I should have titled this post, “What I remember about about the dozen or so Montessori books I read three years ago.” I’m not hitting up Wikipedia to check my details or anything, so take all of this information with a grain of salt. But this is usually what I tell people when they ask me about Montessori preschool, and why I loved it so much for both of my children.
First, a brief history:
Maria Montessori was the first female doctor in Italy, over 100 years ago. She faced a lot of discrimination getting through medical school, and then once she graduated, had a hard time actually being allowed to practice medicine due to her gender. At some point she started working with children who were learning disabled, and whom the established medical community had given up on. She invented a lot of learning tools for the children to use. Blocks with pegs that they could pinch, grab and pick up to develop fine motor skills, and other such materials. By the end of her experiment, the disabled children were scoring as well as nuerotypical children. The logical question was then, why aren’t nerutypical children scoring even better?
Unfortunately, sexism hit again and nobody would let Montessori near regular, middle-class children. So she went into the tenement slums of Italy and found a neighborhood that was so poor, that they didn’t care if she was a female doctor. She found an abandoned space, hired a couple of teachers, and imported all of her methods. By this point they also included having carpenters build child-sized table and chairs for children to sit on, as well as step stools so they could reach things. Nowadays, this is standard furniture in all types of preschool classes, but back then it was an innovative idea.
Since the children were so impoverished, she also incorporated basic cleaning and hygiene activities into her program. Children learned how to polish shoes, polish silver, clean up after themselves, set the table, do the dishes etc. Montessori hoped that the children would bring these skills back into their home lives, which were often disorderly due to the utter poverty in which the children lived.
The classroom itself was multi-age, meaning that it wasn’t just a room full of three-year-olds. Older children helping younger children was an important part of her methods. The teachers also taught letter formation and sounds, before they actually taught reading, and by 3 or 4 ish, a lot of the children were spontaneously learning to read, all at the same time.
Montessori’s results were so amazing, that her teaching methods were imported all over the world. She entertained controversy however, because at some point she was associated with Mussolini. (But I don’t remember that part of the story very well.) She was also staunchly Catholic.
It is important to note that “Montessori” is not a licenced term. Anyone can slap the name Montessori in front of their preschool or day care and it doesn’t necessarily mean squat.
How to Identify a True Montessori School:
- The children do not “play”, they “work”. All the learning they do is considered really important. School is different from play time. There is a quite hum in the classroom of busy children engaged in activity. Some of them might even be sewing.
- There should be lots of objects in the classroom you have never seen before in your life. Pink block towers. Weird wooden cylinder things. Not a lot of plastic.
- The children do their work on mats. If there is something they want to work with, they get out a mat, get out the item, do their work, put the item away, roll up their mat, and put their mat away. If another child wants to play with the item in use, they have to be invited onto the mat of the child who is using the item.
- Children are actively taking part in cleaning the classroom. They water plants, help get snack set up, push in their chairs, and keep things tidy.
- Maps, geography, and world cultures are taught and celebrated. Often times a second language is introduced.
- Math activities are taught in a manipulative way, usually in small groups or one-on-one with the teacher according to ability level. Choice is emphasized. Children choose what to do for the majority of the day, although sometimes they to “have-to” work that the teacher introduces.
- The classroom is multi-age, and children progress in learning according to their individual needs, not their age level. Sounds, and writing are taught starting at 3, and many children are reading independently by four.
- There is no dress-up or dramatic play area.
- There is lots and lots of fine motor work going on. Some of my kids’ favorite activities were using tweezers to pluck kernels off of Indian corn, grinding cloves with a mortar and pestle, and squeezing colored water with an eye dropper.
- Courtesy is emphasized at all times. As part of this, in a true Montessori classroom parents are usually not allowed to even cross the threshold. The classroom is respected as the children’s’ space, in which to conduct important work. If you visit a “Montessori” school and see lots of parents in the classroom, it might mean that it’s not a real Montessori program.
Finally, the school should be affiliated with a national or international Montessori association. (I think there are two main groups out there, but I might not be remembering that correctly.) Here’s one link: http://www.montessori.org/ Here’s another: http://montessori.edu/ The teachers should also be trained in the Montessori method and have some sort of degree or program certificate.
Why I Love Montessori:
My son was (and is) a super active child. At three, he could drive me up the walls with his energy! So putting him in a quite, orderly classroom with no recess time might seem like a crazy idea. But heck, it was only three hours a day, and I took him to the park outside immediately afterwards to play with his classmates. As it turned out, my son thrived in Montessori! It was like he needed the quiet hum of the classroom to help him calm down and focus. (On a side note, lots of good Montessori schools out there do have recess time. Our school just happened not to, because of insurance issues.)
My daughter loved Montessori because of all of the arts, crafts, and social relationships. Montessori was a source for a lot of play-date friends. Yes, the children are not being taught to “share” in the traditional sense. They are being taught curtesy, grace, manners, and waiting their turn instead. They are being taught to respect their environment and each other’s personal space. There is a lot of socialization going on on a Montessori classroom
The individualized learning that Montessori provided was really important to both of my kids. All the children were working at their own level, and that was okay. From the outside looking in (through the one-way window), it seemed liked all of the children were exiting the program at five with a lot of excellent skills for Kindergarten. In fact, a lot of the work that my kids came home with from Montessori, was more advanced than Kindergarten.
Everyone has a different experience with preschool, so I’d love to hear back from what other’s think using the comments section below. Montessori might not be for everyone. Play-based, academic based, Waldorf, Coop….there are a lot of other choices out there. No judgement if you have chosen something else for your child!