The Green Mountain Montessori School subscribes to the beliefs and guiding philosophy of Maria Montessori, an early 20th century physician and educator. Montessori believed that young children — specifically, children up to the age of six — had what she called "absorbent minds," minds able to assimilate information from the environment as if by osmosis. This being so, the classroom environment — in Montessori terms the "prepared environment" — becomes of paramount importance. At the "primary" level (children from three to six years old, the grouping of ages with which we are concerned at The Green Mountain Montessori School), we give special and patient attention to the needs and developing nature of the young child so that they may arrange the classroom in the best possible way for the child to absorb facts, feelings, and impressions from it.
The environment is purposefully designed to cater to what Montessori called the child's "sensitive periods," times in the child's life when she/he is particularly receptive to certain aspects of the environment or the acquisition of particular skills (during the primary years the child is particularly receptive to development of control of movement, language skills, etc.). Montessori, and followers of Montessori's educational philosophy, further believe that children as a group are different from adults and that as individuals they are different from each other. Every child must be respected for its individuality, and the educational environment must be designed to allow for respect of each child's differences. Having worked painstakingly to "prepare" the classroom environment, Montessori teachers act as the links between the child and this environment so prepared, in order to make as many aspects of the environment as possible accessible to each primary-aged child during the three years (ideally) that a child is in their charge.
Overall, the child's main work, Montessori believed, is to become a productive adult. On entering a primary classroom during a free work period, one will observe each child busily working on her or his task amid a busy hum of activity. In the primary class, we allow the child freedom of movement and freedom of choice of materials. Once shown how to do an activity, the child is free to choose and to repeat it as often as she/he wants. This freedom helps the child develop a love of learning, respect for her/himself and others, and a healthy self-confidence. The child also develops a sense of inner discipline from having to direct her/his own movements. Each child works at his or her own pace, with the child's own developmental level setting the only limits on achievement.
Materials in a Montessori classroom are displayed on low, accessible shelves in a simple and attractive manner that calls to the child. They are as beautiful as possible, in good condition, and where appropriate, color coordinated so that the child has no confusion about what goes with what (for example, in the table-washing exercise, the basin and pitcher are natural stoneware banded with blue, the waterproof apron is of a blue and beige checked material, and the towels, floor mat, soap dishes, and waste bucket are blue).
The materials always present a concept concretely. For instance, when the concepts of units, tens, hundreds, and thousands are presented in mathematics, small beads are used for units. Ten units are then strung together on a wire to make a "ten," ten wires are put together to make a "hundred," and ten hundred-squares are wired together to make a "thousand." As the child grows and develops, materials he/she uses become less and less concrete, until the child has moved from the graded groupings of strung beads manipulated on trays and mats to the complete abstraction of numerals written on paper (but by now thoroughly grounded in real experience rather than worked with by rote). Sequences of materials in all areas progress similarly to those in this mathematical example, making use of the concrete whenever possible and moving to abstraction, and in all areas they are presented to the child in an appropriate sequence.
Each material isolates a particular difficulty, teaching a particular skill. This means that the child has a greater chance for success, thus enhancing a positive self-image and encouraging the love of learning. Once an activity has been mastered, the child can proceed to the next material (which in turn introduces a new challenge). Materials are, furthermore, self-correcting wherever possible. This means that each contains a "control of error," allowing the child to assess her/his accomplishment without relying solely on the judgment of an adult.
The Practical Life activities are focused around care of self, care of environment, "grace and courtesy," and movement, helping the child to develop particular lifelong skills (for example, zipping or tying, pouring or cutting, greeting a visitor), together with the enhancement of coordination, concentration, understanding of order and sequence, and self-confidence. They also serve as a link between the home and the classroom. The materials in the practical life area are familiar to the child as they are real utensils, child size, that one would find in the average household kitchen. These materials provide the child with the means to care for him/herself and for the environment.
All practical life materials have both a direct and an indirect aim. The flower arranging work's direct aim is to provide the child with the materials which will allow him/her to master the art of simple flower arrangement. The indirect aim is math. The child needs to visually estimate the length of a stem to be cut to fit in the selected vase.
The direct and indirect aims couple together, providing the child an opportunity to explore the purpose of the material. Various points of interest, such as the cracking sound of a shell in nut work, draw the child to the work. The child's interest in the work calls on him/herself to use maximum effort in achieving its purpose. This maximum effort is key to the development of concentration, independence and intelligence. At the preschool level, practical life activities include care of self, care of the environment, exercises of grace and courtesy, and control of physical movement. These are all elements necessary for the physical and psychological independence that will permit the child to become a contributing member of his/her society.
Sensorial/geometric materials help the child to refine her/his five senses (visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, and tactile), as well as her/his stereognostic ability. The child learns to discriminate order and classify sensory impressions in relation to, size, shape, and color (working with, for example, the pink tower, cylinder blocks, color tablets); sound (sound cylinders, bells), taste, texture (sandpaper materials, fabric matching), and smell. While refining the senses, all of the sensorial materials continue to develop the child's coordination and control of movement. Descriptive words accompany all material presentations, providing accurate vocabulary and enriched language skills.
The addition of language, through three period lessons, gives the child a beginning "scientific vocabulary" to describe and compare qualities of objects. All sensorial materials have a built-in control of error. This control of error allows the child to self correct his work and therefore continues to support the child's desire for independence as he/she continues on his/her path towards self construction.
The child's mind has a natural tendency for counting, comparing and calculating. The Montessori materials are designed to allow the child an opportunity to exercise his mathematical mind moving him/her towards a gateway to abstraction. In the Montessori environment math is the most popular subject inspiring enthusiasm, interest and concentration. The concept of mathematics is initially presented to the child in its simplest form. Through sensorial experiences and indirect preparation, the child measures, compares and analyzes. These skills assist him/her in discriminating size and quantity. How is it possible for a young child, who can only count to ten, to work with hundreds and thousands? The Montessori math materials enable the child to work with numbers beyond ten without difficulty because the child finds that no hierarchy contains more than nine of its kind. Therefore, knowledge of one through ten is sufficient once the child has learned the language: hundred, thousand, etc.
The concept of quantity, symbol (number) recognition, counting, the hierarchical properties of the decimal system, impressions of squaring and cubing, operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and fractions—are developed through extensive work with concrete materials. Work with the various mathematical materials is begun as the child approaches four years of age, with progression through the materials again dependent only on the individual child’s needs and abilities.
Language materials consist, first and foremost, of the spoken word of the classroom teachers and other adults (including the reading aloud of appropriate stories, poems, nonfictional writings, and the careful use of precise nomenclature when presenting Montessori and other materials). Vocabulary and an understanding of grammar and syntax are continually being enriched as the child absorbs what she/he hears and experiments actively with new ways of expressing ideas. Enhancing awareness of what is heard (through formal and informal sound games), writing exercises (sandpaper letters, the sand tray, metal inset work), pre-reading work (matching cards, use of written materials in the classroom — including each child's name card and the child's own writing with movable alphabets as well as pencil) — and finally, early reading activities (phonetic object boxes, phonetic reading cards, phonogram cards) are part of every Montessori child's progression. Reading readiness/accomplishment is continuously assessed and appropriate presentations necessary for complete mastery of reading skills are made. The reading child may also be introduced to basic grammar (function of word and sentence analysis exercises).
Maria Montessori designed the curriculum of the cultural subjects as an interdisciplinary study of the life of man on earth throughout time and in all geographic regions. It includes the study of geography, history, music, art, botany, zoology, language and mathematics. It encompasses all cultural subjects as part of a meaningful whole. Maria Montessori's primary goal was for education to help the child become a fully developed individual adapted to his time and place and culture; to be a citizen of tomorrow; a participant in a harmoniously functioning society. The cultural subjects give the child an understanding of unity. The child gains an understanding of unity, of variety and of the inter-relatedness of all things; both living and non-living.
As described above, cultural subjects — for example, geography, science, and art — are introduced as exercises falling more or less into one or the other of the four general "categories." Thus, the sandpaper and painted globes and the puzzle maps (sensorial materials) begin to give the child an understanding of geography. Later, the child will learn the names of the political divisions of these self-same puzzle maps as a language exercise, and make her/his own maps (further language work involving writing and reading). The child's awareness of the world is enhanced, and accurate vocabulary and factual information absorbed.
In addition to "traditional" Montessori materials, our classroom has an enormous collection of books on all sorts of subjects. Because we live in an area where cultural diversity is minimal, particular attention is given by us to making the children aware of other cultures, ways of life, and geographical environments through story and song.
Puzzles, magnifying glasses, plants, animals (insofar as possible in a rolled-back space), an easel, small hand tools, and other materials that can be worked with in the Montessori way (allowing the child to observe and draw conclusions from her/his work) further enrich the classroom environment. As with Montessori materials, these additions may be worked with by any child able to use them constructively and respectfully.
We also emphasize physical development through outdoor playtime, organized games, coordination and balance exercises.
Progression of each child through an appropriate sequence of materials and activities
We believe it is important to bring a child to want to learn. Thus, we take it as the primary responsibility of the teacher to attract the child to the various elements of the "prepared environment." As teachers, everything we do is to this end. The classroom and everything in it are made and kept as beautiful as possible. Choices are continuously offered to each child, but we do respect the child’s right to decline what is offered at any given moment. Children are permitted—in fact, they are strongly encouraged—to observe the activities of their classmates so that they may in this way come to want to explore a particular exercise.
Many exercises also incorporate (without the child’s realizing this) skills we feel are important for all children to develop. The polishing exercises, for example, incorporate mastery of fairly complex sequences, so that a child attracted to polishing a silver vase used for flowers in the classroom develops, unconsciously, an increased understanding of process. The beauty of a Montessori setting is that it is never necessary to tell a child to work with a particular activity or to develop a particular skill. Teachers alternately offer, guide, encourage, and wait patiently while the children — so me quickly, some more slowly — develop the confidence in themselves to be able to choose wisely and to work carefully. For every child, progress is inevitable!