About Montessori Philosophy

“The Montessori Method: Education for Life” by Inside Montessori


Who was Montessori?

Maria Montessori was an Italian doctor who, through her work with disadvantaged children, developed a philosophy of education that worked with all children.  She was born in 1870, and died in 1952.

Montessori was a woman far ahead of her time.  She was the first female physician in Italy, and graduated top of her class in spite of the prejudice of her professors and fellow students.  She began working with institutionalized, cognitively impaired children, and designed materials that helped them to surpass normal children in standard examinations.

In 1907, she was hired to organize a day care center for children in a Roman housing project, and the remarkable results she achieved received worldwide attention.  Montessori schools began to proliferate.  The first U.S. Montessori school was established in 1912 at the home of Alexander Graham Bell.  As the guest of Thomas Edison, Montessori visited the United States in 1915, and set up award-winning model classrooms at the San Francisco World’s Fair.

In the 1930s, Maria Montessori became an outspoken advocate of peace, and because of her views, was expelled from Italy by the Fascist regime.  Her schools were closed and her books were banned and burned.  During this period, she visited India, and was detained as an enemy national.  Though not allowed to travel, she was able to teach, and trained hundreds of Montessori teachers during her stay there.  After World War II, Montessori returned to Europe, and continued to write, lecture, and teach until her death in 1952.

Many of the things Maria Montessori believed in are taken for granted today, and credit is seldom given to the source.  She pioneered the concept of child-sized furniture in schools.  She advocated natural childbirth and immediate bonding with the mother (similar to the Lamaze method).  She believed in developmentally appropriate practice and the use of hands-on teaching aids.  She stressed ecology and conservation at a time when unchecked industrial growth was the norm.  And she felt that without self-esteem, a child cannot learn.

What Is Montessori?

Some of the basic concepts of Montessori are:

  1. It is developmentally based.  Montessori recognized that children have sensitive periods in which they are particularly able and interested in acquiring a certain knowledge or skill.  (Between birth and three children learn an entire language.)
  2. Children absorb knowledge by interacting with their environment and responding to it.  They teach themselves with their hands, their bodies, and their senses.  (We do not teach children to walk or talk; they learn from their own observation and practice.)
  3. Children are motivated from within.  The child has within him the person he will become, and it is our role as nurturing adults to encourage the process of the child’s self-construction.
  4. Adults must respect and trust the child.  Each individual is unique, and we should “teach the child, not the subject,” offering opportunities for experimentation and growth that are consistent with the needs each child demonstrates.
  5. Our teaching should foster the development of the whole child—social, emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual.  These aspects of the child are inseparable and of equal importance.
  6. The child is a self-teacher.  Classrooms are materials-based, allowing the child many opportunities to initiate activities, to explore and to practice.  The adult teacher serves as support person and facilitator.
  7. Adults are models for the children, and our behavior should exemplify the attitudes we would like the children to imitate.
  8. An authentic Montessori environment fosters self-respect, caring and tolerance for others, and a responsible approach to the earth.

Montessori schools have something different to offer – a unique educational approach and school culture that provides an alternative to traditionally structured schools.

How does a Montessori class work?

Authentic Montessori classrooms are very inviting, and they contain a unique set of materials to facilitate the children’s learning.  The following characteristics are typical of Montessori environments:

Mixed Age Group:  Montessori classes at all levels have multi-age groupings, usually in three-year spans.  The class becomes a “family,” with much learning and support between older and younger children.

A “Learning Center” Look:  Materials are attractively arranged on open shelves.  Where appropriate, the activities follow a sequence of easy to difficult and the child is able to see his or her place on the continuum.  Concepts are taught using hands-on (manipulative) materials.

Furniture:  Furniture is sized to fit the children, and is arranged so there are individual, small group, and large group work spaces.  Carpeted areas are used for floor work and large group time.  There is no teacher’s desk.  Because work tables are used by all according to need, each child has a folder, drawer, cubby, basket, or locker in which to keep personal items or ongoing work.

Groundrules:  Each teacher establishes a set of groundrules for the class, which are followed by everyone (including the teachers, who act as role models for the children).  These basic rules of conduct encourage children to treat themselves, others, and the environment with respect.

Daily Cycle:  Each day has a pattern.  Although this pattern may vary because of the schedule for special subjects, in Montessori classes it roughly follows the format of beginning group time, extended “work period” for individual and small group choices and lessons, ending group time, and physical/outdoor time.  Elementary and extended day classes repeat the pattern in the afternoon; the day care program is similar but makes allowance for nap time.

Child Choice: The classroom environment encourages children to choose activities and follow through to completion.  Older children who have specific tasks to accomplish learn to plan and order their time.

Child Responsibility: All children are responsible for the classroom materials and for the manner in which they treat others.  Older children are expected to complete assigned tasks in a timely manner.  Liberty for each individual ceases when it affects the liberty of the group.  Children may use materials for as long as they wish, but are expected to put their things away when they have finished.

What are Montessori children like?

Although children are individuals with varying personalities, abilities, and interests, the Montessori experience strongly influences the kind of person each will become.  Authentic Montessori classrooms bring out the best in children, allowing them to follow their own natural course of development, yet helping them to acquire valuable life skills.  Most Montessori students become:

Creative Thinkers and Problem Solvers:  The children learn by exploration and discovery, rather than by rote memorization, and continue to apply these methods to new material.  They are students who want to know, rather than students who know what we want.

Cooperative Learners:  In the non-competitive Montessori class, sharing information and dividing tasks among peers is the norm.  Everyone learns to work well in a group.

Confident:  Our children develop high self-esteem through work.  They successfully accomplish increasingly difficult tasks in a non-critical atmosphere that encourages them to try again if they are not satisfied with their results.

Socially Responsible:  Secure children are willing to share their knowledge, and are generally more considerate of their peers.  They usually welcome visitors to their classes.

Ecologically Responsible:  Even the youngest children understand we must care for our earth.  Montessori created a curriculum that fosters respect for all life.

Academically Skilled:  Most Montessori children develop exceptional academic skills.  And because they “learn how to learn,” they are prepared to acquire new knowledge throughout their lives.

Balanced Individuals:  Our children often display a wide variety of interests.  Rather than become focused in a single area, older Montessori students frequently excel in several things – academics, music, the arts, athletics, etc.

Leaders:  Montessori children are not afraid to take charge.  We often read in the local newspapers about former students who are leaders in school and community activities.

Self-Directed and Independent:  Even the youngest children learn to choose and follow through.  As they become older, they become more competent self- and time-managers.

“Citizens of the World”:  Montessori children learn to value people as individuals, and to respect the various cultures from which they come.  Maria Montessori lived in many countries, and developed a cultural curriculum that focuses on the similarities among people, rather than their differences.

In general, Montessori children are positive people to know as children.  When they are old enough to become homeowners, they will become the kind of adults whom you will welcome as next-door neighbors.

For more information about Montessori education, visit The Montessori Observer or MariaMontessori.com.


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