Common Misconceptions and First Transitions
The “prepared environment” is Maria Montessori’s concept that the environment can be designed to facilitate maximum independent learning and exploration by the child. In the prepared environment, there is a variety of activities as well as a great deal of movement within the limitations and guidelines established in the classroom.
In a preschool classroom, for example, a three-year-old may be washing dishes by hand while a four-year-old nearby is composing words and phrases with letters known as the movable alphabet, and a five-year-old is performing multiplication using a specially designed set of beads. In an elementary classroom, a small group of six- to nine-year-old children may be using a timeline to learn about extinct animals while another child chooses to work alone, analyzing a poem using special grammar symbols. Sometimes an entire class may be involved in a group activity, such as a science experiment, storytelling, singing, or movement.
In the calm, ordered space of the Montessori prepared environment, children work on activities of their own choice at their own pace. They experience a blend of freedom and self-discipline in a place specially designed to meet their developmental needs.
First of all, in the Montessori classroom, self-correcting learning materials are arranged invitingly on low, open shelves. Children may choose whatever materials they would like to use and may work for as long as the material holds their interest. When they are finished with each material, they return it to the shelf from which it came. The materials themselves invite activity. There are bright arrays of solid geometric forms, knobbed puzzle maps, colored beads, and various specialized rods and blocks.
Each material in a Montessori classroom isolates one quality. In this way, the concept that the child is to discover is isolated. For example, the material known as the pink tower is made up of ten pink cubes of varying sizes. The preschool-aged child constructs a tower with the largest cube on the bottom and the smallest on top. This material isolates the concept of size. The cubes are all the same color and texture; the only difference is their size. Other materials isolate different concepts: color tablets for color, geometry materials for form, and so on.
In addition, the Montessori materials are self-correcting. When a piece does not fit or is left over, the child easily perceives the error. There is no need for adult “correction.” The child is able to solve problems independently, building self-confidence, analytical thinking, and the satisfaction that comes from accomplishment.
As the child’s exploration continues, the materials interrelate and build upon each other. For example, various relationships can be explored between the pink tower and the broad stair, which are based on matching precise dimensions. Later, in the elementary years, new aspects of some of the materials unfold. When studying volume, for instance, the child may return to the pink tower and discover that its cubes progress incrementally from one cubic centimeter to one cubic decimeter.
Not only did Maria Montessori believe, but most educational theory and research indicate that learning is an individual process – in the time frame, style, and interests – and that children learn from one another. Even though most schools are organized by homogeneous, single-age grouping, research has not found this to be beneficial.
Montessori education theory supports multi-age grouping, and Montessori teachers have implemented it for over 100 years. The basic fact is that children learn from one another. This can be seen in family and play situations where children are free to observe and interact in a variety of activities. Young children learn higher-level cognitive and social skills not only through mental development but also by observing others as models.
Montessori multi-age classrooms usually incorporate a three-year age span based on similarities in physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. Each group of children remains together in the same environment and with the same teaching team for three years. Therefore, only one-third of the group is new each year, enabling children and teachers to get to know one another very well. This avoids the yearly stress children often face of new teachers, new rules, and new expectations. For the teachers, it offers the opportunity to know each child very well and follow each child’s development over time, personalizing instruction.
Multi-age grouping helps children develop a sense of community and supports social development. Older children act as models and (sometimes) teachers of younger children. This aids the development of personality, collaboration, and cooperation. There is less anxious competition because all children are not expected to have identical skills and perform equally. This leads to respect for the individuality of each person in the group and recognition that each child has unique strengths and contributions to offer the group. Comparisons are not made, and cooperation is encouraged, thus accommodating the uneven development, which is especially evident in the birth to the eight-age range.
Children work at their own levels, which may vary in different curriculum areas. Groups are flexible and often differ, depending on interest, subject matter, and/or ability. children learn from the many activities within the environment and often find interest in the work of another child or group of children. Because they see the older children interacting successfully with the advanced curriculum, children don’t develop fears of succeeding in higher grades. Collaborative learning is encouraged. This occurs not only when a teacher has formed a group for a specific lesson, but often happens without specific, assigned groups. Spontaneous grouping can occur when the teacher suggests that a child ask another for assistance.
Montessori is just for preschool children
While the many Montessori schools in the United States are preschools, Montessori programs exist at age levels from birth to eighteen.
Montessori is just for special learners–the gifted or the learning-disabled
The methods used in Montessori schools are highly effective with both learning-disabled and gifted learners; the reason for their effectiveness, however, is that the learning environments have been designed to ensure success for all children.
Montessori schools are religious
Many private American Montessori schools do have a religious orientation because it is such a common practice in America for private schools to have religious support. But Montessori itself is not religiously oriented and finds itself quite at home in public settings where religious instruction is inappropriate.
Montessori is only for the rich
This misconception is due to the fact that the American Montessori movement that began in the 1950s was primarily a private preschool movement, supported by tuition. Now, however, Montessori education is available at approximately 200 public schools in the U.S. in addition to about 4,000 private schools. Most offer generous scholarship programs.
Children in Montessori classrooms are relatively unsupervised and can “do whatever they want.”
Montessori is based on the principle of free choice of purposeful activity. If the child is being destructive or is using materials in an aimless way, the teacher will intervene and gently re-direct the child either to more appropriate materials or to a more appropriate use of the material. There is always freedom within limits in a Montessori classroom. Guidelines, ground rules, and work plans are always part of Montessori education.
Montessori is a cult
Montessori is part of the educational mainstream, as evidenced by growing numbers of graduate-level programs in Montessori education (such as those at Cleveland State University, Loyola University and New York University) and the increasing popularity of Montessori in the public schools. It is different, but is gaining.
Montessori classrooms are too structured
Although the teacher is careful to make clear the specific purpose of each material and to present activities in a clear, step-by-step order, the child is free to choose from a vast array of activities and to discover new possibilities.
Montessori is against fantasy; therefore, it stifles creativity
The fact is that the freedom of the prepared environment encourages creative approaches to problem solving. And while teacher-directed fantasy is discouraged, fantasy play initiated by the child is viewed as healthy and purposeful. In addition, art and music activities are integral parts of the Montessori classroom.
Montessori classrooms push children too far too fast
Central to the Montessori philosophy is the idea of allowing each child to develop at his or her own, individual pace. The “miracle” stories of Montessori children far ahead of traditional expectations for their age level reflect not artificial acceleration but the possibilities open when children are allowed to learn at their own pace in a scientifically prepared environment.
Montessori is out of date
While appropriate changes have been made to the original Montessori curriculum (including the introduction of computers and modifications to the Practical Life exercises to keep them culturally relevant), the basic pedagogy has not changed much since Dr. Montessori’s lifetime. Contemporary research and evaluation, however, seem to be confirming Montessori’s insights. A recent Science magazine article examined the effectiveness of Montessori education on young children.
Many parents ask, “How can I prepare my child for starting school?” Once you have chosen the school – and do that without bringing your child along on all those preliminary visits, because visits to several schools can be confusing and upsetting to small children – visit together on the day set aside for first visits and then talk the experience through later on. Whenever the subject crops up, chat about the children you saw, what they were doing, when they had their drink and biscuit (cookie), where they went out to play. The child who understands the structure of a morning at school is much better equipped than the one thrown into the deep end on the first day of school with the hazy memories of a visit.
Ask the Director (Administrator) for the names of children starting school at the same time, or make contact at the induction day. Ask someone home to play; one recognizable face can mean so much to a new child.
Try to occasionally pass the school when the children are coming out, clutching their artwork and greeting their parents after a busy morning.
If you have cared for your child at home by yourself, arrange short separations. Have your child spend a morning with a trusted friend or grandparent. Do your best to ensure that these first visits away from you are enjoyable and predictable. As you leave, always say good-bye and return promptly as promised. Your child will learn that separations are for a finite time and always end happily.
Arm your child with social graces that will enable her to make friends, but also give her practical information. “Here are the coat pegs where you hang your coat and school bag; this is the book corner where you can sit quietly if you want,” etc. The message is that school will not be a roomful of strangers and unfamiliar equipment, but a place lovingly prepared for her use.
Dress your child in easy comfortable clothes, like T-shirts, tracksuits, and shoes with Velcro fasteners, which she can manage herself. Consult her about her lunch, if she is to stay all day, and make that easy for her to manage on her own as well.
Most Montessori schools will set aside some time to orient the new children entering the class. This varies from school to school, but may range from one morning to a gradual phasing in of the new little ones into the class for an hour a day until they feel comfortable.
Q: My son is so attached to his grubby old piece of blanket that I am sure he will want to take it to school. Should I try to wean him off it now that he is growing up?
Growing up happens gradually, not on the day you are first separated from your mom for whole mornings at a time. Wash the blanket, and if permitted by the school, put it cheerfully in his bag, and ask him to choose a favorite cuddly toy and book to go along with it. Your child will feel that he is being allowed to exercise control over his new situation and that precious links between home and school are permissible and encouraged. One day soon he will decide to leave his blanket at home because it gets in the way.
Q: My daughter was so excited about her new school and sailed in on the first few mornings with a cheerful wave. Now it’s Monday and she refuses point blank to go. She says she’s “just tired of it.”
Not tired of it as much as just plain tired. However much a child is prepared for what goes on at her new school, the actual experience can come as a surprise. New routines can be exhausting. She may also be missing some of the cozier aspects of life at home, so try to make time in the morning for a cuddle in bed with a story and a leisurely breakfast. Don’t bombard her with questions about school when she comes home. Let her sleep or just flop around and relax for a bit, and keep extras like swimming and dancing lessons to a minimum in these early days.
If Monday mornings are a hurdle, spend time on Sunday sorting out something to take to school – a flower that has opened in the garden, a postcard from Grandma, a story she would like to share with her new friends.
Q: My son is very shy with strangers, and I worry that he won’t ask if he needs something. He’s toilet trained at home but often has accidents at other people’s homes. I’m worried about how he will do when he starts school.
Give this little boy plenty of time to get to know his surroundings, perhaps extra visits to the school before the first day and slow, careful familiarization with the layout of the classroom each morning. On his first day, go with him to the Directress and ask where the bathrooms are. Go find them together, pointing out landmarks along the way. Be sure that the Directress understands your concerns and how you have been helping him prepare for school. Prepare at least one extra set of clothes to leave at school, and give them to your little boy and the Directress, so that she can find the right place to store them just in case he has an accident at school. Having his own clothes to put on is less embarrassing and upsetting.
Q: I’ve stayed with him for the first few days and gradually taken my leave, but he still screams when I go. He is fine after a few minutes, but it makes me feel upset to leave him and apprehensive when we get ready in the mornings.
Like many children, this little boy finds the moment of parting hardest to bear. Perhaps he hasn’t been left with others people much before or has had to put up with an anxiety provoking separation for which he wasn’t prepared. Avoid the build up of tension by chatting to him along the way to school about the dull things that you will be doing while he is away (exaggerate the dreariness), the nice lunch you will make together when you pick him up at noon, and your plans for the afternoon. Talk about one or two enticing things about his new school and the first thing that he might do. If he mentions something, be sure to pass his comment on to the Directress so she can get him started swiftly. Don’t be afraid to talk about his tears and fears. Acknowledge that you both feel a bit sad to say good-bye but you can both be brave and try not to cry. A simple chart with a gold star to stick on for every day he manages this can work wonders.
Q: I feel I should be allowed to stay with my child for the first week while he gets used to school, but they discourage it. Who is right?
Schools differ on this subject. Some will allow mothers to sit in on the first few days and long as they are prepared to keep a very low profile. The aim is to get your child settled in a school environment which will not include the presence of her mother, so you may be asked to sit in another room, make small excursions to the shops, or even stay outside in the car while your child gets used to the idea that you are close at hand for the time being, but only if needed.
You will almost certainly have been given the chance to see the school for a morning earlier on, and I hope that you will be well informed about the work of the classroom and principles of a Montessori education. Delightful as watching is, parents have to accept that their presence is superfluous and can be an intrusion if they overstay their welcome.
Q: My child has been at school for half a term and doesn’t seem to be learning anything about reading and writing. Some of the pre-prep schools seem to push them much faster, and I worry that he will be at a disadvantage.
Montessori schools do not push children into early success, but rather lead them to achieve to their utmost potential when they are ready. In the first weeks and months at school, the new Montessori child will be learning how to gain control over his body and mastering practical life skills which will feed his growing sense of independence. Sensorial activities then pave the path to literacy. Readiness comes after sound preparation. If your child is practicing using tweezers, for example, he is strengthening his writing fingers. Recognizing, sorting, and matching geometric shapes, along with similar tasks, are all essential pre-readiness skills. Learning to be silent in the “Silence Game” develops self-discipline and teaches the young child how to listen. And while your child may not yet be displaying it at home, Montessori children are learning an amazing vocabulary that serves them beautifully in the years to come. Don’t worry, the Montessori approach to reading, writing, and mathematics is wonderful and very highly regarded around the world. Just allow the process to work it out in its own time. Try to be patient, and please don’t push. It is not how early a child begins to read that it important, but how much he loves reading and how thoroughly he grasps the skills that build up to literacy that truly matter.