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The Magic of Montessori Demystified: The Environment

March 6, 2018

When I moved to Atlanta, I knew nothing about Montessori. I’d come from Massachusetts five years prior, having only heard rumblings about the subject. According to those rumblings, it was some sort of New Age, hippie philosophy.

I’d applied for two jobs: a position with an insurance agency and a school whose ad I found in the depths of somewhere most go in search of their dream job: Craigslist. After spending two minutes at the insurance agency, I left before meeting with anyone. At the time, I was still on my mom’s health insurance. My idea of car insurance was driving around carefully, silently praying I didn’t get rear ended. I then proceeded to the Suzuki School, which advertised itself as a Montessori school. I got the impression that, if they signed their child up for a Montessori school, the parents felt one step closer to being in an exclusive club including posh celebrities like Prince William and Princess Kate. I quickly realized there was more to Montessori than it’s chic name and following. Like love or magic, it’s one of those things you have to experience to believe and once you do; and like a vegan or Crossfitter, you won’t be able to stop talking about it.

Walking through the halls of Suzuki, it’s not uncommon to see parents gazing through the one-sided windows in shock. They watch amazed as their child not only sits at the table eating lunch for 30 minutes without bouncing around, but scrapes her own plate, washes her dishes, sprays, and sweeps under the table when she is finished. Parents wonder what sort of sorcery is this that Suzy is independent, responsible, and focused at school but can’t sit in her chair for 30 seconds at home. They feel like mortals trying to understand this mystical, magical, Montessori world.  

Children have an innate desire to learn. They soak in their environment, positive or negative, like sponges. Rather than interfere and try to mold little people into what society deems as desirable, Montessorians create the perfect conditions where the child can concentrate and explore freely, revealing himself as an individual based on his interests and unique strengths. The classroom has freedom within limits; boundaries not barriers.

A Montessori classroom has no posters decorating the walls or alphabet loudly displayed along the edges of the ceiling where the child can barely see it. The rooms are decorated with framed Van Gogh or Da Vinci paintings, children’s artwork, family pictures, and plants displayed at their eye level so they can revel in beauty without being bombarded with distractions. Teachers minimize interruptions and protect a 3-hour work cycle creating an environment ideal for the child to concentrate. When a child concentrates on interesting, attractive work that is meaningful to him, he can become his best self.

Lessons are arranged on the shelf in order from least difficult to most challenging and every lesson has countless extensions so the teacher can adjust to meet each child’s needs. The teacher presents a lesson to a child one-on-one or in small groups first, but each material has a control of error. When Mark works independently on the Spindle Game in Math he has to count the correct amount of spindles for each numeral 1-10. There are only enough spindles to fit correctly in each space. If he gets to 10 and counts out only 9 spindles, he will realize he made a mistake somewhere earlier. He may not realize or correct his mistake right away, and that’s okay. Children often need weeks or months of practice with the same material before they master it. Good Montessori teachers allow them the time and space to do so. Montessori teachers don’t step in and correct. It is more powerful for the child to correct himself, than be told he has made a mistake or given the answer.

Traditional settings often require children to sit at a table or desk for extended periods of time listening to a teacher at the front of the room. They also typically deliver a bulk of instruction at Circle Time where everyone is expected to learn the same thing at the same time. Montessori materials are hands-on, require movement, and allow for children to engage in what interests the individual. The Red Rods and Pink Tower, for example, develop the child’s senses. Children arrange the pieces from largest to smallest or longest to shortest, developing their sense of order, refining their movements, and honing concentration. The child uses their brain and body in harmony, directing their energy in a purposeful way to fully absorb the concept. The materials also force the child to cross the mid-line, engaging both sides of their brain.

This week we explored the environment and materials piece of Montessori magic, stay tuned next time where we begin to demystify the idea of concentration, positive discipline, and the child’s path to self-mastery!

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