Practical Life: A House for Children

When a child enters Montessori House the area and aspect of the Montessori classroom called Practical Life may be considered the link to the child’s home environment, and thus an extension of the child’s developmental process.

Academic success is directly linked to the degree to which children feel they are capable and independent human beings.

Even if they cannot yet verbalise it, children are asking: “Help me learn to do it myself”.

As we allow children to develop a meaningful degree of independence and self-discipline, we also set a pattern for a lifetime of good work habits and a sense of responsibility. Students are taught to take pride in their accomplishments.

The child spontaneously and naturally seeks order in independence through movement and purposeful activity. The Practical Life materials involve children in precise movements, allowing them to concentrate, to work at their own pace uninterrupted, to complete their work, and to gain internal satisfaction. At three years of age, children are more interested in the scrubbing motion of washing a table than they are in getting the table clean.

The Practical Life materials also fulfil specific purposes in the real world for children: they learn to button their shirts, tie their shoes, and wash their hands free from adult help. The child also cares for the beauty of the environment, by polishing, by sweeping the floor, and by dusting the shelves. The child-sized materials beckon to the child, allowing him to grow more and more independent. He chooses work as his needs unfold.

In addition, Practical Life centres the child in a social atmosphere where “please” and “thank you” and a polite offer of “Do you need help with your work?” are the mainstays of conversation. A child is treated with respect and is therefore respectful.

Independence does not come automatically as we grow older; it must be learned. In Montessori, even very small children can learn how to dress and pour water. The water will likely be all over the floor at first, but with practice, skills are mastered, and the young child beams with pride.

To experience this success at such a young age builds one’s self image as a successful person, and leads the child to approach the next task with confidence.

Sensorial: Building Imagination with the Real

A child interacts with the physical world through her senses. From birth, she will look, listen, touch, taste, pick up, manipulate, and smell almost anything.

At first, everything goes into the mouth, but gradually the child begins to explore each object’s weight, texture, and temperature.

The sensorial curriculum is designed to help the child focus her attention more carefully on the physical world, exploring with each of her senses the subtle variations in the properties of objects.

Through sight, touch, sound, taste, and smell, the sensorial materials “throw a spotlight” on reality.

For example, the concepts of length and shortness are derived from the red rods of varying lengths. Language is clarified and vocabulary is sharpened. Because these rods are rendered in unit lengths from one to ten, they also provide a basis for mathematical gradation.

Roughness and smoothness are experienced by touching rough sandpaper and smooth polished wood. Later, these lessons are repeated with the sandpaper globe, helping the child to distinguish between land (sandpaper) and water (smoothness).

Sensorial materials are used for clarification of large, small, heavy, thick, think, loud, soft, high, low, hot, cold, colours, tastes, smells, and for plane and solid geometric forms.

Typical sensorial materials include: the pink tower, the broad stair, the red rods, the knobbed cylinders, the knobless cylinders, the Baric tablets, the smelling bottles, the geometry cabinet, the geometric solids, and binomial and trinomial cubes.

The sensorial material is really a key to the world and is the basis for abstraction.

“Imagination can have only a sensorial basis. The sensory education which prepares for accurate perception of all different details in the quality of things is the foundation of all observation. This helps us to collect from the external world the material world for the imagination.”

~ Maria Montessori

Reading and Writing: Pathways to Culture

Reading and writing are the keys which can uncover, conserve, and synthesise knowledge.

The preschool children are immersed in the dynamics of their own language development.

Using simple alphabet cut-outs and sandpaper letters, young children are able to effortlessly link sounds, symbols, their shapes, and their written formation.

As the children improve their reading of words, they want to know more names of things. The classroom is filled with pictures, labels, puzzles bearing the names of animals, plants, geometric figures, countries, and land forms for example.

From the very beginning, reading and writing are tied to culture. The mastery of skills is propelled by interest and love of the environment.

By placing young children in classes where older students are already reading, there is a natural lure to “do what the big kids are doing”.

Children learn by touching and manipulating sandpaper letters, by using a movable alphabet to reinforce phonetic sounds with graphic symbols, and by combining letters to form words with metal inserts.

Children are first taught the functions of grammar and sentence structure as young as five or six years, just as they are first learning to put words together to express themselves. Doing so this early develops an innate ability for the child to express himself well and correctly in written form.

Montessori created a set of symbols to represent each part of speech. These symbols enable children to label sentences easily and at an age where it is fun, rather than a chore to do so.

The teacher’s task is no small or easy one!  He has to prepare a huge amount of knowledge to satisfy the child’s mental hunger, and he is not, like the ordinary teacher, limited by a syllabus.

~ Maria Montessori

Mathematics: Materialising the Abstract

The Montessori approach to math is special for many reasons.

All operations emerge from the concrete manipulation of “materialised abstractions” such as rods, beads, spindles, cubes, cards, counters, etc. The children do not merely learn to count, they are also able to visualise the whole structure of our numeration system and to perform the operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division with an overview in mind.

Children are also presented with the possibilities of fact memorisation at a young age where combinations like 3 + 2 = offer a real fascination, at age four. If this sensitive period is missed, rote drill will be necessary later on.

Materials are sequenced so that conditions for mathematical discovery will always occur.

Problem solving and formulae once contributed by the teacher’s directive are materialised in groups of objects which lead to independent learning.

Children retain better, any information that they “figure out” on their own.

Montessori math is based on the European tradition of “unified Math”, which has only recently been recognised by Australian educators. The fundamentals of algebra, geometry, logic and statistics, along with the principles of arithmetic are introduced very early.

This study continues over the years, becoming increasingly complex and abstract. The calculations of area and volume, for example, involve algebra, geometry and arithmetic. Since these areas have never been arbitrarily separated, children are better able to analytically understand the process involved.

Early math activities involve use of the following materials: red and blue rods, spindle boxes, number cards and counters, and golden beads.

History, Geography, and Culture

Without a strong sense of history, we cannot begin to understand who we are today. As early as the age of three years, children are introduced to the world around them in terms of history and world culture. Timelines, from the most simple to the most complex, are developed at every level.

The study of geography also begins very early. The youngest students begin working with specially designed maps and learn to recognise and name the continents and countries.

Montessori tries to present a “living” history through direct hands-on experience. Children recreate an array of historical instruments, artefacts, and events. Children are therefore much better able to visualise and synthesise what it is they may be seeing in books.

Economics is another important element in the Montessori curriculum. Young children learn the value of each monetary unit, how to count it, and how to make change. Given how interwoven the Montessori curriculum is, imagine how effective the golden beads are as learning tools!

While the Montessori school is community in and of itself, students are also connected to the surrounding local, state, and national communities. The goal is for each student to recognise his or her place in these interrelated communities both today and in the future.

Foreign Languages, particularly a second language, are often introduced very early in Montessori schools. The primary goal is to develop conversational skills as well as a deeper appreciation of the culture of the second language.

Hands-On Science

Science is an integrated part of the Montessori curriculum. It represents a clear approach to gathering information and problem solving. The scope of the Montessori science curriculum includes botany, zoology, chemistry, physics, geology, and astronomy.

Students study the formation of the universe, development of our planet, the relationships between living things and their physical environment, and the balance within. These lessons integrate astronomy, earth sciences, and biology with history and geography.

The Montessori approach creates a lifelong interest in observing nature by tapping into children’s early fascination with all that is around them.

Children are encouraged to observe, analyse, classify, experiment, and predict and test their outcomes without fear of “getting it wrong”.