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What is Montessori? Freedom & Discipline in a Montessori Classroom.


Working as a Montessori teacher, I answered many parent’s questions about the Montessori classroom. What is interesting about Montessori education is even though it has been around for a century, it still presents a level of mystery when it comes to understanding the Montessori curriculum, philosophy and method.   As with any model of education there are criticisms of Montessori education, but I strongly believe that it is the most complete and organized model of education available to preschool children.

The Montessori model of education provides educators with a universal curriculum that has been proven to be effective.  The curriculum addresses important areas such as, peace education/conflict resolution skills, practical life skills, sensorial, math, language and culture.  Montessori addresses the needs of the “whole child” which includes the emotional and the social well being of each child. Montessori education stresses helping children reach their full potential, socially, emotionally and academically.  The following discussion examines two popular misconceptions about Montessori:

1.) Montessori classrooms are too strict and children are not able to play and use their imaginations.

2.) Montessori classrooms are too free and children are not doing any productive work.

Successful Montessori classrooms have the wow factor of “I can’t believe how peaceful it is here,” or “All the children are so busy doing their work independently.”  These types of classrooms demonstrate that a teacher understands the balance between freedom and discipline that is the cornerstone of a successful Montessori environment

Montessori stated, “…the child should be allowed to exercise himself freely in the work organized for him” (Montessori, The California Lectures of Maria Montessori, 1915, p.51).

Children thrive in classrooms and at home where they have prepared Montessori environments.  A prepared environment is a place where children can freely explore and work within clearly defined limits with beautifully prepared activities.  Montessori environments guide each child toward a love of learning, a discovery of oneself and toward reaching his/her full potential.   Children’s imaginations flourish when they are able to peacefully explore reality-based activities.

In a Montessori classroom the first few months are dedicated to the introduction of ground rules and grace and courtesy lessons in order to create a safe and supportive environment for all children.  In Montessori classrooms lessons are taught individually, in small groups and at circle time through the presentations of group lessons and role modeling games.

Children 2.5-6 years of age are just beginning to organize themselves and can become frustrated when they are not successful.  Parents can get frustrated when their children are unable to occupy their free time productively. Children at this age are not developmentally ready to know what types of activities to do on their own that will best benefit them.

It can be challenging for children 2.5-6 years of age to find something to do on their own unless an environment has been properly prepared with interesting activities.  Often in a Montessori classroom you will hear teachers say, “Go and find a work to do,” and the children are capable of finding a work independently.  Montessori teachers are taught to:

1.)  Create a work on a tray or in a basket using natural materials (avoiding plastic) when possible.

Practice with the work before presenting to the child to encourage success.

3.)  Present the work to each child individually, in a small group or at circle time depending on the complexity of the work.

4.)  Invite the child to do a work, “Let me show you colouring with crayons on paper.” 
Or “Would you like to see colouring with crayons?”

5.)  Encourage the child to work independently, “You can use that work anytime you want.”

6.)  Re-present the work to any child who needs another lesson while simultaneously avoiding correction.  Often the child need to be shown how to do something more than once and are supported to repeat the activity as many times as needed.

Maria Montessori differentiated between imagination and fantasy play.  She believed children four or five years old did not have the ability to differentiate between reality and fantasy play.  She felt fantasy play at this age was not developmentally appropriate. This can be seen when your child believes that a stuffed animal can talk because an adult has been pretending to make it talk and children can be frightened of their stuffed animals. She observed that imagination was at its height with children 6-12 years of age.  For children 2.5-6 years of age she believed imagination should be encouraged through reality-based activities.

The child uses his/her imagination when provided with the space and the freedom to explore Montessori materials within a peaceful environment. We cannot even begin to guess at the workings of a child’s mind and what transpires in the imagination of the child at any given moment.  To see the workings of the mind of the child imagining a new idea is not possible unless he/she can verbally express it.  We tend to think of imagination as only being associated with free play but Montessori education encourages imagination through reality-based activities.  In other words a child can build on a concept already grounded in reality.

Freedom in a Montessori environment encourages; decision-making, independence, confidence and helps children discover what activities interest them.  The most successful Montessori classrooms are places where children succeed in combining freedom of choice within a structured, academically rich prepared environment.

“Children have free choice all day long.  Life is based on choice, so they learn to make their own decisions.  They must decide and choose for themselves all the time…They cannot learn through obedience to the commands of another”(Maria Montessori).

Children thrive in prepared environments when they have a choice of activities.  They learn best when they can be independent, concentrate, and organize themselves and their work freely in a structured classroom or in an at home Montessori environment.

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