The basic concept behind the Montessori Method of education is to "help" the child move naturally through the successive stages of development without hindering his or her growth. (Montessori, 1969. The Formation of Man.) This educational help is given to the child by the means of a "prepared environment." (Montessori, 1967. The Absorbent Mind. ) The prepared environment of the Montessori preschool classroom is an exciting and pleasurable experience for the child. The teacher carefully selects the classroom materials in response to predominate developmental periods through which the children are passing.
When the preschool environment has been successfully prepared, the materials and activities arouse the natural curiosity of the child and summon his or her attentions upon them. The preschool child will naturally and spontaneously choose the materials and activities that are compatible with his or her own development.
The child will directly engage themselves in the obvious purpose of the activity, while indirectly and unconsciously satisfying the needs of his or her own unique developmental stage. For example, a child who has chosen an activity that uses an eyedropper to move colored water from one little bottle to another little bottle understands that the direct purpose of the activity is to move the water from bottle to bottle. However, the indirect purposes of the activity take into consideration the child's control of movement, fine motor development, expanding concentration time, and an indirect preparation for writing as well as teaching some of the tasks of daily living.
When the developmental needs of a child have been satisfied through much use and interaction with certain activities in the classroom, the child will no longer focus all his or her energies on these activities or choose to work with them for long periods of time. The Montessori preschool teacher, trained to observe such shifts of interest in the child, takes note of the occurrence and again prepares the environment to provide the activities and materials that will entice the child to joyously choose the work necessary to satisfy the next level of his or her development.
The role of the Montessori teacher is different from that of a traditional schoolteacher. The Montessori teacher is called a "directress" or “director" because he/she facilitates the activity in the prepared environment of the Montessori classroom. The Montessori teacher is trained to speak in a quiet voice and to keep a low profile in the classroom. The Montessorian knows the importance of not disturbing a child while he is concentrating on his work. It is during these crucial times of concentration that the child's developmental needs are being satisfied. Because most Montessori classrooms include children of different age and developmental levels, the teacher is always challenged to provide the materials that will meet the needs of each individual child. The Montessori teacher spends much time watching the children interact with the prepared environment and with each other. In contrast to the traditional schoolteacher, the Montessori teacher does not usually teach a group of children from the front of the classroom.
The Montessori teacher works individually with each child in preparation for reading, writing, mathematics, or other areas of interest. In the Montessori classroom, a child is not made to feel that he or she is ahead or behind any other child. The child is encouraged to recognize and feel their own success in all his developmental endeavors, whether they are simple or complex.
The Montessori classroom is characterized by its simplicity, order and beauty. Beautiful works of art, pottery and other esthetically pleasing cultural objects are usually a part of the classroom. Dr. Montessori felt, "beauty both promotes concentration of thought and offers refreshment to the tired spirit." (Montessori, 1965. Spontaneous Activity in Education.) The classroom for children ages three to six years of age is like a little house for children. However, the children do not "play house" in the Montessori classroom, rather they learn to do the "real work" of cleaning and caring for themselves and their environment. A child does not "play" with the activities in the classroom. All that a child chooses to do in the classroom is called his or her "work". (Montessori, 1967. The Absorbent Mind.)
To learn some of the basic tasks of daily living bring meaning and purpose to the work of the child. These tasks of daily living are called "practical life" exercises. The child may choose his work from one of the many different types of practical life exercises found in the classroom. Some of these exercises include, setting a table, preparing and serving a snack to a friend, sweeping, polishing silver, brass or wood, watering and caring for the plants in the classroom. This type of purposeful work builds self-esteem in the child as well as develops manual dexterity.
A spirit of community arises in the Montessori classroom as the children begin to realize that they are working in cooperation with one another to help make "their" classroom beautiful. Dr. Montessori felt that physical movement and interaction with the environment was necessary for the intellectual development of the child. (Montessori, 1966. The Secret of Childhood.) The materials in the Montessori classroom are designed to allow freedom of movement and encourage independent exploration. This allows the child to move at his own pace from simple activities to more complex ones. There are many different kinds of materials found on the child-size shelves in the classroom. There is usually only one of each activity found in the classroom, so the children are working with many different materials at the same time. The children are free to choose any activity from the shelves. However, along with the freedom of choice, comes the responsibility of returning the activity to the same place on the shelf from which it was taken.
Materials and curriculum in the Montessori classroom center on Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Math, Geography, Cultural Studies, Art, Music, Drama and Dance. There are several different, but interrelated areas in the classroom. The activities in the Practical Life area deal with the care of self and the environment. Important parts of the practical life curriculum are lessons given in “grace and courtesy". Some examples of lessons in grace and courtesy are, how to greet people, say thank you, excuse yourself, comfort a friend that is hurt, blow a nose, apologize and open and close a door quietly. The lessons in grace and courtesy are most effectively taught by involving the children in role-playing.
The Sensorial area of the classroom provides materials that refine and educate the senses of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. The different groups of sensorial materials are scientifically designed to "represent the same quality but in different degrees". (Montessori, 1967. The Discovery of the Child.) For example, a child may only receive the impression of length while placing ten wooden rods in order, beginning with the shortest rod and ending with the longest rod. In response to the isolation of the qualities of color, shape, weight, texture, size, smell and sound, the child naturally begins to compare, contrast, discriminate and bring order to his impressions.
Many mathematical concepts are absorbed naturally by the children in the prepared environment of the Montessori classroom. For example, in order to prepare a snack for the class, the children must count the children in the class and determine the appropriate amount of snack to be served to each child. Mathematical concepts are introduced to the child by the use of concrete manipulatives in preparation for the abstract operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
The prepared environment of the Montessori classroom indirectly prepares the child for reading and writing. The children have fun learning the names of the objects in their environment, listening to stories and poems and sharing their thoughts through verbal expression at group time. (Dwyer, 1977) The child explores the phonetic sounds and symbols of his language through the introduction of the Sandpaper Letters. The child feels the shape of the letter as he hears the sound associated with that particular letter. The door to reading opens as soon as a child can decode a simple three-letter word.
Subject matter is important in Montessori education, but not as an end in itself. Montessori education focuses on the individual needs of each student. Dr. Montessori believed that hidden within each person is a "special secret or vocation". (Montessori, 1967. The Discovery of the Child.) Maria Montessori hoped that through her work many children would discover their "special vocation" and eventually take their place in the world as contributors to society instead of being a hindrance to it.
Dr. Montessori said, “The education of even a very small child, therefore, does not aim at preparing him for school but for life." (Montessori, 1967. The Discovery of the Child.)