at home:
- Before we begin, we need to make sure that we know well the material that we are going to present, and we know how to use it correctly.
- We invite the child to come with us to search for the material. If he has pointed it out to us before, we can come closer and tell him something like: "Are you interested in this material? Do you want me to show you how to use it?". This step is important for two reasons: first, because there is a great difference between inviting a child to do something and telling him to do something. And second, because the child will later have to put the material back, so it is good that he knows where we took it from.
- We will make the presentation in an accurate and deliberately paused way, stopping briefly at every completed step. We, adults, are accustomed to doing the same activity over and over again and therefore tend to do everything too fast for children to grasp the essential details.
- While we use the material it is convenient to minimize our movements and our comments, so that the child can focus all his attention on observing how we are using the material. It is important to remove from the presentation anything superfluous. In case of doubt, it is best to present the material in absolute silence, and let our hands speak for themselves.
An exaggerated example of a failed presentation, with an excess of superfluous words, would be: "Look, this is a pitcher, just like Aunt Mary’s, do you remember her? Although this one has butterflies, yes and ours is made or plastic, while hers was made of glass…". In this explanation, there are absolutely too many words. If we were to use this technique, we would just confuse the child, taking his thoughts from the jug to Aunt Mary and then to butterflies and plastic jugs, and sharply away from the essence, that is, simply pouring water from a pitcher to a glass.
A preferable version to the previous one could be, for example, something like: "This is a pitcher. I take it by the handle. Now I place the beak over this glass. Now I pour the water into the glass."
And in most cases, the best example would be, quite simply, to make every move at a very slow pace, with accuracy, without any comments and leaving our hands to be the ones who speak to the child. Like this, we can achieve the greatest possible concentration on the part of students who are watching us, because their thoughts will not get distracted by verbal language.
Generally, materials are presented from left to right and from top to bottom. This subconsciously prepares the child for reading.
If the child is not paying attention, it is better to pick up the material and return it to its place. It makes no sense to force a child to observe a presentation he is not interested in.
Once we have shown the child how to use a material we will allow him to try on his own if he so wishes.
We then will look at the child silently while he works, without making any comments, and especially without pointing out each error he makes. The key is to be present and accompany the child while he works on the activity, but avoiding unnecessary interruptions.
When the child finishes the activity, we will pick up the material and leave it in the same state as we first found it, and we will then put it back to its place on the shelf. Then we can tell the child: "I'm going to leave this material here. If you’d like to, you can pick it up and use it whenever you want." With this, we make sure that the child knows he has permission to pick it up if he wants to.
Generally, when the educator demonstrates the use of a material for the first time, it is him or her who puts it back in its place. But the next time a child picks it up on his own, he must put it back too: this last step is also an important part of the activity. We must also respect the rule of not taking out a new material until the previous one has been put back.
If we wish to present our materials in a more professional way, at the time of writing this book there is a wonderful website with detailed explanations, step by step, for the most popular Montessori materials.
The three-part lesson
There are several types of lessons in the Montessori Method, but this is probably the most widely known one. It is typically used to teach children vocabulary or new concepts.
First, we will need two or three new concepts that we would like to introduce. They should be clear and concrete.
Say, for example, that we want to teach the child three letters of the alphabet: S, A and L.
We will perform it according to the following steps:
- LISTENING: during the first step, the child only has to listen to the names of the new concepts we are presenting to him:
"This is the S, this is the A, this is the L".
- RECOGNIZING: during the second step, we ask the child to point at the correct object:
"Can you give me the letter A?"
At this point, it is possible that the child makes a mistake. If he does, we should never say "No!", or, even worse, "That’s wrong!". The only thing we have to do is show him the right answer and go back to the first step.
- REMEMBERING: by the last step, the child should be able to remember the name of each object without our help.
We ask: "What is this?"
If the lesson has been successful, the child will answer correctly: "This is the letter A."
If not, we will simply return to the second step (or the first one, if necessary) to help him memorize the new concepts.
Three-part cards are a well-known Montessori material which are also used very often. They are very versatile, and they allow children to learn all kinds of concepts: the continents of the world, the names of wild animals and medicinal herbs, the names of the tools used in a mechanical workshop, etc.
When used with very young children (less than three years-old), three-part cards can help us teach new words: we show children an image and then say the name of the pictured object. This can be done by using the three-part lesson explained in the previous section. Our lessons should not be centred on printed cards, though, because at such an early age children respond better to hands-on learning and they understand actual objects better than their pictures.
When we work with older children, from three to six years-old, we print the cards twice, as follows:
- First, we cut one copy of the card so that the image and its name stay together;
- Then, we take the other copy of the same card and separate the picture from the text.
Once we have finished cutting the cards, we can spread them on a mat and start working.
First, we put on the table the cards which are labelled.
After that, we try to find on the table the other two cards which contain the same image and the same word, and place them both next to the labelled card, as shown in the picture below.
In some cases (when working with schoolchildren who can already read well) we add a fourth card, which includes a textual definition of the image (for example, "a peninsula is an area of land surrounded by water on all sides except for the isthmus, which connects it to a continent").
It is a very simple activity, and most children like to play such matching games. They stimulate the acquisition of new vocabulary and help them with reading. If the child uses a certain three-part card set often, he will be able to learn new concepts almost effortlessly just by manipulating the cards.
When Montessori activities go wrong
Sometimes, as parents, we spend hours creating a new learning material for our child, imagining how excited he will be when we finish it.
And what happens then? The child looks at the new material for one second and goes by without even touching it.
Or maybe he finds it interesting, picks it up, uses it for five minutes and decides that it was enough.
Or instead of sorting the material by colours—as we had anticipated—he decides to build a tower with it or make a star shape with its pieces on the table.
When this happens (and we can expect this to occur from time to time, even if we do everything perfectly), we must begin by asking ourselves the following questions:
Is this activity appropriate for the developmental stage of this child, right now? Have we taken into account the sensitive periods of this concrete child, or were we misguided by our own preferences?
Maybe I find marine animals incredibly interesting, and so I have prepared a sensory activity with sand and shells, three-part cards about jellyfish and bowls full of paper fish for counting. But what my daughter really wants is to learn to tie her shoes, or to smear butter on bread. And for this reason, I could prepare the nicest materials in the world, but she is going to look at them for five minutes and then run out to the shoe cabinet and try to put on her shoes in the middle of the hallway until she manages to do it for the fifth time in a row.
The likelihood of success of an activity is much higher if we choose tasks which increase in difficulty, starting with the most basic ones. For example, for a child who has never poured water from a jug, it may be easier to start pouring granulated materials with a wide-mouthed container (for example, pouring chickpeas into a wide bowl) than giving him a pitcher full of orange juice and a small cup to begin with.
Did we observe the child closely and follow his particular rhythms? Is he too tired? Did we take into account his physical and emotional needs? Perhaps he needs a nap first, or is hungry, or needs to go run outside, or has spent all day at school and all he wants right now is to cuddle with his mother on the sofa while she reads him a story.
Did the child really perform the activity incorrectly?
Children learn by exploring. Let’s say we give a child some boxes so that he can learn how to open and close them, but he decides to sort them by size or build a tower with them instead. We cannot conclude that he didn’t learn anything from this activity. The child, from his individuality, simply found an alternative way to use this material and decided to explore concepts which are different from the ones we expected. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is simply a sign that the child has a perfectly working mind, which will guide him step-by-step on his way to becoming an adult person with original ideas.
Did we interrupt the child?
Sometimes, if we interfere with children’s work by correcting the position of an object or asking whether they need help, they will lose their concentration, and then their interest. Suddenly, we have pulled him out of the learning reverie into which he had fallen, making him forget about the activity and diverting his attention to other distractions present in the environment.
Did we present the material correctly?
Did we prepare a true Montessori activity?
Finally, let us not forget: it is normal for children to behave as… children! And as such, they are full of energy and need to run, jump and scream from time to time. We must leave them space to be children, and understand that their need for movement is vital. The only thing that we must make clear to the child is that our learning materials deserve respect, and therefore it is not allowed for anyone to break them, tear them or throw them to the floor on purpose. If they have an excess of energy we must help them channel it towards other non-destructive activities, such as running, jumping or climbing in the park.