WHAT IS A "PREPARED ENVIRONMENT?"
The "prepared environment" is Maria Montessori's concept that the environment can be designed to facilitate maximum independent learning and exploration by the child. In the prepared environment, there is a variety of activity as well as a great deal of movement within the limitations and guidelines established in the classroom.
In a preschool classroom, for example, a three-year-old may be washing dishes by hand while a four-year-old nearby is composing words and phrases with letters known as the movable alphabet, and a five-year-old is performing multiplication using a specially designed set of beads. In an elementary classroom, a small group of six- to nine-year-old children may be using a timeline to learn about extinct animals while another child chooses to work alone, analyzing a poem using special grammar symbols. Sometimes an entire class may be involved in a group activity, such as a science experiment, storytelling, singing, or movement.
In the calm, ordered space of the Montessori prepared environment, children work on activities of their own choice at their own pace. They experience a blend of freedom and self-discipline in a place especially designed to meet their developmental needs.
HOW ARE MONTESSORI MATERIALS DIFFERENT?
First of all, in the Montessori classroom, self-correcting learning materials are arranged invitingly on low, open shelves. Children may choose whatever materials they would like to use and may work for as long as the material holds their interest. When they are finished with each material, they return it to the shelf from which it came. The materials themselves invite activity. There are bright arrays of solid geometric forms, knobbed puzzle maps, colored beads, and various specialized rods and blocks. Each material in a Montessori classroom isolates one quality. In this way, the concept that the child is to discover is isolated.
For example, the material known as the pink tower is made up of ten pink cubes of varying sizes. The preschool-aged child constructs a tower with the largest cube on the bottom and the smallest on top. This material isolates the concept of size. The cubes are all the same color and texture; the only difference is their size. Other materials isolate different concepts: color tablets for color, geometry materials for form, and so on. In addition, the Montessori materials are self-correcting. When a piece does not fit or is left over, the child easily perceives the error. There is no need for adult "correction." The child is able to solve problems independently, building self-confidence, analytical thinking, and the satisfaction that comes from accomplishment.
As the child's exploration continues, the materials interrelate and build upon each other. For example, various relationships can be explored between the pink tower and the broad stair, which are based on matching precise dimensions. Later, in the elementary years, new aspects of some of the materials unfold. When studying volume, for instance, the child may return to the pink tower and discover that its cubes progress incrementally from one cubic centimeter to one cubic decimeter.
WHY ARE THERE CHILDREN OF DIFFERENT AGES IN THE SAME CLASSROOM?
Not only did Maria Montessori believe, but most educational theory and research indicates that learning is an individual process - in time frame, style, and interests - and that children learn from one another. This can be seen in family and play situations where children are free to observe and interact in a variety of activities. Young children learn higher level cognitive and social skills not only through mental development, but also by observing others as models.
Montessori multi-age classrooms usually incorporate a three-year age span based on similarities in physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. Each group of children remains together in the same environment and with the same teaching team for three years. Therefore, only one-third of the group is new each year, enabling children and teachers to get to know one another very well. This avoids the yearly stress children often face of new teachers, new rules, and new expectations. For the teachers, it offers the opportunity to know each child very well and follow each child's development over time, personalizing instruction.
Multi-age grouping helps children develop a sense of community and supports social development. Older children act as models and (sometimes) teachers of younger children. This aids development of personality, collaboration, and cooperation. There is less anxious competition because all children are not expected to have identical skills and perform equally. This leads to respect for the individuality of each person in the group and recognition that each child has unique strengths and contributions to offer the group. Comparisons are not made, and cooperation is encouraged, thus accommodating the uneven development, which is especially evident in the birth to eight-age range.
Children work at their own levels, which may vary in different curriculum areas. Groups are flexible and often differ, depending on interest, subject matter, and/or ability. children learn from the many activities within the environment and often find interest in the work of another child or group of children. Because they see the older children interacting successfully with the advanced curriculum, children don't develop fears of succeeding in higher grades. Collaborative learning is encouraged. This occurs not only when a teacher has formed a group for a specific lesson, but often happens without specific, assigned groups. Spontaneous grouping can occur when the teacher suggests that a child ask another for assistance.
Montessori is just for preschool children.
While the many Montessori schools in the United States are preschools, Montessori programs exist at age levels from birth to eighteen all over the world.
Montessori is just for special learners--the gifted or the learning-disabled.
The methods used in Montessori schools are highly effective with both learning-disabled and gifted learners; the reason for their effectiveness, however, is that the learning environments have been designed to ensure success for all children.
Montessori is only for the rich.
Maria Montessori began her work with poor children in the slums of Rome. This misconception is due to the fact that the American Montessori movement that began in the 1950's was primarily a private preschool movement, supported by tuition. Now, however, Montessori education is available at approximately 200 public schools in the U.S. in addition to about 4,000 private schools. Most however are very affordable.
Children in Montessori classrooms are relatively unsupervised and can "do whatever they want."
Montessori is based on the principle of free choice of purposeful activity. If the child is being destructive or is using materials in an aimless way, the teacher will intervene and gently re-direct the child either to more appropriate materials or to a more appropriate use of the material. There is always freedom within limits in a Montessori classroom. Guidelines, ground rules, and work plans are always part of Montessori education.
Montessori classrooms are too structured.
Although the teacher is careful to make clear the specific purpose of each material and to present activities in a clear, step-by-step order, the child is free to choose from a vast array of activities and to discover new possibilities.
Montessori is against fantasy; therefore, it stifles creativity.
The fact is that the freedom of the prepared environment encourages creative approaches to problem solving. And while teacher-directed fantasy is discouraged, fantasy play initiated by the child is viewed as healthy and purposeful. In addition, art and music activities are integral parts of the Montessori classroom.
Montessori classrooms push children too far too fast.
Central to the Montessori philosophy is the idea of allowing each child to develop at his or her own, individual pace. The "miracle" stories of Montessori children far ahead of traditional expectations for their age level reflect not artificial acceleration but the possibilities open when children are allowed to learn at their own pace in a scientifically prepared environment.
Montessori children are unusually adaptable. They know how to work independently and in groups. They are problem solvers who can make choices and manage their time well. So in general, after an initial adjustment period, they do adapt quite well. The skills that they have learned from being in Montessori classroom completely outweigh the problems that they encounter when they first make the transition to a traditional school.