Answering your questions about this alternative approach.
Although many parents have heard of Montessori, most know very little about it. Some believe that Montessori is too rigid and stifles children’s creativity. Others are convinced that it is completely unstructured and without any academic standards. In fact, neither perception is accurate!
Montessori classrooms function in a spirit of cooperation and collaboration. The philosophy behind the school is based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s premises about how young children learn – that children thrive in ordered and predictable environments, that they need to move as they learn, that they can focus intensely for long periods of time if left undisturbed, that they are not motivated by grades or competition, and that they learn best by making their own discoveries.
Montessori classrooms are equipped with a wide range of educational materials that provide numerous opportunities for learning and enrichment. The materials are designed to use the children’s tendency toward movement and activity to guide them towards discovery and understanding.
For example, sandpaper letters, cut out of sandpaper and mounted on wooden tablets, are used to introduce letter formation and phonetic sounds. As children trace the shape of the sandpaper letter, they say the phonetic sound it makes aloud – with the movement of their hands and tongues, their senses of sight, touch and hearing are all engaged as they learn to read and write the letter.
The Montessori curriculum for ages three to six includes language, math, sensorial, practical life and culture. (Culture encompasses science, botany, zoology, and geography.) Beginning with the practical life and sensorial areas, young children learn such practical skills as sweeping, dusting, polishing, watering plants and stringing beads. Each of these skills fosters and extends their ability to focus and concentrate while also refining their fine motor skills. At the same time, they are shown work in the sensorial area, where the materials are designed to awaken and stimulate the senses. Next come early culture activities (puzzle maps, animals of the world, etc.).
When the teacher observes that the children are well settled into life in the classroom, and that their fine motor skills and concentration are improving, she presents them with work in language and math. Music, art and a second language are incorporated into the day, with children participating by choice and often at different times from one another.
Ongoing, informed and unobtrusive observation is the Montessori method of assessment, allowing for immediate and appropriate adjustment of work or social skill development for the individual child. The academic progress of each child is assessed in comparison to their own prior performance, not to their peers or to a provincial standard. Their social skills are assessed from a developmental perspec-tive, which highlights any areas in which their progress may be atypical.
Respect is at the heart of the Montessori approach, and underscores everything that happens in the classroom. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. Food and water are available at all times. The children have complete freedom to move within the limits imposed by the space, the materials, and respect for the rest of the community.
Each class is ideally representative of the wider community, and includes children with disabilities, racially diverse backgrounds and both genders. The multi-age grouping allows younger children to learn enthusiastically and naturally from their older peers. The Montessori approach is appropriate for children with a wide variety of learning styles, personalities and intellectual abilities.
Many families choose Montessori to begin their children’s education and then transfer into other educational settings later. Children who have completed the Casa (three to six years old) program are fully prepared to move into grade one in the public school system. Other families choose to continue in the Montessori elementary program for children ages six to 12.
If you are interested in the Montessori approach, look for a school which feels like a good “fit” with your own family values, and for an environment in which you can easily imagine your child(ren) settling, growing and succeeding. Request an opportunity to observe in a classroom, and consider speaking to a current parent about their family’s experiences at the school.