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Montessori: Philosophy, Education and the Method



Dr. Maria Montessori founded the Montessori Method in Italy in the early 1900s, and her scientific approach to education was shaped around the individual needs of the child. Her goal was to develop the child, and their whole personality through a system that is focused on spontaneous use of the human intellect.

Built on three primary principles — observation, individual liberty, and preparation of the environment — it designed an environment children could freely choose from a number of developmentally appropriate activities.

The method is focused on the role of childhood in the formation of adults; she is a formidable progenitor of so much of today’s thought concerning early childhood education. Her educational views have been very influential in the development of today’s preschools, daycares, and philosophies of early learning.

For Montessori, education is integral to the growth of the child. At the same time, it’s important to note that the philosophy is not restricted to education.

It isn’t easy to spot the teacher in the classroom. There’s no grown-up at the front spouting facts. But if you look closely, you’ll notice someone moving among the students, gently making suggestions, helping children to teach themselves.

This is the heart of what Dr. Montessori believed – that another could teach no human being; that you must learn for yourself or it won’t mean a thing. In the classroom, children get up and move around and let curiosity be their guide. What a novel approach!

And because she believed “the hand is the chief teacher of the brain”, students most often learn by touch – by handling specially designed materials such as golden math beads, sandpaper letters, and wooden maps of the world. The teacher’s job is to show children how to use these materials – then leave them to learn independently.

From watching how effortlessly a child learns to speak, or walk, Montessori concluded that a young child’s mind is like a sponge – she called it “the absorbent mind”. And because it is so absorbent, she called the first six years “the most important period of life; the time when intelligence, man’s greatest tool, is being formed”.

As a result, classrooms often expose children to challenging concepts, earlier than the public-school system does. And they seem to grasp such concepts with the help of special materials. It is through such creative elements of the classroom that the gifted Italian educator continues to promote “the excitement of learning” in new generations of children.


Teaching focuses on the child’s experience, characterized by self-directed activity, where the teacher’s role is more observational than what might be considered traditional or typical.

The teacher is sometimes called a guide in the Montessori philosophy. The environment is adapted to the child and his or her development. Seatwork, as you’d find in your typical public school classroom, plays a less significant role in favor of physical activity and interaction. Emphasis on how students learn is placed on all five senses, not just listening, watching, or reading, like students in a traditional-style classroom, may learn.

Children, from preschool on up, learn at their own pace and how they wish to learn – teachers do not guide students to learn certain things but allow students to make the choices themselves with added support. Schools will separate children into three-year age groups (2½-6, 6-9, 9-12), to create a learning environment where the older children share their knowledge with the younger learners.


If you’re thinking of sending your child to a Montessori school, it’s important that you thoroughly research each school to make sure it is properly accredited. This has allowed schools to use the name even if it isn’t accredited by one of the bodies that oversee Montessori education standards and philosophies, like AMS or Association Montessori Internationale. The free use of the name can lead to slight or extreme variations of the Montessori teaching methods.


The following concepts will play a role in how children learn and their interaction with teachers:

  • The Montessori philosophy is based on the idea children is markedly different from adults.
    Dr. Montessori advocated children’s rights and believed that if children were treated with more respect they would help shape a world as adults that would be a better place to live for everyone.
  • Children should have much more say in what they learn. In fact, they are capable of self-directed learning.
  • The teacher as observer facilitates better ways for the child to direct his or her learning by (for example) providing more material they are interested in. The development of the teacher-student dynamic might be described as moving from “help me to help myself” to “help me to do it myself” and eventually “help me to think for myself”.
  • Children are susceptible to “sensitive periods“. Properly understood and used, these periods can provide great benefit to children if these bursts are not left ignored or lost in adherence to a rigid classroom experience. Capitalizing on the heightened period of attention will help students better control their environment.

The International Montessori Index outlines specific details about the Montessori Method that is worth nothing. There are two three-hour, uninterrupted, work periods each day for students six and under in most elementary schools. Older children schedule meetings or study groups when needed, either with the teacher or with other students. Adults and children respect concentration and do not interrupt someone who is busy at a task. Groups form spontaneously or are arranged ahead by special appointment, and this will rarely take precedence over self-selected work.

Teachers teach students, not correct them. Work submitted by students is not marked up with corrections and red ink but respected as it is submitted. Using the observation of each student, teachers plan projects for each child to help them learn what they may need to improve on. Subjects are not taught in isolation but woven together, and a child can work on whatever they wish at any time.


The teaching ratio for the infant program is one teacher to 3 infants with a maximum of 10 infants in a room, and 5 toddlers up to 1 teacher to a maximum of 15 children in a room. The preschool and JK/SK ratio is 1 teacher to 8 children to a maximum of 24 children. The teacher is trained to teach one child at a time and to oversee a maximum of twenty-four children working on a broad array of tasks.

The basic lessons of math, language, the arts, and sciences, practical life activities, sensorial activities, culture, music and movement are key in guiding a child’s research and exploration, as well as capitalizing on his interest in and excitement about a subject. The teacher does not make assignments or dictate what to study or read, nor does she set a limit as to how far a child follows an interest.


Many Montessori schools have an infant room.
Some of these rooms have children from birth to age 18 months.
It serves as a feeder system to the toddler program.


Montessori toddler curriculum is more learning-focused than mainstream preschool, nursery school, or daycare. Toddlers learn basic cognitive skills through concrete learning. They also start walking, talking, and developing independence and motor skills. They start to develop social skills such as sharing, listening, and impulse control.

The curriculum includes Language Development whereby the introduction of phonics is introduced. Number sense, number recognition, and the association between symbols and quantity are introduced. In the development of their cognitive, physical, and motor skills development, appropriate Montessori apparatus is introduced.

Arts, drama, music, and movement play an integral part in the development of the child holistically, coupled with the introduction of simplified culture and science. The program helps children learn to do things by themselves. One month into the program, the children were putting on their jackets. They put on their shoes as well; this takes patience.

Yet, the program also values the focus on academics.


These programs are sometimes called “Casa Dei Bambini”. These schools start to prepare children for grade school.

CASA start to focus more on academics. The CASA curriculum involves a lot of concrete learning through practical life activities. Children use blocks, spindle boxes, colored rods, sandpaper letters, pink towers, and other material. They also work on their speech and start reading, writing, and math. They refine these skills over the three years.

Teachers may give lessons to small groups of children at this level. They also help them with their work. Some primary schools have an uninterrupted work period, though it may be two hours instead of three. Children become more independent, self-directed, and responsible over the three years.

There are six main areas of the CASA school curriculum: practical life, sensory exploration, language, math, Culture, Science and Technology, and Music and Movement. The classroom is divided up into these areas, with special materials for each.

Many CASA classrooms also educate children in the creative arts, geography, and French. Some have specialist classes and teachers for some of these subjects. Often, globes, maps, songs, and pictures of different cultures are provided to enhance learning.


Fostering an early appreciation of the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) creates a solid foundation on which the child can build as they grow. The introduction to STEAM learning focuses on developing interest in the field, and creating a platform of exploration into these important areas of study. By encouraging interest in this subject matter at an early age, children have strong base on which to base further academic pursuits.


Many Montessori schools offer elementary classes. The elementary program is often divided into two classes: one with student ages 6 to 9, and another with students ages 9 to 13. Since its curriculum covers all 6 of these years, sometimes these two classes are combined into one.

At this level, the focus continues on concrete learning and promoting independence, discipline, and social skills. Most elementary classes have a three-hour uninterrupted work period. At the 6-9 level, though, it may be less than three hours.

There’s also more focus on academics at this level, especially language, reading, math, and science. Students start to move from the concrete to the abstract (and back to the concrete). They also build their reasoning and problem-solving skills through different tasks and projects. Many students find this both challenging and stimulating.

Elementary schools offer more direct instruction and sit-down learning than preschools. Especially at the higher level, teachers sometimes give longer lessons to groups of students or the whole class. These are known as great lessons.

The great lessons tend to be given near the start of the school term and provide the basis for learning throughout the year. They are often on important moments in history such as the beginning of the world, the origin of life, or the story of numbers. They tend to be very engaging and interactive.

Elementary school students often work in small groups on different projects. These projects can be in geography, biology, history, language, science, music, art, and other subjects. Interdisciplinary work is also done, alone or in groups.

Sometimes project work is supplemented with field trips to the library, planetarium, botanical gardens, science centre, factory, hospital, and other places of interest. This allows students to feel connected with people and places and inspires them to make contributions to the world.

Some elementary schools allow time for reading, creating writing exercises, and art projects. And some use computers, whiteboards, and tablets to enhance learning. Use is confined, though, to research tasks about or learning. Traditional classrooms are not set up to capitalize on the relationship between movement and cognition. In contrast, Montessori has movement at its core.

She adds that “The mind and body are closely related, and we learn best when we can move our bodies in ways that align with our cognition. This is no wonder, since our minds evolved for action, for behaving in an environment“.

In “Born to Move, Part 1: Movement and Cognition” (2016), Budding and Flores Shaw describe other benefits of concrete learning. As they point out, it can lead to improved motor control, decoding, and reading skills.

“One of the purposes of the Practical Life activities in a primary (ages 3-6) classroom is to refine movement. And the Sensorial materials are specifically designed to both trains the senses and develop motor control (among other things). For example, the white paper Reading and the Brain: Developing the Reading Circuit (this volume), describes how Sensory materials are used to promote audio and visual acuity to prepare children for reading (among other things). Additionally, movement of the fingers to trace cursive Sandpaper Letters facilitates better learning of letter sounds, which is necessary for decoding and later reading skills.”.


Finally, another common Montessori practice, student-to-student teaching, can pay huge dividends. As Lillard (2005) explains, it’s often most useful for students playing the role of learner. Students playing the role of teacher, though, benefit as well.

“In sum, situations in which children learn from their peers via specific, structured tutoring are beneficial. Tutees are particularly apt to benefit when they are more involved in the task, as they tend to be with peers who are closer in age. Moreover, peer-tutoring episodes benefit both tutor and tutee. Peer tutoring programs can be incorporated into traditional methods of schooling, and they are being used increasingly to the benefit of children in such programs. In Montessori education, they are integral.”

Get in touch with Sunrise Montessori School today for more details.