Maria Montessori (1870-1952) on whose philosophies Montessori Nurseries are based, worked in the slums of Rome to establish a system of educating young children which is described in detail in her book, The Montessori Method published in 1912.
The Montessori Philosophy
This learning is for children aged 3-7, although this has now been adapted for children of a younger age, and was based on close observation of children in order to better cater for their needs. This priority given to observation has a direct link to today’s Early Years Foundation Stage which places a statutory duty on practitioners to plan for children’s learning based on close observations of what children know and can do, as well as what interests them. Montessori believed in giving young children freedom from the constraints of the ‘desk’ to give them mobility and independence. Along with this independence she believed that young children could be disciplined so that they became conscious of their role within a society.
Montessori developed many activities for children to engage with which developed the skills that they would need to become independent learners. She was an advocate for children having good access to an outside environment where they can learn about nature.
As this system for learning developed so the materials which Montessori used have evolved. Children in nursery are given periods of the day when they engage with ‘work’ activities on their own but with the on-looking support of the adult. The adult’s role is again at the core of the Montessori principle of observation. The children select an activity upon which they are to work and bring it to the table (or wherever is appropriate) and they work on that task on their own. The task is frequently presented for the children to complete on a mat thus defining the task and the ‘work’ area. The children then proceed to carry out the activity and it is the role of the adult to assess when a child is ready to move forward in their learning because they have fully grasped the concept/skill that the activity is promoting.
Many of the activities promote skills which will enable the child to become more independent.
One such activity is the frame which has buttons and buttonholes and other fastenings to encourage children’s independent dressing and undressing.
Another is the presentation of small lidded jars or bottles which are offered to the children without the lids; the activity is for the children to correctly match the lid to the container and then to screw it in place. This again promotes self-help but also involves manipulative learning as well as mathematical correspondence.
In using didactic materials for some activities the Montessori approach leads the child to learn through self-correction. One such activity involves the child in selecting different sized objects to fit into different holes thus learning about dimension.
Montessori believed in educating the senses, not the exploration of the environment using the senses, but the improvement of perception through repetition. One such activity is the Pink Tower, where the child is given 10 pink cubes which are thrown on to a green carpet and then building them up into the tower starting with the largest block.
There are many more activities for the children to engage in and for the adult to observe. At the heart of this method is the child learning skills through play. When observed taking part in these activities children can be seen to have high levels of involvement and concentration, two key elements of a good disposition towards learning.
It is commonly believed that children educated through the Montessori approach have a strong disposition for mathematical learning. It could be questioned, however, that one weakness of the system lies in a child’s creative development. Many nurseries today operate the Montessori principle alongside the statutory document of the English curriculum, the Early Years Foundation Stage.