The Montessori Philosophy

Who was Maria Montessori?  
Maria Montessori began her career at the turn of the 20th century as one of the first female physicians in Italy.  She was appointed by the Italian Minister of Education to practice her theories on the education of special needs children.  Montessori's first success came about when a number of special needs children at the age of 8 years completed the State reading and writing examinations with above average scores.  Prior to this point many of these children were regarded as "uneducable" in that time period.  

From this success Montessori went on to open the 'Casa dei Bambini' or Children's House in a housing project in Rome to apply her methods to all children.  Her continued success led to the movement in the philosophy of education named for her.  Today the term Children's House is still used to describe the classroom environment for the early childhood age group.
Maria Montessori

What are "Sensitive Periods"?

Maria Montessori saw three distinct developmental stages experienced by a child before they reach an adult age.  The first stage occurs from birth to age six.  It is a time of discovery as the child is first introduced to the world.  Within this stage the child first displays a desire for independence.  The second stage, occurring from six to twelve years, is a time for absorbing culture and finding one's place in society.  This period is driven by the child's desire to find his or her group identity.  The third stage, from twelve to eighteen years, is a more emotional period.  The child again drives for independence in this stage as he or she approaches adult years. 

In the first stage there are two sub-phases, birth to three and three to six years.  In the first sub-phase, the child primarily learns through subconscious means.  He or she absorbs his or her surroundings and develops the skills needed to participate in society.  In the second sub-phase the child first displays a drive for independence.

The sensitive periods within this first developmental stage include: 
*A sensitivity to order:  A child surrounded by disarray will often display behavior outbursts or tantrums in reaction to disorder.  
*A sensitivity to language: Consider the rate at which children master their first language.  How long would it take you to master a new language?
*An inter-sensory sensitivity:  Why does a baby insist on putting everything in their mouth?  They are learning through their sense of taste.  Through the integration of the senses a lesson can be more firmly imprinted on the consciousness of the child.  The lessons within the Montessori curriculum aim to integrate multiple senses (visual, audio, physical) in order to more firmly imprint the lesson upon the child.
*A sensitivity to movement:  In this stage the child performs the action for the sake of the action, not for a desired result.  Have you ever wondered why your 3 year old repeats an activity over and over again?  It is because of this desire to master the physical coordination and skill.
*A sensitivity to small objects:  What is it about bugs that children of this age are so drawn to?  Integrating these interests into activities within the classroom can lead to great engagement with the children in the information they are internalizing!
*A social sensitivity:  Around 3 or 4 years old, as your child approaches that second sub-phase in the first stage of development this sensitivity becomes more apparent.  Your child now is striving to fit in and social situations begin to become more important to their daily interests.  Play dates abound!

What do we mean by the "Prepared Environment"?
Of paramount importance to the Montessori philosophy of education is the concept of the prepared environment.  What does this mean?  As Maria Montessori states in The Discovery of the Child, "There is only one basis for observation: the children must be free to express themselves and thus reveal those needs and attitudes which would otherwise remain hidden or repressed in an environment that did not permit them to act spontaneously."

The idea of a prepared environment is that the functionality of the environment should be considered from the perspective of the child not the adults.  Therefore, furniture in the classroom is sized to the children's needs and light enough for them to move or adjust it.  The overall atmosphere within the classroom is one where order exists.  The work environment allows the child freedom of choice in the activities he or she engages in.  Activities are placed on shelves of the child's height so they can access those learning experiences they wish to engage in.  And, finally, the materials used in the prepared environment are of a physical nature and reality-based.  It is important to note that the environment is considered as important to learning in the Montessori classroom as the teacher and the child.

Another crucial part of the environment is the integration of nature into the classroom.  At Seaside Montessori we are so lucky to have Nantasket Beach at our doorstep to provide ample learning opportunities to explore through our natural surroundings.

What is the role of the Teacher in a Montessori classroom?
The Montessori teacher acts as a scientist, saint, and servant to the children.  

As a scientist the teacher approaches the art of teaching with precision.  Her observations, not her predispositions dictate the next opportunity to present to the child.  

She acts as a saint through her awareness of the importance of the spiritual development of the child and recognizing the inner goodness of every child in her class.  She works toward self-awareness and self-examination to allow her the humility needed in order to complement an environment that encourages the child's individual spirit and personality to thrive.  

As a servant she utilizes her observations to identify the moment when the child displays a need for assistance or guidance.  "The master whom the teacher serves is the child's spirit;  when it shows its needs she must hasten to respond to them." (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, pg. 256)

Through the teacher's observations of the child's choices and conduct, the teacher determines what stage the child is at and, consequently, what activity best suits that stage.  This practice encourages the independence of the child, enabling him or her to internalize more and learn at his or her own pace and towards his or her own interests.

1) Montessori, M., (1964), The Montessori Method, Schocken Books, Inc., New York
2) Montessori, M., (1966), The Secret of Childhood, Ballantine Publishing Group, New York
3) Montessori, M., (1988), The Absorbent Mind, Clio Press Ltd., Oxford
4) Montessori, M., (1988), The Discovery of the Child, Clio Press Ltd., Oxford
5) Ryan, P. (Editor), April 2003, Your Montessori Child, Montessori International, Issue 67, April - June 2003, pages 1-4 (centerfold insert)
6) Wikipedia, Maria Montessori,