Walking in Maria’s Footsteps: Following the Montessori Philosophy

“To liberate the child we must reform the environment, and reform the world. This is a necessity if we are to have life at its highest development. A fine work of research and observation is required in order to give that which is necessary to the development of life.” —Dr. Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori was an Italian educator and physician who developed a now-
famous and widely-used method for teaching in the classroom: the Montessori Method.
In 1907, when she was observing children who were given freedom to do whatever they
wanted in an uncontrolled environment, she discovered what she referred to as the
“child’s true normal nature.” That is, the child engaged in self-directed learning through
doing ordinary tasks for the sake of the experience rather than to accomplish a certain
end. Dr. Montessori’s method thus aims to encourage learning and development through
enhancing this natural ability to self-direct; her theory was that children learn best
through experimentation and experience, rather than through merely being instructed.

Thus, a Montessori environment is optimally structured to give a young student
freedom to choose what they learn within the bounds of material organized by subject
and difficulty. For example, one day a student might have several subjects to choose
from, and may pick mathematics. He will eventually get to all the lessons, but is enjoying
the natural self-direction that will best allow him to absorb the lesson. The teacher, based
on observations of the child, determines what intellectual challenges will be given as well
as when they will be given; her role is to respond to the child’s learning and fit the
curriculum to his development, not to impose upon him a cookie-cutter lesson. The
Montessori Method is ultimately not only focused on learning, but on the growth of the
child into a caring, independent, and self-disciplined individual.

Montessori methods can generally be grouped into four different categories:
Practical Life, Language, Sensorial, and Mathematics. My classroom is unique because I
add other categories to the process, such as Geography, Science, and Art. While these are recognized Montessori categories, not every teacher uses them, and implementing them makes me a bit different from the teacher down the hallway. However, I have found that these additional activities are areas that my students not only greatly enjoy, but areas that further their development in unique and effective ways. We will discuss each area in turn in the following chapters, and I have included activities for each area in the different
sections of this book.

It should be noted that many activities can and should be presented in a three-step
process called the “three-period lesson.” This is a fundamental teaching tool in a
Montessori education, and was developed by Eduoard Seguin, whose work with the
mentally handicapped was very inspirational to Maria Montessori. The name of a new
thing is frequently introduced through this method, and the child will use his memory to
progress through the three steps of listening, recognizing, and articulating. In Period One,
the directress will provide the child with the name of the object; for instance, “This is a
C.” She may also have a child trace a letter repeatedly while she repeats what the letter is.
In Period Two, which is where most of the learning time is spent, the directress will ask
the child to show her the item (or letter) just demonstrated. When the child can show the
item, he or she may progress to Period Three, in which the directress will hold the object
and ask, “What is this?” When the child answers correctly, then he understands the
concept and is ready to move on. However, if he answers incorrectly, do not correct him!
Re-demonstrate at a later time and let him try again. Maria Montessori said, “Indeed why
correct him? If the child has not succeeded in associating the name with the object, the
only way in which to succeed would be to repeat the lesson. But when the child has
failed, we should know that he was not at that instant ready for the psychic association
which we wished to provoke in him, and we must therefore choose another moment.”
Children learn and absorb at different speeds, and some will take longer to reach the third
period than others.

The end goal of the Montessori Method is “Normalization.” This refers to a
psychological shift from disorder and inattention to an adherence to self-discipline and
independence. This shift is fostered and nurtured through the child’s repetitive
engagement in activities that the child himself chooses; as we’ve discussed earlier,
children have a biological need to learn and experience, so the child will need no
prompting to do this!

Of course, other theories complement the Montessori Method and are well worth
your time as you get started on this journey. I recommend an article entitled “Creating the
Environment for Movement,” taken from the  Journal of the National Association for the
Education of Young Children. The article explores the theories of Jean Piaget, a French
developmental psychologist, who did much research on the cognitive development and
capacity of children, especially those between the ages of two and a half and four years
old. He found that stimulants for cognitive development come directly from within the
child, not from outside sources. Lev Vygotsky’s work built on Piaget’s theory to find that
while learning may be biologically self-directed, pace and progress are also influenced by
social and environmental factors. In the article’s discussion of the child-focused
classroom (a central tenet of Montessori teaching), it states that “[c]components of
developmentally appropriate preschool movement programs that relate directly to the
learning environment include scheduled activity, class size, equipment, play, facilities,
allowance for repetition and success, participation for every child, and integration of
movement into other subject areas.” An effective teaching style is one that enhances these
stages, as the Montessori Method does.

You may also find Kathryn J. Kvols’ book, Redirecting Children’s Behavior, to
be a useful tool in approaching Montessori methods. Kvols urges parents not to deter
unwanted behavior through a traditional “punishment and reward” system, but rather to
encourage them toward appropriate behaviors through positive communication and
logical deduction. She extols the virtues of self-quieting (on the child’s part), setting
limits (on the parents’ part), and demonstrating consequences; thus, instead of just being
told what sort of action is wrong, the child will understand why his behavior is
unacceptable through reflection as well as his own experiences of logical and natural

To understand Montessori Methods and theories straight from the source, I also
recommend reading Maria Montessori’s books, including Secret of Childhood, The
Absorbent Mind, The Montessori Method, and Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook.

At this point, you may not have decided whether or not Montessori is right for
you—and that’s okay! “At Home Montessori” will help you better understand both the methods and the objectives of Montessori education. My goal is to give my readers a better understanding of the Montessori Method and history as you begin implementing it in your child’s life!