What is Montessori?

Dr. Maria Montessori, born in 1870, was the first woman to receive a medical degree in Italy. She worked in the fields of psychiatry, education and anthropology. She never published a theory until she had observed it for many years with children of all social classes and in many countries.

She believed that each child is born with a unique potential to be revealed, rather than as a “blank slate” waiting to be written upon. Her main contributions to the work of those of us raising and educating children are in these areas:

  • Learning to prepare the best environment for the child, according to the different stages of life.
  • Learning to observe the child living freely in this environment, and to continually adapt the environment for the ever-changing child, in order that he may fulfill his greatest potential, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

The Montessori Method is dynamic in that observation and the meeting of the needs is continual and specific for each child. Many people think of the term “Montessori” as it is applied to communities of children between ages three and six. However, the discoveries of Maria Montessori are valuable for anyone living and working with hildren in any situation. Montessori schools exist for all ages, infants through high school.

Excerpts from Aline D. Wolf’s A Parent’s Guide to the Montessori Classroom…

The purpose of Montessori Education

Dr. Maria Montessori believed that no human being is educated by another person.  She must do it herself or it will never be done.  A truly educated individual continues learning long after the hours and years she spends in the classroom because she is motivated from within by a natural curiosity and love for knowledge.  Dr. Montessori felt, therefore, that the goal of early childhood education should not be to fill the child with facts from a pre-selected course of studies, but rather to cultivate her own natural desire to learn.

In the Montessori classroom this objective is approached in two ways: first, by allowing each child to experience the excitement of learning by her own choice rather than by being forced; and second, by helping her to perfect all of her natural tools for learning, so that her ability will be at a maximum in future learning situations.  The Montessori materials have this dual long-range purpose in addition to their immediate purpose of giving specific information to the child.

How the children learn

The use of the materials is based on the young child’s unique aptitude for learning, which Dr. Montessori identified as the “absorbent mind.”  In her writings she frequently compared the young mind to a sponge.  It literally absorbs information from the environment.  The process is particularly evident in the way in which a two year-old learns his native language, without formal instruction and without the conscious, tedious effort which an adult must make to master a foreign tongue.  Acquiring information in this way is a natural and delightful activity for the young child who employs all his senses to investigate his interesting surroundings.

Since the child retains this ability to learn by absorbing until he is almost seven years old, Dr. Montessori reasoned that his experience could be enriched by a classroom where he could handle materials, which would demonstrate basic educational information to him.  Over eighty years of experience have proved her theory that a young child can learn to read, write and calculate in the same natural way that he learns to walk and talk.  In a Montessori classroom the equipment invites him to do this at his own periods of interest and readiness.

Dr. Montessori always emphasized that the hand is the chief teacher of the child.  In order to learn there must be concentration, and the best way a child can concentrate is by fixing his attention on some task he is performing with his hands.  (The adult habit of doodling is a remnant of this practice.)  All the equipment in a Montessori classroom allows the child to reinforce his casual impressions by inviting him to use his hands for learning.

The importance of the early years

In The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori wrote, “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.  For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement is being formed.  But not only his intelligence; the full totality of his psychic powers…At no other age has the child greater need of intelligent help, and any obstacle that impedes his creative work will lessen the chance he has of achieving perfection.”  Eight percent of the child’s mental development takes place before he is eight years old, the importance of favorable conditions during these years can hardly be over emphasized.

Sensitive Periods

Another observation of Dr. Montessori’s, which has been reinforced by modern research, is the importance of the sensitive periods for early learning.  These are periods of intense fascination for learning a particular characteristic or skill, such as going up and down steps, putting things in order, counting or reading.  It is easier for the child to learn a particular skill during the corresponding sensitive period than at any other time in her life.  The Montessori classroom takes advantage of this fact by allowing the child freedom to select individual activities, which correspond to her own periods of interest.

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