To a first-time visitor to the Montessori Prepared Environment, the classroom may seem quite different from other preschools – the children’s ages range from 3yrs to 6yrs, there are no toys and the teacher does not seem to be organising them into different activities or “work stations”. In the Montessori classroom, there may be a child reading quietly in the corner, a child pouring water or grains from jug to jug at a table on his or her own, a small group of animated, chattering children playing a language game or a child piling a series of pink cubes on top of each other to make a “tall” tower. There may also be a child who is just standing and watching another seemingly unoccupied or a child who is busy cutting fruit for morning tea.
At the turn of the last century, Dr. Montessori discovered that children under six have an innate ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings just by being part of it. She called this period of learning “The Absorbent Mind” and it is at its peak receptivity during 0-6 years. At this time, the children are intensely curious and need to discover and explore their surroundings. The children are also keenly attuned to their senses at this age and they love to explore shapes, textures, smells, colours, sounds and tastes. They are also at the age where they want to know about other people and customs and where they fit in the grand scheme of things. Children at this age also have a need for “everything to be in its place” and a routine to follow.
In the Montessori classroom, the children are recognised as individual and are presented with individual lessons. The children do not do the same activity at the same time and we are not bound by timetabled group learning. Everything is reality based and the child learns to ground his or her knowledge in what is real and true rather than fantasy in the beginning years. Fantasy and the like are wonderful in the next phase after 6 years. The children use their senses to learn independently in the environment. The child does not receive rewards nor punishments such as stickers, stars or awards. We help the child to self-regulate through Grace and Courtesy lessons to instil the boundaries and expectations of their environment. These boundaries and expectations are usually the same as those expected in the child’s society too. The Directress/or is more of a “facilitator” who connects the child to the environment of Montessori materials. Each child is valued as an individual. Our aim is help the child to develop a love of learning and become an independent and peaceful person.
In the Montessori Prepared Environment, the Director/Directress is not a teacher who teaches directly to the children. He or she connects the child to the Montessori environment to meet their individual needs. Each child is given an initial step by step presentation with a material and then the Director/Directress steps back to allow the child to explore and work with that particular piece of material, all the while carefully observing the child at work. The children are free to move around the classroom and choose work that they have had an individual lesson on. However, the child learns that this freedom is dependent on the boundaries of their classroom where they must respect the rights of other children to learn, concentrate and be safe. This freedom allows children to learn at their own pace and develop initiative, independence, inner discipline and concentration.
The Montessori preschool classroom is made up of three, four, five and sometimes six year old’s (depending on the birthdays) and they stay with the same teacher for a period of three years. The three year old’s are entering a stage of social development where they are interested in other people, so they learn from the older children. The older children, as well as gaining a sense of responsibility and positive self-esteem, are consolidating and sharing their knowledge by helping the younger children. The final year in this stage is vitally important for the child as a confident and independent worker.
The Prepared Environment is usually divided up into five areas: the Practical Life area, the Sensorial area, the Language area, the Mathematics area and the Cultural area. The children can work indoors and outdoors.
This is one of the most important areas of the Montessori 3 – 6 Curriculum. It provides a link between home and the school environment. Young children like to imitate what the adults do, completing everyday tasks such as food preparation, cleaning, washing, polishing, dressing themselves and so on. Practical Life activities not only allow the child to imitate, but give the child independence. They learn to ‘do it themselves’. One of the reasons that the children are able to be independent in this area is because Montessori schools provide the child with child sized materials which are suitable for a three to six year old’s size. In addition, all the materials are real to appeal to the child’s love of sensory learning. There is glass, ceramic, wood, steel and cane. There is no plastic in sight or it is very limited. For example, the children pour water from a glass jug into a china cup and they use stainless steel child size knives to butter their cracker at snack time or cut fruit for morning tea. In this way, the activity becomes “purposeful” and true to life and there are natural consequences for handling that is not careful or movement that is not quite refined. Things sometimes break and this is OK! Errors help children to refine and learn new ways of doing and a Montessori environment is ‘friendly with error’.
The Practical Life exercises help the children to practise and refine both gross and fine motor skills. The activities develop concentration and sequencing of a series of steps. It is the foundation of the child’s success in other Montessori activities.
The Montessori Sensorial materials were designed to enable children to categorise what they already know; to sharpen, clarify and classify sensory impressions already experienced through life. The environment has beautifully designed materials to appeal to the children and each piece of material isolates one quality using the child’s senses as a means to gather the information. That is, visual, gustatory, tactile, olfactory and auditory
After experience working with the Sensorial materials, the child is taught words to be able to communicate with others about their abstract learning of what ‘big and small’ is or ‘loud and soft is like. The Sensorial materials give the child the ‘keys to the world’ of the concepts of colour, shape, size, texture, volume, pitch, taste, weight and form.
In the Montessori environment, Language lessons begin from 3 years of age. We play games with the children to enrich their vocabulary, help them to detect the sounds that they hear in the spoken words and prepare them for later grammar work. Language lessons often involve movement and dramatising to demonstrate comprehension. Not to mention helping to build essential neural pathways through movement with learning!
Writing is taught through the senses and children are first taught the sound and the corresponding letter symbol through the Sandpaper Letters which they trace with their fingers. Gradually, the children start to identify the phonetic sound with the shape of the letter and will start to build words with the Moveable Alphabet preparing them for writing. At the same time, the children are introduced to the Metal Insets, a series of steel shapes to trace and this is where they first start to hold a pencil. As their fine motor skills develop and improve, it is often found that the children will suddenly start to write independently and all by themselves.
Once the children have started writing independently either with the Moveable Alphabet or with a pencil, it is often found that soon after they start to read independently. They start first with simple 3 letter phonetic words and gradually build up their skills as they learn the irregular sounds and rules of their language. It is important at this time to understand that all children develop these skills at different times and at their own pace. In the Montessori environment, these skills are not forced, but allowed to develop naturally and with the child’s own rhythm.
Mathematics education begins for the child indirectly from the moment they are born. Children love to classify, categorise, form patterns and make order from chaos. Rather than paper and pencil to drill mathematics concepts, from 4 years old, the child works with concrete materials to understand carefully broken down mathematical concepts. The child begins with materials exploring 0-10 and importantly the concept of zero, in the beginning, meaning nothing! The child them moves through materials to explore the teen and tens numbers up to 99. Following this, the child is introduced to the Decimal System using small beads to understand numbers from 1-9999. During this work, children get their first taste of the 4 operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Children explore the essential number facts such as times tables from bead chains and practise charts. Later, the child moves through what is termed as the ‘passage to abstraction’ where the concrete materials become less of a focus.
The Cultural materials hold a great fascination for the young child. They enjoy learning about the world around them and are beginning to understand that there is a bigger world out there. Using the materials, the children get a sensorial impression in Geography (the Land and Water Globe, the Land and Water Forms and associated language and the Puzzle Maps etc.), Biology (Parts of the Fish, Amphibian, Reptile, Bird or Mammal – puzzle) and Botany (the Leaf Cabinet, puzzles of the tree, flower, leaf, root systems, etc.). Children delight in seeing how other children live in other parts of the world. It is one way in which Montessori begins to build a peaceful child through tolerance, acceptance and focusing on similarities rather than differences between races and cultures all over the world.
As the children get older, they start to create little “projects” for themselves using the materials to further their discoveries and many children start to try and find out more information for themselves.