This article includes excerpts from our Back to Montessori Booklet. Pick up a copy and learn everything your 3-6 child needs at home to thrive at school this year.
You've probably noticed that Montessori classrooms are different. The large number of children of various ages, the shelves of breakable, beautiful materials, the lack of educational posters, and the quiet hum of activity are all a bit strange upon your first visit. The first time I visited a Montessori classroom was almost exactly ten years ago, and it was surprising. I had been in many classrooms before, doing on-site practicum work for the past five. But no classroom I had been in had this same serene calm where the children just happily worked. A child even brought me a tray with water and a guest book! In fact, it took me a few minutes to even see the adult, who was seated with her back towards the group, giving a lesson. I was so struck, I applied to be an assistant and within a month had decided to get trained.
Montessori classrooms aren't magic, they are carefully planned physical and emotional environments based on scientific observation of child development. Through her research and collaboration with educational theorists of her time, Montessori compiled materials to support development and learning and outlined methods for instruction. The Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) or Primary classroom is designed to meet the developmental needs of children ages 2 ½ -6. Here's an inside look at the what and why behind the materials and design:
An Absorbent Mind
According to Montessori, during this first plane of development, children have an “absorbent mind”, which takes in information from the environment with all senses. These impressions take no effort, and form the foundation for the conscious logical mind around age 6. Therefore at this age, there is careful consideration for the physical and emotional environment in a Montessori classroom. Children will use this absorbed information to form the foundation of who they are, and they take it in without a filter.
Children this age become very sensitive to:
- External order in routines, events, and objects
- Language, spoken, written, and read.
- Things they smell, taste, see, touch, and hear
- Coordinating their bodies and the smaller movements of their hands.
- Social structures, peers, and culture
And have a strong need to:
- Repeat activities until they are “mastered”
- Do purposeful activities with their hands and bodies
- Contribute to the group and their peers
- Explore and re-orient to changes
- Talk, listen, and share ideas.
To meet these needs, a Montessori Primary classroom (or Children's House) has:
- Children ages 2½ to 6 years old, who learn directly from using the materials in the prepared environment, with the adult acting as facilitator.
- Scheduled three hour block of time for uninterrupted work.
- Self-correcting materials that are either concrete representations of an abstract concept (dimension, letter sounds, addition, etc) or materials that encourage practice of a life skill. These are the classic, widely-recognized Montessori materials.
- Freedom for children to move around the classroom and speak to each other.
- An adult trained to give Montessori lessons, observe, guide learning, and understand the theory behind the materials and method
(classrooms missing one or more of these qualities are not true Montessori programs.)
The Three Year Cycle
Children typically stay in the Children's house classroom for three years. Each year offers different work and focus based on what that age child is developmentally ready for and interested in. Children of the same age may be working on very different concepts, or one may have more advanced lessons than the other. Lessons are given individually or in small groups, so each child is getting exactly what she needs, when she needs it. The lessons listed below are generally shown in either the first, second, or third year:
First Year Lessons: Age 2.5 to 3.5
This a year of transition from toddler-hood to childhood. During the first year in the classroom, your child is adjusting to a new space, new people, and new expectations and she craves order, consistency, and routine. Introductory lessons practice a skill like pouring, carrying, or building hand strength, which are foundational to future lessons. First years also spend time working on basic care of the environment and care of themselves.
Once a first year child is comfortable with the classroom culture and expectations, she begins sensorial lessons. This area focuses on the world around us, and offers lessons to understand key concepts like length, texture, sound, color, and shape. First years are also learning precise vocabulary and isolating the spoken sounds in a common language. Towards the end of the year, she will begin to put all this information together for writing her own thoughts. Most first year children will begin Montessori math lessons around age four, but much of the work they do this year covers mathematical concepts like following a logical order, problem solving, discriminating fine details, making comparisons, and sorting.
Second Year Lessons: Age 3.5 to 4.5
This a year of growth, and coming into one’s own. Some second year children spend a lot of this year watching and making slow visible progress, while making great internal progress. The second year child takes on more advanced lessons like tying shoelace bows, multi-step washing lessons, and food preparation skills. Grace and Courtesy lessons in the second year include some emerging leadership guidance, like welcoming a guest or visiting another classroom.
Sensorial lessons are the main focus in the second year: discriminating dimension, matching sounds, smells, tones, shapes, and textures, comparing geometric shapes and figures, and basic world geography. The second year child who has a strong understanding of letter sounds and symbols will spend her time thinking of words, blending phonetic sounds together, and practicing her handwriting skills. Around age four, children devote time to understanding the quantity, symbol, and counting sequence of 1-10. Upon mastery of this first section, she will move on to the decimal system and study of teens and tens.
Third Year Lessons: Age 4.5 to 6
In the third year, all the foundational work of year one and two come together. Now this child can take huge responsibility and rise to leadership with her peers. She is making the shift from an absorbent mind to a logical, abstract-thinking mind. Many children learn to read this year, but for some it will take longer. By the third year, most children can combine and use her practical life skills to prepare simple recipes, complete classroom jobs, and help others. Many of the classical sensorial materials have been mastered by the third year. She may build upon these lessons with further extensions, map making, and looking at finer details of cultural geography.
The third year child is practicing and using language lessons every day. This includes writing words, thoughts, and sentences with basic illustration. Once she grasps how to make and hear most sounds in words, she’ll begin to read in earnest. Montessori focuses on total reading, which moves beyond pure memorization for a deeper understanding of how we communicate through written word. Third years can begin the study of the function of words (grammar) and how to arrange thoughts into sentences. More in depth studies are also presented in all academic areas, as well as an introduction to basic research.
After mastering the concepts of 1-10 and the decimal system to 9999, the third year child will begin to explore operations. With lots of concrete experience putting together, taking away, and dividing, she’ll be ready to practice this on her own with limited support from concrete materials—eventually just using pencil and paper. She will also explore and practice skip counting, recognizing patterns, and memorizing basic math facts.
All this work offers a strong foundation for Montessori Elementary, but also for any other school setting your child will be in. In the Children's House, your child learns how to learn, and to approach new knowledge with joy and curiosity. Get a copy of our Back to Montessori Booklet to learn how to spark this kind of learning at home, or contact me.
Leanne Gray, M.Ed is the owner of The Prepared Environment, which supports families in creating an ideal environment for their children at home. She has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained. She particularly loves to hear from you! You can always contact her for personalized support and answers to your questions.