The Montessori system has been used successfully with children from all socio-economic levels, representing those in regular classes as well as the gifted, children with developmental delays, and children with emotional and physical disabilities. There is no one school that is right for all children, and certainly there are children who may do better in a smaller classroom setting with a more teacher-directed program that offers fewer choices and more consistent external structure. Each situation is different, and it is best to work with the schools in your area to see if it appears that a particular child and school would be a good match.
At first, Montessori may look un-structured to some people, but it is actually quite structured at every level. Like all children, Montessori students live within a cultural context that involves the mastery of skills and knowledge that are considered essential. Montessori teaches all the “basics,” along with giving students the opportunity to investigate and learn subjects that are of particular interest. It also allows them the ability to set their schedule to a large degree during class time. At the early childhood level, external structure is limited to clear-cut ground rules and correct procedures that provide guidelines and structure for three- and four-year-olds. By the age of five, Montessori children normally work with a written study plan for the day or week. It lists the tasks that they need to complete, while allowing them to decide how long to spend on each and what order they would like to follow. Beyond these basic, individually tailored assignments, children explore topics that capture their interest and imagination and share them with their classmates.
By age five, Montessori children are normally curious, self-confident learners who look forward to going to school. They are normally engaged, enthusiastic learners who honestly want to learn and who ask excellent questions. They were treated with honesty and respect. While there were clear expectations and ground rules, within that framework, their opinions and questions were taken quite seriously. It is not hard to imagine an independent Montessori child asking his new teacher, “Why do I have to stop my work right now?” We also have to remember that children are different. One child may be very sensitive or have special needs that might not be met well in a teacher-centered traditional classroom. Other children can succeed in any type of school. There is nothing inherent in Montessori that causes children to have a hard time if they are transferred to traditional schools. Some will be bored. Others may not understand why everyone in the class has to do the same thing at the same time. But most adapt to their new setting fairly quickly, making new friends, and succeeding within the definition of success understood in their new school.
All children play! They explore new things playfully. They watch something of interest with a fresh open mind. They enjoy the company of treasured adults and other children. They make up stories. They dream. They imagine. This impression stems from parents who don’t know what to make of the incredible concentration, order, and self-discipline that we commonly see among Montessori children. Montessori children also tend to take the things they do in school quite seriously. It is common for them to respond, “This is my work,” when adults ask what they are doing. They work hard and expect their parents to treat them and their work with respect. But it is joyful, playful, and anything but drudgery.
Fantasy and creativity are important aspects of a Montessori child’s experience. Montessori classrooms incorporate art, music, dance, and creative drama throughout the curriculum. Imagination plays a central role, as children explore how the natural world works, visualize other cultures and ancient civilizations, and search for creative solutions to real-life problems.
Children touch and manipulate everything in their environment. In a sense, the human mind is handmade, because through movement and touch, the child explores, manipulates, and builds a storehouse of impressions about the physical world around her. Children learn best by doing, and this requires movement and spontaneous investigation. Montessori children are free to move about, working alone or with others at will. They may select any activity and work with it as long as they wish, so long as they do not disturb anyone or damage anything, and as long as they put it back where it belongs when they have finished. Many exercises, especially at the early childhood level, are designed to draw children’s attention to the sensory properties of objects within their environment: size, shape, color, texture, weight, smell, sound, etc. Gradually, they learn to pay attention, seeing more clearly small details in the things around them. They have begun to observe and appreciate their environment. This is a key in helping children discover how to learn. Freedom is a second critical issue as children begin to explore. Our goal is to help them to fall in love with the process of focusing their complete attention on something and mastering its challenge with enthusiasm. Work assigned by adults rarely results in such enthusiasm and interest as does work that children freely choose for themselves. The prepared environment of the Montessori class is a learning laboratory in which children are allowed to explore, discover, and select their work. The independence that the children gain is not only empowering on a social and emotional basis, but it is also intrinsically involved with helping them become comfortable and confident in their ability to master the environment, ask questions, puzzle out the answer, and learn without needing to be “spoon-fed” by an adult.
While Montessori students are allowed considerable latitude to pursue topics that interest them, this freedom is not absolute. Within every society there are cultural norms; expectations for what a student should know and be able to do by a certain age. Experienced Montessori teachers are conscious of these standards.
Every child has areas of special gifts, a unique learning style, and some areas that can be considered special challenges. Each child is unique. Montessori is designed to allow for differences. It allows students to learn at their own pace and is quite flexible in adapting for different learning styles. In many cases, children with mild physical handicaps or learning disabilities may do very well in a Montessori classroom setting. On the other hand, some children do much better in a smaller, more structured classroom. Each situation has to be evaluated individually to ensure that the program can successfully meet a given child’s needs and learning style.
The Montessori approach evolved over many years as the result of Dr. Montessori’s work with different populations and age groups. One of the earliest groups with which she worked was a population of children who had been placed in a residential-care setting because of severe developmental delays. The Method is used today with a wide range of children, but it is most commonly found in educational programs designed for the typical range of students found in most classrooms.
Yes, in general, children who are highly gifted will find Montessori to be both intellectually challenging and flexible enough to respond to them as unique individuals.
Except for those schools that are associated with a particular religious community, Montessori does not teach religion. Many Montessori schools celebrate holidays, such as Christmas, Hannukah, and Chinese New Year, which are religious in origin, but which can be experienced on a cultural level as special days of family feasting, merriment, and wonder. The young child rarely catches more than a glimmer of the religious meaning behind the celebration. Our goal is to focus on how children would normally experience each festival within their culture: the special foods, songs, dances, games, stories, presents — a potpourri of experiences aimed at all the senses of a young child. On the other hand, one of our fundamental aims is the inspiration of the child’s heart. While Montessori does not teach religion, we do present the great moral and spiritual themes, such as love, kindness, joy, and confidence in the fundamental goodness of life in simple ways that encourage the child to begin the journey toward being fully alive and fully human. Everything is intended to nurture within the child a sense of joy and appreciation of life.