Unfortunately Dr Maria Montessori didn’t trademark, copyright or patent her methodology so any person or establishment can claim to be ‘Montessori’. So what makes something truly ‘Montessori’? Most times a school or childcare centre will claim to be Montessori but what they offer are Montessori inspired curriculums or activities. Whilst there is certainly an abundance of formal materials available for purchase through educational suppliers that were in fact designed by Dr Montessori or her son Mario, other activities or materials have evolved from them.
To be ‘Montessori’ an activity or material must be:
Beautiful – simple and natural are important factors as children are naturally drawn to natural, simple materials that aren’t overwhelming or going to overstimulate them (think battery operated light up toys – which are essentially just that, toys, and not objects for discovery).
Invite Discovery – each material is first presented to the child before they are permitted to use it. It is very unnerving to just be given a new thing to do without even knowing what it does or how to do it! Children love precision so individually presenting the material to the child plays to that appeal, plus ensures that it has been demonstrated correctly so that the child can then use it on their own.
Follow the Child/ Are Child directed – Once the child has been demonstrated pieces of equipment they are allowed to and encouraged to use those materials as their whim takes them. One child might spend an entire morning fascinated and repeating one new activity before moving on to the next. Having materials available to captivate the children’s individual interests are essential.
Promote Concentration – Montessori classrooms give three hour blocks of time allocated to ‘learning’ which are called the Three Hour Work Cycle. In this time the children are allowed to work on their activities without interruption, to repeat and focus on them without stopping. This allows a true deep concentration to develop which is a priceless life long skill!
Involve the senses – Montessori materials utilise all the senses as the brain better connects new pathways to learning when information is being received in a multitude of sensations (ie the material is hands on). A perfect example of this is teaching letters by using the Sandpaper Letters. The child hears the letter sound, says the letter sound, sees the letter, and feels the letter by tracing their fingers over the sandpaper texture of the letter on the smooth board background. This cements the concept of the particular letter in all its facets.
Learn by Doing – children learn by doing and experiencing for which the Montessori Materials are perfect. They can move from a foundational ‘concrete’ level to a more complex and abstract level building on what they already know and have assimilated. The materials follow a set sequence and curriculum which makes progression readily available, it also allows the child to go back and revisit previous materials if they need a refresher before moving on to more complex work.
Have an Inbuilt Control of Error – The materials are designed so that the child can see themselves when something is completed correctly without adult intervention. This allows the child to problem solve and have the satisfaction of completing something independently. An example of this would be a simple ring stacker. The toddler can see when the rings are on the base in the correct order, they do not need an adult to point it out to them. Children are drawn to fine detail and nothing escapes their notice!
Isolation of Concept – This simply means that the material must have only one element that changes at a time or it will be too difficult for the child to ascertain the point of what they are trying to achieve. For example if presenting a colour matching activity, make sure that the material used stays the exact same and that only the colour is changing – use all cubes for instance, instead of using a heap of different objects in different colours as a child might start trying to match objects and not colour!
Aid in independence – Montessori materials aim to promote independence so that the child can work without constant intervention by a teacher. Practical life skills (looking after themselves, their environment and food preparation) are also essential. Children feel pride in being independant and do it themselves.
Must have a purpose – Finally, Montessori materials must have a relevant purpose to the child in their everyday life. There is no point learning to hand wash clothes on a washboard as this is never done in real life anymore. It is much better to have a portable washing machine for the children to utilise or to present regular ‘hand-clothes washing’ as it would be undertaken in most modern households today.
Remember, it is not necessary to be a strict ‘purist Montessorian’ to incorporate the Montessori philosophy into your household to create more ease and flow. You do not need to throw away all the toys because they are plastic or light up. Balance is the key.
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