A classroom buzzes with activity as 3, 4 and 5-year-olds move about, building with blocks, coloring pictures, and polishing shoes. At a table, a 3-year-old intently spoons dry beans from one bowl to another. Nearby, a pair of children complete a puzzle together. It’s just an everyday moment in a Montessori preschool classroom.
What is Montessori Preschool? Montessori preschool is a child-centered style of learning that allows children to explore the world through all of their senses. Teachers lead and guide student learning using rich curricula that include both academic and soft skills. In mixed-age classrooms, children are allowed significant freedom in the teacher curated activities they choose.
There’s way more to the Montessori method than that. This article will explore the characteristics of the Montessori preschool philosophy, how it works, what Montessori preschools have to offer, and the benefits children obtain from this learning style.
The Montessori Method of Learning Explained
The Montessori method of learning is known for a set of unique features and characteristics that sets it apart from other learning methodologies. Here are some of the unique aspects of the philosophy you’ll notice when you visit a Montessori classroom:
One of the most famous Montessori quotes says:
“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”
In a way, this sums up Maria Montessori’s views on independence. She believed that achieving independence was the ultimate goal for children. For this reason, she encouraged teachers to watch children carefully and to never intervene unless the child asked for help.
She believed that even the smallest of children could perform tasks independently and that this would bring them great joy and build their confidence.
So, she designed curriculum areas with independence in mind. For example, the Montessori preschool curriculum includes a heavy focus on “practical life” activities.
In these activities, children learn everyday skills like how to tie shoes, clean up a spill, pour water, or prepare a snack. One important material, the dressing frames, helps children master buttons, snaps, and other skills used when getting dressed.
Montessori’s goal with these activities was that children could dress themselves more readily. You’ll also notice that children change their shoes upon entering the classroom.
They wear indoor shoes to keep the floor clean because children work on the floor. But, in the process, they also practice their independence by taking off and putting on shoes.
In addition to the focus on independence, the Montessori preschool philosophy allows children to move at their own pace. Instead of teaching all of the children the same lessons at the same time, teachers teach children according to what they’re ready for and interested in.
For example, one 5-year-old might be ready to learn letter sounds. So, they work on language activities as much as possible and learn to read within a few months. However, another 5-year-old in the same classroom might be more interested in addition, performing science experiments, or something completely different.
Montessori knew that children made more progress and engaged more readily in learning activities when they were intrinsically motivated. That’s where choice comes in! When children choose a learning activity, they’re invested and interested in it.
However, when forced to learn something, children might resist and it can be hard to build motivation and interest. In the classroom, shelves are lined with possible activities. Children are free to choose any activity they’d like provided they know the proper way to use it and care for it. Work cycles are usually 3 hours, giving children plenty of time to work on different activities.
But, that doesn’t mean everything is left to chance and the child’s whim. Montessori preschool teachers carefully offer learning materials and activities that are attractive for kids to work with.
Then, they invite children to participate in a learning circle or try a new activity. With the right presentation, most children often choose to work in all areas of the curriculum during their time in the preschool classroom.
However, they might become obsessed with math for a few months, and then show interest in science, and then reading. It doesn’t have to be evenly distributed. The teachers are there as guides to help make sure a child is exposed to all areas.
Montessori believed that learning should make children happy. She loved children and believed strongly that their interests should be protected by the adults who taught them. As part of her philosophy, she famously said
“One test of the correctness of the educational procedure is the happiness of the child.”
This statement shows that the Montessori classroom has a goal of engaging children in learning in a way that’s enjoyable for them. It is perhaps this focus embedded in the foundation of the philosophy that provides children in Montessori schools a certain dignity (source).
Montessori daycare programs and preschools have another important distinguishing factor. Instead of grouping children who are all within a year or so of age to one another, the classroom is mixed age.
The level for preschool includes children who are 3 to 6 years old. The other levels feature 0-3-year-olds, 6-9-year-olds, and 9-12-year-olds. Middle school and high school programs also exist.
The reasoning for the mixed-age classroom is strong. In Montessori preschools, the age differences in the classroom help increase motivation for both younger and older students.
How? Younger students view older students doing harder, more challenging activities. This helps them keep their motivation up and inspires them to work hard to improve their skills. Older students get the chance to practice leadership and empathy.
Older students can often be seen helping and even teaching younger students. All of this social interaction provides great practice for using social skills.
Even sharing, taking turns, and managing emotions is taught in the Montessori classroom. Because there’s only one of each material that all 20-30 students must share, if someone is using a material, the other students must wait to use it.
Some materials can also be shared. Children can communicate with each other about getting a turn or informing a child when they’re done using the material. In these social situations, older children can often model appropriate language and behavior for the younger ones.
Montessori Preschool Curriculum
The Montessori preschool curriculum is rich in traditional and other, Montessori-specific areas. The curriculum focuses on hands-on activities using materials and goes light on worksheets. Children work in various areas of the classroom on the floor using a mat or at child-sized tables. Here’s an overview of the areas:
Using a combination of phonics and whole language approaches, children learn letter sounds and engage in writing and reading activities. Storytime is an important element of most preschool programs.
Children learn quantities, numerals and basic operations like addition and subtraction. The Montessori math materials also highlight the decimal system and help children learn the difference between units, tens, hundreds, and thousands, etc.
Materials include beads, tiles, number bars, and more. Most importantly, these materials help children move, as in the rest of the curriculum, from a concrete understanding towards the abstract. Before children add with pencil and paper, they count out beads.
Each operation, from simple addition to complex multiplication, division, and use of fractions, is taught with concrete materials before children do any problems abstractly.
This area is designed to help children develop their senses. It includes many beautiful sets of blocks which aim to help children learn the concept of quantity, patterns, size, and other math concepts. Children also explore texture, weight, temperature, the sense of smell, and the sense of hearing in this curriculum area.
As explored in the above section detailing independence, the practical life area teaches children basic skills they can use every day. From learning to clean up to grooming, making a snack, and learning to dress and feed themselves, practical life skills promote independence.
These tasks also help the youngest children in the classroom to develop their fine motor skills and increase their ability to concentrate. The concentration skills they learn allow children to work more effectively in other curriculum areas as they choose. Many of the classroom’s 3-year-olds may choose practical life skills throughout the work time.
You might be surprised to learn that the science curriculum for Montessori preschool is divided into several areas: geography, zoology, and botany. The sciences make use of beautiful wooden puzzles that show the parts of a flower or different animals, a variety of experiments, puzzles of the continents, cultural experiences, hands-on investigation and observation, and much more.
There’s often a nature table where children can bring in interesting objects from outdoors to talk about together. The heavy focus on sciences brings enriched vocabulary, opportunities for measuring and counting, and lots of fine motor practice.
Grace and Courtesy
Social skills are taught explicitly in the Montessori preschool classroom. On any given day, children might learn a lesson on “How to introduce yourself” or “how to ask to join a group to play”. Many schools also feature a peace corner and teach conflict mediation and resolution skills.
You might be surprised to learn how well it works with such young children! The community and contributions everyone makes to keep the classroom running smoothly are often highlighted in circle time when the whole group of students is together.
This curriculum area may not seem as academically important as the others, but it teaches lifelong skills for how to interact with others in a positive and healthy way.
Art & Music
Art and music are also included in the preschool curriculum. Children sing songs, learn to play the Montessori bells, draw, paint, and engage in many other art activities.
Best Age to Start Montessori
So, you’re wondering when the best time is to start Montessori with your child? The best age to start your child in Montessori is from birth. Montessori is famous for developing materials for infants, such as mobiles that she designed to help babies learn to distinguish different colors.
In her book, The Absorbent Mind (find it here on Amazon), Montessori outlines details about infant and a young child’s development that can help parents use the Montessori philosophy effectively in the home.
But, many people don’t learn about Montessori during their early parenting days. Perhaps you were searching for preschools and the term showed up. So, you asked yourself, “What is a Montessori preschool?” and discovered the methodology. It’s fine to start using the Montessori philosophy in your parenting and education choices whenever you discover it.
For most people, preschool is the most ideal and practical time to start using the method. The Montessori preschool curriculum can start your child off on the right foot academically and socially at a time when you’re also ready to start outsourcing childcare.
Whether you find a Montessori daycare or a dedicated Montessori preschool, starting between the ages of 2 and 5 is a great time to introduce your child to the method.
Why the Montessori Method is Effective
Many parents wonder if the Montessori method is good, and as they begin to conduct their research they learn that it is not only good, it’s one of the best educational methodologies known.
The Montessori method has gained a lot of attention because it’s produced some pretty amazing results. Did you know that Jeff Bezos, Julia Child, and the founders of Google attended Montessori schools? (source) Other high performing individuals like Beyonce’ Knowles also have Montessori backgrounds, establishing an argument that the method may have had an influence.
In addition, several studies that we’ll explore below seem to support the argument that Montessori students do better than students in traditional schools. It’s easy to argue that the Montessori is good, or even great! However, there are also some possible negatives. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons:
Montessori Preschool Pros and Cons
- The program is child-centered and progressive
- Many students enjoy the activities and curriculum
- Achieves great outcomes, both academically and in social skills or soft skills, which are increasingly important in the job market (source)
- Montessori education is not always accessible due to cost or location
- It’s not the best fit for all children. Some kids perform better in other settings
- Not all schools follow the philosophy faithfully but use the name Montessori for marketing purposes
How Montessori Students Perform
It’s fair to ask at this point how things look in the long run. Do Montessori students perform better? Yes, they do. Studies show that Montessori students do better on several metrics. For example, one study explored the differences between 50-year-olds and 12-year-olds who studied at traditional schools and Montessori schools.
The students in this study went to the Montessori school based on a lottery system, so demographics for students at both types of schools were similar. In the study, 5-year-olds from the Montessori school performed better on several cognitive tests that measured school readiness skills.
In addition, 5-year-olds from the Montessori school also showed better executive function. Social skills in the Montessori 5-year-olds were also more advanced.
The results on the 12-year-olds found that students were equally prepared at both traditional and Montessori schools. But, the Montessori school students did perform better on social skills and had more positive feelings about a sense of community at school. These students also wrote more creative essays with more sophisticated sentence structure (source).
Another study conducted on 5 and 6-year-olds also tested school readiness skills, social skills, and attention skills. The results showed that the Montessori program achieved better results than traditional preschool programs, suggesting that it’s a more effective and efficient teaching methodology.
These differences were noticeable in just 6 weeks. In particular, this study highlighted the Montessori method’s focus on increasing a child’s ability to concentrate and focus their attention, a critical skill for later academic success (source).
In both studies, there are strong arguments in favor of the Montessori method. In particular, the advantages of boosting social skills and a sense of community are strong arguments in favor of the methodology. So is the fact that in Montessori programs kids like school more, motivating them to be more creative and attentive.
After all, these are valuable life skills that can greatly increase a person’s relationships, mental health, and even job prospects. Knowing how to navigate social situations also gives kids greater independence and self-confidence.
The Montessori method, specifically, Montessori preschool, can offer a great beginning learning environment for little ones. It fosters a love for learning while also paying close attention to essential life skills like social skills or practical life skills that traditional education may ignore or place on the back burner.
Through the carefully designed curriculum, little minds and bodies are guided towards independence, personal growth, and academic achievement. Although Montessori introduced her method over a century ago, it continues to offer a radical, positive, and progressive alternative for families and educators today.
The results speak for themselves.