Monday, November 7, 2011

Montessori-Style Education

Since I have been taking classes to become a reading specialist, I have also had the opportunity to learn about many different theories and perspectives on childhood education.  I have recently become enthralled with the work of Maria Montessori, who viewed teaching from a different approach than what is found in traditional classrooms.

*Of course, different styles of teaching are more/less suited for different learning types, and it is all about knowing your child and finding the best match for them.

Montessori Basics

Montessori believed that children learn best on their own, through exploration and discovery.  She said that children are not just what we make them, but they are unique individuals who think and learn very differently from adults.  The role of the teacher (or parent) is to step back and carefully observe children, becoming aware of their natural tendencies and internal states of readiness, while allowing children to work independently at their own pace.  Rather than being told what to think and learn, children can think and learn for themselves.  The teacher does not direct, instruct, give criticism or give external approval because a child’s motivation comes from within.

It is important that we recognize the difference between intellectual work (which should not be criticized or punished) and moral misbehavior (which should be corrected).  Children are expected to be respectful, and are never permitted to abuse materials or other people.  Montessori notes that misbehavior usually indicates that a child is unfulfilled in his or her work, and if this occurs, we should closely observe that child in order to introduce materials that may better meet their developmental needs.

Literacy Learning

The Montessori system focuses on writing before reading.  Children are first shown how to hold a pencil, then they practice drawing by staying within the outlines.  Next, they may trace their fingers over sandpaper letters while making the sounds.  Children might then use the moveable alphabet to try to form words with the letters.  These skills are later put together to transition to writing and then on to reading.

Sensitive Periods

Montessori believed that there are naturally programmed blocks of time when children are especially eager to master certain tasks.  During these “sensitive periods” it is important for children to be exposed to specific experiences that will give them an opportunity to develop these particular skills.

During the first three years of life, children learn about their orientation through their environments.  At this time, they are experiencing the sensitive period for order.  They love to organize, straighten things up, and put items where they are supposed to go.  Children at this age may even get upset when they see something that is out of order.  This is completely normal for this age, because they are experiencing the world different from us, as adults.

Between the ages of one and two, children enter into the sensitive period for details.  They are fascinated with small things that adults may not even notice.  Their attention may be on tiny insects or background pictures, rather than focusing on the big objects and bright colors that they once did when they were babies.  These details help children to understand their experiences as completely as possible.

From about eighteen months through three years, children are constantly using their hands for sensory development as they are in the sensitive period for the use of hands.  They reach out to touch objects and pay close attention to their textures.  They like to open and close containers, put things inside and take them back out.  They also enjoy pouring liquids and piling things on top of each other.  This is a period of time when children are extremely tactile.

During the sensitive period of walking, a child has a natural impulse to go from a helpless, stationary being to an independent, active being.  Between one and two years old, most children begin moving their legs and feet in order to take their first steps.  Rather than walking to for the purpose of getting somewhere, children at this age just enjoy walking for the sake of walking.

From birth to six years old, children are in the sensitive period for language.  They go from babbling to speaking words, to eventually putting short and long sentences together.  Not only do children continuously learn new vocabulary, but they also learn to master certain rules for forming parts of speech.  They go from unconsciously learning language to becoming more conscious of it as they get older.

Early Educational Materials 

Because children are naturally self-explorers, they should have many stimulating materials to keep them engaged in their work.  These materials should correspond to each child’s inner needs at sensitive periods and allow them to work towards mastering certain skills.  If the materials are appropriate, children will willingly work on these activities with enthusiasm.  If a child does not seem to be ready for a new task, it should be put aside for another day.

Here's what I have learned about Montessori materials...

the work/play area is child-friendly (child-sized furniture and cleaning tools, low shelves and baskets, low coat hooks, children’s artwork displayed)

allow for physical activity (plenty of room for movement, both indoors and outdoors)

materials are sensory-rich (matching different fabrics and textures, sandpaper tablets, containers that allow child to smell different things, ringing bells, sound cylinders, music, tasting foods/spices)
These are Ryan's sandpaper letters.  Right now he just feels the difference between the rough and smooth textures.  Eventually he will begin to recognize the shape of each letter based on not only what he sees, but also what he feels.

have a built-in control of error (knobbed and knobless cylinders, wooden puzzles)
Ryan likes to work on these wooden puzzles.  So far, he has only figured out two of the shapes.
This "locks" activity is definitely one of Ryan's favorites.  It helps him to develop his fine motor movements.

help to maintain order (photo labels on baskets, defined work/play areas: small carpets and trays, sorting objects, stacking blocks)
These will help Ryan learn how to distinguish between colors while addressing his sensitive period for order.

relate to practical life (dressing frames, pouring, cutting vegetables)
I will use this dressing frame with Ryan to help him learn how to lace and tie his shoes.  (Of course, he is not ready for this one quite yet!)

build an appreciation for nature (gardening activities, nature displays)

Montessori materials can be very expensive, so it is preferable to make them yourself.  This book provides ideas for Montessori activities that can be prepared by using things that you already have laying around your house.  This book gives a background to the Montessori philosophy, and also more ideas for activities.  I especially like that last one because it is geared towards both infants and toddlers.  Both of the books are so useful and I would highly recommend them.

I made this out of an old container and clothespins.  This activity is another way for Ryan to work on his fine motor movements.

My View of Montessori Education

Since I have the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mommy for another year or two (I am so thankful for this!) I plan to use Montessori’s methods while I work with Ryan at home.  Ideally, I would want to send him to a Montessori pre-school when I go back to work, but we will have to see about the cost and whether or not we think that Montessori is the right fit for him.

When I recently visited a nearby Montessori school, I noticed how very different it was from a typical school.   Each classroom had a range of age groups (2-3 year olds, 3-6 year olds, 6-9 year olds). The teachers did not lead whole group lessons, but instead they walked around, providing support while working one-on-one with students.  The students were engaged in nature exploration, music, and “hands-on” experiences.  They kept the materials extremely organized and worked individually on their mats or tables.

I generally like what I saw, but I realize that this environment might not be the best fit for all children. We will definitely have to wait and see how Ryan’s personality and learning style develop over the next few years before deciding on a pre-school program.  In the meantime, I think that the Montessori activities that we do at home will really help his development and (hopefully) make him eager to learn new things.

Clay, Marie M. (1991). Becoming literate: The construction of inner control. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Crain, W. C. (2011). Theories of development: concepts and applications. (6th ed., pp. 157-165). Boston: Prentice Hall.
Pitamic, Maja (2004).  Teach Me To Do It Myself: Montessori Activities for You and Your Child. Hauppauge, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.
Seldin, Tim (2006). How to Raise an Amazing Child the Montessori Way. New York, NY: DK Publishing.
Wolf, A. D. W. (2006). The challenge of teaching elementary reading. Montessori Life, (1), 38-45.


  1. As I am sure you can tell from all my comments, I have been catching up on your blog and taking advantage of the fact that I am reading it from home (vice work or on my phone:) and can actually comment;). I came to this page from your more recent post about Montessori activities with Ryan, and I have to say that it makes me so happy to read about this, and to see all the materials (especially the dressing frame! I remember using them and also helping my mom set up her classroom with all these materials:). I know that different kids respond to different kinds of teaching, and that the cost factor is definitely a major one when considering Montessori (it would probably be the only thing that would deter me from sending my kids to a Montessori school), but I can say from my experience that I absolutely LOVED my experience with Montessori education. I have to say growing up that I loved every day of school and never, ever did not want to go to school, because I didn't feel like it was a place where I went to be told what to do or sit in one place, but I really was so excited to learn and explore every day. Also, you commented about the ages being grouped together. I think that's a great way to also help kids move at their own speed, and if the child is ahead of the curve in math he/she can sit with the older kids for a higher level math lesson, or on the other hand can sit with the younger kids on a lesson they are having more trouble grasping, without having to worry about being held back a year, etc. Anyway, I could talk about Montessori forever, but I am (clearly) a HUGE fan!:)

  2. @Erin- Thanks so much for your input! I'm so glad that you had such a positive experience with Montessori. So far, I have only heard good things about it from people who attended Montessori schools. It's so great that you felt excited about going to school every day! I really hope that Ryan will get to experience that. I agree with you that cost would be the main factor to consider when it comes time to actually decide where to send him. I'm hoping that we can at least send him to Montessori for a couple of years for pre-school, and then transition into public school for kindergarten and beyond. Do you know anything about there being difficulties for the child with transitioning? You went to Montessori up through eighth grade, right?

  3. Hi! Just wondering where you found the nice green puzzle with the gradations of color and size? Thank you!

    1. I got it on Amazon:


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