Q. How does one explain the Montessori Early Years curriculum to parents? In answering this question
The Montessori methodology was developed by Maria Montessori over 100 years ago. It is an approach that values the human spirit and the development of the whole child across all areas, physical, social, emotional and cognitive. All children are unique, with different interests and abilities. The Montessori approach towards learning supports this individuality, by understanding and catering for each child’s needs. The process towards developing this individual way of learning involves careful child observations and individual planning for each child. These techniques enable teachers to tune into and cater for the unique characteristics of each child. The children become enticed in and excited by their learning, as their changing interests and progress are continually monitored and provided for.
The preparation of the Montessori classroom is the key element of Montessori teaching, in order to make it as enticing and nurturing as possible. The Montessori work cycle is a long period of uninterrupted time, usually between 2½ and 3 hours long, within which there is balance between both child- and teacher-initiated activities. This practice provides children with the necessary time needed to repeat activities in order to refine their skills and understanding, and in turn helps them to develop concentration and decision-making skills. There is a great emphasis on care of the environment and consideration for others. Children are introduced to new materials by the teacher or independently select an activity of their choice. They have the choice of working either on floor or table mats in order to create their own individual work space, within which they can invite others to work with them. Once they have finished working with their activity, children are expected to ensure the material has been packed away tidily and returned to the shelf as they found it ready for the next person to work with.
Another crucial part of the Montessori environment is the freedom that a child is exposed to; however, this works only within the boundaries that are in place – Montessori actually saw freedom with no limits as abandonment. The boundaries are named Ground or Golden Rules and are discussed with the children and implemented from day one. When the children are old enough, they actually help to brainstorm the Golden Rules alongside the class teacher. This makes the rules more significant to the children and helps them to feel that their opinions and ideas are valued and respected. The Golden Rules establish a peaceful and respectful classroom within which the children feel safe and are able to flourish.
There are six Areas of Learning within the Montessori curriculum, Practical Life, Sensorial, Maths, Literacy, Cultural and Creative. Each of these areas support the seven Areas of Learning and Development the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) is made up of. Alongside this the core principles and ethos of the Montessori approach help to further support children towards achieving the milestones laid out in the EYFS. The Montessori curriculum uses specially designed materials and resources to foster a love of independent learning. Within a Montessori classroom, the materials are provided on individual shelves, each focussing on a specific area of the Montessori curriculum. These are a key element in the environment, as the child learns through the materials. Children learn better by doing and through their own experiences, as opposed to passively learning through simply watching and listening to the teacher.
In the Practical Life area, children carry out everyday activities such as sweeping, pouring, threading, or preparing. Many of the materials on this shelf are items children will have had previous experience of seeing at home. This familiarity often makes this area one of the first children like to explore when new to a Montessori classroom. These activities are predominantly designed to help children achieve independence as they learn skills that enable them to do things for themselves. The main objective of these materials is to support Physical Development (PD) – one of the EYFS Prime areas of Learning and Development – as many of them help children to refine their fine motor skills. Activities such as transferring with tongs and pegging for example help to develop children’s pincer grip. Some of the materials help children to develop the specific skills needed to complete daily tasks independently. The dressing frames are a clear example of this; they support children towards being able to dress themselves independently through practising with zips, buttons and buckles. As children refine these life skills and develop independence, their self-esteem grows, the materials in this area therefore also support the area of Personal Social and Emotional Development (PSED), another Prime Area of Learning and Development as outlined in the EYFS.
The Sensorial section of the Montessori curriculum allows children to understand their environment while learning through their senses. Each piece of material has one isolating quality, such as colour, weight, size, shape, texture, sound or smell. Many of the materials are early introductions into Maths-based activities such as pairing and grading of colour, shape and weight. Children learn about these areas in a very practical way, as they touch and interact with the materials. Montessori saw the hands as a powerful pathway to the brain. Engaging children’s hands and minds together enables them to develop deep muscular impressions of shapes, size and different consistencies.
The development and understanding of mathematical concepts is further supported through the Montessori Maths materials. Children learn to recognise and order numbers and count out matching physical quantities using an array of beautiful and enticing materials. Sandpaper textured numbers are one of the earliest Maths materials that engage the child’s tactile sense, helping them to develop a deep impression of what the different numbers feel and look like. This supports them with their formation when they begin writing numbers. The materials also introduce children to a range of concepts such as addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. By working with these concrete materials, children are able to see and understand these operations through their own experiences. When children are ready, they begin recording the answer to sums and even writing out their own sums independently.
The Montessori Literacy shelf provides a series of materials that gradually help children towards learning to read and write words independently. Children start off by learning the individual letter sounds (phonemes) and what each letter (grapheme) looks like. The ‘Sandpaper Letters’ are one of the main materials used in developing these skills, as children trace over the individual letters and say the name repeatedly, again engaging the tactile sense in order to form muscular impressions of the different letter formations. Once children have shown that they have acquired this knowledge, they gradually move through the Literacy series. They start with the ‘Pink Series’ which introduces three-letter phonetic word building, blending and eventually reading. As children become competent they then move onto the next series. The materials become more challenging and introduce different grammatical concepts as the child works through them.
The Cultural section of the Montessori curriculum introduces children to a broad range of topics, such as geography, history, zoology, astronomy and botany to name a few. This area is closely linked with the EYFS in the area of Understanding of the World. Exploring the materials available on the cultural shelf and participating in different learning opportunities focussed on this area, helps the children to better understand and make sense of the world around them. It invites discussions around similarities and differences and provides opportunities for children to make links across numerous areas. Children also become aware of their importance and that they have a part to play and contribute as a citizen of the world. Maria Montessori created Cosmic Education to give a set of principles that would guide teachers in their efforts to nurture the spirit of the child and to encourage their desire to explore and respect the world in which they live. Montessori felt that this would empower the natural instincts of the child and give them the connections that they need to gain a balanced impression of the world. This approach promotes the human values of democracy, rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.
The Creative shelf predominantly focuses on nurturing children’s creativity whilst also supporting the development of fine motor skills. It is interlinked with the EYFS Specific Area of Learning known as Expressive Arts and Design. In the Montessori classroom children are able to choose from a wide variety of resources on the Creative shelf in order to create their own pieces of art. This gives children the freedom to experiment with their individual thoughts and ideas. This area is also about creating rich opportunities for children to engage in different types of free play. Play is a crucial part of the early years as it supports all areas of development – particularly communication and social skills – as children learn to communicate effectively, take turns and compromise in order for play to flow successfully. Children are also encouraged to express themselves spontaneously by providing opportunities and materials for music and dance.
One of the most crucial areas of a child’s development is Personal Social and Emotional Development (PSED). The Montessori approach is wholeheartedly built around this understanding. If the importance of PSED is not a main focus and catered for, then all other areas of learning will be impacted. Children learn best when they are happy and comfortable in their surroundings. Only then will they have the confidence to explore, experiment and not be afraid to make mistakes. This is not an area that can be supported predominantly through materials provided on a shelf, but instead through the core values and interactions that are embedded and built upon daily. The Montessori approach helps children to feel like valued and respected members of the school community. Children develop independence through the skills they acquire that enable them to do things for themselves and others. Through individual planning children develop and learn at their own pace. This allows them to be proud of their achievements and therefore builds their self-esteem. The Montessori environment also nurtures the lifelong skills of making good and well thought-through choices, consideration for others, using mistakes as valuable opportunities for learning and developing self-discipline. At the core of the Montessori philosophy is children’s happiness, which is linked directly to having a positive self-image and a sense of belonging and purpose within the world around us, something we all wish for our children to accomplish in life.