are our most precious gifts in life! Each child must be treated as the most important entity in the whole world, should be treated with respect and dignity, warmth, patience, kindness, gentleness and within a genuine philosophy that sees each child as a small miracle bringing the most unique combination of talents and abilities and psychic energy that will forever change our world and all who will come into contact with this child and eventually, this adult!
Is it not then our moral obligation to insure that each child be provided with the most optimal conditions, with a warm and nurturing environment in which a child can grow and develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, cognitively, socially, and spiritually? Dr Maria Montessori thought so. Maria Montessori was a pioneer in the area of early education, and her educational philosophy, teaching methods, concepts of child development, whole-child approach to learning was well ahead of her time. In fact, it has taken a century for society to catch up, if you will, with her basic premise that “..education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.” Similarly, the educational community has just come to realize that the early, formative years of development are indeed the most important in developing the skills, attitudes, awareness of relationships in our world, self-confidence, self-esteem, independence, that provide the building blocks for the remainder of that child’s life, and in no small fashion, may even dictate the success and individual fulfillment of that child’s life!
Within the vast history of humanity, there have been only a small number of human beings that have had a profound effect on mankind and changed the course of society with their intellects or abilities, such as Shakespeare, Einstein, and Michelangelo. Dr Maria Montessori must be included in this select group of individuals for her work and foresight in the area of not art or mathematics or drama but in the most important endeavor of all – the successful development of the human mind and the child, for we all know that the children are indeed the future of our world.
Another equally important principal concerns the development of the mind and intellect of a child at certain ages. Dr Montessori refers to the “sensitive periods” at certain ages in a child’s life when they are most receptive to, and indeed have an insatiable hunger for, the acquisition of some particular knowledge or skill. In terms of early childhood, a child’s need to acquire:
- ORDER is from two to four years
- MOVEMENT is from birth to one and a half years
- SMALL OBJECTS is from two to four years
- GOOD MANNERS peaks at three years
- LANGUAGE peaks at one and a half years but continues throughout life
- REFINEMENT OF SENSES begins at three years
- WRITING peaks from three and a half to four and a half years
- READING peaks from four and a half to six years
- MUSIC peaks from birth to two years.
From birth to three years old, a child is gathering information from the world around them. From three years old to six years old, a child is taking all that information and attempts to sort and classify it, hence the need for order in their life at this “sensitive period”.
“The world of the child”, say Montessori educators, “is full of sights and sounds which at first appear chaotic. From this chaos the child must gradually create order, and learn to distinguish among the impressions that assail her senses, slowly but surely gain mastery of herself and her environment.”
Perhaps the most important premise of Montessori philosophy is that children are natural learners, learning from the minute they awake in the morning until they go to sleep at night. They have “absorbent minds” like sponges. They learn by imitation and they will repeat a process over and over again until they master the skill. Furthermore, every child is born with gifts and abilities and the human potential to learn independently from her environment to become a successful part of society. Therefore, the teacher is “inside the child”.
The Montessori classroom then is a “prepared environment” wherein children can learn at their own pace, choosing which skill and concept they need to work on to satisfy their inner need for development. A Montessori teacher must “trust” the child’s individual need for learning by providing the learning materials and letting the child use their senses to observe, explore and master these materials. The child is teaching themselves the skills and concepts.
What should the Montessori classroom look like, then? It should be filled with warmth and beauty, and reflect both nature and a natural order of things. There must be an ambiance of respect and acceptance as well as individuality. There must be materials and activities which fosters their cognitive-developmental learning by providing them with learning situations that spark their curiosity, challenge their intellect, develop their critical thinkings skills and expand their horizons. Children will follow their own inner direction and learn by doing! Because of the individual choices that a child is able to make with his learning and his thinking, he will slowly and steadily develop his ability to be an “independent thinker” who is capable of controlling and designing his own destiny in life.
To quote Maria Montessori in her book Education for a New World,
..(children learning in a Montessori environment growing into adulthood will produce) the raising of a new (person) who will not be the victim of events, but will have the clarity of vision to direct and shape the future of human society.
Another most important facet of a Montessori classroom is a mixed age group of students. Children learn from one another in a most natural fashion. Younger children imitate the older children and model their behavior , while older children develop empathy toward their younger counterparts and enjoy teaching them and helping them to acquire their skills.
(The concept of the traditional schools separating children by grades and ages developed during the “Industrial Revolution” when factories were invented to produce goods faster and at a reduced cost, utilizing the assembly line process. Horace Mann, a Massachusetts educator and supporter of public education, visited Prussia during this period and observed these schools separated by ages and brought this concept back to America. Thus, the traditional school concept was born and continues to this day, with the objective of educating students faster and at a reduced cost. In essence, the traditional school is not unlike a factory of students.)
Montessori philosophy respects the child’s internal direction to learn skills and concepts according to their developmental needs and interests, and in a cooperative environment of learners where one’s pace of learning can respond appropriately to one’s individual need to either take more time to acquire a skill and internalize a concept, or to perhaps proceed to the next level of skills and concepts at an accelerated rate.
Finally, the last but certainly not least characteristic of a Montessori classroom is the inclusion of peace education, and conflict resolution. Children learn to use their words to describe their feeling and resolve their disputes, and every classroom has a peace corner dedicated to this endeavor. Children are able to function in their own society of cooperative learners, developing mutual respect for one another that will only continue more-so into their adult lives.
Carol Murphy Wishoski
Owner and Director
Rockland Montessori School