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What Makes a Montessori Classroom Special?

April, 2010
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There are many things that go into making a Montessori classroom. The most important things are the teacher and the “prepared environment” The teachers create the classroom, making the “prepared environment”.
m-classroom-4sDr. Montessori spent 50 years observing children and came to know that both the teacher and the activities are linked. The classroom is “prepared” for the children with activities that the teacher creates. These activities increase a child’s concentration, coordination and independence.
The activities in a Montessori classroom are purposefully designed so that the child learns all day long. Montessori realized that children learn by “doing”. Participation, actually having children use their hands, was the way to have children learn and understand. Montessori also realized that observation and repetition were important to the learning process: watching another child doing an activity was an important part of understanding and actually facilitated learning.
The Montessori teacher uses her Montessori training to set up individual activities to appeal to children of a particular age. If the classroom is for Toddlers the activities are meant for children of that age. If the classroom is for older children, the activities, also called “work”, are for the older child. The word “work” dignifies and honors what the children are doing. It may look like play to most adults. At home we know how children love to “play” with water. In a Montessori classroom there is a distinction. In play, there are seldom any long term goals. In “work”, there are goals and these may include increasing a child’s concentration and skills. In the photo, please notice the expression on the child’s face, how he is concentrating and then notice how attentively the other children are watching. All three children are learning.
m-classroom-2sA Montessori classroom is clean and organized so the children can begin to make sense of their world. Items in a Montessori classroom are carefully and neatly arranged by the teacher when she is preparing the classroom because young children have an innate desire for order. This may be difficult to believe about your child, especially when you consider the toys spread everywhere around the house! Imagine those same items neatly arranged on individual trays and each item being returned to the place it belongs. In a classroom of 24 children, and 3 adults, the children carefully and lovingly return each work to its proper place without nagging or being reminded. They know where the work is for the next time they want to use it. This knowledge gives them a sense of safety and control over their own lives.
One of the classic works in a Montessori classroom is the “metal insets”. The metal insets introduce a child to plane geometry: the child works with the oval, the circle, the triangle, and the pentagon to carefully outline the shape and then color it in, discovering that the triangle has three sides, a circle is round, a square has four even sides, and a pentagon has five. Work with the metal insets develops a child’s eye-hand coordination, strengthens and refines the child’s pencil grip, increase a child’s ability to concentrate, and stirs the child’s interest in design and beauty. The children can make works of art with these shapes, varying the shades, the selection of colors, the shape of the lines, even overlaying one shape upon another. It is both the process and the final product that interest the child. Having worked for half an hour on making one drawing, a child often says, “I had fun doing this”.
There are many non-tangible parts of the prepared environment in addition to the “work”. Every moment of the day, a Montessori teacher demonstrates respect, courtesy, kindness, and that she values independence. The most noticeable of these is respect: the respect that the children are given, that teachers give to the children, and that the children give to each other. Parents wonder, “But how do Montessori teachers teach respect?” Respect begins to grow from the care and love that the teacher gives the children and that the children have for the works on the shelf.
m-classroom-3sWhen a child has dirty things to “play” with, broken things that are missing pieces, this conveys an attitude about the activity… and about the child. Clean, complete materials, without missing parts, convey a different message. To the child the communication is: “You are important, AND what you are about to learn by using this material is important, too.”
Using the work on the shelves is another great way to teach respect by “taking turns”, not sharing. Children learn to return the work to its place on the shelf so anther child may have a turn. “Taking a turn” honors both people. At a very young age children learn that “sharing” often means that each child has less. Babies learn very early what “mine” means and cry and “misbehave” when parents expect that they “share”. We want our children to be generous and giving. “Taking turns” is a good way to begin, as a first step in learning how to share.
Another part of a Montessori classroom is the “observation room” for parents. An observation room is a small room, attached to the classroom, for parents to be in so they can look into the classroom without being seen by the children. It has a one-way mirror so that adults can see what the children are doing, but the children cannot see their parents. To really see what children are doing, this is the only way because when a parent stands in the doorway or enters the classroom, the behavior of the children changes and the children stop what they are doing. What the parent sees then is not the children working, but rather children performing or coming up to their parents to be with them. Montessori schools welcome parents to come observe their children because it is so special to be able to look into a classroom and see what the children are naturally doing.
Another important part of a Montessori classroom, of the “prepared environment”, is the way activities are set up to develop thinking. One of the milestones of a child’s developing mind is the ability to think about the sequences of an activity. If we think of the small sequence of steps that we have to take to get ready for work each day, it is amazing that any of us actually make it! There are probably hundreds of steps, if you were to look at each one. As we get older, we learn how to sequence and how to do this more efficiently. We do it effortlessly.
m-classroom-1sIn a Montessori classroom, sequencing is part of the work. The sequence for a Toddler can be: 1) select an activity, 2) carry it to a table, 3) pull out the chair to sit, 4) sit down, 5) do the activity, and 6) return the activity to the shelf. Like our morning sequence of getting ready for work has many parts, there are many parts within this outline before an activity is finished. But it is not finished until the tray is back on the self for the next child to have a turn. As the children grow older, more steps are added to the sequencing when the child is ready. In the Primary class, the sequences often involve reading and mathematics. The children may spend more than half an hour on an activity designed to increase their learning and develop their ability to concentrate. This could be with letters that are matched to the first sound of an object, such as a little “dog”, for the sound of the letter “d”. It could be that the child is interested and ready to add numbers into the thousands and, with a friend , they select and lay out the math materials that equal those qualities.
Educators know that the most important time for a child’s learning is during early childhood, in the years between 0 to 6 years old. A Montessori school believes in developing “the whole child”; not just the academic child, but the respectful, independent child, too. Montessori teachers love children and know how to set up a “prepared environment”, a classroom, where each child can love to learn and become respectful and independent. In an authentic Montessori school, the children consider their classroom their second home.
By Judy Townsend
Head of School, Montessori School of Shanghai


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  1. December 21st, 2014 at 07:49 | #1

    I’ve a problem about the piece, where am i able to get in touch with the person responsible?

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