I had no idea what Montessori was before I got pregnant, I’d never heard of it. Other people I have spoken to, knew the name or had a rough idea. But not the nitty-gritty as it were. This post is for all those people who want to have a better understanding of what Montessori is all about and how to do Montessori from home.
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What is Montessori Education?
Montessori is an educational philosophy created by Dr. Montessori at the Casa Dei Bambini in Rome, Italy 1907. Since then the Montessori philosophy has grown and there are classrooms all over the world.
What is the difference between a Montessori classroom and a traditional classroom?
The basic difference between a Montessori classroom and a traditional classroom is the focus on independence of the child. The class is child-led in Montessori rather than kids all working on the same thing, at the same time and teacher-led in a traditional classroom. When we teach Montessori from home, we work with the same philosophy.
The Montessori classroom also looks different from a traditional classroom. From the equipment used to classroom setup. In a Montessori class, children often work on activities on small rugs on the floor or independently at the table. The classes are of mixed ages and the kids will often help or learn from each other. More on that in a minute.
With Montessori, it’s important for the child to work at their own pace. Which is different from a traditional classroom where the idea that “No Child Left Behind” is often used.
This often means that brighter children have to work at a slower pace and their needs are not met. And children that need more help often get pushed along faster than they should be. This results in their frustration and confusion.
In the Montessori classroom, children work at their own pace. They focus on the topic or area that interests them at the time depending on their cycle of development. The best thing is that Montessori education can be easily done at home.
Who Started Montessori Education?
Maria Montessori was an Italian doctor and educator who focused her studies on the way that children learn naturally. She opened her first school for disadvantaged children in Rome in 1907. Later, she traveled the world and wrote extensively about her ideas and approach to education.
When she was 16, Montessori started studying at Regio Istituto Tecnico Leonardo da Vinci, an all-boys technical school with the hope of becoming an engineer. She graduated at the age of 20 with a certificate in mathematics and physics.
But she changed her mind and decided to pursue higher education in medicine. A very uncommon choice for women back then.
She took a degree course in natural sciences and graduated in 1892. She also did extra studies of Latin and Italian. This qualified her a place on the medical program at The University Of Rome. Maria was met with a lot of resistance. She was forced to do some of her studies, such as dissection of cadavers, alone and after hours.
She graduated in 1896 as a Dr of medicine. This also opened the door a little wider for future women in the field. When Maria graduated she was one of Italy’s first female physicians. She has been described as stubborn and single-minded but I prefer to think of her as determined and strong.
Maria Montessori Career
Maria’s original medical practice was focusing on psychiatry; it wasn’t until later that she developed an interest in education and she took classes to immerse herself in educational theory. Through her studies she started to observe and question traditional education as she observed children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Maria’s first school was a daycare for children of working city parents. The students were aged three to seven and were pretty much left to their own devices while their parents went to work.
The Development Of The Montessori Method
As Maria worked with the children she introduced activities, letting them help to prepare meals and manipulate learning materials that she had to find or make herself. Using scientific observation, she took note of what worked and what didn’t with the children. She fostered the child’s need for independence and their desire to learn in their own way.
There is more recognition now that we are all wired differently and all have different learning styles, but it is only in recent years that some traditional schools are embracing the Montessori method.
The Effects Of Montessori Education
What happened at Montessori’s school surprised many people. The children who were from disadvantaged backgrounds began to thrive. They showed great concentration, attention, and self-discipline. Montessori education and Montessori’s philosophy began to attract more attention from prominent educators. By 1910, Montessori schools had started to pop up throughout Western Europe. In 1911 the first Montessori school in the United States open in Terrytown New York.
Maria dedicated her life to learning more about the child-centred approach to education and she taught and lectured worldwide. She wrote books, (if you are looking for a good place to start, start with The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori). She also developed program to prepare teachers in the Montessori method.
Montessori was also a strong advocate for women’s rights and she wrote frequently on the need for greater opportunities for women. It’s hard to believe that 100 years on and we are still having to fight for those rights.
Living through the Second World War and the hostilities between Italy in Great Britain, Maria Montessori was inspired to include peace education as part of the Montessori curriculum. During the war years, she spent much of her time in India. At the end of the war, she returned to Europe and died peacefully in Amsterdam in 1952.
How to Prepare Montessori Environment at home?
Through her studies, Maria Montessori understood that the child’s environment was important to their learning and independence. This is one of the things I love about the philosophy and that when you start using Montessori at home, you start to see things through a child’s eye.
Embracing her ideas and making changes at home will reap it’s rewards as your kids grow up to be helpful and independent.
From Dr. Montessori’s book The Secret of Childhood, she said
“The first aim of the prepared environment is, as far as it is possible, to render the growing child independent of the adult.”
When you enter a Montessori classroom you will notice the structure and order and the beauty of the environment. It looks very different from a traditional classroom.
Montessori At Home
There are several key components to the Montessori prepared environment.
The idea behind having structure and order in a classroom is so that the child can begin to make sense of the world around themselves. The order of the Montessori classroom, as well as Montessori at home, should reflect the order of their universe.
As you know yourself if you are in a calm, beautifully decorated room you feel less chaotic, calmer, and more able to focus. Children are very much the same. Often in traditional classrooms, the rooms are decorated with numerous brightly colored posters. The classrooms feel bright and fun but somewhat chaotic. Montessori classrooms tend to have very open, organized shelves and focus on beautifully crafted furniture and objects.
The learning environment for Montessori at home should be uncluttered and well maintained. I like to add in the less is more approach.
When we teach Montessori at home we should follow the same principles. The home should be uncluttered and well-organized.
As a mom, who works with moms I know this sounds like a lot of hard work and extra stuff for Mom to do. However, the reality is that’s if you create a beautifully prepared environment, and train your children to respect the environment. It is easy to maintain and clean.
You will find that you lose fewer things if items are always put in the proper place. This is where Montessori becomes a way of life, not just a teaching philosophy.
If you already feel overwhelmed just reading this. Don’t panic! Start small with just one small area of your room dedicated to Montessori education, then build on that. You can start with just one small shelf.
One of the important factors in the prepared environment is freedom. This is giving the child freedom to explore, freedom to interact socially, and freedom of movement. Montessori children can decide where they would like to work. Montessori at home is the same. Often children choose an area on the floor where they will roll out to a mat to mark their workspace.
Using Mats For Montessori School At Home
The mats are important as they define the working space, and it teaches classmate/siblings to respect the area. Mats are rolled out to start the work. They are never stepped on! Children are taught to walk around the mat and when the work is finished they roll the mat up and put it away.
If you have more than one child at home, I highly recommend introducing the mat, it also helps with keeping small toys under control… Lego, I am looking at you!
Also in a Montessori school at home, the prepared environment supports social interaction giving children the freedom to interact with their peers developing a sense community
Using breakable objects for Montessori school at home
Maria Montessori also believed that children are capable of looking after delicate objects if they are given the chance to do so. In Montessori education, children use glass and real-life objects rather than plastic and toys.
When parents are teaching Montessori at home, they often worry that children will cut or hurt themselves if they use real glass or real plates. The reality is that children learn that items will break if handled incorrectly. It’s a part of Montessori education. When children are given plastic cups and plates to use, if they drop a plate it creates a mess. However, they don’t break the plate.
If a child uses a ceramic plate and drops, they will learn that the plate will break. From that lesson, the child learns to be more careful and more caring with the objects that they come into contact with.
When you are at starting phase of Montessori school at home, grab some cheap plates/dishes that don’t matter if they get broken. In all my time doing this, we have only had one broken plate casualty.
One thing to keep in mind is that you need to teach your kids what to do if they do break something.
- To stand still and call for help.
- Not to touch anything without an adult helping them.
- And it’s important for the adult to react in a calm manner, not to get angry. If the child thinks the adult will get angry they are more inclined to clean up by themselves and that is when they are at risk of cutting themselves.
Montessori from home require right size objects
One of the things to pay attention to when you are creating a Montessori school at home is that you find objects that are child size. Maria herself cut down brooms etc. so that they would be the right size for the child to use. It is difficult for a small child to use an adult size piece of equipment, and this is what causes many accidents and frustrations.
These days it’s easy to find child-sized equipment from places like Ikea such as this knife and peeler set. Amazon like this kids cleaning set and places like the dollar store or Daiso also stock child size equipment from teacups to chopping boards.
What does “Follow The Child” mean?
Let’s bust some montessori education myths here. Follow the child does not mean allowing the child to do anything that they want to.
Follow the child means observing where the child is in the developmental time-table and providing them with what they need to learn at a greater and deeper level.
Montessori believed that children instinctively know what they need to learn and this is our job to guide them and provide them with what they need.
Often children will return to a piece of work and do it repeatedly even though the teacher / parent thinks that the child already understands that piece of work. This child instinctively knows that they need to practice to get a greater understanding of the work. Often kids get rushed through to hit the next target, to check all the boxes of development for their age rather than being allowed to go at their own pace.
As parents when doing Montessori from home, we need to pay attention to what is grabbing our child’s attention, what are they showing interest in developmentally? What stage are they at?
When a child shows an interest in counting for example that is the time to introduce mathematical concepts. If a child is going through the language explosion then we need to provide more language materials.
Can you use “follow the child” with an older child?
Absolutely, we still use the follow the child message with my teenage son. There is a worry that children are not going to learn what they need to learn if they are not following a strict curriculum.
Yet when a child is diving in deep to a subject they are interested in, the maths, language, science and anything else connected takes care of itself.
Say your child loves cooking. They learn a huge range of skills when in the kitchen.
- Following instructions
And then they will often take things deeper, why does a certain reaction happen? Where does cocoa come from? What happens if you mix this instead of that?
Yes, they need some guidance to start with but allowing them to ask questions, experiment, try out new ideas, and to fail… are all important parts of the Montessori education process.
If you are teaching Montessori in the home, you will need to look into your states or country requirements regarding curriculum. Some places are much stricter than others. But you can still follow the child and fulfill the requirements. It may need adding something extra to your daily studies but it can most definitely be done.
In fact, if your child is focused on a specific topic, you can often bring in subjects such as science, math, language as part of a project-based learning activity.
Montessori from home materials
Montessori designed the materials used in a classroom with a specific purpose in mind. Each piece of equipment has a specific job. Montessori materials often have a secondary purpose too.
For example, the knobbled cylinders teach the child about sizing and depth but also the small knob on the top of the cylinder is designed to strengthen the child’s pincer muscles. These are the muscles used in holding a pencil, there are lots of other pincer strengthening activities here.
One of the big worries I hear from parents while teaching Montessori in the home is that they can’t afford to buy all the traditional Montessori materials. I have good news for you, you don’t need to! If you understand what the equipment is used for and what the outcome of using the equipment is, then you can create your own version of it at home.
There are reasons why the Montessori equipment is designed in the way it is designed, and this needs to be taken into account. If you are teaching Montessori in the home and not in a full classroom of children. Then often it is not financially worth the price of paying for the traditional equipment.
I do recommend learning about the equipment, what it’s purpose is and then get creative, how can you ustilize what you have at home?
Creating Montessori Education Equipment At Home
In my book Montessori Inspired Activities For Pre-schoolers I share 50+ different activities to do at home without buying specific Montessori equipment.
When you follow the child ask yourself
- What does my child need?
- Which Montessori equipment will help my child attain these goals?
- How can I recreate that equipment at home?
For example, I didn’t want to buy the wooden color tablets, they were expensive and seemed pointless considering I only had one child to use them with. I have design skills so I created printable ones (you can get the download here).
Another idea is to use Lego, most people have Lego anyway. It’s a versatile toy where you can create the number rods, colour sorting, size sorting or use it for fractions etc.
Teaching Montessori at School vs Montessori From Home
I feel this is an important concept that doesn’t get mentioned much. The difference between teaching Montessori at a school Montessori from home. When you look at a Montessori classroom you need to understand that they are preparing the environment for up to thirty children. Whereas, when you are teaching Montessori in the home, you may only have two or three kids or maybe more!
In a Montessori classroom the equipment is for children of a certain age range for example the prepared environment will be prepared for children of say, 3 to 6 years old.
And because children work independently that needs to be enough equipment for each child to be able to work either by themselves or in a very small group.
At home, you just need to cater for your kids.
How to maintain the cost when teaching Montessori in the home
When teaching Montessori in the home you only need enough activities for your children. And they only need to be items that are suitable for your child’s developmental stage. This will mean you will need to update and bring in fresh activities on a more regular basis than in a classroom. But this in reality means just adding one or two new activities a week. Like I mentioned before, often, children need to repeat the activity several times so that they have grasped the information at a deeper level. It is OK to have an activity on the shelf for more than one day!
We had a few key pieces of Montessori equipment, one being the metal insets. They stayed on the shelf for several years. As my son got older, he used the equipment in different ways and so it was a piece of equipment that grew with him.
Purchasing Montessori Equipment
When you are deciding which pieces of equipment to purchase for Montessori education keep that in mind. Ask yourself whether it is something that will be used just for a short amount of time whether it is something that the child can keep going back to you and learning more about.
The other question is to ask, is whether making equipment is worth your time and effort? For example, it takes several hours to research and create a set of Montessori 3 part cards but you will probably find that someone out there on the internet has already created the set you need and is either selling it for a few bucks or even giving it for free. So before you spend time creating something, have a quick google first.
Alternatively, what can you use instead? We did have a moveable alphabet but sometimes my son would get the scrabble board out and use that for language work instead.
Montessori Planes Of Development
“The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.” – Dr. Maria Montessori
Montessori discovered that children develop in full different planes of development. It is because of this that children in a Montessori classroom are of mixed ages. Usually, the classrooms are split from zero to three years old. Then three to six years old.
This is great for the children because a younger child learns from older peers and older children become teachers. It also means that children are not focused on setting age-related goals which is very relevant in a traditional classroom.
This allows children to develop at their own pace.
Each plane of development has its own sensitive period. These stages of phases of learning are when children go under a fundamental developmental change.
Montessori For Toddlers
The First Plane: Birth to Age 6 (Early Childhood)
Montessori described the first plane of development as the absorbent mind. This means that the child is soaking up everything that is happening around them. Children up to the age of six have an enormous capacity for learning. At this stage, they are also learning to become fiercely independent, as you will know when your toddler exclaims “I can do it myself”
During this time children have sensitive periods for grace and courtesy, music, language social relationships, movement and mathematics. There are tips here on raising an independent child.
Most Montessori education information out there focuses on this first plane of development.
Montessori Education For Elementary School. The Second Plane: Ages 6–12 (Childhood)
The second plane of development is when the child reaches the age of 6. But as each child develops differently, they don’t suddenly wake up on their 6th birthday in the next plane of development!
When children do get to this stage they have a desire for intellectual independence, they want to think for themselves. During this stage, they develop a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. It is during this stage that, traditionally, we teach the child about cosmic education, it teaches them to explore their place within the world and appreciate how everything is interconnected.
Montessori Education For Teenagers The Third Plane: Ages 12–18 (Adolescence)
When you come across Montessori information is often focuses on the first plane of development. This is because there are far more preschool Montessori establishments. It is often more difficult for Montessori schools to exist when children get to school age because of the government’s red tape and the contrast between a traditional school and a Montessori style school. However, parents can keep teaching Montessori from home.
By the time the child reaches the teenage years exploring deeper moral and social values and critical thinking is expected.
By this stage the child has a desire for emotional independence. Teenagers often want to be more self reliant and to be treated like an adult. But still their body is developing, they are experiencing hormonal changes so they still need emotional and intellectual support.
Montessori Education For Adults. The Fourth Plane: Ages 18–24 (Maturity)
There is little written about the fourth plane of development maturity. This is where the young adult is working on their spiritual self. This stage is marked by a desire of finding financial independence. They want to earn their own money and spend it as they wish. It is said at this stage that the young adult starts to question what they have to give to the world? or where their place is in the world?
“The sensitive period: it comes for a moment but its benefits last for a lifetime” ~Maria Montessori
The Montessori sensitive period is when the child focuses on a specific skill or area of knowledge. During the first plane of development, this is when the most sensitive period occurs.
Montessori identified six sensitive periods:
Sensitivity to Order ~ 1 – 3.5 years
Have you ever had your toddler have a meltdown for no apparent reason?
Sometimes it is due to this period of sensitivity. Children are learning about their environment. If you have changed things (moved the furniture) then their idea of order has been disrupted. But they don’t understand why or are able to communicate what has them unsettled… hence the tantrum
Often kids will line things up, this does not mean your child is OCD! It just means that they are going through a sensitive stage for order.
This is the time when babies and toddlers are categorizing and organizing their experiences. If you are teaching Montessori from home, an ordered environment and established routine and consistency with ground rules are important during this stage.
Sensitivity to Language ~ 0 – 6 years
Speaking ~ 7 months – 3 years
This is when your child is developing speaking skills, learning how to use their tongue and lips to pronounce different sounds. Speaking clearly, using real words and reading to them often will help them develop their speaking skills.
Added note, it is also beneficial to introduce a second language early if you are planning to raise a bilingual/multilingual child. If you want to know more about that, watch my interview with Rebecca Green, a speech language therapist.
Letter Shapes & Sounds ~ 2.5 years – 5 years
During this period of sensitivity, children become interested in letter shapes and sounds. If you are teaching Montessori education from home, this is when you should introduce activities such as the sandpaper letters and phonics, matching letters, and its sound.
Writing ~ 3.5 years – 4.5 years
In Montessori education, writing is taught before reading. This is because when you write you are building the word and it’s easier to mentally construct something than it is is to deconstruct.
Before this period children do a lot of work on pincer activities to strengthen the pincer muscles, so that when they start to write, they can do so unhindered.
Reading ~ 4.5 years – 5.5 years
From the basis of writing the child can then learn to read. Reading aloud to your child will help them improve their own reading skills.*
With all Montessori activities, when they are laid out for the child to use, the presentation always goes in order from the top left to the bottom right – the way we read and right. The exception is if you are teaching in a different language where the language is read right to left.
*Here is a perfect example of “follow the child” at the age of 20 months my son showed an interest in letters, by 2 he was reading 3 letter words and by 4 he was reading chapter books in English and taught himself Hiragana and Katakana! Although he was interested in writing too, his body hadn’t developed enough for him to do so proficiently. He totally did the whole reading and writing thing the wrong way around in the Montessori world!
Sensitivity to Walking ~ 0 – 6 years
Gross & Fine Motor Development ~ Birth – 2.5 years
Allow your child to strengthen their core muscles, they will do this as they crawl and pull themselves up, sitting unassisted (Bumbo style seats are discouraged as it slows the child from creating the core muscles they need to sit unassisted. The same goes for sit-in baby walkers)
While teaching Montessori at home, Giving the child space to practice walking and having toys that will help develop their pincer grip, fine and gross motor skills is ideal.
Sensitivity to the Social Aspects of Life ~ 2.5 – 5 years
At this stage kids start to take an interest in other children of their own age. This is when they start to develop friendships and join in group play. Until this period, children tend to be together but not play together. Once they reach this stage they will find ways to work and play together, they will also start to become more competitive. This is the stage where learning about winning and losing gracefully is important.
They also start to model their behaviour of their peers. This is the time to be modelling manners and grace and courtesy.
Sensitivity to Small Objects ~ 0 – 5 years
We all know how much small children love small objects. Insects, pebbles, sticks and any small item they find laying about! The child will pick it up and examine it as they make sense of the item, often they will try to put it in their mouth – this is because at this age, their nerves in their mouth are more sensitive than their fingers. The problem here of course is the potential choking issue.
Their fascination with all things small is a way for them to gain a better understanding of their world. Often we are in a rush to get from A to B, it is a great idea for you and the kids to slow down and literally smell the roses. (Or investigate a snail!)
Sensitivity to Learning Through the Senses ~ 2 – 6 years
This is when sensory experiences, smell, taste, sound, weight, touch are heightened. The child uses these senses to classify the world around them. Often toddlers become ‘picky eaters’ this is actually down to the development of their taste buds and the explosion of sensitivity in their mouth.
Sometimes children in this stage will get upset by loud noises or overwhelmed with too much sensory activity at once as their body and sense develop.
My own son went through a stage where he wouldn’t touch anything slimy, it lasted a few months, then he was over it. That’s ok, there are lots of other sensory activities to go at, there is a list of 50+ activities here.
Another example is with leeks, he is not a fussy eater but he went through a stage where he wouldn’t eat leek, it was the texture. If the leek was blending in soup, no problem but a slice of leek, there was no way he was going to eat it.
If your child develops the same sensory issues, try presenting the food in a different way. Help them express what it is they don’t like, ‘yucky’ doesn’t cut it but they might not have the language skills to explain that it’s the slimy texture they don’t like or it tastes spicy. When eating meals use lots of vocabulary to describe what you are eating and how it feels and tastes to you… and remember we all experience things differently!
What’s The Next Step?
Now you have a basic understanding of what Montessori is and you might want to take the next step, where do you start?
Reading The Absorbent Mind is a great starting point. And then if you want to learn how to apply this at home with your family, join Montessori Crash Course. This is the program Deb Chitwood from Living Montessori Now and myself put together. It’s for parents wanting to use Montessori at home or to support their kids that are in Montessori school.
We have a free workshop you can sign up for below…