Montessori Matters: The Prepared Environment

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As I prepared my classroom during the weeks before the beginning of school, Dr. Maria Montessori’s words about the Prepared Environment were very much on my mind:

“To assist a child we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely.”

Montessori, Maria, and M. Joseph Costelloe. “The Education of the Child.” The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine, 1972. 110. Print.

In fact, the classroom is as much the child’s instructor as the Montessori teacher is–as the material is–and we give it as much care and attention as we might our own homes. Since the classroom is the child’s place (his second home as well as ours), we must take him into consideration as we prepare it. In keeping with the Montessori Method, there are six elements to a Montessori classroom, each of which I’ll try to touch on today: Freedom, Structure and Order, Nature and Reality, the Montessori Material, Beauty, and Community.

Freedom

Freedom

Clockwise, from left: Using a child-sized knife, a chair for the infant room, and the space for students to move freely about the classroom

In a classroom where the material is both accessible and appropriate, students can work and move freely. The space to move, to choose one’s own work, and the opportunity to visit the outdoors are deemed essential. If you’ve already visited a Montessori classroom, you’ll notice that the furniture is child-sized. The student’s feet can touch the ground instead of dangling in midair. Brooms fit small hands. Scissors are made for little fingers. With appropriately sized material made accessible to them, students can interact with their environment.

“[T]he sense of dignity acquired by the child who learns to satisfy himself in surroundings he himself preserves…these are the co-efficients of humanity which accompany “liberty of movement.” From his consciousness of this development of his personality the child derives the impulse to persist in these tasks, the industry to perform them, the intelligent joy he shows in their completion.”

Montessori, Maria. “Spontaneous Activity in Education.” The Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 2 Mar. 2008. Web. 5 Sept. 2015.

The emphasis we place on the child’s ability to do for himself, in turn, helps with the greater goal of teaching independence.

Structure and Order

Structure and Order

Clockwise, from the top: Graduated pouring work, Work grouped on a labeled sensorial shelf, Work grouped on a labeled math shelf

Montessori classrooms are also structured. This is another element that allows students freedom. Work is arranged by area: Practical Life, Math, Geography, History, Science, Art, Language or Writing. This organization allows students to easily access the work–and put it away again. Teachers provide lessons on how to use materials when necessary, but we try to keep our instructions brief, as the experience is the thing. Additionally, the Montessori teacher strives to keep the pieces of each work together (with no broken or missing pieces) so the children can complete a task from start to finish. We’ve witnessed the internal satisfaction a child feels when he places the last tile on the hundred board. (If, perchance, a piece mysteriously goes missing–well, that’s an opportunity to teach flexibility!)

Within each area, work is arranged by level of difficulty. On a Practical Life shelf, for example, there may be three pouring works: Pouring rice from one vessel to another, then a similar activity with colored water and, finally, a more challenging pouring option involving a water pitcher and three small glasses.

Color-coding is another tool used in the Montessori classroom. When the child knows that the red sponge goes with the red tray, he can take greater responsibility for putting his work back on the shelf the way he found it.

If a material isn’t attractive to the children, the Montessori teacher will replace it with something new. If that material doesn’t interest them, this cycle will repeat itself until the teacher finds the work that best fits the students’ needs. Shelf work is more static and sees fewer changes at the elementary level, but the principal of attractiveness remains constant.

Beauty

Beauty

Clockwise, from the left: The table set for snack and tea, a lovely geography display in Room 6, and the reading nook in Room 3

Attractiveness is another important element in the Montessori classroom. Beauty invites the students and welcomes them to learn. No chintz involved–I promise! Here, beauty is more closely allied with simplicity. A lack of clutter is just as important as the use of natural materials like wood. Beauty invites the children to learn, just as it makes them feel welcome.

Nature and Reality

Nature and Reality

Clockwise, from the left: A successful bug hunting field trip, nature beneath our feet, and a quilt made with the botany insets

Montessori classrooms are also designed to bring the children into contact with nature and reality. Using breakable containers (like glass) allows students to learn to handle materials with greater care. Lightweight tables remind students that absentminded movements can disrupt a quiet classroom or the work of a fellow classmate.

Another way that Montessori classrooms mimic reality is by limiting the availability of each material in the room. The ability to wait until a fellow student has finished with a work is an invaluable life skill. It also helps to create an atmosphere of respect in the classroom. It emphasizes that each child’s work and work time is important.

Finally, we make an effort to bring the beauty of nature into the classroom by bringing in living things (plants and animals) inside and also by taking the students to experience the natural world out of doors.

Montessori Materials

Montessori Material

Clockwise, from the left: The Geometric Solids, The Stamp Game, and The Green Series

I’ll just touch on this briefly, since the Montessori materials could (and probably will) be a post in their own right. Undoubtedly, the materials are an integral part of any Montessori classroom. Here are a few brief bullet points on Montessori Materials:

  • They’re designed to stimulate the student’s natural desire to learn, and to encourage concentration.
  • They should have a Control of Error. That is, there should be some way for the students to see their own mistakes and have the opportunity to correct them. This allows students to teach themselves.
  • There’s a Sensitive Period–a developmental “sweet spot”–for introducing each material.
  • Materials increase in complexity.
  • Materials move from concrete to abstract.
  • Many materials are designed to provide foundation for later work. An example of this is insets, which strengthen the fine motor skills necessary for letter formation.

Community

Community

Clockwise, from the top: The community-made banner for our school’s Community Garden, Mixed ages, students helping to tidy a classroom mess, a student sharing snack with his classmate, and students helping with a school beautification project.

In Montessori schools, we encourage the students to take ownership of the classroom. It’s their space, and that means they’re involved in the care and keeping of it. This is why you’ll often see Montessori students cleaning tables or even picking up trash around campus. We encourage the students to think of the school as shared space–because it is!

Caring for each other is also part of the Montessori classroom. Helping their peers comes spontaneously to most children and it’s additionally fostered by our mixed ages. Teaching the younger children benefits more than just those receiving the lessons. It is, after all, through teaching, that the student best reinforces what he’s already learned.

As you can see, the Prepared Environment is an integral part of the Montessori teaching philosophy. As we begin our exploration of what it means to be a part of a Montessori community, I hope you’ll begin to see our vision for education.

Further Reading:

  • “The Six Principles of the Montessori Prepared Environment Explained.” – NAMC Montessori Teacher Training Blog. Montessori Teacher Training, 18 Mar. 2009. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.
  • “Montessori Classroom Approach.” American Montessori Society. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.
  • Lillard, Paula Polk. “The Montessori Method.” Montessori, a Modern Approach. New York: Schocken, 1972. Print.
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