The early years are a critical time for learning linguistically, cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically. Encouraging a community, with parents and teachers who collaborate and provide students with a curriculum that actively engages the learner, is rich and rewarding. Children in a Montessori environment are active learners and are productively engaged throughout their work time. Individualized instruction provides opportunities for development of many skills, such as physical coordination, perception, attention, memory, language, logical thinking, and imagination. The Montessori classroom with its’ rich and rewarding method is an optimal learning environment for early childhood development.
During the psychic development a child makes truly miraculous conquests, and it is only our being accustomed to seeing this miracle under our eyes that makes us indifferent spectators (Montessori, Secret of Childhood).
During the age span of three to eight, children grow substantially in a wide variety of developmental domains. Throughout early childhood, the child gains knowledge from his environment by means of his absorbent mind. The process of learning starts with impressions being absorbed unconsciously. Gradually, through movement and manipulation of the objects in the environment, the child constructs an understanding of the outside world. The impressions he has already absorbed become meaningful, and he becomes conscious. It is important to understand that the impressions he first absorbs do not merely enter the mind. They actually form it and prepare it. According to Piaget’s preoperational stage, by age 2, the child can use symbols both to think and to communicate; he develops the abilities to take others’ points of view, classify objects, and by the end of this stage we use simple logic. (Boyd & Bee, 2006, p. 35).
The conception of auto-education, as conceived by Maria Montessori, is the necessary correlative of a regime of freedom and provides an environment where children can reach their fullest potential. Montessori, concerned with children’s attitudes towards learning, wanted to un-harness their natural love for learning and their capacities for concerted and independent work, which unfold according to an inner timetable. Montessori believed children work themselves, and, in doing so, make a conquest of active discipline and independence in all the acts of daily life, just as through daily conquests they progress in intellectual development (Montessori, 1912, p. 322). Instead of having a teacher in a traditional sense the, teaching comes through the apparatus. Children evaluate their own work with direct feedback from materials, the use of control materials, and their level of success in peer teaching (Lillard, 2005, p. 182). In place of the old time teacher, says Montessori, “we have substituted the didactic material, which contains within itself the control of error, and which makes auto-education possible to each child.” Directed by an intelligent teacher, who watches over their physical development as well as over their intellectual and moral progress, children are able to arrive at a splendid physical development. In addition to this, there unfolds within them, in all its perfection, the soul, which distinguishes the human being (Montessori, 1912, p. 322). According to Eliason and Jenkins (2008, p. 155), spiritual nurturing must be present in our philosophies and approaches to teaching classroom environments and day-to-day interactions with each other (Wolf, 2000). Furthermore, understanding learning styles assists the teacher with planning her lessons. Individuals who prefer to learn by sight are called visual learners. Those who prefer oral lessons are known as auditory learners. Still others, who prefer touch or whole-body involvement in their learning, are called kinesthetic learners. Sensory (also called modality) preferences are an important component of an individual’s learning style (Sousa, 2006, p. 57).
Children progress through sensitive periods. Berk defines sensitive period as a time that is optimal for certain capacities to emerge and in which the individual is especially responsive to environmental influences (2008, p. 23). Montessori believed a child environment, designed for his or her sensitive periods, allowed for a natural unfolding of physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual development. A Montessori classroom is an environment filled with appropriate physical materials and arrangements that invite learning through exploration and interaction. At the heart of Montessori is a respect for the child’s receptive or absorbent education influencing the child’s inner being or psyche, not just a limited set of skills. Montessori valued children’s independence from adults and defined what many today refer to as child-centered education and active learning.
A Montessori environment consists of four basic areas including Practical Life, Sensorial, Math, and Language. The environment also integrates Cultural Studies (Geography, Science, Music, and Art). All areas develop concentration, coordination, independence, and order. The Montessori guide continuously observes the children in her class. During these observations she is looking for signs of readiness, readiness to move on to a new concept or skill. Furthermore, the guide intervenes as necessary to aid a child in their social or emotional development. Each child is viewed as a unique individual, and the teacher focuses on best practices when implementing her lessons. This accommodation helps the child move forward in their learning by providing for their individual learning style. In addition, Montessori education is set up to create interest in topics and to capitalize on the interests children already have, thereby optimizing learning (Lillard, 2005, p. 151).
Materials in Practical Life aid in the development of eye hand coordination skills and refine the pincer grip. The basis of the Montessori Method is to provide balance and equilibrium in body movements. The Sensorial materials center on the five senses: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. Sensorial materials aid the refinement of observation, comparison, discrimination, reasoning, judging, and appreciating our world. The three methods of learning discrimination include matching, sorting, and grading. Matching consists of comparison, sorting consists of classification, and grading consists of size discrimination. The three period lesson is utilized during demonstrations. The three periods might be thought of as association, recognition, and recall (Lillard, 2005, p. 178). Visual discrimination of the child is developed by using the knobbed cylinders, pink tower, brown stair, long rods, color tablets, knob-less cylinders, and geometric cabinet. The auditory sense is developed by pairing and grading (loud-soft) with the sound boxes, and bells. The sense of touch discerns temperature by working with the thermic bottles. Smelling bottles are used for the olfactory sense and gustatory with the tasting jars. Sensorial also introduces comparative language, such as large to small, thick to thin, and long to short. Sensorial prepares a child for Mathematics, through the skills of comparisons and grading. Other skills fine tuned in this area include spatial relations, one-to-one correspondence, combination, numerical set of ten, and algebraic and geometrical progressions.
The Montessori child learns math concepts such as classifying, comparing, ordering, patterning, measuring, and recognizing shapes and symbols through play activities. These lessons lead a child to problem solving skills. The best context, according to a joint position statement of NAEYC and NCTM, is a rich environment that allows children to explore math concepts in their play (Eliason & Jenkins, 2008, p. 319). The direct aim of the Mathematics curriculum is to develop order , concentration, coordination and lead the child to predictability, exactness, sense of accurateness, concreteness, logic and reasoning, and problem solving and enhance decision making skills. Bredekamp and Rosegrant (1992) suggests a repeated learning cycle during early childhood that includes four phases: awareness (recognition of objects, events, and people that develops from the child’s experiences); exploration (observing, exploring, discovering, and constructing meaning); inquiry (refine understanding and make connections through examining, investigating, comparing, and generalizing); and utilization (apply and use learning in new situations) (Eliason & Jenkins, 2008, p. 319). Numeration is the first concept taught in math. Children learn to recognize the numerical symbols and place quantities with the symbols. An introduction to the bead material is the starting point for the base ten system. After a child has mastered place value and composition of four digit numerals, we move on to operations. Order of basic operations is addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division, starting with static and then adding dynamic (carry over). Once a child has mastered these operations, we move on to fractions, measurement, money, and time. (NAEYC Mathematics Standards 2.F.01-13)
Language is extremely important in the Montessori classroom, because it is integrated into everything the child does. Language is not just teaching reading and writing; it is the vocabulary learned using the sensorial apparatus, science and geography activities, math activities, and the communication skills learned through sharing activities, conversation between children, and grace and courtesy lessons. In the Montessori curriculum we strengthen the child’s oral language skills, before we introduce him to writing or reading. Whenever we present a lesson in any area of the classroom, we give the child the vocabulary that is used within the lesson. Various oral/auditory games and other activities such as finger plays, stories, and songs during circle time lead the child to writing and reading without his even being aware. The child obtains the oral/auditory senses by absorbing the language and, at the same time, he/she learns to appreciate the use of language. As reported by Eliason and Jenkins (2008, p. 193), children who are exposed early to a rich language environment and encouraged to use language orally, show significant gains in literacy development and reading achievement at a later time (Strickland, 2004). The Montessori curriculum stresses the use of correct names for, and accurate descriptions of, everything in the classroom, thus giving the child the vocabulary he needs to communicate effectively. The sensorial exercises call attention to precise quantitative relationships. The practical life exercises call attention to the efficient, graceful, courteous, and functionally appropriate use of a wide variety of motions, tools, and styles of working. As the children experience the lessons they are exercising, gross and fine motor skills (pincer grip) aid in the development of the hand. In addition, motor skills are continually being advanced by practice with metal insets, the sandpaper letters, the chalkboard, and the tracing of letters and words. With the tracing of sandpaper letters, a child learns the letter formation and sounds, thereby exercising whole brain integration. Once a child has mastered the sounds of each letter in the alphabet, he/she is taught to blend sounds together and eventually are taught to blend words (short, long, and then blends). Reading and writing skills are divided on a word and on a sentence level. The child starts on a word level by making up words using the sounds already learned. This is done with the moveable alphabet. Through extensions and variations the teacher increases the level of difficulty. One would start with the beginning sounds and then proceed to short vowel words. Gradually the child would be challenged by more difficult words. The child’s work sequence begins with use of the moveable alphabet and then proceeds with using phonetic words with objects. The introduction of phonograms, sight words, vocabulary classification and by using correct expressions then follows. The final area is the function of words. The child learns the different parts of speech such as nouns, articles, adjectives, conjunctions, and prepositions. At the sentience level the child practices simple sentences, thereby learning the function of words. As difficulty is increased the child proceeds with the verb, adverb, and pronoun. Eventually the child progresses to the more difficult task of analyzing sentences through diagramming activities. (NAEYC Language Development Standards 01-07 and NAEYC Early Literacy Standards 2.E.01-11)
The Montessori Science curriculum introduces children to the process of observing, measuring, classifying, sequencing, comparing, predicting, communicating, and inferring. The children use the scientific method in order to state a problem, develop a hypothesis, experiment, and draw conclusions. Science should not emphasize teaching children facts, but should involve them in the process of understanding their world through observing, manipulating, problem solving, and engaging with science activities and materials – in short, doing (Eliason and Jenkins, 2008, p. 239). There are three basic areas within science. These areas include life science, earth science, and physical science. Life science deals with living versus non-living and plants and animals. Through many botany exercises children learn to identify plants, trees, and flowers. They also learn the parts, functions, patterns, and vocabulary of various plant life. In addition, they observe the life cycle through germination of a seed, growth, and needs. Ecology is also a large part of the classroom environment. This is a way for the children to learn about pollution and develop strategies such as recycling. The children learn through class experiments and daily living skills such as preservation of water and electricity. Earth science is introduced through lessons in geology, meteorology, oceanography, astronomy, matter, light & color, magnetism & electricity, sound, and simple machines. Measurement, charting, and recording are also tasks for the children to complete. Physical science deals with matter such as solids, liquids, and gases. Physical science also includes light and color (spectrum/prism). Children make their own simple machines, such as a lever, inclined plane, screw, pulley, wheel and axle, or a wedge. Eliason and Jenkins (2008, p. 237) report science is action, and it must involve both “minds-on” and “hands-on” experiences (NRC, 1996). Art could also be integrated within the science area. Drawings and paintings help the children to better conceptualize. Experiments are important for the children to draw conclusions. The ultimate goal is an ecological view of life and a feeling of responsibility for the environment. Montessori felt that social studies and science should be integrated in the classroom as they are in life. Therefore, there are no clear distinctions or lines of demarcation between any of the various areas when they are studied in the classroom. (NAEYC Standards 2.G.01-08)
Through Montessori Cultural activities children are introduced to different lands through mapping and graphing activities. Cultural studies and diversity are introduced through the many circle time activities in the 3-6 year old class. Children identify the continents at a very early age. There is a globe that shows land versus water and another globe showing each of the seven continents in a different color. Children learn the shape and the color of the continent and eventually identify without color. The young children punch out continent shapes and make their own world maps. The teacher introduces a different continent each month. The parents share their customs and traditions from their own culture. The teacher introduces song, dance, instruments, costumes, and food from the lands being explored. At the primary level (3-6 years of age) children are taught to explore and discover the different lands through pictures and stories. Spring (2003) suggests four goals of multicultural education: build tolerance, abolish racism, teach substance from various cultures, and teach and help students to view the world from different cultural perspectives (Eliason and Jenkins, 2008, p. 109). The birthday walk allows children to explore their own stories. On the children’s birthdays they are encouraged to bring a photo of themselves (one for each year), and their parents come into the classroom to tell their life story using a time line. Through these many activities the children are a discovery of who they are, and they learn to appreciate others for their uniqueness. (NAEYC Creative Expression and Appreciation for the Arts Standard 2.J.01-07 and NAEYC Social Studies Standard 2.L.01-11)
Learning environments and the content of exposure to educational processes determine overall quality of a child’s education. When the teacher’s behavior demonstrates a sense of interest, wonder, and curiosity, it is modeled by the children (Eliason and Jenkins, 2008, p. 238). In addition, the child must be exposed to intelligent adults and given a multitude of experiences to be able to absorb knowledge. The teacher must be aware of the child’s sensitive periods (a time in life when the acquisition of knowledge is easiest) which make learning virtually effortless. As NAEYC’s position statement on developmentally appropriate practice reminds us: The foundation for the community is consistent, positive, caring relationships between the adults and children, among children, among teachers, and between teachers and families. It is the responsibility of all members of the learning community to consider and contribute to one another’s well-being and learning (NAEYC, 2009, p. 16). The Montessori environment takes into consideration the whole child and believes in guiding not just the child, but the parents as well. Parents collaborate with teachers through their feedback and volunteer efforts, and teachers are actively engaged with educating parents on the philosophy and method. Providing a child an opportunity to learn in a Montessori environment is a rich and rewarding experience, which allows the child to reach his/her fullest potential.
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