Step into a Montessori classroom — they seem to be popping up all over the country — and you’ll notice children getting hands-on with whatever subject they’re exploring. Using an array of learning materials prepared by their teacher, some kids might be working independently on a counting exercise, and others might be gathered in a group to solve a puzzle.
Items on low shelves give kids easy access to their choice of activity, which they can spend as much time on as they would like. Instead of sitting at a desk and leading a group lesson, the teacher supervises the flow of differentiated learning and offers guidance as needed.
Montessori child care centers and preschools follow this hands-on, child-directed method of education developed by Dr. Maria Montessori around the turn of the 20th century. Classrooms are in three-year age groupings (e.g., 0 to 3) where kids can develop in their own time frame. The approach stresses independence and self-direction, advocates say.
“No two children have to be learning at the exact same time at the exact same pace,” says Erin Conway, who leads the Montessori Cottage in Fallsington, Pennsylvania, and co-founded the Pennsylvania Montessori Alliance. “Maria Montessori found that children innately know what they’re ready to learn when they’re ready to learn it. So, we observe children, look for clues as to what they’re ready for, and find ways to foster those skills.” If a teacher sees that a child is ready for a lesson on a new topic, they can offer that.
Montessori classrooms emphasize respect and acceptance, and teachers help students feel comfortable exploring a range of subject matter in ways that work best for each child. The spectrum of ages in each classroom means students also learn from their interactions with each other.
“The mixed ages is pretty magical,” says Sue Hansen, school leader at Endeavor Montessori in Atlanta. “It allows the older children opportunities for leadership, and for the younger children, there are a lot of role models to learn from.”
The Montessori name isn’t trademarked, so any preschool can claim a tie. To make sure you’re getting the real deal, look for schools affiliated with the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori Internationale.
A Montessori program can be a good fit for almost any child. What’s more important, Conway says, is that parents fully buy into the Montessori philosophy of letting the child be as independent as possible. “Parents need to value more than just academics; Montessori is about teaching the whole child,” she says. “So, parents need to look at themselves even more than at their child.”
When to Start Montessori?
The earlier a child starts a Montessori education, the better, advocates say. Sue Hansen, who leads a Montessori school in Atlanta, prefers that parents enroll children as infants or toddlers. “The older we get the child, the harder it becomes to bring them to Montessori, because they’re not used to the freedom,” she says. A younger starting age can also be better from a developmental standpoint. “The brain develops most rapidly between birth and age 3, and the second most rapid development is from 3 to 6,” says Erin Conway, who runs a Montessori school in Pennsylvania. “When you think about it, it’s absurd that in our country we start formal education at age 5, right before the rapid period of brain development slows down.”