What is Montessori

The Montessori Method is an approach to educating children based upon the scientific observations of Dr Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor and educator, more than 100 years ago.

Dr Montessori established a learning environment for young children, in which they were free to choose their own activity and direct their own learning, and then in response to her observations of these “free” children, adapted and added to the environment in order to match their interests and needs. This method supported the children’s natural and inborn ability to teach themselves and nurtured the brain’s innate tendencies towards seeking optimal developmental opportunities. Applying this method relies on the adult’s ability to facilitate the child’s inner guide, which is primed for perfect self-directed growth. The method requires that adults prepare a dynamic and child centred learning environment that meets the natural needs of the child, which are determined through observation of the free child.
Whilst most Montessori environments are to be found in schools and other educational institutions, there are many ways to implement the philosophy in the home. Bearing in mind that every child’s ultimate goal is independence through development, parents would try to adapt their home to facilitate the gradual acquisition of skills that will help their child to function independently of their adult carers. If we remember that every child is born with an inner guide which directs their self-formation, then it stands to reason that we must seek to provide opportunities for our children to choose, act, think and express themselves without coercion or domination. Many people argue that this leads to permissive parenting, which can have disastrous results, but the Montessori approach is not about leaving the child to his own devices. Maria Montessori wrote in Education for a New World that, “When we speak of a free child, we mean one following guidance of that nature which is powerful within him.” That is to say that freedom should not be interpreted as lawlessness, but rather as a manifestation of self-direction.

There are many people who choose to home-school their children using the Montessori approach or a combination of Montessori and other child-centred methods. They try to replicate the Montessori learning environment that one would expect to find in a Montessori school, by purchasing the set of Montessori materials (which can be very costly and require a large amount of space) and then giving “lessons” to their children by moving them through a pre-determined curriculum. What most parents find though is that their children do not end up using the materials as a means for inner development and the construction of self, as Maria Montessori intended, simply because the method requires a prepared environment, a prepared adult and a social setting in order to render results that are comparable to the first Casa de Bambini (House of Children). Instead the Montessori materials become didactic in nature and are then merely utilized by the adult as nifty little teaching aids. This then means that the educational experience turns from child initiated learning into adult directed teaching, which by nature produces very different results. The purpose of the materials in the Montessori learning environment are to promote and support spontaneous activity in the child. And unfortunately many Montessori classrooms (in Montessori schools around the world) fill their shelves with Montessori “works” which really amount to little more than contrived busy work, as opposed to the real work of self-construction that Maria Montessori envisaged. Just because a child is occupied does not mean that they are engaged in a task which will further their developmental growth. Not every child in a Montessori classroom will use all the “works” available. But every child will find something that will capture his imagination, call to him, and light the spark of wanting to know more, leading to a deeply personal and unpredictable learning journey.

Sharon Caldwell of the Montessori Foundation recommends that parents create an interesting and stimulating home that takes the real needs of the child into account. Keep your home a home but make it possible for your child to function independently, to do real home activities, to get involved in cooking, cleaning, taking care of his own things etc. Do things at his pace when you can, but also spend your time together having conversations, looking at books and so on.  To make a home "Montessori" you would look at applying fundamental principles (order, aesthetics, interest, completeness etc) to everything you make available for your child - setting up the home in a way that respects the needs of the child and that promotes interest and activity.

It is helpful to begin thinking of education as something that begins right at the very start of your child’s life. Maria Montessori writes that “The greatness of the human personality begins at the hour of birth”. Rather than trying to duplicate a Montessori school environment in your home, parents can establish a way of doing things that communicates fundamental respect for their children. Examine each area of your home and each of your family activities and find ways to promote and encourage independence for even the youngest of children. Find ways to give your children freedom to choose – real choices, not just choices in the areas that don’t really matter. In his book Instead of Education, John Holt says that “We use moral judgement only when we make choices, serious choices, choices that lead to action—and no student can do that in school, where all the serious choices and decisions are made for him by others. The only way we learn morality is by making choices in which we really have something to lose.”

Also find ways to give your children time to engage in their chosen work without being interrupted or disturbed. This requires sensitivity and careful observation on the part of the adult – even the most innocuous activity could be an important and valid task of self-development. Something like endlessly opening and closing a door might seem a futile waste of time to an adult, but presents an important developmental step forward for the young toddler who is starting to learn about doors and how they work. Giving him the time to engage in the activity and to work at it until he is finished, will not only avoid the power struggle that will almost certainly ensue if you try to stop him, but will bring him a step closer to using doors independently which will have a knock-on effect in other areas of independence, like being able to open his wardrobe door to choose his clothing for the day, or being able to open the door to his kitchen cupboard to get the items needed to set his place at the table. 

Set your home up with your child’s natural sensitive periods in mind. Maria Montessori identified and described several periods in every child’s life in which they are particularly sensitive to learning particular skills or knowledge. When the child is given the means to learn something during a sensitive period, they are able to acquire these skills in an effortless way, and this learning will form the foundation for everything that they learn later in life. Children in the first three years of life have a very strong tendency to order. You can support this tendency by keeping your home uncluttered and tidy, with a place for everything and everything in its place. Children who are exposed to the daily ritual of packing things away when one is finished with them, will automatically absorb this behaviour and will participate in tidying up after themselves from the time that they become mobile. Large toy boxes and inaccessible shelving do nothing to promote the development of the child’s sense of order. Shelves that are low to the ground and small baskets and other containers for a limited selection of toys and activities mean that children can reasonably be expected to cope with packing away.

The following links should take you to a number of sites and documents that will give you some insight into the fundamental tenets of Montessori. Bear in mind that most of these sites refer to Montessori as applied in a school setting, however, many thousands of parents apply the method successfully in their homes as well. My personal point of view is that nothing can really replace the wonderful social learning and modelling that takes place in the "school" setting, and yet at the same time, the parent is often the most astute observer of their child and their deep bond of love cannot be replaced. So I believe that it really boils down to the adult doing their very best to understand what Maria Montessori tried to achieve and then trying to apply this to the best of their ability within their own unique set of circumstances, whilst striving to remain true to the original vision. I cannot over-emphasise the importance of reading all of Maria Montessori's works first-hand and then evaluating everything you do against these writings. Any departure from the original method must be carefully considered and evaluated against the criterion of its impact on the self-formation of the child.

Wikipedia give an

This lovely article explains the basics of Montessori Philosophy really well.

Tim Seldin from the Montessori Foundation, explains Montessori to parents in
Montessori 101. Tim also has a video on you tube for all you visual learners!

Sharon Caldwell describes the fundamentals in this article written in her role in the Montessori Foundation.

Sharon again gives some insight into what real Montessori really is.

Annette Haines has compiled a useful Montessori Dictionary explaining some common terminology used by Montessori schools and educators.

The Montessori Australia Council provide an
outline of Montessori practices.

Follow this link to access
The Montessori Philosophy Series written by the founder of At Home with Montessori for parents.