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What is Montessori?

For most people, the word Montessori tends to raise the idea of early childhood education, but its scope is not limited to small children. In fact, Montessori offers an approach to life for children right through adolescence and adulthood. It is not just about schooling; it is also about understanding how best to foster natural development in general.

Montessori is founded on the belief that children are capable of self-development and that they will reach their true potential when they are helped to find their own path in an environment specifically tailored to their needs at each stage of development.

For most people, the word Montessori tends to raise the idea of early childhood education, but its scope is not limited to small children. In fact, Montessori offers an approach to life for children right through adolescence and adulthood. It is not just about schooling; it is also about understanding how best to foster natural development in general.

Montessori takes its name from the Italian doctor Maria Montessori, who pioneered an approach to education based on her observations of children. This approach has now been active for more than a hundred years.

The information on this page has been adapted for Australia from the Aid to Life website.

How is Montessori Different?

The Real Difference

The formation of children’s fundamental capacities is hugely important during the first years of life – not just academic learning but the ability to concentrate, persevere and think for themselves, as well as the ability to interact well with others. Children who have been given the right kind of support during these formative years grow into self-motivated adults who love learning, think flexibly and creatively, and are not only conscious of the needs of others but actively foster harmony as they go through life.

Traditional versus Montessori

In traditional education, adults decide what children need to learn, and the ability to retain and reproduce information is used as a measure of academic success. The teacher is the active giver of information, and the children are passive receivers.

In the Montessori approach, it is all about the child’s activity. The teacher takes on a different role, that is, to provide the right kind of circumstances so that children can be guided to find what they need from what is on offer. Children then become active learners and are able to reach their own unique potential because they are learning at their own pace and rhythm, focussing on their own particular developmental needs at that moment.

The Montessori approach provides:

  • An environment that serves the particular needs of each child’s stage of development;
  • An adult who understands child development and acts as a guide to help children find their own natural path;
  • Freedom for children to engage in their own development according to their own particular developmental timeline.

Montessori Principles

Boy scrubbing table

The Montessori approach to education relies on several fundamental principles:

Children have different needs at different times in their lives

Montessori identified four phases in a child’s life: Birth to 6, 6-12, 12-18, and 18-24.

Many psychologists have described these different phases, but it is only Montessori who has given a way to respond to this understanding as a means of education and, in this way, has redefined education as an ‘aid to life’ suggesting that if we support the natural development of children at each plane, then we will optimise development for the whole human being. She suggested that there is a unique time in each child’s life when they are most able to take a particular developmental step. It is imperative that children can grasp these opportunities at the right moment if they are to fulfil their potential.

Children have a special way of learning

In the first six years of life, the young mind seems to soak up everything in the world around them. This means that a newborn baby can learn any language and adapt to any culture simply by living. Montessori suggested that much emphasis must be put on education in these first six years while children learn with total ease.

Children have a natural urge to learn

From the moment they are born, tiny babies strive to orient themselves and explore the things in their world. They reach out to abstract meaning from everything they experience, they are driven to be independent and want to find a way to communicate with the people around them. They are urged to manipulate things with their hands to know what they are, to concentrate on the task in front of them and to repeat things to make everything they do more and more perfect. These developmental drives are all a part of the natural behaviour that human beings take with them through life and help babies develop and adapt to their new world.

Children have unique windows of opportunity for learning

Children have periods of time when they are susceptible to certain things happening around them. During those first six years of life, they are driven to seek activities that help them learn their language, coordinate their movements, and develop a mind that can make sense of their world. These ‘Sensitive Periods’ last for a limited period and fade by the time children reach six. They provide a timetable for natural development, and the Montessori approach emphasises supporting each child’s developmental timetable during the first six years.

Montessori Environments

Children go through several distinct phases as they grow from babies into adults. Each phase is characterised by physical and psychological differences. Children in each phase have different developmental needs, and because of this, they require different environments.

Infant Montessori Programs (Birth to Age 3)

Montessori infant-toddler programs from birth to 3, are provided in several different formats:

  • Ante-natal classes areTwo photos stacked on top of each other. The top image is of a baby sleeping. The bottom image shows a toddler sitting at a table with a flower in a vase and a bowl in front of them. given to expectant mothers and their partners.
  • Toddler and Mother classes are for mothers to learn with their children how to use an environment specially prepared for a child of this age under the guidance of a Montessori-trained adult. The class will focus on how to observe the child and how to offer appropriate activities.
  • Nido is provided for children between the ages of two and fourteen months.
  • Infant Communities are provided from fourteen months to three years, and focus is given to movement, language and independence.

Children working on the floor with Montessori materials.

Children’s House (Ages 3 to 6)

Between the ages of 3 and 6, the Montessori environment is called the Children’s House. Children coming from an Infant Community move into this environment between the ages of 2.5 and 3 as and when they show they are ready.

Montessori Primary (Ages 6 to 12)

Montessori primary school provides an environment for children between the ages of 6 and 12. Usually, the children are divided into two age groups: 6-9 and 9-12, and sometimes, all six years are combined.

Montessori Secondary (Ages 12-18)

The program inspired by Montessori for adolescents between 12 and 15 is called the Erdkinder, meaning ‘children of the earth’. Montessori’s idea was that, because of their vulnerability at this age, young adolescents need to be in a nurturing environment on a working farm where they could be close to nature, breathe fresh air, eat healthy food and be free from the stress of academic study and exams with time for self-expression and opportunities to learn how society works and to take responsibility for their own actions. Around age 15, adolescents move on to Montessori Senior Secondary, where they will extend their academic study and complete a school leaving qualification.

Picture of About Aid to Life

About Aid to Life

The Aid to Life Initiative is founded on the idea that children develop optimally when they are brought up in an environment that supports their natural development, with an adult who understands how to connect them to positive activity and then allows them enough time to grow and develop according to their own pace and rhythm. It aims to give parents clear, simple, straightforward advice in a format that is easy to understand and apply. At the moment this website addresses the child between birth and three but its aim eventually is to address the needs of the child and the role of the parent with children all the way through to adolescence.

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