What is Montessori?
From its humble beginnings in Italy in the early twentieth century, the Montessori approach to education has spread throughout the world. It is based on the observation that children are intrinsically motivated to develop themselves. All adults must do is create a well-equipped and stimulating environment and then observe how the child responds to our presentation.
Maria Montessori was a leading thinker in education whose ideas were, in many ways, ahead of their time. She was born in Chiaravalle, Italy, in 1870, and became one of that country’s first female physicians in 1886. In clinical observation through her medical practice, she studied how children learn, and she concluded that they teach themselves based on what they find in their environment. To further understand this phenomena, she returned to university and studied psychology and philosophy. Shortly afterward, she gave up her medical practice and university professorship to found the first Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Rome. In teaching these sixty children, she developed the philosophy, methods, and materials that would eventually become known as the Montessori approach.
In a typical Montessori classroom, the teacher or guide blends in with the children. The children independently choose their own activities, which are designed to teach daily living skills, from cooking to carpentry, sensorial acuity, numeration and arithmetic, as well as writing skills and reading. The guide gives individual or group presentations of the material to those who need them. As the children reach elementary age, there more group presentations and subjects like history, geography, and the sciences, subjects already introduced in the preschool years, are now pursued in more depth.
Montessori classrooms are typically organized in three year age-spans (e.g. 3 to 6, 6 to 9, and 9 to 12). There are special Montessori groupings for infants (often with the parents) for the toddlers, and for adolescents.
Dr. Maria Montessori considered her method to be a help to the life of the child more than a system of education or cognitive development. When she first studied young children, Montessori observed that they went through sensitive periods during which they showed special aptitude for certain kinds of developmental activity. These periods are especially pronounced in the development of movement, order, language, music, fascination with small objects, and bonding or attachment. Modern neuroscience has validated these discoveries, which calls them “Windows of Opportunity.” Montessori taught that gross motor development is the foundation for fine motor movements (like writing or sewing), writing “If a child cannot hold a pencil, show him how to sweep the floor.”
Sensorial and motor development are the child’s means of exploration in the early years – here Montessori agreed with Jean Piaget, her contemporary – so she advocated giving the child room to explore. She believed that a child’s independence would grow from choosing his activities wisely and with the help of an adult guide. Furthermore, cooperation with others and responsibility for group tasks is emphasized, as it instills important values that are derived from working with others.
Children become self-regulated through concentration on stimulating self-chosen tasks that they can pursue individually or in groups. Montessori called this process “normalization.” This progression is encouraged through a variety of activities, including focused movement exercises, such as balanced walking on line on the floor, and concentration exercises, such as the “silence game,” in which children are invited to be still and to focus mentally on a sound (for example, soft music) or on an object in the classroom environment.
The Montessori approach encourages self-discipline, self-knowledge, independence, academic skills, problem solving ability, and an enthusiasm for learning.