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What is Montessori?


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 that is specifically tailored to their needs at each stage of their development.

For most people the word Montessori tends to conjure up an idea of early years education but its scope is not limited to small children. In fact, Montessori offers an approach for life for children right through to adolescence to adulthood. It is not just about schooling it is also an understanding of 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 comes from the Aid to Life website.

How is Montessori Different?

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 adults who are self-motivated and love learning, can think flexibly and creatively and who 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 children are passive receivers.

In the Montessori approach it is all about the activity of the child. 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, 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 he is most able to take a particular developmental step. It is imperative that children are given the opportunity to grasp these opportunities at the right moment if they are to fulfil their individual potential.

Children have a special way of learning

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

Children have a natural urge to learn

From the moment they are born small babies strive to orientate 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 him. They are urged to manipulate things with their hands in order to know what they are, to concentrate on the task in front of them and to repeat things in order to make everything that they do more and more perfect. These developmental drives are all a part of the natural behaviour that humans beings take with them through life and that help babies to develop and adapt to their new world.

Children have unique windows of opportunity for learning

Children have periods of time when they are particularly sensitive to certain things going on around them, During those first six years of life they are driven to seek activity that helps them to learn their language, co-ordinate their movements and develop a mind that can make sense of their world. These ‘Sensitive Periods’, last for a limited period of time and fade by the time children reach six. They provide a timetable for natural development and the Montessori approach puts great emphasis on supporting each child’s individual developmental timetable during the first six years.

Montessori EnvironmentsPhotos of children of each age group

Children have different needs at different times in their lives

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

Infant Montessori Programmes

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

  • Ante-natal classes are given for expectant mothers and their partners.
  • Toddler and Mother classes for mothers to learn with their child 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 are 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’s House

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 1/2 and 3, as and when they show they are ready.

Montessori Primary/Elementary

Montessori primary or elementary school provides an environment for children between the ages of 6 and 12. Sometimes the children are divided into two groups of 6-9 and 9-12 and sometimes all six years are put together.

Montessori Secondary

The programme 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.

Montessori High School

At 15 adolescents can then move on to the Montessori High School where they will extend their academic study and take a school leaving qualification.

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. Find out more on the Aid to Life or AMI websites.


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