What do you love most about your toddler or preschooler? Is it watching them experience our world for the first time? Is it their boundless energy, curiosity, and persistence? Or is it the look on their face during that magical moment when they accomplish something on their own for the very first time?
The Montessori method values, fosters, and respects each of these natural toddler tendencies. As an educator and mom myself, I have never found a pedagogical style more in tune with a child’s innate mode of learning and discovery than Montessori.
Below you’ll find a brief and succinct summary of the Montessori method, but if you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend the books Basic Montessori: Learning Activities For Under-Fives by David Gettman, Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Preschool Years by Elizabeth Hainstock and, of course, The Montessori Method by Maria Montessori herself.
The diagrams above and below (from The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori) outline the sequential development children undergo and outline “sensitive periods” children move through as they mature. Children are natural learning machines, and during specific sensitive periods, can pick up new skills (such as language acquisition, for example) with intense rapidity never again repeated in their lives. The key to the Montessori Method is its adherence to the child’s natural interests through developing activities which capitalize on these sensitive periods.
Montessori is the quintessential “child led” approach to education. Since children naturally gravitate toward certain activities or tasks at different developmental periods, it is critical that these experiences be available and accessible to the child at the right moment. This concept is referred to as the “prepared environment,” and it is exactly what it sounds like- an environment specifically prepared to meet a child’s formative needs. Beyond providing the appropriate Montessori inspired activities for your child’s current sensitive period, this preparation extends to the very furnishings you might choose to purchase as well. This includes storing your child’s Montessori tools and and playthings on low shelves that are easily reached, providing chairs and tables of the right size so the child’s feet are firmly planted on the floor when seated, and often means pictures are hung at the child’s eye level, rather than the adult’s, in the bedroom or playroom.
Learning Occurs through Movement
The Montessori method unites thought with action. Especially at the toddler and preschool level, true Montessori activities will be kinesthetic and tactile. A perfect example of this concept is illustrated through the Montessori introduction to letters and writing. Children explore sandpaper letters- a textured set of the alphabet, trace letters in a small box filled with sand, and use a movable alphabet-wooden letter cutouts rather than letter tracing and copying worksheets or typical rote handwriting exercises. This methodology is also used to teach math, culture, and reading when following a Montessori approach.
If you spend any time researching professionally created Montessori materials (such as those created by Nienhuis) you will be struck by their precision and their beauty. Maria Montessori believed children, like all humans, are naturally attracted to beautiful objects. This is why both the Montessori environment and tools are simplistic, carefully crafted, and physically attractive. A large focus of the Montessori curriculum is care for these items as well as their proper storage, so no pieces go missing, no paint gets chipped, and no parts become broken.
This beauty extends beyond the materials, however. Maria Montessori also focused on a grace and beauty of carriage. When presenting a new material to a child, it is of paramount importance to execute each movement with precision, elegance, and perfection. Montessori directors always practice even simplistic tasks (such as pouring beans between two small pitchers) multiple times before presenting this activity to their students, from start to finish. Every detail is analyzed and carefully executed so children are inspired by the beauty of the movements as well as that of the objects. This is also why Montessori materials are tools- not toys. Having a specific place where they are stored and only using them as they are intended helps maintain this reverence and respect.
Help Me Do it Myself
There is no such thing as a Montessori teacher. Rather, Maria Montessori called her teachers “directors.” One of the most important jobs a director has is observation. Montessori is the pinnacle of individualized education as each activity is only presented to a child at the precise moment when they are ready developmentally, as well as when they have shown an interest in this type of task. After the presentation, the next most important job of a director is restraint- they must hold back and permit the child to independently select this activity in the future. If the director notices an area of misunderstanding in the child’s performance, a second presentation is often given, though without any reference to the child’s mistake. The director draws particular attention to the areas which need correcting during the presentation, again without ever mentioning the child’s shortcomings. Lastly, the Montessori method is based on the idea that an adult should not do something for a child which they can do themselves. Independence is held in high esteem and each Montessori activity builds upon the next to foster greater and greater self-reliance, autonomy, and pride.