Excerpts from “What is Montessori?”  , A publication of the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association in affiliation with Association Montessori Internationale,  Editor:  David Kahn

Maria Montessori was, in many ways, ahead of her time. Born in 1870, she became the first female physician in Italy upon her graduation from medical school in 1896. In her medical practice, her clinical observations led her to analyze how children learn, how they build themselves from what they find in their immediate environment.

In 1906, she accepted the challenge to work with a group of 60 children of working parents in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. It was there that she founded the first Casa dei Bambini, or “Children’s House”. What ultimately become the Montessori method of education developed there, based upon Montessori’s scientific observations of these children’s almost effortless ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings, as well as their tireless interest in manipulating materials. Every piece of equipments, every exercise, every method Montessori developed was based on what she observed children to do “naturally”, by themselves, unassisted by adults.

Children teach themselves. This simple but profound truth inspired Montessori’s life-long pursuit of education reform, methodology, psychology, teaching, and teacher training – all based on her dedication to furthering the self-creating process of the child.

Maria Montessori died in Holland in 1952, but her work continues. Today, Montessori schools exist around the world and her methods have certainly stood the test of time.

The Critical Preschool Years
Early childhood education has come to accept today what Maria Montessori discovered so long ago: Children under six have extraordinary powers of mind. They have a universal, once-in-a-lifetime ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings just by living. They take in their environment – the physical space, the language and movement of adults and children – with what Dr. Montessori called “the absorbent mind”. The absorbent mind is at its peak receptivity during the preschool years.

In order to be calm and happy, children under six need to explore and discover. They see the world through “new” eyes and are therefore curious about everything. And since they learn by touching and manipulating objects, they want to touch everything! They are keenly attuned to everything that stimulates their senses: shapes, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes. They also respond to order because of their innate need to know where things belong and how pieces fit together. They want to master the movements of their own bodies by learning to balance, run, skip, and jump. And they are fascinated by the customs and traditions of people in their lives.

Because of the absorbent mind, preschool-aged children do not need direct teaching in order to learn. The Montessori preschool classroom therefore allows them to move, touch, manipulate, and explore. It gives them the freedom to choose their own work without unnecessary interference from an adult. In this environment, they learn to work independently, based on their own initiative, which builds concentration and self-discipline.

The Montessori preschool classroom is made up of children of mixed ages. In the multi-age setting, the children learn from each other, and they learn because of each other. With constant interaction, the children learn to take responsibility for themselves and for one another. They learn to get along with children of different ages and abilities, to respect each other’s work and work space, and to treat each other with courtesy.

The Montessori materials invite activity. Children are welcome to choose what they like throughout the work period and they may work for as long as the material holds their interest. The materials isolate one quality to be discovered by the child and are self-correcting. When a piece does not fit or is left over, the child easily perceives the error. There is no need for adult “correction”. The child is able to solve problems by himself, building independence, analytical thinking, and the satisfaction that comes from true accomplishment.

A Montessori teacher believes in the powers of the individual child, who wants to do things by himself and act on her own. The child therefore chooses the activity and sets the pace. The trained teacher knows the developmental needs of children and creates a learning environment with an atmosphere of calm, order, warmth, and joy.

Studies have shown that Montessori preschool graduates make a smooth transition to any elementary program they go on to attend. They enter elementary school with curiosity, self-discipline, initiative, persistence, concentration, and a positive attitude toward school. But Montessori education does not have to end with the preschool experience. It can continue into a child’s elementary and even adolescent years. Childhood happens only once. A Montessori education ensures that your child will make the best of hers.

The Elementary Journey
The Montessori elementary environment responds to the elementary-aged child’s expanding view of the universe. Some of the same materials from the preschool classroom are present, to be used in more complex ways according to the child’s development. In addition, many new materials are introduced as the child moves toward abstract thinking, developing his imagination to embrace concepts larger than his immediate environment.

Like Montessori preschool, the Montessori elementary curriculum is interdisciplinary, allowing science, social studies, the arts, language, and math to converge in studies guided by the child’s own questions. Emphasis is placed on the connections between the different areas of study, not on the mere presentation of detail.

Parents often ask whether the Montessori elementary program, with its emphasis on small-group activity, provides enough opportunities for social development. Moreover, they may wonder whether a multi-age class affords enough same-age peers for each child to have a wide choice of friends.

The Montessori elementary classroom in many ways resembles an extended family. Everyone knows everyone. Work is shared, and learning is vitalized by social life. There is free communication and movement. The exchange of facts and discoveries becomes second nature. Relationships and their complexities are supported by alert and sensitive adults who are trained to observe and enhance social interaction, not to repress it.

Multi-age groupings mean more small-group options relative to ability and interest. They also mean maximizing the potential of each individual child in an environment that has a place for everyone, providing a profound sense of belonging. The presence of a wide range of ages and abilities builds in each child a tolerance and appreciation for people’s differences.

Montessori elementary graduates are usually very well-rounded young adults and good problem solvers. Their project orientation emphasizes working beyond set limits to gain complete knowledge of a subject. They seek real understanding. They do not study just to get good grades; they study because they love to learn!