You may have seen Montessori mentioned in a parenting Instagram post or you may even have driven by a Montessori school before, but what is Montessori? As a Montessori teacher myself, let me give you a small taste of the method!
Maria Montessori was an Italian doctor in the early 1900s. She opened an education center for impoverished young children in San Lorenzo, near Rome, Italy. She called it Casa dei Bambini, Children's House. There, she developed unique didactic materials, many of which are still in use in modern Montessori classrooms around the world, to engage and teach the children. She taught them to care for themselves and their environment, and soon the children, who many had previously thought were unable to be educated, were learning in a calm, peaceful, independent manner. Thus, the Montessori Method was born. She began writing books and giving talks first in Europe, then worldwide, spreading the wisdom of her unique educational approach.
(Above: Children working at the Casa dei Bambini, Rome, Italy)
Although it’s easy to find “Montessori” in the name of many schools and childcare centers, those of the highest quality are accredited, either through the American Montessori Society or Association Montessori Internationale (AMI). Schools must complete a rigorous accreditation process (which they must renew every 7 years)
Students are grouped into multi-aged classrooms: Toddler: ages 2-3; Primary: ages 3-6; Lower Elementary: ages 6-9; and Upper Elementary: ages 9-12. Some schools also serve adolescents. In this family-like atmosphere, students learn from one another. Over time, they grow from a novice, to an apprentice, to a leader. They also have the benefit of remaining with at least a portion of their cohort, as well as their teacher, for three years.
Teachers present lessons using Montessori materials, and students practice these skills until they feel (or their teacher observes) that they are ready to move on to the next skill. All materials are presented in the most concrete, simple form first, followed by increasingly complex concepts. The classroom is divided into curricular areas: language arts, math, science, cultural studies and geography, and practical life.
Children often do their work on the floor on a work rug, although most writing activities and many practical life activities may take place at a table. Students actively participate in personal care, such as changing their shoes when going outdoors and cleaning up after they’ve made a mess or broken something. They also care for their environment and have rotating weekly jobs involving tasks such as sweeping the floor, washing the tables, and preparing class snack.
Montessori’s most famous adage is “follow the child.” Her method encourages teachers (and parents) to spend time carefully observing their child and note what is of interest to him at that moment, what types of work he is avoiding, how he is practicing various skills, how he is engaging with the people and objects in his environment. Through these observations, care givers and educators may offer a variety of choices and gently guide the child to appropriate lessons and facilitate learning in a way that is most appealing to the child. Montessori offers freedom within limits. Students have clear guidelines during work time and are responsible for completing certain work throughout the course of a week.
Teachers treat students as whole people, no matter how young, deserving of respect and acknowledgement. They speak to students in quiet, gentle tones, using adult vocabulary. They manage discipline in a way that aims to guide behavior and help students understand their mistakes, rather than imposing strictly punitive measures. Teachers guide their students to the discovery of knowledge; they are not the knowledge keepers. Through this type of learning, the Montessori method promotes peace, independence, intrinsic motivation, problem solving, time management skills, and concentration.
Montessori for Your Baby
Your child may not be quite ready to begin formal schooling, but you can still utilize some of Montessori’s methods in your home with your infant (another post will soon follow offering specific guidance for toddlers and preschoolers). Incorporating the Montessori philosophy into your home does not mean you must have an Instagram-worthy playroom set up with all-wood toys arranged perfectly on aesthetically pleasing child-sized shelves (although it can if that’s your jam). It’s much more important to have the heart of Montessori in your intentions and interactions with your child than to have the perfect materials.
From early on, you can offer your baby opportunities to develop independence and concentration by offering times for independent play. For newborns this may look like 5 minutes on his play mat (supervised) while he engage in his environment, however he chooses to, without you interrupting his concentration. He may choose to gaze at shadows on the wall, bat at a hanging toy, or suck on his fingers. Whatever he chooses, it has intrinsic value because he chose the activity. Honor that. Over time, he’ll be able to play independently for longer periods of time.
You can show your baby respect by explaining what you’re doing throughout the day, or even asking permission (although we know he won’t be able to respond for some time – he will eventually understand your intent).
“Good morning my love! Is it all right if I pick you up? I’m going to change your diaper and get you dressed for the day now.”
“I know you’re having fun on your play mat now. You have your swimming lesson soon, so we’re going to gather your towel and swim suit and then get in the car to drive to the pool.”
When your baby develops better head control you can offer simple choices throughout the day, and observe where your baby’s gaze lingers. “Would you like to read the book about animals, or trucks? Oh, I see you’re looking at the animal book. We’ll read that one first.” Offer a few choices of toys during play time. Too many options can be overwhelming, even for older children.
You can also help your child to understand his emotions from very early on. When your child bumps his head, you can hold him close, comfort him and say, “W
ow, that must have really hurt! I bet you’re feeling sad. It’s ok to cry. I feel sad when I hurt myself, too.”
As parents, we shouldn’t aim to protect our children from ever feeling pain or uncomfortable emotions. Instead, we can be with them through those experiences and offer language to help name their feelings.
As your baby grows, continue to offer choices, foster his independence whenever possible, and allow him to show you what he’s interested in learning about. This is an amazing way to respect and honor your child’s inner light.
Incorporating the Montessori Method into your home and parenting style doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If this philosophy interests you, here are some resources for some deeper exploration. Keep what speaks to you, pass over the rest. I wish you the best!
o Montessori at Home: Hapa Family
o The Montessori Baby by Simone Davies
o The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori
o Elevating Childcare: A Guide to Respectful Parenting by Janet Lansbury
o Unruffled by Janet Lansbury
o Good Inside by Dr. Becky Kennedy