In a prepared environment, materials and activities provide for three basic areas of child involvement:

  1. Practical life or motor education
  2. Sensory materials for training the senses
  3. Academic materials for teaching writing, reading, and mathematics

All these activities are taught according to a prescribed procedure.

Practical Life

The prepared environment supports basic, practical life activities, such as walking from place to place in an orderly manner, carrying objects such as trays and chairs, greeting a visitor, and learning self-care skills. For example, dressing frames are designed to perfect the motor skills involved in buttoning, zipping, lacing, buckling, and tying. The philosophy for activities such as these is to make children independent and develop concentration.

Practical life activities are taught through four different types of exercise:

  1. Care of the person—activities such as using dressing frames, polishing shoes, and washing hands
  2. Care of the environment—for example, dusting, polishing a table, and raking leaves
  3. Social relations—lessons in grace and courtesy
  4. Analysis and control of movement—locomotor activities such as walking and balancing

Sensory Materials

There are 11 sensory materials found in a Montessori classroom. The materials for training and developing the senses have these characteristics:

  • Control of error. Materials are designed so that children can see whether they made a mistake.
  • Isolation of a single quality. Materials are designed so that other variables are held constant except for the isolated quality or qualities.
  • Active involvement. Materials encourage active involvement rather than the more passive process of looking.
  • Attractiveness. Materials are attractive, with colors and proportions that appeal to children.

Sensory materials have several purposes:

  • To train children’s senses to focus on an obvious, particular quality. For example, with the red rods, the quality is length; with the pink tower cubes, size; and with the bells, musical pitch.
  • To help sharpen children’s powers of observation and visual discrimination as readiness for learning to read.
  • To increase children’s ability to think, a process that depends on the ability to distinguish, classify, and organize.
  • To prepare children for the occurrence of the sensitive periods for writing and reading. In this sense, all activities are preliminary steps in the writing-reading process.

Academic Materials

The third area of Montessori materials is more academic. Exercises are presented in a sequence that encourages writing before reading. Reading is therefore an outgrowth of writing. Both processes, however, are introduced so gradually that children are never aware they are learning to write and read until one day they realize they are writing and reading. Describing this phenomenon, Montessori said that children “burst spontaneously” into writing and reading. She anticipated contemporary practices by integrating writing and reading and maintaining that writing lays the foundation for learning to read.

Montessori believed that many children were ready for writing at four years of age. Consequently, children who enter a Montessori system at age three have done most of the sensory exercises by the time they are four. It is not uncommon to see four- and five-year-olds in a Montessori classroom writing and reading.

Following are examples of Montessori materials that promote writing and reading:

  • Ten geometric forms and colored pencils. These introduce children to the coordination necessary for writing. After selecting a geometric inset, children trace it on paper and fill in the outline with a colored pencil of their choosing.
  • Sandpaper letters. Each letter of the alphabet is outlined in sandpaper on a card, with vowels in blue and consonants in red. Children see the shape, feel the shape, and hear the sound of the letter, which the teacher repeats when introducing it.
  • Movable alphabet with individual letters. Children learn to put together familiar words.
  • Command cards. These are a set of red cards with a single action word printed on each card. Children read the word on the card and do what the word tells them to do (e.g., run, jump).

Montessori and Contemporary Practices

The Montessori approach supports many methods used in contemporary early childhood programs:

  • Integrated curriculum.
  • Active learning.
  • Individualized instruction.
  • Independence.
  • Appropriate assessment.
  • Developmentally appropriate practice.

Providing for Diversity and Disability

Montessori education is ideally suited to meet the needs of children from diverse backgrounds, those with disabilities, and those with other special needs such as giftedness. Montessori believed that all children are intrinsically motivated to learn and that they absorb knowledge when they are provided appropriate environments at appropriate times of development. Thus Montessorians believe in providing for individual differences in enriching environments.

The Circle of Inclusion Project at the University of Kansas identifies ten specific aspects of Montessori education that have direct applicability to the education of children with disabilities:

  • The use of mixed-age groups.
  • Individualization within the context of a supportive classroom community.
  • An emphasis on functionality within the Montessori environment.
  • The development of independence and the ability to make choices.
  • The development of organized work patterns in children.
  • The classic Montessori demonstration.
  • An emphasis on repetition.
  • Materials with a built-in control of error.
  • Academic materials that provide a concrete representation of the abstract.
  • Sensory materials that develop and organize incoming sensory perceptions.

Further Thoughts

In many respects, Maria Montessori was a person for all generations who contributed greatly to early childhood programs and practices. Many of her ideas—such as preparing the environment, providing child-size furniture, promoting active learning and independence, and using multiage grouping—have been fully incorporated into early childhood classrooms. As a result, it is easy to take her contributions for granted. We do many things in a Montessorian way without thinking too much about it.

What is important is that early childhood professionals adopt the best of Montessori for children of the twenty-first century. As with any practice, professionals must adopt approaches to fit the children they are teaching while remaining true to what is best in that approach. Respect for children is never out of date and should be accorded to all children regardless of culture, gender, or socioeconomic background.