By Olynda Smith, Certified Early Childhood Montessori Teacher
The Montessori method is not only marked by a deep respect for children but also a deep respect for their learning process. Maria Montessori came to the field of Education as a scientist.
She based her work on what she observed in young children, rather than on the Educational practices of the day. By doing this she formed a unique and refined understanding of the child’s holistic learning journey. There are many aspects of the Montessori educational philosophy that guide the work done in Montessori spaces.
Here are a few of those key ideas:
Young Children Learn Differently Than Adults Do
It is truly miraculous to witness a young child acquiring language. We don’t show babies flashcards and yet they “teach themselves” langage simply by being exposed to it. This capacity to “absorb” what they encounter is what Montessorians call the Absorbent Mind. And, it is not just language they absorb! They take in body language, social norms, what is safe, and all manner of concepts from us. When we understand that our young children are taking in what is around them all the time we realize how important a child’s environment truly is.
The spaces children spend time in and the things inside those spaces make up the child’s environments. What a child encounters in these spaces opens the world up to them and helps them learn about themselves and practice the skills they need as they grow.
Your child can not learn the names of the colors if those colors are not present in their environment. They can not practice fine motor skills if they don’t have objects around them that help them practice refined movement. To say that a child’s environment impacts them greatly is an understatement. The environment truly becomes part of them.
Being incredibly conscious about what is in the environment and how it is arranged is a keystone of the Montessori method.
It is the Child Who Learns - We Support their Efforts
For many years, and still in some educational methods, the belief is that learning is a top down activity. The teacher, who knows the things, instructs the students. The students simply catch what the teacher is giving them and try to hold on to that information. Montessori’s ideas about the educational process couldn’t be more different. She based her approach upon the observation that the child is the one who teaches themselves.
“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.” - Maria Montessori
In Montessori, respecting a child’s learning process means giving them a supportive environment and then stepping back and guiding the child’s discovery and learning process only when needed. Doing this looks differently with each age group, with each child and in each space. At home, one way this can look is allowing a child to discover for themselves what you already know to be true. If they ask you if the door is magnetic, give them a way to find the answer out instead of just telling them. You can even pretend to not know, and show them how to find out together. “Hmmm, I’m not sure. Let’s see. I have a magnet here, let’s try it out.” This fosters independence, curiosity, joy of learning and confidence.
They say that timing is everything. This is especially true in a child’s learning journey. Through her observations Montessori noticed that most children enter specific “sensitive periods” within a similar range of ages. A sensitive period, as she called them, is a time when a child is especially tuned into a particular aspect of learning and development.
Children are in a sensitive period for language acquisition from birth through age six. There is a great variety on the journey of learning a language or multiple languages, but nearly all children will be absorbing language during this time. Young children move through many sensitive periods in their first six years, and they will do so according to their own developmental timing. When we know this, we can let our child be absorbed in the work they are doing and trust that they will get really interested in reading, writing, talking, walking and any other number of things when the timing (and the environment) are right for them.
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