I first realized that Montessori education is unique and of value when I was in 3rd grade. My family had just moved from Missouri to Virginia and, for the first time, I had begun attending a standard, non-Montessori school. In Math class, I felt at ease, able to understand the whys and hows behind each new concept and truly enjoyed learning them. A few of the kids sitting next to me were really struggling and I thought, “if only they could use the Montessori Checkerboard, they’d understand how this all works.” That was the first time I ever really gave thought to one teaching style’s benefits over another’s and I’ve been interested in differences ever since. Years later, I’ve learned about and heard of many other ways of teaching math – and all the other subjects! – that are valuable as well, but I still have an affinity for the Montessori method.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Montessori method, you might be wondering what sets it apart. The Montessori method is named for Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator who spent years working with and studying children and who developed an educational method based off of her observations in child development. There’s a lot to the method and I feel like I could study it for years before learning all I’d like to know about Maria Montessori’s view of children and method for educating them. In what I’ve learned so far and from my personal experience, here are the three biggest principles of the Montessori method that have led me and Beach Dad to the decision to make it the foundation for how we educate our children:
[All quotes are from The Absorbent Mind by Dr. Montessori]
1. The Union of Child Development and Child Experience
“The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age six; for that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement, is being formed… Adults work to finish a task, but the child works in order to grow, and is working to create the adult, the person that is to be.”
Many psychologists agree that the first 6 years of a child’s life are the most important. During this time, children learn essentials like how to move independently, to eat food, to understand language, and then to speak, read and even write it. The brain development that happens during the first 6 years of life is unparalleled.
Maria Montessori found that children have sensitive periods – times when their brains and physical abilities are most primed to acquire certain knowledge or abilities. Modern research has supported her idea in finding that we will be most successful in teaching our children skills if we can match their experiences to their stage of development. While children do have shorter sensitive periods (also known as critical periods) for more specific tasks, Montessori experts often say that ages 3-6 are like one big, long sensitive period. Children’s brains are primed to learn in a way that is unique to these 3 years of life. Consequently, the Montessori method has children learning things like the scientific names for parts of a frog and the names and capitals of each country in the world, all before age 6.
2. The Value of Both Abstract and Concrete
“The child’s mind between three and six can not only see by intelligence the relationships between things, but it has the higher power still of mentally imagining those things that are not directly visible. Imagination has always been given a predominant place in the psychology of childhood, and all over the world people tell their children fairy stories, which are enjoyed immensely as if the children wanted to exercise this great gift, as imagination undoubtedly is. Yet, when all are agreed that the child loves to imagine, why do we give him only fairy tales and toys on which to practice this gift? If a child can imagine a fairy and fairyland, it will not be difficult for him to imagine America.”
At this stage, children’s imaginations are thriving and, therefore, they are ready to learn abstract concepts that some forms of education wait to teach until children are older. The Montessori method says that not only should we teach these abstract concepts, but as we introduce them and more concrete facts, we should make sure that children’s “vocabulary keeps pace with their experiences.” Montessori believed that if children were able to experience something, we – as parents and educators – should be equipping them to talk about their experiences intelligently. One of the primary goals in doing this is so that children can feel more secure in their environments. While the world can be overwhelming and huge to children, we can help them to feel more secure in it by giving them the ability to classify and describe what they see and experience.
I’ve really enjoyed seeing glimpses of this with Beach Girl recently. A few months ago, we went to see Angel Oak, a huge, ancient oak tree near Charleston. Since then, Beach Girl talks about oak trees often, pointing them out whenever we see them (which, around here, is often!). Every time we drive to Kiawah Island, we pass hundreds of oak trees and Beach Girl marvels, “Wow! Look at all these oak trees! I love oak trees. They’re my favorite.”
Oak trees are also the only tree (besides palm trees) that Beach Girl can identify… but, it’s almost as if she feels like she has been let in on a secret. Instead of just looking at a vast expanse of trees and not understanding how they grow or what makes them different from one another, she can look at one type of tree and confidently say: “That’s an oak tree. I love it.”
3. The Internal, Intangible Benefits
“And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.”
The Montessori method embraces young children’s ability to imagine and learn things in order to start teaching things like how to classify trees or imagine the concept of “America” early on. However, those elements are not the most important part of a Montessori education.
Rather, the information and skills that children learn are secondary in importance to the unseen benefits that Montessori education strives to provide. Though all children (barring a disability or hardship of some sort, of course) will eventually learn their alphabet, their numbers, and much, much more, they won’t necessarily develop certain intangibles that will help them succeed throughout their lives.
A Montessori teacher seeks to answer a child’s (unspoken) request to “help me do it alone”. The teacher (actually called a director/directress in a Montessori classroom) doesn’t teach in a standard desk and chalkboard classroom setting, but instead offers more individualized, hands-on instruction and then steps aside to let the child try. As children explore on their own to complete meaningful tasks and learn important information, their confidence, self-image, and love of learning grow in amazing ways!
By pursuing Montessori education, we are hoping to provide our kids with those intangibles: confidence, a positive self-image, and a love of learning. Montessori believed, and I agree, that if you can get children excited about what they’re learning, they’ll become focused. They’ll follow their natural inclination to explore and to experiment. They’ll crave more knowledge and proudly delight in their acquired skills. And, that is when education truly happens – not from learning facts and skills themselves, but from developing the ability to learn facts and skills.
Those are the skills that I hope my girls will learn and carry with them throughout their lives. I hope that they will end up self-motivated, desiring to explore God’s world, to soak up all the knowledge that they can (even years after they have graduated from school) and to take initiative to creatively solve problems. There are many, many educational methods available to get there – to prepare my kids for confident, excited, and self-motivated learning – and I’m excited to follow the path that Maria Montessori has laid out ahead of us.
If you’re interested in learning more, keep an eye out for an upcoming post, where I’ll outline some of what Montessori preschool will look like for our family. And, if you have any questions you’d like me to answer or want to share your own experiences with Montessori, give me a shout out in the comments.
Update: I’ve posted more about what Montessori preschool will look like for our family and would love for you to check it out!