A Montessori Mini-Dictionary


Dr. Maria Montessori created her methodology over a century ago, and those of us who study her work and practice her ideas know it really works for children, even all these years later.  Like any specialized approach or body of work, Montessori education incorporates unique terminology.  Curious to learn more about what we mean when we say normalized, concrete and abstract, or false fatigue?  Read on to learn more (and bookmark this post for future reference)!

Casa dei Bambini

This was the name of the first school Dr. Montessori opened in Rome, Italy.  It translates to children’s house, and references a Montessori class for 3-6 year olds.  Other names for classes for this age group include casa, primary, children’s house, or early childhood.  Casa classes are a combination of preschool and kindergarten.

concrete & abstract

Dr. Montessori believed that “the hand is the instrument of the mind.”  She understood that children learn best by doing first and internalizing later.  In Montessori classrooms, we give children specialized learning materials that they manipulate with their hands to begin grasping various concepts.  Over time, they use materials that are less concrete, and require more abstract thinking, until they are eventually able to master a skill without the use of any material at all.   

control of error

One hallmark of a Montessori education is supporting children to become independent learners.  Most of the materials children use in our classrooms incorporate a control of error; that is there is only one way to correctly use the material.  If a child uses a material incorrectly, they will not be able to complete the activity, and will understand they have made a mistake somewhere along the way.  An opportunity is provided naturally: instead of a teacher correcting a child and telling them what to do differently, the child is able to self-assess and determine what changes they need to make on their own.

cosmic education

During the elementary years, children begin seeking out answers about the universe and their place in it.  It is our job to provide children with lessons and experiences at this age that aim to satisfy their curiosity, and to give them a deeper understand of the interconnectedness of all things.  We call this broad study cosmic education.  Elementary classrooms use special impressionistic lessons to inspire children as they explore concepts such as the creation of our universe, the evolution of life on earth, the evolution of humans, and the origins of math and language.


This was the name Dr. Montessori gave to her ideas about education for adolescents.  The German word for Earth-Children, she felt we should focus less on testing and college preparation and more on self-sufficiency.  Erdkinder programs are traditionally run as farms that serve as micro-economies, with the students running and managing all aspects of operations.  Today, some Erdkinder programs interpret the ideas differently, with students running a variety of small businesses themselves.  Traditional learning is also an element of the program, and real-life experiences are often closely connected to any classroom experiences.

false fatigue

In Montessori classrooms we set aside a large chunk of time (3 hours for children 3 years of age and older) each day in which they receive lessons and work independently.  (Learn more about this in the definition of work period below.)  At a certain point during the course of this time, an adult observing will begin to notice the volume in the classroom beginning to rise, social activity beginning to increase, and an apparent decrease in productivity.  Our task is to pause, wait, and watch for the flow of the room to return naturally to its previous state.  We all need a break once in a while, and it is normal to expect that children will, at some point, need to step away from the work they have been deeply engrossed in.  In the long run, this false fatigue break actually allows them to be more productive and focus better once they return to their work.

grace & courtesy 

This phrase is applied to the approach Montessori schools have when teaching children how to interact with others.  Manners play a part of this work; we explicitly teach children how to say please, thank you, excuse me, and you’re welcome, but it’s also so much more.  We teach children how to navigate friendships, how to resolve conflict, how to express gratitude, and how to share their own feelings.    


While the term teacher is sometimes used, many Montessori schools opt for the term guide.  Our educators do not stand in the front of the classroom and impart their knowledge upon students in conventional ways.  We don’t feel that our task is to give them information, but rather to lead them toward it so they may discover it themselves.  The term guide is much more fitting.  Another traditional term that is sometimes used in our schools is directress.    


Nest in Italian, this is the term Montessori uses for the infant program.  Nido classrooms are nurturing and secure, giving babies a safe and comfortable place to begin their exploration of the world.


When Dr. Montessori began using this word to describe children a century ago, it was used with a very positive connotation.  When a child is normalized, it means they have embraced to ability to learn independently within the Montessori classroom; they are able to enter the environment confidently, select work that interests them, and complete it with concentration and perseverance.  That is not to say they never feel struggle or frustration, they have simply internalized the expectations of the environment and are joyful learners in the community.

planes of development

As a scientist, Dr. Montessori carefully studied patterns in children’s learning.  Her observations led her to notice specific planes, or stages, of development.  Each plane is marked by very specific differences in the way children view the world and learn from it.  Having this information assists educators in creating environments and utilizing approaches that teach the child according to how they are developmentally prepared to learn.  The first plane includes children ages 0-6, the second plan 6-12, the third 12-18, and the fourth 18-24.

practical life

We make it a point to teach children a range of skills they will need to be successful.  While math, language, and science certainly make the cut, there’s a lot more to life than traditional academic subjects.  Practical life exercises teach children how to clean up after themselves, how to feed themselves, or how to do any number of tasks that are required of us as we grow to become independent humans.  We do not give children pretend food to cook with or play tools; we give them beautiful, sturdy, child-sized versions of the real thing.  This allows them to take this practice seriously, and to know that we take them seriously, too.

prepared environment

This is typically what we use to refer to our classrooms, but the term could actually be applied to just about anywhere.  When a Montessori adult takes special care in creating a space that serves the child in their developmental stage and allows them to explore and learn independently, they have prepared the environment.

sensitive period

During her years of observation, Dr. Montessori noticed that children went through typical periods in which they seemed primed and ready to learn specific things.  While there is of course some variability, Montessori guides know when to expect children to be ready to learn early math skills, beginning language work, gross motor skills, and so much more.  If we introduce a skill too early a child is likely to become overwhelmed and frustrated, if we miss the window, or sensitive period, the child is likely to have lost interest to an extent.


Montessori toddler and primary classrooms provide children with a series of lessons and materials that allow them to refine their various senses.  These are referred to as sensorial materials, and help children learn differences in weight, size, color, shape, scent, sound, and more.

three-period lesson

The three-period lesson is one way Montessori guides present information and assess comprehension.  The first time information is presented to the child, the guide names it.  For example, “This is the gill of a fish.”  The second time (perhaps the same day, perhaps not), the guide will point to a picture and ask the child, “Where is the gill?”  The third, and final period consists of the guide asking, “What is this?” when they point to the gill.  This strategy may be used for presenting and assessing a wide range of skills.


Any time a child is focused on a learning activity we refer to this as work.  This does not mean the child must be writing something down on a piece of paper, in fact more often they are not.  We recognize that work looks different at different ages, and we honor its importance regardless.  

work period/cycle

Montessori schools utilize a three-hour period of time each morning in which children are able to dive deeply into their work.  We recognize that it can take some time to settle into the flow of the day, and giving children this gift of time allows them to fall into stronger patterns of learning and independence.  Older children often have a second work period/cycle during the afternoon.

Preventing Math Anxiety


Researchers from the University of Cambridge recently released a report following their study of math anxiety in primary and secondary students.  [] Their findings illustrate interesting characteristics of children who experience math anxiety, and suggest a potential connection to interactions with teachers and parents.  The interview-based study included 2,700 children in primary and secondary school in the United Kingdom and Italy.  

What researchers discovered

Four general themes emerged from the research:

  1. Girls were more likely than boys to experience math anxiety at both the primary and secondary levels.

  2. An overall perception that math is more difficult than other subjects contributed to developing anxiety.  Children spoke about comparing themselves to others and receiving poor grades in classes and on tests.  This led to a decline in confidence and seemed to contribute to development of math anxiety.

  3. Interactions with adults is a factor.  Children in the primary grades spoke about feeling confused by the variety of methods used to teach certain skills.  Older children felt that negative interpersonal interactions with teachers and parents contributed to their anxiety.

  4. Children in secondary school felt overwhelmed by the transition from primary school.  They indicated increased pressure in regards to the difficulty of math content along with more testing and homework.

What might this mean for Montessori classrooms?

The approach and structure of Montessori classrooms is already so different from that of conventional settings; this may serve as a benefit to students learning about math.  As educators it is critical, however, to be open to new research and dedicated to creating an environment that will nurture our students and their learning in the best ways possible.

We might question: why are girls experiencing greater levels of math anxiety?  It could be beneficial to pay close attention to the girls in our classes and be ready to intervene when markers of anxiety appear.

The children in the study expressed frustration as a result of comparisons with peers.  Montessori strives to create an educational environment that downplays competition and focuses instead on intrinsic motivation.  Not asking students to take tests, not giving grades, and not having a sticker chart on the wall that displays who has memorized their multiplication facts can all help with this.

In Montessori schools we recognize that learning is not a steady, linear progression, nor is it the same for different children.  Students work through a series of materials at their own pace; teachers teach small groups or individuals and reteach as necessary, for as long as necessary, without any pressure to move along a predetermined pace.  

It can be challenging at times to compete among schools that take on more traditional methods.  Montessori schools can feel obligated to offer standardized testing and homework.  It may behoove us to recall the success Montessori has had for over a century without tests or homework.  Most importantly, even while finding a balance, we need to keep our children’s development in the forefront of our decision-making.  One question to ask while implementing something new might be, “Is this new structure affecting our students’ attitudes toward math?”

Of course, as children get older we have a responsibility to prepare them for whatever setting they will transition into.  How might we do this without compromising our ideals?  How can we present homework and testing to Montessori adolescents in such a way that they understand what will be expected of them, while continuing to support them in a supportive and non-competitive learning environment?

What might parents do to help prevent math anxiety?

More research needs to be done to determine how parents can help stave off negative feelings about mathematics.  We have a few ideas to share:

  1. Make a conscious effort to not emphasize your own math anxiety.  It’s certainly fine to share your experiences with children; this allows them to see that we can be successful in the face of adversity and challenge.  The key is to not dwell or allow any residual math anxiety to affect their own perception.  Make sure to avoid saying things like, “I’m bad at math.”  If you hear your child saying something along those lines, you might encourage them by reminding them that they’re not bad at it, it’s just an area that might feel a little more challenging right now.

  2. By all means, engage in math activities with your child!  Just remember to keep them light and fun.  We may have grown up with math drills and rewards for achievement, but a growing body of research is showing us that external rewards are not usually effective.  Math at home should be a fun way for children to see how we use numbers in our everyday lives.

  3. Trust the Montessori process.  This one can be hard.  If you are the type of parent who is actively engaged in your child’s education, you are likely to want to teach them whatever you can.  This is great!  Unfortunately, it can be hard to know exactly when a child is developmentally primed to learn a particular skill.  One common example is parents wanting to teach their child how to add larger numbers.  We believe they could grasp the concept of carrying and doing it all on pencil and paper.  While the child may be able to, Montessori curriculum utilizes materials that allow the child to arrive at such a discovery without the assistance of an adult (and often much earlier than they would typically be taught in a conventional school).  By learning first with the hand and figuring it out authentically, a child is able to understand the whys of number manipulation while simultaneously feeling a sense of empowerment and confidence.  Showing children how to use these specialized materials requires extensive training that all Montessori teachers must complete to become credentialed.  

It will be interesting to see what future research learns about math anxiety in children and how we, as adults, might support them further. 

Have you ever dealt with math anxiety?  What do you think might have made your experience different?

As always, please feel free to reach out with any questions, ideas, or to schedule a tour.

Montessori Basics: What is Grace and Courtesy?


If you are just beginning to learn about Montessori education, you’ve probably heard the phrase grace and courtesy.  You may be wondering what that means in a Montessori classroom, and why we go out of our way to identify it as something special.

Simply put, grace and courtesy is all about helping children to understand polite social norms.  

As a Montessori school, we understand that even very young children are capable of much more than is traditionally expected of them.  For example, you might picture a preschool classroom in which children are running around or shouting loudly if they are excited.  After all, children of 3 or 4 years of age can’t be expected to have mastered such behaviors yet, right?  

If you were to observe children of the same age in a Montessori classroom, this would not be the case.  Just as with any other skill, Montessori children are taught how to behave appropriately.  This is not to say that they are never allowed to run around and be loud; outdoor playtime is a perfectly suitable environment for those behaviors.  They have simply learned that the classroom is an environment dedicated to learning and concentration, and they must do their part.


Grace and courtesy starts with intentional modeling.  Guides, as well as other adults in the building, are very careful about how they behave in front of the children.  When interacting with one another, or when interacting with a child, they are always thinking about showing the children what they hope to see mirrored.  

For example, when a guide sees a child as they arrive at school in the morning, the guide will crouch down to be at the child’s level, look the child in the eye, and say, “Good morning (child),” with a pleasant smile.  

If the guide expects the children not to shout across the classroom, she will not do so herself.  When managing a classroom full of children this can be challenging at times, but we understand that the children are always watching us and learning from our behaviors.

Adults in a Montessori school are always very careful not to interrupt a child’s work.  They have a deep respect for the child’s autonomy, but they are also aware of the power of their modeling.  When adults refuse to interrupt a child’s work, the children learn the importance of doing the same.


Aside from modeling, Montessori guides give lessons to explicitly teach grace and courtesy.  They will show the child step by step how a certain behavior or activity is done.  Here are just a few of these types of lessons a child might receive:

  • How to greet one another

  • How to welcome a visitor

  • How to get a teacher’s attention without interrupting

  • How to participate in a group discussion without interrupting

  • How to listen in a conversation

  • How to walk carefully around the classroom

  • How to follow directions

  • How to resolve a social conflict

  • How to unobtrusively observe another’s work

  • How to hold a door for someone

  • How to use polite words such as please, thank you, excuse me, etc.

Older children

As children get older, they may have mastered many of the basics of polite behavior, but they still have plenty more to learn.  There are two main differences as children move into the elementary years:

  1. Most (but certainly not all) of the grace and courtesy needs are related to friendships and social interactions.

  2. They have developed a sense of humor and tend to respond well when guides teach what not to do in a silly manner.

For example, a guide may notice children entering the classroom for lunch in a manner that is less than ideal.  One day during a class meeting, she will address the issue by wondering aloud how we might enter the class for lunch.  She may then act out a variety of scenarios, asking the children if she is going about the task in the right way, including:

  • Running breathlessly through the door to grab the desired seat.

  • Flinging a lunch bag across the room to the desired table.

  • Weaving in and out of other children to get where she wants more quickly.

This is sure to bring on the laughter, because the children likely already know these are not the correct behaviors.  Before the conclusion of the lesson, the children will contribute their ideas and tips for the teacher to try, who will then model the ideal behaviors.  Ideally this exercise would be done just before lunch, giving the children a chance to practice right away.

Throughout the course of the school year, a guide at any level may notice certain behaviors that the children seem not to have learned yet.  Guides consider these teachable opportunities and take the time to give the children lessons.  We find that children are eager to copy our behaviors and follow our lead, we need only to give them the opportunity.

Curious to learn more?  Want to see grace and courtesy in action?  Call us today to schedule a tour.

5 Ways Montessori Appeals to the Senses

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Learning with all our senses involved allows us to have a fuller, richer experience.  Montessori classrooms strive to provide multi-layered sensory opportunities for children.  The result?  Children who have a strong ability to distinguish the variances in the environments around them.

1. Montessori digs deeper than the classic five senses.

Growing up, you undoubtedly learned about sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.  Of course, these are the five basic senses we tend to think about, but Montessori education has a more extensively defined list all its own: 

  • Visual - our ability to differentiate objects by form, color, and size

  • Tactile - just another name for the sense of touch, or how something feels on our body

  • Baric - differentiation based on weight and/or pressure

  • Thermic - the ability to sense various temperatures

  • Auditory - another name to describe the sense of sound

  • Olfactory - our sense of smell

  • Gustatory - the sense of taste

  • Stereognostic - a muscular sense, or the ability to distinguish an object without seeing it, hearing it, or smelling it, but relying of touch and muscle memory alone

2. Montessori developed materials to help children refine their senses.

Using what she knew about the above senses, Dr. Montessori developed a series of sensorial materials to be used in the classrooms of young children.  These materials were designed to isolate one skill and to be self-correcting.  This allows the child to concentrate their efforts and to be independent in their learning.   Just a small selection of the more famous sensorial materials include: 

  • Knobbed Cylinders - small wooden cylinders with knobs that are to be inserted into holes of the corresponding size

  • Pink Tower - a series of pink wooden cubes ranging in size from 10 cm cubed to 1 cm cubed are meant to be stacked in decreasing succession

  • Brown Stair - ten brown, wooden rectangular prisms in a range of sizes are meant to be arranged in order

  • Color Tablets - a material that allows children to differentiate not just by color, but by shades of colors

  • Mystery Bag - children are meant to reach their hand inside the bag without looking to determine the contents

  • Geometric Solids - a physical representation of an often abstractly-taught concept, these solids allow children to identify their attributes

3. Food is prepared and celebrated regularly in Montessori classrooms.

Beginning when they are just toddlers, Montessori children are directly involved in the preparation and purposeful enjoyment of food.  Toddler classrooms have regular tastings, in which they try new and interesting foods.  Guides will offer a wide variety of textures, colors, smells, and tastes for the children to explore.  These little ones help set the table and learn grace and courtesy through table manners.

During the primary grades (ages 3-5), children participate in food preparation.  They are given lessons and chances to practice slicing, spreading, mixing, blending, and multi-step food preparation.  Sometimes they enjoy their work as a snack for themselves; other times they prepare food to serve to others.

Guides in older levels find ways to continue this important work.  Food preparation may be connected to a cultural study, birthday celebration, or school lunch program.  As they get older, children are able to complete more complex and interesting recipes. 

4. The classroom environment keeps a focus on the natural world.

Montessori guides are taught to make nature an integral part of the classroom environment, and this often means lots of beautiful indoor plants.  Studies have shown that proximity to plants benefits us a variety of ways.  They are visually beautiful, but did you know that scientists believe that houseplants can improve our attention?  They may also be helpful in reducing sick days and keeping us more productive overall. *See links at the end for more information. 

Aside from having live plants in our classrooms, Montessori schools favor natural materials over synthetic.  This means that whenever possible, we choose wood, glass, and natural baskets over plastic.  We believe that the color and texture of natural materials is more appealing and calming to our senses.  While many conventional classrooms favor bright colors, we opt for more muted, natural ones.  This allows children to feel calm, safe, and able to focus on their work.

Whenever possible, Montessori schools believe in the importance of taking children into nature on a regular basis.  Whether to a local pond, for a walk in the woods, or even a nearby city park, being in green spaces is an important part of learning and growing.

5. Montessori honors children’s developing vestibular and proprioceptive systems.

A couple quick definitions- 

The vestibular system is responsible for balance and is closely connected to the inner ear. 

The proprioceptive system is important when having awareness of where one’s body parts are in relation to the rest of one’s body and the space/objects around it.

These systems typically develop early in childhood.  It’s our job as adults to make sure children have opportunities to refine them.  It is especially important that we provide opportunities to children with sensory related disorders.

Although many schools around the country are decreasing or doing away with recess altogether, Montessori schools hold that time in high regard.  All the climbing, swinging, spinning, and other types of play are natural ways for children to develop their vestibular and proprioceptive systems.

There are activities built into Montessori classrooms that assist this work as well.  Carrying heavier materials, painting, and using playdough are connected to the proprioceptive system.  The traditional ‘walking the line’ in Montessori primary classrooms provides excellent vestibular input; children must slowly walk while staying on a taped or painted line.  Extensions include walking with a bell in hand and trying not to ring it or balancing something on top of their head.

Interested in seeing the sensory classroom in action?  Whether you are a current or prospective parent, we encourage you to give us a call and set up a time to observe.  


Benefits of Indoor Plants…

Psychological Benefits of Indoor Plants…

Montessori Motivation


We are often amazed at the capabilities of Montessori children.  They bounce home from school each day excited about their learning.  As adults, they tend to be driven and innovative.  How does one cultivate such an attitude toward the world?  How might we guide our children to want to learn?  To want to discover?  To always pursue more without being told they must?  The key lies in what type of motivation we utilize.

Rewards and Punishments

In most traditional education settings around the country teachers use systems of rewards and punishments to drive desired behaviors.  Most of us grew up experiencing this type of system, and it can be easy as parents to occasionally rely on these tactics as well.  These are extrinsic motivators, and they’re more common than you might think.

Rewards are positive and external.  For example, a teacher might give a child a gold star sticker or a special stamp on their paper if a child does well.  They may let children have extra playtime for following directions or a pizza party in exchange for getting their homework done.  Rewards can take many other forms, too, including verbal praise or good grades on a report card.  

Punishments include any negative external motivator.  These include bad grades and removal of privileges, but sometimes include harsher examples.

Believe it or not, there are even more ways to impart subtle, nuanced external motivators.  Any time we make a statement or even use a facial expression that conveys our own pleasure or displeasure with a behavior or action, we are utilizing external motivation.  While these tactics may sometimes work in the short term, research shows they do little for long-term motivation success. 

Intrinsic Motivation

Some forms of motivation don’t come from an outside source at all, but from within the individual.  The good news is, children are born wanting to learn.  We are curious beings and have the innate ability to work for our own joy.

Think of a time you accomplished something great.  How did you feel afterward?  Were you thinking about how others would perceive your accomplishment or were you satisfied with your work for its own sake?  In Montessori schools, we often guide children to reflect on their own feelings after they complete a challenge.  They may come to us, excitedly showing or retelling.  We may be inclined to say, “Good job!”, but those types of statements are better off unsaid.  If we reward a child with our approval, they will work to seek that approval in the future.  If, instead, we ask a child how they feel about the work, or comment on something factual we notice, the drive will remain within them.  We might say, “I noticed you kept trying even when that was challenging.  How do you feel now that you completed it?” or “It seemed like you enjoyed that work.  What will you do next?”  These types of statements make it possible for us to acknowledge a child without placing our own judgements on their experiences.

Research suggests that while external rewards may work occasionally, intrinsic motivation is much more effective.  In one study, preschoolers who loved to draw were divided into three groups: one was told they would receive a reward for drawing, one was told they would not, and a third received an unexpected reward afterward.  Not surprisingly, the group that expected a reward drew for much less time and created less aesthetically appealing drawings.  There was little difference between the other two groups, although they far outperformed the first.  [ ]

Driving Forces in Academics

So how do Montessori teachers guide children to want to do their work?  As we mentioned before, that’s the easy part.  The desire to work is innate in children.  Our job is to nurture and honor it.  Even the terminology we use is intentional.  Our youngest students aren’t asked to play during the morning cycle, but to work.  We let them know we recognize what they’re doing is important.  It’s work, and we are there to support them in doing that work.

As Montessorians we also believe that a beautiful environment full of enriching materials can serve to motivate children.  We consider what the children before us need, and we carefully select and place appropriate materials on the shelves for them to discover.  

Montessori materials are typically autodidactic.  This means that the learner is able to self-correct their work while they are in the process of completing it.  For example, a child placing wooden cylinders into holes will know they need to adjust their work if the final cylinder doesn’t fit into the final hole.  These built-in corrections allow the child to work and learn directly from the materials without teacher input, essentially furthering the child’s independence and internal motivation.

Montessori guides are also adept at utilizing children’s interests to help them succeed in areas that challenge them.  A child who is reluctant to read but loves dinosaurs may just need a basket of books about dinosaurs.  A child who resists math but adores their friends may need to work cooperatively to find success.  Knowing what sparks a child’s enthusiasm is the key to opening a whole world of academic content.

There are other structures built into the Montessori day that support intrinsic motivation.  The three hour uninterrupted work cycle is one, as is allowing for ample student choice.  The strategies allow children to select work that is meaningful to them, and to spend time really getting deep into that work.  We allow them to fully explore their interests, which is where real creativity and lasting learning take place.  Children feel empowered by their independence, and this in itself drives them to explore deeper learning.

When we teach children to follow their own instincts, even when it comes to learning, we are preparing them for a lifetime of success.  School won’t just be a place they have to go and have information delivered to them; it becomes a place where they look forward to going so that they may discover the world for themselves.

Montessori Basics: Observation


Montessori classrooms rely heavily on the art of observation.  You may see it in action some time, or you may have an opportunity to try it yourself (which we welcome and encourage!).  If you ever walk past a classroom and see the children working intently, while the guide is quietly sitting in a corner with a clipboard, know that guide is working intently as well.  

Why we do it

Dr. Maria Montessori was a scientist and a physician.  Her education and background helped her look at the world in a way that is different from most traditional educators.  Observation of children was what inspired her work in education, and she used it to develop her methods.  Not only that, but Montessori guides all over the world rely on observation to learn about their students, gain insight about developmental phases, inform our decision-making, and to assess the children’s mastery of skills.  So what are the main goals of observation in the classroom?

  • Planning appropriate lessons - Montessori educators are trained to have extensive knowledge about child development.  While most traditional teacher education programs require students to take a course on the topic, development is essentially the foundation of everything we do as Montessori guides.  Practiced guides know so much about the behaviors of growing children that seemingly insignificant occurrences signal a transition into a new plane of development.  The toddler that has mastered toileting and can be observed spending long amounts of time with practical life activities is making the transition necessary for the primary classroom.  A child nearing six that has lost a tooth and seems suddenly very motivated by social interactions with their peers is moving into the second plane of development and will respond well to lessons involving storytelling and deeper information about cultures around the world.  The challenge of the guide is to identify the moment when a child is entering a sensitive period; this is their development showing they are ready to learn specific skills that must be taught in a way that honors their growth.  

  • Making sure the environment serves the children - While the guide’s role in a child’s education is important, the environment plays an even bigger role.  It is the guide’s job to make sure the classroom environment allows children to find what they need, feel inspired to work, fosters independence, and allows for safety and comfort.  If, during an observation, it is noted that a piece of furniture disrupts the flow of movement, it will be moved at a later time.  If many children prefer to work on the floor, it will be important to note whether there are enough work rugs for them all to use.  If no children have used a specific material in a number of weeks, it may need to be reintroduced or removed from the shelf.  Each item in the classroom must be placed intentionally and with a specific purpose in mind.  If it is no longer serving its intended purpose, reflection and a solution are required.

  • Assessment of skills - The word assess is derived from the Latin form to sit beside.  Montessori schools do not determine mastery with the use of tests, but rather by utilizing observation.  Instead of giving children a piece of paper with questions on it, we watch them in action.  When a child is able to independently place number tiles in random order on a hundred board, we know they have grasped the concept of ordering those numbers.  A child who is able to complete complex patterns within the shape they traced using a metal inset, and who also frequently uses the sandpaper letters correctly is likely ready to learn the written formation of letters using a pencil on a piece of paper.  This assessment, of course, ties back into planning appropriate lessons, as the guide has concrete information to inform their instruction.

What it looks like

  • Formal observations - A Montessori guide will likely observe in the classroom most days, or multiple guides may take turns observing.  These observations typically last between fifteen and thirty minutes, but the amount of time can vary.  While each guide has their own preferred method, they typically sit quietly and use a notebook to record what they observe.  Children are taught about the importance of this work and they know not to disturb the adult at this time.  Sometimes a guide will sit in a specific chair or use a special clipboard to signal to the children that they are working.  For new guides, the temptation to intervene can be powerful, but we learn that unless a child is in danger it’s often best to wait it out and see what happens.  Most classrooms have a second adult that is able to redirect a child who may be overly disruptive, allowing the observing adult to continue.  During this time the guide simply watches and takes lots of notes.  It is important that the notes be strictly observational and that any judgement or inferencing be reserved for another time.

  • Informal observations - During the course of the work period, guides will make a great many observations in the moment.  While walking across the room to retrieve something, while speaking to a child, or even whilst in the middle of a lesson, there are many helpful bits of information a guide can gather and record that will help make the children’s educational experience the best it can be.  As you may imagine, this results in many, many notebooks full of amazing and adorable anecdotes. 

Visitor observation

Whether you are considering Montessori for your child, they are in a program but getting ready to move to a new level, or if you’re just curious and want to learn more about the philosophy, observation is one of the greatest tools available to you.  Even the most experienced guides make time to visit other Montessori schools when possible so that they may observe other classrooms and gather fresh ideas and inspiration.  We invite you to contact us should you be interested in giving it a try.

When you enter a Montessori classroom to observe, it is very important to know that the children will be engaged in their work and the goal is to watch without disturbing them.  In many other scenarios in life, we announce ourselves upon entering a room, perhaps even greeting others enthusiastically.  When observing in the classroom, we ask that visitors refrain from doing these things, tempting as it may be!  You will likely be greeted by an adult or child and directed to a chair.  Having a notebook or clipboard is helpful, as you are sure to experience moments you will want to record.  If a child approaches you and greets you, by all means please feel free to briefly greet them in return.  In general, however, you will need to sit quietly and observe in a way that the children forget you are there, leaving them free to focus on their work.  Montessori children are quite used to visitors, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

Some questions that will help guide your observation include:

  • In what ways are the children displaying independence?

  • How do the children choose their work?

  • What do transitions between work look like?

  • How do the adults respond to the children?

  • How do the children respond to the adults?

  • How do the children interact with one another?

  • How do the children care for their own basic needs?

  • Does anything about the classroom environment surprise you?

When your observation is complete, it is best to slip out of the classroom quietly.  In this situation you are not expected to say any formal goodbyes.

You can do this at home!

While home is very different from the classroom, there are ways that parents can apply the basic concepts of Montessori observation.  While trying to engage with our children, it can be easy to fall into patterns in which we begin directing their play.  Every once in a while, sit back and watch as your child plays.  You may notice them using their toys in surprising ways, and this may give you insight to their interests and maturity.  Similarly, it can be tempting to jump in and help any time your child spills something, falls down, or struggles to do something.  Instead of rushing to the rescue, wait.  If they ask for help, of course, lend a hand, but oftentimes they will want to address the situation themselves.  Watching to see what our children are capable of and nurturing their independence is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.  

As you pay attention and observe your child’s play, eating habits, sleeping habits, and social habits, you may learn many new things about their development.  This, in turn, will allow you to reflect on how you might best support them on their journey through childhood.  Slow down, observe, and enjoy those moments.