In the fifth chapter of From Childhood to Adolescence, Maria Montessori talks about how children need to see real things; she mentions that in the course of the history of education, children first were just presented with illustrations, and later were allowed to see things in museums. However, “enclosed objects” watched by “confined children” (From Childhood to Adolescence, p. 18) are depressing and not a valid alternative for going out in nature and experiencing things with their senses. What can we as parents and teachers do to give the children entrusted in our care a genuine knowledge of the world?
According to Montessori, “[t]he world is acquired psychologically by means of the imagination. Reality is studied in detail, then the whole is imagined. The detail is able to grow in the imagination, and so total knowledge is attained.” (From Childhood to Adolescence, p. 18) She furnishes an example by stating that when a child has seen a river or lake, he or she can form a concept of “river” and “lake” and can imagine the rest, without having physically seen them all (which would be impossible). Montessori classroom materials includes maps, where children can assemble countries and learn where they are, what their capitals are, and—depending on their individual preferences—find out about their customs, their languages, their agriculture, their architecture, their geography, etc.
Although I worked in English teacher education for public schools for 15 years during my stay in the United States, for my own child, I picked Montessori education to start with. I was sick and tired of standardized testing in this country, and I hated the expression, “my child graduated kindergarten.” Kindergarten should be a time for play, and there is nothing to “graduate” from. The Montessori Way charmed me with its approach to the whole child, integrating nature and art and providing beautiful, light-filled and prepared learning spaces with materials at the children’s disposition whenever they feel ready for a new experience. Educating your child without punishments and rewards, so he develops intrinsic values and not extrinsic ones, like hearing “good job” ever so often when he has done something to be expected of him, sounded ideal to me. We overpraise our children. When they use the potty, that’s great, but do we have to clap our hands for them when they eliminate themselves as they are supposed to? They will take joy in their own achievements; no need to hover over them, excited about their daily little accomplishments. The Montessori Method was developed by Italian physician Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 1900s as a child-centered method of education, combining children of different ages (0-3, 3-6, 6-9, and there are also rare high school opportunities) in one classroom with teachers called “guides” and “directresses,” who encourage independence and child-led activities called “work.” For example, my son got brief reports from his Montessori kindergarten that said, “Today, he did the banana peeling work.” The children also work with sharp knives (here, I shivered) and use real glasses, not children’s plastic cups. My son’s kindergarten got those glasses at the flea market, so it did not really matter when they shattered occasionally. If we yell when a child breaks a glass, it gives him the feeling “that glass is more important than you.” If we let him carry that glass, he will make sure he does not break it or spill anything, and learns responsibility for the things in his care. Children are eager to learn and go through a sensitive period in their first six years, when they are like sponges and take in their environments with their absorbent mind.
Montessori once said, “[t]his absorbent mind is indeed a marvellous gift to humanity! By merely ‘living’ and without any conscious effort the individual absorbs from the environment even a complex cultural achievement like language. If this essential mental form existed in the adult, how much easier would our studies be!” (The Formation of Man, p. 61)
Montessori at Home
You can start using the Montessori method at home. I began by erecting Montessori shelves to display the materials, and by building and staining a Montessori house bed, which my son slept in since he was one year old. The mattress is close to the ground, so he can climb in and out by himself. Parents might be wary to allow their children to leave their beds on their own, but if their bedrooms are child proof with the outlets secured, they will likely get used to the daily bedtime routine and not wander around at night unless they have a nightmare or other emergency. My son loved his house bed, climbed around on it, and hung his plush sloth from the rooftop. You can find a variety of house beds on Etsy; I looked for one with a guard rail in the front and a closed roof. It was about USD 500,00, plus I had to buy the stain to match it to the cherry wardrobe and chest in my son’s bedroom. It took two people to assemble, and an electric drill.
Children don’t like change, so if one switches their materials around on the shelves, one should lead the child around to explain where everything is now, because they are mechanically drawn to accustomed places for objects. I think adults function the same way; I changed where the toilet paper holder was in my bathroom and found myself still grabbing the wrong side where it used to be. Children like order, and they need to know where their materials are. Likewise, we present the materials to them in a specified sequence, so if a two-year-old wants to do the pink tower that is for three-year-olds because he has seen a friend do it and wants it “now” (no sense of time or “waiting”), we should not let him but instead lead him to a different activity that comes first. I was surprised that the child will really do this activity first, then, without throwing a tantrum, accepting that the adults have superimposed a strict order. I caught myself letting my son do more difficult things that were meant for older children, just because he had shown interest in them. Leander had wooden farm animals and a farm house, plus a wooden doll house with a tow truck, a car, a police car, and a police station, all from shops on Etsy like these ones, https://www.etsy.com/shop/VulpsToys and https://www.etsy.com/shop/NanaAndPapasToyBox.
A well-know Montessori material is the Pikler triangle. I purchased mine handmade from Russia through Etsy from https://www.etsy.com/shop/DimoklForKids. They are a meaningful investment, since they are made from natural wood, will last for years, and can be used starting from before your child can even walk; my son climbed before he took his first independent steps and still used his Pikler enthusiastically as a two year old. I combined it with a climbing ramp, which makes a slide if you turned it upside down, and an arch, to make his obstacle course more challenging as he grew.
Another interesting topic is aesthetics. It does not come as a surprise to me that children are attracted to beautiful things (we all know the love of children for princesses, unicorns, and fairies). Montessori materials are attractive, as can be seen in beautifully colored maps and colorful lids of sound cylinders. They are also limited (for example, ten rods), so as not to cause confusion in the child. This is actually a good reminder for me to rotate my son’s toys and let some vanish in his toy box, because my child is drowning in toys. As a single child, he gets lots of gifts. Inundation with material is not helpful. I try to exchange the toys regularly, so different ones get played with while others rest in a box until it is their time. I like the “control of error” part, which prompts children to self-correct when they notice a mistake. Too many modern plastic toys have no room for error, and when they break, new ones are bought. All those blinking, talking, singing toys (with terrible sound quality!) are not fostering self-evaluation and independence as much as simple wooden cylinders that have to fit in differently-sized holes. My son has those, too, and they get played with. Even I have difficulties getting them all into the hole they are supposed to fit into!
A child does not need more and more sensorial stimuli, but has to gain clarity of concepts. As a teacher of education, I call this, “schema.” When a child has formed a “schema” of something, it has a prior understanding of how a thing functions and what it is, and can build on that. Without schema, there would be chaos and over-stimulation of the senses. There is the Montessori maxim never to give more to the eye and ear than to the hand. This is very interesting. It is obvious to every mother that infants take little objects into their mouths before they explore them by hand. In German, our vocabulary word “begreifen” (literally: “to touch/grab,” meaning, “to understand”) implies that we can only understand something when we can explore it with our sense of touch. I cherish the Montessori stance on “hand-mindedness” of children. I know this as John Dewey’s constructivism. Children learn better by experimenting hands-on than by having “their heads filled with wisdom” (the “Nuremberg funnel,” “Nuernberger Trichter,” an ancient German satire on education).
Motor Education & Nature
Physical activity is very important for the child in Montessori education. Spending time outside, be it in sunshine, rain, or snow, is very crucial for the child’s development. Here is a PowerPoint presentation titled, “Motor Education through the Exercises of Practical Life,” which I created for my Early Childhood course in 2019. It shows how my son uses Montessori materials and experiences nature and art in an unrestricted, self-chosen, but planned environment:
Nature is just as important to us. Leander kept our bird feeder well stocked, and what his little hands spilled was for the squirrels. We spent a lot of time in our front yard, planting salads, carrots, and flowers (especially when the Montessori kindergarten was closed due to Covid-19), and in our backyard, where we erected a greenhouse together (and observed a snake that had sought refuge under a planter). Alas, it was very windy where we lived, and our greenhouse was blown over a couple of times. We bought longer anchors to fasten it to the ground.
My son Leander had an ant house and fed his ants with apples and sugary water. He raised tadpoles in a little tank and released them into the garden pond (a horse trough for the dogs to swim in) when they became froglets. He observed spiders, snakes, frogs, and glow worms, and he accompanied our four baby birds from egg stage until the last fledgling left the nest.
In addition, we had our own two dogs (Labrador Retrievers, a white one, Sally, and a chocolate one, Honey), two cats (Frankie and Felix), two guinea pigs (Spike and Angel), a big fish tank, and several geckos. Moreover, my sister raised chickens (for her children to observe them hatch), and Leander got to feed them with berries, bread crumbs, and seeds and to collect their eggs. My son learned early on to be gentle to his furry , feathery, and scaly friends. I hope this taught him to be nice to his fellow human beings, too.
In Montessori education, a subject, like history, does not stand isolated by itself. Consider it a cross-curricular education; one universal lesson can comprise elements from different subjects that are integrated. For my Elementary Education course, I created a PowerPoint presentation about such an integrated project dealing with the topic of “geckos,” which combines the subjects of language and art (a gecko poem and a gecko picture), biology (species, habitat, maintenance, behavior), ethics (the creation of hybrids), math (Punnet square and text problems), and physics/technology (what gecko feet teach humans about adhesion).
My son went to Amare Montessori when he turned 18 months old. He stayed there until he was two and a half, and we had to move. It was a wonderful place that taught him a lot of independence and appreciation for the world. As a Montessori mom, I enjoyed the daily reports telling me if he had had a bowel movement, did the orange peeling work, or “painted, including himself.” While we were in lockdown during the pandemic and kindergarten had to close, he was taught online, followed their YouTube channel of songs and book readings, and his teacher came by and put a sign saying, “My Amare Family Loves me!” into each child’s yard.
Montessori Teacher Education
In order to learn more about the Montessori Way, I did some research into different online platforms that offer teacher education courses. I ended up taking four courses with Age of Montessori, who have a great online learning center set up, with videos, papers to submit, and forums to post and discuss in. The only prerequisite for full certification is any Bachelor’s degree. I already had a Master of Arts in Teaching. Communication with them was great; email responses were always prompt and very helpful. I took the courses, “How Montessori Works,” the “Early Childhood prerequisite course,” the “Elementary 1+2 course,” and “From Chaos to Calm – Normalization.” They were affordable, one could learn at one’s own pace, with extensions possible, and they were great fun. I took the online courses only, not the in-person residency part, since I moved overseas at that time. Due to Covid-19, the Elementary residency took place online. What I loved most about the Montessori classroom, which I got to observe a couple of times at my son’s kindergarten, was the calm, peace, and quiet. The students talked with their “inside voices,” were respectful towards adults and their peers and worked with high concentration. For anybody interested in alternative education, I can warmly recommend AoM. I taught a year of public high school, a semester of private grade school, and about 14 years of English teacher education, and nowhere else did I observe such quiet, disciplined, eager, and content children than in a Montessori classroom. In 2020, I still experienced what Montessori already bemoaned in 1949:
“The secondary schools as they are at present constituted do not concern themselves with anything but the preparation for a career, as if the social conditions of the time were still peaceful and secure. They do not take any special care for the personality of the children, nor do they give all the special physical attention that is necessary during the period of adolescence. Thus not only do they not correspond to the social conditions of our day, but they fail to protect the principal energy on which the future depends: human energy, the power of individual personality.” (From Childhood to Adolescence, p. 62)
I bought some of the books that AoM recommended, such as Montessori Madness by Trevor Eissler, and one of his quotes gave me a great justification why I don’t want to train public school teachers anymore:
“One day, riding in the car, my daughter piped up from her car seat in the back, “Is that the jail?” We were driving by an imposing, small-windowed, fortress-like building. “No, sweetie, that’s the high school,” I answered. It got me thinking. Why don’t schools look like homes? Why do we compartmentalize and institutionalize learning? Why are we taking home out of learning and learning out of home?” (Eissler 15-16)
Eissler, Trevor. Montessori Madness! A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education. Georgetown, TX, Sevenoff, LLC, 2009. ISBN-13: 978-0-9822833-0-1.
Montessori, Maria. From Childhood to Adolescence. The Montessori Series. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company, 2007.
Montesesori, Maria. The Formation of Man. The Montessori Series. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company, 2017.