Maria Montessori saw that children learn best by doing and that happy self motivated children form positive images of themselves as confident and successful beings. Maria Montessori introduced self teaching materials that aide independence and the interest to learn from a young age. Montessori education is driven by an ambitious aim: To aid the child’s development into a complete adult human being, comfortable with himself, with his society and with humanity as a whole. Whereas the traditional approach to education, which prevails today, remains focused on the transmission of prescribed blocks of knowledge, the Montessori approach is focused on giving support to the natural development of the human being. This is done with the understanding that the fully developed human being is then better disposed to learning the things that he needs to become an integrated and contributing member of society. The substance of the human being – the development of character and integration of the whole personality, are traditionally approached as values that must be instilled into the child. The result is children who are bored or stressed and a society with increasing levels of mental illness.
Montessori education begins with the understanding that the role of the adult is to help the unfolding of the child’s inborn developmental powers. The child, from the earliest moments of life, is possessed with great constructive energies that guide the formation of his mind and the coordination of his body.
Montessori education seeks to provide the child with an environment ideally suited to his stage of development which allows him to respond to the inner call of specific ‘sensitivities’, and the freedom to act in accordance with the natural behavioral tendencies. This provides a secure and permanent foundation on which to base education, if education is viewed as a method to fulfill the optimum potential of the child in every facet of his emerging personality.
The child needs a place designed to meet these innate sensitivities and tendencies. This place, or ‘prepared environment’ is different for each developmental plane, but guided by the same principles. The prepared environment and the role of the teacher in the classroom distinguish Montessori from other educational approaches.
The most widespread examples are the Montessori environments prepared for 3 -6 year olds. At this formative age the child is consolidating the formation of the self as an individual being that began at birth. The environment is set up as a bridge between the home and the wider world. Montessori called this place The Children’s House.
The other areas of the curriculum for the children of this age are the ‘sensorial’ materials, mathematics, language and culture. The sensorial materials respond to the way the child learns at this age – through the senses rather than the intellect. There are materials for the refinement of each sense, with each activity isolating one particular quality, for example colour, size, loudness, taste or weight.
Materials That Aid Independence
The materials themselves invite activity. There are bright arrays of solid geometric forms, knobbed puzzle maps, coloured beads, and various specialised rods and blocks. All the materials in a Montessori environment are designed for maximum independence in the child: Everything, including a dustpan and brush, is child sized; activities are laid out in an orderly way on easily accessible open shelves; and the design of the materials make it easy for the child to identify, and gradually correct, any error. This last point all but eliminates the need for correction by a teacher, a feature that has become a mainstay of traditional education. Instead of an external force judging them, the child instead relies on the impersonal judgement that comes from their senses.
Mixed Age Groupings
In the family, in the workplace and society as a whole we are in constant interaction with those that are older or younger. Children in traditional schools are the only members of society segregated by age. A mixed-age environment is an important feature of Montessori education. Since the children need different environments at different stages in their development, classes are mixed within bands, for example, 0-3 yrs, 3-5 years. The young child in each band is surrounded by role models a little more developed than himself. Similarly, the older child finds herself in a position of responsibility, and, by showing younger children what he knows, affirms to herself, more surely than any test, the extent of her learning. Cooperation replaces competition as the driving force within these mini societies. The auto-education facilitated by the prepared environment means that each child is learning and developing at his own pace.
The Learning areas according to Montessori Method
The first materials the child encounters in this setting are the ‘practical life’ activities. These are everyday activities, familiar to the child from his home, such as pouring, scrubbing a table, polishing or buttoning. Whilst helping the child’s independence by acquiring a particular skill, the main purpose of these activities is to help the child develop his ability to concentrate and to coordinate his movements.
The sensorial materials respond to the way the child learns at this age – through the senses rather than the intellect. There are materials for the refinement of each sense, with each activity isolating one particular quality, for example colour, size, loudness, taste or weight. For example, the material known as the pink tower is made up of ten pink cubes of varying sizes. The 3 year-old child constructs a tower with the largest cube on the bottom and the smallest on top. This material isolates the concept of size. The cubes are all the same colour and texture; the only difference is their size. Other materials isolate different concepts: colour tablets for colour, geometry materials for form, and so on.
The cultural materials bring to the child his world and the animals, plants and people within it. Like everything offered to the child at this age, the materials are sensory-based and are introduced to the child in an orderly way; first the world, then the plants and animals in it; first animals, then mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish; first the concrete – a real plant, then the more abstract pictures or reading that may accompany it. Children are given the opportunity to explore Geography, History, Art, Science, Music and the natural world around them through specially designed equipment. Maria Montessori believed that having knowledge of these important subjects is what makes one a “cultured” individual.
Through working with the different sensorial materials the child has refined his discrimination of size to the point where he wants to know how much bigger one object is from another. The maths materials flow naturally from here. When a child reaches this point, he needs to be introduced to the concept of numbers to sustain their interest. Children uses the resources to develop and understand mathematical concepts through their own efforts. Children are able to confidently complete abstract mathematical problems using the specially designed equipment.
The subtle preparation the child has been given in this environment – a rich diet of songs, stories, poems, or the control over the movement of the hand through polishing, allows 4 and 5 year olds to effortlessly start to write and read. Montessori education has been using an effective system of synthetic phonics for 100 years. At the centre of this system are a set of ‘sandpaper letters’ individual boards with the primary symbol for each of the 26 letters as well as a number of the diagraphs (eg ‘sh’ or ‘oa’) sounds in the English language. 3 year-old children see and feel these symbols, and make the corresponding sound, absorbing the combination of sound and symbol through three different senses. Children use language to express themselves. Real experiences are used to support vocabulary development and early preparation for reading and writing.