Approaches to Early Learning: Montessori

Early learning strategies are as varied as they are innovative. Over the course of several posts, we’re taking a step back to examine the core characteristics of the many pedagogical approaches to early childhood education and examine their impact and reliance on space. While this series won’t provide a comprehensive examination of the history and evolution of early learning strategies, it will provide high-level insights that allow for the appreciation of the varied learning approaches.

Montessori Education: The Prepared Environment

Dr. Maria Montessori, the founder of the eponymous early learning approach, believed that the role of the learning environment was to foster independence and agency in each child, independent of input or direction from adults beyond minimal assistance and guidance on an as-needed basis or to ensure proper utilization of each of a diversity of carefully designed “works.”

In Montessori Education, the learning environment includes various objects and works that a child can freely choose and navigate between according to his or her curiosity, needs and tendencies at a specific moment. In this prepared environment, the teacher assists young learners to orient them to an ordered and active learning environment by introducing them to the function and use of objects throughout the classroom.

House of the Child & House of the Adult

The Montessori method prioritizes for the children a sense of ownership and responsibility for their space. While parents and visitors are welcome, they do not have free rein within a Montessori classroom—it is the children who make the choices and do the activities and have control over the agenda.

A visitor is expected to quietly observe, perhaps to ask questions and to respond when prompted but their status as visitor—not the leader—is always maintained. This prioritization of the child over the adult carries through to the size and scale of the furnishings and, ideally, to the size and orientation of windows, doors and openings.

Uninterrupted Work Time

One of the key elements of the daily routine at a Montessori school is the large block of uninterrupted work time, usually as long as 3.5 hours, in which the children do their “works.”

Throughout this time, they are responsible for choosing their activities, selecting what will be used in the activities, carrying materials to and from their selected areas and setting it up according to their own imagination and desire. Then, the children will participate for as long as they choose before returning the materials to their appointed storage locations in the state in which they were found.

This period during the day is typically characterized by the sounds of quiet concentration, punctuated by conversation among pairs or small groups of children participating in the more communal works (like practical living and art).

Fundamental to all activities is that the child is responsible for choosing what to learn and when to learn it. This is not to say that they can do whatever they want—each work has a designated protocol and it is the child’s responsibility to ensure that they have completed all of the works over the course of time, but they are given the space to work on their own schedule and according to their own interests and motivations.

“The child’s conquests of independence are the basic steps in what is called his 'natural development.'  In other words, if we observe natural development with sufficient care, we see that it can be defined as the gaining of successive levels of independence.”
– Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Observation & Guidance

The role of the teacher is to closely monitor the progress of each child, identifying and suggesting new or alternate works as the child progresses or runs into difficulties. They demonstrate proper methods for each work and gently guide the students towards successful completion of each new challenge.

When describing this unique—but important—classroom function of a Montessori teacher, Dr. Maria Montessori likened it to that of a sheepdog who is always alert, keeps the sheep within their designated space and quickly shepherds a sheep who has gone astray. More technically, Dr. Montessori described it as a dual-function: lead the children to concentration and help them in their development afterwards. This observation and guidance, however, never goes so far as to contain the child’s spirit and natural curiosity.

Interested in learning more about unique early learning strategies and their impact on space? Explore the other entries in our “Approaches to Early Learning” series with overviews on High/Scope and Reggio Emilia.