More than 100 years ago, Dr. Maria Montessori became Italy’s first female physician, but she is best known for having inspired the birth of a worldwide educational movement.
Drawing upon her scientific background and clinical understanding of human development, Dr. Montessori observed how young people learn best when engaged in purposeful activity, rather than simply being fed information. She recognized that children’s cognitive growth and development requires the construction of an educational framework that respects individuality and fulfills the needs of the “whole child.”
Her pioneering work created a blueprint for nurturing all children— from those who are gifted to those who have challenges with learning—to become self-motivated, independent, and life-long learners.
One significant hallmark of a Montessori program is the prepared classroom environment. Each Montessori classroom is equipped with materials that first teach through the senses and through practical life-based experiences which later lead to reading, writing, advanced mathematics, problem solving, geography, science and cultural studies. Visual arts, music and movement are interwoven throughout the days’ activities.
Operating on the principle of ‘freedom within limits’, Montessori schools inspire children to work at their own pace. Trained Montessori teachers encourage the growth of self-motivated, independent children by balancing active and self-directed learning with new lessons and opportunities for collaborative work. All authentic Montessori classrooms include a range of ages among their students. Older, more experienced children take on the role of peer mentors, reinforcing their own skills and experiencing the responsibilities of leadership through helping others. Younger children, in turn, enjoy the daily stimulation of older role models, while children of all ages learn to respect each other in a warm atmosphere of acceptance and joy.
The Practical Life portion of the Montessori curriculum is aimed specifically at helping children become independent, so that they neither solicit nor require the constant help of adults. As Dr. Montessori put it: “We must help them to learn how to dress and undress, to wash themselves, to express their needs in a way that is clearly understood, and to attempt to satisfy their desires through their own efforts. All this is part of an education for independence.”
The materials in this area are designed to help children learn how to perform the required actions necessary to execute a task; step-by-step, and to do them repeatedly. As the child systematically acquires skills for self-care (such as dressing, tying shoes, washing hands) and the care of his environment (such as washing tables, preparing food, watering plants), he gains independence from adult help. At an age during which a child might otherwise throw tantrums over wanting to ‘do it himself’ (but not be able to accomplish the desired task), he instead simply learns to do it.
The Montessori Sensorial Exercises are designed to help a young child to develop the capacity to be active-minded, sustain concentration over long periods of time, and to exercise sharp powers of observation. In short, the Sensorial Exercises provide him with a firm cognitive foundation for his journey toward becoming a careful observer and an independent, conceptual thinker.
Through repeated use of these unique materials, the Montessori child is able to differentiate between the slightest differences and variations in the world around him. The Montessori Sensorial exercises isolate one specific sense at a time, maximizing its refinement. Examples include:
The Visual Sense – The child learns to perceive differences in size, form, and color.
- Montessori materials: the Pink Tower, Brown Prisms, Red Rods, Knobbed and Knobless Cylinders, Geometric Solids and the Geometric Cabinet
The Chromatic Sense – The child learns to perceive differences between primary and secondary colors, as well as the various gradations of each.
- Montessori materials: Color tablets
The Stereognostic Sense – The child learns through his hands to perceive size and shape of objects.
- Montessori materials: variations of exercises are conducted with the eyes closed.
The Tactile Sense – The child learns to perceive her world through touch.
- Montessori materials: Sandpaper tablets, Fabric swatches
The Thermic Sense – The child learns to differentiate temperature by touch.
- Montessori material: Thermic tablets
The Baric Sense – The child learns to differentiate the weight of objects.
- Montessori material: Baric tablets
The Auditory Sense – The child learns to differentiate the sounds of her world.
- Activities: The Silence Game, pitch-matching exercises
The Olfactory Sense – The child learns to differentiate the smells of her world.
- Montessori materials: Scent bottles
The Gustatory Sense – The child learns to differentiate the tastes of her world.
- Activities: Food Preparation, food tasting lessons
"Children are able to absorb language from their environment and easily learn how to speak, read and write if language in its various forms is present in their environment during the period of the Absorbent Mind" (Montessori, 1949)
The classroom environment at Mighty Oaks Montessori provides an enormous amount of opportunity for valuable language experiences.
We teach reading and writing early – because, as Dr. Montessori has shown, 3 ½ to 5 ½ years are the optimal ages to learn and absorb these skills. Children at this age are interested in the sensations of language – the way it sounds, the movement of the hand when writing a letter, the hand’s grip on the pencil – and they delight in the repetition that is necessary in order to master these skills.
The Montessori language curriculum for this age group was created to appeal to the natural interests and abilities of young children, making them eager to progress and enabling them to joyfully learn how to read and write before they enter elementary school. By doing so, we spare them the tedious effort and frustration that too many children experience when learning these critical skills in a traditional school setting, later.
Our language-learning sequence looks something like this:
Indirect preparation. Much of the time that is spent in our Practical life and Sensorial areas indirectly prepare the child for handling a writing instrument by training them to coordinate their fingers and strengthen their pencil grip. For example, when children manipulate our Knobbed Cylinders or Geometric Insets in the Sensorial area of the classroom, they do it by grasping the knob, which is about the same thickness as a pencil, with three fingers. They also use tongs in a similar manner to transfer small objects from one container to another in the Practical Life area.
Pencil grip: Building on aforementioned motor skills, the child learns to control a pencil; using special materials designed just for this purpose, he will learn to trace shapes and fill them in using colored pencils. To make the outline, he uses a piece of equipment called the Metal Insets. Each inset represents a different geometric shape. After a child selects a figure and traces it on paper, she then fills in the outline with a colored pencil. At first her strokes are inconsistent and often extend beyond the outline, but over time, as she practices repeatedly, the lines become more more controlled and even. By combining different insets, children create complex geometric drawings—the "art of the inset"—which children love.
Phonemic awareness: A popular small-group activity in Montessori primary classrooms are the Sound Games. In one of these games, the directress sits on the floor with a few children who have joined her by choice. She will show the children small objects that represent short, phonetic words using the short vowel sounds- such as a bed, a cat, a mat, a box and a cup. She will hold up one item, and ask a child to name it. Then, she asks another child to say the beginning sound; the next child, the ending sound; and a fourth, the middle sound. This game trains children to listen for the sounds which make up the words of our language. This basic phonemic awareness later enables children to read and write.
Hand movements and letter-sound-correspondence: To relay the hand movements necessary for writing with the sounds of the individual letters, Dr. Montessori created a material called the Sandpaper Letters. Each letter is cut out of sandpaper and mounted on an individual tablet. The child learns to trace the sandpaper letters with two working fingers (pointer and middle fingers) while the teacher (and later he) enunciates the corresponding sound. This material gives the child a three-fold impression: he sees the shape, he feels the shape, and he hears the sound that the letter makes. The fact that the letter is made of sandpaper, rather than ink, invites the child to trace its shape.
At Mighty Oaks Montessori, we begin by teaching cursive handwriting, just like Dr. Montessori did: moving the pen in one smooth motion throughout a word is often easier for the child than lifting it for each letter. Cursive writing also eliminates the common error of reversing such letters as “d” and “b”, and it enables the children to write faster and more beautifully, once they become proficient at handwriting.
Word building: Next, children learn to compose words with the "movable alphabet," a set of lower-case letters in an organized box. To begin this activity, the teacher might use the same materials used in the sound games – miniature objects representing three letter words with the short vowel. The child will select an object, such as a cat, and slowly says its name, so he can hear each sound – c….a….t. He then selects a letter representing the first sound, and puts it next to the object on his mat. Next, he listens for and selects the second letter, and finally the third. He thus “builds words” – without the added complexity of having to form the letters by writing them with a pencil.
Additional writing and reading activities: Once the child has begun writing in the manner mentioned above, she naturally progresses into reading. Mighty Oaks offers a wide variety of reading activities – from noun cards, in which children read individual words and match them to pictures; to command (verb) cards, which give children a command to act out, such as "sit", "jump", or "open and close the door". We also teach phonograms: words in the English language which contain two or more letters which come together to make a new sound, such as "sh" as in "ship" or "ph" as in phone. Once these skills are mastered, our students learn common non-phonetic words, known as puzzle or sight words, such as "their" or "aisle". Exploratory writing, penmanship practice, and booklet-making are a few of our students’ favorite writing activities.
3 and 4-year old children are fascinated with manipulating things, with patterns, and with small objects. They enjoy repeating activities, and exploring concrete items with their hands. The Montessori math sequence is built to support this developmental phase: we introduce preschool children to the fascinating world of numbers through enjoyable activities, which were carefully designed to impart mathematical knowledge to our students.
By starting early, and drawing upon the child’s natural interests, we enable our students to gain a head start in numeracy. More importantly, we instill confidence in their own ability to do math, and to do it well. Many traditional settings teach math in a manner where arithmetic operations are introduced as abstract, mechanistic operations to be memorized- even if not understood. In contrast, our young students master the basics of arithmetic using concrete materials, and consequently acquire a grounded understanding of the meaning behind these operations. When a child graduates on from Mighty Oaks, they have a double advantage: they have learned many mathematical concepts and math facts typically taught in 2nd or 3rd grade, before they even enter elementary school – and they have learned to enjoy math.
Counting: Montessori recognized that a very young child often has trouble understanding how to count by adding one unit to another. She found that children struggle to realize that the increasing whole must be considered: often, a child would count "1, 1, 1" instead of "1, 2, 3." To remedy this abstract rote-memory challenge, we teach the relationship between numbers and quantities directly with a number of concrete didactic materials. Using this method, children will be able to count out loud, learn to recognize and name a numeral, and attach it to the assigned quantity. This skill is called One to One Correspondence.
Place Value & Large Quantities: The Golden Bead Materials introduce our students to the concept of place value; otherwise known as the Decimal System. This material uses small golden beads to physically quantify the value of a single unit, ten, one hundred, and one thousand. We can combine each of these categories to make 4-digit numbers.
Children continue to work with these and related materials for a long time – learning how to add, subtract, multiply and divide 4 digit numbers. This material allows children to obtain a perceptually grounded awareness of quantity: they see, feel, and manipulate the beads in order to complete these operations concretely.
Further mathematical materials: Since our classroom is multi-age, and since children progress at different speeds, especially in mathematics, we offer a wide variety of additional mathematical materials. Children learn about fractions with the fraction circles and skittles; they learn skip counting and multiplication with colored bead materials which expand upon the colored bead stair; they learn division with a Division Board, where division is introduced as sharing quantities between people; they practice addition and subtraction with Strip Boards; they arrange the numbers to 100 in order using the Hundred Board. (Geometry, an important part of the Montessori primary classroom, is included among the Sensorial Exercises.)
Science, Culture, Geography & the Arts
At Mighty Oaks Montessori, we help our students to acquire the essential knowledge, critical thinking skills, and strength of character that is required to thrive as joyous children today, and to be successful adults tomorrow. We seek to equip them with a wealth of knowledge that will enable them to understand and delight in both the wondrous world around them, as well as their personal identity within.
The Cultural Subjects in our classroom provide students with a first exposure to the many areas of knowledge they will encounter later on – and enable them to acquire an early interest in learning about the world, its natural wonders, its people, history and culture, as well as its music and art.
How We Teach Science, Geography, Music & Art
Cultural Studies in our classroom encompass a broad range of materials and experiences: they are the young child’s introduction to exploring and experiencing the world in his classroom.
Geography: Montessori geography materials systematically introduce children to the physical features of our world. They include maps of all kinds: different globes, a flat puzzle map of the world, puzzle maps of each continent, and a puzzle map of the United States. With these map materials, and related activities (such as "pin-punching" the maps with a push pin, then gluing them together to make maps), our students learn the names of continents and countries – at a time when their brains are able to remember facts and vocabulary much more readily than later on in life. Our students also learn scientific vocabulary of geography – such as landforms (i.e. peninsula, island) and water forms (i.e. bay, lake).
Science: Our science program focuses on three areas: training the children in careful observation of the properties of physical things, building a foundation of skills – such as pouring water, using droppers, measuring length and volume – needed for later science work, and developing the child’s scientific vocabulary. Many of these skills are integrated into the other areas of our classrooms. For example, much of the Sensorial exercises focus on observing carefully and classifying things; many practical life activities, such as pouring and measuring liquids, teach skills needed for scientific work.
The child learns scientific vocabulary with specific materials – from puzzles that show parts of an animal, to the Botany Cabinet, to the Montessori Three Part Cards. Children are exposed to the information necessary in order to identify the classification of a vertebrate in the manner, as one example.
Music: In our classroom, children have the opportunity to learn music in many different ways: singing, auditory (listening), and eurhythmics (movement), and auditory exposure to a variety of instruments. We start the introduction of music with singing, which is often the most natural way to enjoy and appreciate music. We select music that is in the voice range of children, and incorporate movement into our songs. Throughout, we choose from a broad range of genres, from folk and popular music to traditional children’s song; from classical to contemporary composers. As the children sing and move to the music, as they listen to it played during the work periods, they learn to recognize a variety of musical styles and become familiar with the power of this universal language.
Art: Art is integrated throughout our classroom: academics and artistic creativity go hand-in-hand. Our students learn key art skills – such as using scissors, gluing, holding a pencil properly, coloring between lines – all while exploring the process of creating something beautiful from beginning to end. In addition to their own creations, the children also have an opportunity to be inspired by great artists through loads of special Montessori art materials. By creating and appreciating works of art, children discover that the power of art is a beautiful gift.