The 10 Things I Love (and 2 things I don’t) About Montessori
A recurring question I get is: “What are your thoughts on Montessori?”
So, here goes. Honestly, I have mixed feelings. The theory speaks to my heart. I love the teachings and writings of Maria Montessori.
But personally, I’ve had a couple of really bad experiences with Montessori schools. Like the time when one school wanted my four year old to go off with a teacher (stranger) and do half an hour of “work” and then come into a room with another twenty 3-6 year olds to see how he “socializes” (how would your social skills stand up to a test of your “socialization” with another 20 people you’ve never met, oh – who are all good friends, by the way). I was instructed not to help him or prompt him when the teacher shows him work, and that I should leave the room (I was told this in front of him, as tears streamed down his red, flustered cheeks – needless to say, I didn’t follow these instructions). I’m not sure if it was him who wasn’t accepted, or me. But either way, I’m grateful we weren’t accepted into the class. It was a close escape from a school that appeared wonderful, but clearly wasn’t.
Having said all that, I still love Montessori. I just don’t always love what’s “done” with it (or to it?). I’m not one for dogmatism in any area of life (perhaps with the exception of kindness). And so I don’t like the feeling of any philosophy being exclusive, rigid or controlling which can sometimes be the case with Montessori (and certainly with RIE, Attachment Parenting and many others).
Here are the themes I do take from Montessori, and after these I’ll let you know what doesn’t resonate for us.
- Follow the child | Montessori believes in letting children lead their own learning. We, as parents and caregivers, are about observing the children and what bubbles up naturally in them. We take an assistant role, a supporting role rather than a directors role. Montessori isn’t unique in this approach, it’s held by Waldorf, Unschooling and Reggio, too, but it’s wonderful and liberating and I believe in it.
- Hold the Absorbent Mind Period Sacred (0-6) | Maria Montessori taught that the early years are the key time when children learn the most important things in life: learning how to learn and learning who they are. “The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six.” – Maria Montessori
- Sensitive Periods | The sensitive periods are times when children are obsessed with one type of learning… fascinated and driven to acquire a specific skill or gain knowledge in a particular area. Rather than the rote 45 minute increments of subjects learning we’re used to in the public school system, honoring the sensitive periods means noticing and allowing for these bursts of interest in certain topics. This follows following their lead. Children’s interests come in waves with an intense focus on learning something. Allow for it and cater to it.
- Freedom | Montessori promotes giving children the freedom to move about their spaces without being dictated to (sit here, stand there, go outside). The key to allowing this freedom is designing a “Yes space” (where the children are safe) and allow children to move freely within them. Even more wonderful is if they have the freedom to choose whether they’re indoors or outdoors, and the freedom to initiate exploring different activities. Self motivated learning is only born of freedom.
- Hands on Learning | In stark contrast to the text book-led, frontal lectures we grew up on, Montessori believes in learning through all five senses and through real life exploration. Learning letters, maths, history, geography through physical, sensorial, hands-on materials. This sensory led approach means you learn things through touching them, holding them, seeing, hearing and tasting them. A triangle isn’t represented merely by three lines of ink on a paper, but in 3D cut out where I can touch all three sides. This feeling-to-learn informs abstract understanding, so that then when I need to represent a triangle in 2D, I’ve experienced a triangle, and can better grasp it’s abstract form.
- Practical Life Learning | The emphasis on practical day to day life skills goes far beyond the mainstream “chore charts” and tidying up battles. The focus here is seeing the child as a competent, contributing part of the household. When given the chance and proper tools and guidance, children can perform many self care and household tasks: Cleaning, wiping their spills, pouring their milk, making beds, cleaning toys, vacuuming, sweeping, washing their dishes… this type of participation is both helpful to their caregivers but also critical to their sense of self, and to the way we want our homes to run. Toddlers want to do this anyway. They’re fascinated by doing things for themselves and copying mom and dad, so toddlerhood is the perfect time to start involving them in this way (even though it’s miles slower, I know).
- Cater Your Space to Children | Montessori supports child size, low, manageable furniture and storage and an orderly, minimalist and attractive environment. Of course, I love this. I also interpret catering our homes to ‘child size’ as catering our schedules to ‘child pace’. Bringing everything down a notch, lower, calmer, slower.
- Don’t Interrupt Children’s Work | Montessori teaches us to develop and honor our children’s innate capacity for deep concentration by never interrupting a child at work (I compare this to waking them from sleep). Some interruptions may be hidden suspects such as: a competitive vibe, punishments and rewards, tests and grades… these are interruptions of the flow of life where self motivation and intrinsic value drive our children.
- Set Up Play Prompts (Strews!) | Montessori advocates for putting great care into which materials are chosen and how these are presented. I love this idea of treating materials (and each other) with great respect. Montessori materials are unique manipulatives made out of natural and simple materials such as wood. Usually a Montessori teacher will focus on setting out an activity very slowly, deliberately and carefully and then showing a child how it is “correctly” used. I like to project this deliberate intentionality on to all aspects of life (of course that doesn’t always happen at all but it’s a fantasy of mine, or a goal?) demonstrating appropriate respect for our environment… how we bring food to the table, set the table, treat our own space and bodies. Even making our bed in the morning embodies this approach.
- Control of Error | the toy itself shows how it should be used in a correct way. They have only one skill that they’re trying to demonstrate.
Two things I don’t love about Montessori:
- Montessori is over used and is not regulated. You might still find age segregation, punishments and rewards, frontal lecturing and teaching… not true Montessori environment.
- Montessori feels rigid to me. How things need to be played with “one correct way”… work to be done, etc.
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What do you love about Montessori? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, especially if you practice Montessori principles in your home or have experience with a Montessori school!