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What is Montessori? Early Childhood Educational Philosophies

Updated on August 1, 2012

Practical Life at School

A child slices beans with a knife at a Montessori school: preschool children are taught independence and practical skills at a young age.
A child slices beans with a knife at a Montessori school: preschool children are taught independence and practical skills at a young age. | Source

Freedom to Learn

A young child explores angles in the math center at his Montessori school.
A young child explores angles in the math center at his Montessori school. | Source

What Is Montessori?

The Montessori model for preschool was developed in 1907 by the first female physician in Italy: Maria Montessori. After watching children learn from their environment, she constructed a “Casa de Bambini” that provided a variety of educational materials for children to choose from.

The Montessori teaching method focuses on the whole child, and allows children to learn with all five senses. Traditional preschool models may focus primarily on listening and sight, while the Montessori preschool will have materials which stimulate the senses of touch, smell, vision, hearing, and taste. The materials provide a concrete way to explore abstract ideas.

Montessori schools may be public or private, religious or secular. Grades are not kept, and rewards and punishments are removed from the educational environment. Teachers keep portfolios to track the progress of each child as they use the available materials to learn.

In a single sentence, the Montessori approach to education can be summed up by the following: “Help me do it by myself.”

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The Montessori Experience

What is Montessori Like? A Day in the Life

Four year old Teddy enters his classroom before the official start of the school day, where a staff member watches over the children before the teachers arrive. Teddy is hungry and asks if there is anything to eat, and the staff member tells him to help himself: the little boy gets his bowl and pours cereal and milk by himself. He sits to eat while other children come into the classroom. When he is done eating, he decides to participate in an art activity. He paints at an easel with a three year old girl, until he gets tired of the activity. He considers leaving the area without cleaning up for a brief moment, but he has been in Montessori for two years and has learned to clean up his own mess. After cleaning up, the teachers arrive for the start of the school day.

Teddy decides to work with number cards in the math area of the classroom, and he solves math problems with another young friend. The cards are called “addends” and Teddy is successfully completing what we would call addition problems… at the age of four! Once the correct number card is found, Teddy and his friend exchange the card for beads representing the answer. If the answer is greater than ten, the beads will be exchanged for number rods symbolizing the place value of tens, hundreds, or even thousands.

The classroom clock shows a time of 10:00am and Teddy goes to the snack table to pour himself some juice and make a snack of celery and peanut butter. Once done, he decides he’d like to wash the table, so he obtains the bucket and sponge and swirls the soap on the table. He also notices that the classroom plants are a little dry, so he carries a watering can around the classroom to take care of each plant.

By 11:00am, Teddy is very excited to share about his latest discoveries and interests in a 1:1 moment with his teacher. His teacher notices that Teddy is enthusiastic about reading activities, so she sits down and assists him with the sandpaper letters. Teddy traces the letter and says, “duh, duh,” as he will only call the letter by its sound for the next couple of years. They continue through several letters, and Teddy recalls the sound of each one. It won’t be long before he is combining several sounds to create words.

Lunchtime arrives and Teddy makes himself lunch, and then finds himself engrossed in another project. When a Spanish teacher comes into the classroom and invites him to join a group of children, Teddy declines the invitation. He is concentrating on another project at the moment, and would like to continue with it. As the afternoon progresses, the little boy listens to music from a ballet, works on a puzzle of the United States, and does some more art. At the very end of the day, he has participated in about 20 different educational activities, including geography, art, music, math, language, and practical skills. Many of the activities he has done might be considered “advanced” for a child who has just turned four years old.

Montessori Programs for Children with Special Needs

This program also works well for children with special needs, as the focus is on allowing the individual child to proceed at their own pace. The placement of a child in a multi-age classroom also eliminates the feeling that a child is “ahead of” or “behind” his or her peers. The lack of any reward or punishment system, including the use of grades, allows a child to progress unfettered by labels. This educational philosophy also allows for the success of many different learning styles.

Multiple Age Classrooms

Montessori classrooms are divided up into age groups which span a 3 year gap: 3-6 year olds are in a single class, and 6-9 year olds are in another class. The use of “multiple age classrooms” allows the older children to serve as educational models for the younger children. The Montessori model can be used for education all the way through middle or high school.

Montessori Classroom Size

Children learn to concentrate and focus on their tasks in this style of program. Kindness and respect are taught through modeling and gentle teacher interaction. Class sizes may be large (typically over 30 children), as the children direct their own activities and the teacher moves from child-to-child to facilitate learning. In this way, a classroom that has a 30:1 child: teacher ratio will have a 1:1 when the teacher is working with an individual child. Depending on the size of the preschool, the classroom size may vary considerably (for instance, rural areas may have a much smaller class size than the “typical” 30 children).

A Typical Day

The typical program contains a three-hour block of time reserved for learning activities. Children are taught not to interrupt each other when a child is focusing on a project, which fosters the ability to concentrate on tasks. Children will spontaneously form groups during this three hour period of time, though formed groups never take precendence over individually selected projects.

The classroom is generally organized by subject matter, with educational materials available for language, math, geography, music, art, history, science, and more. When a parent walks into the classroom, children can be observed learning about many different subject areas at many different levels.

A Child Uses the Movable Alphabet

Verify the Program is Montessori

Any preschool program can use the word “Montessori” without belonging to any actual organizations that represent the official philosophy. A list of schools may be found at the following link: Finding a Montessori School.

Parents must carefully observe the preschool program and ask the following questions:

  1. Is this school a member of a Montessori organization such as the American Montessori Society (AMS)?
  2. What special training do the teachers at this school have?
  3. What is the theory behind the various educational activities?
  4. What is the educational philosophy of this school?

Montessori teachers must be certified by passing oral and written exams. She must learn to teach the basic Montessori lessons, and must learn to identify a child’s readiness for specific concepts. The majority of true Montessori training programs require a bachelor’s degree for admittance, followed by 200-600 hours of training on child development and the educational philosophy of the Montessori program.

Items You Won't Find in a Montessori Classroom

Pretend Play Centers: When Maria Montessori studied preschool-aged children, she noted a very interesting phenomenon. Children would not play with pretend items if they were allowed to participate in the real activity. Instead of a pretend kitchen and play food items, a Montessori classroom will contain real cooking activities for the children.

Electronic Games: Computers, television, electronic learning games, and toys featuring electronic lights and sound will not be found in a Montessori Classroom

Montessori Materials

A set of common materials in a Montessori preschool classroom.
A set of common materials in a Montessori preschool classroom. | Source

Montessori Teaching Materials

The Montessori approach uses some tried-and-true manufactured classroom materials (like sandpaper letters and math manipulatives) and also uses teacher-made materials. Teachers are taught how to make appropriate educational materials during their training, particularly for cultural and “practical life” activities.

A very small sampling of materials used in the classroom is listed below – a typical classroom will have hundreds of learning opportunities in many different subject areas.

The following items may be found inside the classroom:


  • Sandpaper numbers: These teach the children the symbols for the numbers they already know. These provide the child with an understanding of written numbers.
  • Numerical rods: Alternating color strips break the rods up into visual number units, which allows a child to identify the concepts of the numbers 1-10. As children play and experiment with the rods, they learn basic arithmetic concepts such as addition and number sequences.
  • Spindles: individual spindles represent one unit, and children may place spindles into boxes labeled with the values “0” through “9.” Children learn that zero is an empty set and no spindles will be placed in the compartment labeled with that value.
  • Small number rods: Square rods in alternating colors allow for sorting, counting, ordering, and comparing size and quantity.


  • Broad Wooden stairs: Children learn about the differences in breadth while the length of the objects stays the same. This forms a basic understanding of concepts in geometry.
  • Knobless cylinders: Children learn to discriminate and sort cylinders based on the physical characteristics of the cylinders (height, diameter, or color).
  • Color tablets: Children learn about primary, secondary, and tertiary colors while expanding vocabulary and developing sorting skills.
  • Sound boxes: A set of small cylinders which produce sounds ranging from extremely soft to loud helps children sort, memorize which cylinder produced which sound, and understand that sound comes in a range of different volumes.


  • Sandpaper letters: Children learn letter symbols and sounds through the use of their fingers (tracing the letters) and eyes (seeing the letters). This activity prepares children to read and write.
  • Movable Alphabet: This allows a child to explore the symbolic representation of our spoken language. Children manipulate the letters and are able to form words and other concepts as they play with the letters.
  • Tracing Trays: Metal insets can be removed from the stencil to allow children to create designs with a pencil. This activity prepares children to write.


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    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks, msshandriaball! Montessori is a great early childhood education option for children - it allows for a lot of different learning styles!

    • msshandriaball profile image

      Shandria Ball 

      6 years ago from Anniston

      Great hub! Voted up


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