Freedom Within Limits: The Structure of a Montessori Learning Environment

Written by: Anne Prowant

When parents enter a Montessori classroom, the first thing that might strike them is the seemingly chaotic nature of the classroom. Children are all moving independently around the room, choosing activities, talking with one another, looking out the window, or eating a snack. And the teacher? She’s most likely sitting quietly somewhere, maybe giving a lesson to a child, but not readily visible. For most people, this is the opposite of the learning environment that they grew up with- classrooms full of children sitting at their desks in straight rows, with the teacher at the front of the room leading a lesson. Organized, structured, and disciplined. So when faced with the hum of activity in a Montessori classroom it’s only natural that parents might question how much learning is actually going on in a place where the children seem to be running the show. If everyone is doing their own thing, how can we be sure that anything is actually getting done? The answer is the concept of freedom within limits.

Freedom within limits is the idea that with increasing personal rights comes increasing responsibilities, and is the foundation of any functional society. Take, for instance, owning a car. Adults have the freedom to drive a car because they have taken on the responsibility of getting a driver’s license, following the rules of the road, and keeping the car maintained and insured. Much the same way, in a Montessori classroom children have the freedom to choose their work when they have taken on the responsibility of controlling their bodies, following the rules, and can respect the rights of others. In her book, The Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori asserted, “To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.” With this concept in mind, in the beginning, the teacher wisely limits the freedoms of the children. She expands them only when each child has shown that he can handle the responsibilities that accompany those liberties.

So how does a Montessori classroom develop responsibility within a child so she is able to work independently? Through every aspect of the prepared environment! The entire classroom, also known as the prepared environment, is carefully arranged, and work that is appropriate for each child’s developmental stage is chosen and organized on the shelves. At any given moment there are multiple activities available that will perfectly meet the needs of each individual child. Even where materials are placed on each shelf is a deliberate choice. For instance, did you know that everything on the shelves is arranged from left to right, top to bottom? So as you move from left to right along a shelf, the work gets increasingly complex, until you reach the most challenging work in the bottom right-hand corner. This structure promotes the natural development of the child, and develops self-discipline, even at a very young age.

The Montessori teacher works to gently prompt children, through individual lessons, to educate themselves with the materials. These materials are self-correcting and very attractive to young children (and adults as well!). The key is that the child is able to make his own work choices from the plethora of lessons that he has received. This is why Montessori teachers are often referred to as “guides”. They lead a child to the right work, through the lessons they choose to give the child, that will meet his developmental needs and fulfill his innate desire to learn.

After a child has chosen a work, she is then allowed to practice and experiment with it, and the utmost care is taken not to disturb her once she begins to concentrate. It is through this process that a child begins to develop the building blocks of self-discipline- concentration, coordination, independence and a love of order. And all of this is accomplished without the interference of an adult! This is one way in which the mixed age groupings are crucial to the success of the classroom. Older children set a great example for, and often give lessons to, the younger children, and can help to enforce the rules of the classroom. In return, they feel the satisfaction that comes with being a responsible leader, and are allowed great freedoms as a result.

One question that often comes up is about rules in the classroom. At first glance it might look there aren’t any! This is a common misconception. There are ground rules that are set within each classroom, and the expectation is that each child will follow those rules. So what are they? The rules vary from classroom to classroom, but typically fall under the umbrella of three overarching guidelines: respect yourself, respect others, respect the environment. You can choose your own work, but only if you choose appropriately and respect the materials. You are free to have a conversation with a friend, but only if you respect that friend’s right to work uninterrupted. And you are free to work, but you are not free to avoid work. The teacher watches for this, and is quick to suggest a lesson when she sees children who look like they need something to do.

So if everyone is doing their own thing, how does a teacher keep track of what each child is working on? The answer is careful observation and record keeping. Montessori teachers have developed excellent observation skills, and are trained to recognize when a child is in need of a certain lesson. Daily and cumulative records are kept so each child’s progress can be tracked over time. At any given moment a teacher knows where each child is, what they are working on, and which lesson they will be ready for next. It is in this way that the teacher unobtrusively controls the activity of the classroom, ensuring that everyone is productive and on track developmentally.

Some may say that the Montessori environment has no structure- that it’s just a free-for-all and that no real learning could possibly take place in a classroom that allows children freedom of choice. This could not be further from the truth! Montessori classrooms are thoughtfully arranged, meticulously prepared environments that allow children great freedom when they have proven that they have the self-control necessary to handle those liberties. And as a result the children flourish; developing maturity, self-confidence, and a lifelong love of learning.

It is often said that Montessori is for every child, but it’s not for every parent. What does this mean, and how do you know if Montessori is the right fit for you? Keep an eye out for our next article to find out!