What is Montessori?

Around 100 years ago an Italian physician, Dr. Maria Montessori, went to work with disadvantaged and mentally handicapped children. As a physician, Montessori took an objective look at the development of children. Through her observations, she determined a number of distinct and universal growth characteristics that follow a child throughout its life. In particular, Montessori discovered certain "sensitive periods" throughout life that characterize optimum learning opportunities, periods that allow a child to gather information and learn new concepts and behaviors. Dr. Montessori let the children tell her through their actions where they were in the learning cycle and what they needed most to fuel them on.

She developed numerous hands-on materials, known as manipulatives, that served as physical tools for the children to learn from through use. When her students outperformed traditionally taught students in testing, the Montessori Method was hailed as an education breakthrough. It has since spread worldwide in its implementation, though here in the United States, and in South Carolina in particular, Montessori education has been slow to catch on.

Teaching children through the Montessori Method is almost a misnomer. Montessori teachers are less instructors than they are directors. It is their job to control the classroom environment, provide the necessary resources for the students to use, help guide them into different activities, and step back and let nature take its course.

Children are remarkable little learning machines, capable of gathering massive amounts of information through their variety of senses. Learning comes naturally to a child. Montessori schools provide classroom environments that simply let a child’s curiosity and abilities propel them onward. Children are largely independent and free to make choices in terms of their activities.

"The children are always letting you know what they need," says Jim Young, an elementary teacher at the Montessori Early Learning Center and School of the Arts. Much of the training that Montessori teachers must go through involves learning how to identify certain actions and behaviors of children in order to establish what type of activity or what kind of complexity a child is ready for.

Choice and self-motivation are essential elements in a Montessori education, though each is bound by certain limits. "The curriculum is very structured," says Barb Richstad, a teacher as well as co-founder at the Montessori Elementary School of Columbia.

Much of Dr. Montessori’s work involved developing a very firm set of rules and methods that must be implemented in a classroom in order for this process to work to its fullest. There is an extensive training process that Montessori teachers go through, often lasting several years, in order to become certified instructors in the method. The time and cost of this training is part of why Montessori classrooms are in short supply. It can be an expensive undertaking.

Dr. Montessori found that as children grow they pass through major periods of growth, known as the Four Planes of Development. Children exist in these four planes from birth to 6, from 6 to 12, 12 to 18 and 18 to 24. These six-year periods are defined by both physical structure and cognitive capabilities of children.

At roughly five to six years of age, children undergo physical changes such as getting taller and leaner, losing baby teeth and growing coarser hair. Mentally, children are much more aware of others and are beginning to use their imagination more.

The first six years are characterized by a very self-centered vie of the world. Children’s minds are actively assembling the basic building blocks that will establish learning and thinking patterns that will last a lifetime.

These six-year increments are further broken down into three-year periods: birth-3, 3-6, 6-9, etc. These three year periods also have very distinct physical and cognitive characteristics. Montessori schools typically begin students at age three. Birth to three is reserved for growing and learning in the security of home.

"By the time a child is three, they are ready to take their independence, they’re ready for this environment," says Cheryl Spencer, director of the Columbia Montessori Learning Center. Children find themselves in an environment tailored to their needs. All of the furnishings are small and child-sized. Activities and materials line shelves and walls. Children may be working alone or in groups, at tables or even rugs on the floor. One classroom houses all of the children for the age group.

One of the first things a child learns is responsibility. "When you take something off the shelf, you have to put it back when you’re done," says Jim. Such basic understanding s allow a child more freedom and flexibility in the classroom. "We act as disciplinarians until the child becomes self-disciplined," says Cheryl.

In a Montessori pre-school, children are exposed to the basic learning instruments that underlie the Montessori method. "Hands-on builds concentration," says Cheryl. Manipulatives such as the Pink Tower, the Brown Stair, the Red Rods, Color Tablets, Cylinder Blocks, Sandpaper Letters, Golden Beads, Map Puzzles and a slew of other tools, most of which are imported from Europe, are found throughout the classroom. These hands-on activities are fun, engrossing, and provide children with a physical foundation for otherwise seemingly complicated and abstract concepts. "It’s the process, and not the product," adds Cheryl. "This method enables children to discover things."

The Pink Tower is a series of ten pink blocks which introduce size differences in three dimensions. There are many activities which coincide with the Pink Tower. One of the first involves taking individual pieces of the tower form the shelf to the activity area. Using the fingers, walking between two points, stacking according to size, all of these elements play crucial roles in the whole development of a child. Interestingly enough, the child is learning on his own.

The Trinomial Cube is another such tool. Utilizing various colors and shapes, what begins as a cube assembly puzzle for three-year olds becomes a physical representation of the basic concepts of algebra in later years.

A Montessori class of 6-9 year olds is likely to be an active place. You won’t find children seated in desks facing a teacher, all engaged in the same activity. Instead you may find children gathered in groups figuring through problems and tasks, or perhaps alone in an individual pursuit.

"This is the stage where it is critical for them to develop their social skills," says Jim. At roughly six years of age, children become much more aware of other people. It is natural for them to want to work with and talk with others. That is precisely how the classroom environment is prepared.

There is no patent or copyright on the Montessori method, and the name Montessori can be misused to represent an environment that is not a true Montessori school. In seeking out a Montessori school, look for a setting which involves multi-age classrooms, independent instruction, high use and presence of manipulatives including all of those listed earlier (and more), an orderly environment structured for children with tools and reference materials, and, very importantly, Montessori instructors certified by the AMI (Association of Montessori Internationale), AMS (American Montessori Society), or St. Nicholas (the British training for Montessori).

Jim Young entered Montessori teaching from a background in engineering. He once mentioned how the most efficient engineering is that which fights nature the least, and instead conforms to its forces and uses them to a great extent-the path of least resistance. Jim likens good engineering to the Montessori method of education, not trying to combat the forces of nature, but using them.

As different and unusual as Montessori may seem, the bottom line lies in helping kids master reading, writing and arithmetic, language and reason, to aid them in their life’s pursuit. "Montessori teaches children to learn for life," Cheryl says, "to learn for themselves, not to depend on teachers to teach them everything."

Montessori Early Learning Center

1101 Balsam Rd. Columbia, South Carolina 29210


Ina Lightner Fort, Owner/Principal