By Paula Usita Brotherton, AMI Primary (3-6 year-olds) Diploma
(Editor's Note: This article was written for the first edition of the MCS parent e-newsletter. We are honored to have guest contributor Paula Brotherton share her expertise with other Montessori parents. Paula's son is a student in the MCS 3-6 program, and Paula is a Montessori-trained teacher at the primary (3-6 year-old) level. She holds a graduate degree from Virginia Tech in Family and Child Development. Paula taught and did research at universities on the mainland for over 15 years.)
Dr. Maria Montessori’s observations of children led to amazing insights about child development. Montessori found that young children, from birth to six years of age, possessed an absorbent mind (like a sponge absorbing water) that effortlessly took in all information from their environment using all of their senses (seeing, hearing, touch, smell, and taste). Along with an absorbent mind, Montessori discovered that 3-6 year old children had a developmental window for orderliness, learning language, using senses, and refining movement.
This led her to create unique materials and environments that nurtured children’s growth. These materials were practically oriented, proportioned to children’s size, made of natural materials, aided indirectly or directly in language and writing development, simple in design to emphasize attribute of interest, offered self-correction, and were placed on low shelves for easy access. Montessori observed children freely choosing to work with the materials, repeating exercises, valuing their independence, and concentrating.
Her approach to elementary education built upon the philosophy, materials, and environments offered to younger children, but were crafted to provide for the developmental needs of children from 6-12 years of age. Elementary classrooms provide plentiful opportunities for children to develop and refine abstract learning, reasoning, morality, ethics, and connection to the world. Montessori strongly believed that a child must pass through the first six years of life in a prepared environment that suits their vital needs, in order for the next periods (6-12, 12-18, 18-24 years of age), to be fully experienced. She also recommended that children’s level of independence correspond with their developmental stage.
Montessori education produces self-directed learners and provides a strong foundation for learning for life. Psychological and educational research supports Montessori’s approach to children’s education. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), in 2014, celebrated Montessori’s multiple accomplishments (pioneer in children’s education, one of the first female physicians in Europe, university professor) in a special series, Extraordinary Women.
What can we do to support our Montessori children? What can we do to bring Montessori home? We can consider Montessori’s discoveries about children’s natural tendencies and the importance of offering an environment that helps them to fulfill their vital needs. Our approach at home may encompass two components: (1) preparing our home and (2) preparing ourselves.
Prepare Our Home
Accessibility. Most of our homes were not designed for children. We can make our child feel more comfortable at home by offering stepping stools to reach the bathroom and kitchen counters and sinks, or a Learning Tower for helping cook in the kitchen. Hanging towels on a low hook on the wall makes it easier for a child to dry their hands. Prepare a lower drawer or cabinet in the kitchen for storing your child’s dishes. A low table and chair gives a child an easy place to work or have a snack. For a great example of increasing accessibility within the home, see the video, Edison’s Day.
Order. Young children desire orderliness in their environment. Use baskets and trays to hold all items that are needed to complete a job (e.g., cleaning a table, watering an indoor plant). Ensure each item has its own place on the tray, and encourage your child to return the items to their proper place on the tray. Keep the tray on a low shelf and see that your child returns the tray to its designated shelf spot. Children learn about organization and sequence of steps from doing this. Toddlers will benefit from being present when objects are being permanently moved in the home. Keep order by offering a few items rather than an overabundance of stuff.
Real, Natural Objects. Children learn by using real objects that are beautiful (much like the objects adults use). Consider offering your child breakable dishes (e.g., stone or porcelain plates and cups, glasses). Show your child how to carefully handle fragile dishes. An item that breaks gives feedback to a child that it needs more careful handling. Given children’s need for perfecting their senses, offer real objects which appeal to their senses. A child could discover the different smells offered by cooking herbs and spices, for example.
Contributing to Family Work. Children prefer real objects to toys; work to refine movement; and when younger, engage in work for themselves, whereas when older, do things for their community. Support your child’s interest in real things and contributing to the household by offering him or her a chance to help with family work. Your child can work beside you in the kitchen using his or her own cutting board and vegetable cutter, wash and peel vegetables with a vegetable brush and peeler, roll sushi, make musubis, use a salad spinner, and anything else with which you are comfortable. Over time, you can offer more complicated kitchen tools and jobs. Show your child, step by step, how to clean up. For an outdoor job, consider showing your child how to clean the car or windows. Keep in mind that your and your child’s version of clean are likely to be different.
Attractive Environment. Children need orderly and attractive environments. Rotate or add different objects to keep your child’s interest. Keep your child’s space organized (with his or her help). Hang wall art at a child’s eye level and family photos at a height for all to enjoy.
Observe Your Child. One of the best ways to know what your child needs is to sit back and observe. Montessori’s findings were based on her observations of children’s natural tendencies. See what materials grab your child’s interest. Offer materials from around your home to satisfy their curious nature.
Leave a Concentrating Child to their Work. When your child is concentrating (no superfluous bodily movements, stillness, focused eyes) honor his or her concentration. Avoid disturbing a concentrating child. Montessori wrote that a child who has been able to concentrate will, afterward, look as if they have experienced some great joy.
Resist the Urge to Offer Unnecessary Help. Montessori would patiently wait before offering help to a child (unless a danger was posed). You may want to silently and slowly count to 5 or 10 before offering help. If given the time, your child may be able to figure things out independently and feel a sense of accomplishment, or may enlist the help of another child.
Avoid Cleaning Up a Child’s Work While Child is Working. Our children are working on refining their movements and following a sequence of activities, and their work area in the kitchen or outside may not be as dry, tidy, or clean as we would like. If your child was working purposefully, do not interrupt him or her by remarking on the mess being created and begin cleaning up while your child is still working. Wait, wait, wait, until your child has left the area before cleaning up or enlisting the help of older siblings with cleaning up. It takes practice, but it is possible.
1. Montessori, M. (1982). The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine. [First published in 1936]
2. Montessori, M. (1995). The Absorbent Mind. New York: Holt. [First published in 1949]
3. Montessori, M. The Four Planes of Education. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Association Montessori Internationale. [Lecture given in 1939]
4. Lillard, A.S. (2005). Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. New York: Oxford University Press:
5. Extraordinary Women: Maria Montessori, [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXqeTYHn0p4]
6. Edison’s Day, [https://vimeo.com/ondemand/edisonsday]