What do Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, chef Julia Child, Hollywood actress Dakota Fanning, and Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez have in common? They all started out in a Montessori preschool.
In a 2004 interview with Barbara Walters, the Google founders have famously credited their Montessori preschool and its curriculum of self-directed learning as being vital to their success. When you ask around about Montessori education, the mixed-reviews you get can be confusing. Some of the people I consulted raved about it, while others dismissed it as “over-priced hype." Here’s a look at some of the features that make this system distinct from traditional schools and preschools, much of it based on my own experience as a mother of two kindergarten graduates from a Montessori school.
Montessori education originated with Dr. Maria Montessori, an educator and the first female Italian physician, in the early twentieth century. Her first school was opened in Rome in 1907. Today, Montessori schools flourish worldwide. The American Montessori society counts about 1200 public and private Montessori schools in the US among its members.
Although Maria Montessori started with preschool education, she grew her approach to include older children. While a large number of the schools only go up to kindergarten, many Montessori schools in the US go all the way up to the eighth grade, with children transferring to regular schools for high school. Upper grades operate on the same principles as the early years.
What Makes Montessori Schools Different?
Each child in the classroom can choose what he or she wants to work on. While this sounds alarmingly loose and chaotic, in reality it is the very opposite. The student can walk over to the many child-sized shelves and pick from work that has already been laid out after careful planning by the teacher. She is free to use the material as many times as she wants to before moving on, thus making learning self-paced and completely by choice.
As Maria Montessori wrote in "The Secret of Childhood" (translated by M. Joseph Costelloe, S.J.):
“All that is needed is to remove the obstacles. And this should be the basis of, and point of departure for, all future education.”
Freedom of Movement
Unlike traditional classrooms, there are very few desks in a Montessori classroom. Kids use the floor mat and roll out smaller mats to define their personal workspaces. They are free to choose the area of the classroom they want to use. There is plenty of movement in the room, but the movement has a purpose. Kids may walk to the snack table and fix themselves something to eat when hungry. A child who chooses to read can settle down with a book in the library section of the room. A child who wants to spend quiet time alone can do so in the “quiet corner” of the room.
Montessori preschools have kids ages three to six sharing the same classroom. Parents are skeptical about how this might work, but it does because each child focuses on her own chosen piece of work. Children of different ages often work collaboratively on projects. Many times, older children act as leaders, helping younger ones with concepts or activities that they have mastered. This, to me, mirrors real life where we often work with people of different ages and abilities towards common goals.
The Montessori classroom is very carefully designed to provide the ideal learning environment. All furniture is child-sized and shelves are at eye-level with the children. Care is taken not to overcrowd the shelves or overwhelm the children with too much material.
There is an emphasis on using natural materials such as wood, wicker, and fabric, as well as reusing and recycling materials. Efforts are made to provide a calm environment where children feel at one with nature. You might find a vase with fresh flowers arranged by one of the children in the room.
Gardening, cooking, and a hands-on exploration of nature are often part of the daily routine.
Curriculum and Material
Montessori curriculum in preschool includes math, language, and practical life skills, such as cleaning the work area or washing dishes after meals. Sensorial activities are another area where children manipulate objects and use all their senses to better perceive and become attuned to their environment.
Geography, cultural studies, science, music, and movement also form a part of the curriculum. Maria Montessori believed that the ages between three and six years old were ideal for language acquisition, and you will find a foreign language included in the curriculum in many Montessori preschools.
Montessori learning materials are beautifully designed objects that children are naturally drawn to. They enjoy handling the objects without being consciously aware that they are engaged in learning.
Many of the Montessori materials are “self-correcting,” which means that the child can figure out on his own when something is done incorrectly. For instance, a puzzle piece will not fit properly in the wrong space.
Math materials consist of real objects used to demonstrate abstract concepts in a tangible form. For instance, addition concepts like “carry-overs” are learned initially through a banking “game,” using strings of beautiful beads before moving on to doing the arithmetic on paper.
Things to Look Out For
Before you enroll your kids, it’s good to be aware of the following:
Not all Montessori schools are created equal. Check to see if the school is a member of the American Montessori Society and if it’s AMS-accredited. Accreditation by AMS is a designation that it meets a well-defined standard of excellence.
Some schools may have only partially adopted the Montessori curriculum, so it’s good to be aware what you are signing up for. Visit the classroom to find out the extent to which Montessori materials and methods are being used.