Montessori has become a popular name in childhood education. But what is it exactly? Is it fancy wooden blocks stored on low shelves, bowls of dried beans on a tray, or an array of natural art products? There are many visuals that get associated with the Montessori Method, but what it is at its core can be confusing. Have you wondered “What is Montessori?”
What is Montessori?
Montessori is ultimately about observation. Maria Montessori was a doctor and scientist in the truest sense. Her method was developed after years of research – carefully observing childhood behavior over many decades. What she found was that children weren’t buckets to be filled with knowledge but instead possessed everything they needed to develop themselves, provided they were placed in the correct environment that addressed their present needs.
What all children need is to be respected as individuals and allowed a measure of independence. They have an intense need to follow an inner drive that is uniquely in tune with what they need in the moment. Maria Montessori found that in the proper setting, children do not need praise or punishments as control measures. Instead, they can achieve a normalized state where focus, self-regulation, and joyful work is sought from an internal desire. Of course, this all happens under careful guidance by loving caretakers.
While many needs are universal to childhood, Montessori also identified a number of needs that shift and change as the child develops. She found that the shift occurred approximately every 6 years. These divisions are called planes of development. The first place is ages birth-6, second 6-12, third 12-18, and fourth 18-24.
The first plane is characterized by the absorbent mind. Children in this plane learn quickly and with little effort. The goal is to go as wide as possible, exposing children to vast amounts of language and sensory experiences. Another characteristic of this plane is the sensitive periods. These are identified as periods of intense learning that all normally developing children in this plane pass though. Some common ones are order, language, and movement. The foundation for this plane begins with practical life, which includes learning to care for oneself, one’s surroundings (environment), and one’s social circles (community). This includes lessons on dressing, cleaning up spills, and how to greet someone. Any academics present are given in a concrete manner that aligns with the absorbent mind.
The transition to the second plane generally happens around age six. The plane is marked by the reasoning mind. The wide and shallow learning from the first plane is built upon, and the child begins to go deep with topics. A child in this plane will begin to show a strong sense of justice, morality, and fairness. They often prefer the company of peers and take an interest in the workings of the greater community. This is the sensitive period for the imagination; or the ability to see various possibilities to real life scenarios. Academics move from concrete to abstract concepts – often reviewing similar material introduced from the first plane but in a new and deeper way. The hallmark of the second plane is the Great Lessons, which are designed to captivate the child and draw upon their new sense of reasoning and imagination.
During the third plane, children build upon the sense of justice and morality from the second plane and begin to reason out how they can make a meaningful contribution to society. They attempt to discover where they fit within the greater community. Children in this plane benefit from physical work, especially that which connects them to the natural world. Maria Montessori suggested an experience called Erdkinder which involved working on a farm exclusively managed by the children. Academics in the range are often rigorous.
The fourth plane is the plane where the child achieves true independence, establishing his or her own household. Childhood has ended, and the new adult is able to meet both self-care and economic needs. The self-sufficient adult is the ultimate goal.
While this is a basic overview of the core theory behind Montessori, you may be left wondering where are the materials, trays, and specialized activities?
As part of the process, Maria Montessori developed a pedagogy that offers a beautiful and complete academic experience. There is a defined scope and sequence of lessons that are offered at each plane of development. While there are various flavors of Montessori that adapt areas, the core materials and key lessons are universal. There is great flexibility within each plane to account for all learners, from the struggling to the gifted. The core focus is on meeting each child where they are from both an academic perspective and the unique needs of the current plane.
A number of these lessons involve specialized materials that Montessori either created or adapted from peers in the field. Montessori materials are designed to be used in a specific manner and at a specific point in development. They generally possess key characteristics, such as being self-correcting, isolating the specific concept being introduced, and having a point of interest which draws the child’s attention. Traditionally, they are made of natural materials such as wood and metal, making them both functional and beautiful.
While the materials are brilliant, they are not necessary to give a rich Montessori experience. The foundation of Montessori lies in the theory and the everyday practice in how the child is treated. The Montessori Method works when the materials are added on top of that. In its absence, the materials often become uninteresting toys that never reach the potential they have to offer. On the flip side, a family who learns and implements the underlying theory can reap substantial benefits even if there is no ability or desire to invest in classic Montessori materials.
This is merely an introduction to the vastness which is the Montessori Method. While it isn’t overly difficult, it can seem overwhelming because it’s most likely different from what you experienced in your own life. Montessori is a journey. You don’t have to understand all of it to take the first step. It’s a lifestyle that goes deeper from season to season.
If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to read a few introductory books and see if Montessori is something you want to go deeper with. Susan Mayclin Stephenson has two books that offer a solid overview. The Joyful Child is for ages 0-3 while Child of the World is for ages 3-12. I also recommend The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori.
I have been working with Bess Wuertz for over a year on our 12 Months of Montessori Series and she always brings such great information to every topic. Please visit her blog Grace and Green Pastures for more Montessori ideas and inspiration. You can also find her on Facebook.
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