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Copyright 2001 by ICME


The Montessori Method


Dr. Maria Montessori founded a theory of education that has had a profound influence on the lives of thousands of children throughout the world since the beginning of the 20th Century. She wrote that education should "… help the individual from birth and protect his environment". From this crucial idea the whole of Montessori's theory, her recommendation for educational practice including the organisation of the environment, the curriculum and the important role of the educator, have developed.

The Montessori Method is an approach to education used predominantly in the pre-school field. It is also used at the Junior, Middle and Senior levels. From being rather obscure and elitist, the method has now been widely adopted and there are now well over five thousand Montessori schools in North America, one thousand schools in the United Kingdom and several more thousand throughout the world.

The Montessori approach to education requires that children are placed in a well-planned and structured environment which will meet their individual educational and cultural needs. The children are free to follow their own interests within this planned environment, rather than being forced to learn something that is inappropriate to their developmental stage. The result is that children develop in a natural way and are highly motivated. They develop good discipline and master basic skills, and in many cases earlier than in a more traditional system of education. To bring about these results the teacher is trained in specific skills, the curriculum is carefully planned to reflect the children’s own culture and educational needs, the support materials for the curriculum are specifically Montessori and the outcomes for the children are unique.

There are three basic elements of the Montessori approach to education:


The Structured Environment

This is referred to as the ‘Prepared Environment’ and by this is meant the physical appearance and the arrangement of the learning materials adhering to certain principles which focus on meeting the needs of the ‘whole child’. It is the teacher’s role to prepare and maintain this environment. These principles encompass:

  • freedom of movement and freedom of choice for the children
  • structure and order in the arrangement and sequence of the materials
  • an atmosphere that is attractive, warm and inviting
  • materials that provide active learning experiences
  • vertical grouping (in the age ranges 2˝ to 6 years)
  • a closeness to nature and the natural world and activities and materials that reflect the reality of life, not fantasy

The classrooms are ‘open-plan’ with the learning materials arranged in areas and the children are given freedom to move around and to choose the activities that interest them. For the most part the materials themselves are self-correcting and this gives the children a sense of empowerment and helps them to become independent learners. This type of classroom is different from the traditional adult-centred classrooms where children often participate passively as teachers endeavour to impart knowledge and skills to be learned. The indoor environment is arranged in Montessori areas for a Pre-school classroom (Nursery, Kindergarten 1 and Kindergarten 2) as described below in the Montessori Curriculum:

The indoor environment is arranged in Montessori areas for a Pre-school classroom (Nursery, Kindergarten 1 and Kindergarten 2) as described below in the Montessori Curriculum:

In each Montessori area there are low level shelves which children can reach and where the learning materials are displayed in a sequential order. The children make choices about what they want to do and after the activity they are encouraged to put the materials back in the correct place in readiness for the next child. This external structure and order helps the child build his internal order.

The outdoor environment is important. First and foremost the school should, by preference, be located in a natural environment, with trees, bushes, plants and animals to ensure that the children remain in touch with and close to nature. In addition there will be attractive and safe equipment to encourage the development of different physical skills, as well as to provide opportunities for children to socialise with each other.

The Montessori classrooms are always attractive, warm and inviting and there are plenty of materials which reflect the children’s own culture. However, the classrooms should not be over-stimulating but rather have a calming effect.

The Montessori learning materials are the tools which provide the children with ‘hands on’ active learning experiences. Through this direct experience and the process of discovery and investigation the children gradually progress from the concrete to the abstract. Maria Montessori designed materials for children in the Pre-school and in the Junior school. In the Middle and Senior schools practical investigation and the application of research methods are encouraged.

A Montessori school will have vertical groups. Ideally these age groups will range from 2˝ to 6 years, 6 to 9 years, 9 to 12 years, 12 to 15 years and 15 to 18 years but the arrangement of the age groups will depend on the national requirements of each country and the examination system for which the children are being prepared.

The principle of reality, not fantasy, in the classroom is one of the distinguishing features of a Montessori Pre-school classroom. Montessori’s idea was to teach the children all about how to live in the real world and the Exercises of Practical Life are the first activities that provide these experiences. Children learn how to look after themselves and the environment as well as how to behave socially. In a traditional Pre-school classroom there is usually a ‘home corner’ where the children play-out different aspects of living, but in the Montessori classroom they will actually engage in helping prepare the vegetables for lunch, they will really wash up after the meal and they will really dust and clean their classroom.

The principle of closeness to nature is another distinguishing feature of a Montessori setting. In the classroom the children will have pets for whom they are responsible and plants and flowers to water and tend. In the outdoor area there is a garden plot especially for the children to cultivate where they grow vegetables and flowers.

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The Montessori Curriculum

There is a framework which specifies learning outcomes and the knowledge and skills to be learned. It is divided into the Montessori areas of learning:

  • Practical Life
  • Sensorial
  • Mathematics
  • Language and Literacy
  • Cultural Subjects (which include Geography, History, Natural Sciences, Experimental Sciences)
  • Creative Subjects (Art and Craft, Music and Movement, Drama)

The National or International curricula which are required to be followed in a particular country are taken into consideration when designing a curriculum for a particular school.


The Montessori Teacher

Initially the Montessori teacher carefully observes the children in her class to ascertain the developmental needs of each individual child. Then comes the task of preparing the environment and the materials in it to meet the various needs of the individual children within the group. As the children begin to make free choices and interact and discover the materials, the teacher facilitates and guides their learning. There are some small group lessons when the teacher introduces new concepts and encourages the children to ask questions, investigate and discover new ideas.


As a result, children who experience a Montessori education are highly motivated and learn to be independent, self-confident and self-disciplined. It makes education a source of pleasure for them - something to be sought and enjoyed. Each and all are given the opportunity to develop their own innate abilities to the full potential in an atmosphere where competition is irrelevant and non-existent. As a result they develop drive and a high level of achievement.

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