A first-time visitor observing a Montessori preschool classroom might be taken aback: the classroom is full of children but they are hard at work and instead of a din, there is a quiet, steady hum. He or she might even see surprised to see older children teaching lessons to younger children; students at Montessori schools are taught lessons by teachers but then have the freedom to move from one lesson to another or work with one lesson for hours if they choose to.
Maria Montessori famously said, “Play is the work of the child.” Dr. Montessori (1870-1952), a physician and educator in Italy, pioneered a child-centric education approach, known as as the Montessori Method, which she developed based on scientific observations of children from birth to adulthood. Her method has been used for over 100 years and is taught in schools around the world.
A key difference between traditional and Montessori classrooms is that in the former, a group format is mainly used where all the children are taught the same lesson or concept at the same time and children spend most of their time watching an adult impart his or her knowledge.
Dr. Montessori, on the other hand, felt that true learning had to come from within and believed that teachers should be facilitators to encourage children to actively direct their learning, with a teacher’s guidance.
In a Montessori class, whether it’s a toddler program or a high school, the class operates on the notion of freedom within limits. Children work directly with Montessori materials of their own, choosing individually or in small groups most of the time, rather than relying on or acting on a teacher’s directions. There is also a three-year age range in a Montessori classroom, so older students can often help younger students and materials are appropriate for both age groups as they can be used simply or in more complex ways.
Main tenets here are learning through repetition, fostering a child’s sense of independence, and moving children from mastering concrete concepts and skills to abstract ones (initially they can count to 10 by rote, but do they understand what 10 is?).
Each Montessori school may look a bit different but often reassuring to parents (especially those who may have to move and look for a new Montessori school halfway around the world) is that each school has the same materials for children to work with and the same basic layout. Schools have designated learning areas, including practical life, science, language arts, math, and cultural. The Montessori preschool is designed for children age 3 to 6, and the classroom is a multi-age room, rather than separating classrooms by age. The program takes children through their kindergarten year, although some Montessori schools do offer continued education through higher grades.
“Children learn by observing and repeating, and that work continues throughout the school year as they build their repertoire, receiving new lessons from teachers,” explains Sara Flanagan, director of the Belden Hill Montessori School in Wilton. “We keep track of what each student knows. Our goal as a teacher for their education in the kindergarten year is to make sure they are beyond ready for first grade.”
Cathy Tango, director of the Ridgefield Montessori School, says Montessori emphasizes learning through each of the five senses, not just listening, watching or reading. “Children in Montessori classes learn at their own, individual pace and according to their own choice of activities from hundreds of possibilities,” she says. One multi-sensorial example is the set of sandpaper letters where the children can feel the letters with their fingers, hear the teacher say the sound the letter makes, and trace the letter themselves.
“This is an age where kids want to do things for themselves,” observes Rachel Ambrosio, director of the Montessori School of Redding.”In Montessori, we want to foster that independence in everything. They can work on something as long as they want to. It gives them that sense of accomplishment, and the fact that the kids can choose their own work and the amount of time they want to spend on something really leads to self-direction.”
Flanagan concludes, “Not only do I want the students walking out with confidence, I want them walking out with a love of learning and reading and for that to never stop. That’s why I love teaching.”