How did Montessori Begin?

The method is named for its creator, Dr. Maria Montessori. Born in Italy in 1870, Maria was the first woman to earn a medical degree in her country. 

Her first job was working with children with cognitive disabilities. Over time, she discovered how well they learned when given specific materials she created and the freedom to independently use them. Her success earned her a national reputation.

In 1907, she was invited to put her materials to work with a different group of children. She agreed to head up a revolutionary urban renewal project in Rome’s poorest slum, San Lorenzo. Its children—malnourished, ill and uneducated—were left alone on the streets all day while their parents worked long hours. Using private and public funds, she opened the now famous Casa dei Bambini (The Children’s House) where these children were cared for and educated during the day.

To the surprise of many, the children in her care flourished, demonstrating academic success that exceeded that of privileged children in prestigious schools. 

During her years at The Children’s House, Dr. Montessori recorded hours and hours of observations that formed the basis of her theories of child development—theories that have been supported by scientific study throughout the past century. 

Since that time, her theories and materials have been used in thousands of schools all over the world and earned her three Nobel Prize nominations. Today, there are an estimated 5,000 Montessori schools in the United States alone—a number that continues to grow and now includes thousands of elementary and middle schools, as well as a growing number of International Baccalaureate high schools.

How are Montessori Preschools Different From Traditional Preschools?

In Montessori classrooms, there is a buzz of joyful learning, but the room is calm and peaceful. Some children work quietly alone. Others work in small groups. Teachers observe from the sidelines, occasionally demonstrating new materials, or guiding children to explore new areas. Children are working with materials that seem, at first glance, to be developmentally advanced. The children are very independent, managing most self-care skills themselves. How does this happen?

  • Classroom teachers have undergone extensive training and are certified by an accredited Montessori teacher training center.

  • Classrooms are child-centered, not teacher-centered.

  • Emphasis is on individual learning, not group learning.

  • Children learn in a mixed-age environment representing a three-year age spread.

  • Children work with the Lead Teacher for up to three years.

  • Each year, only one-third of the children in the classroom are new. The returning children model behaviors and classroom structures. They use materials that pique the curiosity of younger children.

  • Children are given techniques and tools to resolve conflicts and solve problems peacefully for themselves (with adult oversight).

  • Classrooms are clean, well-organized and uncluttered. Children have easy access to the materials.

  • Teachers do not function as the source of information and feedback. The self-correcting materials do.

  • The teacher’s job is to create a prepared environment, facilitate access to materials, guide children to explore all curriculum areas, and record observations about each child’s development.

  • Classrooms are filled with a full range of proven, tested materials in four primary areas: language, math, practical life exercises, and sensory exploration.

  • Additional materials cover topics in geography, world cultures, science, music, movement and art.

  • Children are never pushed to learn concepts before they are interested and ready.

  • Dr. Montessori invented ingenious materials that let children explore abstract, complex subjects in a concrete, experiential ways. There is no rote memorization.

  • Children generally attend five days a week to create a regular, predictable and comforting daily schedule.

What’s the Student/Teacher Ratio at MCHW?

There are 12-14 student in each class group. Each class is staffed by one dedicated Lead Teacher and one dedicated assistant. An addition part-time assistant circulates to support students in both classrooms as needed. The ratio is generally 5:1. Our unique model allows us to flexibly meet the needs of each classroom while maintaining a dedicated and stable core staff for each group.

A more complete answer, however, requires looking at the traditional classroom model vs. the Montessori classroom model.

Concern about student/teacher ratios arose from problems inherent in the traditional school model. When a teacher (and perhaps an assistant) is the hub of the classroom, all information, discipline and feedback flows through her to the students. Traditional classrooms are comprised of same-age children who all learn the same thing at the same time. If a teacher has too many students to tend to, learning suffers. Some children will get new concepts quickly and become bored as the others catch up. Some children will need more time to learn new concepts, and may get left behind. And still others will have no interest at all in what is being taught. Low student/teacher ratios in this model are critical to success. 

The Montessori model virtually eliminates this issue. Children learn at their own paces, exploring concepts and materials that are of interest and are just right for them. Teachers are not the source of knowledge and feedback—the materials are. Independence is emphasized. Classroom boundaries are clear from the start, and are modeled by returning students from day one. Children understand how to use materials, resolve conflicts, and ask for assistance when needed. A mixed-age group means that only one-third of the students are new each year, and the older children are teachers to the younger. Finally, Montessori teachers rarely have to wrangle a group of preschoolers into one place at one time.

Given these factors, it’s important for Montessori classrooms to have a sufficient number of children in each of the age groups. In addition, teachers in a Montessori classroom are expected to follow each child’s inner learning directives without interfering. In other words, effective teaching means careful, unobtrusive support and observation. An ideal Montessori configuration is 24-26 children with 2-3 adults.

Are Montessori Schools “Structured” or “Unstructured?” I Hear Conflicting Things.

Structured programs are commonly thought of as teacher-directed with planned group activities and limited amount of choice. Unstructured programs are instead thought of as child-directed with children choosing their own activities with little adult direction.

This is a limited and somewhat flawed way of describing structure. It speaks primarily to whether or not children are engaged in group learning or independent learning. It implies that independent learning lacks structure and boundaries. It also implies that children learn social skills like teamwork, patience and compromise by engaging in group learning experiences. 

Despite the considerable amount of choice and independence children enjoy in Montessori schools, Montessori programs are highly structured. They establish classroom boundaries that allow independent learning to happen successfully. There is freedom of choice within a clear set of rules that eliminates chaos and confusion. 

For example, children define their work spaces by working on floor or table mats. They learn to carefully walk around others’ work mats so as to not disturb their friends. They also understand that when materials are on another child’s work mat, they are unavailable. When materials are placed back on the shelf, they may be used.

Children need to learn to self-regulate before they can become successful group participants. The structure inherent in the Montessori model provides rules and tools that support skills like sharing resources, delaying gratification, managing frustration, negotiating conflict, and building relationships. They offer freedom within structure.

What is the Montessori Philosophy of Child Development?

Maria Montessori’s theories came almost entirely from years and years of observation. Here’s what she concluded about children from birth through age six:

  • Planes of Development. As children develop into adults, they pass through several distinct developmental phases which she termed “planes of development.” The first plane occurs from birth to age six. During this time, children are forming their basic personalities, acquiring language, and creating a mental order of their worlds.

  • Absorbent Minds. Young children learn in a highly unique way. Unlike adults, they effortlessly “absorb” experiences which they process into knowledge. They incorporate these early experiences directly into their personalities for life.

  • Sensory Learning. Learning at this stage happens through sensory experiences, primarily through touch. Young children need to touch and explore, seeing the world through their hands.

  • Concrete to Abstract. Until age six, children’s brains are not wired for abstract learning. They need concrete sensory experiences with concepts before they can move to the next plane of development.

  • Self-Directed Learning. Children have natural inner directives that guide normal development. They inherently know what they need to learn and when they are ready to learn it. She called these windows of inner-guided learning “sensitive periods.”

  • During this stage, children are naturally wired to acquire language—they have a sensitive period for language. They also have a sensitive period for order. The world is new to them, so they need to know where things belong and how they fit together.

  • Work, Not Play. They are instinctively drawn to activities attached to reality like sweeping, pouring, dressing and folding—activities that adults see as work, but children see as exciting. She wrote, “Adults work to perfect the environment. Children work to perfect themselves.”

  • Independence. The desire to be independent is the single greatest drive of a young child. They want to feel valued and competent.

  • Normalization. Children have the ability, over time, to profoundly shift their “fundamental beings” from inattentive and disordered to focused and ordered. A child acquires this self-discipline through deep concentration on physical activities of his own choosing. (She called this transformation “normalization”—an unfortunate term in that it carries a pejorative today that it lacked 100 years ago.)

  • Freedom of Choice. Young children develop best (i.e., undergo normalization) when given the freedom to choose their activities within a structured, prepared environment. This allows them to follow their inner learning guidance.

  • Indirect, Observational Teaching. The greatest impediments to a child’s development during this phase are well-intentioned adults. She loved to say, “Leave the child alone!” Dr. Montessori therefore recommended a method of teaching that is indirect and observational.

Does My Child Need to be Toilet Trained to Start the Program?

No. At MCHW, we recognize that beginning preschool is a big change. Many childrennaturally begin using the toilet early on. Others aren’t ready until they are older. Forcing toilet training to happen in order for a child to enter school causes too much stress for everyone. Montessori school is a great place for young children to learn independence and decide they want to use the toilet (like their older classmates!).

Are Toys Available at the School?

At MCHW, we begin each year with a selection of traditional toys, blocks and crafts on the shelves. As the Montessori materials are introduced, they slowly replace the toys. Children are almost always more interested in the Montessori activities and quickly forget about the toys.

A large collection of building toys like Legos, Kinex, wood blocks and Bristle Blocks are available for use during recess when weather keeps us inside. Train lovers will be happy to know that we have a full line of Thomas the Tank Engine products!

We incorporate realistic stuffed animals and plastic models into the classrooms. We rotate a wooden doll house, farm, airport and fire station through the classrooms during the year. Children at MCHW always have access to many art supplies, percussion instruments and books.

The most important thing to remember is that children perceive the “work materials” as exciting. If they aren’t interested in the materials, we haven’t done our job!

What About Fantasy Play? Can my Child Use His Imagination?

Parents quickly notice that Montessori classrooms don’t have dress-up areas, play houses, pretend kitchens or other areas for fantasy play. Does this mean creative expression and fantasy are discouraged? Does it mean they aren’t important? No!! We just don’t think children need help in this department! Many toys do the imagining for the child. Keep a healthy supply of exciting, basic learning materials and your child will have what he needs to create, imagine and learn.

Why Do Montessori Schools Mix Age Groups?

Montessori education is based on a family model: children learn with each other and from each other. Younger children benefit from daily modeling of older peers who, in turn, blossom with the responsibilities of leadership.

Mixed age groups allow children to remain with the same set of teachers for up to three years. They can move through the classroom materials at their own paces. There is no pressure to keep up or slow down for same-age classmates. 

Finally, this model means that only 1/3 of the class moves on each year. At the beginning of the next school year, 2/3 of the class is comprised of returning students, making for a smooth yearly transition.

Aren’t Preschool Children Supposed to Play, Have Fun and Socialize? Isn’t That the Point of Preschool?

Visit any Montessori classroom and you’ll see children having lots of fun. They see “work” as play. There’s no shortage of joy and excitement as children pursue their own interests.

Parents often mean different things when they talk about “socializing.” Some want their children to learn to separate, enjoying time away from home. Others want their children to learn how to play well with peers. Still other parents simply want their children to have fun.

All are valid. But it’s not enough to open the doors to the playground and assume these goals will be met. Young children need to take with them a framework of inner peace and respectful behaviors.

The Montessori curriculum offers children tools and strategies for negotiating social situations. Grace and courtesy lessons teach respect and kindness. Conflict resolution activities help children practice this critical skill at an early age. Classrooms are organized to reduce competition and chaos. 

Most importantly, Montessori schools are supportive environments that value differences and allow children to discover their own highest potential. As Dr. Montessori observed, children naturally want to feel competent and valued. When children see themselves this way, they are better equipped to successfully negotiate the playground in a positive, peaceful way.

In 2006, the first empirical outcome study of Montessori preschoolers was published. (A. Lillard and N.Else-Quest,Evaluating Montessori Education, Science 113 1362 [2006]). It showed a significant positive impact on long term social behavior. Specifically, Montessori education was associated with a higher level of cooperative play, a lower level of ambiguous aggressive play, a positive sense of community and a higher concern for fairness and justice. (Interestingly, the study also showed Montessori education associated with a higher level of writing creativity within the studied population.)

Montessori classrooms take the concept of socialization one step further by helping children see themselves as citizens of the world. Activities, stories, games and materials that focus on geography, biomes, and world cultures are integral to the curriculum.

Why 5 Days a Week? Can My Child Attend Less Often?

We offer phase-in options for young children just starting out. Before choosing this, however, consider the following:

Predictability and organization are important for young children. Having a regular, daily routine of attending school helps preschoolers gain both.

During sensitive periods of development, children will be drawn to the same activity over and over until they have processed the experience. Daily availability of the materials satisfies this need.

A five-day schedule also puts a preschooler’s schedule in sync with that of older siblings and working parents. Monday through Friday we all go to work or school. On Saturdays and Sundays, we are home together.

MCHW is a half-day program. Morning attendance by even the youngest class members (2.9 years) is usually not overly taxing. It allows plenty of time for a child to join his family for lunch and play while still maintaining a nap or rest schedule.

How is Discipline Handled?

Montessori schools typically have fewer behavior issues because students work independently on activities they choose. We rarely have the challenge of trying to keep the attention of 20 preschoolers focused on a single teacher or pursuit for more than a few minutes at a time. (And let’s face it. Boredom is usually at the root of behavior issues at this age!)

Mixed-age groups also promote good behavior. New students are helped by returning students to learn the ropes right from the start. Discipline develops naturally through the modeling of older students. The desire to imitate the positive behaviors of a five-year-old is a strong influence on a three-year-old.

Conflict is addressed through the Peace Curriculum. Children are given tools to express feelings and work out problems—both of which reduce the likelihood of misbehaviors.

This is not to suggest that adult intervention is never needed. We follow the model of Positive Discipline developed by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D. We don’t believe that children ever need to feel bad in order to do better. We do not use “time outs” as a consequence to misbehavior. Instead, we work on making sure the children are invested in the school rules and experience the power of kindness and respect.

Is Kindergarten Part of the Program?

The preschool curriculum (also known as the Primary curriculum) is designed to continue through age 6. This important final year allows children to complete the language and math curricula at which point their skills will likely far exceed the academic expectations of most kindergartens.

That said, most children at MCHW continue on to non-Montessori schools. Most attend our local public schools or independent schools. In truth, traditional schools now use many of Dr. Montessori’s techniques and materials. No longer do young children sit at desks in rows all day and listen to teachers impart information. Assuming a child meets the age requirements, there is little reason to avoid a public or private kindergarten experience.

In cases where a child’s birthday places him at the youngest end of a class group, or a child would benefit developmentally from an additional preschool year, Montessori schools provide a great option: Children can remain for a “growing year.” They continue to move forward within the curriculum using new and challenging materials. At the end of the year, the family can decide whether their child should go on to kindergarten or 1st grade. The option remains open.

Do You Offer After-School Care or Summer Sessions?

MCHW is a half-day program with optional “Lunch Bunch” extended hours through 1:00 on some days of the week. We have no full-day care. We generally follow the Wellesley public school calendar, but begin after Labor Day and finish the year at the end of May. A short summer program (between 1-2 weeks) may be offered, but varies by year.

Do You Have Outdoor Recess?

Yes. Weather permitting, children spend at least 30 minutes outside each morning.