The Montessori Method is a child-centred, educational approach developed by the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori and characterized by an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development.
The major components of a complete and authentic Montessori program:
- mixed age classrooms, with classrooms for children ages 2½ or 3 to 6 years old
- student choice of activity from within a prescribed range of options
- uninterrupted blocks of work time, ideally three hours
- a constructivist or “discovery” model, where students learn concepts from working with materials, rather than by direct instruction
- specialized educational materials developed by Montessori and her collaborators
- freedom of movement within the classroom
- a trained Montessori teacher
Montessori’s education method called for free activity within a “prepared environment”, meaning an educational environment tailored to basic human characteristics, to the specific characteristics of children at different ages, and to the individual personalities of each child.
The function of the environment is to allow the child to develop independence in all areas according to his or her inner psychological directives. In addition to offering access to the Montessori materials appropriate to the age of the children, the environment should exhibit the following characteristics:
- an arrangement that facilitates movement and activity
- beauty and harmony, cleanliness of environment
- construction in proportion to the child and his/her needs
- limitation of materials, so that only material that supports the child’s development is included
Planes of development
Maria Montessori observed four distinct periods, or “planes”, in human development, extending from birth to six years, from six to twelve, from twelve to eighteen, and from eighteen to twenty-four. She saw different characteristics, learning modes, and developmental imperatives active in each of these planes, and called for educational approaches specific to each period.
The first plane extends from birth to around six years of age. During this period, Montessori observed that the child undergoes striking physical and psychological development. The first plane child is seen as a concrete, sensorial explorer and learner engaged in the developmental work of psychological self-construction and building functional independence. Montessori introduced several concepts to explain this work, including the absorbent mind, sensitive periods, and normalization.
Montessori described the young child’s behavior of effortlessly assimilating the sensorial stimuli of his or her environment, including information from the senses, language, culture, and the development of concepts with the term “absorbent mind”. She believed that this is a power unique to the first plane, and that it fades as the child approached age six.
Montessori also observed periods of special sensitivity to particular stimuli during this time which she called the “sensitive periods”. In Montessori education, the classroom environment responds to these periods by making appropriate materials and activities available while the periods are active in the young child. She identified the following periods and their durations:
- acquisition of language—from birth to around six years old
- interest in small objects—from around 18 months to three years old
- order—from around one to three years old
- sensory refinement—from birth to around four years old
- social behavior—from around two and a half to four years old
Finally, Montessori observed in children from three to six years old a psychological state she termed “normalization”. Normalization arises from concentration and focus on activity which serves the child’s developmental needs, and is characterized by the ability to concentrate as well as “spontaneous discipline, continuous and happy work, social sentiments of help and sympathy for others.”